Readings of the Liber de causis in the Renaissance: Nicholas of Cusa and Johannes Wenck
The research project I carried out at the University of Warwick thanks to the generous support offered by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation aimed at examining the reception of the Liber de causis in the Renaissance, focusing in particular on the readings of the book by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) and Johannes Wenck (c. 1390-1460).
This study allowed me to extend the analysis of the influence of the Liber, which is a foundational theme of inquiry of my PhD thesis, to the fifteenth century. It also gave me the possibility to develop some of the ideas formed during the stimulating workshop on Reading Publics in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe held at the University of Warwick last year.
My PhD thesis, which focuses on the development of the apophatic tradition in the works of Alan of Lille (c. 1120-1202/3) and Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), addresses this issue placing it in two main contexts: the intertwining of metaphysics and theology with logic, rhetoric and grammar both in Latin and vernacular and the interaction of Neoplatonic, Aristotelian and Christian ideas in the broader framework of the reception of ancient thought in Medieval Europe (for instance the reworking of Plotinus’s, Proclus’s and Pseudo-Dionysius’s works by twelfth to fourteenth centuries theologians and philosophers). In this context the analysis of the readings of the Liber de causis by Alan and Dante, who knew the text and quote it in many of their works, proves to be very interesting.
The Liber is in fact an Aristotelian pseudoepigraph treatise adapted from Proclus’ Elements of Theology, Plotinus’ Enneads and the Theology of the pseudo-Aristotle by an unknown Arab, probably in the circle of Al-Kindi. It was translated into Latin possibly by Gerard of Cremona in the second half of the twelfth century with the title De expositione bonitatis purae. At the University of Paris it was taught as a complement to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and it was a very influential text in the scholastic philosophical culture of the High Middle Ages and beyond. This is evidenced in the large number of extant Latin manuscripts (over 250) and printed editions and in the commentaries by prominent thinkers, among which Albert the Great (c.1206-1280), Giles of Rome (c.1243/47-1316) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The latter, having access to William of Moerbeke’s Latin translation of Proclus’ Elementatio Theologica, was one of the first commentators to point out the Neoplatonic origin of the text.
The possibility to participate in the Reading Publics workshop last year, with its focus on the cultural and literary dynamics which contribute to the shaping of reading communities and on the elements which allow books themselves to function as creative forces, provided me with a better understanding of the interplay of the different factors at stake in the reception of the Liber de causis. This treatise is indeed a particularly striking example of how the material context of translations and annotations played a significant role in providing different and, at times, contrasting readings of the text, which in their turn affected the subsequent theoretical interpretations of this work. Ideological beliefs and cultural contexts were extremely important in the attribution of the treatise to the Aristotelian or Neoplatonic background too.
At the Reading Publics workshop were delivered a series of papers on the transmission of Greek texts in the Renaissance which proved to be very stimulating for my own research; particularly John Monfasani’s one on the Plato-Aristotle controversy. Moreover, the discussions with the other PhD students and early career participants, some of which have been able to continue this year thanks once again to the Mellon Foundation, proved to be an invaluable source of ideas, creating networks of shared interests and friendship. Within this fertile context and the guidance of Simon Gilson, I have been able to develop my own research project on a subject which has not been sufficiently studied yet: the reception of the Liber de causis in the Renaissance.
Despite the fact that some important scholars, such as Paul O. Kristeller and Werner Beierwaltes, pointed out the relevance of the Liber to Nicholas of Cusa, who owned a copy of the book with Aquinas’ commentary, very little attention has been paid to the analysis of the impact of the Liber on the development of Cusanus’ thought. My project therefore aims to open up a new area of research, beginning with the analysis of the readings of the Liber by Nicholas of Cusa, particularly in relation to his book De docta ignorantia, and by the Aristotelian Heidelberg professor Johannes Wenck, who wrote a commentary on the Liber de causis.
The comparison of their reception of the Liber and their approaches to the text is extremely interesting given the conflictual context in which their interpretation of the book takes place: Wenck strongly criticised the De docta ignorantia in his De ignota litteratura; Nicholas of Cusa replied with the Apologia doctae ignorantiae, sketching in contrast to Wenck’s account of Aristotelian causation, the Neoplatonic tradition developed by Proclus and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
Thanks to the financial contribution of the Mellon Foundation I have been able to acquire the reproductions of Nicholas of Cusa’s copy of the Liber de causis and of the Latin translation of Proclus’ Elementatio Theologica, which contain Cusanus’ marginal notes, and the reproduction of Johannes Wenck’s commentary on the Liber.
During my time at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at Warwick I have been able to avail myself of the paleographic expertise of the members of the center in order to solve some interpretative doubts concerning the manuscripts. Furthermore I strongly benefitted from the presence of scholars focusing on the reception of ancient philosophy in the Renaissance: thanks to their suggestions I have been able to enhance and refine my understanding of the reception of the Liber. The possibility to take frequent research trips to the Bodleian Library and have access to rare materials proved to be an indispensable element in order to be able to compile a comprehensive bibliography on the subject.
Moreover the fellowship allowed me to deepen my interest in the role played by the Liber de causis as a theological basis for the development of Dante’s political thought. Examining the methodological aspects connected to this issue, I focused particularly on Ernst Kantorovicz’s interpretation of Dante and I prepared a paper on this subject which I recently delivered at an international workshop at the University of Pavia.
The generous technical and scholarly support offered by the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance has provided me with a great environment in which to carry out my research. Moreover the lively and engaging discussions begun during the Reading Publics workshop last year and further developed and enriched this year, have been an invaluable resource to rethink my methodological tools of analysis and cultivate new research interests. Thanks to the workshop and the subsequent fellowship I have been able to pursue a new research, acquiring and studying rare materials and receiving valuable comments and suggestions on my interpretative hypothesis.
(Cod. Cus. 195 reproduced by kind permission of the Institut für Cusanus-Forschung)
Cod. Cus. 195, fol. 1r
Cod. Cus. 195, fol. 49r