On the 550th Anniversary of the death of Nicholas of Cusa: Cusanus on the Self-Evident Existence of God
550 years ago on the 11th of August 1464 a genius left his body. In the year 2013 an Australian boy began to read a collection of his work. He was impacted and impressed by the very sharp mind of that man.
Who is this man? Leonardo Da Vinci? Nope! You’ve probably never heard of this person. This man is known as Nicholas of Cusa. Transport yourself back to the 15th century! And discover just one aspect of Nicholas of Cusa’s thought.
Eyeglasses were a prominent metaphor in his philosophical book: On Eyeglasses
The Self-Evident Existence of God
The year is 1465, one year since the death of Nicholas, a few friends; Anthony, William, and Albert, all of them of generous means, are strolling through Albert’s estate garden admiring the maze of greenery Albert had recently installed as they walk towards it. After the regular questions on each others’ wellbeing there is a peaceable silence until a new conversation begins:
A beautiful place for such a topic
ANTHONY: It has been about a year since that great cardinal, Nicholas died. Oh what a great man he was! How fortunate I am to have been able to peruse his pages which burst with wisdom, high-mindedness, deep insight, and sharp deliberations.
He was a man of wide reading, with skill in mathematics, law, political theory, and well self-taught in philosophy. He was very enthusiastic for the words of Plato and Proclus and our own Platonists. I wonder if you two have any reflections on him.
WILLIAM: I have heard great things about him, however I have yet to read his work as I have been engrossed in the works of the ancients and the Schoolmen long-since-passed, but perhaps your discussion about him can enlighten me concerning this cardinal.
Here are some of the ancients
ALBERT: Well, William I commend him as valuable for you to read for he was a powerful intellect and he applied his intellect in devotion to God. I remember how impressed my youngest son was when he read Nicholas’ arguments that the existence of God is plain and self-evident.
WILLIAM: He was right to conclude such things afterall Scripture says “his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived from the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).
It was at this point that the three of them came to the front of Albert’s garden maze. William and Anthony hesitated to enter as they knew that lunch would be quite soon and were they to tarry too long in the maze they might miss the meal which Alber’ts other guests would be enjoying. Albert however gave assurance that he would be able to guide them and so they entered.
Let us enter
ANTHONY: I remember reading in his book On the Pursuit of Wisdom (12:31) that “all things because they exist, bear witness that God exists”. It seems to me that the existence of anything whatever it may be is proof of God. Nicholas argues that nothing but God exists autonomously; that all things exist contingently in relying on God for their existence; as he says in another book: “being depends on Him” (On Seeking God 2.36).
ALBERT: His arguments seem to bear some similarity to that other mystic Richard of (St. Victor) whose book On the Trinity I hold in high esteem, if I remember correctly Richard wrote (1.8):
“that being that is from itself [viz. God] and for that reason also from eternity is deduced by reasoning from that being that is neither from eternity nor from itself [viz. anything created]. If nothing had existed from itself then there would be no possible source for the existence of those beings which do not have nor can have their own being from themselves.
A book containing the book: De Trinitate.
It is demonstrated then that some being is from itself and for that reason also from eternity, […] otherwise, there was a time when there was nothing. And then no one will have ever existed, because there was absolutely no one around to give or able to give the beginning of existence to himself and others. What is obvious shows how false this is, and the experience of existing realities also demonstrates how false this is.”
WILLIAM: This sounds somewhat like Avicenna’s most famous argument for God who is the Necessary Existent.
A famous Persian philosopher who influenced Latin thought
ANTHONY: I am not familiar with the writings of Avicenna or Richard but let me clarify with you whether I have perceived correctly this argument of Richard: What exists either is self-existent or not self-existent, that which is not self-existent requires a cause to bring it to exist if it did not require a cause then it would be self-existent. If the cause that brings a non-self-existent to exist is itself not self-existent then it too needs a cause to bring it to exist. Without a self-existent being to bring about non-self-existent beings such beings would never exist. But such non-self-existent beings do exist therefore there is a self-existent for if there was no self-existent then there would be no non-self-existent.
ALBERT: That seems a good formulation of his words to me.
WILLIAM: All this reasoning of Richards could easily be inferred by a meditation on the words of another scholastic: “nothing can be the sufficient cause of its own existence, if its existence is caused” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica P1.Q3.A4).
A maze has many twists and turns but this argument is quite straightforward
ALBERT: Turn right here my friends and we will be almost at the center of my maze. Now, to move on further from what has been said let it be known that the self-existent must not exist through or by the power of another otherwise it would not be self-existent and so the self-existent does not exist through the principle of Being.
But for something to exist it must have being but, again – if the self-existent had being as from the principle of being it would not be self-existent (which is a contradiction) therefore the self-existent is its own being rather than being simply a being who like other beings derives its being from Being.
WILLIAM: It was perhaps alike reasoning that led Thomas Aquinas to write: “God alone is Being by virtue of His own Essence, since His Essence is His existence; whereas every creature has being by participation, so that its essence is not its existence.” (Summa Theologica P1.Q104.A1).
ANTHONY: Likewise Nicholas says “for Him to be is His being” (De Ludo Globi 2.80).
just as being depends on Him, so too does being known.
Nicholas of Cusa, On Seeking God 2.36
WILLIAM: So Albert what did Nicholas himself say can be answered to the question: does God exist?
ALBERT: He says: “the answer would be given that God is Being itself”(On Surmises 1.5.20). In fact he even says that to ask if God exists already inherently presupposes God: “when you are asked whether God exists, reply by stating what is presupposed, viz. that He exists, for being is presupposed by the question” (The Layman on Wisdom 1.30) afterall “the first thing that presents itself to our conception is being; next comes being such and such” (On the Beginning 18). Aha! We have reached the center isn’t it a marvelous sight.
The three men enjoyed further discussion as they sat by the fountain hidden at the heart of the maze before making their way back to Albert’s estate.
WILLIAM: I have a question. A certain John Wenck claimed that Nicholas’ beliefs were pantheistic. How should words like “God is Being itself” (On Surmises 1.5.20) be understood?
ALBERT: When Nicholas says things like “Absolute Oneness [viz. God] is the Being of all beings” (On Surmises 1.5.19) he does not mean that God is all things rather Nicholas believes that while God is Being itself He is not any of the created beings either singly or in totality but is distinct from them.
ANTHONY: As he says: “every being partakes of Absolute Being with a degree of otherness” (On Surmises 2.1.75) and again: “the Beginning of being is not any of the beings – since a beginning is not any of the things begun [from it]” (Nicholas of Cusa, On the Beginning 18).
WILLIAM: I see. Well I should very much like to read Nicholas, where would be a good place to start?
ALBERT: With his book On Learned Ignorance, I can lend it to you.
As the friends ate together in Albert’s mansion William looked forward to feasting on the words of Nicholas for he valued wisdom. To understand his dear Lord Jesus Christ more and more was very close to his heart.
Would you let him impact you too?
Books available at: http://www.amazon.com/Nicholas-Cusa-Selected-Spiritual-Spirituality/dp/0809136988/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407692558&sr=8-1&keywords=Nicholas+of+Cusa+Classics+of+Western+Spirituality
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550 Years Ago a Genius Died, Give Him a Read was originally published on Blog and Butter