Saturday, August 23, 2014

BOOK: Nicholas of Cusa, "Writings on Church and Reform"

Nicholas of Cusa: Writings on Church and Reform. Translated by Thomas M. Izbicki. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 33. Harvard University Press, 2008. 0674025245. xx + 663 pp.

This book contains a selection of miscellaneous pieces by Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th-century theologian and cardinal. I can't say that I found any of this stuff particularly enlightening or interesting to read, but then I'm not really part of the intended audience anyway. The front flap of the dustjacket says he is “widely considered the most important original philosopher of the Renaissance”, so I can only hope that this volume does not contain his best work :P

To the Bohemians: On the Use of Communion

This piece strikes me as something I would expect to find in a poorly-written satire by some anti-clerical propagandist, and it's a bit depressing to see that the debate was actually going on in earnest. Apparently one of the points of contention between the mainstream catholic church and the Hussites (a Czech denomination that was considered heretical by the church) was about the ritual of communion: the Hussites believed that both the priest and the congregation should consume wine and bread during the ritual, whereas the church believed that the congregation should only get the bread, but not wine.

And now we get a 40-page treatise arguing about this topic, bristling with references to ancient theologians and the like. It starts with a summary of the Hussite point of view; they argue that their version of the ritual is in fact the original one, and is supported by various ancient authorities. But then Nicholas's reply says very plainly that the main point here is about obedience to the church and nothing else. If the church changes its mind about some ritual or some theological question or whatever else, you should stick to its new position, because either god himself has changed his mind (so the new version is the correct one), or in the unlikely case that the church is wrong about this, god won't hold it against you for obeying it, whereas if you go your own way and happen to be wrong, you're shit out of luck (¶15, 18, 33). Nice.

I suppose in a way it's refreshing that he is so direct about this. At some level we know that religion is largely about power and control, but nowadays I don't have the impression that they like to admit it quite so openly as Nicholas does in this treatise. But it's depressing to think that people allowed such tyrannous institutions to achieve such a monstrous degree of influence.

Letter to the Bohemians on Church Unity

Later in the book there's a long “Letter to the Bohemians” on the same subject; this was apparently written much later in his career but his arguments are more or less the same as in the first essay. Among other things he goes into a thorough review of various historical practices of communion, trying to argue that the Hussites were wrong in thinking that the laypeople used to receive the bread (¶30–40).

I found all of this rather embarrassing to read — to think that a smart and educated person (as Nicholas undoubtedly was) would waste so much effort on arguing such ridiculous minute details of such thoroughly pointless and fictional issues. This is just as silly as if you had a bunch of geeks quarrelling on whether Star Wars is better than Star Trek or vice versa — except that in that case, everyone including themselves would at some level know that they're just being silly, whereas Nicholas and the other theologians no doubt took their disputes extremely seriously.

A curious passage from ¶36, where he describes various eucharist-related customs: “Others even forced the Eucharist on the dead, which was prohibited synodally”.

Nicholas's worst nightmare! (Source.)

Councils and authority

The next two essays (“Is the authority of the holy councils greater than that of the pope?” and “On presidential authority in a general council”) are on the subject of universal councils of the church; they are a bit less authoritarian than I expected after reading the first essay. Nicholas argues that the pope must obey the decisions of such a council, and that if he or his representatives are present at the council, they may preside over it only in the sense of facilitating the discussion, not actually forcing others to adopt a specific point of view. In fact Nicholas says that the real president of such a council is god himself. He does however emphasize that decisions taken at such councils should be as unanimous as possible.

Judging by the translator's introduction (p. x), these questions weren't as academic as they might appear at first sight: they had a practical relevance to Nicholas, who was attending just such a council (Council of Basel).

Oration at the Diet of Frankfurt

This memorandum is almost 50 pages long, so I feel sorry for those who had to listen to it as a speech in Frankfurt :P (The translator's introduction says: “In fact, the princes [who were supposed to be listening to this speech in the diet of Frankfurt] went hunting and left their advisers to hear these orations, which went on for three days each.” P. xii.) It deals with various controversies surrounding the Council of Basel, which I can't say I found very interesting, but it was encouraging to think that the various controversies of our present day will seem equally irrelevant a few centuries in the future as the council of Basel seems now, which I think is a comforting thought.

Apparently the council was at some point approached by representatives of the orthodox church from Greece, who wished to merge their church back under the Roman catholic church, thereby ending the schism from a few centuries earlier; but in order to do so, they asked that the council be moved to some more easily accessible location so that the various elderly Greek patriarchs, prelates etc. could actually survive the trip there (¶9). The council decided to move to the town of Ferrara in Italy, but a few members remained in Basel, claiming that the move to Ferrara was invalid and that the ones in Basel are still the universal council; they even proclaimed a new (anti)pope since the current pope supported the move to Ferrara. To make matters more bizarre, their antipope was one duke Amadeus, i.e. not even a clergyman (¶17).

Nicholas of course argues against all this, pointing out that you can't really have a universal council without a sufficiently representative set of prelates being present, so once most of the delegates left Basel, there simply was no longer a council there, regardless of what the remaining ones claimed. Besides, the council of Ferrara was obviously more universal because it also included a big delegation from Greece.

(See the Wikipedia for more on how this story continues: the Greek delegation at Ferrara included the patriarch of Constantinople and even the Byzantine emperor himself. After long discussions of the theological differences between the western and the eastern church, the council managed to reach some sort of compromise, but the Greek representatives at the council lacked the power to impose the agreement on the rest of the eastern church: “Upon their return, the Eastern bishops found their agreement with the West broadly rejected by the monks, the populace and by civil authorities”, so it all came to nothing. Anyway, I was particularly surprised to see that the Byzantine emperor himself attended the council; this was in 1438, merely 15 years before the Turks destroyed the Byzantine empire for good, so I would have naively imagined that the emperor had more pressing things to do than travel to Italy for a religious council.)

Occasionally his righteous anger gets highly amusing, e.g. in ¶47 where he refers to the Council of Basel as “that conventicle of wicked schismatics” :))) Makes it sound way more fun than it probably was :)

A Dialogue against the Amedeists

There's also a dialogue on the subject of the Council of Basil, which like many such dialogues isn't really written as a conversation of two equals, but consists of a disciple's questions and a teacher's explanations. Thus it's more like a modern-day FAQ list than a real dialogue. In any case, the dialogue gives a bit of an overview of how the controversy came about and then repeats Nicholas's arguments about why the faction that remained in Basel is wrong and the legitimate council is now the one that's sitting at Ferrara.

Now, I might not be too fond about some of Nicholas's arguments — he seems to rely very heavily on the idea that a council doesn't have the authority to tell the pope what to do, which means that the Basel faction is wrong mainly because the pope supported the move to Ferrara — but in any case, I'm surprised that there even was so much debate about these things. I mean, the prelates that remained in Basel were much fewer than those that agreed to move to Ferrara; besides, the pope and the representatives of the Eastern church were also on the side of the council of Ferrara; how then could anybody seriously claim that the Basel faction was a universal council and the Ferrara one was heretical and wrong? The idea seems completely ludicrous.

Letter to Sánchez de Arévalo

I was extremely impressed by this letter — it consists more or less entirely of industrial-grade theological word salad. It's more impenetrable than most postmodernist essays, including those generated by the postmodern essay generator :P I suppose that someone who has a suitable amount of the right background knowledge could follow his arguments, but I could do little more than stare and marvel in dumbfounded amazement. Here are a few choice examples:

“All created things participate, in an unfolded, indeed varied way, the unity of the eternal Word, which enfolds all things, so that the Word Itself, although as such it is imparticipable, is participated in the variety of a multitude of participants in the best way possible.” (¶1)

“All rational creatures, therefore, can achieve the ultimate happiness in no other way than by participating the grace of Jesus. In all those participating that grace, therefore, the grace of Jesus is unfolded in a variety of participants. In this way the grace of Jesus is everything which is in all who are pleasing to God; and all those pleasing to God are, in Jesus, everything that is pleasing to God.” (¶2)

“Since, however, a multitude can participate unity only in a varied diversity, the Church cannot subsist, consequently, except in a varied participation of unity.” (¶6)

“There is no unfoldable unity in the multitude, as though a greater virtue of unity exists in an unfolded way. We know this universal principate, originally enfolding every particular principate, to be inexhaustible through multiplication of particular principates.” (¶6)

He must have been smoking some really good stuff :)

In the end, Nicholas returns to his usual themes (usual for this book, at least) of councils and papal authority; apparently the purpose of the theological wharrgarble in the earlier parts of the letter was to justify his ideas about the importance of church unity and obedience to the pope (as opposed to allowing councils to disagree with him, etc.). He really is like a broken clock on this topic.


The book also includes several sermons, but for the most part I didn't find them particularly interesting. Admittedly I was until now almost completely unfamiliar with sermons as a genre, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Still, I rarely had any clear idea of what he was trying to say and it felt more as if he was just waffling and rambling, meandering randomly from one topic to the next without any clear purpose, his ‘argumentation’ proceeding almost entirely on the basis of bald assertions and wishful thinking.* I expected that a sermon would have to be more accessible and understandable, perhaps include some parables and a clear message; maybe Nicholas's background was too academic for him to be writing that kind of sermons. I wonder what effect, if any, his sermons had on his original audience when he delivered them in church.

*And he isnt't at all embarrassed to admit it: “whatever the intellect desires is truth.” (Sermon 126, ¶8.)

A General Reform of the Church

This essay starts with a few pages of his usual incoherent theological wharrgarble, but the rest of it is a pretty sensible plan of church reform. His main idea is to send out visitation committees which should verify and ensure that everything is being done by the rules. Of course he can't resist his old obsession with “observances and practices” (¶10), i.e. you can almost imagine him trying to drag out the old debates on who should get what during communion yet again. Most of the rest of the plan focuses on more reasonable things, such as making sure that priests, bishops, monks, abbots etc. are doing their jobs, living decently and modestly (¶31–2), etc.; he wants such visitations to apply even to the pope and cardinals (¶25–27), and has various ideas on how to prevent prelates from piling up multiple benefices (¶14–17) and spending too much time involved in church politics instead of pastoral work (¶30, 37–9). The visitators would even have the right to sack non-complying prelates (¶19–20). He also wanted to clamp down on the veneration of fake relics (¶22).

The problems addressed by this plan — corruption, simony, etc. — seem to be more or less exactly the ones that eventually, being unaddressed, triggered the reformation. So I guess that Nicholas's plan was either not adopted at all or perhaps wasn't implemented effectively. It's interesting to speculate how different the course of history might have been if his plan had succeeded and no protestant reformation had taken place.


What to say at the end? I'm really not the right target audience for this book. Perhaps someone who is religious and/or is interested in theology would find Nicholas's essays interesting, but I for my part couldn't help regretting that smart and intelligent people like him were wasting so much time and effort on something as barren, misguided and pointless as theology. Heck, even a rabid atheist like myself can have some sympathy for some religious ideas (I always had a certain admiration for ‘do unto others as you would have them to unto you’ and ‘turn the other cheek’, even if they are utterly impractical), but when it degenerates into authoritarian legalese (which basically is what nearly all of Nicholas's writings in this book boil down to: ‘obey the pope’), it's hard to have anything but contempt for it.

Perhaps I should have read this book as essentially a *political* one; instead of complaining about its religious and theological arguments, I should have seen his writings as a part of various political power-struggles within the church of his day. When a politician nowadays writes a speech, or a quasi-intellectual pundit from a think-tank writes a policy whitepaper, nobody looks to such documents expecting truth or wisdom — they are merely tools, weapons in their arsenal. Perhaps Nicholas's writings in this book should be understood in this light as well; that would not make them any more interesting to read, but would perhaps make them slightly less disappointing.

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