- Echoes of Aquinas in Cusanus's Vision of Man by Markus Führer
Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) read widely, as we see throughout his writings and in the marginal comments in his manuscripts of Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and others. Yet his reading was anything but slavish, as he creatively wove many strands into his own philosophy and theology. This book traces one of these strands, "the possible influence" of Aquinas in Cusanus's "doctrine of the human condition," with an appropriately modest goal: "to show that there is an affinity between the two thinkers that makes them kindred spirits" (3). This is not to say that their views are identical or that Nicholas is simply a Thomist. Fuhrer thus follows Rudolf Haubst, whose landmark studies highlighted the Thomistic features of Nicholas's Trinitarian thought and Christology. Yet this book breaks new ground by focusing on Nicholas's anthropology, and invites controversy by comparing his views with those of Renaissance philosophers and humanists. In eight chapters, Fuhrer meticulously states Nicholas's views, aligns them with [End Page 143] relevant texts of Thomas, and briefly notes—usually by contrast—Renaissance views on the same issues.
On nearly every subject, Nicholas and Thomas agree. They share a common heritage and repeatedly engage two themes: Aristotle's claim that the intellect is in some sense all things (De anima 3.5.430a), and humanity as imago Dei (Gen 1:26-27). They define humanity in terms of intellect. Where Nicholas "identifies man with his intellectual soul," Thomas sees the soul as man's "substantial form" (22-23, 59). This implies no mind-body dualism, since both thinkers hold a hylomorphic view of man (11) and acknowledge the foundational roles of the senses and phantasms in knowing (96-99). They both describe humanity as a microcosm or privileged "point of intersection between . . . the spiritual and the material," although Nicholas emphasizes the incarnate Christ as fulfilling this position and leading to cosmic redemption (38). Nicholas and Thomas also "advance a positive analysis of the uniqueness of man as an individual" and of human singularity "grounded in a direct dependency relation upon God" (55), not the "radical or self-dependent" individuality that Burkhardt and others saw in Renaissance thought (49).
Chapter 4 is the book's longest and presents a nuanced analysis of "the unity of man's soul." It reaffirms the identity between man and intellect, and explores the intellect's relation to the "lower psychological powers" of reason, imagination, and the senses (57). For Thomas and Nicholas, "the lower faculty of sense activates the intellect," which simultaneously unifies and "order[s] the lower faculties" (63). This reciprocal dynamic suggests "an analogy between the operation of the human mind and the divine mind as the exemplary cause of all things" (ibid.). Hence, as imago Dei, "man's mind opens . . . to all creation" (64), and "the soul can conform to all things knowable" (77). Whether by "adaequatio" (Thomas) or "assimilation" (Nicholas), the mind "does not merely interpret its object but in a sense becomes the object. This identity allows it to produce ideas that are the likenesses or similitudes of the things it encounters" (64). For this reason, Führer describes both thinkers as realists (77). They also affirm that the intellect "withdraws" or "abstracts" itself from the lower powers, body, and phantasms. Here, Nicholas focuses on the circular motion whereby the intellect reflects upon itself (71), while Thomas emphasizes that "such circularity . . . causes the withdrawal of the soul from the distraction of external things" (72).
Chapters 5 and 6 probe these issues further. The mind unifies the human person "by animating the body and . . . using the faculties of sensation in the act of understanding" (85). Nicholas and Thomas describe these functions as mediated by intellectual and corporeal or arterial spirits (88, 109). Since mind also works per se, independently of the body, it assimilates forms "'not as they are immersed in matter but as...