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§ 25. Nicolas of Cusa, Scholar and Churchman.
Of the theologians of the generation following Gerson and D’Ailly none occupies a more conspicuous place than the German Nicolas of Cusa, 1401–1464. After taking a prominent part in the Basel council in its earlier history, he went into the service of Eugenius IV. and distinguished himself by practical efforts at Church reform and by writings in theology and other departments of human learning.
Born at Cues near Treves, the son of a boatman, he left the parental home on account of harsh treatment. Coming under the patronage of the count of Manderscheid, he went to Deventer, where he received training in the school conducted by the Brothers of the Common Life. He studied law in Padua, and reached the doctorate, but exchanged law for theology because, to follow the statement of his opponent, George of Heimburg, he had failed in his first case. At Padua he had for one of his teachers Cesarini, afterwards cardinal and a prominent figure in the Council of Basel.
In 1432 he appeared in Basel as the representative of Ulrich of Manderscheid, archbishop-elect of Treves, to advocate Ulrich’s cause against his rivals Rabanus of Helmstatt, bishop of Spires, whom the pope had appointed archbishop of the Treves diocese. Identifying himself closely with the conciliar body, Nicolas had a leading part in the proceedings with the Hussites and went with the majority in advocating the superiority of the council over the pope. His work on Catholic Unity,—De concordantia catholica,—embodying his views on this question and dedicated to the council 1433, followed the earlier treatments of Langenstein, Nieheim and Gerson. A general council, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks truly and infallibly. The Church is the body of the faithful—unitas fidelium — and is represented in a general council. The pope derives his authority from the consent of the Church, a council has power to dethrone him for heresy and other causes and may not be prorogued or adjourned without its own consent. Peter received no more authority from Christ than the other Apostles. Whatever was said to Peter was likewise said to the others. All bishops are of equal authority and dignity, whether their jurisdiction be episcopal, archiepiscopal, patriarchal or papal, just as all presbyters are equal.416416 John of Turrecremata, d. 1468, whose tract on the seat of authority in the Church—Summa de Eccles. et ejus auctoritate —1450 has already been referred to, took the extreme ultramontane position. The papal supremacy extends to all Christians throughout the world and includes the appointment of all bishops and right to depose them, the filling of all prelatures and benefices whatsoever and the canonizing of saints. As the vicar of Christ, he has full jurisdiction in all the earth in temporal as well as spiritual matters because all jurisdiction of secular princes is derived from the pope quod omnium principum saecularum jurisdictionalis potestas a papa in eos derivata sit. Quoted from Gieseler, III. 5, pp. 219-227.
In spite of these views, when the question arose as to the place of meeting the Greeks, Nicolas sided with the minority in favor of an Italian city, and was a member of the delegations appointed by the minority which visited Eugenius IV. at Bologna and went to Constantinople. This was in 1437 and from that time forward he was a ready servant of Eugenius and his two successors. Aeneas Sylvius, afterwards Pius II., called him the Hercules of the Eugenians. Aeneas also pronounced him a man notable for learning in all branches of knowledge and on account of his godly life.417417 Hist. of Fred. III., 409, Germ. transl. II. 227.
Eugenius employed his new supporter as legate to arrange terms of peace with the German Church and princes, an end he saw accomplished in the concordat of Vienna, 1447. He was rewarded by promotion to the college of cardinals, and in 1452 was made bishop of Brixen in the Tyrol. Here he sought to introduce Church reforms, and he travelled as the papal legate in the same interest throughout the larger part of Germany.
By attempting to assert all the mediaeval feoffal rights of his diocese, the bishop came into sharp conflict with Siegmund, duke of Austria. Even the interdict pronounced by two popes did not bring the duke to terms. He declared war against the bishop and, taking him prisoner, forced from him a promise to renounce the old rights which his predecessors for many years had not asserted. Once released, the bishop treated his oath as null, on the ground that it had been forced from him, and in this he was supported by Pius II. In 1460 he went to Rome and died at Todi, Umbria, a few years later.
Nicolas of Cusa knew Greek and Hebrew, and perhaps has claim to being the most universal scholar of Germany up to his day since Albertus Magnus. He was interested in astronomy, mathematics and botany, and, as D’Ailly had done before, he urged, at the Council of Basel, the correction of the calendar. The literary production on which he spent most labor was a discussion of the problems of theology—De docta ignorantia. Here he attacked the scholastic method and showed the influence upon his mind of mysticism, the atmosphere of which he breathed at Deventer. He laid stress upon the limitations of the human mind and the inability of the reason to find out God exhaustively. Faith, which he defined as a state of the soul given of God’s grace, finds out truths the intellect cannot attain to.418418 Fides est habitus bonus, per bonitatem data a deo, ut per fidem restaurentur illae veritates objectivae, quas intellectus attingere non potest, quoted by Schwane, p. 100. His views had an influence upon Faber Stapulensis who edited the Cusan’s works and was himself a French forerunner of Luther in the doctrine of justification by faith.
His last labors, in connection with the crusade against the Turks pushed by Pius II., led him to studies in the Koran and the preparation of a tract,—De cribatione Alcoran,—in which he declared that false religions have the true religion as their basis.
It is as an ecclesiastical mediator, and as a reformer of clerical and conventual abuses that the cardinal has his chief place in history. He preached in the vernacular. In Bamberg he secured the prohibition of new brotherhoods, in Magdeburg the condemnation of the sale of indulgences for money. In Salzburg and other places he introduced reforms in convents, and in connection with other members of his family he founded the hospital at Cues with beds for 33 patients. He showed his interest in studies by providing for the training of 20 boys in Deventer. He dwelt upon the rotation of the earth on its axis nearly a century before Copernicus. He gave reasons for regarding the donation of Constantine spurious, and he also called in question the genuineness of other parts of the Isidorian Decretals.
On the other hand, the cardinal was a thorough churchman and obedient child of the Church. As the agent of Nicolas V. he travelled in Germany announcing the indulgence of the Jubilee Year, and through him, it is said, indulgences to the value of 200,000 gulden were sold for the repair of St. Peter’s.
This noble and many-sided man has been coupled together with Gutenberg by Janssen,—the able and learned apologist of the Catholic Church in the closing years of the Middle Ages,—the one as the champion of clerical and Church discipline, the other the inventor of the printing-press. It is no disparagement of the impulses and work of Nicolas to say that he had not the mission of the herald of a new age in thought and religion as it was given to Gutenberg to promote culture and civilization by his invention.419419 Janssen, I. 2-6. Here we come for the first time into contact with this author whose work has gone through 20 editions and made such a remarkable sensation. Its conclusions and methods of treatment will be referred to at length farther on. Here it is sufficient to call attention to the seductive plausibility of the work, whose purpose it is to show that an orderly reformation was going on in the Church in Germany when Luther appeared and by his revolutionary and immoral tendency brutally rived the unity of the Church and checked the orderly reformation. Such a conclusion is a result of the manipulation of historic materials and the use of superlatives in describing men and influences which were like rills in the history of the onward progress of religion and civilization. The initial comparison between Gutenberg and Nicolas of Cusa begs the whole conclusion which Janssen had in view in writing his work. Of the permanent consequence of the work of the inventor of the printing-press, no one has any doubt. The author makes a great jump when he asserts a like permanent influence for Nicolas in the department of religion. He did not possess the gift of moral and doctrinal conviction and foresight which made the monk of Wittenberg the exponent and the herald of a radical, religious reformation whose permanent benefits are borne witness to by a large section of Christendom.
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