Nicholas of Cusa‘s paradigmatic diagram (figura paradigmatica, a.k.a. Diagram P) from his 1441/2 On Surmises (De Coniecturis), translated by Jasper Hopkins.

“Conceive of a pyramid-of-light as progressing into darkness and of a pyramid-of-darkness as progressing into light; and reduce to [that] figurative conception everything that can be investigated, so that by guidance from what is perceptible you can turn your surmise toward hidden [truths]. And in order that you may be aided by means of an example, consider the universe as reduced to the diagram here below. Notice that God, who is Oneness, is as the base-of-light; but the base-of-darkness is as nothing. Every creature, we surmise, lies between God and nothing” (p182).

Cusanus’s Paradigmatic Diagram

The Latin labels are unitas: oneness; basis pyramis lucis: base of the pyramid of light; tertium caelum:third heaven; supremus mundus: uppermost world; secundum caelum: second heaven; medius mundus: middle world; primum caelum: first heaven; infimus mundus: lowest world; basis pyramis tenebrae: base of the pyramid of darkness; alteritas: otherness.

“The definition of ‘oneness’ is ‘indivisibility in and of itself and separation from all else.’ Hence, we say that oneness is called by the names of the many characteristics of its power. For whichever names indicate a certain indivisibility, distinctness, and union befit oneness. Now, the [foregoing] diagram includes, under [the label] ‘oneness,’ all such [befitting] things; and under [the label] ‘otherness’ it includes their opposites. Hence, for indivisibility to proceed into divisibility is nothing other than for oneness to descend into otherness” (p183-4).

“If you want to behold, intellectually, oneness in otherness, then pay very careful attention also to the following: viz., that for oneness to proceed into otherness is, at the same time, for otherness to return into oneness. For example, for the soul to be in the body is for the soul to proceed into the body in such a way that the body’s oneness enters into the soul. Likewise as regards form: the more one and the more perfect each form is, the more its proceeding [into otherness] is otherness’s returning [into its oneness]. For by means of a simple act of understanding, conceive of proceeding as conjoined with returning, if you want to arrive at those hidden truths which are more truly attained above reason (which separates progression from returning) by intellect alone (which folds opposites into a single bond)” (p187-8).

“You must notice that light’s descending is nothing other than darkness’s ascending. And God’s being in the world is nothing other than the world’s being in God. And for actuality to proceed into potentiality is nothing other than for potentiality to arrive at actuality. And a point’s ascending into corporeality is nothing other than corporeality’s descending into a point. And for darkness to elevate itself into light is nothing other than for light to descend into darkness. Likewise, for the potentiality of matter to proceed into the actuality-of-form is nothing other than for form’s actuality to descend into matter’s potentiality. Therefore, with intellectual acumen conjoin the ascent and the descent, in order that you may surmise more truly” (p217, c.f. Meister Eckhart’s words on coinherence and God’s eye).

“For the more subtly the mind contemplates itself in and through the world unfolded from itself, the more abundantly fruitful it is made within itself” (p165).

* * *

In edition Codex Latinus Cusanus 218 (1445), the diagram is situated horizontally rather than vertically, an arrangement seemingly familiar to Yeat’s instructors 500 years later (c.f. Yeat’s Concord and Discord with Cusanus’s oneness and otherness).

Cusanus’s Paradigmatic Diagram

20 Responses to “Cusanus’s Paradigmatic Diagram”

  1. Mirco Says:

    Dear Greg,

    the happy few that know about the great Cardinal Cusanus feel no need to take refuge in the wise old East: all its wisdom can be found already in his sparkling, witty writings.

    The World (so aptly epitomized in the two encased cones above) is the result of the subtle dialectic


    (complication-explication,folding-unfolding, rolling up-unrolling).

    The traditional opposition UNITY-DIVERSITY is shown to be nothing more that the two faces of Janus: two poles of an ineffable whole.

    Here is an interesting article on the Cardinal:

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