Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008-9

Rich has been contributing to Chall since issue #1. Here’s an article about
a guy who’s been around almost as long.

The Man Who Invented

Extraterrest+rials:

Nicholas of Cusa

Richard Dengrove

 

Also known as Nicolaus Cusanus, Nicholas of Kues and Nicolaus Krebs. He lived in the 15th Century and he was a priest who later became a Cardinal. Some would say that extraterrestrials are a fact and no man invented them. Maybe in their way they are. However, in another way, Nicholas invented them. Also, some might wonder how a priest who later became a cardinal could argue for the existence of extraterrestrials. In addition, some might wonder how anyone could have argued for their existence before Copernicus and his heliocentric solar system. Before Galileo. Could Extraterrestrials fit into the Ptolemaic universe, they might ask, where the Earth was the center?

Evidently, they did. Nicholas wrote in his 1439-40 book, De docta ignorantia, i.e., Learned Ignorance:

Life, as it exists on Earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose in a high form in the solar and stellar regions. Rather than think that so many stars and parts of the heavens are uninhabited and that this earth of ours alone is peopled – and that with beings perhaps of an inferior type – we will suppose that in every region there are inhabitants, differing in nature by rank and all owing their origin to God, who is the center and circumference of all stellar regions.”

There you have it: the doctrine that there are extraterrestrials. This doctrine was known until the 20th Century as the Plurality of Worlds.

About their nature, Nicolaus warns:

Of the inhabitants then of worlds other than our own we can know still less having no standards by which to appraise them”

Nevertheless, he goes on to speculate anyway. And, in doing so, he contradicts himself. Sometimes he speculates that mankind is inferior to the extraterrestrials.

It may be conjectured that in the area of the sun there exist solar beings, bright and enlightened denizens, and by nature more spiritual than such as may inhabit the moon – who are possibly lunatics – whilst those on earth are more gross and material.”

In essence, the inhabitants of the heavenly bodies have the same astrological attributes as their heavenly body does. While Nicholas is probably speaking, to a great extent, tongue-in-cheek, later writers took him dead serious. At another point, he also argues that mankind is inferior: i.e., “the Earth is perhaps inhabited by lesser beings” than dwell on other globes.

Other times Nicholas speculates that mankind is superior. For instance, he says there is nothing nobler and more perfect than our spiritual nature. Of course, if he was being logically consistent, he would say, as he does to begin with, that we cannot know the nature of extraterrestrials.

 

What made Nicholas come up with the idea of extraterrestrials? When he talks about God being the center of all stellar regions, that is not just a rhetorical flourish; that gives us the answer. According to Aristotle, the Earth was the center of the universe. There is no such thing as gravity per se: each object takes the place in the universe that accords with its rank. The gross and material – for instance, creatures of flesh – take their place near the center; and the bright and enlightened – for instance, angels – take their place away from the Earthly center.

As modified by the Church, the inhabitants of the stars and planets were angels. The inhabitants of the Moon, which is between the spiritual and material world, were demons. The inhabitants of the Earth were humans. On the one hand, humans were corrupt and prone to sins of the flesh. In that way, Earth was the garbage heap center. On the other hand, humans were on the frontline trenches of the war with Satan.

Nicholas opposed Aristotle. As he said, God was the center of the universe not the Earth.

The universe has no circumference, for if it had a center and a circumference there would be some and some thing beyond the world, suppositions which are wholly lacking in truth. Since, therefore, it is impossible that the universe should be enclosed within a corporeal center and corporeal boundary, it is not within our power to understand the universe, whose center and circumference are God. And though the universe cannot be infinite, nevertheless it cannot be conceived as finite since there are no limits within which it could be confined.”

Since God is outside the physical world, an intelligent being’s rightful place is anywhere. There could be animals, plants and even intelligent beings on other planets.

This idea is not as heterodox as it sounds. The Church had two centers for the universe, Earth, the center of Aristotle, and God. Nicholas merely eliminated the least religious center, Earth.

The idea here was to vindicate the docta ignorantia of his book’s title, i.e. learned ignorance, that we know that we do not know

There is no reason why the Earth is the Earth, or man, man except that he who made them so willed.”

If we accepted his argument so far, it would satisfactorily convince us that there is life on other planets. However, Nicholas was a scholastic, who had to complete his line of reasoning. Without this last bit of reasoning, the universe could still be empty of all life, except Earth. He has to argue from the Medieval premise that it is inconceivable that, under a good God, “so many spaces of the heaven and stars should be vacant.” There has to be life there.

It is obvious, taken as a whole, this reasoning was at once extremely religious because it makes God all powerful. God determines the rightful place of a thing or being, not theory. Another phenomena God determines is the movement of the Earth. Aristotle said that the Earth was stationary and the heavenly bodies move around it. Nicholas disagreed with this, also because God is the center and not theory.

It is evident that this earth really moves, though it does not seem to do so, for we apprehend motion only by means of a contrast with some fixed point. If a man on a boat in a stream were unable to see the banks and did not know that the stream was moving, how would he comprehend that the boat was moving? Thus it is that, whether a man is on the earth or the sun or some other star, it will always seem to him that the position he occupies is the motionless center and that all other things are in motion.”

A Bishop, Nicholas Oresme, had a similar notion in the 14th Century, which he did not take seriously. On the other hand, it was not demonstrated until Pierre Gassendi in the 17th Century that that is how the Earth actually behaves.

As well as being theological, Nicholas’ thinking was at once empirical. As the advocates of unexplainable wonders said at the time: you only know by experience. You do not necessarily know the cause. Waters could heal and snake meat could cure even though we do not know the cause. While, in present day science, theory and experience are seen as complimentary, theory and experience were then seen as opposed to one another. So empirical is Nicholas he does not bother attacking Aristotle’s theories as science. He does not attack Aristotle’s theory of non-gravity. The Ancient atomists who had views similar to Nicholas did attack it. Later thinkers would attack it.

Also, where Nicholas has no theological bones to pick, he does not attack the products of that theory. For instance, he accepts the Ptolemaic solar system, where the Earth is the center. He was within his rights. The problem he discusses is the center of the universe not the center of the solar system. He was no Copernicus or Galileo.

Having said that Nicholas was being more theological; I have to admit, on one point of dogma, he did not care: whether Christ saved beings on other planets as well. This was the single most important issue engendered by the Plurality of Worlds. Most thinkers for centuries to come felt they had to weigh in on it. The reason is Acts 4:12 was interpreted as claiming Christ saved them:

“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under Heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”

About De docta ignorantia, the Church of the time did not mind it in the least. Throughout Nicholas’ life, he had the confidence of Popes. He was sent on diplomatic missions for the Pope both before and after De docta Ignorantia. A little later on, he was made a Papal legate, and argued the Church’s position before city burghers. Eight years after he wrote the book, he was ordained a Cardinal. Ultimately, Nicholas was given a see, an area, to take care of. While he had problems there, they did not concern any conflicts with the Church. Instead, they concerned conflicts with the local count, who fought Nicholas’ religious zeal. At one point, the count imprisoned Nicholas. In fact, so supportive was the Church it acted on his behalf, and got the Holy Roman Emperor to intercede for him.

It would be tempting to say that the Church was so tolerant because it had not been bothered yet by the Reformation. However, I consider it unlikely that he would have been persecuted under the Counter-Reformation. I see no evidence that the Church was bothered in the least then by the doctrine of the Plurality of Worlds. It is true, at some point, the Church banned the Sun centered system of Copernicus; but, as in the time of Nicholas, the Plurality of Worlds was considered a separate doctrine. Also, I know it is widely believed Giordano Bruno was burnt by the Church because he proclaimed the Plurality of Worlds. However, the Church had other reasons to take a dim view of Bruno: he practiced magic considered black, consorted with Protestants, and advocated the ‘ancient Egyptian’ religion. Despite claims, the Inquisition never told why it imprisoned or burnt Bruno.

De docta ignorantia, and other of Nicholas’s writings on the Plurality of Worlds, were not left unmolested because they were forgotten either. He inspired Bruno in the 16th Century and Tomaso Campanella in the 17th to believe in the Plurality of Worlds. He also justified the doctrine. Both René Descartes in the 17th Century and the French astronomer François Arago in the 19th Century cite Nicholas as a religious man who believed in the Plurality of Worlds. In addition, Nicholas was mentioned by Christian Huygens, the Bishops John Wilkins and Francis Godwin, and Otto von Guericke in the 17th Century; and Voltaire in the 18th Century. Mostly, they cite him on whether extraterrestrials are superior or inferior to man. As I say, you can get fodder for either doctrine from Nicholas’ work.

So ends my account of Nicholas of Cusa, who invented extraterrestrials.


Bibliography


Crowe, Michael J. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750–1900, 1999.


Guthke,. Karl S. The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds, from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction. Translated by Helen Atkins. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990.


Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea. The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University, 1933. Cambridge, Ma, and London: 1936 and 1964, 382p., X11.

[ HOME ]     [ Current Issue ]     [ Archives ]

Challenger is (c) 2008 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.

Last Modified: