Friday, October 30, 2009

Philosophy in Poetry: Francesco Petrarca


Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series

Promoting conversation about scholarship

among the diverse academic disciplines at Loyola College

Friday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m.

Sellinger 004

“Philosophy in Poetry: Francesco Petrarca

Paul Richard Blum

T.J. Higgins, S.J., Chair in Philosophy

Philosophy in Poetry: Francesco Petrarca

(Text as read without credits; poems were also cited in English.)

You, you are sitting there waiting to hear me utter my incoherent thoughts. You expect to hear something about my personal intellectual experience, or maybe of the ways and delays over the span of my academic career.

You may wonder what troubles me; what I tried and failed to achieve and attempt to compare that with your experience, which will allow you to relate with me and understand.

On the other hand, to my embarrassment,I may not be able to live up to your expectations

As such, I should be embarrassed by my hopes, which are nothing but a representation of my vanity, and I should admit that a successful lecture is nothing but a dream.

This is the first sonnet of Petrarch's collection of poems, the so called Canzoniere.

Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond'io nudriva 'l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand'era in parte altr'uom da quel ch'i' sono,

del vario stile in ch'io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e 'l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è 'l frutto,
e 'l pentersi, e 'l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world's delight is a brief dream.

(Translation by Phil Lu @ SPS) taken from Wikipedia!

The most famous book of European poetry, Petrarch's Canzoniere, opened with a provocation. It speaks about the poetic "I" and addresses squarely the audience. This is a program.

Why should a poet believe that any reader or listener could be in any way interested in his youthful days? in his changes? and what could make an audience feel "pity and forgiveness"?

The answer is certainly not the final line of the poem: "that worldly joy is just a fleeting dream.” Other people's illusions are not a matter of empathy. Of course, love is what we all know, and mostly suffer from, but most importantly: to be the talk of the town, big time (al popolo tutto favola fui gran tempo) -- that's what we all understand: it is an achievement and at the same time an embarrassment.

Francesco Petrarca opens his collected 366 poems by stating that he hopes to become famous and that he is embarrassed about this hope.

You might wonder who was Petrarch, and, of course, what does that opening have to do with philosophy?

Francesco Petrarca was born in the town of Arezzo in Tuscany in 1304.

His father was a lawyer, who for political reasons had to emigrate from there to southern France, where in Avignon the Popes had their residence since 1309. Like his father, Petrarch studied law, first in Montpellier, then together with his brother in Bologna. I mention his brother because he will play an important role at some point in my talk; and I mentioned the law studies, not because that's what you expect from the Wikipedia entry, but because it will be important for Petrarch's life; and his upbringing in southern France in exile because it fostered his admiration for Rome.

At that time the best way to get a job was to be related to a family of Bishops and Cardinals, in this particular case, the Colonna family. Petrarch used his legal skills as a diplomat, he tried to convince the Popes to return to Rome, and also met the Emperor Charles IV several times. As a result he became acquainted with Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, and representative of the Pope during his absence from Rome. In 1341 Petrarch had written a few poems, not many, but enough to convince the King to crown him a Poet Laureate -- the first since the ancient times -- in a solemn ceremony on the Capitol Hill in Rome.

For a short time Petrarch came into the circle of Cola di Rienzo, a Roman underdog who had worked his way up to become a lawyer, who had convinced the Pope to make him Governor of Rome, and who believed in the ancient glory of Rome and strove to restore it; much to the disliking of the Pope. Petrarch and Cola shared that dream of a renaissance of ancient glory. Petrarch even tried to learn Greek. (It would be his admirer Coluccio Salutati to invite qualified teachers of Greek to Florence, which was the beginning of classical learning in Renaissance humanism.) Cola di Rienzo failed, which prompted Petrarch write to him: "Even if you don't mind your own reputation, you should at least care for mine!" You see, for Petrarch it was all about fame and glory.

Petrarch's political connections secured him a property in northern Italy, not far from Padua, where he died in 1374 (100 years after St. Thomas Aquinas, 53 years after Dante (1321), one year earlier than Boccaccio (1375).)

I have not mentioned the most important event in Petrarch life, namely the 6th of April 1327, Good Friday, when he met Laura, the object of his love poems. How do we know of that event? The poet says so (Canzoniere 3):

Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
ché i be' vostr'occhi, donna, mi legaro.

Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
contra colpi d'Amor: però m'andai
secur, senza sospetto; onde i miei guai
nel commune dolor s'incominciaro.

Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato
et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco:

però al mio parer non li fu honore
ferir me de saetta in quello stato,
a voi armata non mostrar pur l'arco.

[It was on that day when the sun's ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady.

It did not seem to me to be a time to guard myself
against Love's blows: so I went on
confident, unsuspecting; from that, my troubles
started, amongst the public sorrows.

Love discovered me all weaponless,
and opened the way to the heart through the eyes,
which are made the passageways and doors of tears:

so that it seems to me it does him little honour
to wound me with his arrow, in that state,
he not showing his bow at all to you who are armed.

Taken from]

Are we to believe that? Obviously the punch line undoes what it says: love did not even exhibit his weapon to the lady, who herself was armed, i.e., either well protected or having the bow herself. But at the same time, in saying that, Petrarch is aiming his arrow at the object of his love. That's what we usually do on Good Friday, don't we? We go to church and fall in love. Again, I believe the main message is not in the punch line but in the center: "all my misfortune began in midst of universal woe". Petrarch's lovesickness is nothing but the expression of human suffering, of which the death of Christ is the epitome. We are very much used to the understanding that the sweetness of love is always combined with bitterness, Petrarch is taking up a tradition and reinforcing one. That however, doesn't make a poet, nor a philosopher; what makes him a philosopher is that he takes love to be a metaphor for human existence.

No doubt, many poems of Petrarch employ Christian imagery; frequently on the verge of blasphemy. The last poem of the Canzoniere is a litany that can be referenced to both St. Mary and to Laura. This occurs so frequently that I won't mention it every single time.

Petrarch is famous for his poems, and my contention is that these poems are not just aesthetically beautiful expressions of love, but they are Petrarch's philosophy put in verse.

In order to make that evident I will first tell you the famous story of Petrarch's ascent on the Mont Ventoux, and then explain a few aspects of his work by the title "My Secret". However, I will not get us into his more technical philosophical writings, namely his invective against a doctor, in which he claims that philosophy is only worth if it is put into action. I will also skip his treatise "On His Own Ignorance and the Ignorance of Everybody Else", in which he advocates something like a Christian philosophy.

Petrarch initiated the humanist tradition of publishing tractates in the form of letters. He even wrote a Letter to Posterity that describes homelessness, intimacy and alienation, and contradictory impulses as the general condition of being human that binds together antiquity, his own personality, and any human being distant over space and time. One of his letters, inscribed On My Personal Concerns (De curis propriis), tells the following story:

Petrarch lives in southern France; one day he decides to climb a mountain, called The Windy Mountain. The purpose seems to be for physical exercise. He calls his brother to join him. The path is steep, Petrarch tries this way and that way; his younger more energetic brother goes the straight way up. Obviously the brother is the alter ego. Later the alter ego will become an Augustinian Friar. Upon arrival on the mountaintop Petrarch thinks he can see the Mediterranean or maybe Greece -- nonsense! Having accomplished this physical exercise, he starts longing: for Greece, Italy, the past, and so on.

Sobering up he realizes his deep internal conflict: "I do love, sadly. I love what I should rather not love, what I wish I would hate. I love, but unwillingly, under compulsion, sadly and in mourning." At this point he pulls out of his pocket the book he happened to be reading: Augustine's Confessions. He opens it randomly, of course, and reads from the 10th book: "And men go to look in amazement at mountain heights and the huge waves of the sea and the broad flow of rivers and the ocean and the stars and their courses but neglect themselves."

Can it be assumed that Petrarch expected his readers to check the reference? Augustine is speaking about the immense capability of the human mind, particularly human memory. When people gawk at the world they forget the vastness of the human intellect. Petrarch turns it into his gesture of contempt for the beauty of the world that had attracted him to climb the mountain. But let us see what follows.

Immensely irritated he rushes down the mountain to their shelter, and hastily, short of breath, writes down this very letter that we are reading, to that person who had donated him that copy of Augustine's Confessions. The problem is, we know today, and Petrarch knew at his time, that the addressee, an Augustinian Friar, was already dead. Note the antinomy: the poet goes out into the world and is taken aback to himself; he turns his internal disturbance into the urge to communicate it with a personal friend. And in the same way as it doesn't matter that the readers of The Letter to Posterity are not even born, it also doesn't matter that the intended reader of this letter is already dead. What is important is that as human beings we cannot do other than turn to the exterior, question the interior, and revert to other human beings.

Here's another poem: (311)

Quel rosignol, che sí soave piagne,
forse suoi figli, o sua cara consorte,
di dolcezza empie il cielo et le campagne
con tante note sí pietose et scorte,

et tutta notte par che m'accompagne,
et mi rammente la mia dura sorte:
ch'altri che me non ò di ch'i' mi lagne,
ché 'n dee non credev'io regnasse Morte.

O che lieve è inganar chi s'assecura!
Que' duo bei lumi assai piú che 'l sol chiari
chi pensò mai veder far terra oscura?

Or cognosco io che mia fera ventura
vuol che vivendo et lagrimando impari
come nulla qua giú diletta, et dura.

[That nightingale who weeps so sweetly,
perhaps for his brood, or his dear companion,
fills the sky and country round with sweetness
with so many piteous, bright notes,

and it seems all night he stays beside me,
and reminds me of my harsh fate:
for I have no one to grieve for but myself,
who believed that Death could not take a goddess.

Oh how easy it is to cheat one who feels safe!
Who would have ever thought to see two lights,
clearer than the sun, make earth darken?

Now I know that my fierce fate
wishes me to learn, as I live and weep:
nothing that delights us here is lasting.

Taken from]

The Nightingale is out there, it embellishes the landscape with its sorrow. That's the poet's cue. It makes him reflect about his own destiny, he blames the object of his desire for that very desire; he realizes that suffering is learning and learning is living; and finally that in this life nothing is both pleasant and durable. And yet, isn't that a beautiful poem? Why is it that "diletta" and "dura" coexist in wonderful assonance and dissonance? It is the human condition to oscillate constantly and contradictorily between care for the other, being lost to the world; and between reflection, self pity, self motivation, and self neglect. Self-neglect is the precondition for turning outside.

The report about the hike on the mountain has a message hidden in its name: Mont Ventoux means the Windy Mountain; which in Italian Ventoso is an expression for vanity. The journey depicts the successful attempt at gaining fame and consequently shame. The story was included by Petrarch in his collected Letters to Friends, in the section that explains his run, for the coronation as Poet Laureate. Therefore it concludes with the confession that all his thoughts were "wandering uncertainly for so long, … and after being pointlessly tossed here and there, they may be redirected towards what is one, good, true, certain, and steadfast." This motive, vain hopes and unsteadiness, open the Canzoniere and are the central motive of the book "My Secret". The one, God, is an aim and nothing more.

The full title of this book is: "The Inner Conflict of My Concerns" which clarifies one problem from the outset; it is staged as a conversation between St. Augustine and Petrarch, but it becomes pretty obvious soon that Augustine is, again, an alter ego of the poet, or his conscience. Augustine even refers to one of Petrarch's works as "our book". As early as 1330 Petrarch had admitted that both Augustine and Petrarch's love, Laura, might be fictitious (Familiares II 9). The name of the lady connotes laurel. Since Augustine reflects his internal conflicts, as he previously stated, he serves as a counter balance for the passion towards Laura. Therefore, the whole dialogue is a dialogue of Petrarch with himself.

The topic is that which is expressed in Canzona 264: the pity for himself.

I' vo pensando, et nel penser m'assale
una pietà sí forte di me stesso,
che mi conduce spesso
ad altro lagrimar ch'i' non soleva:
ché, vedendo ogni giorno il fin piú presso,
mille fïate ò chieste a Dio quell'ale
co le quai del mortale
carcer nostro intelletto al ciel si leva. …

[I go thinking, and so strong a pity
for myself assails me in thought,
that I'm forced sometimes
to weep with other tears than once I did:
for seeing my end nearer every day,
I've asked God a thousand times for those wings
with which our intellect
can rise from this mortal prison to heaven. …

Taken from]

What is the problem? Augustine asks him (that is Petrarch asks himself): "What are you doing, little man? [homuncio, homunculus, mannequin] Dreaming? What are you waiting for? Have you completely forgotten your unhappy state? Have you forgotten you are mortal?" That's how the book begins. Later Augustine chides Petrarch: "You stupid little man [homuncio]! You really think that all earthly joys and all the joys of heaven will come at your call? … [While many people believe] they could keep one foot on earth and one in heaven, they found they could neither stay down here nor rise up there."

Obviously Petrarch is reminding himself of eternal life and of true virtue. After all, who could argue against St. Augustine? But with all his conflict, Petrarch remains constant, or rather stubborn: "I've heard those old trite fables of the philosophers: that the whole earth is like a tiny dot; that a thousand thousand years are as one year; that human glory cannot occupy either that dot or that one year; and other arguments of the same kind to dissuade us from the love of glory. … I'm not hoping to become God, to live forever and embrace both heaven and earth. Mortal glory is enough for me: that's what I aspire to; being a mortal, I aspire only to mortal things." And he recklessly continues: "My conscience [that is Augustine], which now is all my troubles, tells me that I have always burned with love for what is eternal. [That is the Augustinian part in Petrarch.] … I treat mortal things as mortal, and don't wish to go against nature by nursing immoderate desires. I hope therefore for glory amongst men, paying tribute to the fact that both it and I are mortal." That is a line that could have been attributed to his Satan by John Milton.

And yet Petrarch in this dialogue with himself recognizes an extremely important fact about the human condition. Men can be stubborn and reckless in pursuing earthly goals, on the other hand as long as they are conscious of being reckless and stubborn, "mortal" as Petrarch says, they open for themselves by way of conscience access to the transcendent realm, which, born out of the awareness of the human limitations, condemns all human activities as vain. Mortality and vanity become synonyms. I believe that is the reason why Petrarch says he fell in love on the day of Christ's passion.

The human condition of wandering pointlessly and aimlessly through life, once understood, degrades all human achievements. Therefore, Petrarch dares to say: "that the glory in which one may hope for down here should be pursued while one remains down here. The other, the greater glory, is to be enjoyed in heaven, and no one who gets there would be interested in earthly glory any more." Is he being relativistic? Petrarch states clearly about eternal life "I'm not defecting, I am deferring".

From an Augustinian perspective all human strife is impotence; and yet human beings cannot but keep struggling. So what the Petrarchean man can do is to keep all contradictory desires and wishes in check. Petrarch in the garb of Augustine tells himself "I shall not desert you, as long as you do not desert yourself." And Petrarch the poet promises: "I shall gather up the scattered fragments of my soul and live to myself."

"The scattered fragments of my soul" that's the definitive formula. The Canzoniere was given the title by Petrarch "Rerum vulgarium fragmenta" -- "Fragments in Italian", and as we had heard at the beginning, it's his collection of his scattered thoughts. Petrarch's poetry is the disorder, laceration, and disorientation of humanity, all encapsulated in beauty.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nicholas of Cusa and the Anthropology of Peace

Nicholas of Cusa and the Anthropology of Peace
By Paul Richard Blum
[Now published in Hans-Christian-Günther and Andrea Aldo Robiglio (eds.), The European Image of God and Man. A Contribution to the Debate on Human Rights, Leiden: Brill, 2010, pp. 271-284]
When in 1453, under the impression of the Fall of Constantinople, Nicholas of Cusa wrote about "peace of faith" his intellectual baggage was laden and with theological and philosophical problems and methods. For good reasons this text has been interpreted as a philosophical-theological treatise on the conditions of the possibility of unity among diverse religions.[1] However, I believe that Cusanus does not at all explain the existence of unity of faith as a given, he, rather, postulates such unity as a necessity and as the aim that lies before us and gives us directions. Apparently the author does not alone severally introduce the variety of religions, but he gives them a voice in a polyphonic conversation on all levels of the heavenly hierarchy: from God the Father via the Son, the Angels and Saints down to the individual representatives of various peoples and rites. Cusanus has the spokespeople of various rites articulate their concerns, which are naturally of theological importance but are also proffered with existential urgency. I propose therefore to give this text an anthropological interpretation. If the multitude of religions among the multitude of peoples manifests God's will, then also the individuality of the speakers of peoples does so. And so it turns out that peacefulness of faith does not consist in that postulated unity – which, of course, would be a Catholic one – but in the intent of the individuals to uphold their faith and peace at the same time. Peaceableness, then, must be an anthropological datum that is not restricted by history, by geography, or by creed.
As a philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa is known to present complex interrelations in all their complication and thus to challenge his readership with high levels of abstraction. Traditionally, this results in a competition of his interpreters to outperform the complication and each other by dint of negative theology, epistemology, and transcendentalism. As meritorious and fruitful that may be, frequently it is overlooked that Cusanus equally acted as a practical philosopher and spiritual guide.[2] His many sermons testify for that. Although one can entertain some doubt about how much his listeners might have understood his mathematical arguments, for instance, at any rate the tone of his texts is that of persuasion, exhortation, and above all reconnecting ultimate theological truth with the perspective of human religiosity. For this reason I want to discuss his famous treatise On Peace of Religion as a document of Cusanus's anthropology. For the sake of heuristics I surmise that the various speakers in this text do not just put forward some theological arguments but that the author intentionally assigns them their questions and objections as representatives of humanity. My question to the book is: what is the concept of humanity conveyed by Cusanus? Let me start with an overview of the dialogues before I investigate a few details.
The discourse in heaven
Unmistakably the text opens with recalling the event of Constantinople 1453:
There was a certain man who, having formerly seen the sites in the regions of Constantinople, was inflamed with zeal for God as a result of those deeds that were reported to have been perpetrated at Constantinople most recently and most cruelly by the King of the Turks. Consequently, with many groanings he beseeched the Creator of all, because of His kindness, to restrain the persecution that was raging more fiercely than usual (plus solito) on account of the difference of rite between the religions.[3]
The most striking feature of this opening is that the author is factually speaking in first person as an eyewitness that claims to have "seen the sites in the regions". The first person perspective, since it is theologically quite irrelevant, can only serve to open a treatise if the personal involvement is part of the argument. God is introduced here as the one who can be moved by prayers and groanings to have mitigating influence, while it is not even hoped that all religious strife could come to an end but only what exceeds the ordinary. This is an important motive that needs to be pondered. For now we need to go on with the overview of the topics in anthropological perspective.
Cusanus has an Archangel speak first and responded to by God himself; freedom of will is their topic (chapter 2). Now the Son, the Word, takes the floor speaking about human nature and freedom (chapter 3). As the first human speaker a Greek comes forward – and we may remember that Cusanus knew some Greeks personally, since he accompanied them on their travel by ship from Constantinople to Venice on their way to the Council of Ferrara and Florence (1438), an experience that had inspired him to his most famous book, The Learned Ignorance. The Greek (chapter 4) talks about the urge of nations to defending their interests with blood. The Italian (Italus) underscores the diversity of languages (chapter 5); thereafter the Arab speaks about love (chapter 6), including the love of wisdom, claiming that religion is a means of survival. Whereas the Indian refers to images and idols, the Chaldean opens the discussion about unity and multiplicity (chapters 7-8). The Jew relates the topic of fertility to that of plurality, while the Scythian returns back to sexuality and love (chapters 9-10). The Gaul is in charge of reminding of Parisian theology, scholasticism, which prompts The Word to call on St. Peter. This appears to be the moment of strict Scholastic debate and, indeed, the Persian raises a question of the relation between creation and creator, which then unfolds in an extended explanation of Christology (chapter 11-12). This again is a point which needs to be dwelt upon since we know that Christology for Cusanus is enhanced anthropology.
Even the role of the prophets is embedded in Christology. It is obviously a welcome occasion for the Syrian (chapter 13) to bring up the question of mortality, which is dealt with within the parameters of desire and hope (desiderium, spes). Now the Spaniard has to connect that question with virginity, and the interlocutors agree that fertility and virginity are the two possible states of a human being. The Turk – notably representing that people that has brought so much suffering to Constantinople – asks Peter about the crucifixion, thus prompting a discussion about obedience, cowardice, freedom, and mortality (chapter 14). The German is interested in happiness (felicitas), so that Peter instructs the audience that the Jews believe that the eternal life cannot be gained through works ( because that is not what is promised in the Law) but through faith alone, which understandably presupposes the existence of Christ (chapter 15). The Tartar motivates Paul, who now enters the scene (chapter 16), to elaborate on the relationship between works, belief, and justification: "But faith has to be formed; for without works it is dead."[4] In Aquinas' theology, fides formata is distinguished through its enhancement by charity.[5] Here Cusanus gives it a new meaning that may flow out of charity, namely the intent to peacefully worship God. This thread of the conversation heads towards the concluding postulate that sometimes a majority has to conform to a minority – for the sake of peace (chapter 16). Consequently the Armenian wants to know more about baptism and the Bohemian about the Eucharist, both understood as rituals that might be questioned (chapters 17-18). Through his spokesman Paul, Cusanus asserts that faith has priority over ritual. To a member of that nation that had harbored the utraquist movement the message sounds: "For believing—and thereby eating of the food of life—suffices for salvation."[6]
Eventually an Englishman suggests discussing the rules of marriage (as though he would prophetically anticipate the affair of Henry VIII) and other sacraments. St. Paul cuts that short by observing and thus concluding the entire survey of religious differences: "Where conformity of mode cannot be had, nations are entitled to their own devotions and ceremonies, provided faith and peace be maintained."[7] Salva fide et pace holding faith and peace together captures the whole tension and its overcoming. The solution lies in accepting human limitations. Paul's first response to the question of sacraments had been theologically even more provocative: "It is necessary to make great allowances for the weakness of men ... For to seek exact conformity in all respects is rather to disturb the peace." Cusanus rounds his vision off with the famous theory of presupposition, which holds that the accord of all religions is guaranteed in the heaven of reason (in coelo rationis) so that all participants of the discussion accompanied by Angels may go out, proclaim, and realize it all over the world. However, as a final caveat, we are admonished that the Prince of Darkness prevents believers from insight into that harmony.
The human need for revelation
As already stated the text begins with an affirmation of personal concernment ("There was a certain man…"), which in spite of being said in third person doubtlessly refers to the author Cusanus himself. The remainder of the text is the fictional vision of a gathering of experienced sages who debate about the question, whether it might be "practically possible to reach a concord and by this to achieve in religion eternal peace with both effective and honorable means".[8] The entire scenery and the accumulation of qualifying conditionals (possible, doable, effective, honorable) is that of personal experience and human condition.
A brief look into another work of Cusanus that deals with a competing religion, A Scrutiny of the Koran (Cribratio Alkorani) confirms that Cusanus is deliberately staging, for in this book persons including the author himself don't play any role but only the doctrines and the theological sources.
The conventional means of describing a vision are present; it is described as being "caught up to an intellectual height" (intellectualem altitudinem) and Godfather is described not as anything abstract but as the "King of heaven and earth". He condescends to receiving "from the kingdom of this world sorrowing messengers" who report about "the moanings of the oppressed" (p. 633). Cusanus's vision immediately returns down to his earthly reality. On the other hand he faces the narrative problem to make plausible that the ambassadors in heaven may be heard. Therefore he explains that they do not act like humans but, rather, like intellectual virtues.[9] His literary ploys underline that he is not exploring some lofty realm but the condition of humans on earth.
The human perspective explains also why one of the representatives from Earth, some Prince, opens the dialogue with a definition of man: "O Lord, King of the universe, what does any creature have that You did not give to it? It was fitting that the human body, formed from the clay of the earth, was inbreathed by You with a rational spirit, so that from within this body an image of Your ineffable power would shine forth."[10] Although it sounds like a Christian commonplace, emphasis is laid on the createdness and the internal divine power, which both combine to make up the human being as such. Being internally divine and being dependent could weaken the concept of human being and at the same time empower humanity as a dialectical unity. In other words, whatever human beings do, they achieve it thanks to that very internal power which is divine and nevertheless only given but, again, given from God.
This is the moment of finger-pointing: God is responsible for the plurality of religions. From plurality stems diversity. Add to that the fact that the majority of human beings can afford neither leisure nor time to make use of their free will and to cognize themselves. Consequently – between all their toil and labor – they simply lack opportunity and potential to seek after "the hidden God".[11] Kings and prophets, such continues the narrative, were put in charge of the instruction of simple people. That again backfired because people took the doctrines much too literally, a factor that reveals the true human condition (humana terrena conditio), namely, "that longstanding custom, which is regarded as having passed over into nature, is defended as the truth. In this way there arise great quarrels when each community prefers its own faith to another."[12]
If this were a theological tractatus the latter statement would be pure blasphemy. For God is blamed of having created a plurality of human beings, having failed at repairing that, and for the human nature to be bond to fanaticism or, at least, sectarianism. The fanaticism, as just described, is some form of competition or, to use René Girard's terminology: mimesis, a mimetic circle. "For the sake of You, the only one they worship in whatever they adore, exists all this competition (aemulatio)."[13] The Good, Truth, Life, and generally Being, those are the real objects of religious strife; for seemingly different interests converge in the object of aspiration. Only conscious return and awareness of the true object will be able to break the circle of violence. Such competition is also nurtured by ignorance, namely, revelation gone wrong, which God is asked to mend:
Therefore, do not hide (occultare) Yourself any longer, O Lord. Be propitious, and manifest Your face; and all peoples will be saved, who no longer will be able to desert the Source of life and its sweetness, once having foretasted even a little thereof. For no one departs from You except because He is ignorant of You. If You will deign to do the foregoing, the sword will cease, as will also the malice of hatred and all evils; and all will know that there is only one religion in a variety of rites.[14]
Here we have the famous formula: one religion in a variety of rites, which is frequently quoted when Cusanus' contribution to religious tolerance is discussed. It sounds quite comforting. Who would deny that, of course, in a plethora of rites there is just one religion, whatever that may be? The contingency is that God himself has to redo his revelation. Salvation depends on God's showing himself once again, or for the first time. War is ignorance, yes, but ignorance can only be healed by the Source of life Himself, none other. Then and only then insight in the true nature of religion is possible. And what is the true nature of religion? It helps reading attentively, for Cusanus is not at all comforting us, he is challenging his Western readership. The uniformity of religion is not a fact, it is something that needs to be learned ("all will know"). Cusanus is not advertising a religious melting pot, he is giving a philosophical-theological definition of religion: "there is no single religion, except in a variety of rituals". Modern Christians in a diversified world tend to assure themselves that in some way 'we all pray to the same God'. To that Cusanus would say that this 'one God' is only accessible in the rivalry of religions. He explicitly speaks about the human condition, which is to stick to a truth fanatically once it has been found; and this is God's will. Only a God can salvage humanity by manifesting Himself in a way that He can be recognized; and once He is recognized, it will also be manifest that fanatical rivalry is the very human condition, which is accompanied by the paradox of knowing God and being religious at the same time, from where strife originates. Hence follows that competition as such, since it is god-given, cannot be the object of fanaticism. Religious struggles are derailed from their true object – recognition and veneration of God – to the struggle for the struggles' sake. The mimetic circle has been set in motion by God, therefore only God can break it by showing that emulation and contest are not aimed at fellow-humans but at God, and therefore competing peoples cannot be competitors except as concurrent lovers of God.
In chapter 2 God illustrates the situation of humans: due to free will man is capable of societal life, but at the same time man is torn between his animalistic and intellectual components. After the prophets had unsuccessfully tried to call humanity back on the right path, intellectuality, The Word, had to take on human nature. It was intended as a lesson and a model to impart on human beings that specifically free will endows human nature with the capacity to receive immortality. At this point The Word remarks that the variability of opinions is equally entailed in free will.[15] Plurality of opinions is a creation of God, from which we may deduce that freedom of will is not restricted to the capability to sin (as Luther would have it). Plurality is the epitome of human creativity that as much as any undirected potential can go wrong, even if without arbitrary meanness. Otherwise it would be inexplicable why the same freedom is the basis of human sociability.
The Greek speaker thinks that unity of religion is hard to communicate because it is natural to any nation to reject foreign beliefs and to defend their own faith even with their blood. To this Verbum responds with an excursus on unity, plurality, and wisdom in Greek thought. That is to say speculation, philosophical wisdom, enables peoples to tolerate the coexistence of other creeds without taking up arms. The poor inhabitants of Byzantium had been spared a lot of suffering if they had been given time to understand that the Turks were not bringing any other faith, but exactly the same. We could conclude from that mental experiment that the conquering of Constantinople was not at all a religious war, and that also the Council of Florence, that failed to convince both parties that the wording of both creeds expressed the same thing, had not miscarried for religious quandaries but, rather, for reasons of power politics. Cusanus, familiar with Church politics, keeps silent, here.
The Italian observes that Greek wisdom relies on diversity of linguistic expression. Although the wisdom of the Creator included language, differences in wording cannot be overheard. Looking back at the theory of presupposition it appears that multiplicity presupposes logically and factually unity, nevertheless multifacetedness turns out to be denied as long as it is not accepted and appreciated as the many faces of wisdom. Universal wisdom is in charge to make order out of chaos without annihilating its individual components. Unity is not coercive but permissive.
Taking up the thread of the common love for wisdom the Arab speaks about polytheism. He concurs that the so-called gods are nothing but manifestations of the one God; however, he finds it hard to accept the cult of many gods, because those people who believe in gods expect advice and help from them and are therefore resilient to forswear them. As can be expected The Word reminds the audience that salvation is only in the Creator. It is worth noting that Cusanus shows familiarity with the anxiety that is expressed in the belief in oracles. On a global level, Cusanus points out that there is competition among the peoples that is reflected in the competition of foreign gods and that anxiety for cultural survival is expressed in idolatry. Both aspects taken together invoke again the mimetic circle and its potential overcoming, when fear and hope are redirected according to the true aim.
The conversation with the Indian plays out the various ways of deceit through idolatry and transfers them gradually towards the concept of Trinity. Trinity, in the conversation with the Chaldean, is discussed as the paradigm of a challenge to human understanding. In appreciating and taking up that challenge, The Word refers the Trinitarian structure to the essence of being human. Again, Cusanus gives his argument an anthropological turn. Traditionally Trinity is the interaction of oneness, equality, and connection (nexus). That is present also in being human: "Therefore, when a man is summoned by Omnipotence from out of notbeing, there first of all arises (oritur) a oneness, then an equality, and then the union of both." (p. 644). The rise of man must be accompanied by awareness, if Cusanus' argument shall be effective. Therefore man perceives himself as one (unus), that is, as the first accessible unity, which includes equality and linkage. Self-reference is the experience of reflected oneness that does not fall apart. The philosophical theology of the triune God that antecedes revelation in Scripture is based on an anthropological fact that every human being can acknowledge without further instruction. Actually, "every created being conveys the image of creative power".[16] After further discussion about this topic with the Jew and the Scythian, Peter explains Christology to the Persian.
Christology as anthropology
The power and weakness of Christology is a matter of perspective. If one emphasizes the human nature of Christ, then everything is seen under this human prejudice that eclipses the divine nature. Tautological as it may appear it explains the difficulties with Christ from the human point of view. Therefore Cusanus suggests taking Christ to be the greatest of all prophets, which entails the role as speaker of the word. Since a Prophet is defined as the bearer of the word of God without being the original author, his role is that of the visible manifestation of the word of God, which is close to the theology of God incarnate.[17] The prophet's word is not his own; rather, the prophet is defined by the word of God. All what makes a prophet a prophet is divine. Therefore, the relationship between man and God can be presented as a case of concomitance if not inherence: "… in Christ the human nature is united to the Word, or to the divine nature, in such way that the human does not pass over into the divine. Rather, it adheres to the divine nature so indissolubly that it is not separately personified in itself but is personified in the divine, in order that, having been called to become a successor to an eternal life with the divine, [human nature itself] would be able to obtain immortality in the divine."[18] Of course, the word "adhere" should not mislead to thinking that humanity is sticking to the divine; it is embedded in it, as the final clause emphasizes. Christ's human nature subsists as a person in his divine nature, thus making the nature of all human beings immortal. As prophecy is entailed in the Word of God, humanity is entailed in divinity.
The question of immortality is of interest to the Syrian. Once more we immediately detect the humane, if not existential basis of religion and its plurality: "For all men have the desire and the hope only for eternal life in their own human nature …" (p. 656). What makes the talk about incarnation ambiguous, the earthly perspective of the double nature of Christ, is a theological way to detect the transcendent, namely, to acknowledge that a desire to transcend the human nature is built in that very nature. The hope for an afterlife opens a glimpse into that same afterlife. However, it is prefigured or imagined within the human framework. Therefore St. Peter explains that most peoples "have instituted ceremonial purifications for their souls, as well as holy practices, in order that they may become better fitted in nature for that eternal life." (p. 656) Religious folk life as can be described in terms of ethnology is the outer expression of the inborn desire (ex desiderio connato)[19] for transcendence, immortality, and can therefore be interpreted in both directions: as the individuality of a specific culture and as the universality of a thought.
As already initially mentioned, the virginity of the Mother of God is explained as part of the human world, which allows for two possible states, chastity and fertility. In Saint Mary these mutually exclusive states are miraculously combined: "Consequently, the Highest (altissimus) is conceived in the womb of a virgin by the divine power; and in the virgin the highest fecundity was present together with the virginity. Hence, Christ was born unto us in such way that He is very closely united to all men."[20] The mystery of incarnation is explained in traditional theological concepts but Cusanus directs our view from the lofty speculation to the human benefit.
The same is true when the discussion moves over from birth to dying. The theological mystery of Christ's death lies in its historical reality, which tends to be distorted by the good intentions of human interpreters: "As for their denying that He was crucified by the Jews, they seem to do so out of reverence for Christ—on the supposed ground that such men could not have had any power over Christ." (p. 657) Instead of chastising the "ignorance" of the critics, Cusanus explains that Christ even anticipated such misunderstandings: "But note how the historical accounts … ought assuredly to be believed: … Christ came, as one sent by God the Father, to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven (evangelizaret); and regarding that Kingdom He made claims which were able to be proved by Him in no better way than by means of the witness of His own blood."[21] The hermeneutic principle of understanding the biblical story consists in the purpose of the event that is being told, the spread of the gospel. And the assurance of its truth lies in Christ's "own blood", that is, in the factual reality of the divine message. It is a statement of philosophy of history that the mystery of Christ's death is rooted in the need for concreteness that attests theological truth. Instead of theory explaining facts, reality evidences theory. Obviously martyrdom always follows the same pattern. A pious and also realistic observation.
Christology, as I said at the beginning, is enhanced anthropology: Christ "preached the Kingdom of Heaven, proclaiming that man could attain unto it, being capable of receiving it (illius regni capax)." (p. 658) The incarnate God is the tangible argument to prove the mystery that man can transcend humanity (in biblical language: attain the Kingdom of Heaven), while the internal capacity (regni capax) is the natural foundation of that transcendence. Christ as a sensible testimony dispels ignorance, guarantees salvation, and resolves anxiety and cowardice. The stories of the death of Christ and of the martyrs are stories of consolation in so far as they confirm, rather than deflect from the reality that human beings live in an empire of death:
For the mortal[22] must divest itself of its mortality, i.e., of its capability of dying; and this comes about only by means of death. Thereafter the mortal can put on immortality. Now, if the mortal man Christ has not yet died, then He has not yet divested Himself of mortality; and so, He has not yet entered into the Kingdom of Heaven, wherein no mortal can be present. Therefore, if He who is the first fruits, and the first born, of all men has not disclosed the Kingdom of Heaven, then the human nature that is united to God has not yet been led into the Kingdom. (p. 659)
Immortality is attainable for human beings because God is the first born man. Therefore we may conclude that humans are divine because God is human. This insight must necessarily have an impact on Cusanus's view of religious diversity.
From the heaven back to work
Therefore let us skip the further discussions in the text about beatitude, justification through works, sacraments, etc., although they all had very important repercussions in the anthropology of the Protestant Reformation. I rather want to stress Cusanus's mode of thought according to which all manifestations of religiosity, including skeptic doubts, have their pivotal point in the human perspective, which Cusanus never tires to confirm and justify. The essentially human attitude toward the visible signs of religion, such as rituals, prayers, but also doctrines and dogmas, yields an image of man as constantly reflecting upon the human condition and working on its foundation and overcoming.
As is well known the entire debate culminates in a peculiar heaven of reason (coelum rationis).
Therefore, in the heaven of reason (in coelo rationis) a harmony among the religions (concordia religionum) was reached, in the aforeshown manner. And the King of kings commanded that the wise men return and lead their nations unto a oneness of true worship and that administering spirits guide and assist them. Moreover, thereafter, having full power for all, assemble in Jerusalem, as being a common center, and in the names of all accept a single faith and establish a perpetual peace with respect thereto, so that the Creator of all, who is blessed forever, may be praised in peace.[23]
This is a powerful conclusion; therefore I regret that I still have to add a few remarks. It must be stressed that the conclusion teaches that God can be praised only in peace. On the other hand we have seen that fanaticism is part and parcel of being human. Therefore such peace can only be reached by way of approximation so that the oneness of religion must be based on hypothetical unity to be cherished in diversity. Note that before these speakers can gather in Jerusalem to sign a religious peace accord, they have to return to their home countries and do some PR work, supported by angelic consultants. Then, perhaps, God might be able to contain struggles and wars. Cusanus's theory of presupposition that suggests religious unity as the backdrop of confessional dispute is highly speculative in terms of philosophical theology; but it is also extremely practical as it appeals to all peoples to work for peace against all appearances because that is the only realistic means to attain peace.

[1] The latest and most comprehensive study is Markus Riedenauer: Pluralität und Rationalität: Die Herausforderung der Vernunft durch religiöse und kulturelle Vielfalt nach Nikolaus Cusanus, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2007 (with ample bibliography). See also Paul Richard Blum: Philosophieren in der Renaissance, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2004, chapter 9.2.
[2] For both aspects, the spreculative and the practical, see Kurt Flasch: Nikolaus von Kues. Geschichte einer Entwicklung, Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1998, chapter IV. The specifically human perspective is also duly acknowledged in Inigo Bocken: De waarheid der gewoonte: De spanning tussen veritas en consuetudo als ruimte voor pluralism in het denken van Nicolaus Cusanus, in: Bjdragen. International Journal in Philosophy and Theology 63 (2002) 417-431.
[3] Nicholas of Cusa, On Peaceful Unity of Faith, transl. Jasper Hopkins, Minneapolis: Banning Press, 1994, p. 633 (abailable online: When using this translation I take the liberty and omit explanatory additions of the translator. Page numbers without further specification refer to this text. – I will quote the critical Latin edition only for emphasis or clarification: Nicolai de Cusa Opera Omnia: Vol. VII: De Pace Fidei. Edited by Ramond Klibansky and Hildebrand Bascour. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1970.
[4] P. 664. De pace, § 58, p. 58 f: "Oportet autem quod fides sit formata; nam sine operibus est mortua." Cf. Jacobus 2:17 and 26.
[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIª-IIae q. 4 a. 4 c, and q. 19 a. 5 ad 1; whereas in q. 4. a. 9 ad 3 ecclesiastical doctrine seems to provide "formation". Also in Cusanus's De docta ignorantia III 6, faith is said to be formed by charity.
[6] Ibid. p. 668. De Pace § 66, p. 60 f.: "Hoc sacramentum … non est sic necessarium, quod sine eo non sit salus, nam sufficit ad salutem credere, et sic manducare cibum vitae." Bohemian Hussitism and utraquism (Holy Communion with bread and wine) were debated at the Council of Basel where Cusanus had been active.
[7] Ibid. chapter 19, p. 669.
[8] De pace § 1, p. 4: "unam posse facilem quandam concordantiam reperiri ac per eam in religione perpetuam pacem convenienti ac veraci medio constitui." (My translation.) "Facilis" cannot mean "easy" or – as Hopkins translates – "readily-available"; Cusanus must have had the etymology in mind: "doable". "Verax" does not refer to objective truth, but to truthfulness as opposed to cunning or deceit.
[9] It may be observed that Giordano Bruno in 1584 will exploit this paradox in his dialogue Spaccio de la bestia trionfante; he has stars and deities transformed into abstract virtues.
[10] Trans. Hopkins, p. 634.
[11] Ibid. p. 634. Cusanus wrote a work by the title "The Hidden God" (De Deo abscondito).
[12] Ibid. De pace § 4, p. 6.
[13] De pace § 5, p. 6: "Propter te enim, quem solum venerantur in omni eo quod cuncti adorare videntur, est haec aemulatio." (My translation.)
[14] Trans. Hopkins p. 635. De pace § 6, p. 7: " … non est nisi religio una in rituum varietate."
[15] De pace § 7, p. 9: "[Verbum] humanam induit naturam, ut quilibet homo secundum electionem liberi arbitrii in sua natura, in homine illo qui et Verbum, immortale veritatis pabulum se assqui posse non dubitaret."
[16] Transl. Hopkins, p. 646. De pace § 24, p. 25: "sic res omnis creata gerit ymaginem virtutis creativae".
[17] De pace § 32, p. 33: The Persian is speaking: "Sed omnium prophetarum maximus Christus …"
[18] Transl. Hopkins, p. 651 f. De pace § 35, p. 35: " … in Christo sic tenendum est naturam humanam unitam Verbo seu naturae divinae, ita quod humana non transit in divinam, sed adhaeret sic indissolubiliter eidem, ut non separatim in se sed in divina personetur; ad finem quod ipsa humana natura, vocata ad successionem aeternae vitae cum divina, in ipsa divina immortalitatem assequi possit." I substituted the phrase in brackets for "it" in the translation, because the arguments shifts, dramatically, from Christ's human nature to the nature of human beings.
[19] De pace § 45, p. 42.
[20] Ibid. p. 657. I replaced "loftiest [man]" with "Highest".
[21] Ibid. p. 657 f. I changed "note that" to "note how" (quomodo).
[22] The human being, of course.
[23] Ibid. p. 669 f. I replaced "loftiest domain" with "heaven".