I’ve added The Syndicate to my blog roll. The have such helpful reviews and conversations. Check them out. You’ll find books addressing a wide range of topics that are team-reviewed, so you get alternative perspectives. I love the approach. One particularly interesting review-conversation I’m enjoying addresses Johannes Hoff’s book The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa. Among the reviewers, I was especially challenged by John Betz’s review which I thought I’d share here. Read his review got me thinking of ways to imagine the God-World relation as “mirror” (as Divine Mångata). The italics are original to Betz. The bold emphasis is added by me.
In his most recent book, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, Johannes Hoff describes Cusa’s body of writings as “a seriature (in the sense of Jacques Derrida): a cord, rope, or series of unique gestures designed to approximate the apocalyptic turning-point at which God comes to mind” (189). Something similar could be said here. The Analogical Turn is a work that defies—perhaps intentionally (see 56!)—linear analysis, exposition, or summary. Indeed, on a first reading the chapters appear to lack, as Hamann once said of Socrates’s maxims, “the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.” Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers a method that bears some analogy to the “bowling game” that Cusa invented and is the subject of his first book—a game in which “skillful players might be able to move their bowl in a helicoidal circle around the target point” (157). In other words, though the development of Hoff’s argument is not linear, and anyone looking for a straightforward exposition may very well be frustrated, each chapter nevertheless brings us closer to the target of seeing what Hoff sees in Nicholas of Cusa: a pre-modern visionary whose thought has the post-modern potential to lead us beyond the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, and back to an alternative, pre-modern analogical vision of the age to come (xv).
The basic argument here, accordingly, is that modern dialectics have blinded us to reality—either in the way that modern scientific rationalism tries to extort from creatures a univocal meaning they have never had, or in the way that postmodernism denies that creatures have any intrinsic meaning at all that is not a function of culture, the will to power, or the play of différance. In short, both of these extremes—“the univocity of modern scientific rationality and the ambiguous equivocity of post-modern pop culture” (xv)—have rendered reality opaque. And so we need to go back to Cusa’s analogical rationality if we are to go forward into an apocalyptic future in which the world will be seen for what it is, a transparency of divine things, and one can “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206). Fittingly, therefore, the work concludes with a mystagogical ascent to a Cusa-inspired vision of God. Given the richness of this work and the limitations of the present review, however, some delimiting and focusing of perspective will be necessary. In the following, therefore, I will limit my comments to those aspects of this work that I found most interesting, but also integral to the kind of perspective Hoff wants to provide.
The Analogical Turn turns on Cusa’s overturning of modern perspective, which Hoff traces back to the work of Cusa’s contemporary and fellow priest, Leon Battista Alberti (1406–72), who “applied the mathematical methods of Euclid to the art of painting” (47). On the face of it, there does not seem to be anything problematic here: Alberti’s mathematical mapping of perspective can subsequently be seen in the geometrical art of Piero della Francesca, who is best known and admired for his paintings of gospel scenes (e.g., The Baptism of Christ from 1450). Nevertheless, Hoff sees a problematic turning point here that will subsequently define the “world picture” (in the Heideggerian sense) of the modern age. The problem, as he sees it, is that the vanishing point of the work of art mirrors that of the viewer, eo ipso “putting the latter in the position of a sovereign observer who can control the space of his perception as if it were nothing but a mirror image of his subjective position” (48). In other words, from this point on, Hoff argues, modern perspective is defined not by a “being seen” (as one is seen by the gaze of an icon) or by a misty seeing of the invisible through the visible—one could just as well say, of the infinite through the finite—but by the dominant viewer (the new and only topos noetos) and this viewer’s imaging of reality in narcissistic terms, according to his conception of it. In short, reality is now configured in my image and according to my representation of it. Thus, according to Hoff’s genealogy, the “winged eye” of Alberti (which appears on the flipside of his portrait medallion) leads directly to the “thinking I” of Descartes’s cogito (57)—and thence, one might add, to the synoptic transcendental ego of Kant.
At this specular point a distinctly modern perspective is established (which for Hoff is also the presupposition of modern individualism). For once the artist no longer sees his or her task as a mimesis of the Creative Art, as an iconic rendering of the invisible through the visible—as Alberti insisted, “the invisible is not the business of painters” (57)—the symbolic universe of the Middle Ages gives way to the “digital universe of Descartes and Leibniz” (69). Corporeal entities, as for Descartes, come to be regarded as “nothing but ‘extended things’ (res extensae) that can be represented analytically, based on functions and equations, without remainder” (64); and so, inspired by visions of a mathesis universalis, matters of symbolic concern are “pushed aside in favor of simpler strategies of scientific progress” (65). Thus, as Hoff keenly observes, it was ironically modern artistic innovation—initially its obsession with geometrical “truth-likeness,” but then its dialectical flight into the dreamy, illusionary world of the Baroque (57)—that led to scientific contempt for art (as irrelevant to the search for truth); and, more generally, for the “symbolic sensitivities of theologians, artists, and poets” (65)—in short, for any metaphysical sensibility that sees in the world more than modern science, even in its wildest dreams of progress, can contain. To be sure, there were some things that did not fit the mathematical model perfectly, such as the “squared circle”; but Leibniz proffered a solution even to this seemingly insuperable problem by defining the mathematical constant as an “irrational number” (65), thereby making it possible to disregard “every deviation in mathematical space as a quantité négligeable” (65).
Now, turning to Cusa, what Hoff finds so interesting about the German cardinal, and why he finds him so important for us to consider today, is that Cusa understood Alberti’s vision of reality (its epistemology and corresponding ontology) and decidedly rejected it. Without denying “the possibility of representing a circle, for example, with a polygon composed of a potentially infinite number of sides and internal angles,” he nevertheless maintained that “mathematical comparisons can only provide us with conjectures and not precise descriptions of our analogical world” (67). In other words, anticipating Kurt Gödel mutatis mutandis by nearly half a millennium, Cusa argued that because the world is structurally analogical, and opposites coincide in God alone, an exhaustive mathematical account of reality is impossible (66). In short, nothing can be pinned down and mastered; the Continental, Hegelian desideratum of a complete system and the Anglo-American desideratum of a final analysis are equally impossible. For in our world, in which everything is “enmeshed in the comparative logic of excedens (exceeding) and excessum (exceeded), of larger and smaller” (68), “nothing has the analytic ‘property’ [of being] one with itself. We may make rational conjectures about the identity of individual substances, but they are never analytically precise” (164).
For this reason, as Hoff observes, “Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason.’ He felt no need to contort his mind in order to justify the uniqueness of our being in the world as ‘inalienable property’ by means of rational calculations” (165). On the contrary, Cusa saw in the modern dream of a mathesis universalis (insofar as this entailed the presumption of completeness) a distortion and flattening of reality, a reduction of its mystery to a deceptive mastery, moreover, a premature grasping (patterned on the story of Genesis 3) after godlike knowledge of all mysteries—and, as such, an obstacle to our mystagogical ascent through kenotic abasement (following the contrasting pattern of Christ, who did not cling to his “own” or to any “inalienable property,” but emptied himself, according to Phil 2:6f.). Thus, just as Heidegger once did for his own purposes, Hoff can summarize Cusa’s metaphysical vision in the words of Angelus Silesius’s famous poem, “Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet. Sie acht nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet” (165).
What gradually comes to light here has enormous metaphysical, existential, and even political consequences; for even one’s politics is invariably a reflection of one’s implicit or explicit metaphysical commitments. Whereas, on the modern model, which funds “the liberal societies of the modern age,” “every singularity is identical with its essence” (165) and thus a “one” unto itself, for Cusa “nothing but God is One and identical with itself” (164). This is not to deny that creatures possess an analogical “oneness” as images of the “divine simplicity” (162); but, as Hoff notes, as analogical singularities, “the uniqueness of created individuals is neither analytically accountable nor conceivable as a ‘property’ that creatures ‘have’” (162). Rather, “the miracle is that every creature and every person is a singularity, not despite, but exactly because it owes everything it is to a giver whose perfections cannot be owned” (163). Indeed, rather than being one’s own property, according to Hoff’s Cusa-inspired metaphysics I cannot but “receive the gift to be one with myself” (165).
Just how different this Christian-Neo-Platonic vision is from that of modern Western liberalism (for which the individual is his or her own inalienable property) goes without saying. In the language of Paul, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19); in the language of James, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas 1:17). In other words, in an image of the triune simplicity, to be one is to be related (which is also why the sexes cannot be understood in isolation but refer to one another). Or, to put it in the paradoxical words of the gospel, one finds one-self precisely by losing one-self in love (Matt 16:26)—as with marriage, which is therefore an icon of human completeness (Mark 10:8), pointing to the perichoretic completeness of the Trinity. Such, in any event, is the paradoxical precision of the gospel, which gives the lie to rationalistic dreams of a final analysis: nothing created can be itself by itself. But as Cusa and Plato before him realized, seeing things for what they are, as unique images of the divine “oneness,” is not something everyone can see. As Hoff puts it, “For the same reason that the believer has to lose herself in order to find herself, she has to lose the world in order to see it as it actually is” (206). Indeed, contra the myth of the Enlightenment, which is arguably an ignis fatuus, even a kind of darkness, it requires a conversion away from oneself to the light, which one does not by rights possess in oneself. In the memorable words of Augustine, arguably the greatest of Christian Platonists, “si ergo accedendo illuminamini et recedendo tenebra mini: non erat in vobis lumen vestrum, sed in Deo vestro” (In Joh. Tract. XIX, xii).
Here is not the place to debate the extent of Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, or, for that matter, his criticism of the Platonists (e.g., in book VII of the Confessions, where the emphasis begins to shift toward divine humility and the necessity of the church and of sensible, sacramental mediation as a remedy for intellectual pride). It would be safe to say, though, that Cusa’s doctrine of divine simplicity as a coincidence of opposites makes it easier for him to say why this turning toward the divine light is not simply a Platonic epistrophē but precisely a turning toward Christ in humility and learned ignorance as the One in whom maximum and minimum incomprehensibly coincide. Indeed, for Cusa, the Platonic epistrophē, which demands a turning away from the mundus intelligibilis toward the mundus intelligibilis, is actually accomplished in no other way than by turning to the incarnate Word—in whom alone we face the One who is otherwise invisible and unknown. As Hoff wonderfully puts it, “Whoever turns his face to God turns his face to the face of Jesus” (213).
Thus, precisely at the height of the influx of Platonism into Western Christianity, in the wake of the Council of Florence (1438–39) and the subsequent establishment of the Platonic Academy under the leadership of Ficino, Cusa radically transformed Platonism by centering it not simply in an ad hoc way, but now with metaphysical justification, on the person of Christ. For “he is both uncontracted qua his divine nature and contracted qua his human nature; and this enable us to redirect our attention: whoever calls his name and turns his face to his face is facing the invisible gaze of the Father who sent him (Jn 12:45)” (213). Moreover, “Christ is not only the light of truth that manifests itself in the darkness of his creation. He is also the way to this truth (Jn 14:6); and this way can only be found in the ‘body of the faithful (corpus fidelium) . . . called the Christ-formed universal gathering (Christiforme ecclesia catholica) . . . and made up of all rational spirits adhering to Christ’” (219). For, as the one in whom the uncontracted and the contracted, the infinite and the finite, coincide, Christ is the one who “enfolds within [himself] (in se complicare) all multitude and, thus, is unreplicable, since it is the enfolding of all multiplication, or multitude” (161).
Cusa thus provides a remarkable metaphysical justification for the church in that here, in the one body of Christ, we see the manifestation of metaphysical reality: that multitude is nothing other than the unfolding and explication of oneness; that individuals are therefore metaphysically referred not to themselves, but to him. For metaphysically, “I am an image of the divine ‘one’ that owes everything it is to its participation in the divine oneness” (161). Indeed, in keeping with Cusa’s analogical metaphysics, for which nothing but God is by nature one with itself, it is in turning toward Christ that we are made whole and become by grace the “ones,” the unique individuals and—by incorporation into Christ—members of the one body that we really, metaphysically are. This is why at various points Hoff notes that, in our fallen state, “we are not what we are” (212), and that, picking up on a cue from Augustine (sermon 272), we must therefore become what we are, which is to say, that we must become what we are in Christ (13, 211). As Cusa writes in De docta ignorantia (before Luther!),
Our justification is not from ourselves, but from Christ. Since He is the complete fullness (omnis plenitudo), in Him we obtain all things . . . Therefore, the higher a man ascends in the immortal virtues, the more Christlike he becomes. For minimum things coincide with maximum things. For example, maximum humiliation (humilitatio) coincides with exaltation (cum exaltatione): the most shameful death of a virtuous man coincides with his glorious life, and so on—as Christ’s life, suffering, and death manifest all these points to us (185).
There is thus for Cusa, following Paul, no higher (Platonic) term of contemplation or speculation than what one can see in Christ and him crucified: “Sunt igitur omnia mysteriain crucifixione innocentis Christi complicate” [all mysteries are enfolded in the crucifixion of the innocent Christ] (181). Indeed, as Hoff notes, “the crucifixion is the key to Cusa’s ‘hunt for wisdom’” (181). For not only is Christ the real and symbolic center of the universe in that he manifests the oneness of God (as the coincidence of the infinite and finite, the absolute maximum and the minimum); he also invites us into his oneness with the Father as members of his one body: “That they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:23).
What is arguably most striking about Cusa’s re-vision of the Platonic tradition, however, is that this invitation to share in the oneness of God (at which point of self-abandonment it becomes possible to see God as the non aliud, as the “non-other” than every creature) is less an invitation to a Platonic-mystagogical ascent as it is an invitation to a Christian-mystagogical descent (to the point of conformity to the Cross of Christ). For “unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Thus, to employ that most precise trope of paradox, whose mysterious form is a sign of a greater precision than anything modern analytic method could attain, we come to see that, as Heraclitus prophetically intimated, “the way up and the way down are one and the same” (Diels B60): we come to see that the ascent occurs by way of a descent, by way of a following of Christ (to his cross) in order to rise with Christ (in his resurrection).
But, once again, such a metaphysical vision is inaccessible to the modern man, who is immured in his modern perspective—the perspective of “the modern Narcissus,” who puts himself “in the position of the eye point of a mathematically generated picture” (151), and precisely thereby makes his eye unreceptive to the light of the vision of God. As Hoff puts it, quoting Kleist, “nur schade dass das Auge modert, das die Herrlichkeit erblicken soll” [it’s just a pity that the eye molders that is called to the vision of glory] (167). As much as this book is about ontology, it is therefore also—and perhaps even more so—about conversion, metanoia: for it is only when one actually becomes “an image of divine simplicity” (169) by becoming one with Christ that one can see the world for what it most truly and most precisely is: an analogy of the One who is manifest in Christ. As Cusa puts it, “Created things . . . are not seen perfectly unless their Creator is seen” (207), which, in turn, is possible only when Christ their archetype is seen, and in him all things (John 1:3). Indeed, only then, as we are turned toward Christ (213), and the “incomprehensible light of the creator shines forth in our desire” (206), does the universe (uni-versum) in all its splendor come into view: only then are we able to see “in the real space of face-to-face encounters” (99) the “invisible in the visible” (203), and “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206).
There is much more to be said about this admirable book, which is itself like a beryl stone—to advert to the title of Cusa’s little book from 1458—in that it furnishes material suitable for a new perspective. I have not mentioned, for example, the importance of the vera icona (or, in this case, its replica) to Cusa’s inversion of the modern perspective (215). Nor have I drawn out the important political implications of the Analogical Turn, which seeks to overturn not only the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, but also its corresponding political dialectic between “individualism and totalitarianism” (227). All of this stands in need of development. In the meantime, given the richness of Cusa’s vision, we can be grateful to Johannes Hoff for having opened our eyes a littler wider to it—and to seeing just how important Cusa is to the recovery of the kind of metaphysical vision that the Church so desperately needs. Now is not the time to shrink back from metaphysics, as some are wont to do, but rather to give the Christian faith the kind of metaphysics it deserves and, in fact, implies—not an alien metaphysics, to which the faith must conform, but a metaphysics which the faith itself, as its proper articulation and explication, demands. One of the greatest attempts in this direction was made in the twentieth century by Erich Przywara, SJ, most famously in his Analogia Entis; and, given what Hoff has shown us in this book, we may not be surprised to learn that, in an interview from 1954, Przywara admitted that his own thought coincides most nearly not with that of Plato, or even Augustine, but with that of Nicholas of Cusa.
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