The genius of ignorance: Nicholas of Cusa

Nicholas of Cusa

A cardinal, diplomat, philosopher, theologian and mathematician, he was one of the first to realise the earth is not at the centre of the cosmos. This forgotten genius developed a theory that we can only attain knowledge by admitting our ignorance.

- ABC Radio National

Late in 1438, on a slow boat journey from Constantinople to Venice, German genius and papal diplomat Nicholas of Cusa conceived of the value of ignorance as a means to attain knowledge. It came as a revelation, he wrote in De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance): the more one tries to understand the depth of one’s incapacity to know the infinite God, the more one’s ignorance becomes learned. 

Thus, in contemplating the divine, Nicholas acquired a fundamental building block in the setting up of modern scientific method.

Never heard of Nicholas of Cusa? This is a good year to find out about this fascinating figure since it is the 550thanniversary of his death. For one thing, his ideas usefully complicate our sense of how the mind works and how we arrive at knowledge. Cusanus, as he is also known, learned in a way that doesn’t have much street cred these post-Enlightenment days

Metaphysics enabled Cusanus to arrive a generation before Copernicus at the idea that the earth is not at the centre of the cosmos and that it is constantly in motion. He understood more than a century before Kepler that the motions of the planets are not circular.

The list goes on. 

He advocated reform of the calendar a century before the Gregorian reform was set in place. Thinking about the practicalities of friction and order within the Church alongside his Christian vision of human freedom led him to a first for Western history—the argument that all governance comes from the consent of subjects.  He tried to work out ways of representing that consent in the Church context—an ongoing story for the Church, but also for the body politic.

In his first major work, On Learned Ignorance, he tried to capture the idea that we must recognise our own limitations, our own ignorance, but that we can use that not-knowing in very creative ways. He was entranced by the way the mind works, which was also his way of doing theology.

To listen to this special ABC Radio National Encounter on this dynamic Catholic thinker of the Late Middle Ages, CLICK HERE.

To read full article: Nicholas of Cusa and the wisdom of ignorance (ABC Radio National)

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