Thomas Izbicki

title.none: Hopkins, ed., Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations, Volume Two (Izbicki)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.011 01.02.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas Izbicki, Johns Hopkins University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Hopkins, Jasper, ed. Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations: Volume Two. Minneapolis, MN: Arthur J. Banning Press, 2000. Pp. ix, 437. $30.00. ISBN: 0-938-06048-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.11

Hopkins, Jasper, ed. Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations: Volume Two. Minneapolis, MN: Arthur J. Banning Press, 2000. Pp. ix, 437. $30.00. ISBN: 0-938-06048-1.

Reviewed by:

Thomas Izbicki
Johns Hopkins University

This volume represents more than just a sequel to Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations, Volume One (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1998). With this book, Professor Hopkins now has published English translations of all the major speculative works of the German cardinal and polymath Nicholas of Cusa. This is a major achievement, and all scholars interested in Cusanus have reason to be glad.

The book is divided into an Orienting Study, concerned both with ideas and the difficulties of translating Cusanus' Latin. There follow translations of De coniecturis (On Surmises) and De ludo globi (The Bowling- Game). Hopkins also provides copious end notes to all portions of the volume. These extend well beyond mere identification of sources to substantive commentary on the texts translated. That these notes are not at the foot of the page is to be regretted, for many of the most intriguing statements made are to be found in them. (For example, Hopkins' revision of the traditional rendering of the ball game as using nine circles, adding the center as the tenth, is discussed on p. 42 with important additional observations at p. 413 n. 128.) The Bibliography builds on those in Hopkins' previous books, and interested readers should be willing to backtrack obtain a full list of the works on Nicholas of Cusa available for further reading.

The Orienting Study presents formidable challenges to readers not versed in both Cusanus' ideas and Hopkins previous publications. This is not a traditional introduction, recounting the author's career and describing in brief the two works translated. Beginners, therefore, would be well advised, at minimum, to read a translation of De docta ignorantia, possibly in Hopkins' own translation. [1] This Orienting Study, instead, addresses certain themes. The first of topics is Cusanus' originality, a reply to Maarten Hoenen's recent (dubious) argument that Nicholas made extensive, even plagaristic use of the Fundamentum naturae when he composed De docta ignorantia. More interesting, however, is the second topic, a discussion of "Cusanus as Humanistic Metaphysician." Cusanus emerges from this discussion (persuasively) as a Christian humanist, drawing on ancient literatures and the sciences to describe "man's centrality--especially the Incarnate Man's centrality--to the course of the universe" (p. 23). From these general points, Hopkins passes to discussions of key themes in each work. The discussion of De coniecturis begins with a departure from any excessively literal translation of the term coniecturae. Hopkins prefers "Surmises", constructs that might be grounded in reality, to "Conjectures," too easily equated with guesses . Such a translation has much to recommend it when addressing an English-speaking audience.

Cusanus' demonstration that human knowledge falls short of exactitude without failing entirely is central to Hopkins discussion of De coniecturis. All knowledge is limited by our finite capacities, but this does not require humanity to fall into scepticism. Here the emphasis is on continuity between the fundamental Cusan breakthrough in De docta ignorantia and the later expositions of this "theological epistemology". (26) Hopkins expounds on Nicholas' departure, in Josef Koch's terms, from the medieval Being-Metaphysic (Seinsmetaphysik) to one of Unity (Einheitsmetaphysik). (33) Hopkins, however, is inclined to argue (against Koch) that any break is fully accomplished in De docta ignorantia. Cusanus displays a "freedom to vary his symbolisms" (38) in De coniecturis and later works; but, in Hopkins' terms, there was no essential break in Nicholas' "philosophical program" (36) in this second major speculative work.

Hopkins' discussion of De ludo globi also underlines this freedom in Nicholas' speculative thought. He was impressionistic rather than systematic, often trying out new images and novel terminology. One link between the two works, underlined in the Orienting Study, is the return in the later text to the "diagramatic method" (p. 52) used in the earlier one. These images are intended to illuminate the mind. Here Hopkins, somewhat at odds with his discussion of De coniecturis, emphasizes Nicholas' relationship to medieval traditions of employing "analogies, illustrations, comparisons, parallelisms, similes, metaphors, allegories, tropes, personifications, numerologies". (46) Nonetheless, the teaching is Nicholas' own, emphasizing human capacities that, despite their limits, imitate divine creativity.

The doctrinal part of the Orienting Study concludes with a brief discussion of Cusanus' "presuppositionalism". No proof of the existence of God is attempted. The world contained, for Nicholas, evidence for God's existence and nature; but he never felt obligated to present a full-blown natural theology. Suppositions about the divine were employed the grounding of the sort Thomas Aquinas sought to provide. Furthermore, Nicholas attempted to combine the via positiva and the via negativa, both well entrenched in Christian thought, in novel ways. This is one source of his frequently paradoxical language, affirming a God beyond our comprehension and yet able to be discussed with figurative language. As Hopkins notes, Cusanus' affiliations are with Pseudo-Dionysius and Eckhart in this use of apparent paradox in discussions of the divine.

The portion of the Orienting Study dealing with the translation of Cusanus' works will be most useful to those interested in attempting their own translations. As Hopkins notes, translations are unavoidably interpretive. The technical problems addressed include those involved in the manuscripts and the existing editions, including the most recent. More theoretical considerations, concerned with rendering Nicholas' thought accurately, include an extensive critique of the work of Kurt Flasch. The second portion of the Orienting Study concludes with an examination of the relationship of Leibniz's philosophy to Cusanus' thought. A conclusion to the entire Orienting Study emphasizes the metaphysical nature of both works translated and their compatibility with one another. While Hopkins is right, here and elsewhere, to warn against seeing radical discontinuity in every new term Cusanus adopted, this should not preclude us from looking for signs of 'development' in his later thought, development within the context of the initial Cusan breakthrough. [2]

Hopkins' translations are very meticulous in their attention to detail. No word is too small to be weighed for its best interpretation. No source or cross reference is too minor to be left unnoted. This precision is attained at the expense of any easy reading of the texts. Many terms are rendered with hyphenated combinations of words (e.g., "oneness-of-spirit," p. 214). This will require of the reader a certain degree of dedication and frequent consultation of the end notes. (For example, only the apparatus reveals that the "darkened spirits" mentioned in De coniecturis (223) should be understood as demons.)

As always happens when dealing with translations, the reader who checks the English against the original will differ with the translator. In this case, the reviewer would have chosen certain phrases different from those chosen by Professor Hopkins. This, however, does not take away from the value of his English renderings. They are, instead, grounds for one's own further exploration of the Latin texts. Moreover, because the text of De coniecturis receives here its first reliable English translation from the Latin original, minor differences on phrasing need not be expounded here. Rather, the reviewer is happy to add this book to his collection of Cusanus' texts for future rereading.


[1] Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1985).

[2] F. Edward Cranz, "Development in Cusanus?," in Nicholas of Cusa and the Renaissance, ed. Thomas M. Izbicki and Gerald Christianson (Aldershot: Variorum, 2000), pp. 1-18.