No Comment, Quotation — July 19, 2008, 5:50 am

Cusanus’s Human Microcosm

van-eyck-chancellor-rolin

Maximo autem, cui minimum coincidit, convenit ita unum
amplecti, quod et aliud non dimittat, sed simul omnia. Quapropter
natura media, quæ est medium connexionis inferioris et superioris,
est solum illa, quæ ad maximum convenienter elevabilis est potentia
maximi infiniti Dei. Nam cum ipsa intra se complicet omnes naturas,
ut supremum inferioris et infimum superioris, si ipsa secundum omnia
sui ad unionem maximitatis ascenderit, omnes naturas ac totum universum
omni possibili modo ad summum gradum in ipsa pervenisse
constat.

Humana vero natura est illa, quæ est supra omnia Dei opera
elevata et paulo minus angelis minorata, intellectualem et sensibilem
naturam complicans ac universa intra se constringens, ut microcosmos
aut parvus mundus a veteribus rationabiliter vocitetur. Hinc
ipsa est illa, quæ si elevata fuerit in unionem maximitatis, plenitudo
omnium perfectionum universi et singulorum existeret, ita ut in ipsa
humanitate omnia supremum gradum adipiscerentur.

Now, it befits the Greatest, and coincidentally also the Smallest, to embrace one thing in such way that it does not repel another thing but rather reconciles them. Therefore, a middle nature, which is the medium of conjunction of the lower and the higher, is alone that which properly can be raised to the Highest by the power of the great and infinite God. For since it unfolds itself in all natures, namely as highest of the lower form as well as the lowest of the higher form: and thus it is clear that within it lies the capacity for all natures, and the totality of the universe in every possible form up to the highest stage, as it rises up in accordance with its orientation towards unity with the Greatest.

However human nature, though a little beneath that of the angels, is elevated above all other works of God; it enfolds intellectual and perceptive faculties and encloses all things within itself, so that the ancients were right to call it a microcosm, or
small world. Hence, human nature is filled with a longing for unity with the Greatest, a striving for perfectibility of the universe and of all individual things, all in order that humanity may ultimately reach the highest stage.

Niclas Krebs, later Cardinal Nicholas of Kues, De docta ignorantia, lib. iii, cap. iii (1440) in: Nikolaus von Kues’ philosophisch-theologische Werke in deutscher und lateinischer Sprache, vol. 1/iii, pp. 18-21 (S.H. transl.)


At the core of the values of the early Renaissance was the notion of the human individual and the cosmos; these ideas are generally tied to the great humanists of the Quattrocento such as Petrarch or Pico della Mirandola. But Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky saw the same concepts expressed in the paintings of Jan van Eyck and his contemporary, the theologian and philosopher Nicholas of Kues or Cusanus, and both specifically cite the masterpiece The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin as a prime example. In Die Kunst der Künste (1999), Anita Albus has provided a detailed development of the Cassirer-Panofsky thesis, drawing on this passage from Cusanus and carefully reviewing the construction of the van Eyck masterpiece. “The wounding recognition that the earth was not the center of the universe was compensated for by the enhanced status of the individual,” Albus writes in her discussion of van Eyck, quoting Cusanus. “The equivalence of every point of view corresponds to the continuum of space.” The American art historian Clifton Olds has made similar arguments.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today