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  • Transitions to a Modern Cosmology: Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa on the Intensive Infinite
  • Elizabeth Brient

The Epochal Transition from the late medieval to the early modern world has long been thought in terms of the gradual “infinitization” of the cosmos. Traditionally this process has been studied by focusing on the pre-history and the aftermath of the Copernican revolution, that is, by describing the transition from the finite, hierarchically ordered medieval cosmos to the infinite and homogeneous universe of the new astronomy. I would like to situate this paper within the context of a more general reading of the process of the infinitization of the medieval cosmos. That is, I want to argue that this process of “infinitization” must be understood intensively as well as extensively. Nature, in the modern age, is thought of not only as infinitely extended in space, but also as exhibiting an infinite richness in all of its parts. Each particular, each individual being is grasped as utterly unique, as infinitely rich and consequently as conceptually inexponable. Thus the infinitization of the real leads to an infinitization of the knowable—the radical shift in ontology grounds a corresponding shift in epistemology, so that the progress of human knowledge is understood as an unending project infinitely extended over time. In order to underscore both aspects of the infinitization of the medieval cosmos (intensive as well as extensive) I will focus on the way in which a single metaphor (that of the infinite sphere) is unfolded historically in the thought of Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa.1 This paper may thus be viewed as a case study of [End Page 575] the way in which the modern notion of “intensive infinity” may be traced back to late medieval speculation on the nature of God’s omnipresence in the world.


The metaphor of the infinite sphere makes its first appearance in the pseudo-Hermetic Liber XXIV philosophorum, a small book in the literary form of an “opus propositionum” which, in twenty-four propositions, describes the ineffable essence of God in the mystical language of Neoplatonic theology. It is in the second proposition of this book that we find for the first time the formulation, “God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.”2 This formulation represents a significant development in the history of the Neoplatonic conception of intensive unity, and in the Christian understanding of divine infinity. The Neoplatonic One is here identified with God as infinite being. As a result the relationship between the One and the many, between God and the world, comes to be viewed in a new light, through the lens of “infinite unity.” The metaphor of the infinite sphere is a paradoxical formulation which pictures the coincidence of divine immanence with divine transcendence. That is, it expresses a double infinity: both intensive and extensive. God’s center is located at every point, as it were, indicating the plenitude and infinite richness of God’s being, while there is no limit, no boundary to the extent of God’s all-encompassing reach. The infinite sphere figures the divine nature as an intensive plenitude without end or bounds. The third and next proposition in this same work goes on to strengthen this sense of divine intensity, by asserting that God in his entirety is present in every part (Deus est totus in quolibet sui). The divine nature is not spread out compositionally, as it were, but is wholly present throughout. Proposition 18 describes God as a sphere which has just as many circumferences as points (Deus est sphaera cuius tot sunt circumferentiae, quot sunt puncta), once again, an exploding image which can only make sense in the case of an infinite sphere. These three propositions taken together provide us with a springboard for considering the nature of infinite unity. The exploding paradox of the infinite sphere [End Page 576] provides a rubric for thinking the coincidence of transcendence and immanence, a way of conceptualizing infinite unity, which cannot be “grasped” with finite concepts or through discursive reasoning. The metaphor of the infinite sphere finds its meaning precisely in the way...


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