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Nicholas of Cusa and the End of the Conciliar Movement: A Humanist Crisis of Identity

  • James E. Biechler (a1)


The ignominious end of the conciliar movement in the mid-fifteenth century strikes many contemporary historians and theologians as one of the tragedies in the history of western civilization. Having shown great promise as an instrument of ecclesiastical reform and credited with ending the scandalous Great Western Schism in 1417, the movement for all practical purposes reached an inglorious end with the signing of the Concordat of Vienna in 1448. Though the tragic dimensions of the movement's demise are somewhat diminished by the truth of Tierney's conjecture that “the merely constitutional reforms emphasized in the conciliar programme could not have produced the much-needed regeneration in the whole life of the Church”, one is nevertheless inclined to view with sadness the neutralization of the nascent democratic aspirations which conciliarism represented.



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1. Tierney, Brian, Foundations of the Conciliar Theory: The Contributions of the Medieval Canonists from Gratian to the Great Schism (Cambridge: University Press, 1955), pp. 246247. The recent study by Black, A. J., Monarchy and Community: Political Ideas in the Later Conciliar Controversy 1430–1450 (Cambridge: University Press, 1970) shows how, ironic as it seems, political monarchism, both secular and ecclesiastical, was the immediate successor and ideological beneficiary of the mature conciliar doctrine.

2. De concordantia catholica, Praefatio editoris (14:10). The works of Nicholas will be cited from Nicholai de Cusa Opera Omnia iussu et auctoritate Academiae Litterarum Heidelbergensis ad codicum fidem edita (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1932) wherever possible. Volume and page number of this edition will be given in parentheses. See Sigmund, Paul E., Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 3637. The same general topic was treated by Watanabe, Morimichi, The Political Ideas of Nicholas of Cusa with Special Reference to His De concordantia catholica (Geneva: Droz, 1963).

3. Oakley, Francis, Council Over Pope? Towards a Provisional Ecclesiology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 68.

4. Krämer, Werner, “Der Beitrag des Nikolaus von Kues zum Uniouskouzil mit der Ostkirche,” Mitteilungen und Forschungsbeiträge der Cusanus-Gesselschaft (hereafter MFCG 9 (1971): 4445. This necessitates revision of the conclusion of Vansteonberghe, Edmund, Le Cardinal Nicolas de Cues 1401–1464: L'Action-La Pensée (Paris, 1920 [reprinted Frankfurt am Main: Minerva, 1963]). pp. 5960, that Cusanus' declining of his election as judge on the deputatio fidei in March 1436 thereby showed his unwillingness to participate in any further antipapal proceedings.

5. Haller, Johannes et al. , eds. Concilium Basiliense, Studien und Quellen zur Geschichte des Konzils von Basel, 8 vols. (Basel, 18961936), 4:338, 351. The actual vote was taken in December 1436, but the question remained open pending negotiations with the Greeks and with the citizens of Avignon, the place favored by Bagel's majority.

6. Krämer, p. 47. According to the accepted doctrine of the conciliarists the decision of the pars maior should have prevailed. But the minority took the style pars sanior and found additional juridical consolation in the claim that their placet was shouted before the other!

7. “Hercules tamen omnium Eugenianorum Nicolaus Cusanus existimatus est …” Aeneas Sylvius Piccolominus (Pius II), De gestis concilii Basiliensis commentariorum libri II, ed. by Denys Hay and W. K. Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 14.

8. For an analysis of the several positions taken on the issue of representation see the recent well-documented study of Krämer, Werner, “Die ekklesiologische Auseinandersetzung um die wahre Repräsentation auf dem Basler Konzil,” Miscellanea Mediaevalia 8 (1971): 202237.

9. Sigmund, pp. 39–118. The most recent contribution to the discussion is Meuthen, Erich, “Nikolaus von Kues in der Entscheidung zwischen Konzil und Papst,”in Nikolaus von Kues als Promotor der Ökumene, MFCG 9 (1971): 1933. In his opinion subsequent research will not substantially alter Koch's conclusion that Cusanus' decision pivoted on aedificatio vs. destructio ecclesiae with the Greek reunion issue as its concrete expression. See n. 10, below.

10. Koch, Josef, Nikolaus von Cues und seine Umwelt. Untersuchungen zu Cusanus-Texte IV, Briefe, Erste Sammlung in Sitzungsbcrichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (hereafter SBH) 1944–1948, no. 2 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1948), p. 20. Other explanations of Cusanus' behavior have ranged from avarice, alleged by Stumpf, Theodor, Die politischen Ideen des Nicolaus von Cues (Cologne, 1865), p. 101 (cited in Sigmund, p. 226 n.) to zealousness for harmony, asserted By Haubst, Rudolf, “Die leitenden Gedanken und Motive der cusanischen Theologie,” MFCG 4 (1964): 257277. Most scholars have abandoned the single-motive explanations and see Cusanus as influenced by a complex of political or ecclesiastical considerations. For some examples see Bett, Henry, Nicholas of Cusa (London: Methuen, 1932), pp. 22, 2830; Jacob, E. F., Essays in the Conciliar Epoch (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953), pp. 250251; idem, Essays in Later Medieval History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), pp. 121122; Jaspers, Karl, Nikolaus Cusanus (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1968; first published, Munich: R Piper, 1964), pp. 180–190; Vansteenberghe, pp. 56–65; Watanabe, pp. 16, 97–98, 113–114.

11. Sigmund, p. 10.

12. Ibid., p. 280. In the case of Cesarini such a marked shift of thinking is not evident and one cannot, therefore, speak in terms of a “conversion.” This conclusion is convincingly demonstrated by Christianson, Gerald, “Cardinal Cesarini at the Council of Basel, 1431–1438” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago 1972), pp. 471475. Christianson (p. 474 n. ) also rejects the opinion of Watanabe, Morimichi, “The Episcopal Election of 1430 in Trier and Nicholas of Cusa,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 39 (1970): 315, that the loss of The Manderscheid case was at the root of Cusanus' alienation from Basel. Christianson's observation that it was “unlikely that a man of his [Cusanus'] theological and canonistic training would have abandoned Basel for such a shallow motive” supports the present search for deeper motivation. Watanabe's position reflects that outlined by Vansteenberghe, pp. 56–65. The inadequacy of Sigmund's explanation was pointed out in Cranz's, F. Edward review of Sigmund's book, Speculum 41 (1966): 189191. Cranz correctly evaluates the change as radical, that is, as altering “almost completely the metaphysical basis of politics and ecclesiology” (p. 191).

13. The letter, which will be dealt with more specifically later in this article, is printed as appendix 3 to Cusanus-Texte, II: De auctoritate presidendi in concilio generali, ed. by Gerhard Kallen, SBH 1935–1936, no. 3, pp. 106112. For a discussion of the letter's political doctrine see Sigmund, pp. 266–271. Trame, Richard H., Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo 1404–1470 (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1958), pp. 5357, discusses the circumstances and importance of the letter.

14. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 240.

15. Nicholas was cancellarius to the bishop-elect. Ulrich von Manderseheid, and head of the six-man delegation conducting the case. In this official capacity he also shared in the papal censure of excommunication leveled against Ulrich. Meuthen, Erich, Das Trierer Schisma von 1430 auf dem Basler Konzil. Zur Lebensgeschichte des Nicolaus von Kues (Münster: Aschendorff, 1964), pp. 83, 89.

16. Krchňák, Alois, “Die Kanonistischen Aufzeichnungen des Nikolaus von Kues in Cod. Cus. 220 als Mitschrift einer Vorlesung seines Paduaner Lehrers Prosdocimus de Comitibus,” MFCG 2 (1962): 80

17. Ibid., p. 81 n.

18. He refused a similar offer in 1435. See Vansteenberghe, Edmond, “Quelques lectures de jeunesse de Nicolas de Cues,” Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge, 3 (1928): 277; Meuthen, Erich, “Neue Schlaglichter auf das Leben des Nikolaus von Kues,” MFCG 4 (1964): 39.

19. See Figgis, J. N., Studies of Political Thought from Gerson to Grotius 1414–1625 (Cambridge: University Press, 1956; first published 1907), pp. 3839.

20. Foundations, p. 239.

21. Ibid., p. 1.

22. Studies of Political Thought, pp. 39–40. See also n. 64 below.

23. Although the name Padua immediately suggests Marsilius and the Defensor pacis, his influence on the development of the conciliar theory is not yet clear. Cusanus, for example, confessed that he had not seen Marsilius' work until some ten years after leaving Padua. De concordantia catholica, 2:34 (14:297).

24. Ullmann, Walter, The Origins of the Great Schism (London, 1948), p. 193. Although it is true that Zabarella's nephew, Bartholomew Zabarella, taught at Padua during Cusanus' stay there, some caution must be observed in reading such remarks as that of Meuthen, Erich: “Die Tradition des Zabarella in Padua wurde zur Zeit des Cusanus forgesetzt durch seinen Neffen Bartholomäus Zabarella,” Nikolans von Kues 1401–1464: Skizze einer Biographie (Münster: Aschendorff, 1964), p. 16; or that of Watanabe (following Meuthen): “Zabarella's theories were expounded by his nephew Bartholomew Zabarella …,” “The Episcopal Election,” p. 301. At Basel Bartholomew took the papal side against Cesarini. See Palacký, František et al. , eds., Monumenta conciliorum generalium seculi decimi quinti, 4 vols. (Vienna and Basel, 18571935), 2:475496; Haller, 2: 504–505.

25. Sigmund, p. 24; Watanabe, , “Episcopal Election of 1430,” p. 300; Christianson, pp. 476–490, 172–178.

26. Meuthen, Erich, Skizze, pp. 3335; Watanabe, , “Episcopal Election of 1430,” pp. 313314.

27. Vansteenberghe, p. 58.

28. See n. 6 above.

29. Vansteenberghe, p. 65: “La volte-face de Nicolas s'explique done moins par le dedans que par le dehors: elle implique de sa part, moins un changement de théorie qu'une modification de jugement pratique.”

30. Sigmund, p. 280. The radical nature of the change becomes clearer when one realizes that Cusanus was actively pursuing conciliar projects at least until the end of 1436 and did not break with Basel until the summer of 1437. By October 1438 he was representing the pope at the Nürnberg Reichstag. In the interim he traveled to Constantinople as a member of the so-called minority party but in fact as a papal representative.

31. “Nun autem exitus causarum ostendit veritatem de concilio ycomenico cum Grecis habito; exitus edocuit electionem ociam eorum, qui in numero minores fuerunt, veram et sanctam fuisse, quoniam ibi reductio et unio facta est, hic scisma.” Cusanus-Texte: IV. Briefwechsel des Nikolaus von Cues. ed. by Josef Koch, SBH 1942–1943, no. 2 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1944), Ep. 5, Nicholas of Cusa to an ambassador [unnamed] of King Albert II to the Frankfurt diet, November 8, 1439, p. 48. Cusanus ascribes the exitus causarum principle to Augustine.

32. De gestis concilii, pp. 14, 48.

33. Vansteenberghe, p. 62.

34. Text in Marx, Jacob, Geschichte des Armen-Hospitals zum heiligen Nikolaus zu Cues (Trier, 1907), pp. 243 f.

35. Gill, Joseph, The Council of Florence (Cambridge: University Press, 1959) manages to communicate something of that sense of impatience with theological hairsplitting felt by both sides. As Bessarion pointed out, the ancient theologians revered by either Greeks or Latins were actually saying the same thing even though their words were different [!]. Ibid., p. 240. For the complete text of Bessarion's remarks see Migne, , Patrologia Graeca, 161:543612.

36. Without presuming to deny “the central importance of literary preoccupations in Renaissance humanism” spoken of by Kristeller, Paul Oskar, Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbook edition, 1961), p. 11, it is the broad cultural phenomenon which humanism had become by the early fifteenth century that interests us here. Studies construing the terms “humanist” and “humanism” more narrowly were understandably forced to regard Cusanus as only marginally a humanist, if at all. See, for example, Seidlmayer, Michael, “Nikolaus von Cues und der Humanismus,” in Humanismus, Mystik und Kunst in der Welt des Mittelalters, vol. 3 of Studien und Texte zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters, ed. by Koch, Josef (Leiden and Cologne: E. J. Brill, 1953), p. 3; Sigmund, p. 30; Meuthen, , Skizze, p. 32 and Garin, Eugenio, “Cusano e i platonici italiani del quattrocento,” in Nicolo' da Cusa, Relazioni tenute al Convegno Interuniversitario di Bressanone nel 1960 (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1962), pp. 75100. In what seems to be a significant modification of an earlier position, the recent article of Kristeller, Paul Oskar, “A Latin Translation of Gemistos Plethon's De fato by Johannes Sophianos Dedicated to Nicholas of Cusa,” in Nicolo' Cusano agli inizi del mondo moderno:Atti del Congresso internazionale in occasione del V centenario della morte de Nicolo' Cusano, Bressanone, 6–10 settembre 1964 (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1970), p. 177 allegedly “strengthens the case for Cusanus' close connection both with Renaissance humanism and with the philosophical traditions of Platonism, connections that have been doubted or minimized by some recent students of the subject.” This article cites nearly all of the standard works dealing with the early humanist connections of Cusanus as well as those describing the humanist MSS possessed by Cusanus. The reader might also be referred to the comments of Trinkaus, Charles, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought (London: Constable, 1970), 1:1415.

37. “…homo et priscarum literarum eruditissimus et multarurn rerum usu perdoctus.” De gestis concilii, pp. 14–15.

38. Vansteenberghe, p. 18.

39. Poggii epistulae, ed. by Thomas de Tonellis, 3 vols. (Florence: L. Marchini, 18321861) [reprinted as vol. 3 of Bracciolini, PoggiusOpera Omnia (Turin: Bottegi D'Erasmo, 1964)], 1, 50. 3, Ep. 13, May 31, 1427, p. 207.

40. Meuthen, , Skizze, pp. 1825.

41. von Martin, Alfred, Sociology of the Renaissance (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbook edition, 1963), p. 32.

42. De concordantia catholica, Pracfatio (14:2–3); see Meuthen, , “Neue Schlaglichter,” p. 41.

43. Ferguson, Wallace K., Renaissance Studies (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbook edition, 1910), p. 70.

44. Ibid., p. 94.

45. Heer, Friedrich, The Intellectual History of Europe, 2 vols. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books edition, 1968), 1: 290; von Martin, pp. 4–46; Walser, Ernst, Gesammelte Studien zur Geistesgeschichte der Renaissance (Basel: Benno Schwabe, 1932) p. 243.

46. A particularly noteworthy example because of its detailed analysis of Florentine financial records is Martines, Lauro, The Social World of the Florentine Humanists 1390–1460 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963).

47. Ibid., pp. 117–127. About Poggio, for instance, Martines concludes (p. 127) that “owing to his lucrative affiliation with the papal curia, owing to his humanistic connections, his commercial acumen, and his Florentine friendships, Ser Poggio (later Messer) managed to raise his family to the economic level of the city's oligarchical households.”

48. Pizolpasso's letters of December 17, 1432 and January 7, 1433 are printed in Sabbadini, Remigio, “Niccolo' da Cusa e i conciliari di Basilea alla scoperta dei codici,” Rendiconti della Reala Accademia dei Lincei (Scienze Morale), 5th series, 20 (1911): 914, 1516. See Vansteenberghe, pp. 21–22.

49. Pizolpasso to Pier Candido Decembrio, May-June 1437 in Meister, AloisDie humanistischen Anfänge des Nikolaus von Cues,” Annalen des historischen Vereins für den Niederrhien, 63 (1896), 1213. On the question of Cusanus' knowledge of Greek, see Honecker, Martin, Nikolaus von Cues und die griechische Sprache, SBH 19371938, no. 2. Honecker's conclusion that Cusanus possessed an elementary knowledge of Greek but not enough to understand a Greek text must now be seen as applying only to the period before his trip to Constantinople. See Krchňák, Alois, “Neue Handschriftenfunde in London und Oxford,” MFCG 3 (1962): 105; Krämer, , “Der Beitrag,” pp. 4445 n.

50. Ambrosii Traversarii generalis Camaldulensium aliorumque ad ipsum, et ad alios de eodem Ambrosio Latinae epistolae, ed. by Pietro Canneti (Florence, 1759 [reprinted Bologna: Forni, 1968]), 2, Ep. 48, col. 174.

51. Haller, 3: 576, 578; Meuthen, Erich, “Die Pfründen des Cusanus,” MFCG 2 (1962): 3033.

52. Ambrosii Traversarii epistolae, 2, Ep. 48.

53. Ourliac, Paul, “La sociologie du Concile de Bâle,” Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique 56 (1961): 20.

54. Quoted in Gill, p. 67.

55. Nicholas, of Cusa, Dialogus concludens Amedistarum errorem ex gestis et doctrina concilii Basiliensis, ed. by Mcuthen, Erich, MFCG 8 (1970); 8586, 103; Deutsche Reichstagakten, ed. by Hermann Herre and Ludwig Quidde (Stuttgart-Gotha, 1928), 16: 429, 11. 2023. Similar sentiments were expressed by many others, among them the archbishop of Mainz: “Se ammirari, quod cum haberet latam et amplam diocesim et provinciam, quod simplex in sacro concilio tantam vocem habere deberet sicut sui ambasiatores …” Quoted in Meuthen, “Entscheidung,” p. 32 n. On the composition of the Council of Basel see Ourliac, “La sociologie,” pp. 5–32.

56. Whitehead's remarks about the “enlargement of thought” produced by travel find confirmation in this experience of Cusanus. “An individual who travels meets strangers on terms of kindliness. He returns home, and in his person and by his example promotes the habit of thinking dispassionately beyond the tribe. The history of rational religion is full of tales of disengagement from the immediate social routine.” The result is the development of a “world-consciousness” as contrasted with a “social consciousness”. Whitehead, Alfred North, Religion in the Making (Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Co., Meridian Books, 1960), pp. 3839.

57. De docta ignorantia, Epistula auctoris (1: 163).

58. Thus, for example, the recent work of Jacobi, Klaus, Die Methode der Cusanischen Philosophie (Freiburg/Munich: Karl Alber, 1960), p. 22 states: “Der cusanische Grundgedanke bleibt ein und dersolbe durch alle cusanisehen Schriften hindurch.”

59. “Unitatem insuper alterni verbi omnia complicantis omnia creata participant explicative, varie quidem. …” Letter to Arévalo, p. 106. On the transitive use of ‘participate’ see Dodds, E. R., trans., The Elements of Theology by Proclus, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 3 n.

60. Letter to Arévalo, p. 111.

61. Trame, p. 56.

62. Apologia doctae ignorantiae, (2:6).

63. F. Edward Cranz has analyzed this development in his brilliant essay “The Transmutation of Platonism in the Development of Nicholas Cusanus and of Martin Luther,” Nicolo' Cusano agli inizi del mondo moderno, pp. 73–102.

64. Pius II spoke of Nicholas, as “a German too devoted to his nation ….” Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope: The Commentaries of Pius II, trans. by Gabel, Leon C., ed. by Gragg, Florence A. (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), p. 372.

65. Invectica Gregorii Heimburg utriusque iuris doctris in reverendissimum patrem dominum Nicolaum de Cusa, sanctae Romanae Ecelesiae tituli S. Petri ad Vincata presbyterum cardinalem, et episcopum Brixinensem, in Goldast, Melchior, Monarchiae Sancti Romani Imperii (Frankfurt: Conrad Biermann, 1614 [reprinted Graz: Akademische Druck und Verlagsantalt, 1960]), 2: 16271628. For a summary of the reform mission see Bett, pp. 42–48 and Vansteenberghe, pp. 87–139.

66. “Faciunt igitur nobiscum quotidianum compendiosum ecclesiae concilium, quasi legati nationum. …” Ehses, Stephan, “Der Reformentwurf des Kardinals Nikolaus Cusanus,” Historisches Jahrbuch der Görresgesellschaft, 32 (1911): 292.

67. Cusanus' letter of August 4, 1439 to Tommaso Parentucelli asks him to urge Traversari on in translating Proclus: “Dimisi apud generalem Cameldunensium Proclum de theologia Platonis ut transferret. Supplico instantissime, quoniam nune vacare liberius poterit. Solicita eum.” Koch, , Briefweschel, Ep. 3, p. 35. For Cusanus' early acquaintance with Proclus see Haubst, Rudolf, “Die Thomas- und Proklos-Exzerpte des ‘Nicolaus Treverensis’ in Codicillus Strassburg 84,” MFCG 1 (1961): 4051.

68. The emotional breakdown described by Pius II corroborates the distinct impression, gained after a careful study of Cusanus' life and works, that Nicholas was not a happy person. See Gabel, and Gragg, , Memoirs, pp. 227230.

69. Letter to Arévalo, p. 107.

70. This judgment is based on a study of Codd. Vat. Lat. 1244 and 1245 containing the collected sermones. The only extensive edition is that of Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, Paris, 1514. These heavily edited selections—Excitationum libri X—were undoubtedly chosen because they dealt with themes beloved by the humanists, and taken by themselves they are therefore somewhat misleading.

71. “Quidem solent murmurare, quasi aliquotiens vobis simplicibus praedicem res altas nimis ….” Sermo 5, Cusanus-Texte: I, Predigten 2/5. Vier Predigten im Geiste Eckharts, ed. by Josef Koch, SBH 19361937, p. 118.

72. Vansteenberghe, pp. 31–32 (note includes text of the letter to Valla).

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