Dominican theologian and mystic; b. in one of two villages called Hochheim in Thuringia, c. 1260; d. 1327 or 1328. He was probably not of noble parentage. He entered the Dominican Order at Erfurt. In 1277 he was a student of arts at Paris, and before 1280 began studying theology at Cologne. In the years 1293–94, as bachelor of theology at Paris, he commented on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. About 1294 he was prior of the house of his order at Erfurt and vicar of the vicariate of Thuringia. He graduated as master of theology at Paris and lectured there as regent master in 1302 and 1303. The story that the mastership was conferred directly upon him by the pope appears to have been discredited (cf. Koch, Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 17). From 1303 to 1311 he was provincial of the Dominican province of Saxony, and from 1311 to 1313 he was at Paris for a second regency in theology. He was at Strasbourg as professor of theology from 1313 to 1323, probably at the Dominican studium. It was at this time that he became active as a preacher and spiritual director, and was highly regarded by Dominican and Cistercian nuns, Beguines, and others.
Although Meister Eckhart apparently always enjoyed the confidence of his brethren (if we are to judge from the positions of responsibility he occupied), he ran into serious difficulties about his doctrine with ecclesiastical authorities in 1326. Two lists of suspect propositions, taken chiefly from his sermons, were laid before him by inquisitors appointed by Henry of Virneburg, Archbishop of Cologne. The inquisitors were Master Reiner Friso, Canon of Cologne and doctor of theology, and Peter Sommer (de Aestate) OFM, former prior of the Franciscan house at Cologne. Eckhart defended himself vigorously, protesting fidelity to the Church and challenging the competence of the inquisitors because of his exemption as a mendicant friar. He attempted to clear himself by explaining the incriminating propositions in a "Justificative Report" (Rechtfertigungsschrift ), which is of the greatest value for understanding the import of his thought. In January 1327, Eckhart appealed to the Holy See, submitting in advance to its decision, and he left for Avignon where he hoped to defend himself personally. He died, however, before his case was concluded.
The documents of the trial consisted of two lists of propositions, the "Justificative Report," and a third list of propositions taken from Eckhart's commentary on St. John; a fourth and fifth list were added later. At the end of the trial, the Avignon theologians submitted the socalled "Avignon Report." It listed 28 propositions, scarcely a fourth part of the number included in the earlier lists. The report also mentioned the explanations occasionally supplied by Eckhart. Notice was taken that Eckhart had denied having taught two of the propositions. Taking into consideration his submissive attitude and orthodox intention, Pope John XXII condemned the propositions only according to their obvious meaning. The condemnation was promulgated Mar. 27, 1329, by the constitution In agro dominico. The 28 propositions are listed somewhat differently than in the Avignon report and are judged more leniently. The first 15 propositions and the last two are condemned as erroneous and tainted with heresy, but the other 11 are declared capable of a Catholic meaning if properly explained.
Doctrine. The doctrine of Meister Eckhart owes much to St. Thomas Aquinas. He was also under the influence of Neoplatonism (particularly that of Plotinus and Proclus), the doctrinal texts of which he knew through the work of St. Albert the Great and through the translations of Proclus by the Dominican William Moerbeke. Eckhart was also well read in the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In short, he reflected the thought of much of the spiritual teaching of his time in the Germanic part of Europe, where everything was not indisputably orthodox, especially among several Free Spirit sects and other similar groups.
It is difficult to make a satisfactory appraisal of Eckhart's doctrine, since his Opus tripartitum was never finished. It would certainly be going too far to see in him only a "spiritualist" and to reduce his theological doctrine, which generally conforms to Thomist tradition and originates from a definite intellectualism, to no more than a speculative prologue to his spiritual doctrine. To the first of the Quaestiones Parisienses, "Is being in God identical with knowing?" his answer is affirmative. It was in this intellectual perspective that he envisioned creation. All creatures have been, from all eternity, supported by the Word of God, and all things look to the return of the soul to God. God alone is, for being (esse, or to be) is God. The creature has no being or existence by itself. Of itself it is nothing. Still the being or existence is not to be confused with the Divine Being.
This sets the fundamental attitude that the soul must assume for its return to God; its "laying bare" takes on a condition transcending the realm of psychological and ethical requirements. It is ontologically imposed on the being that by itself is nothing. If the creature wishes to participate in the being that truly is, he must allow the Father to generate the Word in him. This even goes beyond the evangelical ideas of sin, redemption, and grace. It is put on the level of an essential unity of the soul and Divinity. This theme is developed by means of a dialectic that varied little in the course of Eckhart's career. Moreover, it was the speculative character of the dialectic that did most to put him in opposition to spiritualists such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and other representatives of the mysticism of "mystical marriage" (or Brautm ystik ).
From these presuppositions, Eckhart reached the conclusion that the most elevated part of the soul, that part that engaged in contact with God, was in essence intellectual. This Kraft (virtus ) is a spark, Seelenfünklein or scintilla animae. The "foundation of the soul" (Grund der Seele ) is "something" (etwas ) uncreated and uncreatable. It is this in man that is equal to God, and the seat of divine life and of the truly contemplative life where the spirit reigns. It is also in this uncreated etwas of the soul that the "birth" of the Word takes place and resemblance to God is realized. This birth, which is mainly described in Eckhart's commentary on St. John, comes after liberation from sin and the laying bare of the soul; it creates the "noble man" and is consummated in "identity." Henceforth the spiritual man is one with the Deity in its true essence, not the God whose idolatrous image we form for ourselves. True contemplation is thus attained. It is an intellectual kind of contemplation, but it unites vision and love in a single act, and man finds "all bliss uniquely from God, through God, and in God." This teaching has been called speculative, or essential, mysticism.
The most daring subjects—the absolute transcendence and unknowability of God, total detachment in order to find the unity and image of God—were already touched upon in his writings before 1300, and his teaching was not considered alarming at that time. Moreover, certain of his expressions were not uncommon among the mystics of the Middle Ages. Why then was he condemned? Among other causes, political influences are discernible. Eckhart clashed not with John XXII but with the Franciscans, who were still unreconciled to the recent canonization of the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas (1323), and with the partisans of Louis of Bavaria who was hostile to the pope, to whom, in general, the Dominicans were faithful. Eckhart also suffered from the suspicion directed toward the more or less heterodox mystic groups, such as the Beguines (condemned at the Council of Vienne in 1312). Oechslin indicates other causes that contributed to Eckhart's difficulties. He used German in many works, and it was necessary for him to form a mystical terminology in that language. His enemies unfairly failed to check his German statements made in sermons with his formal teaching in Latin works (Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire 4:93–116). Still, the propositions condemned in the In agro dominico (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 950–980) are hard to defend from the point of view of orthodoxy, and nearly all of them were found in Eckhart's writings.
Influence. Despite Eckhart's propositions 16–19 (ibid. 966–969), which, in effect, deny the value of external works, the 16th century reformers, who probably had not read the works of Eckhart directly but only through his disciples, made no use of them. His works were seldom copied after his condemnation. Still he did have an influence upon German speculative mysticism from the 14th to the 16th centuries. John Tauler, Henry Suso, John Ruysbroeck, and others less well known, in Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries showed a predilection for topics found in Eckhart's writings. It was through these that some of Eckhart's doctrinal themes passed on to the reformers.
The theory of certain German historians, notably during the period of National Socialism, that Eckhart was the "father of German speculation" must be denied. His thought, according to them, presented strictly "Germanic," or "Aryan," characteristics. However, Eckhart, whose mind was not particularly original, belonged to the cultural world of the medieval Church, more international than ours today, and he always professed an unquestionable devotion to the Church and to the Christian faith.
Bibliography: Editions. The most important complete ed. is Die deutschen und lateinischen Werke, ed. Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Stuttgart 1936– ), Latin works, ed. j. koch et al.,v.1–4 (1936–61), v.5–6 (in progress), German works, ed. j. quint,v.1 (1936–58), v.5 (1954–62), v.2–4 (in progress). Some tracts have been edited in another edition, Opera latina, ed. g. thÉry (Institutum S. Sabinae; Leipzig 1934). Meister Eckhart: Werke, ed. f. pfeiffer, v.2 Die deutschen Mystiker (4th ed. Göttingen 1924). The propositions condemned in the constitution In agro dominico are found in h. denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. a. schÖnmetzer 501–529. f. pfeiffer, Meister Eckhart (Leipzig 1857), tr. with some omissions and additions, c. de b. evans, 2 v. (London 1924–31); Meister Eckhart: An Introduction to the Study of His Works With an Anthology of His Sermons, ed. and tr. j. m. clark (London 1957). M. Eckhart, Selected Treatises and Sermons … from Latin and German, ed. and tr. j. m. clark and j. v. skinner (London 1958). Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation, ed. and tr. r. b. blakney (New York 1941). Literature. f. vandenbroucke, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. a. baudrillart et. al. 14:1385–1403. r. l. oechslin, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et. al. 4:93–116. a. daniels, ed., "Eine lateinische Rechtfertigungsschrift des Meister Eckhart, mit einem Geleitwort von Clemens Bäumker," Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters 23.5 (1923). f. pelster, "Ein Gutachten aus dem Eckhart-Prozess in Avignon," ibid. Suppl. 3.2 (1935) 1099–1124. j. koch, "Kritische Studien zum Leben Meister Eckharts," Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 29 (1959) 5–51; 30 (1960) 5–52. p. kelley, "Poverty and the Rhineland Mystics," Downside Review 74 (1956) 48–66; "Meister Eckhart's Doctrine of the Divine Subjectivity," ibid. 76 (1958) 65–103. k. g. kertz, "Meister Eckhart's Teaching on the Birth of the Divine Word in the Soul," Traditio 15 (1959) 327–363. e. w. mcdonnell, Beguines and Beghards in Medieval Culture (New Brunswick, NJ 1954). j. m. clark, The Great German Mystics (Oxford 1949). j. ancelet-hustache, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics, tr. h. graef (pa. New York 1958).
Despite his condemnation, his influence, largely mediated by Tauler and Henry Suso, was considerable.