1902 Encyclopedia > Johannes Eckhart (Meister Eckhart)

Johannes Eckhart
(commonly known as: Meister Eckhart)
German theologian, philosopher and mystic
(c. 1260 – c. 1327)

ECKHART, JOHANNES, or, according to the general designation, Meister Eckhart, the first of the great speculative mystics, flourished during the latter part of the 13th century and the early part of the 14th. Extremely little is known of his life ; the date and place of his birth are equally uncertain. According to some accounts, he was a native of Strasburg, a town with which ,he was afterwards closely connected ; according to others, he was born in Saxony. Trithemins, one of the best authorities, speaks of him merely as " Teutonicus." 1260 has frequently been given as the date of his birth ; it was in all probability some years earlier, for we know that he was advanced in age at the time of his death, about 1327. He appears to have entered the Dominican order, and to have acted for some time as professor at one of the colleges in Paris. His reputation for learning was very high, and in 1302 he was summoned to Rome by Boniface VIII., to assist in the controversy then being carried on with Philip of France. From Boniface he received the degree of doctor. In 1304 he became provincial of his order for Saxony, and in 1307 was vicar-general for Bohemia. In both provinces he was distinguished for his practical reforms and for his power in preaching. In what manner he ceased to hold his high office we do not know ; indeed, several years of his life about this time are a complete blank. Towards 1325 we hear of him as preaching with great effect at Cologne, where he gathered round him a numerous band of followers. Before this time, and in all probability at Strasburg, where he appears to have been for some years, he had come in contact with the BEGHARDS (q. 7,,.) and Brethren of the Free Spirit, whose fundamental notions he niay indeed be said to have systematized and expounded in the highest form to which they could attain. In 1327 the opponents of the Beghards laid hold of certain propositions contained in Eckhart's works, and he was summoned before the Inquisition at Cologne. The history of this accusation is by no means clear. Eckhart appears, however, to have made a conditional recantation - that is, he professed to disavow whatever in his writings could be shown to be erroneous. Further appeal, perhaps at his own request, was made to the Pope, and in 1329 a bill was published condemning certain propositions extracted from Eckhart's works. But before its publication Eckhart was dead. The exact date of his death is unknown. Of his writings, several of which are enumerated by Trithemius, there remain only the Sermons and a few tractates. Till recently the majority of these were attributed to Tauler, and it is only from Pfeiffer's careful edition (Deutsche Mystiker d. X I V. Jahrhunderts, vol. ii., 1857) that one has been able to gather a trne idea of Eckhart's activity. Front his works it is evident that he was deeply learned in all the philo-sophy of the time. He was a thorough Aristotelian, but by preference appears to have been drawn towards the mystical writings of the neo-Platonists and the pseudo-Dionysius. His style is unsystematic, brief, and abounding in symbolical expression. His manner of thinking is clear, calm, and logical, and he has certainly given the most complete exposition of what may be called Christian pan th eism.

Eckhart has been called the, first of the speculative mystics; but such a designation requires some qualification. Within the Christian church from the time of Erigena there had been a constant stream of what must be called mysticism, originating for the most part from the writings of the neo-Platonists and of Dionysius the Areopagite. This tendency may be noted in Bonaventura, in Albert (under vvhom Eckhart is said to have studied), and in Aquinas ; it is more prominent in Hugo and Richard of St Victor, though with them it took a practical rather than a speculative direction. But in all these writers, with the partial exc,eption of Erigena, who occupies a quite peculiar position, the mystical element was in strict subordination to the church doctrines, which might be speculatively symbolized, but were not thereby explained or rationalized. In Eckhart's writings and preaching, on the other hand, the element of mystical speculation for the first time conies to the front as all-important. By its means the church doctrines are made intelligible to the many, and from it reconciliation. Eckhart is thus in truth the first who attempted with perfect freedom and logical consistency to gi‘ 3 a speculative basis to religious doctrines.

It is not possible to expound in detail how Eckhart endeavours to explain the main principles of the Christian faith, but it is necessary to note the two 1.-..ost important points in his as in all mystical theories. These are first, his doctrine of the divine nature, and second, his explanation of the relation between God and human thought. The two are logically connected, and a complete exposition of his theory might start from either his theology or his psychology. Lasson, the author of a most valuable monograph on Eckhart, adopts the latter course, but for many reasons the other appears the most systematic.

The fundamental thought from which Eckhart's theology starts is that of the Absolute or Abstract Unity as tile only real existence. Apart from God no thing has real being. But this Absolute is, for Eckhart, the Deus absconditus, the eebs 6-yvcoo-Tos of the neo-Platothe theology. With Dionysins the Areopagite, Eckhart describes this divine essence, the Godhead, as absolutelywithout predicates ; all deter-minations are limitations which destroy its infinite being. The Godhead is incomprehensible, inexpressible. It is in truth nothing; yet as the most real of beings it must be conceived as absolutely potential, as containing in itself the origin and 1111111 end of all things. This Godhead is not God as known to us. From the Godhead the triune God proceeds or is evolved. At this point, at the transition between the divine absolute and the personal deity, Eckhart is face to face with the crucial difficulty of all speculative mysticism, and it is of interest to compare his method of solution with that adopted. by later thinkers of like tendencies, e.g., Beanie and Baader. In the Godhead, as in everything, according to Eckhart, there nmst be distinguished matter and form, or, as they are here Galled, essence and nature. The matter or essence is the potentiality, what the thing is in itself ; the form or nature is that which it becomes as an object for others. The Godhead reveals itself in the personal God, the Father. For the Godhead is a spiritual substance, and as such can only become real by conscious-ness, by reflection on self, by self-expression. That which reflects and expresses is the Father. The Son is the Word, or expression through and in which the Fatherbecomes self-conscious. As there is here no distinction of time or space, Father and Son are in veiy truth one. The Father eternally begets the Son, and the return of the Son into the Father in love and mutual will is the Spirit. The Father is not before the Son ; only through the begetting of the Son, only through arriving at self-consciousness, does He become the Father.

The genesis of the Son from the Father involves also, according to Eckhart, the production of the world of things. For God is reason, and in reason is contained the ideal world, the world of creatures, not in time and space, which becomes materialized. In. the Son are all things made, but only, Eckhart is careful to point out, in ideal form. He holds strongly to the so-called Platonic view that, over and above sensible things, there exists a realm of ideal forms or exemplars, to be apprehended by pure thought, through thought freed from the Ihnitations of space and time. flow this ideal world is related to the world of real things be does not show, nor does lie explain the apparent independence of the material universe. Iblien, therefore, Eekliart speaks of the world as neces-sary to the divine existence, of God as loving Himself in created. things, and of all things being God, he must be understood tp speak of this ideal world, not of things as known to us.

As all things have arisen from God, so all things desire to rain n into the unity of the divine being. Repose in God is the final end of all things. In man, the noblest of created things, this return is brought about. In man, specially, there is the faculty of supra-rational eognition, the power of reaching to the absolute, the ground both of God and of the universe. This peculiar power, called by Eckhart the sparlc (FUnklein, Scintilla), is in truth God working in man, In cognition of God, God and man are one ; there is uo distinction of knower and known, and hence, as opposed to empirical knowledge, it may be called faith. In such faith, there is involved not only reason, but will, for the divine illumination becomes operative or takes real effect through the will.

To attain to full union with God is the final end of activity, and the means, it is clear, nmst be the resi,gnation of all individuality. Absolute quietism appears to be the only method whereby the birth of the Son in the soul may be brought about. -When this state has been reached, then the human soul is one with God ; its will is God's ; no evil can be wrought by it ; it cannot sin. The practical consequences which would flow from such a doctrine, and which did appear among the Brethren _of the Free Sphit, were evaded, rather than overcome, by Eckhart. For, according, to his teaching, all the above applies only to the " spark" in the soul ; the other faculties may be reasonably and legithnately employed about other and temporal matters. By this loop-hole, also, lie escapes the doctrine that works are entirely inefficacious. lie is careful to hold the balance between inward feeling and outward action, and on this point his teaching is important in relation to the later Reformation thinkers.

On the specifically theological doctrines of Eckhart, such as Grace, Incarnation, the Fall, Redemption and Sin, it is not possible to enter in brief compass. A most adequate account of them will be found in Lasson's monograph above referred to.

[Further Reading] -- The most important of the many wolks upon Eckhart are -- Pfeiffer, Deutsche Mystiker, vol. ii.; Martensen, Meister Eckhart,1842; Bach, Meister Eckhart der Vater der Deutschen Speculation, 1864; Lasson, Meister Eckhart der Mystiker, 1868 ; Ullmann, Reformatoren vor der Reformation, 1842; Preger, Geschichte d. Deutschen Mystik, i., 1874.

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