“Truth cannot contradict truth” – if evidence of extraterrestrial life was found, would you say you believe in aliens? This medieval cardinal certainly did, “inventing” the idea of extraterrestrial life as we know it today well before anyone else.
Nicholas of Cusa was born the year 1401 A.D. in Kues, Germany, a city on the Moselle river. Throughout his life, he became a renowned theologian, philosopher, and astronomer, and was appointed cardinal by Pope Nicholas V for his staggering intellectual merit. A sort of proto-Renaissance man, he made significant theological, philosophical, and political contributions to European history – including the “invention” of extraterrestrial life.
Understanding how Nicholas of Cusa invented aliens requires a brief look at humanity’s historical beliefs of the existence of other worlds, and life unlike our own. In Ancient Greece the earliest debates of cosmic pluralism, the existence of other worlds, was mostly philosophical and would more closely resemble our modern day ideas of parallel or alternate universes. Believing the Earth is the center of the universe doesn’t provide for the existence of extraterrestrial life within the geocentric worldview.
It might surprise you that for such a transcendent question, early Christians and the Church Fathers never speculated about the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Early Christians also held the geocentric worldview that meant anything extra terram, apart from earth and water, must have lived in the air and thus would have been a spirit of some form – not an alien life.
Enter Nicholas of Cusa, who establishes a rather unique idea about the nature of the universe, well before Copernicus formulated the heliocentric model. In 1440 he writes that neither the Earth nor the Sun is the center of the universe, instead, God is:
“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.”
Not only did he believe God was the center of the universe, but established the first concrete doctrine of cosmic pluralism, the existence of other planets and celestial bodies with the potential for life – “aliens” as we would call them today.
“Of the inhabitants then of worlds other than our own we can know still less having no standards by which to appraise them.”
Nicholas of Cusa evidently had difficulty completing his ideas on the nature of his newly invented extraterrestrials. At times, he calls mankind superior with the most perfect spiritual nature, and at other times actually contradicts himself, saying “the Earth is perhaps inhabited by lesser beings.”
“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.”
How did Nicholas of Cusa arrive at his idea that God is the center of the universe?
“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. It is not within our power to understand the universe, whose center and circumference are God.”
Photo credit: Nick Thompson via Flickr.