Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) provided a unique interpretation of God and the universe within their conceptual framework of time. Although some influences of Nicholas of Cusa upon Bruno’s ideas are often ignored or misconstrued, together they reflect both the theological and philosophical turmoil that faced the Catholic Church in the 15th and 16th centuries. Advancements in science, philosophy, and the desire for freedom from dogmatic thought had brought serious consequences to these dynamic thinkers. Accusations ranging from heresy, apostasies, blasphemy, to the critical responses from known scientists and their accepted theories had brought periodic censure to Nicholas of Cusa and condemned Bruno to death. The commonalities and differences that can be seen in the fate of these two philosopher-theologians are due to the ideas within their embodied views.
The influence of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought found throughout the views of both Nicholas of Cusa and Bruno are expressed in the shared commonalities regarding the spatiotemporal nature of God and the universe. Infinite and eternal, the cosmos emanates and is constituted from the One (Absolute) in a materialistic interpretation of God. Mysticism, mathematics, and the unity of contradictions provided a comprehensive account of the diversity or plurality found in nature and was associated with the very nature of God; albeit, humankind can never fully understand God. In their theological and philosophical perspectives, not only is God constituted in the material of the known universe (monistic and pantheistic), but also God is indivisible.
Although such views are intriguing, at least from a philosophical perspective, these postulations regarding God, the universe, and humankind’s place in nature directly challenged the philosophical underpinnings of Catholic theology and other theological denominations. As for the Catholic Church, the Christian interpretation of Aristotle as presented by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was dogmatically pervasive during this time, as it is today. The postulated views of Nicholas of Cusa and Bruno proved to negate basic church doctrine, especially the conceptual framework of time as represented in the church’s divine revelation by God. Further implications regarding holy scripture, Christology, the Holy Trinity, and salvation and redemption are apparent. In regarding these issues, the differences between Nicholas of Cusa and Bruno become evident.
In the intellectual timeline, Nicholas of Cusa was a link between Aristotle and Bruno. He held that humankind is in a state of “learned ignorance” and is incapable of understanding the unity and infinity of the Absolute Maximum and Absolute Minimum of the One or from Absolute Necessity, that is, God within the conceptual framework of the Trinity. Within this framework, the coincidence of contradictions and opposites are united and embodied as One, which humankind can only perceive as separate and distinct. Infinity regarding these concepts was represented by analogies drawn from the mathematical properties of lines, triangles, circles, and spheres, and even motion. It is these analogies of mathematics that allow humankind to arrive at and differentiate divine truth and the infinity of truth.
The cosmos (which includes humankind), by its very nature, is only a “contracted” maximum, a reflection or mere copy of the Absolute Maximum. In this regard, the cosmos had a distinct beginning. The infinity and the eternal nature of the cosmos become the only significant link with the Absolute Maximum. For Nicholas of Cusa, Christianity was unique and paramount within the unification of the Absolute Maximum and Absolute Minimum within the contracted universe, for Christ Incarnate became a focal point within unity as depicted in the Trinity. Just as God is constituted and contrasted with humankind, Christ embodied both perspectives simultaneously. Christ’s nature was both Absolute Maximum and Absolute Minimum within the contracted nature of the cosmos. This allowed Christ to transcend death and enabled humankind to know God. The mysteries of faith steeped in mysticism seek to provide individuals the path, via Christian love, toward the Church. This union of individuals, such as is expressed by the congregation, becomes united with Jesus Christ on whose existence humankind depends.
Bruno provided a different view of the cosmos and humankind’s place within it. For Bruno, the spatiotemporal universe—form and matter—not only had no beginning and is infinite in nature, but also is in a constant state of flux. In this manner, time becomes relative. This relativity confers upon it a sense of individuality, for example, as depicted by motion or life, and that which is juxtaposed as eternity. Individualistic concepts of time are not singular in nature; rather, the time of each individual is irrevocably linked to others within the universe. This dynamic and diverse plurality of the monadic universe is united and one within nature, ultimately equating God with nature. Bruno postulated that within this infinite universe there are numerous planets, stars, and galaxies, some of which contain life within their relative conceptual framework of time. Consequently, in a universe that is full of life and has no center or periphery, humankind’s place in the cosmos is without a hierarchy. The life of our species is one among many within the inconceivable stretch of the cosmos.
Bruno speculated that, in the process of understanding humankind’s nature, our species will discover the nature of divinity within ourselves. This divinity can be expressed throughout human cultures and their respective religious-mystical perspective. A combination of mysticism and rationality results in a sense of universalism, as depicted in ancient religions and magic, which is reflective of the divinity within the human species. If the Brunian idea of humankind’s nature and relationship with the divine is taken seriously, differences among religious practitioners are negated. A sense of utopia, peace, and harmony would be an eternal goal that could be realized. Although human life is finite, perhaps in a Brunian sense our species’ existence and “divine” nature are infinite and peace is possible when compared to humankind’s history and life on other worlds.
Bruno’s ideas of time, the universe, and the nature of divinity had resulted in severe repercussions. His anti-Aristotelian stance, rejection of Ptolemy and acceptance of Copernicus (based on mysticism), rejection of traditional religions, and critical judgment of orthodox Christianity had not endeared him to authorities. Bruno’s view, considered more art than science, attempted to unify and expand the human perspective beyond the confines of many geocentric and anthropocentric lines of thought. In contrast to the philosophical and theological positions of Nicholas of Cusa, these contrary and conflicting views resulted in his trial and execution in 1600.
The concept of time, as with the universe, pushes the human intellect to the fringes of reality. The concepts as depicted by Giordano Bruno and Nicholas of Cusa are representative of many perspectives encountered within humankind’s desire to understand itself in terms of nature and its relationship to the cosmos. Human evolution, as with speculations on the evolution of life on other planets, is intertwined within the fabric of time and space. Subjective and elusive, the infinity of time and space remain central to human existence, even though it is neither central nor critical to the universe or cosmos. For Nicholas of Cusa, learned ignorance aids humankind in the epistemological fulfillment of the universe and the understanding of our species’ relation to the divine. Bruno, on the other hand, postulated a more humanistic approach. Ultimately, time is relative in a chaotic universe filled with life on planets throughout the cosmos. Together, Bruno and Nicholas of Cusa provide a unique perspective that still resonates today.
See also Bruno, Giordano; Cosmogony; Eternity; Infinity; Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus); Relativity of Time
Bruno, G. (1998). Giordano Bruno: Cause, principle, and unity: And essays on magic (R. de Luca & R. J. Blackwell, Eds. & Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Michel, P. H. (1973). The cosmology of Giordano Bruno. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Nicholas of Cusa, Cardinal. (1962). Unity and reform: Selected writings of Nicholas de Cusa (J. P. Dolan, Ed.). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Nicholas of Cusa, Cardinal. (1997). Nicholas de Cusa: Selected spiritual writings. New York: Paulist Press.
Roland, I. D. (2008). Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/ Heretic. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.