Monday, February 16, 2009

Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy: Chapter 2, "Cusanus and Italy"

Cusa's influence on Italian philosophy must be looked for not in academic philosophy, but in the thought of key practical men and artists, particularly Leonardo and Alberti. His key influence was not in doctrines but in goals and methods. Cusa propels a tendency in Renaissance thought which insists on giving priority to knowledge based on experience. Cusa creates the methodological basis for this direction in thought by portraying measurement as the foundation of knowledge.

With his mystical embrace of nature, St. Francis led the way to a revaluation of the sensible world. The key image which comes out of the resulting mystical tradition is that of the world as a book written by God. Campanella and other natural philosophers looked at this as a matter of sympathetic reaction to nature, so that things in the world are capable of being understood as signs of God as a result of an immediate feeling. Cusa and the scientific thinkers after him looked for truth in mathematically expressed systematic relationships in nature. The success of this scientific development depended on two innovations. First was the use of the vernacular as a means of expression (is this plausible? Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton wrote in Latin.) The second was the emphasis on technical applicability.

The Platonic philosophy of the Florentine academy represents something of a retrogression from Cusa. Cusa sought to reconcile philosophical and religious thought in a single system with neither having superiority. Florentine Platonists -- Ficino and Pico --gradually retreated to restoring primacy of theological interest. However, it still represented a continuation of the theme of the problem of knowledge that had been opened by Cusa.

Beauty central link between God, man, and world for Florentine Platonists. God created world with harmony and order. The mind of man is constituted to judge and know beauty.

Common ground with Cusa’s idea of man as a microcosm of the world. The soul, because it is able to know beauty in all of nature, is an intermediary element between god and the world for Ficino. And this is a dynamic intermediation for Ficino as much as Cusa. For both, man becomes an intermediary by acts of knowing. For Ficino, these acts have the specific character of giving form to nature and acting to improve upon the given form. (This notion was well suited to adoption by the artists of the Renaissance.)

Man is representative of all nature for Cusa, so his redemption implies the world’s redemption. Incarnation for Ficino redeems nature as well as men because it guarantees through man’s redemption that man always has the ability to give nature form.

For both Cusa and Ficino, work of the mind has no end. This infinite seeking for more perfect knowledge is not a defect, but what relates man's efforts to God.

For both Cusa and Ficino, Christ has a similar position -- as humanity in general (Cusa) or the idea of humanity (Ficino). Similar philosophy of history in relation to Christianity -- not seeing a sharp polarity between Christian truth and preceding error, but seeing all religions as having a share of legitimacy in that in some sense they worship God.

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