From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, by Alexander Koyré, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 4 p. 5
Nicholas of Cusa & Marcellus Palingenius
The conception of the infinity of the universe, like everything else or nearly everything else, originates, of course, with the Greeks; and it is certain that the speculations of the Greek thinkers about the infinity of space and the multiplicity of worlds have played an important part in the history we shall be dealing with.4 It seems to me, however, impossible to reduce the history of the infinitization of the universe to the rediscovery of the world-view of the Greek atomists which became better known through the newly discovered Lucretius5 or the newly translated Diogenes Laertius.6 We must not forget that the infinitist conceptions of the Greek atomists were rejected by the main trend, or trends, of Greek philosophical and scientific thoughtthe Epicurean tradition was not a scientific one7and that for this very reason, though never forgotten, they could not be accepted by the mediaevals.
We must not forget, moreover, that "influence" is not a simple, but on the contrary, a very complex, bilateral relation. We are not influenced by everything we read or learn. In one sense, and perhaps the deepest, we ourselves
determine the influences we are submitting to; our intellectual ancestors are by no means given to, but are freely chosen by, us. At least to a large extent.
How could we explain otherwise that, in spite of their great popularity, neither Diogenes nor even Lucretius had, for more than a century, any influence on the fifteenth century's cosmological thinking? The first man to take Lucretian cosmology seriously was Giordano Bruno. Nicholas of Cusait is true that it is not certain whether at the time when he wrote his Learned Ignorance (1440) he knew the De rerum naturadoes not seem to have paid much attention to it. Yet it was Nicholas of Cusa, the last great philosopher of the dying Middle Ages, who first rejected the mediaeval cosmos-conception and to whom, as often as not, is ascribed the merit, or the crime, of having asserted the infinity of the universe.
It is indeed in such a way that he was interpreted by Giordano Bruno, by Kepler and, last but not least, by Descartes, who in a well-known letter to his friend Chanut (Chanut reports some reflections of Christina of Sweden, who doubted whether, in the indefinitely extended universe of Descartes, man could still occupy the central position that, according to the teaching of religion, was given to him by God in the creation of the world) tells the latter that after all "the Cardinal of Cusa and several other Divines have supposed the world to be infinite, without ever being reproached by the Church; on the contrary, it is believed that to make His works appear very great is to honor God."8 The Cartesian interpretation of the teaching of Nicholas of Cusa is rather plausible as, indeed, Nicholas of Cusa denies the finitude of the world and its enclosure by the walls of the heavenly spheres. But he
Click to enlarge
Typical pre-Copernican diagram of the universe
(from the 1539 edition of Peter Apian's Cosmographia)
does not assert its positive infinity; as a matter of fact he avoids as carefully and as consistently as Descartes himself the attribution to the universe of the qualification "infinite," which he reserves for God, and for God alone. His universe is not infinite (infinitum) but "interminate" (interminatum), which means not only that it is boundless and is not terminated by an outside shell, but also that it is not "terminated" in its constituents, that is, that it utterly lacks precision and strict determination. It never reaches the "limit"; it is, in the full sense of the word, indetermined. It cannot, therefore, be the object of total and precise knowledge, but only that of a partial and conjectural one.9 It is the recognition of this necessarily partialand relativecharacter of our knowledge, of the impossibility of building a univocal and objective representation of the universe, that constitutesin one of its aspectsthe docta ignorantia, the learned ignorance, advocated by Nicholas of Cusa as a means of transcending the limitations of our rational thought.
The world-conception of Nicholas of Cusa is not based upon a criticism of contemporary astronomical or cosmological theories, and does not lead, at least in his own thinking, to a revolution in science. Nicholas of Cusa, though it has often been so claimed, is not a forerunner of Nicholas Copernicus. And yet his conception is extremely interesting and, in some of its bold assertionsor negationsit goes far beyond anything that Copernicus ever dared to think of.10
The universe of Nicholas of Cusa is an expression or a development (explicatio), though, of course, necessarily imperfect and inadequate, of Godimperfect and inadequate because it displays in the realm of multiplicity and
separation what in God is present in an indissoluble and intimate unity (complicatio), a unity which embraces not only the different, but even the opposite, qualities or determinations of being. In its turn, every singular thing in the universe represents itthe universeand thus also God, in its own particular manner; each in a manner different from that of all others, by "contracting" (contractio) the wealth of the universe in accordance with its own unique individuality.
The metaphysical and epistemological conceptions of Nicholas of Cuss, his idea of the coincidence of the opposites in the absolute which transcends them, as well as the correlative concept of learned ignorance as the intellectual act that grasps this relationship which transcends discursive, rational thought, follow and develop the pattern of the mathematical paradoxes involved in the infinitization of certain relations valid for finite objects. Thus, for instance, nothing is more opposed in geometry than "straightness" and "curvilinearity"; and yet in the infinitely great circle the circumference coincides with the tangent, and in the infinitely small one, with the diameter. In both cases, moreover, the center loses its unique, determinate position; it coincides with the circumference; it is nowhere, or everywhere. But "great" and "small" are themselves a pair of opposed concepts that are valid and meaningful only in the realm of finite quantity, the realm of relative being, where there are no "great" or "small" objects, but only "greater" and "smaller" ones, and where, therefore, there is no "greatest," as well as no "smallest." Compared with the infinite there is nothing that is greater or smaller than anything else. The absolute, infinite maximum does not, any more
than the absolute, infinite minimum, belong to the series of the great and small. They are outside it, and therefore, as Nicholas of Cusa boldly concludes, they coincide.
Another example can be provided by kinematics. No two things, indeed, are more opposed than motion and rest. A body in motion is never in the same place; a body at rest is never outside it. And yet a body moving with infinite velocity along a circular path will always be in the place of its departure, and at the same time will always be elsewhere, a good proof that motion is a relative concept embracing the oppositions of "speedy" and "slow." Thus it follows that, just as in the sphere of purely geometrical quantity, there is no minimum and no maximum of motion, no slowest and no quickest, and that the absolute maximum of velocity (infinite speed) as well as its absolute minimum (infinite slowness or rest) are both outside it, and, as we have seen, coincide.
Nicholas of Cusa is well aware of the originality of his thought and even more so of the rather paradoxical and strange character of the conclusion to which he is led by learned ignorance.11
Nicholas of Cusa cannot help it: it has, indeed, been established by learned ignorance12
[paragraph continues] Thus the centrum of the world coincides with the circumference and, as we shall see, it is not a physical, but a metaphysical "centrum," which does not belong to the world. This "centrum," which is the same as the "circumference," that is, beginning and end, foundation and limit, the "place" that "contains" it, is nothing other than the Absolute Being or God.
Indeed, pursues Nicholas of Cusa, curiously reversing a famous Aristotelian argument in favour of the limitation of the world:13
Furthermore the very center of the world is no more inside the earth than outside it; for neither this earth, nor any other sphere, has a center; indeed, the center is a point equidistant from the circumference; but it is not possible that there be a true sphere or circumference such that a truer, and more precise one, could not be possible; a precise equidistance of divers [objects] cannot be found outside of God, for He alone is the infinite equality. Thus it is the blessed God who is the center of the world; He is the center of the earth and of all the spheres, and of all [the things] that are in the world, as He is at the same time the infinite circumference of all. Furthermore, there are in the sky no immovable, fixed poles, though the sky of the fixed stars appears by its motion to describe circles graduated in magnitude, lesser than the colures or than the equinoctials and also circles of an intermediate [magnitude]; yet, as a matter of fact, all the parts of the sky must move, though unequally
The exact meaning of the conception developed by Nicholas of Cusa is not quite clear; the texts that I have quoted could beand have beeninterpreted in many different ways which I will not examine here. As for myself, I believe that we can understand it as expressing, and as stressing, the lack of precision and stability in the created world. Thus, there are no stars exactly on the poles, or on the equator of the celestial sphere. There is no fixed constant axis; the eighth, as well as all the other spheres, perform their revolutions around axes that continuously shift their positions. Moreover, these spheres are by no means exact, mathematical ("true") spheres, but only something which we should today call "spheroids"; accordingly, they have no center, in the precise meaning of this term. It follows therefore that neither the earth, nor anything else, can be placed in this center, which does not exist, and that thus nothing in this world can be completely and absolutely at rest.
I do not believe we can go further than that and attribute to Nicholas of Cusa a purely relativistic conception of space, such as, for instance, Giordano Bruno imputes to him. Such a conception implies the denial of the very existence of celestial orbs and spheres, which we cannot ascribe to Nicholas of Cusa.
Yet, in spite of this retention of the spheres, there is a good deal of relativism in Nicholas of Cusa's world-view. Thus he continues:15
It seems, then, that for Nicholas of Cusa the lack of agreement between the observations of the ancients and those of the moderns has to be explained by a change in the position of the axis (and poles), and, perhaps, by a shift in that of the stars themselves.
From all this, that is, from the fact that nothing in the world can be at rest, Nicholas of Cusa concludes:
You have now to consider attentively what follows: just as the stars move around the conjectural poles of the eighth sphere, so also do the earth, the moon and the planets move in various ways and at [different] distances around a pole, which pole we have to conjecture as being [in the place] where you are accustomed to put the center. It follows therefrom that though the earth is, so to speak, the star which is nearer the central pole [than the others] it still moves, and yet does not describe in [its] motion the minimum circle, as has been shown supra. Moreover, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor any spherethough to us it seems otherwisecan in [its] motion describe a true circle, because they do not move around a fixed base. Nowhere is there a true circle such that a truer one would not be possible, nor is [anything] ever at one time [exactly] as at another, neither does it move in a precisely equal [manner], nor does it describe an equally perfect circle, though we are not aware of it.
It is rather difficult to say precisely what kind of motion is ascribed to the earth by Nicholas of Cusa. In any case, it does not seem to be any of those that Copernicus was to attribute to it: it is neither the daily rotation around its axis, nor the annual revolution around the sun, but a kind of loose orbital gyration around a vaguely determined and constantly shifting center. This motion is of the same nature as that of all other celestial bodies, the sphere of the fixed stars included, though the slowest of
them all, that of the sphere of the fixed stars being the quickest.
As for Nicholas of Cusa's assertions (quite unavoidable from his epistemological premises) that there is nowhere a precise circular orb or a precisely uniform motion, they must be interpreted as implying immediately (though he does not say it explicitly, it is clearly enough suggested by the context) that not only the factual content, but the very ideal of Greek and mediaeval astronomy, that is, the reduction of celestial motions to a system of interlocking uniform circular ones which would "save" the phenomena by revealing the permanent stability of the real behind the seeming irregularity of the apparent, is fallacious and must be abandoned.
Yet Nicholas of Cusa goes even further and, drawing the (penultimate) conclusion from the relativity of the perception of space (direction) and motion, he asserts that as the world-image of a given observer is determined by the place he occupies in the universe; and as none of these places can claim an absolutely privileged value (for instance, that of being the center of the universe), we have to admit the possible existence of different, equivalent world-images, the relativein the full sense of the wordcharacter of each of them, and the utter impossibility of forming an objectively valid representation of the universe.16
The ancients [continues Nicholas of Cusa17] did not arrive at the things that we have brought forth, because they were deficient in learned ignorance. But for us it is clear that this earth really moves, though it does not appear to us to do so, because we do not apprehend motion except by a certain comparison with something fixed. Thus if a man in a boat, in the middle of a stream, did not know that the water was flowing and did not see the bank, how would he apprehend that the boat was moving?18 Accordingly, as it will always seem to the observer, whether he be on the earth, or on the sun or on another star, that he is in the quasi-motionless center and that all the other [things] are in motion, he will certainly determine the poles [of this motion] in relation to himself; and these poles will be different for the observer on the sun and for the one on the earth, and still different for those on the moon and Mars, and so on for the rest. Thus, the fabric of the world (machina mundi) will quasi have its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, because the circumference and the center are God; Who is everywhere and nowhere.
It must be added that this earth is not spherical, as
We cannot but admire the boldness and depth of Nicholas of Cusa's cosmological conceptions which culminate in the astonishing transference to the universe of the pseudo-Hermetic characterization of God: "a sphere of which the center is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere."19 But we must recognize also that, without going far beyond him, it is impossible to link them with astronomical science or to base upon them a "reformation of astronomy." This is probably why his conceptions were so utterly disregarded by his contemporaries, and even by his successors for more than a hundred years. No one, not even Lefèvre dEtaples who edited his works, seems to have paid much attention to them,20 and it was only after Copernicuswho knew the works of Nicholas of Cusa, at least his treatise on the quadrature of the circle, but does not seem to have been influenced by him21and even after Giordano Bruno, who drew his chief inspiration from him, that Nicholas of Cusa achieved fame as a forerunner
of Copernicus, and even of Kepler, and could be quoted by Descartes as an advocate of the infinity of the world.
It is rather tempting to follow the example of these illustrious admirers of Nicholas of Cusa, and to read into him all kinds of anticipations of later discoveries, such, for instance, as the flattened form of the earth, the elliptic trajectories of the planets, the absolute relativity of space, the rotation of the heavenly bodies upon their axes.
Yet we must resist this temptation. As a matter of fact, Nicholas of Cusa does not assert anything of the kind. He does believe in the existence and also in the motion of heavenly spheres, that of the fixed stars being the quickest of all, as well as in the existence of a central region of the universe around which it moves as a whole, conferring this motion on all its parts. He does not assign a rotary motion to the planets, not even to this our earth. He does not assert the perfect uniformity of space. Moreover, in deep opposition to the fundamental inspiration of the founders of modern science and of the modern world-view, who, rightly or wrongly, tried to assert the panarchy of mathematics, he denies the very possibility of the mathematical treatment of nature.
We must now turn our attention to another aspect of the cosmology of Nicholas of Cusa, historically perhaps the most important: his rejection of the hierarchical structure of the universe, and, quite particularly, his denialtogether with its central positionof the uniquely low and despicable position assigned to the earth by traditional cosmology. Alas, here too, his deep metaphysical intuition is marred by scientific conceptions that were not in advance of but rather behind his time, such as, for instance,
the attribution to the moon, and even to the earth, of a light of their own.22
Having thus destroyed the very basis of the opposition of the "dark" earth and the "luminous" sun by establishing the similarity of their fundamental structure, Nicholas proclaims victoriously:24
Indeed, in the infinitely rich and infinitely diversified and organically linked-together universe of Nicholas of Cusa, there is no center of perfection in respect to which the rest of the universe would play a subservient part; on the contrary, it is by being themselves, and asserting their own natures, that the various components of the universe contribute to the perfection of the whole. Thus the earth in its way is just as perfect as the sun, or the fixed stars. Accordingly, Nicholas of Cusa continues:25
Nor can it be argued that the earth is less perfect than the sun and the planets because it receives an influence
It is clear therefore that it is not possible for human knowledge to determine whether the region of the earth is in a degree of greater perfection or baseness in relation to the regions of the other stars, of the sun, the moon and the rest.
Some of the arguments in favour of the relative perfection of the earth are rather curious. Thus, being convinced that the world is not only unlimited but also everywhere populated, Nicholas of Cusa tells us that no conclusion as to the imperfection of the earth can be drawn from the alleged imperfection of its inhabitants, a conclusion that nobody, as far as I know, ever made, at least not in his time. Be that as it may, in any case Nicholas of Cusa asserts that,27
But, of course, we have to admit that in the same genus there may be several different species which embody the same common nature in a more, or less, perfect way. Thus it seems to Nicholas of Cusa rather reasonable to conjecture that the inhabitants of the sun and the moon are placed higher on the scale of perfection than ourselves: they are more intellectual, more spiritual than we, less material, less burdened by flesh.
And, finally, the great argument from change and corruptibility to baseness is declared by Nicholas of Cusa as having no more value than the rest. For28 "since there is one universal world, and since all the particular stars influence each other in a certain proportion," there is no reason to suppose that change and decay occur only here, on the earth, and not everywhere in the universe. Nay, we have every reason to supposethough of course we cannot know itthat it is everywhere the same, the more so as this corruption, which is presented to us as the particular feature of terrestrial being, is by no mean a real destruction, that is, total and absolute loss of existence. It is, indeed, loss of that particular form of existence.: But fundamentally it is not so much outright disappearance as dissolution, or resolution, of a being into its constitutive elements and their reunification into something else, a process that may take placeand probably does take placein the whole universe just because the ontological structure of the world is, fundamentally, everywhere the same. Indeed it expresses everywhere in the same temporal, that is, mutable and changing, manner the immutable and eternal perfection of the Creator.
As we see, a new spirit, the spirit of the Renaissance breathes in the work of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. His
world is no longer the medieval cosmos. But it is not yet, by any means, the infinite universe of the moderns.
The honor of having asserted the infinity of the universe has also been claimed by modern historians for a sixteenth century writer, Marcellus Stellatus Palingenius,29 author of a widely read and very popular book, Zodiacus vitae, which was published in Venice, in Latin, in 1534 (and translated into English in 1560); but, in my opinion, with even less reason than in the case of Nicholas of Cusa.
Palingenius, who is deeply influenced by the Neoplatonic revival of the fifteenth century and who therefore rejects the absolute authority of Aristotle, though, at other times, he quotes him with approval, may have had some knowledge of Nicholas of Cusa's world-view and have been encouraged by his example in denying the finitude of creation. Yet it is not certain, since, with the exception of the rather energetic assertion of the impossibility of imposing a limit on God's creative action, we do not find in his teaching any reference to the particular tenets of the cosmology of Nicholas of Cusa.
Thus, for instance, when in discussing the general structure of the universe he tells us30
it is obvious that it is not Nicholas of Cusa, but the ancient Greek cosmologists that he has in mind. It is to be noted, moreover, that Palingenius does not share their views. His own are quite different. He does not make the earth
a star. On the contrary he maintains consistently the opposition between the terrestrial and the celestial regions; and it is. just the imperfection of the former that leads him to the denial of its being the only populated place in the world.
It is clear that we cannot share the errors of these "empty mindes." It is clear, too, that32
Yet Palingenius does not assert the infinity of the world. It is true that, applying consistently the principle to which Professor Lovejoy has given the name of principle of plenitude,33 he denies the finitude of God's creation, and says:34
Nevertheless he maintains the finitude of the material world, enclosed and encompassed by the eight heavenly spheres:35
But Palingenius does not accept this theory which makes light dependent on matter and thus material itself. In any case, even if it were so for natural, physical light, it is certain that it .is not the case for God's supernatural one. Above the starry heavens there are no bodies. But light and immaterial being can well beand arepresent in the supernatural, boundless supracelestial region.
Thus it is God's heaven, not God's world, that Palingenius asserts to be infinite.