Theologia Germanica, by Anonymous (Meister Eckhart)
New Platonism and Alchemy, by Alexander Wilder
Be Here Now, by Ram Dass
Meister Eckhart, by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Eckhart von Hochheim O.P. (c. 1260 – c. 1327), commonly known as Meister Eckhart, was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born near Gotha, in Thuringia. Meister is German for "Master", referring to the academic title Magister in theologia he obtained in Paris. Coming into prominence during the decadent Avignon Papacy and a time of increased tensions between the Franciscans and Eckhart's Dominican Order of Friars Preachers, he was brought up on charges later in life before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition. Tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII, his "Defence" is famous for his reasoned arguments to all challenged articles of his writing and his refutation of heretical intent. He purportedly died before his verdict was received, although no record of his death or burial site has ever been discovered. He was well known for his work with pious lay groups such as the Friends of God and succeeded by his more circumspect disciples of John Tauler and Henry Suso. In his study of medieval humanism, Richard Southern includes him along with Saint Bede the Venerable and Saint Anselm as emblematic of the intellectual spirit of the Middle Ages.
Eckhart was one of the most influential 14th c. Christian Neoplatonists, and although technically a faithful Thomist (as a prominent member of the Dominican Order), Eckhart wrote on metaphysics and spiritual psychology, drawing extensively on mythic imagery, and was notable for his sermons communicating the metaphorical content of the gospels to laymen and clergy alike. Major German philosophers have been influenced by his work.
Novel concepts Eckhart introduced into Christian metaphysics clearly deviate from the common scholastic canon: in Eckhart's vision, God is primarily fecund. Out of overabundance of love the fertile God gives birth to the Son, the Word in all of us. Clearly (aside from a rather striking metaphor of "fertility"), this is rooted in the Neoplatonic notion of "ebulliance, boiling over" of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being. Eckhart had imagined the creation not as a "compulsory" overflowing (a metaphor based on a common hydrodynamic picture), but as the free act of will of the triune nature of Deity (refer Trinitarianism). Another bold assertion is Eckhart's distinction between God and Godhead (Gottheit in German). These notions had been present in Pseudo-Dionysius's writings and John the Scot's De divisione naturae, but it was Eckhart who, with characteristic vigor and audacity, reshaped the germinal metaphors into profound images of polarity between the Unmanifest and Manifest Absolute. One of his most intriguing sermons on the "highest virtue of disinterest," unique in Christian theology both then and now, conforms to the Buddhist concept of detachment and more contemporarily, Kant's "disinterestedness." Meister Eckhart's Abgeschiedenheit was also admired by Alexei Losev in that contemplative ascent (reunion with meaning) is bound with resignation/detachment from the world. The difference is that truth/meaning in the phenomenological sense was not the only result, as expressed in Eckhart's practical guide "for those who have ears to hear", but creation itself. He both understood and sought to communicate the practicalities of spiritual perfection and the consequences in real terms.
Eckhart expressed himself both in learned Latin for the clergy in his tractates, and more famously in the German vernacular (at that time Middle High German) in his sermons. Because, as he said in the defence he gave at his trial, his sermons were meant to inspire in listeners the desire above all to do some good; he frequently used unusual language or seemed to stray from the path of orthodoxy. His unorthodox teachings made him suspect to the Catholic Church during the tension filled years of the Avignon Papacy, and he was tried for heresy in the final years of his life. We do know that he disappeared from the public arena before the papal verdict, and is suspected by some of continuing his ministry in anonymity. However there is no single medieval source giving evidence of this suspicion.
He is also considered by some to have been the inspirational "layman" referred to in Johannes Tauler's and Rulman Mershwin's later writings in Strasbourg where he is known to have spent time (although it is doubtful that he authored the simplistic "Book of the Nine Rocks" published by Mershwin and attributed to the layman knight from the north). On the other hand most scholars consider the "layman" to be a pure fiction invented by Rulman Mershwin to hide his authorship because of the intimidating tactics of the Inquisition at the time.
It has also been suspected that his practical communication of the mystical path is behind the influential 14th c. "anonymous" Theologia Germanica which was disseminated after his disappearance. According to the medieval introduction of the document, its author was an unnamed member of the Teutonian Order of Knights living in Frankfurt.
The Meister Eckhart portal of the Erfurt Church.
Eckhart was probably born in the village of Tambach (Thuringia) in approximately 1260. He was born to a noble family of landowners, but little is known about his family and early life except that he attended the University of Paris. There is no authority for giving him the Christian name of Johannes which sometimes appears in biographical sketches, his Christian name was Eckhart; his surname was von Hochheim.
Eckhart joined the Dominicans at Erfurt, and it is assumed he studied at Cologne. Later he was Prior at Erfurt and Provincial of Thuringia. In 1300, he was sent to Paris to lecture and take the academical degrees, and remained there till 1303. At this point he returned to Erfurt, and was made Provincial for Saxony, a province which reached at that time from the Netherlands to Livonia. Complaints made against him and the provincial of Teutonia at the general chapter held in Paris in 1306, concerning irregularities among the ternaries, must have been trivial, because the general, Aymeric of Piacenza, appointed him in the following year his vicar-general for Bohemia with full power to set the demoralized monasteries there in order.
In 1311, Eckhart was appointed by the general chapter of Naples as teacher at Paris. Then follows a long period of which it is known only that he spent part of the time at Strasbourg. A passage in a chronicle of the year 1320, extant in manuscript (cf. Wilhelm Preger, i. 352–399), speaks of a prior Eckhart at Frankfurt who was suspected of heresy, and some have referred this to Meister Eckhart. It is unusual that a man under suspicion of heresy would have been appointed teacher in one of the most famous schools of the order, but Eckhart's distinctive expository style could well have already been under scrutiny by his Franciscan detractors.
Eckhart next appears as teacher at Cologne, where the archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, eventually accuses him of heresy before the Pope. But Nicholas of Strasburg, to whom the pope had given the temporary charge of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, promptly exonerated him. The archbishop, however, further pressed his charges against Eckhart and against Nicholas before his own court, forcing them to deny the competency of the archepiscopal inquisition and demanded litterce dimissorix (apostoli) for an appeal to the Pope.
On February 13, 1327, he stated in his protest, which was read publicly, that he had always detested everything wrong, and should anything of the kind be found in his writings, he now retracts. Of the further progress of the case there is no information, except that Pope John XXII issued a bull (In agro dominico), March 27, 1329, in which a series of statements from Eckhart is characterized as heretical; another as suspected of heresy (the bull is given complete in ALKG, ii. 636–640). At the close, it is stated that Eckhart recanted before his death everything which he had falsely taught, by subjecting himself and his writing to the decision of the Apostolic See. By this is no doubt meant the statement of February 13, 1327, and it may be inferred that Eckhart's death, concerning which no information or burial site exists, took place shortly after that event.
In 1328, the general chapter of the order at Toulouse decided to proceed against preachers who "endeavor to preach subtle things which not only do (not) advance morals, but easily lead the people into error". Eckhart's disciples were admonished to be more cautious, but nevertheless they cherished the memory of their master. The lay group, Friends of God, followers of Eckhart, existed in communities across the region and carried on his ideas under the leadership of such priests as John Tauler and Henry Suso.
Works and doctrines
Although he was an accomplished academic theologian, Eckhart's best-remembered works are his highly unusual sermons in the vernacular during a time of disarray among the clergy and monastic orders, rapid growth of numerous pious lay groups, and the Inquisition's continuing concerns over heretical movements throughout Europe. With the move of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon and the tension between the second Avignon Pope John XXII and Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV who battled for power, Eckhart as a preaching friar attempted to guide his flock, as well as monks and nuns under his jurisdiction with practical sermons on spiritual/psychological transformation and New Testament metaphorical content related to the creative power inherent in disinterest (dispassion or detachment).
The central theme of Eckhart's German sermons is the presence of God in the individual soul, and the dignity of the soul of the just man. Although he elaborated on this theme, he rarely departed from it. In one sermon, Eckhart gives the following summary of his message:
The lack of imprimatur from the Church and anonymity of the author of the "Theologia germanica" did not lessen its influence for the next two centuries — including Martin Luther at the peak of public and clerical resistance to Catholic indulgences — and was viewed by some historians of the early twentieth century as pivotal in provoking Luther's actions and the subsequent Protestant Reformation.
“The two eyes of the soul of man,” says the Theologia Germanica, ”cannot both perform their work at once: but if the soul shall see with the right eye into eternity, then the left eye must close itself and refrain from working, and be as though it were dead. For if the left eye be fulfilling its office toward outward things, that is holding converse with time and the creatures; then must the right eye be hindered in its working; that is, in its contemplation. Therefore, whosoever will have the one must let the other go; for ‘no man can serve two masters.’“
Eckhart's status in the contemporary Church is uncertain. The Dominican Order pressed in the last decade of the 20th century for his full rehabilitation and confirmation of his theological orthodoxy; the late Pope John Paul II voiced favorable opinion on this initiative, even going as far as quoting from Eckhart's writings, but the affair is still confined to the corridors of the Vatican.
The 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer compared Eckhart's views to the teachings of Indian, Christian, and Islamic mystics and ascetics:
In 1891, Karl Eugen Neumann, who translated large parts of the Tripitaka, found parallels between Eckhart and Buddhism. Shizuteru Ueda, a third generation Kyoto School philosopher and scholar in medieval philosophy showed similarities between Eckhart's soteriology and zen buddhism in an article ("Eckhardt um zen am problem", 1989). In the 20th century, Eckhart's thoughts were compared to Eastern mystics by both Rudolf Otto and D.T. Suzuki, among other scholars. Interestingly, one of the pioneer translators of Eckhart's writings to English, Maurice O'Connell Walshe, was also an accomplished translator of Buddhist scriptures such as the Digha Nikaya. However, Reiner Schurmann, Ph.D., a Professor of Philosophy, while agreeing with Daisetz T. Suzuki that there exist certain similarities between Zen Buddhism and Meister Eckhart’s teaching, also disputed Suzuki’s contention that the ideas expounded in Eckhart’s sermons closely approach Buddhist thought, “so closely indeed, that one could stamp them almost definitely as coming out of Buddhist speculations.” [Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy,” at p. 217 - C The Estate of Reiner Schurmann 2001, Lindisfarne Books, Great Barrington, MA.]
Schurmann’s several clarifications included, to name of few: 1) on the question of "Time" and Eckhart’s view (claimed as parallel to Buddhism in reducing awakening to instantaneity) that the birth of the Word in the ground of the mind must accomplish itself in an instant, in "the eternal now", that in fact Eckhart in this respect is rooted directly in the catechisis of the Fathers of the Church rather than merely derived from Buddhism [Id.]; 2) on the question of "Isness" and Suzuki’s contention that the "Christian experiences are not after all different from those of the Buddhist; terminology is all that divides us," that in Eckhart "the Godhead’s istigkeit [translated as "isness" by Suzuki] is a negation of all quiddities; it says that God, rather than non-being, is at the heart of all things" thereby demonstrating with Eckhart's theocentrism that "the istigkeit of the Godhead and the isness of a thing then refer to two opposite experiences in Meister Eckhart and Suzuki: in the former, to God, and in the latter, to `our ordinary state of the mind'" and Buddhism's attempts to think "pure nothingness" (Id. At p. 218); and 3) on the question of "Emptiness" and Eckhart’s view (claimed as parallel to Buddhist emphasis "on the emptiness of all `composite things’") that only a perfectly released person, devoid of all, comprehends, "seizes," God, that the Buddhist "emptiness" seems to concern man’s relation to things while Eckhart’s concern is with what is "at the end of the road opened by detachment [which is] the mind espouses the very movement of the divine `dehiscence´; it does what the Godhead does: it lets all things be; not only must God also abandon all of his own—names and attributes if he is to reach into the ground of the mind (this is already a step beyond the recognition of the emptiness of all composite things), but God’s essential being - releasement - becomes the being of a released man." ([Id. At 219.)
More recently, although most scholars accept that Eckhart's work is divided into philosophical and theological, Kurt Flasch and other interpreters see Eckhart strictly as a philosopher. Flasch argues that the opposition between "mystic" and "scholastic" is not relevant because this mysticism (in Eckhart's context) is penetrated by the spirit of the University, in which it occurred. Eckhart has also influenced contemporary theologians, such as Matthew Fox, who draws heavily on Eckhart for his own theology and whose "Breakthrough" presents an alternative and substantially different view of the nature and significance of Eckhart's thinking from that taken in earlier sections of this article. The notable humanistic psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm was another scholar who brought renewed attention in the west to Eckhart's writings, drawing upon many of the latters themes in his large corpus of work. Eckhart was a significant influence in developing United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold's conception of spiritual growth through selfless service to humanity, as detailed in his book of contemplations called Vägmärken ('Markings').
The postmodern French theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida uses Eckhart's Negative Theology to describe his own concept of différance.
Renewed academic attention to Eckhart has attracted favorable attention to his work from contemporary non-Christian mystics. Eckhart's most famous single quote, "The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me", is commonly cited by thinkers within neopaganism and ultimatist Buddhism as a point of contact between these traditions and Christian mysticism.
This article includes content derived from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914, which is in the public domain.
In popular culture
In Jacob's Ladder, Louis, the main character's friend, quotes Eckhart: "You know what he [Eckhart] said? The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They burn 'em all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. ... If you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth".
In the book "The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson Eckhart is mentioned in a story Marianne Engel recounts to the (unnamed) protagonist about her days in the Engelthal Monastery '...Meister Eckhart would not even admit that God was good....Eckhart's position was that anything that was good can become better, and whatever may become better may become best. God cannot be referred to as "good", "better", or best because He is above all things. If a man says that God is wise, the man is lying because anything that is wise can become wiser. Anything that a man might say about God is incorrect, even calling Him by the name of God. God is "superessential nothingness" and "transcendent Being" ... "beyond all words and beyond all understanding. The best a man can do is remain silent, because anytime he prates on about God, he is committing the sin of lying. The true master knows that if he had a God he could understand, He would never hold Him to be God.' [p140-41]
Translations and commentaries