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Heliocentrism & Talk of E.T.s before Copernicus & Galileo? The Case of Nicholas of Kues (1401—1464) AKA Nicolaus Cusanus AKA Nicholas of Cusa

Nicolas of Cusa

Heliocentrism before Copernicus & Galileo?

Nicholas of Cusa does not appear to have propounded a new system of the cosmos so much as speculated on metaphysical paradoxes of rest and motion in relation to God. His musings brought him to a point of docta ignorantia [learned ignorance] such that he argued in favor of the earth “moving,” but added that “the world and its motion and shape cannot be apprehended [itʼs a mystery we canʼt know, feel, perceive],” and of which only God can apprehend, since He is the “center and circumference of all things.”-ETB

Did Nicholas of Cusa Proclaim the Earthʼs Daily Rotation and Annual Movement Around the Sun?

Of the “triple motion of the earth” which Heller and Gerland credited Nicholas of Cusa with devising, there was no clear mention in the De docta ignorantia [On Learned Ignorance]. Indeed, it is not contained in any of Cusaʼs works, but is briefly suggested in a note which he made upon one of the blank leaves of an astronomical, or rather, astrological manuscript that he purchased at Niirnberg in September, I444. This brief note was printed in I847 by Clemens in a footnote to his book on Giordano Bruno and Nicholas of Cusa, where it occupies barely a page. It is this humble jotting which has been elevated by the unbalanced and fantastic judgment of subsequent writers into an astronomical system marking the cleavage between the Ptolemaic and Copernican views and the beginning of modern astronomy.

Lynn Thorndike, “Nicholas of Cusa and the Triple Motion of the Earth,” pp. 133-141 of Science and Thought in the Fifteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929). Thorndike also discusses Nicholasʼs “variable views” about the universe.

What Controversy Did Nicholas of Cusaʼs Works Raise?

[hint: more theological than astronomical]

Nicholas of Cusaʼs speculative work proved controversial when the Heidelberg theologian Johann Wenck attacked On Learned Ignorance in his On Unknown Learning (De ignota litteratura, 1442-43). According to Wenck, Nicholasʼ teaching that opposites coincide within God overthrows Aristotleʼs principle of noncontradiction and leads to heresy: Distinctions disappear between the Trinitarian persons and between God and creation, and the “individuality of Christʼs humanity” is destroyed.

Nicholas of Cusa replied with, Defense of Learned Ignorance (Apologia doctae ignorantiae, 1449), saying that Wenck wrote as a partisan of the Council of Basel [boo, hiss] which Wenck continued to defend while Nicholas had turned to the papal cause. [Touche! Nicholasʼ public career boosting the papacyʼs influence and power began at the Council of Basel in 1421 which opened under the presidency of Nicholasʼ former teacher, Giuliano Cesarini. Nicholasʼ main efforts at the council were for the reform of the calendar and for the unity, political and religious, of all Christendom. In 1437 the orthodox minority sent Nicholas to pope Eugene IV, whom he strongly supported. The pope entrusted Nicholas with a mission to Constantinople, where, in the course of two months, besides discovering Greek manuscripts of St. Basil and St. John Damascene, he gained over for the Council of Florence, the emperor, and, the patriarch of Constantinople, and twenty-eight archbishops! After reporting his successful results, Nicholas was made a papal legate to support the cause of pope Eugene IV, which he continued to do at the Diets of Mainz (1441), Frankfort (1442), Nuremberg (1444), again of Frankfort (1446), and even at the court of Charles VII of France, with such force that Æneas Sylvius called Nicholas “the Hercules of the Eugenians.” So in 1446 in recognition of his work as a papal envoy, the pope nominated Nicholas cardinal, which was bestowed ceremoniously on him in 1448, a year before Nicholas replied to Wenckʼs accusations of “heresy.” So Nicholas appears to have had less to fear than most that the Inquisition might find his mystical thoughts “heretical,” for there was little doubt concerning Nicholasʼ Herculean labors for the papacy, nor the fact the his friend with pope Eugene IV.]

Concerning the rest of Nicholasʼ response to Wenck, Nicholas pointed out that Wenck remained comitted to “the Aristotelian sect” and therefore failed to recognize that because noncontradiction moves among “finite” oppositions and contrasts, it is inadequate for seeing Godʼs “infinite” simplicity. The latter vision requires the coincidence of opposites and an “unknowing” ascent to divine unity. On these issues Nicholas appealed to the authority of “Pseudo-Dionysius” [a Catholic mystic], and with obvious pride cited his own copy of Ambrogio Traversariʼs new translation of the Dionysian writings. Nicholas thus shifted the context for the dispute from Wenckʼs academic Aristotelianism to Dionysiusʼ mystical theology.

Was it Heresy in Nicholas Cusaʼs Day to Believe in a Plurality of Inhabited Worlds?

The vast majority of theologians argued against such a view, though in the thirteenth century St. Bonaventure had already contended that God could make a hundred worlds if He wished. He could suspend Aristotelian physics (i.e., the argument that two Earths would come together) and create one in a place which is beyond the fixed stars.

And only three years after Bonaventureʼs death (died 1274), the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, in 1277 issued a condemnation of doctrines that seemed to limit Godʼs power. Proposition 34 condemned the view “that the First Cause [God] cannot make many worlds.” This opened the door to speculation about other worlds, and though thirteenth and fourteenth century thinkers like Buridan, Oresme and Ockham ended up opposing the idea of a plurality of inhabited worlds, their analyses pointed to the problematic character of some of the arguments that Aristotle and Aquinas had brought against the idea. Then in the fifteenth century came Nicholas of Cusa (tireless advocate of the papacy and friend of the very same pope who nominated his for cardinalhood) who not only argued in favor of a plurality of worlds (based on the plentitude of God), but also the existence of life on the moon and sun!

Nicholas spoke of the earth as but one “inhabited star” among an infinite number of other “inhabited stars,” the word “star” being understood in a broad fashion, as any bright light in the sky, which also included the moon and the sun.

See the following quotations from “On Learned Ignorance”:

[Neither can we rightly claim to know] that men, animals and vegetables on earth are proportionally less noble [than] the inhabitants in the region of the sun and of the other stars. For although God is the center and circumference of all stellar regions and although natures of different nobility proceed from Him and inhabit each region (lest so many places in the heavens and on the stars be empty and lest only the earth—presumably among the lesser things—be inhabited), nevertheless with regard to the intellectual natures a nobler and more perfect nature cannot, it seems, be given (even if there are inhabitants of another kind on other stars) than the intellectual nature which dwells both here on earth and in its own region. For man does not desire a different nature but only to be perfected in his own nature…

We surmise that in the solar region there are inhabitants which are more solar, brilliant, illustrious, and intellectual—being even more spiritlike than [those] on the moon, where [the inhabitants] are more moonlike, and than [those] on the earth, [where they are] more material and more solidified. Thus, [we surmise], these intellectual solar natures are mostly in a state of actuality and scarcely in a state of potentiality; but the terrestrial [natures] are mostly in potentiality and scarcely in actuality; lunar [natures] fluctuate between [solar and terrestrial natures]. We believe this on the basis of the fiery influence of the sun and on the basis of the watery and aerial influence of the moon and the weighty material influence of the earth.

In like manner, we surmise that none of the other regions of the stars are empty of inhabitants—as if there were as many particular mondial parts of the one universe as there are stars, of which there is no number. Resultantly, the one universal world is contracted—in a threefold way and in terms of its own fourfold descending progression—in so many particular [parts] that they are without number except to Him who created all things in a [definite] number.

The Year Before Nicholas of Cusa Died Further Speculations Arose

French theologian William Vorilong (d. 1463), after giving reasons for believing that God could create another inhabited world, added the following:

If it be inquired whether men exist on that world, and whether they have sinned as Adam sinned, I answer no, for they would not exist in sin and did not spring from Adam… As to the question whether Christ by dying on this earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world, I answer that he is able to do this even if the worlds were infinite, but it would not be fitting for Him to go unto another world that he must die again. (McColley and Miller 1937, 388)

It is a curious fact that the person who in the period after the Middle Ages did more than any other to open the door to extraterrestrials was a canon in a Polish cathedral whose passion was mathematics and who never in his published writing mentioned the question of life elsewhere in the universe. What this isolated sixteenth-century figure did was to publish in 1543 a book advocating the heliocentric theory. This was Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543), who thereby changed our earth into a planet and inevitably, if gradually, transformed stars into other suns, which many later authors assumed are surrounded by inhabited planets.

Although no evidence indicates that Copernicus recognized the ramifications that his hypothesis would have for belief in extraterrestrial intelligences, others soon saw such implications. As early as 1550, the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560) warned against the Copernican cosmology and the idea that Christ’s incarnation and redemption could have occurred on another planet:

[T]he Son of God is One; our master Jesus Christ was born, died, and resurrected in this world. Nor does he manifest Himself elsewhere, nor elsewhere has He died or resurrected. Therefore it must not be imagined that Christ died and was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the Son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life. (Dick 1982, 89)

What Nicholas of Cusa was Not

Nicholas was not Copernicus, Tycho, Galileo, nor Kepler when it came to propounding how the “earth moved,” he simply suggested “it moved,” but added his view was one of “learned ignorance.” Neither did he claim observational evidence as to the superiority of helio-centrism over geo-centrism, nor attempt to justify anything he wrote via reinterpreting various Scriptural passages. Neither did any of his writings call into question the doctrine of the transubstantiation of bread and wine during the celebration of the Lordʼs supper as did some of Brunoʼs writings (even some of Galileoʼs writings on the nature of light made the Inquisition nervous concerning its implications for the doctrine of transubstantiation). In fact, Nicholas titled the treatise in which he toys with his favorite paradoxes, “On Informed [or Learned] Ignorance,” repeating throughout that God knows whatʼs what, and everything humans know is but an imperfect circle compared with what God knows. Nicholasʼ work is mystical and even a bit Erasmian in tone. [Erasmus wrote a bit after Nicholasʼ day and took aim at the churchʼs excesses of behavior and theology in “In Praise of Folly,” employing a type of “Learned Ignorance” similar to what Nicholas wrote about. Erasmus proved you could get away with a helluva lot of scandalous jabs if you know “how” to express yourself.] Consequently, Nicholas does not appear on the Inquisitionʼs radar. He was in fact a high ranking churchman, having risen as high as cardinal, and his musings on “the world (=cosmos)” were metaphysical, mystical, relatively brief and scattered in his works, nor as highly published and publicized as those of Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, etc. But he was still an interesting thinker in his own right.-ETB

Cusa on Learned [or Informed] Ignorance [and why perfect circles are limited to the divine-ETB]

Even he who is most greedy for knowledge can achieve no greater perfection than to be thoroughly aware of his own ignorance in his particular field. The more be known, the more aware he will be of his ignorance. It is for that reason that I have taken the trouble to write a little about informed ignorance… The finite mind cannot attain to the full truth about things through similarity… What is itself not true can no more measure the truth than what is not a circle can measure a circle; whose being is indivisible. Hence reason, which is not the truth, can never grasp the truth so exactly that it could not be grasped infinitely more accurately. Reason stands in the same relation to truth as the polygon to the circle; the more sides a polygon has, the more it resembles a circle, yet even when the number of sides grows infinite, the polygon never becomes equal to a circle, unless it becomes a circle in its true nature… The real nature of what exists, which constitutes its truth, is therefore never entirely attainable. It has been sought by all the philosophers, but never really found. The further we penetrate into informed ignorance, the closer we come to the truth itself… It is no less false that the center of the world is within the earth than that it is outside the earth; nor does the earth or any other sphere even have a center. For, since the center is equidistant from the circumference and since there cannot exist a sphere or a circle so completely true that a truer one could not be posited, it is obvious that there cannot be posited a center (which is so true and precise) that a still truer and more precise center could not be posited. Precise equidistance to different things cannot be found except in the case of God, because God alone is Infinite Equality. Therefore, he who is the center of the world, viz., the Blessed God, is also the center of the earth, of all spheres, and of all things in the world. Likewise, he is the infinite circumference of all things.

So what was Cusa’s insight, exactly?

Cusa had been sent by the Pope to negotiate a reconciliation between the Greek Church and the Roman Church. On the return sea-voyage, his ship was heading home from Greece when he realized that if he couldn’t see the shore, he wouldn’t have any idea the ship was moving; instead, he would perceive the ship as sitting still in the water. He also realized that if he were not a passenger but, rather, someone standing on the shoreline watching the ship, he would, from his vantage point on land, perceive the ship as moving. Two perspectives (the one on the ship, the other on land) led to two experiences of movement.

In his theological work, On Learned Ignorance, Cusa wrote that the centers “by which we orient ourselves are fictions, created by us” to reflect the standpoint of the observer. Multiple centers of perspective, he realized, were not only possible but equally valid. Applying this insight to the universe, he argued that a person standing on Mars or on the moon was just as likely as an earthling to consider his or her piece of rock to be the center of the cosmos. Cusa concluded that the universe “will have its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, so to speak; for God, who is everywhere and nowhere, is its circumference and center.”

One should note that Cusa takes his metaphysical musings on cosmic relativism far enough to suggest, “… if someone were on the sun, the brightness which is visible to us would not be visible [to him],”

Excerpts From An English Trans. Of Nicholas Of Cusaʼs De Docta Ignorantia [On Learned Ignorance]

Chapter Ten: The Spirit of All Things

Therefore, it is not the case that any motion is unqualifiedly maximum motion, for this latter coincides with rest. Therefore, no motion is absolute, since absolute motion is rest and is God.

[Nicholas, above, equates maximum motion with rest. Nicholas seems to be musing about metaphysical paradoxes, and the limits of human apprehension.-ETB]

Chapter Eleven: Corollaries regarding motion.

… the cosmos does not have a [fixed] circumference. For if it had a [fixed] center, it would also have a [fixed] circumference; and hence it would have its own beginning and end within itself, and it would be bounded in relation to something else, and beyond the cosmos there would be both something else and space (locus). But all these [consequences] are false. Therefore, since it is not possible for the world to be enclosed between a physical center and [a physical] circumference, the world—of which God is the center and the circumference—is not understood. And although the cosmos is not infinite, it cannot be conceived as finite, because it lacks boundaries within which it is enclosed.

[Nicholas, above, says the cosmos “is not infinite,” yet also “cannot be conceived as finite?”-ETB]

Therefore, the earth, which cannot be the center, cannot be devoid of all motion. Indeed, it is even necessary that the earth be moved in such way that it could be moved infinitely less.

[Iʼm not sure I grasp that either.-ETB]

Therefore, just as the earth is not the center of the cosmos, so the sphere of fixed stars is not its circumference… Moreover, it is no less false that the center of the cosmos is within the earth than that it is outside the earth; nor does the earth or any other sphere even have a center. For since the center is a point equidistant from the circumference and since there cannot exist a sphere or a circle so completely true that a truer one could not be posited, it is obvious that there cannot be posited a center [which is so true and precise] that a still truer and more precise center could not be posited.

[“It is no less false that the center of the cosmos is within the earth than that it is outside the earth? No sphere or center is so completely true that a truer one could not be posited?”-ETB]

Precise equidistance to different things cannot be found except in the case of God, because God alone is Infinite Equality.

[Even modern day geo-centrists claim that truth only exists in the case of God who is able to view the cosmos from “outside” and hence is the only One who knows where the true center lay.-ETB.]

Therefore, He who is the center of the world, viz., the Blessed God, is also the center of the earth, of all spheres, and of all things in the world. Likewise, He is the infinite circumference of all things…

From these [foregoing considerations] it is evident that the earth is moved.

Now, from the motion of a comet, we learn that the elements of air and of fire are moved; furthermore, [we observe] that the moon [is moved] less from east to west than Mercury or Venus or the sun, and so on progressively. Therefore, the earth is moved even less than all [these] others; but, nevertheless, being a star, it does not describe a minimum circle around a center or a pole.

Hence, although the earth—as star—is nearer to the central pole, nevertheless it is moved and, in its motion, does not describe a minimum circle, as was indicated.

[So, the earth is “near the central pole,” and “does not even describe a minimum circle” as do the stars that appear to circle round the Pole Star each night, so is he here saying that the earth moves the least of all the heavenly bodies?-ETB]

Rather (though the matter appears to us to be otherwise), neither the sun nor the moon nor the earth nor any sphere can by its motion describe a true circle, since none of these are moved about a fixed [point]. Moreover, it is not the case that there can be posited a circle so true that a still truer one cannot be posited. And it is never the case that at two different times [a star or a sphere] is moved in precisely equal ways or that [on these two occasions its motion] describes equal approximate-circles—even if the matter does not seem this way to us.

[Confusing enough?-ETB]

Therefore, if with regard to what has now been said you want truly to understand something about the motion of the universe, you must merge the center and the poles, aiding yourself as best you can by your imagination.

[That helps.-ETB]

For example, if someone were on the earth but beneath the north pole [of the heavens] and someone else were at the north pole [of the heavens], then just as to the one on the earth it would appear that the pole is at the zenith, so to the one at the pole it would appear that the center is at the zenith. And just as antipodes have the sky above, as do we, so to those [persons] who are at either pole [of the heavens] the earth would appear to be at the zenith. And at whichever [of these] anyone would be, he would believe himself to be at the center. Therefore, merge these different imaginative pictures so that the center is the zenith and vice versa.

Thereupon you will see—through the intellect, to which only learned ignorance is of help—that the world and its motion and shape cannot be apprehended. For [the world] will appear as a wheel in a wheel and a sphere in a sphere—having its center and circumference nowhere, as was stated.

[Above, we read Nicholasʼ point of “learned ignorance” that states “the world and its motion and shape cannot be apprehended.”-ETB]

Chapter Twelve: The conditions of the earth.

The ancients did not attain unto the points already made, for they lacked learned ignorance. It has already become evident to us that the earth is indeed moved, even though we do not perceive this to be the case. For we apprehend motion only through a certain comparison with something fixed. For example, if someone did not know that a body of water was flowing and did not see the shore while he was on a ship in the middle of the water, how would he recognize that the ship was being moved? And because of the fact that it would always seem to each person (whether he were on the earth, the sun, or another star) that he was at the “immovable” center, so to speak, and that all other things were moved: assuredly, it would always be the case that if he were on the sun, he would fix a set of poles in relation to himself; if on the earth, another set; on the moon, another; on Mars, another; and so on. Hence, the cosmic-machine will have its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, so to speak; for God, who is everywhere and nowhere, is its circumference and center.

Moreover, the earth is not spherical, as some have said; yet, it tends toward sphericity, for the shape of the cosmos is contracted in the cosmosʼs parts, just as is [the cosmosʼs] motion. Now, when an infinite line is considered as contracted in such way that, as contracted, it cannot be more perfect and more capable, it is [seen to be] circular; for in a circle the beginning coincides with the end. Therefore, the most nearly perfect motion is circular; and the most nearly perfect corporeal shape is therefore spherical. Hence, for the sake of the perfection, the entire motion of the part is oriented toward the whole. For example, heavy things [are moved] toward the earth and light things upwards; earth [is moved] toward earth, water toward water, air toward air, fire toward fire. And the motion of the whole tends toward circular motion as best it can, and all shape [tends toward] spherical shape—as we experience with regard to the parts of animals, to trees, and to the sky. Hence, one motion is more circular and more perfect than another. Similarly, shapes, too, are different.

Therefore, the shape of the earth is noble and spherical, and the motion of the earth is circular; but there could be a more perfect [shape or motion]. And because in the world there is no maximum or minimum with regard to perfections, motions, and shapes (as is evident from what was just said), it is not true that the earth is the lowliest and the lowest. For although [the earth] seems more central with respect to the cosmos, it is also for this same reason nearer to the pole, as was said.

[Ancient metaphysical assumptions above.-ETB]

Moreover, [the earthʼs] blackness is not evidence of its lowliness. For if someone were on the sun, the brightness which is visible to us would not be visible [to him].

[Because his eyes would be burned out of his skull. Kidding. Iʼm just pointing out that Nicholas is now defending his musings concerning relativism in ways we wouldnʼt consider today, not with modern astronomical knowledge of the sun, stars and planets.-ETB]

For when the body of the sun is considered, [it is seen to] have a certain more central “earth,” as it were, and a certain “fiery and circumferential” brightness, as it were, and in its middle a “watery cloud and brighter air,” so to speak-just as our earth [has] its own elements. Hence, if someone were outside the region of fire, then through the medium of the fire our earth, which is on the circumference of [this] region, would appear to be a bright star—just as to us, who are on the circumference of the region of the sun, the sun appears to be very bright.

Now, the moon does not appear to be so bright, perhaps because we are within its circumference and are facing the more central parts—i.e., are in the moonʼs “watery region,” so to speak.

[So, the moon would appear much brigher, even as bright as the sun, if were not “within its circumference?” See my comment above. Like Nicholasʼ other musings these have been proven inaccurate.-ETB]

Hence, its light is not visible [to us], although the moon does have its own light, which is visible to those who are at the most outward points of its circumference;

[Nicholas agrees “the moon does have its own light.” Galileo got into trouble after examining the moonʼs surface with his telescope and suggesting otherwise.-ETB]

…but only the light of the reflection of the sun is visible to us. On this account, too, the moonʼs heat—which it no doubt produces as a result of its motion and in greater degree on the circumference, where the motion is greater—is not communicated to us, unlike what happens with regard to the sun. Hence, our earth seems to be situated between the region of the sun and the region of the moon; and through the medium of the sun and the moon it partakes of the influence of other stars which—because of the fact that we are outside their regions—we do not see. For we see only the regions of those stars which gleam.

Therefore, the earth is a noble star which has a light and a heat and an influence that are distinct and different from [that of ] all other stars, just as each star differs from each other star with respect to its light, its nature, and its influence. And each star communicates its light and influence to the others… Blessed God created all things in such way that when each thing desires to conserve its own existence as a divine work, it conserves it in communion with others…

Moreover, we ought not to say that because the earth is smaller than the sun and is influenced by the sun, it is more lowly [than the sun]… Although the earth is smaller than the sun—as we know from the earthʼs shadow and from eclipses— … the sunʼs region cannot be precisely equal to the earthʼs, for no star can be equal to another star. Moreover, the earth is not the smallest star, because the earth is larger than the moon, as our experience of eclipses has taught us. And [the earth is larger] than Mercury, too, as certain [people] maintain; and perhaps [it is also larger] than other stars. Hence, the evidence from size does not establish [the earthʼs] lowliness. Furthermore, the influence which [the earth] receives is not evidence establishing its imperfection. For being a star, perhaps the earth, too, influences the sun and the solar region, as I said.

… only God Himself, who is His own Activity, knows the manner of Divine Activityʼs present and future remuneration. Nevertheless, I will say a few things about this later, according to the divinely inspired truth. At the moment, it suffices that I have, in ignorance, touched upon these matters in the foregoing way.

Nicholas of Cusa

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