Eckhart, Meister (c. 1260–1327/1328)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

(c. 12601327/1328)

Meister Eckhart, the German mystic, was born Johannes Eckhart at Hochheim in Thuringia. After entering the Dominican order at an early age, he pursued higher studies at Cologne and Paris. He became successively provincial prior of the Dominican order of Saxony, vicar-general of Bohemia, and superior-general for the whole of Germany (in 1312). During the last part of his life Eckhart became involved in charges of heresy. In 1329, twenty-eight of his propositions were condemned by Pope John XXII, eleven as rash and the remainder as heretical. Nevertheless, Eckhart was to have a lasting influence upon medieval mysticism.

Eckhart's account of God and the universe depended not only on theology and metaphysical speculation but also on his interpretation of mystical experience. Thus, he distinguished between Deus or God, as found in the three Persons of the Trinity, and Deitas or the Godhead, which is the Ground of God but is indescribable. The Godhead, through an eternal process, manifests itself as the Persons. In the same way, Eckhart distinguished between faculties of the soul, such as memory, and the Grund or "ground" of the soul (also called the Fünklein, scintilla or "spark"). By contemplation it is possible to attain to this Grund, leaving aside the discursive and imaginative activities that normally characterize conscious life. In doing this, one gains unity with the Godhead. Although Eckhart gave some sort of explanation for the ineffability of the Godhead (namely, that it is a pure unity and thus not describable), the main motive for his doctrine lay in a feature of mystical experiencethat it involves a mental state not describable in terms of thoughts or images.

The need to give an account of contemplative knowledge led Eckhart to evolve a complex psychology. The soul operates at the lowest level, through the body; thus it has powers of digestion, assimilation, and sensation. At a higher level the soul functions through the powers of anger, desire, and the lower intellect (the sensus communis or "common sense," which combines what is given through the various senses in perception). At a third level the soul works through memory, will, and the higher intellect. At the fourth level it is possible in principle to know things in total abstraction, that is, as pure forms, which is therefore to know them as they preexist in God's intellect. Finally, the spark of the soul can possess a kind of knowledge in which God is known as he is.

In the development of these ideas, Eckhart certainly spoke in ways which might have offended his more orthodox contemporaries. The notion of the spark within the soul seemed to imply that the soul is uncreated. The notion of God's birth within the soul, through mystical experience, seemed to present the sacraments of the church as mere means of preparing for such experience, rather than as efficacious in themselves. Likewise, Eckhart's language of deification could easily have been construed to mean that the historical Christ has only an exemplary and symbolic value. Eckhart's teaching that God creates the world in the same "eternal now" in which the emanation of the divine Persons from the Godhead takes place could be understood as implying the eternity of the worlda doctrine that conflicts with the literal sense of biblical revelation. His statement that all creatures are a "mere nothing" could be held to imply a kind of monism. Recently, however, among Catholic historians of philosophy an attempt has been made to show that his theology is less unorthodox than the above doctrines might suggest, and as a Dominican, Eckhart certainly employed the language of Thomism.

This recent discussion serves to underline the degree to which Eckhart permitted changes and inconsistencies in the formulation of his ideas. Thus, at one time he held that the divine essence is intelligere, or understanding (a thesis original to Eckhart, and one which reinforced the doctrine of similarity of the soul to God), and only secondarily is God esse, or being. Later, however, he held, in accordance with Thomist doctrine, that God's essence is esse. Various other fluidities and antinomies can be detected in Eckhart's thought; these were partly caused by the shifting way in which he used key terms. For example, he asserted that God is above being and yet also, that he is being. The first use of "being" could be taken to refer to finite existence; the second use could be taken in a Thomistic sense. At times he spoke of God as both Godhead and God, and at other times he spoke of God as distinguished from the Godhead.

Although on occasion Eckhart used the term emanation to describe the creation of the world, he in fact adhered to an orthodox account of creation out of nothing. But he stressed the continuous creativity of God, and in this and other respects he was influenced by Augustine. Even though his language about creation could be misinterpreted to imply the eternity of the cosmos, Eckhart was at pains to evolve a two-level theory of time. In a sense all events are simultaneous for God, who is timelessly eternal (so that to speak of a temporal gap between the procession of the Trinity and the creation of the world makes no sense). Temporal concepts, however, are properly applied within the created order, and therefore the creation can be dated retrospectively. Eckhart's two-level theory of time corresponded to his two-level theory of truth. The truths that we assert are limited and partial (or, as Eckhart asserted, there is untruth in them), but there is an absolute truth which can be realized existentially, namely, the pure being of the Godhead.

The general shape of Eckhart's beliefs, if we except his doctrines of the Godhead and of the soul, was fully in accord with contemporary belief (for example, in regard to angels and purgatory). What made his sermons and teachings popular was the way in which he reiterated the need to penetrate beneath the externals of religion, while his free use of homely, striking, and sometimes paradoxical examples and similes effectively conveyed his message.

There is a remarkable parallel between some of Eckhart's central ideas and the doctrines of the Indian theologian Śankara (d. c. 820)a parallel first expounded by Rudolf Otto. In Śankara's system, too, there is a distinction between the Absolute and God conceived as personal and a similar claim that the divine can be found within the soul. The comparison may give a clue to the reason for the shape of Eckhart's teachings. It certainly suggests that there are experiential reasons for this kind of doctrine, even though they may be complicated reasons. They seem to be as follows. The experience of the introvertive mystic includes a state of consciousness in which there is both a sense of illumination and an absence of distinction between subject and object; that is, the contemplative is not having an experience like that of ordinary perception, where the thing perceived can be distinguished from the percipient. Consequently, if the mystic connects his experience with God (whom he believes in for independent reasons), he may be inclined to speak of merging with God. But since his experience is without differentiation and since the notion of Godand especially that of a Trinitarian Godincludes the idea that he has attributes, it is not unnatural, although it appears unorthodox, to treat the entity experienced by the mystic as being "beyond" God conceived personally.

Indeed, Eckhart maintained that the true aristocrat (that is, the spark or ground of the soul) reaches beyond God, to the Godhead. It is likewise natural, in the Christian context in which Eckhart lived, to interpret this simple undifferentiated unity found in the Godhead as being the basis out of which the Persons of the Trinity proceed. In this way mystical experience, for Eckhart, was connected with the God of ordinary religion. Nevertheless, Eckhart endeavored to express himself in accordance with orthodox belief, despite the difficulties that he found in trying to do justice both to his experience and to the ordinary language of theism. Certainly, he did not seriously intend to deny orthodoxy.

Despite the papal condemnation of some of his propositions, Eckhart had a wide influence. Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Suso, Jan van Ruysbroeck, and the group known as the Friends of God were in different ways indebted to his teachings and example.

See also Augustine, St.; Mysticism, History of; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Otto, Rudolf; Ruysbroeck, Jan van; Suso, Heinrich; Tauler, Johannes; Thomism.


works by eckhart

Meister Eckhart. 4th ed, edited by F. Pfeiffer. Göttingen, 1924. Includes sermons, treatises, and fragments.

Meister Eckhart, a Modern Translation. Translated and edited by R. B. Blakney. New York, 1957. Includes bibliographical notes and the more important writings.

Selected Treatises and Sermons, edited by J. M. Clark and J. V. Skinner. London, 1958.

works on eckhart

Clark, J. M. The Great German Mystics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1949. A good introduction.

Clark, J. M. Meister Eckhart. London: Faber and Faber, 1958. A biography.

Gilson, Étienne. Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1955.

Otto, Rudolf. Mysticism East and West. London: Macmillan, 1932.

Wulf, Maurice de. Histoire de la philosophic médiévale. Vol. III. Louvain, 1947.

Ninian Smart (1967)