Nicholas of Cusa (Kues) (1401-1464), a German cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, philosopher, jurist, mathematician, and astronomer, is widely considered as one of the greatest geniuses of the 15th century. He received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Padua in 1423. His ideas influenced philosophical, political, and scientific thought and anticipated the work of astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler.
Generally speaking, Cusa’s theory of time exemplifies a Christian Platonism whose elements already had a long tradition (in, e.g., the work of Saint Augustine of Hippo, William of Conches, Albert the Great, and Saint Thomas Aquinas). Cusa’s elaborations of this material, however, are sometimes quite original. Space permits inclusion here of only a few examples from among his many discussions of the topic.
In De venatione sapientiae (1463), Cusa begins his exposition of the subject by dealing with eternity, the image of which is time (imago aeternitatis). Eternity itself (aeternum) has to be distinguished from “perpetuity” (aevum et perpetuum): Whereas eternity is a mode of duration that has absolutely no beginning and no end, such that it is the peculiar mode of being of God who can himself be called eternity (aeternitas), perpetuity designates a duration that has no beginning and no end within the realm of time. On the other hand, the subjects of perpetuity, like the heavenly entities (caelestia) and the objects of pure thought (intelligibilia), transcend the realm of coming-to-be and perishing. Those passages, where Cusa distinguishes two senses of eternity—the pure eternity of God and the derivative eternity of the perpetual elements of the cosmos—have to be understood according to the same passages; that is, they also reflect the distinction between eternity and perpetuity. Cusa describes eternity as the realm of things that have a being as possible things (posse fieri). The existence of such possibilia is a necessary condition for God’s being able to create the sensible world. The eternal objects themselves, however, are not created, but initiated (initiata). In this respect, Cusa echoes the Scotistic model of eternal ideas within God, which are the elements of the world in possibility while they are necessary in their own form of existence as possi- bilia. Time, on the other hand, has the connotation of change, of coming-to-be and perishing—in other words, of the sensible world. Only in this respect, Cusa sometimes also uses the Aristotelian definition of time as a measure of motion. The creation of the sensible, or timely, world is described in Neoplatonic terms as the unfolding (explicatio) of that which exists not unfolded (complicite) in the intelligible realm of perpetuity. The intelligible world is already structured in a way that enables God to create our world in its beauty. It is probably because of this connection of both the intelligible and the sensible world that Cusa sometimes calls the world itself eternal (aeternus) without qualification: the world in its entirety, that is, including the intelligible world, has no beginning in time; rather, it is the realm within which time begins and ends. In the eternity of God himself, on the other hand, the difference between the two worlds of being able to coming-to-be (posse fieri) and existing actually (esse actu) is suspended, because he alone is what he can be (possest). It is obvious from these remarks that Cusa’s theology stays fairly close to the classical Neoplatonic system from late antiquity, though he reformulates it in terms that show some traces of the earlier Christian discussions. In ancient Neoplatonism, however, these ideas about time and eternity were closely connected with the idea of an eternal cosmos, which contained only a limited number of souls that migrated from one body to another one. Thus, it is no surprise that Cusa has difficulties explaining in which way the eschatological elements of Christian thought—that is, the resurrection of the dead—can be explained as related to time. In his early work De docta ignoran- tia, he explains that at the time of resurrection we will arrive, because of the end of all motion, at a place beyond time (supra tempus). But this process of transcending that way of being into which we have been born cannot be explained by philosophical reasoning, and consequently Cusa in his subsequent works does not give a new treatment to this question.
In his sermon De aequalitate (1459), Cusa approached the problem of time from another point of view. Here, he discusses the relation between soul and world in a way that is clearly inspired by Augustine’s treatment of the topic in Confessiones XI: The soul sees that it is “timeless time” (anima videt se esse intemporale tempus). This is because it apprehends time to exist only in the world of change. While the soul sees itself as an active element of this world, and consequently as an element of time, it understands too that it is in its essence separate from all temporality, because it can find in itself both the past and the future moments of time, which do not exist in the world of change. Insofar as all three stages of time are present to the soul, each of them can be called “perfect time” (tempus perfectum). According to Cusa, the past is the memory (memoria) of the soul, the present its intellect, and the future its will. All of them depend, insofar as they are in the soul, on memory as their reason of being (quia est), but what they are (quid est), they are as objects of the intellect; in the will they are like an intended goal (in intento fine). Though the soul can liberate through these activities the instants of time from its necessary connection with elements of the world, its own existence is still timely, because the soul itself is directed toward the moments of the successive time. In this regard, it recognizes itself as different from eternity: It is in a timely way free from corruption, but not absolutely free from it as God is. It is an analogy to eternity (similitudo aeternitatis), but not itself eternity.
In principle, the more perfect intelligences (which must probably be understood as the angels, but the concept clearly echoes the Neoplatonic doctrine of nous) are in the same situation of existing timeless in time. But while they always have an active awareness of their natural state, the human soul has to strive for such an awareness by reducing its dependence upon the timely world. The relation between time and the human soul is treated again in the second book of De ludo globi (1463). In this work, the timelessness of the soul is explained by its intention to reach its highest good, the science of God. In its fundamental “first intention,” the soul is free of any change, but one can speak about change insofar as the soul’s “second intentions”; the soul’s actual strivings are subject to many changes that, however, do not infect its timeless and changeless essence. This solution reminds the reader of the theories of Albert the Great (who is the interlocutor of the cardinal at this place) and of Aquinas’s theories of a natural striving for the good that cannot be lost. From Cusa’s explanation of De aequalitate, the new account differs insofar as it presupposes a difference between timely change and substantial timelessness in the soul itself.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Aristotle; Bruno,
Giordano; Eternity; Plotinus; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre
Bellitto, C. M., Izbicki, T. M., & Christianson, G.
(2004). Introducing Nicholas of Cusa: A guide to a Renaissance man. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
Jaspers, K. (1964). Anselm and Nicholas of Cusa (H. Arendt, Ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (Original work published in German, 1957)