The Retreat from Reason: Mysticism

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The Retreat From Reason: Mysticism

Escape from a Harsh Reality.

The fourteenth century was on many fronts a desperate age, an age of disintegration. The papacy had been weakened morally and militarily by generations of struggle against the powerful rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, a dynasty that traced its legitimacy to the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century and controlled both Germany and northern Italy. As a result of this and other political conflicts, the papacy had become virtually a captive of the French crown at Avignon. Later in the century there were simultaneously three different men claiming to be pope. The magnificent structure of scholastic theology, elaborated as no other system of theology in the history of the world, was crumbling, brought down by the assaults of the Ockhamists. The bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, killing off approximately a third of the population. Especially hard-hit were urban centers, in which the universities were located. We know of at least two philosophers who fell victim to the epidemic. Yet, paradoxically, amid the social and ecclesiastical chaos, the age also witnessed the flowering of mysticism. Perhaps it was in part an escape from realities that had become too harsh, or it represented a retreat from the rational. Whatever the case, it was the age of Dante, exiled from his native city of Florence, who wrote the greatest epic poem in the Italian language, perhaps in any language, detailing his mystic journey through hell, purgatory, and finally paradise.

The Spirituality of Meister Eckhart.

Especially fertile in spiritual developments was the Rhineland area of Germany and the Low Countries. Of the impressive number of mystics from this area the greatest was the German, John Eckhart, who had earned his degree of Master of Theology at Paris (hence the honorific "Meister"), and who had even served in an important administrative post in the Dominican Order. His academic writings, composed in Latin, were rather traditional and certainly above suspicion. It was in his sermons preached in his native language, however, that Meister Eckhart gave full vent to the exuberance of his spirituality. His following among lay people, especially nuns, soon gained the attention of the archbishop of Cologne, and Eckhart was cited before the Inquisition. Journeying to Avignon to argue his case before the pope, Eckhart intended to defend himself with the claim that heresy was a matter of the will, not the intellect; if he were wrong, he asked for correction, but he did not will to place himself outside of orthodoxy.

Towards Divine Union.

Unfortunately, Eckhart died before his hearing. Notwithstanding, two years after his death in 1327, 28 of his teachings were condemned, including the following: "there is in the soul something that is uncreated and uncreatable," "all creatures are a pure nothingness," and "God loves souls, not their external works." Taken out of context, these statements seem to affirm pantheism, deny the reality of creation, and anticipate the German religious reformer Martin Luther's rejection of good works in the early sixteenth century. Such statements were bold and paradoxical to be sure, shocking even, but Eckhart's sermons, when allowances are made for figurative and imaginative language—especially for inspired hyperbole—become expressions of a profound spirituality. It is a spirituality, moreover, that is God-centered, emphasizing the union of the soul with the divinity without intermediaries, without community, without sacrament. Eckhart urged his congregation to dismiss the agents of the soul—that is, the intellect and the will—and allow God to occupy the core of the soul, the fünklein, or "little spark." Eckhart did not believe that man could do anything to merit this divine union, believing that it was all God's doing. Man's efforts count for nothing.

A Tradition of Passive Receptivity.

Although they are subject to a Catholic interpretation, these teachings point in the direction of Protestantism, or at least to quietism, a religious attitude of passive receptivity. It was an attitude that drew more from Dionysius and Neoplatonism, and turned away from the relentless rationalism of High Scholasticism. It was an attitude, moreover, that found fertile soil in German-speaking lands, and several disciples followed in Eckhart's footsteps: John Tauler ("the masters of Paris read big books … but these [the mystics] read the living book wherein everything lives"), Henry Suso, John Ruysbroeck, Gerard Groote, and Thomas à Kempis, the reputed author of The Imitation of Christ. The canonization process for Eckhart is currently underway after these many centuries, and it is a certitude that the condemned propositions will be reevaluated.

Nicholas of Cusa and Rhineland Mysticism.

The enterprise of medieval philosophy can with some justification be extended into the fifteenth century and comes to an end with the towering figure of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). Nicholas, or Cusanus, studied with the Brothers of the Common Life, Gerard Groote's foundation, which in turn was inspired by the Rhineland mystics. Cusanus was a prodigious and wealthy scholar; his personal library held over 300 manuscripts, including those authors most influential on his own thinking: Augustine, Proclus, Dionysius, Avicenna, and Eckhart.

The Unknowability of Truth.

The title of his major work, On Learned Ignorance, summarizes quite accurately his central insight. Reason not only is powerless to reach the infinite, it is likewise incapable of knowing the whole truth about anything. Knowledge is like a polygon inscribed within a circle: sides can be added to the polygon indefinitely, but the polygon will never be identical with the circle. No matter how close the human mind approaches to the truth, it will never completely conform to it. Indeed, as in the Socratic paradox, the more that is known, the more the extent of one's ignorance is recognized. With dazzling originality, Cusanus faulted Aristotle and his logic for the divisions in the Roman Church and in philosophical circles. He instead advocated a logic that was made to unite. He made his own the teaching of the ancient Greek Anaxagoras: "everything is in everything." To create all things is for God to be all things. If this sounds dangerously like pantheism, one must remember Cusanus's Neoplatonic roots that recognized that God is above being. Or, conversely, creation is but an explication or unfolding of God; since God is all, the creature is reduced to nothing.



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The Fusion of Philosophy and Theology.

In his treatise De li non aliud ("Concerning the Not-other"), Cusanus argued that the absolute cannot stand in a relationship of otherness to any relative being; hence the "Not-other," or God, is both absolute in its causation and at the same time present to its effect in creation. Here Cusanus, a cardinal of the Catholic Church, proclaimed doctrines very similar to those that had been condemned as heretical a century earlier in Eckhart's sermons. In a new century the assault on the rational structure of theology seems to have been rendered less unacceptable. But what actually happened in the waning of the Middle Ages is that the discipline of philosophy—which was distinct from, but clearly subordinate to, theology for the thinkers of the earlier medieval centuries—had, in the synthesis of Nicholas of Cusa, been assimilated into theology. The two disciplines are fused in Cusanus's mystic vision. This fusion is quite at odds with the estrangement of philosophy and theology which otherwise prevailed in the late medieval period. In some ways Cusanus's thought hearkens back to an earlier golden age.


Jan A. Aertsen, "Meister Eckhart," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 434–442.

Louis Dupré and Nancy Hudson, "Nicholas of Cusa," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 466–474.

Jasper Hopkins, A Concise Introduction to the Philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1978).

Armand Maurer, Medieval Philosophy. 2nd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982): 292–324.

Bernard McGinn, The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing; Meister Eckhart's Mystical Thought (New York: Crossroad, 2001).

see also Religion: Mysticism and Modern Devotion

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The Retreat from Reason: Mysticism

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The Retreat from Reason: Mysticism