Nicholas of Cusa's Coincidentia Oppositorum
The English term "coincidence of opposites" is derived from the Latin term
coincidentia oppositorum, the fullest exploration of which is attributed to
Nicholas of Cusa, also called Nicolas Cusanus, whose 1450 Of Learned Ignorance
(De Docta Ignorantia), sets forth a theological and geometrical justification
for the concept. Like the Romantics in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, Cusanus in the fifteenth century felt discontent with the logical
exclusions imposed upon him. Reacting against a theology that limited the
power of God and the power of man, Cusanus set forth a counter theory.
Similarly, reacting against a neo-classicism that limited the power of man,
many Romantics accepted or assumed a theory similar to that of Cusanus. In
response to the limits set by the rational compromises that guided the
Enlightenment, Romantic writers sought a way to surpass exclusions by bringing
together forces that neo-classical thought kept separate. Paradoxically, but
appropriately, neo-classical writers also used the coincidence of opposites as
a way of maintaining the status quo. But while Pope, the example of neo-
classicism in this study, poses a mysterious coincidence of opposites that
keeps man and God separate, Blake, and to a lesser extent the other Romantics,
pose a coincidence of opposites that radically joins God and man.
Cusanus does not receive much attention from historians of philosophy;
part of the reason can be found in the destructive nature of his theory, which
denies a major aspect of the tradition of reason in philosophy. According to
Pauline Moffitt Watts, Cusanus's doctrine of learned ignorance
begins at that very point at which the usual modes of philosophizing
collapse; the root of "learned ignorance" is the fact that absolute truth
is beyond man's grasp. For this reason, Cusanus's new mode of speculation
"undoubtedly vanquishes all modes of ratiocination of all philosophers."
Ernst Cassirer puts the issue most succinctly: to reconcile opposites would
dissolve philosophy itself. <2>
Because we in the twentieth century are so accustomed to an empiricist
perspective, the very basis of the coincidence of opposites can easily elude
us. The difficulty of acknowledging the concept even when the writer
emphasizes it finds an unexpected example in Northrop Frye's posthumously
published work The Double Vision. <3> Even though Frye, probably the best
interpreter of Blake, takes his title from a poem by Blake, he interprets
Blake's double vision in a way that gives a priority which Blake does not give
and which the concept of the coincidence of opposites does not give. The
phrase "double vision," occurs in a poem in a letter to Blake's patron Thomas
For double the vision my eyes do see,
And a double vision is always with me:
With my inward eye 'tis an old man grey;
With my outward a thistle across my way.
The poem goes on to see a living human in every object. In his explanation of
this passage Frye comments, "the conscious subject is not really perceiving
until it recognizes itself as part of what it perceives." This comment seems
valid enough; it emphasizes the unity of subject and object, which is
fundamental to the double vision which sees the coincidence of opposites.
However, Frye goes on, "First, there is the world of the thistle, the world of
nature presented directly to us." <4> A more careful reading of the quatrain
reveals that Blake "first" describes the vision of his "inward eye," which
perceives an old man grey, before he describes the vision of his "outward"
eye. In a poem that emphasizes the constancy of his "double vision," Blake
aids us in seeing with that double vision by first mentioning the half of his
vision that is not ordinary sight, not what we would ordinarily, naturally
expect to perceive first. Never, he claims, does he see with the single
vision (later labeled in the poem "
and that Frye wants to put before us.
In Blake's double vision there is no such thing as "the world of nature
presented directly to us"; such a vision is single vision, which is always
already based on an ideology--in Blake's day, and in ours, usually an ideology
of empiricism. Blake insists on always maintaining a double vision, in which
a man and a thistle are seen at the same time and to the same extent. To help
us to overcome the limits of single vision, Blake first describes the man seen
by the inward eye. Despite that word order, however, and despite Blake's
insistence on permanent double vision, Frye begins by interpreting the poem in
terms of single vision. Such single vision seems most "natural" to us; Blake,
and to a lesser extent the other writers considered in this book, fight to
free us from that natural bondage. Blake's reversal of the ordinary way of
seeing, an ordinary way of seeing that Frye himself falls into, implies a
coincidence of opposites by its very defiance of common vision. Instead of
interpreting this passage with the priority given by Blake, Frye interprets it
with the priority given by ordinary vision, the very kind of vision that Blake
is replacing (or reversing or extending) in his poem. Thus the simplest form
of the coincidence of opposites, a basic reversal in priority between
empirical vision and imaginative vision, becomes impossible to see with
ordinary vision. Held prisoner by common sense, Frye over-rides even the most
obvious implication of Blake's insistent message and surprising word order to
impose the tyranny of single vision over the liberation of double vision.
These comments are not meant to denigrate Frye but to illuminate how elusive
the coincidence of opposites can be even to the most perceptive observer. Our
habitual, limited ways of seeing make Blake either impenetrable or easily
With a similar singleness of vision, Leo Damrosch, one of Blake's finest
interpreters, insists that proponents of the coincidence of opposites must
accept things as they are. After explaining similarities between Blake and
Cusanus, he implicitly consigns the coincidence of opposites to the
In the end Blake cannot truly reconcile contraries because, like the
Puritans whose moral intensity he shares, he can only solve the problem
of alienation by exclusion or casting out: sheep and goats. A true
acceptance of opposites demands a skeptical temperament and a commitment
finally to things as they are. <5>
But how are things? Damrosch falls into a trap similar to the one that
Northrop Frye falls into in The Double Vision: both Frye's "world of nature
directly presented to us" and Damrosch's "things as they are" imply an
empirical, common sensical seeing with the eye instead of an imaginative,
Blakean seeing through the eye. "I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye
any more than I would Question a Window concering a Sight I look thro it & not
with it." <6> Damrosch further loads his implicit dismissal of Blakean vision
with the phrase, "true acceptance." What would be a "false" acceptance of the
coincidence of opposites? According to Damrosch, Blake's "false" coincidence
of opposites asserts unity by excluding recalcitrant elements. Instead, as I
shall demonstrate in my chapters on Pope and Blake, it is Pope who excludes by
accepting that there are things that we do not know, things that are known
only by God. Blake, on the other hand, by insisting that man, like God, can
know all, produces a "true" coincidence of opposites, one that does not accept
the ideology of "things as they are."
Furthermore we probably should not look for Blake to "reconcile"
contraries. When he defines the Prolific and the Devourer in The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell, he insists:
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be
enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.
Note. Jesus Christ did not wish to unite but to seperate [sic] them, as
in the Parable of sheep and goats! & he says I came not to send Peace but
a Sword. <7>
"'To believe in a God,' says Wittgenstein simply, 'means to see that the
facts of the world are not the end of the matter.'" <8> Nor are they, in
Blake's vision, even the beginning of the matter. I do not mean to belittle
Frye or Damrosch; I adduce these examples to show how easy, how tempting,
indeed how "natural" it is for us to fall into reading even Blake in
conventional terms, even when he is explicitly, directly urging a larger
vision upon us.
Both Pope and Blake insist on an identity between the universal and the
particular, but they insist in very different ways. Pope, more like Cusanus,
uses the coincidence of opposites to justify mystery, to build a negative
theology. Blake, extending Cusanus's implications, uses the coincidence of
opposites to blast mystery, to build a constructive theology. My chapters on
Pope and Blake will explore some of the details of this difference. Even
though Pope uses the coincidence of opposites in a very conservative,
mystifying way and Blake uses it in a very revolutionary, opening way, both of
them include many strong elements of the opposite view. For example, Pope
insists on the strength of the ruling passion, even though it apparently works
against reason; Blake insists that the traditional God of Sinai inspired
As so often in philosophical issues, the lines of argument in the
coincidence of opposites can be traced back to Aristotle and Plato, or more
precisely to the traditions promulgated by the followers of Aristotle and
Plato. In general the position that opposites can coincide derives from
Plato and his followers, especially Proclus the neo-Platonist, who especially
admired Plato's dialogue Parmenides. (Cusanus himself commissioned a
translation of this dialogue.) According to Ernst Cassirer, Cusanus more
than any other thinker carried on the line of Plato: "Cusanus . . . was
perhaps the first Western thinker to attain an independent insight into the
fundamental and essential sources of Platonic doctrine." <9>
The followers of Plato adhered to the law of unity: the Many is finally,
ideally the One. This idealistic monism traditionally has been seen as less
practical than Aristotle's more worldly viewpoint. Raymond Klibansky quotes
the translator Georgius quoting Pope Nicholas V:
Aristotle's political theory was more suitable to this life, while that of
Plato was more appropriate to the state of innocence, had man not sinned
and fallen. <10>
Coleridge makes a similar distinction between Plato and Aristotle:
Plato's words are preparatory exercises for the mind. He leads you to see
that propositions involving in themselves a contradiction in terms are
nevertheless true; and which, therefore, must belong to a higher logic--
that of ideas. They are self-contradictory only in the Aristotelian
logic, which is the instrument of the understanding. <11>
A common sense viewpoint, one at home in the real world, refuses its opposite,
an idealistic viewpoint, one at home in some other, better, imagined world.
Coleridge, like Blake, sees through ordinary common sense to reverse that
The position that opposites can not coincide derives from Aristotle and
his followers, who asserted the Law of Contradiction, also known as the Law
of Non-Contradiction. Certain pairs of statements necessarily contradict each
other and therefore can not both be true at the same time. This axiom is the
most fundamental axiom of reasonable discourse, its sine qua non. Thus when
Cusanus, and Pope, and Coleridge, and Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelly,
and Blake attack or even simply question the Law of Non-Contradiction, they
are questioning not only Aristotle, but the very foundation of reason at its
most necessary and self-evident base. As Aristotle asserts the axiom:
the most certain principle of all is that about which one cannot be
mistaken; for such a principle must be both the most familiar (for it is
about the unfamiliar that errors are always made), and not based on
hypothesis. For the principle which the student of any form of Being must
grasp is no hypothesis; and that which a man must know if he knows
anything, he must bring with him to his task. Clearly, then, it is a
principle of this kind that is the most certain of all principles. Let us
next state what this principle is. "It is impossible for the same
attribute at once to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the
same relation"; and we must add any further qualifications that may be
necessary to meet logical objections. This is the most certain of all
principles, since it possesses the required definition; for it is
impossible for anyone to suppose that the same thing is and is not, as
some think Heraclitus says--for what a man says does not necessarily
represent what he believes. And if it is impossible for contrary
attributes to belong at the same time to the same subject (the usual
qualifications must be added to this premiss also), and an opinion which
contradicts another is contrary to it, then clearly it is impossible for
the same man to suppose at the same time that the same thing is and is
not; for the man who made this error would entertain two contrary opinions
at the same time. Hence all men who are demonstrating anything refer back
to this as an ultimate belief; for it is by nature the starting-point of
all the other axioms as well. <12>
Among the many good explanations of Aristotle's idea is one by John Ferguson:
Aristotle takes as the most certain of all principles the law of
contradiction: 'the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the
same respect both belong and not belong to the same subject' (1005b19).
He feels so strongly on the importance of establishing this that he
offers a series of proofs of its validity: for example, if all
contradictory statements are true of the same subject at the same time,
then all things will be one; the blunt fact is that all men do make some
unqualified judgments, and Aristotle is content to stick to the common
sense of that. . . . Aristotle denies that one opinion is as good as
another, or that there is truth in appearances. . . . Those who deny the
law of contradiction need to be convinced that there is an unchanging
reality, something which is prior to sensation. . . . the alternative is
a thoroughgoing relativism, which Aristotle regards as absurd.
We begin, then, in Aristotle's Law of Non-Contradiction, from a bedrock of
common sense, without which the entire universe of human epistemology would
supposedly collapse. As Aristotle's ideas were extrapolated and discussed
through the centuries, and as the science of logic developed, hundreds of
elaborate and intricate schemes, replete with diagrams and the special
language of the cognoscenti, found their place in the ongoing discussion.
Here is a typical example of a twentieth-century textbook exegesis:
Standard-form categorical propositions having the same subject and
predicate terms may differ from each other in quality [affirmative or
negative] or in quantity [all, some, no] or in both. This kind of
differing was given the technical name 'opposition' by older logicians,
and certain important truth relations were correlated with the various
kinds of opposition. Two propositions are contradictories if one is the
denial or negation of the other, that is, if they cannot both be true and
they cannot both be false. It is clear that two standard-form
categorical propositions having the same subject and predicate terms but
differing from each other both in quantity and in quality are
contradictories. . . . The traditional or Aristotelian account of
categorical propositions held that universal propositions [A and E] having
the same subject and predicate terms but differing in quality were
contraries. . . . Schematically we may say that the contradictory of "All
S is P" is "Some S is not P," and the contradictory of "No S is P" is
"Some S is P"; A and O are contradictories, as are E and I.
Whether contraries or contradictories (we shall meet with some similar, but
more crucial distinctions later in Coleridge and Blake), the principle of Non-
Contradiction stands: logically, when contraries or contradictories exist, one
side completely, irrevocably, logically, common sensically excludes the other.
They cannot both be true.
So powerful did Aristotle's Law of Non-Contradiction become in medieval
Christianity that it limited even the power of God: he could not do anything
that would violate that law. The general philosophical problem of whether God
could contain logical contradictions sometimes found expression in one
particular question: can God foresee the future? If he can, then man does not
have free will. It is not possible for God to foresee something and for it
not to happen. According to the Law of Non-Contradiction, we cannot have it
both ways at the same time. Likewise, it would be impossible for God to
foresee that something will not happen and for that thing to happen. Thus
God's foreknowledge and man's free will come into philosophical conflict, as a
subsection of the problem of non-contradiction even within the omnipotence of
Cusanus's coincidence of opposites provides a way out of that dilemma. One
of his answers expands the concept of possibility:
human nature embraces both those who are and those who neither are nor
will be, though they could have been. Consequently, if even what never
shall be should
come to pass, nothing would be added to divine
for it equally comprises actual events and those which, though possible,
do not take place. <15>
Thus Cusanus's coincidence of opposites includes not only what happens or what
might happen; it includes both what will happen and what will not happen. We
can have it both ways. In fact, we must have it both ways. In God's power,
the old Aristotelian Law of Non-Contradiction becomes replaced by the
coincidence of opposites. The law of limited possibilities is transcended, as
is the law that two things cannot happen at the same time if they are
logically inconsistent. For in the timeless mind of God, which contains all
of past, present, and future, all possibilities and all non-possibilities must
exist, including the improbable and the supposedly impossible.
Cusanus further develops his refutation of God's limitations that would be
imposed by the Law of Non-Contradiction:
though possible, shall not happen; and, in much the same way as a genus
contains different species, it includes things contrary to one another. .
. . What God has foreseen He necessarily has foreseen, for His Providence
is necessary and unchangeable; yet He was also able to foresee the
opposite. . . . Though tomorrow, e.g., I can choose between reading and
not reading, my
choice, whichever it be, is known to
contraries are among its objects. Therefore, whatever I shall have
chosen to do will
be done in accordance with divine
This kind of double talk clearly does not please the rational philosopher. J.
B. Hawkins, in his introduction to Germain Heron's translation of De Docta
Ignorantia, gently mocks:
There are not many who are likely to take all this very seriously as an
adumbration of ultimate mystery. Some will be irresistibly reminded of
Lewis Carroll, and others may despise what seems to be no more than
conjuring with words. <17>
Certainly Cusanus is conjuring with words, but as a clever conjuror he
produces a magic that joyfully exploits the potential of language to reveal
and even embody the philosophical abstractions that fall short of explaining
Cusanus's coincidence of opposites frees man from the tyranny of the
senses, the tyranny of common sense, the tyranny of logic. By freeing God
from lower logic, Cusanus also frees man into a closer apprehension of his
the coincidentia oppositorum represents more than Cusanus's critique of
scholastic logic and natural philosophy. Through it, Cusanus also
transcends the late scholastic notion of the potentia absoluta of God;
namely that God, through his absolute power, could do or make anything
provided it did not violate the law of contradiction. For Cusanus, the
law of contradiction itself qualifies God's freedom and omnipotence.
Thus Cusanus does, as will Blake, use the coincidence of opposites as a
way of freeing God from human constraints. Blake, by combining human and
divine, will also free man from such a limited view of the divine humanity.
Both Blake and Cusanus see God as more free than tradition allows:
in conceiving of God as the coincidentia oppositorum, Cusanus went beyond
all of the scholastics, and established more radical guarantees for the
absolute freedom and transcendence of the divine. <19>
Blake then goes further to establish yet more radical guarantees for the
absolute freedom and transcendence and immanence of the divine humanity.
Ernst Cassirer, in very Coleridgean language, puts Cusanus firmly into the
history of philosophy when he insists on the central role that Cusanus played
in the Renaissance:
Any study that seeks to view the philosophy of the Renaissance as a
systematic unity must take as its point of departure the doctrines of
Nicholas Cusanus. Of all the philosophical movements and efforts of the
Quattrocento, only his doctrines fulfil Hegel's demand; only they
represent a 'simple focal point' in which the most diverse rays are
gathered. Cusanus is the only thinker of the period to look at all of the
fundamental problems of his time from the point of view of one principle
through which he masters them all. . . . [That principle] includes the
totality of the spiritual and physical cosmos. <20>
As we shall see later, Coleridge insisted on a similar unified system.
Cusanus's purpose in his coincidentia oppositorum could be said to be to
justify the ways of God to man, that is, to re-write man's perspective into
God's perspective. From man's perspective, from the perspective of
Aristotelian logic, man and therefore God are both limited. But from God's
perspective, according to Cusanus and the coincidence of opposites, God is not
limited. The important thing for Cusanus is not the coincidence of opposites
per se, but rather the infinity of God. The coincidence of opposites is a
tool for realizing, or at least accepting, that infinity. Similarly, Blake
will use the coincidence of opposites as a tool for realizing the infinity and
unity of God and man. Although Cusanus keeps an infinite distance between man
and God, Blake will bridge that distance.
The path taken by Cusanus to reach his new concept of the freedom of God
in the coincidentia oppositorum begins with two opposing, complementary
principles: the principle of expansion and the principle of limitation. The
principle of expansion states that man, like all created things, wants to find
his fullest possible self-expression:
We see that God has implanted in all things a natural desire to exist
with the fullest measure of existence that is compatible with their
particular nature. <21>
In his exploration of the concept of the Great Chain of Being, A. O.
Lovejoy calls this principle the principle of plenitude. <22> At the same
time, in the opposite direction, this striving toward fullness is limited by
the particular position of the creature. In man's case, his inquiry must
begin with and is limited to what he knows. These two opposing forces act as
centripetal and centrifugal forces, at once thrusting man out as far as he can
go to his potential and at the same time limiting him within his orbit.
Cusanus thinks that man must begin with what he knows from his limited
perspective. Beyond what he knows, he can only analogize: "every inquiry is
comparative and uses the method of analogy." <23> As we shall see, this
latter principle of limitation is the keystone to Alexander Pope's whole
theory of man's knowledge of the universe. Here in Cusanus, the two opposing
tendencies work equally. Cusanus's principle of limitation is based on a
concept of infinity as beyond human understanding and therefore beyond all
analogizing: "the infinite as infinite is unknown, since it is away and above
all comparison." <24> Even the greatest possible expansion, the fulfillment
of man's capacities, no matter how close it might theoretically come, can not,
by its finite nature, achieve or comprehend the infinite. Man's limitation
must finally over-rule his potential for expansion.
As we shall see later, Blake denies this inaccessibility of the infinite
to man. In particular in the tractates he insists that man could not desire
infinity if he did not perceive it:
More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul, less than All cannot satisfy
Man. . . . The desire of Man being Infinite the possession is Infinite &
himself Infinite. <25>
Therefore perception must exist beyond the senses, and by implication beyond
the ordinary limitations as posed by Cusanus and Pope.
Part of man's limitation resides in language, which embodies the problem
of specificity. Just as we must, according to Cusanus, rise above our
physical human restrictions, so we must transcend language, which in its
abstractions allows us to formulate the Law of Non-Contradiction. But in
Blake's poetry, language is used not only as a trap in the Law of Non-
Contradiction, but also as a means of escape. Cusanus sees language as an
absolute limit to the potential of man's understanding of God. Language must
therefore be transcended, risen above. Blake's insight is that this kind of
transcendence can be blended with an absolute immanence. Thus language, while
remaining limited by the real world, at the same time is the means of
transfiguration into the visionary world. Cusanus wants to deny the potential
of language. He values "rising above the literal sense of the words . . .
leaving aside what is sensible in them in order to arrive unimpeded at what is
purely intelligible." <26> Cusanus's method thus sounds like traditional
Platonism: "the more we abstract from sensible conditions, the more certain
and solid our knowledge is." <27> Cusanus's method leaves behind the
empirical as a standard. He is not searching for something material. He is
rather searching for something beyond the material. To man's understanding
such a goal is nothing because it is not accessible to the senses: "an
understanding of God is not so much an approach towards something as towards
This negative theology, this insistence by Cusanus on wordlessness, of
believing in a realm beyond articulation even if we can never experience it
directly, is one of the main streams of his neo-Platonism. The tradition of
Parmenides always leads to this wordlessness:
In analogy with this movement of the Soul towards the One, Parmenides
removes at the end of the discussion, not only all affirmation, but also
all negation and, indeed, all speech, indicating that all discourse about
the One leads to a point where language fails. . . . The last step is to
purge the Soul from all dialectic activity. Thus, by negation, Parmenides
removes negation itself. And silence ends the discourse of the One. <29>
Of course such silence would remove all language, all writing, all literature.
That which Cusanus and Pope claim to be beyond the realm of language, the
coincidence of opposites, Shelley and Blake will manifest in language.
Cusanus's denial of language is based on his search for a deeper truth, an
essence. He believes that there is a bedrock truth, a Platonic Christian God,
whose fundamental nature is by definition unavailable to human understanding:
"the quiddity of things, which is ontological truth, is unattainable in its
entirety." <30> Even though the method of attempting ignorant understanding
of the existence, essence, and ways of God must proceed from the known in
hopes of acknowledging the unknown, ultimately such a goal can never be
reached: "infiniti ad finitum proportionem non esse." <31>
Man's limited understanding can never grasp the totality because of its
very nature: "what man observes in nature is absolute incommensurability . . .
Man's reason operates only within the realm of inequalities and
contradictions." <32> According to Cusanus, there is no proportion between
the infinite and finite because any proportion needs similar qualities. <33>
Man's limited abilities mean that he can not by reason or understanding alone
reach the ultimate truth: "understanding . . . is fundamentally unable by any
rational process to reconcile contradictories." <34>
In fact Cusanus even uses man's reason to link man to the natural level,
the level that he shares with the rest of the material, lower creation.
Instead of reason being the highest quality of man, it is rather analogous to
the instinct of animals: "Reason, Cusanus says . . . where he quotes Jerome
quoting Philo, is a capacity that man shares with animals. Man uses logic in
much the same way that a hunting dog instinctively uses tracks in searching
for his prey." <35> This idea is very similar to Blake's: reason is not the
highest capacity of man, and certainly is not capable of leading him to God.
It is rather part of his natural self, just like his body.
From the earthly perspective the totality of God can never be achieved.
Like the infinite regression of so many logical systems we can approach, but
our intellect, which is not the truth, never grasps the truth with such
precision that it could not be comprehended with infinitely greater
precision. The relationship of our intellect to the truth is like that of
a polygon to a circle; the resemblance to the circle grows with the
multiplication of the angles of the polygon; but apart from its being
reduced to identity with the circle, no multiplication, even if it were
infinite, of its angles will make the polygon equal the circle. <36>
Despite this use of geometrical analogy to disqualify man's understanding
from reaching God's, Cusanus will develop this analogy of the relationship of
polygon to circle into his primary visual image for the coincidence of
opposites as he imagines the infinite polygon becoming the infinite circle, or
the infinite triangle becoming the infinite line. The geometry which is here
used to analogize the impossibility of our ability to reach infinity is used
in other places to take us as close to that realm as possible. The reach is
still logically, humanly impossible, and the mathematics still shows the
infinite distance between human and divine, which can not be bridged by merely
logical, human means, but only by the coincidence of opposites.
Cusanus bases his combination of theology and geometry on certain axioms,
perhaps the most fundamental of which is his assumption about infinity:
It is impossible to have more than one infinite. . . . the infinite
triangle, though it is the perfect model of all triangles, is not composed
of a plurality of lines, is not in any sense a compound, but is more
perfectly indivisible; and since it is the perfect model triangle, it must
have three lines; therefore, the one infinite line is itself three lines
and these three lines are one perfectly indivisible line. <37>
These assumptions and conclusions about the infinite lead inevitably to a
coincidence of largest and smallest:
since each part of the infinite is infinite, then one foot of the infinite
line is as equally the whole infinite line as two feet are. <38>
We are coming very close to seeing Blake's world in a grain of sand.
Cusanus's geometry begins with the principle of non-contradiction in the
finite world; different geometrical figures must remain different:
elementary figures [circle, triangle, sphere] etc., which are the only
ones educible from the potency of the simple line, cannot be reduced to
one another in the finite. <39>
In the infinite realm, however, these figures can coincide:
The infinite circle has infinite diameter and circumference. . . . the
centre, diameter and circumference are one and the same. . . . the centre
is the circumference. <40>
Thus, through the logic of geometry raised to the power of infinity, Cusanus
arrives at the traditional mystical formula that the center and circumference
come together. For, in the finite realm, the polygon can never become a
circle, no matter how near to 180 degrees its angles become; in the finite
realm, a triangle can never can become a straight line, no matter how long its
sides become; in the finite realm, a circle can never become a straight line,
no matter how long its diameter becomes. But in the infinite realm, the
infinite polygon does coincide with the infinite circle, the infinite triangle
does coincide with the infinite straight line, and the infinite circle does
coincide with the infinite straight line. By picturing the largest possible
polygon stretched out beyond the possible into infinity, we can, by analogy to
our finite world, begin to comprehend the infinite world. With a bit more
imaginative difficulty, we can similarly begin to comprehend the expansion of
the infinite circle into a straight line. We can stretch it out beyond our
comprehension to acknowledge infinity by analogy to what we can comprehend.
Our human comprehension, although capable of imagining analogies to the
infinite, can never grasp the infinite. Thus, by analogy to what we know, we
can describe or accept or tolerate what we don't know, what we can never know.
Pope will take an approach similar to Cusanus's: we must remain content with
partial knowledge, even while we understand as much as we can through the
reasoning power of analogy. We can attain only learned ignorance. Blake,
however, will insist that a coming together of finite and infinite, similar to
that of Cusanus, guarantees total knowledge to the human, who participates
fully in the divine. Both Cusanus and Pope want to start from what we know
and then proceed logically up to the limits of our knowledge, accepting but
never attaining totality. Blake, however, will make the leap, based not on
logic but on miracles.
According to Cusanus and Pope, in the other realm, beyond our knowledge,
the ordinary laws of non-contradiction do not apply. Even the distinction
between the largest and the smallest must fail to operate in the infinite mind
the absolute maximum is one and it is all; all things are in it because it
is the maximum. Moreover, it is in all things for this reason that the
minimum at once coincides with it, since there is nothing that can be
placed in opposition to it. <41>
Insofar as the finite limits of man cannot reach the infinite and insofar as
the Maximum must coincide with the Minimum because of the very nature of
infinity, a possibility of joining the two incommensurate realms occurs. The
maximum possibility of the infinite is the very joining of infinite and
finite. As in Blake, the only possible earthly existence of such a principle
of maximum/minimum is in the divine made human, or spirit made flesh:
the one maximum in which the universe finds especially and most completely
its actual and ultimate subsistence. . . . this maximum bears the ever
blessed name of Jesus. <42>
Dorothea Singer, while writing primarily about Giordano Bruno, links infinity,
the coincidence of opposites, and Jesus all together because each of the three
implies the other two:
In both writers [Bruno and Cusanus], closely associated with belief in the
infinity of the universe was the doctrine of the Coincidence of
Contraries. The subject-object relationship similarly was envisaged by
both writers as a process of admixture culminating in identity. . . .
Cusanus gave the doctrine a new slant and a new emphasis. . . . Cusanus
saw Salvation as the Line of Unification between Contraries. <43>
Salvation through Jesus, for Cusanus, and for Blake, is the way to unify the
contraries of infinite and finite:
The universe is completely dependent upon God but remains in an essential
antithesis to him as the limited to the infinite, the relative to the
absolute. How is this antithesis to be overcome? . . . The perfect mode
of unity would be a being which was both creator and creature and in which
the relative, without ceasing to be relative, would be one with the
absolute, maximum contractum and maximum absolutum at the same time
(III,2). . . . Nicholas embraces the thesis of the Scotist school of
theologians that the perfection of creation calls in some sense for the
Like Blake, Cusanus finds the solution to the logical problem in the person of
As in Cusanus' theology of Jesus as the universal Form, Blake asserts an
immanent God who is nonetheless divine. 'All deities reside in the human
breast' is a formulation intended to emphasize the divine element in man
rather than to demote God to a metaphor of individual human imaginations;
it is in God that the individual is freed from isolation and solipsism.
Cusanus' inquiry logically leads to negative theology, in which
affirmations serve no purpose. Since affirmations can state only human
knowledge, divine knowledge must be stated in negative terms. "Since a term
that is particular, that marks a distinction and that suggests its opposite,
can only apply to God in the way we have described, affirmations, as Denis
says, are unsuitable." <46>
Cusanus's theory thus fits into the Jewish tradition of allowing no graven
images of God because any image is an affirmation, which necessarily distorts
The pagans of old ridiculed the Jews for adoring a God unique and infinite
whom they did not know, whilst they themselves were adoring Him in his
manifestations, adoring Him, in other words, wherever they beheld His
divine works. <47>
Such glorification of the physical can fall into a kind of materialism, which
would never allow a coincidence of opposites. Consistent throughout the
tradition of the coincidence of opposites, from Plato through Cusanus to
Blake, is an insistent stand against letting materialism determine the limits
of human or divine. "Negative Theology . . . is so indispensable to
affirmative theology that without it God would be adored, not as the Infinite
but rather as a creature, which is idolatry." <48> This necessity of
believing in abstraction will be followed by Pope but vehemently rejected by
Blake. Pope and Cusanus take a turn that Blake does not take into Negative
Theology. For Cusanus, a denial of materialism, a denial of the Law of Non-
Contradiction can not be an affirmation. As we shall see, for Blake it can.
"All affirmations, therefore, that are made of God in theology are
anthropomorphic, including even those most holy Names . . . used by the
Hebrews and the Chaldeans." <49> To Cusanus, anthropomorphizing of God
limits Him. Just as Cusanus would not allow God to be limited by any
restrictions on his knowledge of the future and the allowing of free will, so
he will not allow the limits of God reduced to man. But anthropomorphism to
Blake is not something to avoid; on the contrary it is the very nature of the
Human Form Divine; the divine implies, even requires the human, and vice
Apparently none of the elements of Cusanus's philosophy is original.
Cusanus's originality is in putting them all together. Such a judgement is
very appropriate for the philosophy of the coincidence of opposites, since it
shows how disparate elements can be fitted together to form a new whole:
The general plan of the book is not very original; it follows the
customary Neoplatonic scheme of the outflow of things from God and their
return to him which had been represented in the earlier middle ages, for
example, by the De Divisione Naturae of John Scotus Erigena. The notion
of the reconciliation of contraries in God, the coincidence of opposites,
is fairly evidently derived from Eckhart. The theory of enlightened
ignorance, the docta ignorantia itself, is only a new expression and
extension of the theologia negativa which was familiar enough to all
mediaeval thinkers, especially as found in the writings of the Pseudo-
Nicholas does not tell us what precisely he regarded as his special
inspiration, but we might well suppose that it was the way in which these
elements fitted together, for it is in this respect that he is really
Perhaps not coincidentally the idea in its completeness seems to have
come to him while he was engaged in his ambassadorial duties of reconciling
opposing factions. Although Cusanus's life as such is not essential to
understanding the coincidence of opposites, he did develop the same theme in
theory and in practice. In his work as papal ambassador, he often tried to
solve problems of papal schism. <51>
been working, as he claims that Cusanus's work in De Docta Ignorantia was a
synthesis in the debate between Ockhamism and Thomism, nominalism and realism:
In it can be found the influence of Eckhart, of the Hermetic tradition, of
Pseudo-Dionysius, and of Boethian mathematics, together with a newly
devised cosmological framework and a newly conceived theology of
Cusanus himself most often acknowledges the influence of Dionysius the
Areopagite, whose "disjunctive" and "copulative" theology he praises and
Cusanus indicates in De Docta Ignorantia that he has derived his
conception of God as the coincidentia oppositorum from the negative
theology of thinkers such as Dionysius the Areopagite. He refers
specifically to the Mystical Theology, On Divine Names and letter to
Gaius. Cusanus has then substituted a Platonic-Dionysian metaphysical
dialectic based on the opposition between the finite and the infinite for
the scholastics' dialectics of logic and discursive reasoning. <53>
Jasper Hopkins, who has translated and commented on Cusanus's major works,
often seems to want to tame Cusanus, to reduce the coincidence of opposites by
offering a logical critique of it:
a number of Nicholas's statements appear, prima facie, to be
unintelligible. The most noteworthy--and, ironically, the best known--is
his assertion that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose
circumference is nowhere. This statement, . . . is not original with
Nicholas but derives from Pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus's 'Book of the
Twenty-four Philosophers,' a compilation of the late twelfth or the early
thirteenth century. Nicholas, however, seems to have borrowed this
formula from Meister Eckhart, who uses it in no less than six places.
Yet, Eckhart's statement--already bizarre in its attempt to express the
doctrine of divine omnipresence--becomes all the more bizarre in the mouth
of Nicolas, who comes to declare that even the machina mundi has its
center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. Not only is it unclear
what sense it would make to apply this rubric to the mechanism of the
world, but the reason offered in support of so applying the rubric appears
unintelligible: vis., that God is the world's center and circumference--
God, who is present everywhere and nowhere. But the sense in which God,
an immaterial being, could be the world's center and circumference is
never successfully elucidated. <54>
This kind of literal-minded interpretation makes Cusanus sound even beyond
nonsense. When Cusanus adopts the beautiful traditional geometrical formula
of the mystics that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere, he is of
course emphasizing a point that Blake will emphasize in different language:
the relationship between God and human beings is such that God exists in each
and every point equally. Traditional theologies see God either as distant or
as all-encompassing in the nature of a circumference. Thus God is large and
unfathomable. In the coincidence of opposites God exists in every minute
particular; His center is not only out there somewhere but is also always in
here, a maximum in the minimum. Blake will similarly bring together divine
and human and develop Cusanus's implications.
More satisfactory than
in Cusanus is the concept of a copulative theology (as mentioned above in
Cusanus's homage to Dionysius). Copulation suggests the joining of two
different dimensions, which come together, not through compromise, but through
Another way to define copulative theology comes from plant imagery, like
that of Coleridge's organicism:
The human mind . . . is a divine seed that comprehends in its simple
essence the totality of everything knowable; but in order for this seed to
blossom and to bear fruit, it must be planted in the soil of the sensible
world. The basic character of that 'copulative theology' sought by
Cusanus lies in this reconciliation of mind and nature, of intellect and
For Dionysius the Areopagite, 'deification' . . . takes place according to
the hierarchical principle, i.e., in a completely determined series of
steps . . . for Cusanus it is a single act, one in which man puts himself
into an immediate relationship to God. <56>
Here Cusanus's divergence from the tradition that he is following again
anticipates Blake, who also dismisses a step-by-step, logical process as the
way to enlightenment. In his tractates, Blake parodies the style of logic to
use logic to refute this very idea:
II Man by his reasoning power. can only compare & judge of what he has
III From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce
a fourth or fifth.
IV None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had
none but organic perceptions
I Mans perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. he
percieves more than sense (tho' ever so acute) can discover.
Application. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He
who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.
Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is. <57>
Blake thus develops a notion of God like that of Cusanus, but brings it to a
higher level. Blake's man is not limited by the five senses and the rational
mind. Blake's man is capable of leaping to insight directly because he
perceives more than limited senses can perceive.
The best twentieth-century explanation I have yet seen of the kind of
process that Cusanus, and even more so Blake, are trying to accomplish occurs
in Philosophy of the Literary
Symbolic, by Hazard
literary theory on Blake (although
approach instead of Blake's religious one) he defines a coincidence of
opposites that captures precisely the kind of inclusiveness that I am trying
to elucidate. In offering to replace the viewpoint of deconstruction that all
language is duplicitous,
I choose to see another side--secular creative expression--and claim that
from poetry's point of view the poem makes a language, which creates and
contains its signified and allows it to emanate into the world to be
devoured; though I shall recognize that from the opposing point of view,
which I shall call 'antimyth,' it copies or signifies only and cannot
contain or radically form. And I shall hold that both views are necessary
fictions--Blakean contraries. . . . both myth and antimyth are, as I
apply the terms to Blake, modes of imaginative construction that result in
what may be called fictions. . . . Because both are modes of activity and
not themselves copies of anything, the question of which has truth or
correspondence to reality is not a possible question; indeed, the question
is merely a reflection of a category, to borrow Kant's term, of the
antimythic mode, and is meaningful only within its terms. <58>
of trying to assert absolute Truth, Blake (or at least
derived from Blake) lives in creativity and dialogue instead of in tyrannical
Truth. The relation between fallen vision and Visionary Vision is a dynamic
one, even though only the latter, not the former, can be aware of that
without myth, antimyth starves. In this sense, myth potentially contains
antimyth (as the seed does the plant): antimyth can never contain myth,
though it is engaged in a constant effort to devour it. <59>
limitations, but at the same time recognizes its redemptive power:
The stubbornness of the structure is two-fold: From the 'allegoric' point
of view, language has the capacity to resist the stasis reason desires and
stubbornly frustrates those who--like Urizen, Satan, and the 'priesthood'-
-would choose to abstract a single form of worship from it (try to reduce
it to a system pointing outward only to that one form--the clock world of
deism or the ideal world of Platonism). This capacity to resist is its
mythical, Los-like structure. On the other hand, language resists stasis
only as a result of the struggle that Los has with its equally dangerous
(from the poet's point of view) but necessary antimythical susceptibility
to externalization and hardening. Its stubbornness, then, can point
either way. <60>
Cusanus, in his anticipations of Romantic theory, comes very close to
Blake's and Coleridge's definitions of the creative imagination. Pauline
the transcending principle for which he has been looking and establishes
the grounds for a positive theology and anthropology. . . . Man, Cusanus
asserts, creates the conjectural world in a likeness of the manner in
which God has created the 'real' world. Metaphor is no longer however the
obfuscated and obfuscating product of man's disjunction from God and the
universe. Metaphor now is the tool that man uses to create his
conjectural world, the proof of his Godlike nature. This formulation is
an affirmative anthropomorphic principle which counteracts the impersonal
disjunctive metaphysic that dominated . . . De Docta Ignorantia because it
stresses the essentially creative and active nature of both God and man.
God has created the universe not out of necessity but freely.
Correspondingly, man, the image of God, is the creator of his conjectural
and metaphorical universe. Man is no longer a stranger in a universe that
he can never know directly. The fact that he is the image of God and the
creator and ruler of his own universe is the source of his cosmic status
and dignity. <61>
Thus the coincidence of opposites leads to a creative definition of human
Much of what Cusanus helps us understand about Blake is also helped by
Carl Jung's formulations of religious consciousness. In his Answer to Job
Jung, like Cassirer, uncovers the centrality of the coincidence of opposites
to medieval thought:
the study of medieval natural philosophy--of the greatest importance to
psychology--made me try to find an answer to the question: what image of
God did these old philosophers have? Or rather: how should the symbols
which supplement their image of God be understood? All this pointed to a
complexio oppositorum and thus recalled again the story of Job to my mind:
Job who expected help from God against God. This most peculiar fact
presupposes a similar conception of the opposites in God. <62>
This concept of God against God helps to answer the earlier bafflement of
by necessity a coincidence of opposites, so is man in his divine humanity, for
and against the self.
This is perhaps the greatest thing about Job, that, faced with this
difficulty [a God who does not care for moral opinion] he does not doubt
the unity of God. He clearly sees that God is at odds with himself--so
totally at odds that he, Job, is quite certain of finding in God a helper
and an 'advocate' against God. As certain as he is of the evil in Yahweh,
he is equally certain of the good. In a human being who renders us evil
we cannot expect at the same time to find a helper. But Yahweh is not a
human being: he is both a persecutor and a helper in one, and the one
aspect is as real as the other. Yahweh is not split but is an antinomy--a
totality of inner opposites--and this is the indispensable condition for
his tremendous dynamism, his omniscience and omnipotence. <63>
This double nature of God is essential for understanding Cusanus and later
Shelley and Blake. There is a doubleness at the very heart of existence, in
the person of God and the very ontology of humankind. For that reason, as for
unmistakably against the good. The good and the bad must always be united, in
an apparently impossible conjunction, a disjunctive copulation of
The paradoxical nature of God . . . tears [man] asunder into opposites and
delivers him over to a seemingly insoluble conflict. . . . The doctor
therefore advises his patient to wait and see. . . . As experience shows,
symbols of a reconciling and unitive nature do in fact turn up in dreams,
the most frequent being the motif of the child-hero and the squaring of
the circle, signifying the union of opposites. Those who have no access
to these specifically medical experiences can derive practical instruction
from fairy tales, and particularly from alchemy. The real subject of
Hermetic philosophy is the coniunctio oppositorum. <64>
In Jung's psychology, dreams are the main form of communication from the
unconscious realm, where opposites can coincide, to the conscious realm:
all unconscious nature longs for the light of consciousness while
frantically struggling against it at the same time. The conscious
realization of what is hidden and kept secret certainly confronts us with
an insoluble conflict; at least this is how it appears to the conscious
mind. But the symbols that rise up out of the unconscious in dreams show
it rather as a confrontation of opposites, and the images of the goal
represent their successful reconciliation. <65>
Similarly, in the poetry of the writers studied here, images arise from the
realm of the coincidentia oppositorum into the realm of language, where poetry
links the two realms together. For Cusanus and for Blake, the ultimate such
link requires a God-man:
Eschatology means in effect that Christ is God and man at the same time
and that he therefore suffers a divine as well as a human fate. The two
natures interpenetrate so thoroughly that any attempt to separate them
mutilates both. <66>
Blake's human form divine.
Notes to Chapter 1: Nicholas of Cusa
1. Pauline Moffitt Watts, Nicolaus Cusanus: A Fifteenth-Century Vision of Man
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982), p. 43.
2. Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy,
Trans. Mario Domandi (NY: Harper, 1963), p. 17.
Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion.
4. Frye, Double, p. 23.
5. Leopold Damrosch, Symbol and Truth in Blake's Myth (Princeton UP, 1980), p.
6. "A Vision of the Last Judgment," E566.
7. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plates 16-17, E40. 8. Notebooks 1914-16,
p. 74e; qtd. in Thomas McFarland. Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), p. 55.
9. Cassirer, p. 15.
10. Raymond Klibansky, "Plato's Parmenides in the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance: A Chapter in the History of Platonic Studies," Medieval and
Renaissance Studies 1 (1943), p. 300.
11. Table Talk, 30 Apr 1830; qtd. in Kathleen M. Wheeler, Sources, Processes
and Methods in Coleridge's Biographia
1980), p. 49.
12. Metaphysics, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1936), pp.
13. John Ferguson, Aristotle (NY: Twayne), pp. 113-14.
14. Irving M. Copi, Introduction to Logic. 7th ed. (NY: Macmillan, 1986), pp.
Nicolas Cusanus, Of Learned Ignorance, trans. Germain
Yale UP, 1954), p. 49.
16. Cusanus, p. 50.
17. J.B. Hawkins, "Introduction," in Cusanus, p. xix.
20. Cassirer, p. 7.
21. Cusanus, Of Learned Ignorance, p. 7.
Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 12th ed., (
UP, 1936), p. 52 and passim.
23. Cusanus, p. 7.
24. Cusanus, p. 8.
26. Cusanus, p. 10.
27. Cusanus, p. 25.
28. Cusanus, p. 39.
29. Klibansky, p. 288.
30. Cusanus, p. 12.
31. "There exists no proportion between the finite and the infinite"; De Docta
Ignorantia [Of Learned Ignorance], qtd. in Carlo Riccati, "Processio" et
"Explicatio": La doctrine de la creation chez Jean Scot et Nicolas de Cues
(Naples: Biblipolis, 1983), p. 27.
33. Dana Bliss Birkby, Salting the Tail of the Infinite: Mathematics in the
Epistemology of Nicholas of Cusa, unpublished thesis (Harvard, 1982), p. 14.
34. Cusanus, p. 13.
36. Cusanus, p. 11.
37. Cusanus, p. 31.
38. Cusanus, p. 36
39. Cusanus, p. 45.
40. Cusanus, p. 47.
41. Cusanus, p. 9.
42. Cusanus, p. 10.
43. Dorothea Waley Singer, Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought (NY: Henry
Schuman, 1950), p. 80.
44. Hawkins, p. xxv.
45. Damrosch, p. 247.
46. Cusanus, p. 55.
47. Cusanus, p. 58.
48. Cusanus, p. 59.
49. Cusanus, p. 56.
50. Hawkins, p. xiv.
51. Birkby, p. 5.
52. Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance: A Translation and
an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia (
1981), p. 1.
Areopagite, often called Pseudo-Dionysius:
Denys, presque partout, a transmis la theologie sous forme disjonctive ...
il saute par-dessus la disjonction jusqu'a la copulation et coincidence,
c'est-a-dire jusqu'a une union parfaitement simple, qui n'est point
laterale mais va directement au-dessus de toute ablation et de toute
position, la ou l'ablation coincide avec la position, et la negation avec
l'affirmation; et telle est la plus secrete theologie, a laquelle aucun
des philosophes n'est parvenu ni ne peut parvenir s'il se tient au
principe commun de toute philosophie, selon lequel deux contradictoires ne
coincident point. C'est pourquoi il est necessaire que celui qui
theologise sur le mode mystique, au-dessus de toute raison et de toute
intelligence, allant jusqu'a s'abandonner lui-meme, penetre dans la
tenebre; et il decouvrira comment ce que la raison juge impossible,
savoir: qu'une chose tout ensemble soit et ne soit pas, est la necessite
meme, disons plus: si n'apparaissait pareille tenebre et densite
d'impossibilite, la supreme necessite n'existerait point, laquelle n'est
pas en contradiction avec cette impossibilite, car l'impossibilite est la
veritable necessite meme. (Nicolas de Cues, Lettres aux moines de
Tegernsee sur la docte ignorante [Paris: O.E.I.L., 1985], p.27.)
[my translation] Dionysius, almost everywhere, conveyed a disjunctive
theology. . . . he leaps through the disjunction to copulation and
coincidence, that is to say, to a perfectly simple union, which is not at
all indirect but goes directly above all absence and all presence, to
where absence coincides with presence, and negation with affirmation.
Such is the most secret theology, to which none of the philosophers has
arrived nor could arrive if he maintains the accepted principle of all
philosophy, according to which two contradictories do not coincide at all.
That is why it is necessary that anyone who does theology in the mystical
mode, above all reason and all intelligence, going so far as to abandon
himself, must pentrate into the shadows; and he will discover how to know
that what reason judges impossible--that a thing can be and not be at the
same time--is necessity itself. Let us say more: if such shadowy and
thick impossibility do not appear, then the supreme necessity does not
exist at all, which is not in contradiction with that impossibility,
because the impossibility is the true necessity itself.
Thus Cusanus raises the coincidentia oppositorum to a test of theology
itself: if a piece of theology does not encounter irrational opposites, then
it has not attained its true height.
Cusa. 3rd ed. (Minneasplis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1986), p. 13.
55. Cassirer, p. 45.
56. Cassirer, p. 14.
57. "There is No Natural Religion" [a], E2; and "There is No Natural Religion"
Hazard Adams, Philosophy of the Literary Symbolic (
Carl Jung, Answer to Job, tans. R.F.C. Hull (1958; rpt.
1973), p. x.
63. Jung, Answer, p. 7.
64. Jung, Answer, pp. 91-92.
65. Jung, Answer, p. 98.
66. Jung, Answer, p. 45.