The title and description of Johannes Hoff’s The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa could lead one to underestimate the creativity, range, and novelty of the task set out within it. The bundles of figures and topics covered—Nicholas of Cusa, an alternative modernity, theological aesthetics, and analogy—have become commonplace, and yet Hoff’s handling of them is far from common. There is, for instance, the invocation of Nicholas of Cusa, who is enjoying something of a small renaissance within theology and philosophical theology. This petit Renaissance of Cusanus can be traced to the search for a less self-defeating and more intellectually and politically productive apophaticism, to attempts to think through a cosmos and cosmology which have been rendered strange once again, and to Cusanus’ non-agonstic performance of paradox and dialectic and non-facile use of analogy. The “alternative modernity” outlined in the book is one in which the history of art, perception, and optics plays a decisive role and is also one in which the significance of the Kantian legacy is neither ignored nor downplayed but relativized such that not all premodern and early modern roads lead to Kant. As for the burgeoning field of theological aesthetics, Hoff devotes less attention to the beautiful or the sublime, or to the question of the relationship between revelation and natural theology, and instead attends more to social history, and in particular to interrelated changes in understandings of space, perspective, optics, and time as seen in the history of art, technology, and science. The book’s intellectual and historical creativity also shines all the brighter for its clear prose and digestible chapters.
While the range of the book is wide and its figures diverse, its overall argument and method are clear. Having interpreted the rise and legacy of modernity primarily through the lens of premodern and Renaissance accounts of space, perspective, and perception, Hoff then offers targeted readings of Nicolas of Cusa’s De docta ignorantia (1440–42) and De visione Dei (1453) as a way of outlining responses to a host of different issues. Hoff provides Cusanan responses to modernity’s narcissistic hyperreflexity, its understanding of perspective, its use of analytic rationality and individuality, its ‘liturgical crisis’, and he ends the work with Cusanus’ account of desire and the body of Christ. Hoff’s background as a Cusanist, his knowledge of recent scholarship on German Idealism, his familiarity with the history of art and science, and his interest in postmodern philosophy allow him to shift easily and ably through a host of different themes but perpetually with an eye to how an “alternative modernity” is offered to us by Cusanus.
As all the contributions to this symposium readily demonstrate, there is much to appreciate and scrutinize in this work. John Betz’s piece captures the vim and range of the book and beautifully highlights how Cusa’s metaphysics features both analogy as well as “precise paradox” and is all the theologically and phenomenologically sound for it. Michael E. Moore is able to decelerate the mercurial nature of the work and examine its argument regarding modernity, Christian learning, liturgy, and space. In his “appreciative critique,” Matthew Moser focuses on Hoff’s genealogy of modernity and its potentially distortive effects on Hoff’s reading of Cusanus’ Christology. Finally, Daniel O’Connell helpfully situates Hoff’s book within Cusanus studies more widely and offers critical questions regarding both the details and overall framework of Hoff’s genealogy of the Middle Ages and modernity and Cusanus’ place within it. That Hoff’s book is indeed a fascinating, creative, and daring work should be readily clear by the diverse topics and questions raised by our panelists and by the quality of the conversation which ensues.
With this work of philosophical theology Johannes Hoff hopes to recover an ecclesial framework for life, and along the way, to reexamine old categories such as Christian learning, sensus communis and liturgical space. The book traces a self-described “Ultra-Orthodox” itinerary—influenced by the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock. Beyond that, the book aims at nothing less than the overthrow of the “nihilistic rationality of Western modernity,” and the modern world picture.
Hoff turns to the fifteenth-century theologian and cardinal Nicholas of Cusa to find “an alternative vision of the age to come.” The philosophy of Cusanus might offer “new insights into the ‘completely ordinary chaos’ of post-modern life.”
II. Bad Modernity
The life of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) extended over the greater part of a century which saw the opening of modernity, however understood: the Battle of Agincourt, the Italian Quattrocento, the fall of Constantinople, the Council of Constance. Nicholas was aware of these movements, and was perhaps energized by the atmosphere of disruptive change. He offered “an uncompromisingly orthodox response to the challenges of early modernity.” In doing so, like other humanists of his day, Nicholas searched in the past to find new resources for the future.
In this fascinating treatise, theologian Johannes Hoff does something similar, by returning to the writings of Cusanus, who “offers an alternative modernity.” Hoff’s own critique of modernity provides the central impulse behind this work, and like Gillespie (Theological Origins of Modernity), he is critical of the secularization thesis. What is wrong with modernity? Modernity undermined religion and demystified the world, causing the loss of liturgical space and the world picture it sustained—while the sensus communis was abandoned. Modernity unleashed nihilistic rationality—which flowed from Franciscan sources to Cartesian and Kantian outlets. Late modern technological society seems to haunt the discussion, which Nicholas of Cusa is said to have opposed “just at its point of emergence.”
Hoff regrets the loss of a poetical, vague world in which religion and selfhood flourished in the presence of the symbol. Rationalism—of a type here rejected as “nihilism”—seems to mean a deconstructive criticism of cherished beliefs, a pattern of thought corrosive of common sense and destructive of the shared spaces of liturgy and orthodox religion.
To lay the groundwork for his approach to optics and spatial representation, Hoff explores the problem of objective space and its connection to selfhood. Fichte diagnosed the abyss between subject and object, but like other Romantics, failed to bridge it. The early Romantics drove their carriages ever farther away from the intellectual legacy of medieval times, and the warm hearths of orthodoxy:
The philosophy of early Romanticism did not build on the habitualized wisdom of liturgical attempts to touch on . . . the untouchable limits of human language and reason through contemplative practices of prayer and praise.
Two stark abysses: between God and the world, between subject and object, yawned wider as modernity unfolded.
Hoff dislikes “modern liberal society” and its world picture. In considering this viewpoint, which one often hears from both the right and the left, I fell into a reverie, imagining the bourgeois order of late medieval cities, defended by stone walls and towers with pointed roofs, where a new cultural intensity was sparked by literacy and numeracy. Prosperous burghers walked down narrow streets, jingling their keys, but thinking within a Mediterranean-wide perspective, especially in seaports. Communal life was still centered in huge late-Gothic cathedrals. This was the generous soil of Renaissance humanism, which opened new possibilities for the laity. My reverie went so far as to recall Thomas Mann’s essay “Lübeck as a Way of Life,” with its praise of bourgeois civilization. What are the benefits of a liberal, bourgeois social order? A degree of personal safety, the availability of higher education and public libraries, café tables, symphony orchestra performances? Yet when it comes to intellectuality and brilliance, scholarship after 1914 (to choose a date) was shaped by ardent seriousness and tragic experience, sheer abundance of knowledge (including of other religions) and virtuosity. If we need the depths of ancient-medieval religion and ecclesiastical tradition, we also need the energy and pensive brightness of modernity. At the same time, scholarship now exists in a culture which Von Balthasar termed “technical civilization in its final state, in which we run the risk of being overwhelmed and dehumanized.”
III. Christian Learning
It is surprising and wonderful to read Hoff’s appraisals of Dionysius, Augustine, and Aquinas. These are like stars shining overhead for those travelling along an ancient road, the via antiqua. Nevertheless in Hoff’s view, the divisive hand of the moderns was raised against them. The Kantian tradition, because it absorbed nihilistic elements from Alberti to Descartes, has something “profoundly wrong” with it. The alternative to such destructive trends would be the restoration of Christian learning as a basis for a shared world. We should recall, however, that it was the Kantians and post-Kantians, from Hermann Cohen to Ernst Cassirer, who set out to recover Cusanus for the modern world.
The thinkers and ideas mentioned in this book amount to a theoretical syllabus of the West, from Augustine to Derrida. Chesterton defends Aquinas against Descartes, Certeau disputes with Henri de Lubac, Hölderlin stands on the edge of a Kantian abyss. Lacan, Hugo Ball, Angelus Silesius add a note of mystery and melancholy. I like the intensity of these discussions. Hoff wants to “read [Cusa’s] philosophical writings in the light of later developments.” These encounters fascinate, but temporally they clang on the ear of an historian, as in these passages:
As distinct from modern Christians, who frequently feel intimidated by the indisputable success story of the analytic rationality of the Western sciences, Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason.”
Cusa never tried to decompose the misty proportions of our everyday experience into . . . the Cartesian opposition between body and soul, or the transcendental-philosophical distinctions between subject and object.
Hoff is more drawn to the misty north than to the clarity of the Mediterranean. The artistic achievements of northern Renaissance painting, and the philosophical and theological work of Cusanus are highlighted, while Quattrocento Italy is blamed for the arrival of modern spatial knowledge. Ocular, nihilistic trends of the West are said to have their origins in Italian early modernity.
Renaissance humanism comes in for negative appraisal, having set in motion a bad modernity with its negative analytical reflexes and its revival of ancient philology. Nicholas himself was an exponent of Christian humanism, if an eccentric one. While admitting this, Hoff blames humanist philology for the “nominalist disconnection of language and imagination.” Worst of all, it led to the rise of the expert. Mathematical scientists dominated the visual world, while
educated scholars subjected the authority of the divine word to the authority of institutionalized teaching-agencies, which assured the credibility of their public representatives through the historical-critical hermeneutics of a revealed body of linguistic knowledge.
Biblical knowledge is only fully alive in the echoing voices of the liturgy. One strange effect of Hoff’s discussion is that Cusanus appears as a figure in contrast to the direction ultimately taken by modern rationality and the liberal arts.
Hoff views biblical philology as something destructive, rather than as a scholarly encounter with temporal and intellectual depths in the Word. He argues that, as a consequence of biblical philology and historical criticism, Christians were alienated from liturgy and the Word: “The liturgical cultivation of attitudes of trust in the common sense of our everyday perception disappeared.” However, modern-day philology, exegesis, and philosophies of language and hermeneutics have been companions to theologies of the Word. This was partly due to the influence of Buber and Gadamer.
Christian learning is not well explained, although frequently mentioned. As a form of intellectual life, Hoff argues that it was undermined by Scotism and the via moderna. Christian learning was something contemplative, rather than analytical, and deeply rooted, rather than willfully chosen. Hoff does not directly call for a return to the (pre-philogical) “biblical and Platonic roots of Christian learning,” but he does hint at the excellence of an older way.
However, as Henri de Lubac explained, masters in the school of Chartres liked to say that those erudite in biblical studies were blessed: beati sunt literati. Given that Christian learning is a centuries-old tradition, how should we appraise its history? Pelikan’s Christian Tradition might serve as shorthand for the diversity of sources. And patristic streams became medieval rivers: as detailed in Ghellinck’s Patristique et Moyen Age or Lubac’s Exegèse medievale.
While recognizing theology as the ne plus ultra of theory, one admires biblical criticism and source-critical patristics as a sophisticated and dedicated kind of research. Historical study has been a basic form of Christian learning for centuries. Its excellence greatly flourished in modern times, to name only Jean Mabillon, Caesar Baronius, and the Bollandists. Christian learning thereby absorbed the methods of criticism, la critique. We might include modern scholars such as Louis Bouyer, Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar, and Henri de Lubac. This was a scholarly and religious trend. With the help of a ressourcement in patristics, Vatican II became a forum in which the voices of the dead could be heard. This phenomenon seems to accord with Cusa’s concern for earlier times and former generations, as Hoff explains:
[The mystical body] denoted the abiding presence of the past in the liturgical gathering of the present time, and indicated our responsibility to interpret the visible signs of this sacramental presence in the light of an unfulfilled cosmic future.
Finally, considering the collaborative project Biblical Thinking by Pierre Ricoeur and André LaCocque, one should not admit that Christian learning lies in ruins.
IV. Lob den Herren
In Hoff’s view, Cusanus thought along entirely different lines than the Italian painters and thinkers of his day: because of his theological and liturgical orthodoxy, he recognized this lovely world as a misty space. Misty space is a key term, often used here. Hoff explains it by reference to the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The Fathers at Chalcedon insisted on the faultiness of the world and its separation from the divine, while affirming their intimate connection. This kind of space remained open to Cusanus—who (so to speak) resolved the Kantian antinomies from within the misty liturgical space of a cathedral.
Liturgical praise is a genuine encounter with the invisible. Liturgy discloses ultimate realities: therefore Cusanus could say that the “most wise science consists in the praise of God who fashioned all things from out of His praises.” Nicholas never strayed far from the setting of liturgical space: the actual naves, columns, choirs, and candles, thus pointing a way out of modern alienating space. Cusa taught a mystagogical ascent
that leads, via the misty space of a conjecturing power that is characterized by liturgical practices of faith and belief, to the contemplation of the invisible source of the visible creation.
The practice of liturgical praise (latreia) can “inform our perception of the world.”
If liturgical space can be rediscovered, so might liturgical wisdom. Unlike the stag’s leap of Romantic philosophy, liturgical wisdom is the “habitualized wisdom of . . . contemplative practices of prayer and praise.” We might even recover the “ecclesial tradition of the Middle Ages”:
the living community of the body of Christ was called to rediscover the testimony of the Holy Scriptures time after time through the shared liturgical exercise of our perception, imagination, and theoretical contemplation.
It is harder to praise the Maker starting from the coordinates of Cartesian space. Hoff contrasts the spatial understanding of Cusanus with the mathematical precision and virtual reality of perspectival art.
V. Gold Sky
Misty space is an imprecise, traditionalist, communal world. You might think of it as “the world unplugged.” This misty world reflects the divine face, and depends upon it. This is the “uncompromising, orthodox character of Cusa’s ontology of perception.” Hoff therefore rejects the “lethal state of purity” instituted by Kantians and Hegelians, in favor of Cusa’s liturgical imprecision. Two ontologies and two accounts of perception and art are in perpetual conflict.
A major strand of this book is Hoff’s concern with the artistic representation of space in the Renaissance, and its legacy for the Western imagination. Following Paul Klee’s Credo of 1920: “art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible.” Hoff asserts that liturgical modes of space were overthrown by the introduction of linear perspective in the Italian arts after Masaccio, and the theorization of this method in Leon Battista Alberti’s De pictura (1435). Throughout, Hoff engages the work of Hans Belting, as painting, perspectival theory and the “picturing” of the world are developed as a central theme. Hoff blames Alberti for initiating a sense of space in which the viewer’s eye is transfixed by an artificially obtained point, a deadening of living space. Hoff’s point seems to be confirmed if we consider the perspectival scheme of Masaccio’s Trinity fresco in Santa Maria Novella (1425–1428). It is as though Alberti set these perspectival theories in stone, in the marvellous interior of Sant’ Andrea in Mantua (1472–1492).
Alberti’s perspectivism contributed to what Heidegger called the modern world picture. Historians and philosophers have perhaps overlooked the fact “that the innovators of Cusa’s time were largely thinking with paint and brush, not with paper and pencil.” This means that the history of philosophy must be complemented by art history. Linear perspective allowed for mathematical control, but it brought about a “nihilistic obsession with representational security.” Hoff says that the early Renaissance merger of the liberal and the fine arts was “just another step in the representationalist direction of Bacon, Duns Scotus, Ockham, and Alberti.” This lineage is blamed for the rise of a bad modernity. As a result of perspectivism, point of view became just another place to get lost, causing selfhood to drift and float.
Here again, in Hoff’s view, Cusanus conceived of space as mystagogical rather than analytical. The “yardstick of our search for the truth,” to follow Nicholas, “can only be approximated . . . in the analogical language of prayer and praise that unites the universal with the particular.” Cusa’s understanding of space led from the faces and objects around us toward the God on whom the world rests. God is absolute vision and absolute looking. But it should be recalled that, in the view of Cusanus, our knowledge is uncertain without the light of mathematics: Nihil certi habemus in nostra scientia, nisi nostram mathematicam. This was a call to precision.
Hoff considers Cusanus to have been part of “a north Burgundy network” associated with the devotio moderna (c’est discutable). Such a network might connect Cusa’s theory of space to the practices of northern painters such as Jan van Eyck and the Cologne Master of the Life of the Virgin. Here was a misty realism “more rigorous and realistic” than the mathematics of the Italian style. Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece eschewed the use of a vanishing point, since the goal was to lead viewers “via the mediation of the visible, to the contemplation of an invisible light.”
However, the Altarpiece is by no means easy to fathom, because of the very intensity of the visible. Crowds of clerics arrive in Dionysian droves, old hermits step gingerly through a mountain pass, crusaders approach on prancing horses as saintly women advance with palm branches. All these figures converge on a liturgical vortex: the hallucinatory, unearthly image of the sacrificial Lamb. The eye wanders off to the horizon, where the lofty towers of heavenly Jerusalem are seen, with its unknowable gardens, fields and mountains fading into blue.
As Hoff explains, painters like Van Eyck moved away from the high gothic style, with its elongated figures and saints frozen in otherworldly pools of gold. That traditional golden background had been a liturgical space:
The coincidence of natural colors with the supernatural qualities of gold was perceived as the touching point between the not yet fully actualized reality of our visible world and the invisible plenitude of its creator.
What is missing from this account is the fact that Burgundian painters depicted direct encounters, such as Dieric Bouts the Elder’s Virgin and Child (ca.1455–1460) with its tender portrait of mother-love, or visionary encounters, such as Van Eyck’s Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (1435).
Hoff maintains that painters in direct contact with Nicholas of Cusa offered different solutions. The triptych in Nicholas’ Hospital in Kues returned to the “mystagogical use of gold.” The triptych, attributed to the Cologne Master of the Life of the Virgin, no doubt reflects Cusa’s own ideas and spiritual practices. The crucifixion occurs in an eerie landscape that recedes to a blue horizon of woods, meadows and mountains. But overhead the sky has become a gothic field of gold, an unapproachable realm of difference. In Hoff’s view, this golden sky teaches a Cusan lesson about the need for conversion, an absolute turning point, metanoia.
Nicholas of Cusa dedicated his life to a “hunt for wisdom.” But if no sky of gold should appear overhead, perhaps wisdom can still be searched for in the blue depths of the mountains, by those walking along an ancient road?
The Analogical Turn . . . to What?
Johannes Hoff’s The Analogical Turn is a dazzling, though often dizzying study. Though its subtitle purports it to be a study of Nicholas of Cusa, its actual subject is far grander and more ambitious. Hoff’s book is nothing less than a penetrating genealogical study of modernity itself, focusing especially on the realms of science and culture. The great achievement of Hoff’s book is the way he manages to think “outside the Age of the World Picture” by disputing Martin Heidegger’s infamous claim that Western nihilism was the inevitable result of the philosophical trajectory that began with Plato and Aristotle. It was possible, so Hoff avers, to avoid our nihilistic fate well into the early modern period (xxi). The burden of Hoff’s book is to demonstrate that the nihilistic malaise of modernity—the “inability to reconcile the seemingly black and white univocity of scientific rationality with the ambiguous equivocity of postmodern pop culture” (xv)—is escapable through a turn to analogy.
In this appreciative critique, I will respond to two main aspects of Hoff’s work: his genealogical narration of the rise of modernity and the ambiguous place of the incarnate Christ in the “alternative modernity” that Hoff proposes through his creative reappropriation of Nicholas of Cusa. My concern is that Hoff’s reading of Cusa is largely controlled by his genealogy of modernity, and this leads to a problematic reading of Cusan Christology. Whereas Cusa’s “analogical turn” is to the incarnate Christ, it seems that Hoff’s analogical turning is toward a Christ who is more principle than person.
I: A(nother) Genealogy of Nihilism
According to Hoff’s narrative, modernity is the fruit of the artistic rejection of the symbolic sacramental realism of the ancient world in favor of an anthropocentric perspectivism. Influenced by the representationalism of late medieval theology, especially that of the Franciscans following Duns Scotus’s so-called “univocity of Being,” painters and artisans of the burgeoning Italian Renaissance begin developing a new form of perspective. This modern perspective creates a crisis of vision that results in a kind of schizophrenia in our contemporary sensibility: the irreconcilable split between the all-seeing, totalizing vision of rationalist philosophy and science and the empty ambiguities of postmodernism. Hoff lays most of the blame for this at the feet of Leo Battista Alberti. It is Alberti whose reformation of our experience of the world in terms of our viewing of the painting sparks a revolution in the metaphysical imagination, drawing us into the age of the World Picture. By developing (and indeed over-emphasizing) the vanishing point of the painting, Alberti’s artistic legacy is a dramatic bifurcation of the world into the poles of “visible” and “invisible.” According to Hoff, our modern world was forged by figures split along the lines of this dichotomy:
1) Those who privilege the invisible at the expense of the visible: Hölderlin, Novalis, Wagner
2) Those who privilege the visible at the expense of the invisible: Alberti, Descartes, Locke
Then there is a third group:
3) Those figures who opt for a dialectical synthesis of the poles that “compromised the ontological difference between creator and his creation”: Hegel, Schelling, Moltmann, and Žižek (141).
It is the second group—those who privilege the visible at the expense of the invisible—that have won the day, at least insofar as our contemporary world is driven by the attempt to gain technological mastery over abstract representations of the world. The scientistic aesthetic of our day is one that sees the world as a straightforwardly materialistic, demystified place. This superficially materialistic world can be genealogically traced back from Locke and Descartes through Alberti’s polarizing of the world, back to the “representationalist Franciscans” of Radical Orthodoxy folklore. In other words, the confluence of the Franciscan emphasis on the abstract representation of the world and the mathematization of space in the Italian Renaissance, results in the “freezing” of the world in abstract and idealized representations that can be conceptually or technologically mastered. Alberti and the Franciscans inadvertently set the stage for the Cartesian “masters and possessors of nature” to appear.
Thus far, Hoff’s genealogy follows the well-trod path of Radical Orthodoxy with relative fidelity. Hoff’s Scotus does not carry quite as much of the blame as in other RO books, but the Subtle and Marian Doctor is read suspiciously and without much attention to his, well, subtlety. As Daniel O’Connell highlights in his own review of Hoff’s book, there is a preexisting genealogical narrative at work in this text, one that is historically and philosophically problematic.
For O’Connell, the danger of such a preexisting narrative is that it obfuscates Nicholas of Cusa. My own concern is that it obfuscates the so-called villains of the narrative—the Franciscans (Bonaventure, Scotus, Occam), and perhaps even Alberti himself.1 The complexities of history are elided in favor of statements like:
That these [sacramental] visions were later deleted from our collective memory was not the outcome of an Hegelian or Marxist law of history, but rather the contingent effect of power games that favored analytical accounts of “scientific realism,” despite their inferior grasp of reality. (72)
Or vague assertions, such as:
Unlike the representationalist tradition of the late Middle Ages and modern age, God was not an entity beside other entities that might be part of a totalizing theistic “world picture” or excluded from it in favor of an atheistic counter-image. (81)
Such claims are big and important and interesting, but they are more often than not left in a “misty space” in the grand narrative.
Despite a great deal of impressive analysis of Alberti, Hoff’s large-scale genealogy suffers because he does not show his work. The associations between Franciscan representationalism, Alberti’s perspectivism, and Cartesian philosophy are intuited but not demonstrated. Insofar as Hoff’s creative reappropriation of Cusa is presented as a solution to “modernity,” the historical dimension of his argument is of critical importance. If Alberti’s artistic revolution was as transformative as Hoff claims, then certainly the connections can and should be drawn with more care. His genealogy may work for those of his readers who, like me, have spent time in RO circles and are familiar with the narrative. But for readers on the outside, I fear the genealogy as it currently stands fails to convince. I worry that at this point the RO narrative has become a kind of echo chamber and thus a kind of static representation of history that Hoff so clearly wants to escape.
In opting for the genealogical method, Hoff signals that his book is not meant to be read primarily as a history. His genealogical method is deeply voluntaristic, but its real value comes through its aesthetic power: seeing the history of the West in a new way. The conviction that even ideas embedded in artistic innovation have far-reaching philosophical and scientific consequences is one of the great strengths of Hoff’s genealogical method. But such claims must be handled with care, acknowledging that the proposed narrative is heuristic and rhetorical. The danger consists in the aesthetic being presented as a straight-forward history. Instead of a complex and nuanced account that highlights the complexities of the birth of modernity, we get a flattened out, progressive series of monocausal events (e.g., Franciscan representationalism leads to Alberti’s perspectivism, which leads to Cartesian abstraction, which leads to modern nihilism, etc.). I am concerned that Hoff’s genealogy ends up reducing the complexities of history in favor of a controlled and controllable monocausal narrative that can be overcome by means of the applied technē of “counter-narration.”
The specific danger of this technique of counter-narration for Hoff’s book is that it sets up a philosophical problem that requires a philosophical answer. Rather than giving an explicitly philosophical rebuttal, Hoff opts to respond theologically and mystically, turning to Cusa’s liturgy and Christology for resources to address the philosophical and aesthetic perils of modernity. The problem is that these theological themes end up as idealized, metaphysical abstractions that are used as philosophical solutions. In other words, I fear that Hoff’s genealogy often ends up controlling his theology.
II: “Misty” Liturgy and an Abstract Christ
Though the first half of Hoff’s book is dedicated to his genealogical narrative, more important and more interesting is his creative reading of Nicholas of Cusa and the possibility of an “alternative modernity.” Cusa’s figure pragmatica stands in direct contrast to the myopic narcissism of Alberti’s modern perspective; likewise, Cusa’s cosmology contrasts with the frozen, representationalist world of Cartesian ontology.
According to Hoff, Cusa stands in direct lineage with Aquinas and the symbolic or sacramental realism of the medieval period. The modernity that we have is the legacy of Franciscan representationalism; the modernity that we could have is the legacy of Thomist and Cusan symbolic realism. The possibility of the latter is what Hoff’s book presents us with.
Cusa’s alternative modernity opens with the turn away from the univocity of Being (the evident legacy of the Franciscans) toward the analogical: the “misty space” between the absolute universal and the absolute particular—the appreciation of the “abstract, interchangeable values” and the “singular and unique” (68). Cartesian univocity attempts, but fails, to “develop a universal vision of the world on the level of rational abstractions or proportional mathematical calculations alone” (69). Descartes’s “scientific realism” is exposed as anything but realistic—it can only emerge in a frozen representation of the world: “A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe . . . The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.”2
Throughout the book, Cusa is triumphed as a philosopher and theologian of common sense—or at least a thinker whose mystagogical metaphysics begin with a commonsense, realistic vision of the world in all of its dynamism and mystery. Cusa’s learned ignorance “never began with paradoxical or counterintuitive basic assumptions that rested on the promise that everything will straighten out once we have allowed him to twist our mind” (73). Whereas Alberti’s rejection of the invisible “paved the way to a non-realist, representationalist view of scientific ‘realism,’” Cusa preserves the sacramental, mysterious nature of the world. He gives us a world in which the visible is theophanic of the invisible.
There are two central aspects of Cusa’s thought that Hoff draws on. The first is Cusa’s “coincidence of opposites,” outlined in his majestic On Learned Ignorance (1440). The second is Cusa’s mystical theology, developed especially in terms of the icon in De vision dei (1453). Through these two dimensions of Cusa’s thought, Hoff develops an alternative history of the West—one in which liturgy is the source of wisdom, the sensus communis is the way to understanding, and truth is apprehended not by mathematical vision but the apophatic grasp of love. Such a happy future is only feasible within the conceptual “misty space” of analogical vision. According to Hoff, this analogical seeing is formed in us primarily through the liturgy and its apophatic language of prayer and praise.
Though Hoff’s Cusa is largely controlled by his reading of de Certeau, the brilliance of the Renaissance theologian gets to shine in the latter half of the book. Cusa’s great accomplishment was his doctrine of the coincidence of opposites, a method of resolving contradictions from the perspective of divine infinity.3 At true infinity, that is in God, all philosophical and metaphysical contradictions are resolved without sublating the differences or denying the reality of their contradiction. In On Learned Ignorance, Cusa outlines a series of coincidences which culminate in the hypostatic union in the person of Jesus Christ. His three coincidences are as follows:
- God as the “absolute maximum” beyond all discursive knowledge. This is the source of Cusa’s mystical apophaticism, wherein God is non-Aliud who enfolds all Being;
- The cosmos as the “contracted maximum” where all finite things are part of a united whole, but unfolded throughout the world.
- Most centrally, in Christ who, for Cusa, is the analogia entis. As the God-Man, Christ is the coincidence of the absolute and contracted maximum.4
For Cusa, the “analogical turn” is the turn to the incarnate Christ. Christ is the revelation of the truth of God and the world, and the meeting place of heaven and earth. What Cusa’s Christ does, through his becoming a visible image of the invisible (Col 1:15), is open the pathway to a contemplative, ecstatic vision of God. The divine union with the world in the hypostatic union enfolds all created being within the universality of his divine filiation. For Cusa, there is an undeniable emphasis on the incarnation and the historical Christ. It is through history that Christ transforms history, making possible the broken unity between God and world. Christ, the historical and visible image of God, counters the idolatrous gaze of fallen humanity by raising humanity’s vision through the visible world to the invisible, ineffable God. For Cusa, Christ is both icon and sacrament. Christ, in fact, re-renders our world sacramental, that is, as the “explicatio of the complicatio.”5
This is also where, for Cusa, the tasks of philosophy and mystagogy meet. Philosophy “is always simply the view through the unfolded into the enfolded.”6 Mystical theology—or Cusa’s “philosophical mystagogy” (213)—is learning to see and to experience that “every creature is an image of its creator” (214). When we learn to see God in the finite faces around us, we discover (beyond knowing), that our vision of God is nothing other than the vision of God of us: “Our ability to see God is nothing but a mode of participation in God’s loving seeing” (206). In Hoff’s construal, liturgical performance becomes a theological aesthetic, or an aesthetic path to Christ.
Hoff is a little light on Cusa’s incarnational Christology, but he nevertheless indicates that Christ’s flesh is the location of the ultimate coincidence of the universal and the particular, the truth of God and the truth of the world. “It is the contingent singularity of the incarnated universality of God alone that mediates between all differences, including the difference between the universal and the particular” (68).
Yet this is what I find curious. Who is Christ in Hoff’s narrative? According to Hoff, Cusa “considered our natural desire to see God as more than a matter of religious concern: the praise of God is a matter of scientific significance” (69). Certainly. To confess Christ as the “truth” (John 14:6) is to confess him as the truth of all things. But I wonder if the way Hoff construes Cusa’s Christology leaves us with a Christ who functions more as a cosmic cipher—the “universal principle” (69)—than as the Son of God who meets me through faith in Word and Sacrament. I am not confident that I am reading Hoff correctly here, so I hope he will be good enough to clarify: in constructing his “aesthetic path to Jesus” (xxvi), are we encountering a Christ of Cross and Resurrection or a Christic élan that functions as a metaphysical counter to a domineering philosophical rationalism? Has Hoff given us an aesthetic path to Jesus or an aesthetic path through Jesus to a different end? Surely a Christ whose function is limited to completing an ontological aesthetic is more suited to Hegel than to Cusa.
And so I wonder how exactly the incarnate Christ functions for Hoff’s Cusa: does he simply render the world a visible theophany of the “invisible” or does he also draw us into a living imitation of himself whereby human nature and subsequently human culture are transformed through personal reunion with God? Much of this will hinge, no doubt, on Hoff’s genealogical diagnosis of modernity. Is modernity a conceptual problem that can be redressed through a conceptual reimagining? Is modernity an aesthetic problem that can be redressed through an aesthetic reimagining? Hoff’s narrative seems to favor both of these. It seems though that Cusa’s emphasis on the incarnate life of Christ (especially, but not exclusively, in On Learned Ignorance) also challenges us to consider the need for a dramatic reimagining of modernity.7
Hoff offers a tantalizing prospect of this dramatic turn in his final chapter when he indicates that Cusa was part of the late medieval devotio moderna and its emphasis on the imitation of Christ (214). This idea is dangled in front of us and then quickly passed by. If Hoff wants to reclaim a realist and sacramental world, then Christ, Church, liturgy, and sacrament—no matter how aesthetically useful they are—cannot be “frozen” in an abstract conceptualism. They must be performed. Hoff often insists, quite rightly, that the language of prayer and praise do metaphysical work. But for all this insistence, Hoff’s Cusa reflects but he does not pray.
I recognize that no single book can do everything, and perhaps the questions I’m asking are beyond the purview of Hoff’s book. Yet I cannot help but think that Hoff’s claim that prayer and praise are metaphysically performative should be demonstrated through a consideration of the actual liturgy. The dazzling thing about Nicholas of Cusa is the way that he manages to hold all of these together—the conceptual and the doxological; the philosophical, theological, and spiritual. Each abide in the One who himself is the truth—the analogical meeting place of heaven and earth, where the love of wisdom and the love of God are one and the same.
Hoff’s book is a fascinating account and raises the question of the relationship between science, philosophy, and the arts. It is interesting and important reading. But it is tantalizingly incomplete. The question presses: now that Hoff has invited us to see modernity in this way, now what? The diagnosis has been made. Can we—should we—labor to turn back the clock and undo the last six hundred years of industrialization, war, genetics, capitalism, medicine, and indoor plumbing? Can Hoff’s Cusa function for us today except in a world that has been artificially repristinated to the late medieval context of Cusa himself? That Cusa proposed an alternative modernity is an intriguing idea. But is that alternative still open and available for us today? Can we rediscover the path that Cusa took, certainly overgrown now with brambles and weeds, and make our way down it, undoing the works of our ill-conceived modernity? Hoff’s ressourcement of Nicholas of Cusa is still in need of a constructive vision of the way forward from within the modernity that we do have, and not simply from a vision of an alternative modernity that we don’t. I am eager to see what comes next; it has already been a journey well worth taking.
It must be said, however, that Hoff’s presentation of Alberti is nuanced and allows for some of the complexity of his character and thought to come through. Hoff never reverts to ad hominem in his genealogy, which is a welcome thing.↩
G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas / St. Francis of Assisi (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002), 133f.; quoted in Hoff, 72.↩
It should be said that, though Cusa claims this teaching was divinely revealed to him as a gift from the “Father of Lights,” it is widely held that it was the Franciscan Bonaventure in whom the coincidence of opposites reached its medieval apex. See especially Steven P. Marrone, The Light of Thy Countenance: Science and the Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2001).↩
The preceding relies on the helpful introduction to Cusa’s theology in Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings, ed. H. Lawrence Bond (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1997), 3–70.↩
Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 5:210.↩
My use of “drama” is of course reliant on Hans Urs von Balthasar and his tripartite articulation of theology as aesthetics, dramatics, and logic.↩
Cusa, Modernity, and the “Other” Dominican Tradition
This new work from Johannes Hoff is a daring and fascinating attempt that explores not merely the philosophy and theology of the high and late Middle Ages, but what those positions taken then might mean for us and our own understanding of both the modern and postmodern periods. As he notes in his preface:
The central thesis of this book is twofold: first, that Kant’s primary achievement was a brilliantly succinct summary of the late medieval and early modern decline of Christian learning, but no more than this; and second, that Cusa’s encounter with Alberti in the first half of the fifteenth century marked the critical moment when an alternative version of modernity was still possible. (xxi)
In a bold claim, he tells us that Heidegger was mistaken “in proposing that the emergence of Western nihilism was an inescapable fate that originated in Plato and Aristotle. On the contrary, it originated in early modernity, and it would have been possible, in principle, at least, to avoid this fate” (ibid.).
This is only the latest step in the long journey of Cusa research. Looking back over the past century, one can witness a certain dialectic in the history of Cusan studies. For a long time, it was common that one would insist that Cusa, while not a direct influence on moderns such as Kant, had in fact anticipated themes of Kantian and even early Romantic philosophy (e.g., Fichte and Schelling) and, to a lesser extent, those of Hegelian philosophy. This tendency to see Cusa as a forerunner of the moderns was perhaps inevitable, given the key role that Ernst Cassirer played in the early days of Cusan studies, and his own philosophical orientation as a neo-Kantian. By 1927, Cusa was dubbed “the first modern philosopher” in Cassirer’s groundbreaking study, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy.
More recently, however, ideas of this sort came under suspicion and a chorus of voices were raised against the idea of Cusa as “the first modern.” One of the stronger voices of the past fifteen years is that of Jasper Hopkins in his “Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464): First Modern Philosopher?”1 Hoff also takes up this theme in his book, and agrees, in general, with Hopkins. One might say that Cusa, from early on (with Cassirer, with Klibansky), was “sold” as one of the first modern philosophers (or at least a proto-modern), perhaps to raise interest among the larger scientific community in Cusanus research and the production of a critical edition. Now that one takes a second look, however, it would seem that he was not really modern in these ways and that, if we follow Hoff, his ideas were in many respects opposed to the Cartesian analytic stream of early modern thought.
In this ambitious book, Hoff takes us a step further into the topos of Cusa and his relationship to modernity. Hoff proposes to find lines of division not only between Cusa and Descartes, but also in Cusa’s own day and before, during which some—in particular, Leon Battista Alberti—set off along a path that would lead almost inexorably to Cartesian thinking about the world and the self—a thinking based in a mathematization of the space of the world. Others, however, according to Hoff, Cusa chief among them, chose a different path: one which preserved the symbolic and analogical thinking of the high Middle Ages, while putting forward certain ideas which represented an alternate modernity, albeit one which ultimately did not come to fruition.
One of the most refreshing elements in this work is that Hoff is well read in the work of the “younger” Cusan scholars (Inigo Bocken, Harald Schwaetzer, Tom Müller, Niels Bohnert, et al.). Too often, the groundbreaking work of these younger scholars is left out of account—a sort of “gerontocracy” all too familiar in Germany holds sway in the attention paid to this scholarship and the places given it at conferences. Here, in Hoff’s work however, they are not merely cited but their ideas are integral to Hoff’s thesis about the emergence of modern thinking about space and autonomy.
As he attempts to explicate the genesis of modern ideas about space and autonomy, Hoff distinguishes between the “conservative innovators” (e.g., Jan van Eyck, Fra Angelico, and Nicholas of Cusa), on the one hand, and “the main representatives of the finally dominating stream of the early Renaissance upheaval” (Brunelleschi, Alberti, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello), on the other. He seeks to locate the dividing line between them “in the broader context of later developments” (i.e., in the rise of Cartesian thinking) (60). One might be surprised to see a list (on both sides of this divide) composed mostly of painters and artists, but as Hoff points out: “Modern scholars tend to perceive Cusa as a Janus-faced maverick trapped between the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance . . . largely due to the post-Cartesian narrative of scientific progress that blinds them to the fact that the innovators of Cusa’s time were largely thinking with paint and brush, not with paper and pencil” (69). Indeed, it is one of the most refreshing elements in Hoff’s work that he takes account of the writings of art historians like Belting, Tritz, et al. and the philosophico-historical researches of Inigo Bocken and Harald Schwaetzer into the connection between art and philosophy, to make this point. The mathematization of space and the independence of the autonomous subject or ego are not invented by Descartes; they emerge almost two centuries earlier, in the dominant artistic culture of the Renaissance (as exemplified by Alberti and Brunelleschi), which then is taken up by others and, eventually, Descartes. Hoff cites Inigo Bocken in a footnote: “Descartes and Kant have essentially done nothing else than provide a philosophical justification of that which was presaged in the art of the Renaissance—in the art of painting, which Alberti wanted to justify as a type of science.”2
This portion of the book is well written, and the argument is clear. There does in fact seem to be an opposition between the ideas of Cusa regarding space and our vision of the world, on the one hand, and the perspectival representationalism of Brunelleschi and Alberti on the other hand. And it does seem plausible to say that the views of Alberti “won out” as it were, and went on to give rise to Descartes’s treatment of space and his notions about the autonomy of the thinking “ego.”
Unfortunately for the reader, beyond this distinction, Hoff presents us with a broader set of notions that attempt to display a fault line running through the history of philosophy. The two sides of this fault line he classifies as realist vs. representationalist. Representationalism, he tells us, is first glimpsed in the philosophy of Duns Scotus and other Franciscans (Roger Bacon and, as a proto-representationalist, Bonaventura). This representationalist “moment” or pattern of thought proceeds in the later centuries of thought to become a legacy of modern philosophy. Hoff will allow that this representationalist way of thinking is eventually questioned and deconstructed; but even those who deconstruct it do not escape from the representationalist dialectic, according to Hoff. Realism, however, is a view we can find in Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Cusa, among others, and is a “common-sense” realism (of the senses and the intellect), and more true to the reality of the world. It is difficult to see where Hoff derives this realist/representationalist dichotomy, though he makes intellectual hay with this distinction throughout the book. Yet it seems to me that (although he distances himself somewhat from “Radical Orthodoxy” in his preface), his ideas seem to depend on the ideas of Catherine Pickstock and John Milbank, such as can be seen (most recently) in Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.3
This dichotomy, and the reading of Scotus which it entails (which Tim Noone has called “blaming the Franciscans”), is highly problematic from a philosophico-historical perspective. Moreover, certain postulates of Radical Orthodoxy, including this one, undergird Hoff’s entire project, which aims to show how Cusa presents us with an alternate modernity and what that alternate world-picture looks like. If this modernity is “representationalist” and its view of being breaks with the apophatic tradition (as he tells us: on account of “univocity” in Scotus), then Cusa must be shown to be “not-this”: he must be displayed to us as an analogical or symbolic realist in the “Dominican” school of Thomas Aquinas, and not only this, but as a thinker for whom the highest mode of discourse is based in faith and is liturgical (Pickstock’s work on philosophy and liturgy is cited here several times). The problem here is that these elements of Radical Orthodoxy are imported under cover of darkness, as it were, and they structure his arguments, but several of them are not made explicit. Moreover, they distort our understanding of Cusa’s own thought.
Among the several issues that could be raised by this use of Pickstock and Milbank’s ideas is, first of all, that this portrayal of Scotus’s thought—not least of all Scotus’s thought portrayed as lacking in philosophical rigor! (42)—displays a highly problematic view of the history of medieval philosophy. It is a view of decline, or entropy, one in which, after Scotus, the whole affair begins to go downhill and descends into modern and then postmodern decay (like Schlingensief’s decaying rabbit in his production of Parsifal). On the contrary, as Tim Noone and Steve Marrone have shown in various places, the narrative of the late thirteenth century is one in which both Scotus and Thomas Aquinas are on the side of a moderate realism, while Henry of Ghent, eager to preserve an illuminationist account of knowing derived in large part from Bonaventure, is the one who casts doubt on the ability of the senses to provide us with certitude.4 Both Aquinas and Scotus, rejecting illuminationist theories of knowledge, pursue a moderate realist course and defend the acquisition of knowledge through the senses against these attempts by Henry to unseat the senses as a reliable guide to knowledge. In the Thomist account (which Scotus follows), in exchange for giving up the proposition that humans can know divine ideas, one gains a naturalist account of knowledge attainable by human beings.
In other words, if Scotus is the beginning of a long decline, Thomas is right there with him, his partner in the “crime” of rejecting Augustinian illuminationism. But for Hoff, one must not reject illuminationist analogical realism. One must find this thinking in Aquinas and one must find it again in Cusa, since for Hoff Cusa and Aquinas are “on the same side” it would seem, the Dominican and the later Cardinal Cusa, radicalizer of Dominican ideas, arrayed against the Franciscan “enemy.”
There is a larger problem here, however, with Hoff’s account of Cusa’s own thought. He is so focused on portraying Cusa as a non-representationalist and someone who embraces the symbolic realism of Thomas Aquinas (which portrayal is no doubt true—quodammodo), that he neglects Cusa’s epistemology, even going so far as to claim that “the modern concept of ‘epistemology’ is not applicable to Cusa” (30). It seems to me, however, that this concept should apply to Cusa, that we should be asking ourselves about Cusa’s theory of knowledge and how this knowledge-theory functions scientifically. I don’t mean to suggest here that we should impose an anachronistic distinction between philosophy and theology on the writings of Cusa, or that we should work with a narrow definition of “science,” but, if we can, we should try to understand Cusa as a speculative thinker who has managed to reconcile in his own thought the two realms of the intellectual and the spiritual. Even at the “high point of theory” (apex theoriae), Cusa’s thought does not melt away into faith, or some sort of mysticism à la Teresa de Ávila, as Hoff would seem to think (cf. final paragraph of 166), but persists in its attempt “to embrace incomprehensible things incomprehensibly.” This high point of theory is something we are able to achieve through our own power, specifically through the sight of the mind (visus mentis), which Cusa called (in De apice theoriae) “the supreme power (posse) of the soul.”5 The “paradoxical truth” of this moment, when visus mentis confronts God himself, and sees that it cannot see, does not pass over into faith as a mode of knowledge, even if one would assume (and rightly) that the person undergoing these experiences has faith. But this moment for the sight of the mind is the high summit of contemplation or, as Aristotle would have put it, of theoria. It is still, through and through, philosophical.
But again, with Hoff, we are confronting yet another Milbank-ian notion, that philosophy does not ultimately abide, but passes over into theology and, more specifically, into liturgical theology—philosophy was always already implicitly theological. Philosophy’s natural place is in the context of theology. There is no independent philosophy, because to have an independent philosophy would only make theology one more discipline among many.6 This view—a sort of standing Hegel on his head—collides with the claim about a supposed symbolic (analogical) realism upon which Cusa and Aquinas agree (and therefore by extension they agree upon the subsequent absorption of philosophy by theology/liturgy). I say these collide because one entails a narrative about the history of philosophy and theology (Aquinas at the apex of thought and then the long slow decline initiated by Scotus and Ockham) and the other always already seeks to negate philosophy in its independence.
Some time ago, the intellectual historian Kurt Flasch made an attempt to “rescue” Meister Eckhart from the mystical current that would seek transform his rigorous thought, especially in his Latin works, into a “misty” affective mysticism.7 More recently, he has pushed this idea further, and presented us with similar narrative in which Meister Eckhart is put forth as the “philosopher of Christianity.” One whose “German mysticism” comes from—of all places—an Arabic spirit (specifically the teachings of Averroës as passed on by Albert of Cologne to Dietrich of Freiberg and Meister Eckhart). Flasch’s Eckhart is, in fact, rigorously philosophical in his thinking, even if it leads him into statements that imply otherwise to the casual reader.
I would like to make a suggestion deriving from these works by Flasch. One can agree with Hoff that Cusa’s theory of knowledge is an illuminationist theory, replete with various levels which symbolically reveal one another. One can also agree, wholeheartedly, that Cusa provides us (without his having been aware of it) an alternative to the clear and distinct modern world picture of Descartes. Nevertheless, these elements in Cusa’s thinking do not come from Aquinas: Cusa’s view of the deity as the form of all things, as the not-other owes much more to Dionysius the Areopagite (and Albert’s reading of him). Moreover, Cusa is an illuminationist in a different tradition, one which draws on Albertist thinking: not only of Albert himself but on Meister Eckhart and Dietrich of Freiberg. As Flasch and Alain de Libera have shown, the Dominican tradition was in fact quite heterogeneous, and historically, as much as one might value Thomas Aquinas, it is in fact more logical to place Cusa in the “illuminationist” theory of mind that descends from Albert of Cologne.8
My primary objection, then, to this work is that it distorts Cusa’s own thinking by attempting to fit him into a box, that of the Thomas Aquinas of Milbank and Pickstock, when in fact, not only is their account of Aquinas deeply flawed, but even if we had a more realistic, historiographical account of Aquinas’s thinking, we would be hard-pressed to join Cusa to Aquinas, not least because their two readings of Dionysius the Areopagite are so extremely different. This is a powerful work, strong and well worth reading, but because there is a ready-made history of philosophy and the ideas it contains, the work hobbles.
Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26 (2002): 13–29. Available online at http://jasper-hopkins.info/CUSAmidwestStudies.pdf.↩
Inigo Bocken, “Praxis der Theorie. Cusanus und die Kritik der Moderne,” in Die Modernitäten des Nikolaus von Kues: Debatten und Rezeptionen, ed. by T. Müller and M. Vollet (Bielefeld, 2013), 455–66.↩
Although he also refers to an essay on Cusa’s “post-nominalist realism” by Milbank which is, unfortunately for the rest of us, unpublished—we will make due with what has been published.↩
Timothy Noone, “The Franciscans and Epistemology: Reflections on the Roles of Bonaventure and Scotus,” in Medieval Masters: Essays in Memory of Msgr. E. A. Synan, ed. R. E. Houser, 63–90 (Houston: Center for Thomistic Studies, University of St. Thomas, 1999). Cf. esp. 90: “If one studies the actual progress of epistemological ideas in the period under consideration, one must conclude that Scotus’s epistemology is in fundamental continuity with that of Thomas Aquinas, although the focus of Scotus’s own thought is the doctrine of Henry of Ghent. To place a large divide between the thought of Scotus and Aquinas, or to portray one as the bearer of light and the other as a harbinger of darkness, is to exceed the historical evidence considerably. ‘Blaming the Franciscans’ may be convenient for didactic purposes but it does not stand up well under examination.” See also Steve Marrone’s excellent study of the role of Aristotelian science and Augustinian illumination in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, The Light of thy Countenance: Science and Knowledge of God in the Thirteenth Century, 2 vols. (Leiden, 2001).↩
So Cusanus: “This capability of the mind to see beyond all comprehensible power is the supreme capability (posse) of the mind, wherein Possibility itself manifests itself maximally.” (De apice theoriae, trans. by Jasper Hopkins, 1428. This text can be found on Hopkins’s website: jasper-hopkins.info/DeApice12-2000.pdf, or on the Cusanus Portal website.)↩
For a refutation of this view, which Milbank and Pickstock claim to find in Thomas Aquinas, see Wayne Hankey’s article “Why Philosophy Abides for Aquinas,” Heythrop Journal 42.3 (2001): 329–48.↩
See his “Meister Eckhart. Ein Versuch, ihn aus dem mystischen Strom zu retten,” in Gnosis und Mystik in der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. Peter Koslowski (Zürich, 1988), 94–110.↩
As, for example, Markus Führer does in his excellent article, “The Agent Intellect in the Writings of Meister Dietrich von Freiberg and Its Influence on the Cologne School,” in Dietrich von Freiberg: Neuer Perspektiven seiner Philosophie, Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, Bochumer Studien zur Philosophie 28, ed. K.-H. Kandler, B. Mojsisch, and F.-B. Stammkötter (Amsterdam: Grüner, 1999), 69-88.↩
To See with Nicholas of Cusa
A Mystagogical Review of Johannes Hoff's Analogical Turn
In his most recent book, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, Johannes Hoff describes Cusa’s body of writings as “a seriature (in the sense of Jacques Derrida): a cord, rope, or series of unique gestures designed to approximate the apocalyptic turning-point at which God comes to mind” (189). Something similar could be said here. The Analogical Turn is a work that defies—perhaps intentionally (see 56!)—linear analysis, exposition, or summary. Indeed, on a first reading the chapters appear to lack, as Hamann once said of Socrates’s maxims, “the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.” Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers a method that bears some analogy to the “bowling game” that Cusa invented and is the subject of his first book—a game in which “skillful players might be able to move their bowl in a helicoidal circle around the target point” (157). In other words, though the development of Hoff’s argument is not linear, and anyone looking for a straightforward exposition may very well be frustrated, each chapter nevertheless brings us closer to the target of seeing what Hoff sees in Nicholas of Cusa: a pre-modern visionary whose thought has the post-modern potential to lead us beyond the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, and back to an alternative, pre-modern analogical vision of the age to come (xv).
The basic argument here, accordingly, is that modern dialectics have blinded us to reality—either in the way that modern scientific rationalism tries to extort from creatures a univocal meaning they have never had, or in the way that postmodernism denies that creatures have any intrinsic meaning at all that is not a function of culture, the will to power, or the play of différance. In short, both of these extremes—“the univocity of modern scientific rationality and the ambiguous equivocity of post-modern pop culture” (xv)—have rendered reality opaque. And so we need to go back to Cusa’s analogical rationality if we are to go forward into an apocalyptic future in which the world will be seen for what it is, a transparency of divine things, and one can “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206). Fittingly, therefore, the work concludes with a mystagogical ascent to a Cusa-inspired vision of God. Given the richness of this work and the limitations of the present review, however, some delimiting and focusing of perspective will be necessary. In the following, therefore, I will limit my comments to those aspects of this work that I found most interesting, but also integral to the kind of perspective Hoff wants to provide.
The Analogical Turn turns on Cusa’s overturning of modern perspective, which Hoff traces back to the work of Cusa’s contemporary and fellow priest, Leon Battista Alberti (1406–72), who “applied the mathematical methods of Euclid to the art of painting” (47). On the face of it, there does not seem to be anything problematic here: Alberti’s mathematical mapping of perspective can subsequently be seen in the geometrical art of Piero della Francesca, who is best known and admired for his paintings of gospel scenes (e.g., The Baptism of Christ from 1450). Nevertheless, Hoff sees a problematic turning point here that will subsequently define the “world picture” (in the Heideggerian sense) of the modern age. The problem, as he sees it, is that the vanishing point of the work of art mirrors that of the viewer, eo ipso “putting the latter in the position of a sovereign observer who can control the space of his perception as if it were nothing but a mirror image of his subjective position” (48). In other words, from this point on, Hoff argues, modern perspective is defined not by a “being seen” (as one is seen by the gaze of an icon) or by a misty seeing of the invisible through the visible—one could just as well say, of the infinite through the finite—but by the dominant viewer (the new and only topos noetos) and this viewer’s imaging of reality in narcissistic terms, according to his conception of it. In short, reality is now configured in my image and according to my representation of it. Thus, according to Hoff’s genealogy, the “winged eye” of Alberti (which appears on the flipside of his portrait medallion) leads directly to the “thinking I” of Descartes’s cogito (57)—and thence, one might add, to the synoptic transcendental ego of Kant.
At this specular point a distinctly modern perspective is established (which for Hoff is also the presupposition of modern individualism). For once the artist no longer sees his or her task as a mimesis of the Creative Art, as an iconic rendering of the invisible through the visible—as Alberti insisted, “the invisible is not the business of painters” (57)—the symbolic universe of the Middle Ages gives way to the “digital universe of Descartes and Leibniz” (69). Corporeal entities, as for Descartes, come to be regarded as “nothing but ‘extended things’ (res extensae) that can be represented analytically, based on functions and equations, without remainder” (64); and so, inspired by visions of a mathesis universalis, matters of symbolic concern are “pushed aside in favor of simpler strategies of scientific progress” (65). Thus, as Hoff keenly observes, it was ironically modern artistic innovation—initially its obsession with geometrical “truth-likeness,” but then its dialectical flight into the dreamy, illusionary world of the Baroque (57)—that led to scientific contempt for art (as irrelevant to the search for truth); and, more generally, for the “symbolic sensitivities of theologians, artists, and poets” (65)—in short, for any metaphysical sensibility that sees in the world more than modern science, even in its wildest dreams of progress, can contain. To be sure, there were some things that did not fit the mathematical model perfectly, such as the “squared circle”; but Leibniz proffered a solution even to this seemingly insuperable problem by defining the mathematical constant as an “irrational number” (65), thereby making it possible to disregard “every deviation in mathematical space as a quantité négligeable” (65).
Now, turning to Cusa, what Hoff finds so interesting about the German cardinal, and why he finds him so important for us to consider today, is that Cusa understood Alberti’s vision of reality (its epistemology and corresponding ontology) and decidedly rejected it. Without denying “the possibility of representing a circle, for example, with a polygon composed of a potentially infinite number of sides and internal angles,” he nevertheless maintained that “mathematical comparisons can only provide us with conjectures and not precise descriptions of our analogical world” (67). In other words, anticipating Kurt Gödel mutatis mutandis by nearly half a millennium, Cusa argued that because the world is structurally analogical, and opposites coincide in God alone, an exhaustive mathematical account of reality is impossible (66). In short, nothing can be pinned down and mastered; the Continental, Hegelian desideratum of a complete system and the Anglo-American desideratum of a final analysis are equally impossible. For in our world, in which everything is “enmeshed in the comparative logic of excedens (exceeding) and excessum (exceeded), of larger and smaller” (68), “nothing has the analytic ‘property’ [of being] one with itself. We may make rational conjectures about the identity of individual substances, but they are never analytically precise” (164).
For this reason, as Hoff observes, “Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason.’ He felt no need to contort his mind in order to justify the uniqueness of our being in the world as ‘inalienable property’ by means of rational calculations” (165). On the contrary, Cusa saw in the modern dream of a mathesis universalis (insofar as this entailed the presumption of completeness) a distortion and flattening of reality, a reduction of its mystery to a deceptive mastery, moreover, a premature grasping (patterned on the story of Genesis 3) after godlike knowledge of all mysteries—and, as such, an obstacle to our mystagogical ascent through kenotic abasement (following the contrasting pattern of Christ, who did not cling to his “own” or to any “inalienable property,” but emptied himself, according to Phil 2:6f.). Thus, just as Heidegger once did for his own purposes, Hoff can summarize Cusa’s metaphysical vision in the words of Angelus Silesius’s famous poem, “Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet. Sie acht nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet” (165).
What gradually comes to light here has enormous metaphysical, existential, and even political consequences; for even one’s politics is invariably a reflection of one’s implicit or explicit metaphysical commitments. Whereas, on the modern model, which funds “the liberal societies of the modern age,” “every singularity is identical with its essence” (165) and thus a “one” unto itself, for Cusa “nothing but God is One and identical with itself” (164). This is not to deny that creatures possess an analogical “oneness” as images of the “divine simplicity” (162); but, as Hoff notes, as analogical singularities, “the uniqueness of created individuals is neither analytically accountable nor conceivable as a ‘property’ that creatures ‘have’” (162). Rather, “the miracle is that every creature and every person is a singularity, not despite, but exactly because it owes everything it is to a giver whose perfections cannot be owned” (163). Indeed, rather than being one’s own property, according to Hoff’s Cusa-inspired metaphysics I cannot but “receive the gift to be one with myself” (165).
Just how different this Christian-Neo-Platonic vision is from that of modern Western liberalism (for which the individual is his or her own inalienable property) goes without saying. In the language of Paul, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19); in the language of James, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas 1:17). In other words, in an image of the triune simplicity, to be one is to be related (which is also why the sexes cannot be understood in isolation but refer to one another). Or, to put it in the paradoxical words of the gospel, one finds one-self precisely by losing one-self in love (Matt 16:26)—as with marriage, which is therefore an icon of human completeness (Mark 10:8), pointing to the perichoretic completeness of the Trinity. Such, in any event, is the paradoxical precision of the gospel, which gives the lie to rationalistic dreams of a final analysis: nothing created can be itself by itself. But as Cusa and Plato before him realized, seeing things for what they are, as unique images of the divine “oneness,” is not something everyone can see. As Hoff puts it, “For the same reason that the believer has to lose herself in order to find herself, she has to lose the world in order to see it as it actually is” (206). Indeed, contra the myth of the Enlightenment, which is arguably an ignis fatuus, even a kind of darkness, it requires a conversion away from oneself to the light, which one does not by rights possess in oneself. In the memorable words of Augustine, arguably the greatest of Christian Platonists, “si ergo accedendo illuminamini et recedendo tenebramini: non erat in vobis lumen vestrum, sed in Deo vestro” (In Joh. Tract. XIX, xii).
Here is not the place to debate the extent of Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, or, for that matter, his criticism of the Platonists (e.g., in book VII of the Confessions, where the emphasis begins to shift toward divine humility and the necessity of the church and of sensible, sacramental mediation as a remedy for intellectual pride). It would be safe to say, though, that Cusa’s doctrine of divine simplicity as a coincidence of opposites makes it easier for him to say why this turning toward the divine light is not simply a Platonic epistrophē but precisely a turning toward Christ in humility and learned ignorance as the One in whom maximum and minimum incomprehensibly coincide. Indeed, for Cusa, the Platonic epistrophē, which demands a turning away from the mundus intelligibilis toward the mundus intelligibilis, is actually accomplished in no other way than by turning to the incarnate Word—in whom alone we face the One who is otherwise invisible and unknown. As Hoff wonderfully puts it, “Whoever turns his face to God turns his face to the face of Jesus” (213).
Thus, precisely at the height of the influx of Platonism into Western Christianity, in the wake of the Council of Florence (1438–39) and the subsequent establishment of the Platonic Academy under the leadership of Ficino, Cusa radically transformed Platonism by centering it not simply in an ad hoc way, but now with metaphysical justification, on the person of Christ. For “he is both uncontracted qua his divine nature and contracted qua his human nature; and this enable us to redirect our attention: whoever calls his name and turns his face to his face is facing the invisible gaze of the Father who sent him (Jn 12:45)” (213). Moreover, “Christ is not only the light of truth that manifests itself in the darkness of his creation. He is also the way to this truth (Jn 14:6); and this way can only be found in the ‘body of the faithful (corpus fidelium) . . . called the Christ-formed universal gathering (Christiforme ecclesia catholica) . . . and made up of all rational spirits adhering to Christ’” (219). For, as the one in whom the uncontracted and the contracted, the infinite and the finite, coincide, Christ is the one who “enfolds within [himself] (in se complicare) all multitude and, thus, is unreplicable, since it is the enfolding of all multiplication, or multitude” (161).
Cusa thus provides a remarkable metaphysical justification for the church in that here, in the one body of Christ, we see the manifestation of metaphysical reality: that multitude is nothing other than the unfolding and explication of oneness; that individuals are therefore metaphysically referred not to themselves, but to him. For metaphysically, “I am an image of the divine ‘one’ that owes everything it is to its participation in the divine oneness” (161). Indeed, in keeping with Cusa’s analogical metaphysics, for which nothing but God is by nature one with itself, it is in turning toward Christ that we are made whole and become by grace the “ones,” the unique individuals and—by incorporation into Christ—members of the one body that we really, metaphysically are. This is why at various points Hoff notes that, in our fallen state, “we are not what we are” (212), and that, picking up on a cue from Augustine (sermon 272), we must therefore become what we are, which is to say, that we must become what we are in Christ (13, 211). As Cusa writes in De docta ignorantia (before Luther!),
Our justification is not from ourselves, but from Christ. Since He is the complete fullness (omnis plenitudo), in Him we obtain all things . . . Therefore, the higher a man ascends in the immortal virtues, the more Christlike he becomes. For minimum things coincide with maximum things. For example, maximum humiliation (humilitatio) coincides with exaltation (cum exaltatione): the most shameful death of a virtuous man coincides with his glorious life, and so on—as Christ’s life, suffering, and death manifest all these points to us (185).
There is thus for Cusa, following Paul, no higher (Platonic) term of contemplation or speculation than what one can see in Christ and him crucified: “Sunt igitur omnia mysteria in crucifixione innocentis Christi complicate” [all mysteries are enfolded in the crucifixion of the innocent Christ] (181). Indeed, as Hoff notes, “the crucifixion is the key to Cusa’s ‘hunt for wisdom’” (181). For not only is Christ the real and symbolic center of the universe in that he manifests the oneness of God (as the coincidence of the infinite and finite, the absolute maximum and the minimum); he also invites us into his oneness with the Father as members of his one body: “That they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:23).
What is arguably most striking about Cusa’s re-vision of the Platonic tradition, however, is that this invitation to share in the oneness of God (at which point of self-abandonment it becomes possible to see God as the non aliud, as the “non-other” than every creature) is less an invitation to a Platonic-mystagogical ascent as it is an invitation to a Christian-mystagogical descent (to the point of conformity to the Cross of Christ). For “unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Thus, to employ that most precise trope of paradox, whose mysterious form is a sign of a greater precision than anything modern analytic method could attain, we come to see that, as Heraclitus prophetically intimated, “the way up and the way down are one and the same” (Diels B60): we come to see that the ascent occurs by way of a descent, by way of a following of Christ (to his cross) in order to rise with Christ (in his resurrection).
But, once again, such a metaphysical vision is inaccessible to the modern man, who is immured in his modern perspective—the perspective of “the modern Narcissus,”1 who puts himself “in the position of the eye point of a mathematically generated picture” (151), and precisely thereby makes his eye unreceptive to the light of the vision of God. As Hoff puts it, quoting Kleist, “nur schade dass das Auge modert, das die Herrlichkeit erblicken soll” [it’s just a pity that the eye molders that is called to the vision of glory] (167). As much as this book is about ontology, it is therefore also—and perhaps even more so—about conversion, metanoia: for it is only when one actually becomes “an image of divine simplicity” (169) by becoming one with Christ that one can see the world for what it most truly and most precisely is: an analogy of the One who is manifest in Christ. As Cusa puts it, “Created things . . . are not seen perfectly unless their Creator is seen” (207), which, in turn, is possible only when Christ their archetype is seen, and in him all things (John 1:3). Indeed, only then, as we are turned toward Christ (213), and the “incomprehensible light of the creator shines forth in our desire” (206), does the universe (uni-versum) in all its splendor come into view: only then are we able to see “in the real space of face-to-face encounters” (99) the “invisible in the visible” (203), and “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206).
There is much more to be said about this admirable book, which is itself like a beryl stone—to advert to the title of Cusa’s little book from 1458—in that it furnishes material suitable for a new perspective. I have not mentioned, for example, the importance of the vera icona (or, in this case, its replica) to Cusa’s inversion of the modern perspective (215). Nor have I drawn out the important political implications of the Analogical Turn, which seeks to overturn not only the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, but also its corresponding political dialectic between “individualism and totalitarianism” (227). All of this stands in need of development. In the meantime, given the richness of Cusa’s vision, we can be grateful to Johannes Hoff for having opened our eyes a littler wider to it—and to seeing just how important Cusa is to the recovery of the kind of metaphysical vision that the Church so desperately needs. Now is not the time to shrink back from metaphysics, as some are wont to do, but rather to give the Christian faith the kind of metaphysics it deserves and, in fact, implies—not an alien metaphysics, to which the faith must conform, but a metaphysics which the faith itself, as its proper articulation and explication, demands. One of the greatest attempts in this direction was made in the twentieth century by Erich Przywara, SJ, most famously in his Analogia Entis; and, given what Hoff has shown us in this book, we may not be surprised to learn that, in an interview from 1954, Przywara admitted that his own thought coincides most nearly not with that of Plato, or even Augustine, but with that of Nicholas of Cusa.2
For a corresponding Lutheran appraisal, see Oswald Bayer, “Der Neuzeitliche Narziß. Reformation und Moderne im Konflikt,” in EK 26 (1993): 158–62; Gott als Autor. Zu einer poietologischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999), 73–85.↩
Stefan Varnhagen, “Ehrung eines Grossen Denkers. Zwiegespräch zwischen Autor und Verleger anläßlich des 65. Geburtstags Erich Przywaras,” am 12 Oktober 1954 (Nürnberg: Gluck und Lutz, 1954).↩
4.27.15 | Johannes Hoff
Philosophical Pilgrim’s Paths: From Augustine and Aquinas to the Analogical Turn of Our Time
I want to thank Christian Amondson and his team for providing me with the opportunity to participate in this innovative symposium for Syndicate Theology. I am also grateful to John Betz, Michael E Moore, Matthew Moser and Daniel O’Connell for reading and discussing my book so thoroughly. They provided me with a unique opportunity to rethink the aims, strengths and weaknesses of my book, and to become clearer about my position in the spectrum of contemporary Anglophone philosophical theology.
The four reviews I received hardly could have been more different in terms of content and style. As in Cusa’s experiment with the monks of Tegernsee, described in his book On the Vision of God, they expressed heterogeneous perspectives on my ideas, arguments and insights that transcended my expectations. And the more I thought about their heterogeneity, the more they started to interact with each other until a quite coherent, new landscape emerged in my imagination. This, in my perception, was the most impressive outcome of the symposium.
John Betz’s review captures the sources and focal aims of my book in a surprisingly clear-sighted way. His sympathetic observations about my writing style gave me pause and helped me to see more clearly why other readers might struggle to follow the “nonlinear” lines of my book. For this reason, I tried to be more explicit about the mystagogical method of my research, and the related epochal break of our time, that enabled historical philosophers and theologians to recover the premodern roots of this method—e.g. in Albert, and Aquinas, and in Augustine’s account of the way to the truth as a way of illumination.
Michael E. Moore’s review displays a deep sympathy to my sources in Cusa, but also a certain perplexity about the methodology and the (in his view) backwards-oriented aims of my book. I interpreted this criticism as an invitation to dispel some fundamental misunderstandings, and to outline the broader context of my research on the “post-digital turn” of our time. In view of Moore’s historiographic background, I furthermore summarized the methodological considerations that guide my hermeneutics of classical texts.
Matthew Moser impressed me by his sincerity. His review articulates his philosophical and spiritual commitment to engage with the theses and ideas of my book, but also his disappointment about the lack of a univocal Christological focus. In my response, I built on Piere Paolo Pasolini in order to express why the late medieval and modern aim to identify a univocal focus of Christian faith might be delusive.
A further critical point connects Moser’s text with the review of Daniel O’Connell, namely the suspicion that my criticism of representationalism follows the paths of the Cambridge School of Philosophical Theology (“Radical Orthodoxy”). This suspicion provided me with an opportunity to clarify my position within the landscape of contemporary Anglophone theology. Apart from this criticism, O’Connell’s review expresses with great clarity why my book might appear as strange in the perception of readers who are shaped by the “epistemological” mindset of classical modernity. I interpreted this “fit occasion” as a prod to express more clearly how my hermeneutics of medieval philosophy relates to contemporary debates about epistemology.
A response to John Betz
After John Betz’s review I doubt that I would have done a better job had I been asked to summarize the core ideas that guided my reading of Cusa. I particularly appreciate how he emphasizes the unity of Cusa’s mystical ascent with the descent of Christian spirituality, and the consequent unity of his Platonism with his Christocentric ecclesiology. Betz is completely right about this focus: The Analogical Turn (AT) is not only a book about ontology, but also, and even more so, on metanoia (conversion)—the original, Christian version of Heidegger’s Kehre. It is this “univocal analogical” focus that holds my book together, not like a linear sequence of univocal arguments, or a systematically compartmentalized presentation of a pre-given truth, but more like a pilgrimage that leads via multiple and occasionally untrodden paths to a simultaneously universal and unique destination.
In the light of these aims, I perceived Betz’s introduction on my nonlinear writing style as particularly thought provoking. Although I never took a deliberate decision to write in helical lines, he is correct in contrasting Descartes’s privileging of clear and distinct straight lines (56) from my own research “method.” The Greek word “method” means to move “after (meta-) a travelling way (hodos).” But should we always take the shortest path between two nodes? The Cartesian promise that everything will straighten out if we only stick to the linear principles of representational security and analytical rigor has failed on every level of philosophical, mathematical and scientific research. For this reason, I investigated alternative methods of thinking in my earliest publications on the “performative turn” of Foucault, Levinas and Derrida—until I discovered Nicholas of Cusa. In view of this discovery, Betz could have equally related his introductory remarks to my summary of Cusa’s mystagogical method: the contemplative method of “reaching out” to the truth through “acts of affirmation (kataphasis) and denial (apophasis),” which is guided by a pre-reflexive truth (truth1) that can only be expressed in the language of wonder and praise (AT 18–24).
In the wake of thinkers as different as the early Romantics Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kurt Gödel and Martin Heidegger, we have learned that scientific reason is not reducible to true or false propositions. I have outlined this more extensively in my publications on the necessity of replacing the radicalized phenomenological reduction (or epoché) of Foucault and Derrida by a “doxological reduction.”1 The above summary of Cusa’s method built on this research when it distinguished between two aspects of “truth” that interfere with each other and undermine every attempt to think in straight lines: Our selection of true propositions (truth2) is regularly crossed by acts of wonder and praise (truth1) that guide our decisions about what deserves our attention and what does not.
In our digitalized world this nonlinear concept of truth has become more relevant than ever before. The abundance of available (more or less) “true” propositions (in the sense of truth2) no longer permits us to confine our research to the straight lines of analytically precise “true arguments.” Take the example of Facebook: To push the Like button is an act of praise that almost always runs ahead of our reflexive thinking. Even scientists cannot avoid using such “doxology buttons.” But doxological acts of wonder and praise are anything but innocent. Rather they recall the doxological core question of Cusa’s “science of unknowing”: Are our acts of praise governed by the desire for the truth, or are we trapped in the idolatrous veneration of finite things which “ascribes to the image that which befits only the reality itself” (Docta ignorantia, I n. 86)?2 If every knowledge starts with the commitment to a truth that transcends our reflexive comprehension, then it is no longer possible to draw a clear demarcation line between the straight lines of evidence-based, secure thinking patterns and the tentative, helical lines of walking paths that are sensitive to delusive shortcuts and attentive to performative indicators and narratives that structure the space that we inhabit.
As Michel de Certeau has pointed out, only subsequent to the fifteenth century did the “maps” that guide our cognitive and spatial movements become “disengaged” from the nonlinear “conditions of the possibility” of space.3 After all the philosophical theologies of pagans and the revealed theologies of Christians were dedicated to the same concerns—the concerns that occupy wandering pilgrims: the ascension to the truth, the desire for salvation and unification, questions of hope and faith (fiducia philosophantis), the experience of unity, etc.
This family resemblance between theological and philosophical “methods” not only provoked forms of synergy and competition. Subsequent to Albert the Great, it also catalysed the emergence of mystical paths that were designed to transcend the difference between the orders of Christian faith and philosophical reason. According to de Libera, the latter tradition culminated in Meister Eckhart.4 But was Eckhart still committed to the spiritual core of Christian orthodoxy? Were the itineraries of his mystical philosophy (apart from the rhetoric of his sermons) still paths of conversion that are guided by the light of grace?
Cusa was deeply convinced that Meister Eckhart never deviated from the path of Christian orthodoxy, but he was aware of those who doubted Eckhart’s orthodoxy. Hence, he kept his path (and his reading of Meister Eckhart, see for example Apologia Doctae ignorantiae, n. 37) as close as possible to the Augustinian tradition. According to this tradition, the way to our ultimate destination leaves no space for any kind of autonomy that is not guided by the divine light. Our path to salvation is a way of conversion and grace. However, theological considerations about this destination should never come last. If our attempts “to orient ourselves in thinking” (in the sense of Immanuel Kant) are to never be deceived by idolatrous doxological attachments, then our philosophical reasoning can (other than in Kant) never confine itself to the boundaries of reason alone. Rather, it is decisive to recall from the very beginning the name that alone deserves our unrestricted admiration and praise: The inexpressible four-letter name YHWH that became eventually replaced by the human proper name “Jesus” (cf. Sermo 20). Cusa already emphasized this crucial aspect of his way of thinking in his early tractate On Seeking God: The philosophers who trusted in their own intelligence perished in their vanities; only those who call THE NAME (invocantes nomen eium) escaped this fate, since they had become humble (AT 22f.).
For this reason, I completely agree with Betz’s repeated reference to Augustine’s critical appropriation of the Platonic tradition which focuses on the concept of humility. I also agree with his emphasis on the significance of sensible, sacramental mediation in Augustine, although this point is less self-evident from a classical modern point of view. Augustine has been misread as a “Platonic dualist” since the thirteenth century at the latest. But our reading of Augustine has changed in the wake of paradigm shifts of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, even secular scholars recall how important it was for Augustine to cognize (as he put it) “out of intimacy with the flesh.”5 On the other hand, a new emphasis on the theological context of Augustine’s philosophical journeys has changed not only our understanding of Augustine but also our understanding of the “Augustinianism” of the Middle Ages. This is particularly relevant in terms of Augustine’s concept of illumination (as indicated by Betz) and in terms of Cusa’s relationship to Thomas Aquinas.
Lydia Schumacher has provided us with a concise summary of this historiographic paradigm shift in her monograph on Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. In contrast to anachronistic attempts to separate Augustine’s philosophy from his theology, Schumacher focuses both on the philosophical and on the theological research on Augustine (such as we find in Rowan Williams, Lewis Ayres, Michel Barnes and Carol Harrison). Consequently, she reads Augustine’s philosophy of illumination (e.g., in De magistro) in its theological context (particularly in De Trinitate) without making concessions to modern disciplinary boundaries. This approach enables her to show convincingly where typically modern readings of Augustine went wrong.
Take the example of “ontologist” readings of Augustine, as in Ficino and Malebranche: Such readings are not supported by an unselective reading of the primary sources. They rather build on hermeneutic prejudices that emerged in the Franciscan tradition of the thirteenth century subsequent to Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure. Under the influence of the Arab philosopher Avicenna, Bonaventure no longer considered the concept of illumination as something that is intrinsically related to the autonomous movements of pilgrims.6 He rather assumed a kind of a priori knowledge of being that was accompanied by extrinsic illuminations.
According to Schumacher, this reading of Augustine anticipated two later developments: On the one hand it anticipated ontologist theories of knowledge, in which the divine light imparts to the human mind ready-made contents. On the other hand it provoked the emergence of proto-epistemological theories of knowledge that considered the extrinsic intervention of a divine light as redundant, and even contradictory, given that it seemed to interfere with the process of active cognition. The last point explains why Franciscan followers of Bonaventure, starting with Duns Scotus, focused (in a proto-Kantian way) on the a priori nature of our acts of knowing at the expense of forms of divine illumination (ibid., 194–201).
This new “Augustinian” focus did not emerge out of a logical necessity, since it built on a very superficial reading of Augustine. In Augustine, the process of illumination did not compete with the freedom of human acts. Our mind is capax intelligibilis lucis (De Civitate Dei 12.3) because what we passively receive from the giver of light coincides with our ability to be knowing agents that generate our own ideas during our pilgrimage to God (cf. ibid., 25–67). The Franciscan “Augustinians” made us forgetful of this truth. Only Aquinas remained faithful to the original Patristic (and Platonic) sources when he considered the divine light as a gift that actualizes our cognitive capacity to engage in abstractive reasoning starting from our sensual perception (cf. ibid., 154–80).
Cusa followed Aquinas at this crucial point: The divine light is never something that turns us into passive receivers. This becomes most evident in Cusa’s famous sentence: “Be your own and I will be yours” (AT 210). Betz confirms my conviction that this sentence builds on Augustine when he relates it to his Sermo 272 (estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis): We must become and enact what we are, then we will be truly receiving.
Seen from this angle, Bonaventure is no longer the great exponent of medieval Augustinianism that early modern historians considered him to be. That honour has to be transferred to Aquinas. For the same reason, Duns Scotus’s rejection of Bonaventure’s theory of illumination should not be confused with an Aristotelian gesture that brought the Franciscans closer to Aquinas. The original Aristotelian concept of abstraction was compatible with Augustine’s view that abstractions are the outcome of a gradual, cognitive work (a kind of via remotionis) that starts with our sensual perception. Hence, the early modern dividing line between Augustinians and Aristotelians (which was still prominent in Gilson) is utterly misleading. Aquinas was neither a member of the one nor of the other party. He rather radicalized Aristotle’s original concept of abstraction by translating Augustine’s theological concept of illumination into Aristotelian terms.
If there is any dividing line, it separates not Aristotelians from Augustinians but Franciscans from Dominicans. This becomes also evident if we look at the most recent research on Albert the Great, who was one of the most influential sources of Cusa. Although Albert left more space for an “autonomous” philosophical account of the mystagogical ascent, his concept of abstraction was compatible with a noncompetitive concept of illumination both in philosophical and theological terms. Against the Avicennian teaching regarding the dator formarum (which shaped Franciscan theories of knowledge from Bonaventure onwards), Albert denied that the universals that illuminate our mind are discrete entities that we receive passively. Rather, as de Libera has pointed out, he considered the divine light as a “univocal stream”: a stream of light that relates always to the simplicity of God.7
In a similar way, Albert the theologian built on Denis the Areopagite and Maximus Confessor, when he developed a liturgical concept of emanation in which our susceptibility to the divine good coincides with an active act of doxological return: “Maximus Episcopus says that ‘the good’ [bonum] is said from ‘boo, boas,’ because it calls those that are not, as much as those that are [Rom 4. 17]. But it ‘calls’ only insofar as it impresses its form onto those things as if through some kind of natural listening; and thus it seems that it is the specific act of the good to bring the [individual] goods into being, and that none of the caused things is, unless it has the cause of the good.”8
As I have pointed out in AT, Cusa built on this Dionysian tradition—although he emphasized more than Albert (and in line with Aquinas) the unity of theology and philosophy: As in the case of doxological acts of prayer and praise, our intellectual power is a gift that we receive from the “father of lights.” And this gift is never received passively. Rather, the gesture of attentive receptivity coincides with the gesture of return: To receive the gift of the father of lights is tantamount with the realisation that my whole being is a gift that actualizes itself through acts of giving.
Against the backdrop of this Anglophone and particularly French research, I agree with Betz that the trajectory of my critical engagement with the representationalist metaphysics of modernity is in line with Erich Przywara’s conviction that theologians cannot build on a metaphysics that is inconsistent with the demands of Christian faith. However, some aspects of Przywara’s research might require a reassessment. Przywara was aware that the metaphysics of the Franciscan tradition took a different trajectory than the Dominican tradition after Duns Scotus. But he still took it for granted that Aquinas’s contemporary Bonaventure was “the pinnacle of the older Franciscan tradition in which the Augustinianism of the early Middle Ages was at home.”9 This assessment was supported by the mainstream research of Przywara’s time, but it is no longer supported by the historical research of the twenty-first century. The latter rather indicates that the pathways of Franciscans and Dominicans already diverged in Aquinas’s time.
See, e.g., Johannes Hoff, “Mystagogy beyond Onto-theology: Looking Back to Post-modernity with Nicholas of Cusa,” in Arne Moritz, ed., A Companion to Nicholas of Cusa (Leiden: Brill, 2014); and Johannes Hoff and Peter Hampson, “Nicholas of Cusa: A Premodern Post-modern Reader of Shakespeare,” in Zoe Lehmann Imfeld, Peter Hampson, Alison Milbank, eds., Theology and Literature in Post-modernity (London/New York: Bloomsbury/T. & T. Clark, 2015), 115–37.↩
Translations of Cusa’s works are based on The Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas of Cusa, edited by Jasper Hopkins. The numbering system is based on the critical edition (h).↩
Cf. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 91–130.[/foonote] However, the premodern concept of spatial movements has returned in our time—it is no accident that Certeau’s writings first attracted the attention of behavioural economists who investigate our consumer behaviour.
This return of the repressed sheds light on a historiographic paradigm shift of our time. In contrast to the analytic rationality of modernity, premodern philosophers resisted the inclination to draw a clear demarcation line between the scientific cultivation of rational arguments and the religious cultivation of the symbolically charged nonlinear practices that guide our attention. For this reason, Pierre Hadot was right when he pointed out that philosophy was considered a spiritual form of life in antiquity. Hadot only misdated the point where this spiritual approach started to fade out. As Alain de Libera has demonstrated, the famous condemnation of 219 philosophical and theological propositions by Bishop Tempier of Paris in 1277 marked the decisive breaking point. Only after 1277 did philosophers feel increasingly forced to sunder their evidence-based rational arguments from the spiritual hotbed of their thinking patterns in everyday life.
With the benefit of hindsight we might perceive this break as the starting point of modern secularism. Hence, it might come as a surprise that those who encouraged the modern separation of philosophical arguments from the spiritual ascent to the truth were not rationalist agnostics. Rather the decisive break of 1277 was enforced by theologians who wanted to subject a purified concept of reason to the oversight of a purified concept of revelation and faith. Before that time it was possible neither to draw a neat separation line between philosophy and theology, nor to treat these disciplines as functionally differentiated modules of a philosophical-theological “system” in the style of Neo-Scholasticism. As de Libera has masterfully pointed out, up until the thirteenth century the “big choices” were not between faith and reason, or theology and philosophy.[footnote]“Les grands choix du Moyen Âge ne passent pas entre raison et foi, théologie et philosophie comme telles ni même entre la théologie révélée et une philosophie tout entière absorbée dans ce que Gilson appelle théologie naturelle.” Alain de Libera, Raison et foi: Archologie d’une crise d’Albert le Grand Jean-Paul II (Paris: Seuil, 2003), 28.↩
“Il appartient à Maître Eckhart d’avoir explicitement thématisé ce double sursaut hors de foi et de raison” (ibid., 348).↩
Cf. David van Dusen, The Space of Time: A Sensualist Interpretation of Time in Augustine, Confessions X to XII (Leiden: Brill, 2014).↩
Knowledge is no longer “described as subject to gradual growth through ongoing participation in a unified mode of thinking.” Lydia Schumacher, Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 236f, cf. 110–53.↩
Cf. Alain de Libera, Albert le Grand et la philosophie (Paris: J. Vrin, 1990), 122–23, 144–211.↩
Albertus Magnus, Summa Theologiae, I. 6. 26; cf. Philipp W. Rosemann, Omne agens agit sibi simile: A “repetition” of scholastic metaphysic (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1996), 217f.↩
“Bonaventura (…) ist Zeitgenosse Thomas von Aquinas und damit eigentlich mehr Höhepunkt jener älteren Franziskanerschule, in der der frühmittelalterliche Augustinianismus seine Heimstätte hatte.” E. Przywara, Religionsphilosophische Schriften (Einsiedeln: 1962), 472.↩