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The Mystic Fable Volume Two
The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
By Michel de Certeau, Michael B. Smith
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Nicholas of Cusa
Estoy dentro el ojo: el pozo
donde desde el principio un niño
está cayendo, el pozo donde cuento
lo que tardo en caer desde el principio ...
I am inside the eye: the well where,
from the beginning, a boy is falling,
the well where I recount the time
spent falling from the beginning ...
Octavio Paz, Pasado en claro
"Here, then, very dear brothers, are the explanations I promised you about the ready accessibility of mystic theology," writes Nicholas of Cusa, an erudite, a mathematician, and a diplomat, ever on the move, from Tyrol, more precisely from Brixen, or Bressanone (a German side, an Italian side, like Cusa himself). Named bishop in 1450, he received the mission of reforming this mountainous diocese, a strategic position between a German area and the Italian principalities. He clashed with the majority of the clergy, who were hostile to this foreigner, a Rhinelander imposed on them by the pope, as well as with the forces of Sigismond, the count of Tyrol, who took him prisoner in 1460. Thus, in October 1453, he sent to the monks settled on the banks of their beautiful lake, Tegernsee, in the Bavarian Alps, the treatise he had promised them and that he himself referred to as The Image or The Picture (Icona), but that is known as De visione Dei sive De icona.
A memorable year. In the West, the Hundred Years War (1337–1453) ends between France and England. A time of nations begins. In the East, the Eastern Roman Empire crumbles with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453): Nicholas of Cusa, who had been there in 1437, had just brought back the terrifying news from Rome, and amid the rumors of atrocities, violence, and blood everywhere, he wrote, a month before The Image, De pace fidei (faith creator of peace), an anti-Babelian "vision" of a celestial "theater" in which the delegate of each country, one after the other, rises to bear witness to the movement that supports it. The Greek, the Italian, the Arab, the Indian, the Chaldean, the Jew, the Scythian, the Gaul, the Persian, the Syrian, the Turk, the Spaniard, the German, the Tartar, the Armenian, etc. — each one comes, in the language of his own tradition, to attest to the truth, which is one: this concord of "free spirits" responds to the furies of fanaticism. One history is dying. Another is to be born with the utopian dawning of this new international. During these years, printing begins (1450); Leon Battista Alberti is perfecting his De re aedificatoria (1452); Piero della Francesca paints his Legend of the True Cross in San Francesco d'Arezzo (around 1453). A new way of seeing gives rise to a way of constructing. Such is the question of Nicholas of Cusa in The Image: What does "seeing" mean? How can a "vision" engender a new world?
Science and Politics
For almost ten years (1451–60), The Image is at the center of the regional debate. Between Upper Trentino, southern Bavaria, and Lower Austria, the texts circulate, to the rhythm of the seasons and their associated tasks. They go up the Brenner, come down the Inn or the Danube, and compose a network of places: the abbey of Tegernsee, a seedbed of remarkable men (Gaspard Aindorffer, the abbot, and Conrad of Geissenfeld, Bernard of Waging, etc.), fervent supporters of Cusa, who passed through there at the beginning of June 1453; Melk Abbey, near Sankt Pölten, on the right bank of the Danube, the home of a reformist movement that won over all of southern Germany (and Tegernsee itself, in 1426) and spread Rhenish mysticism; the young Charterhouse in Aggsbach (on the left bank of the Danube), whose prior, Vincent, a prolific author of manuscripts that also eventually ended up in Melk, was engaged in an endless polemic against Gersonian or Cusan intellectualism; the Faculty of Theology in Munich, where the "powerful and well-read" Marquard Sprenger was professor and dean. A local network imposed its own framework of presuppositions, alliances, and struggles on the outsider Nicholas of Cusa: his treatise is a response to a request from Tegernsee concerning mystic theology; his letters are in response to questions or irritations. This style of correspondence is dependent upon "dialogue," which is favored in the Cusan treatises; but here mountains and rivers separate the interlocutors and make visible the nature of the relationships, even those within the same region.
A locus is constituted just as much of conflicts as of agreements. They proliferate around The Image. Already in 1448, Nicholas of Cusa was challenged, and De docta ignorantia (1440), his major treatise, ridiculed by the good conciliary theologian Johannes Wenck, in an ironic pamphlet whose title, De ignota litteratura, might be translated as: "Forget Nicholas of Cusa." This Heidelberg professor, smiter of the "blind" Aristotle, and "opaque" Plato, sent his adversary a remonstrance about what should be considered a "good" theology and what authorities it should be founded on. It was an academic, not a monastic debate. A Rhenish, not an Alpine setting. Nicholas of Cusa, in his response — Apologia doctae ignorantiae (1449), an intellectual autobiography in the form of an interview given to a disciple (Italian) shocked by the "insolent" professor — while bringing to bear the thousand suns of his erudition and the vast horizon of his investigations (from Plato to Meister Eckhart), tries to define what he calls the philosophical "hunt" (the venatio), a key word that repeatedly, throughout his oeuvre, bespeaks haste and desire. No, he is not one of those "theologians" walled in by a few "authorities" whom they are content to reproduce without thinking them through: "When they know how to speak as do the others whom they have set up as their instructors, they think that they are theologians." Opposed to him around 1448 is a positive theology; around 1453, it is an affective theology. Between these two ways of hypostasizing a particular locus or experience — the Faculty versus the monastery, the literalness of select "authors" versus the feelings of a "devotion" — the Cusan approach, which has justly been characterized as a "theosophy," ventures to advance.
The German theater of these "affairs" also concerns theory. The "Holy Roman Empire," weakened from within and from without, becomes regionalized. It separates definitively from the pontifical investiture that marked its "universal" character. At the beginning of the century, the official mention of deutscher Nation, added to the traditional title, delimits and affirms a nationalism of the Reichsvolk, in countries in which Latin had long been replaced by German in administrative and legal texts. The prejudices of the Italian humanists against Germany, against its "barbarous" mores, against its "jargon" (a gèrgo, they called it) or against its lack of speculative capacity, as well as their habit of raiding manuscripts from Bavarian and Rhenish monasteries, exacerbated, among the Germanic men of letters, a national consciousness in search of its own legitimacy. Tacitus's De Germania was to furnish the reference point and language of an autonomous patrimony for that search for an identity. Nicholas of Cusa, a great expert on archives "mistreated and lost in the cabinets" of thoughtless owners, is "the first man of the modern period" to have knowledge of that still unknown text whose discovery Humboldt would compare to that of America: he made a partial copy of it and apparently stole it (as one once stole relics) from the abbey of Fulda to give to Poggio Bracciolini, an erudite collector and secretary of the Roman Curia, to whom he regularly brought rare manuscripts in 1427–29. Whom does he serve, or whom does he betray, in making off with this "lost" treasure, and in thus securing for himself, by the Italian detour, a role of catalyzer in Germany? He plays upon several regions. He does not identify himself with the law of a place.
But neither does he deny that law. He asserts his allegiance to the Germanic nation. He emphasizes solidarities: thus Hugues of Saint-Victor is for him "our German," "our eminent Saxon." Mosan by birth, he is, to be sure, first and foremost a Lotharingian. As a student, he signed his notes on Gerson's Mystical Theology and Proclus's commentary on Parmenides as "Nicolas of Treves." His initial formation, his study of the "arts" at Heidelberg, his teaching of law in Cologne, his activities as dean at Koblenz, and even his reading of Meister Eckhart in Mainz — all this experience is Rhenish, haunted by the ever-present Rhine (stabiliter), now turbulent, now clear (jam turbulentior, jam clarior), a permanence that pervades all the provinces of his work.
After his first sojourns in Italy, he considers himself and identifies himself as "German" (Germanus). In the preface of De concordantia catholica (1433), he apologizes for a "style" far from the elegance of the "Italians," who are, he says, Latins "by nature" and connected to the Greeks by kinship. "We Germans, however, although not far behind in native ability — which is not affected by an unfavorable position of the stars — defer to others in the pleasing exercise of eloquence, since we are able to speak Latin correctly only with great effort (labor maximus), overcoming, as it were, the force of nature." Latin, still an academic language, formerly the norm of a "culture," takes the direction of a Mediterranean "nature" and genealogy. It becomes nationalized. The work presented to "other nations" by a German must, therefore, be judged not by the criterion of its conformity to local rules and a local eloquence, i.e., to the customs of a "nation," but according to the "native ability" that expresses itself in a style "without art" (incultus) and "without disguise" (absque fuco); "Meaning is the most striking where the way of speaking is the most unobtrusive." Behind the irony of the emigrant who must resort to an alien form of speech there is the affirmation of a difference between the universality of native ability (ingenium) and the ethnic diversity of languages ("positivities"). The humile eloquium of Nicholas of Cusa, if it still draws inspiration from the Augustinian conception of a sermo humilis in the service of the spirit (spiritus), already refers to power relations between nations identified by their languages. "A nation, in the Middle Ages, is first and foremost a language." At the beginning of a book dedicated to the political conditions for a "Catholic concord," and therefore to the institutions making possible a universal populus, the particularity of the Italian or German natio is carved out. The populus, a "political" concept in the fifteenth century, is to the natio, an ethnic entity, what the "spirit" is to the language. This tension defines the work of the oeuvre.
To the "German" activities the Italian or foreign experience is added: the study of law and mathematics in Padua (beginning in 1417); participation in the Council of Basil (1432), diplomatic missions to the Hussites in Bohemia (1433), and to the "Basileus" and the patriarch of the East in Constantinople (1437); the cardinalship in Rome (1448); missions as papal legate throughout Europe (from Austria to the Netherlands) (1451); later, responsibilities as general administrator of the Papal States (1462–64). His tasks give him occasion to become aware of the contradictions between regional strength and the Babelian attrition of unifying institutions. A world is falling to pieces: struggles between popes, or between popes and the councils (the Great Schism, 1378–1449); the awakening of enemy nationalisms (for example, the epopee of Joan of Arc, burned in 1431, or the Hussite movement, until 1434); emancipation of the cities; diversification of language; the breaking apart of doctrines; the birth of a new individualism. By his immense erudition, which "runs," as he says, from the Greeks to the Koran, from law to mathematics, from archival collections to astronomical calculations, or from a thousand and one technical "curiosities" to the great philosophers, as well as by his innumerable journeys, Nicholas of Cusa seems to want to overcome the dissemination of a universe. But he accepts as a premise the irreducible character of these different "positions," and he thus introduces the new paradigm of a "modern" philosophical approach. To find and bring to bear a principle that articulates that dispersion without being able to reduce it to unity is, throughout his turbulent life, the labor maximus that unceasingly attempts to "overcome the force of nature."
Overall, this work is oriented in two directions: one, institutional, gives rise, in the ecclesial field of deteriorating authority, to the political philosophy of De concordantia catholica; the other, speculative and taking on the relations of innate ability to the multiplicity of languages, ends up with the scientific figure of Docta ignorantia. These two major texts, in contrast by their methods and their objects, are in sync by the movement that directs them. The former develops a hitherto unknown way of managing division and proposes models to temper a hierarchy of sacramental "orders" with a system of election by the people and democratic representation. The latter produces a theory of the dialogical relations between the "contradictions" found by philosophical analysis, and of the elusive principle toward which these heteronomous points of view direct the mind. This double task, associating the investigations of the researcher with the career of the diplomat/administrator, is supported by the two essential reference points of his scientific interests, law and mathematics. Already Leibnizian by this constant project and by the multiform modalities of its execution, the Cusan oeuvre ceaselessly intertwines political concerns with scientific speculation.
This is already manifest at the level of general theoretical strategy, with the key concepts that specify the operations of the mind among antinomies in which analysis must recognize the workplace of thinking itself. The "consensus" is the mainspring of the whole institutional organization presented in the Catholic Concordance, just as the "coincidence of contraries" is the infinite point around which the philosophy of Learned Ignorance is organized. In both cases, the principle of movement cannot be identified with any one of the elements put into play, nor does it hold them at a distance by a process of abstraction; it assumes, in opposite singularities, an internal mainspring capable of actualizing them through mutual relations. In this perspective, each particular positivity is no longer defined by its status in an ontologically hierarchized cosmos (a "stair-step cosmos" or a cosmos in "degrees"), but it is the direct witness of an absolute, like a "point of view," at once "total," "singular," and irreplaceable, whose relation to others manifests its infinite potentiality. In a modality now legal, now speculative, the individual has a value of infinity, whose "impulsion" itself puts him in relation with others. As Cassirer has shown, Nicholas of Cusa inaugurates a "modern" conception of the individual. He does so because he devoted himself to thinking potentiality in terms of positions defined by a reciprocal determination. The two points, equally fundamental, also link juridical hermeneutics to a geometrical speculation that already looks like a topology. In any case, since, in a space of social or theoretical sites, oppositions constitute the necessary and insuperable condition of a unifying reciprocity, the decisive moves of that thought have a relation to the "political" that characterizes not only their connection to the immediate socioeconomic circumstances but their formality itself.
Excerpted from The Mystic Fable Volume Two by Michel de Certeau, Michael B. Smith. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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