Nicholas of Cusa and the mystical foundation of science


  • Six weekly small-group sessions for continuing students
  • Read a set passage before the evening talk and discussion
  • Not for beginners: take Reading Plato first.


from Tuesday, 3 May in Carlton (+online)


For this our first proper foray into the reading of Platonism beyond the dialogues of Plato, we have a course for continuing students ready to make a mystical inquiry of their own.

Course Outline and Readings


Nicholas of Cusa [1401-64] was instrumental to the 15th century renaissance of Platonism in Western Europe. Among his many attempts to show the mystical foundations of science is one late dialogue, On not-other. Our course finishes with a close reading of this outstanding invocation of the unsayable, a text that was explicitly informed by fresh translations from the ancient Greek. These included Plato’s most enigmatic dialogue, the Parmenides, brought into the Latin for the first time to accompany its revered mystical interpretation by the 5th century pagan Platonist, Proclus.

That the likes of our Nicholas, a cardinal in the medieval Church, could openly embrace the mysticism of a pagan would have been impossible if not for the prevailing belief that Proclus had borrowed heavily from a Christian theologian named in the Bible – an Athenian convert called Dionysius. In fact, it was the other way around: a 6th century Christian whom we now call “pseudo-Dionysius” borrowed heavily from Proclus. But the credulity of medieval scholars meant that the attribution to Dionysius did the trick. It provided a bridge across which Platonic mysticism would flow into Christendom long before the time of Nicholas. And so it was out of an established Christian tradition that there emerged Nicholas of Cusa with his own ingenious “negative way” to the foundations of science. And then his powerful contribution would, in turn, go on to energise the revival of mathematical physics as an inquiry into the very nature of the divine.

Nicholas of Cusa and the mystical foundation of science does more than just tell the story of the foundations of Platonic Christian mysticism. As we proceed, students will be invited to use the reading as a guide on their own mystical journey through private meditation. Indeed, such a parallel practice is strongly encouraged, if only because otherwise the texts will surely appear ridiculous if not entirely incomprehensible.

Session 1 | The mystical source in Plato | Republic page 5o2d to 518e

We first consider the mysticism presented in Plato’s dialogues. It is most apparent in the Republic and the analogy of seeing & sunlight leading allegorically up beyond knowing & being towards “the form of the good.” The Republic includes guidance on how to use dialectic method to approach this “first principle” that is beyond all presumption. But just as important to neo-Platonic mysticism is the Parmenides, with its contradictions and paradoxes interpreted as pointing towards the unsayable source. Finally, there is the Sophist with its answer to Parmenides on the-being-of-nonbeing, which uses the same/other form.

Further Reading
The set reading (Republic 502d-518e) is the famous allegorical presentation of the form-of-forms followed by Plato’s dialectic way to this unsayable first principle. Suggested further reading: for more on the higher dialectic, see the Republic, 531d – 534e; for a taste of the method of hypothesising contraries, see the Parmenides, 126a – 143a; for a sample of the method of division in defining the “angler,”see the Sophist, 218b – 221c; and for Plato’s answer to Parmenides on the-being-of-nonbeing see later in the Sophist, 237a – 268d.

Session 2 | Neo-Platonic mysticism and pseudo-Dionysius | The Mystical Theology (complete)

We take a brief survey of the ancient tradition of Platonism beginning with Plato’s successors at his Academy and ending with the mysticism of Proclus. Our first reading is the short seminal Christian text called simply “The Mystical Theology.”

Further Reading
“The Mystical Theology” is available in a few translations and often published with other writings of pseudo-Dionysius. For further reading see especially “The Divine Names” in the translation by Luibheid, or in the recommended translation by Rolt, which includes the original Greek.

Session 3 | Introducing Nicholas of Cusa | On not-other Ch 1

Nicholas is introduced in the context of medieval Platonic mysticism. We first consider his early method of invocation through “learned ignorance” and “the coincidence of opposites,” before moving to the reading for the rest of the course. This is where the expression ‘not-other’ is proposed as the definition-of-definitions that can pointing to the form-of-forms.

Further Reading for Sessions 3-6
The set readings are all now from the dialogue “On not-other” (de non aluid). The recommended translation is by Hopkins. For further reading, read “On no-other” all the way through. Also see Hopkin’s excellent introduction and his other translations, especially On Learned Ignorance. Alternatively there is this collection (that does not include “On not-other”).

Session 4 | The otherness of the named/signified/observed | On not-other Ch 2 to Ch 5

A name refers to another that is not the name. A sign signifies the signified which it is not. Sensation senses objects that are other-to-the-sensing-of-them. Nicholas asks us not to look to the named/signified/sensed, but to the form of naming/signifying/sensing. More generally, he tries to show how not-other is not the opposite-of-other, but the unnamable/insensible form-of-otherness, which is also, paradoxically, the form-of-sameness, the sameness of every distinction we care to make.

Session 5 | The divine not-other is both all and none | Ch 6 & Ch 9 to 13

All things, all ideas and all forms, in their particularity, participate the not-other form. And so too does their every name. Nicholas uses the Platonic analogy where unseen light is the form of the seen. And then Nicholas presents his image of the universal emanation of being in being, as an othering-in-the-same, powered by the simple will-to-be.

Session 6 | The eternal, time and the past-in-the-present | Ch 15 to 19

The form of not-other is outside time, and yet it is the principle of duration. Paradoxically also is that the past is defined by the present. We finish our reading of “On not-other” with the criticism of Aristotle’s principle of contradiction in Chapter 19. From his earliest philosophical writings, Nicholas urges us to abandon this principle that forbids the logically self-contradictory. Hold to it and we block the way to the ineffable source of all knowing. This is the “coincidence of opposites” that is also, for Nicholas, the very foundations of all reason and logic.