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Mysticism




MYSTICISM
is a phase of thought, or rather perhaps of feeling, which from its very nature is hardly susceptible of exact definition. It appears in connection with the endeavor of the human mind to grasp the divine essence or the ultimate reality of things, and to enjoy the blessedness of actual communion with the Highest. The first is the philosophic side of mysticism; the second, its religious side. The first effort is theoretical or speculative; the second, practical. The thought that is most intensely present with the mystic is that of a supreme, all –pervading, and indwelling power, in whom all things are one. Hence the speculative utterances of mysticism are always more or less pantheistic in character. On the practical side, mysticism maintains the possibility of direct intercourse with this Being of beings – intercourse, not through any external media such as an historical revelations, oracles, answers to prayer, and the like, but by a species of ecstatic transfusion or identification, in which the individual becomes in very truth "partaker of the divine nature." God ceases to be an object to him and becomes an experience. In the writings of the mystics, ingenuity exhausts itself in the invention of phrases to express the closeness of this union. Mysticism differs, therefore, from ordinary pantheism in that its inmost motive is religious. Pantheism, considered merely as such, may be either an elevating or a degrading theory; it expresses merely the resolution of all things into one metaphysical power or substance. But the mystic is animated not merely by the desire of intellectual harmony; he seeks the deepest ground pf his own being, in order that he may cast aside whatever separates him from the true life. This religious impulse is shown in the fact that, whereas pantheism, as such, seems to lead logically to passive acquiescence in things as they are – all things being already as divine as it is their nature to be – mysticism, on the contrary, is penetrated by the thought of alienation from the divine. Even where it preaches most our essential unity with God, its constant and often painful effort is directed towards overcoming an admitted alienation. In other words, the identity with God which it teaches is not a mere natural identity, as in ordinary pantheism, but one which is the goal of achievement.

These considerations do not serve, however, to differentiate mysticism sufficiently from the general course of religious thought. Alienation from, and yet implicit oneness with, the divine are the two poles on which all religious speculation and practice revolve. It follows from the above that mysticism is distinguished from other religious theories of the relation of man of God by the intensity with which it realizes the divine factors in the relation. The realization is so vivid that, though the theory takes its rise in the needs of the individual, the individual tends in the sequel to be lost altogether in the excess of the divine light. All relations tend to become unreal for the mystic except that between himself and God; his very sense of personality is weakened. The mystical ideal, therefore, is not a life of ethical energy among mankind; it is the eye turned wholly inwards, the life spent in contemplation and devout communion. The type of character to which mysticism is allied is passive, sensuous, and feminine, rather than independent, masculine, and ethically vigorous. In full-blown mysticism the individual may be said to be deprived of the rights which belong to him as an ethical personality.

The speculative bias, it will be seen, is much stronger in the mystic than in the generality of religious persons; and his speculative insight, it may be added, is usually much finer than theirs. The ordinary man, in religious matters as in others, constantly speaks of the infinite in such a way as virtually to make it finite. As Spinoza says, he passes confidently from finite to infinite and contrariwise, but never attempts to bring the two ideas together. Now mysticism does bring them together, but unfortunately in such a way as to paralyze the individual for action. Ultimately stated, the explanation of this result is to be found in the mistaken categories under which the relation is conceived. The conception of a universal substance or ground of things is naturally the first resort of the mind awakened to speculation; and it is a form which constantly recurs when men are roused afresh to philosophical activity. Nevertheless, the conception is evidently rude. It expresses properly a relation existing between material things in space; and when applied elsewhere, is necessarily inadequate, analogical metaphorical. But it is characteristic of mysticism that it does not distinguish between what is metaphorical and what is susceptible of a literal interpretation. Hence it is prone to treat a relation of ethnical harmony as if it were one of substantial identity, or chemical fusion; and, taking the sensuous language of religious feeling literally, it bids the individual aim at nothing less than an interpenetration of essence. And, as this goal is unattainable while reason and the consciousness of self remain, the mystic begins to consider these as impediments to be cast aside. Our consciousness of self is the condition under which we possess a world to know and to enjoy; but it likewise isolates us from all the world beside. Reason is the revealer of nature and of god; but, by its very act, reason seems to separate the things reasoned about. Hence mysticism demands a faculty above reason, by which the subject shall be placed in immediate and complete union with the object of his desire, - a union in which the consciousness of self has disappeared, and in which, therefore, subject and object are one. This is the intuition or ecstasy or mystical swoon which appears alike among the Hindus, the Neo-Platonists, and the mediaeval saints. And here it will be observed that the original acceptance of metaphor as speculative truth has terribly avenged itself; for, with the renunciation of self-conscious reason, the divine has been degraded into an object of sense, and its highest realization has come to be placed either in a state of brutish torpor or in a moment of equally unnatural nervous excitation. Not that mysticism always appears in this extreme form, but such is the goal towards which it constantly tends. If the sensuous metaphors of unsophisticated religious feeling be put forward as a metaphysical theory of the supersensuous, it is only to be expected that the practice deduced from such a theory will be a sophisticated or morbid development of sense, a strain put upon the bodily organs to make them yield a realization of the theory and achieve what is impossible to the sane and conscious reason. The morbid play of the nerves is objectified by the over-driven brain and treated as a sensuous union of the created with the creative spirit, an actual seeing, may, tasting, of the divine essence.

To sum up, then, we may say that, compared with pantheism, mysticism is dependent upon a specifically religious impulse; but, whereas religion is ordinarily occupied with a practical problem and develops its theory in an ethical reference, mysticism displays a predominatingly speculative bent, starting from the divine nature rather than from man and his surroundings, taking the symbolism of religious feeling as literally or metaphysically true, and straining after the present realization of an ineffable union. The union which sound religious teaching represents as realized in the submission of the will and the ethical harmony of the whole life is then reduced to a passive experience, to something which comes and goes in time, and which may be of only momentary duration.

From these general remarks it will be sufficiently apparent that mysticism is not a name applicable to any particular system. It may be the outgrowth of many differing modes of though and feeling. Most frequently it appears historically, in relation to some definite system of belief, as a reaction of the spirit against the letter. When a religion begins to ossify into a system of formulas and observances, those who protest in the name of heart-religion are not unfrequently known by the name of mystics. At times they merely bring into prominence again the ever fresh fact of personal religious experience; at other times mysticism develops itself as a powerful solvent of definite dogmas.

A review of the historical appearances of mysticism will serve to show how far the above characteristics are to be found, separately or in combination, in its different phases. In the East, mysticism is not so much a specific phenomenon as a natural deduction from the dominant philosophic systems, and the normal expression of religious feeling in the lands in which it appears. Brahmanic pantheism and Buddhistic nihilism alike teach the unreality of the seeming world, and preach mystical absorption as the highest goal; in both, the sense of the worth of human personality is lost. India consequently has always been fertile mother of practical mystics and devotees. The climate itself encourages to passivity, and the very luxuriance of vegetable and animal life tends to blunt the feeling of the value of life. Silent contemplation and the total deadening of consciousness by perseverance for years in unnatural attitudes are among the commonest forms assumed by this mystical asceticism. But the most revolting methods of self-torture and self-destruction are also practiced as a means of rising in sanctity. The sense of sin can hardly be said to enter into these exercises; that is, they are not undertaken as penance for personal transgression. They are a despite done to the principle of individual or separate existence.

The so-called mysticism of the Persian Sufis is less intense and practical, more airy and literary in character. Sufism probably derived from __) appears in the 9th century among the Mohammedans of Persia as a kind of reaction against the tigid monotheism and formalism of Islam) see MOHAMMEDANISM vol. xvi. p. 594). It is doubtless to be regarded as a revival of ancient habits of thought and feeling among a people who had adopted the Koran, not by affinity, but by compulsion. Persian literature after that date, and especially Persian poetry, is full of an ardent natural pantheisms, in which a mystic apprehension of the unity and divinity of all things heightens the delight in natural and in human beauty. Such is the poetry of Hafiz and Saadi, whose verses are chiefly devoted to the praises of wine and women. Even the most licentious of these have been fitted by Mohammedan theologians with a mystical interpretation. The delights of love are made to stand for the raptures of union with the divine, the tavern symbolizes an oratory, and intoxication is the bewilderment of sense before the surpassing vision. Very often, if not most frequently, it cannot be doubted that the occult religious significance depends on an artificial exegesis; but there are also poems of Hafiz, Saadi, and other writers, religious in their first intention. These are unequivocally pantheistic in tone, and the desire of the soul to escape and rest with God is expressed with all the fervor of Eastern poetry. This speculative mood, in which nature and beauty and earthly satisfaction appear as a vain show, is the counterpart of the former mood of sensuous enjoyment.

For opposite reasons, neither the Greek nor the Jewish mind lent itself readily to mysticism,- the Greek, because of its clear and sunny naturalism; the Jewish, because of its rigid monotheism and its turn towards worldly realism and statutory observance. It is only with the exhaustion of Greek and Jewish civilization that mysticism becomes a prominent factor in Western thought. It appears, therefore, contemporaneously with Christianity, and is a sign of the world-weariness and deep religious need that mark the decay of the old world. Whereas Plato’s main problem had been the organization of the perfect state, and Aristotle’s intellect had ranged with fresh interest over all departments of the knowable, political speculation had become a mockery with the extinction of free political life, and knowledge as such had lost its freshness for the Greeks of the Roman empire. Knowledge is nothing to these men if it does not show them the infinite reality which is able to fill the aching void within. Accordingly, the last age of Greek philosophy is theosophical in character, and its ultimate end is a practical satisfaction. Neo-Platonism seeks this in the ecstatic intuition of the ineffable One. The systematic theosophy of Plotinus and his successors does not belong to the present article, except so far as it is the presupposition of their mysticism; but, inasmuch as the mysticism of the mediaeval church is directly derived from Neo-Platonism through the speculations of the pseudo-Dionysius, Neo-Platonic mysticism fills an important section in any historical review of the subject.





Neo-Platonism owes its form to Plato, but its under lying motive is the widespread feeling of self-despair and the longing for divine illumination characteristic of the age in which it appears. Before the rise of Neo-Platonism proper we meet with various mystical or semi-mystical expressions of the same religious craving. The contemplative asceticism of the Essenes of Judaea may be mentioned, and, somewhat later, the life of the Therapeutae on the shores of Lake Moeris. In Philo, Alexandrian Judaism had already seized upon Plato as "the Attic Moses," and done its best to combine his speculations with the teaching of his Jewish prototype. Philo’s God is described in terms of absolute transcendency; his doctrine of the Logos or Divine Sophia is a theistical transformation of the Platonic world of ideas; his allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament represents the spiritualistic dissolution of historical Judaism. Philo’s ethical ideal is renunciation, contemplation, complete surrender to the divine influence. Apollonius of Tyana and the so-called Neo-Pythagoreans drew similar ethical consequences from their eclectic study of Plato. Wonder-workers like Alexander of aboniteichos exhibit the grosser side of the longing for spiritual communion. The traits common to Neo-Platonism and all these speculations are well summed up by Zeller (Philos. Der Griechen, iii. 2. 214) as consisting in – "(1) the dualistic opposition of the divine and the earthly; (2) an abstract conception of God, excluding all knowledge of the divine nature; (3) contempt for the world of the senses, on the ground of the Platonic doctrines of matter and of the descent of the soul from a superior world into the body; (4) the theory of intermediate potencies or beings, through whom God acts upon the world of phenomena; (5) the requirement of an ascetic self-emancipation from the bondage of sense and faith in a higher revelation to man when in a state called enthusiasm." Neo-Platonism appears in the first half of the 3d century, and has its greatest representative in Plotinus (204-269 A.D.). He develops the Platonic philosophy into an elaborate system by means of the doctrine of emanation. The One, the Good, and the Idea of the Good were identical in Plato’s mind, and the Good was therefore not deprived of intelligible essence. It was not separated from the world of ideas, of which it was represented as either the crown or the sum. By Plotinus, on the contrary, the One is explicitly exalted above the - and the "ideas"; it transcends existence altogether (__), and is not cognizable by reason. Remaining itself in repose, it rays out, as it were, from its own fullness an image of itself, which is called __, and which constitutes the system of ideas of the intelligible world. The soul is in turn the image or product of the __, and the soul by its motion begets corporeal matter. The soul thus faces two ways – towards the __, from which it springs, and towards the material life, which is its own product. Ethical endeavor consists in the repudiation of the sensible; material existence is itself estrangement from God. (Porphyry tells us that Plotinus was unwilling to name his parents or his birth-place, and seemed ashamed of being in the body.) Beyong the __, or virtues which purify from sin, lies the further stage of complete identification with God (________). To reach the ultimate goal, thought itself must be left behind; for thought is a form of motion, and the desire of the soul is for the motionless rest which belongs to the One. The union with transcendent deity is not so much knowledge or vision as ecstasy, coalescence, contact (____ Ennead., vi. 9.8-9). But in our present state of existence the moments of this ecstatic union must be few and short; "Y myself," says Plotinus simply, "have realized it but three times as yet, Porphyry hitherto not once."

It will be seen from the above that Neo-Platonism is not mystical as regards the faculty by which it claims to apprehend philosophic truth. It is first of all a system of complete rationalism; it is assumed, in other words, that reason is capable of mapping out the whole system of things. But, inasmuch as a God is affirmed beyond reason, the mysticism becomes in a sense the necessary complement of the would-be all-embracing rationalism. The system culminates in a mystical act, and in the sequel, especially with Iamblichus and the Syrian Neo-Platonists, mystical practice tended more and more to overshadow the theoretical groundwork.

It was probably about the end of the 5th century, just as ancient philosophy was dying out in the schools of Athens, that the speculative mysticism of Neo-Platonism made a definite lodgment in Christian thought through the literary forgeries of the Pseudo-Dionysius. The doctrines of Christianity were by that time so firmly established that the church could look upon a symbolical or mystical interpretationof them without anxiety. The author of the Theologia Mystica and the other works ascribed to the Areopagite proceeds, therefore, to develop the doctrines of Proclus with very little modification into a system of esoteric Christianity. God is the nameless and supra-essential One, elevated above goodness itself. Hence "negative theology," which ascends from the creature to God by dropping one after another every determinate predicate, leads us nearest to the truth. The return to God (___) is the consummation of all things and the goal indicated by Christian teaching. The same doctrines were preached with more of churchly fervor by Maximus the Confessor (580-622). Maximus represent almost the last speculative activity of the Greek Church, but the influence of the Pseudo-Dionysus writings was transmitted to the West in the 9th century by Erigena, in whose speculative spirit both the scholasticism and the mysticism of the Middle Ages have their rise. Erigena translated Dionysus into Latin along with the commentaries of Maximus, and his system is essentially based upon theirs. The negative theology is adopted, and God is stated to be predicateless Being, above all categories, and therefore not improperly called Nothing. Out of this Nothing or incomprehensible essence the world of ideas or primordial causes is eternally created. This is the Word or Son of God, in whom all things exist, so far as they have substantial existence. All existence is a theophany, and as God is the beginning of all things, so also is He the end. Erigena teaches the restitution of all things under the form of the Dionysian adunatio or deificatio. These are the permanent outlines of what may be called the philosophy of mysticism in Christian times, and it is remarkable with how little variation they are repeated from age to age.

In Erigena mysticism has not yet separated itself in any way from the dogma of the church. There is no revulsion, as later, from dogma as such, nor is more stress laid upon one dogma than upon another; all are treated upon the same footing, and the whole dogmatic system is held, as it were, in solution by the philosophic medium in which it is presented. No distinction is drawn, indeed, between what is reached by reason and what is given by authority; the two are immediately identical for Erigena. In this he agrees with the speculative mystics everywhere, and differentiates himself from the scholastics who followed him. The distinguishing characteristic of scholasticism is the acceptance by reason of a given matter, the truth of which is independent of rational grounds, and which remains a presupposition even when it cannot be understood. Scholasticism aims, it is true, in its chief representatives, at demonstrating that the content of revelation and the teaching of reason are identical. But what was matter of immanent assumption with Erigena is in them an equating of two things which have been dealt with on the hypothesis that they are separate, and which, therefore, still retain that external relation to one another. This externality of religious truth to the mind is fundamental in scholasticism, while the opposite view is equally fundamental in mysticism. Mysticism is not the voluntary demission of reason and its subjection to an external authority. In that case, all who accept a revelation without professing to understand its content would require to be ranked as mystics; the fierce sincerity of Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum, Pascal’s reconciliation of contradiction in Jesus Christ, and Bayle’s half-sneering sub-ordination of reason to faith would all be marks of this standpoint. But such a temper of mind is much more akin to skepticism than to mysticism; it is characteristic of those who either do not feel the need of philosophizing their beliefs, or who have failed in doing so and take refuge in sheer acceptance. Mysticism, on the other hand, is marked on its speculative side by even an overweening confidence in human reason. Nor need this be wondered at if we consider that the unity of the human mind with the divine is its underlying presupposition. Hence where reason is discarded by the mystic it is merely reason overleaping itself; it occurs at the end and not at the beginning of his speculations. Even then there is no appeal to authority; nothing is accepted from without. The appeal is still to the individual, who, if not by reason then by some higher faculty, claims to realize absolute truth and to taste absolute blessedness.

Mysticism first appears in the mediaeval church as the protest of practical religion against the predominance of the dialectical spirit. It is so with Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), who condemsn Abelard’s distinctions and reasonings as externalizing and degrading the faith. Bernard’s mysticism is of a practical cast, dealing mainly with the means by which man may attain to the knowledge and enjoyment of God. reason has three stages, in the highest of which the mind is able, by abstraction from earthly things, to rise to contemplation or the vision of the divine. More exalted still, however, is the sudden ecstatic vision, such as was granted, for example, to Paul. This is the reward of those who are dead to the body and the world. Asceticism is thus the counterpart of mediaeval mysticism; and, by his example as well as by his teaching in such passages, Bernard unhappily encouraged practices which necessarily resulted in self-delusion. Love grows with the knowledge of its object, Bernard proceeds, and at the highest stage self-love is so merged in love to God that we love ourselves only for God’s sake or because God has loved us. "Te enim quodammodo perdere tanquam qui non sis, et omnino non sentire te ipsum et a te ipso exinaniri et pene annullari, coelestis east conversationis…. Sic affici deificari est." "As the little water-drop poured into a large measure of wine seems to lose its own natuire entirely and to take on both the taste and the color of the wine, or as iron heated red-hot loses its own appearance and glows like fire, or as air filled with sunlight is transformed into the same brightness so that it does not so much appear to be illuminated as to be itself light, - so must all human feeling towards the Holy One be self-dissolved in unspeakable wise, and wholly transfused into the will of God. For how shall God be all in all if anything of man remains in man? The substance will indeed remain, but in another form, another glory, another power" (De diligendo Deo, c. 10). These are the favorite similes of mysticism, wherever is found.

Mysticism was more systematically developed by Bernard’s contemporary Hugo of St Victor (1096-1141). The Augustinian monastery of St Victor near Paris became the headquarters of mysticism during the 12th century. It has a wide influence in awakening popular piety, and the works that issued from it formed the text-books of mystical and pietistic minds in the centuries that followed. Hugo’s pupil, Richard of St Victor, declares, in opposition to dialectic scholasticism, that the objects of mystic contemplation are partly above reason, and partly, as in the intuition of the Trinity, contrary to reason. He enters at length into the conditions of ecstasy and the yearnings that precede it. Walter, the third of the Victorines, carried on the polemic against the dialecticians. Bonaventura (1221-74) was a diligent student of the Victorines, and in his Itinerarium mentis ad Deum maps out the human faculties in a similar fashion. He introduces the terms "apex mentis" and "scintilla" (also "synderesis" or ___) to describe the faculty of mystic intuition. Bonaventura runs riot in phrases to describe the union with God, and his devotional works were much drawn upon by mystical preachers. Fully a century later, when the system of scholasticism was gradually breaking up under the predominance of Occam’s nominalism, Pierre d’Ailly (1350-1425), and his more famous scholar John Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the university of Paris, are found endeavoring to combine the doctrines of the Victorines and Bonaventura with a nominalistic philosophy. They are the last representatives of mysticism within the limitations imposed by scholasticism.

From the 12th and 13th centuries onward there is observable in the different countries of Europe a widespread reaction against the growing formalism and worldliness of the church and the scandalous lives of many of the clergy. Men began to feel a desire for a theology of the heart and an unworldly simplicity of life. Thus there arose in the Netherlands the Beguines and Beghards, in Italy the Waldenses (without, however, any mystical leaning), in the south of France and elsewhere the numerous sect or sects of the Cathari, and in Calabria the apocalyptic gospel of Joachim of Floris, all bearing witness to the commotion of the time. the lay societies of the Beghards and Beguines (for men and women respectively) date from the end of the 12th century, and soon became extremely popular both in the Low Countries and on the Rhine. They were free at the outset from any heretical taint, but were never much in favor with the church. In the beginning of the 13th century the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders furnished a more ecclesiastical and regular means of supplying the same wants, and numerous convents sprang up at once throughout Germany. The German mind was a peculiarly fruitful soil for mysticism, and, in connection either with the Beguines or the church organization, a number of women appear about this time, combining a spirit of mystical piety and asceticism with sturdy reformatory zeal directed against the abuses of the time. Even before this we hear of the prophetic visions of Hildegard of Bingen ( a contemporary of St Bernard) and Elizabeth of Schonau. In the 13th century Elizabeth of Hungary, the pious landgravine of Thuringia, assisted in the foundation of many convents in the north of Germany. For an account of the chief of these female saints the reader is referred to the first volume of Preger’s Geschiechte der deutschen Mystik. Mechthild of Magdeburg appears to have been the most influential, and her book Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit is important as the oldest work of its kind in German. It proves that much of the terminology of German mysticism was current before Eckhart’s time. Mechthild’s clerico-political utterances show that she was acquainted with the "eternal gospel" of Joachim of Floris. Joachim had proclaimed the doctrine of three world-ages-the kingdom of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit. The reign of the Spirit was to begin with the year 1260, when the abuses of the world and the church were to be effectually cured by the general adoption of the monastic life of contemplation. Very similar to this in appearance is the teaching of Amalrich of Bena (ob. 1207); but, while the movements just mentioned were reformatory without being heretical, this is very far from being the case with the mystical pantheism derived by Amalrich from the writings of Erigena. His followers held a progressive revelation of God in the ages of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Just as the Mosaic dispensation came to an end with the appearance of Christ, so the sacraments of the new dispensation have lost their meaning and efficacy since the incarnation of God as Holy Spirit in the Analricans. With this opposition to the church they combine a complete antinomianism, through the identification of all their desires with the impulses of the divine Spirit. Amalrich’s teaching was condemned by the church, and his heresies led to the public burning of Erigena’s De divisione naturae in 1225. the sect of the New Spirit, or of the Free Spirit as it was afterwards called, spread widely through the north of France and into Switzerland and Germany. They were especially numerous in the Rhineland in the end of the 13th and during the 14th century; and they seem to have corrupted the originally orthodox communities of Beghards, for Beghards and Brethren of the Free Spirit are used henceforward as convertible terms, and the same immoralities are related of both. Such was the seed-ground in which what is specifically known as German mysticism sprang up.





In Meister Eckhart (1260-1329; - see ECKHART) the German mind definiteively asserts its pre-eminence in the sphere of speculative mysticism. Eckhart was a distinguished son of the church; but in reading his works we feel at once that we have passed into quite a different sphere of thought from that of the churchly mystics; we seem to leave the cloister behind and to breathe a freer atmosphere. The scholastic mysticism was, for the most part, practical and psychological in character. It was largely a devotional aid to the realization of present union with God; and, so far as it was theoretical, it was a theory of the faculties by which such a union is attainable . Mysticism was pieced on somewhat incongruously to a scholastically accepted theology; the feelings and the intellect were not brought together. But in Eckhart the attitude of the churchman and traditionalist is entirely abandoned. Instead of systematizing dogmas, he appears to evolve a philosophy by the free exercise of reason. His system enables him to give a profound significance to the doctrines of the church; but, instead of the system being accommodated to the doctrines, the doctrines – and especially the historical facts – acquire a new sense in the system, and often become only a mythical representation of speculative truth. The freedom with which Eckhart treats historical Christianity allies him much more to the German idealists of the 19th century than to his scholastic predecessors. In his speculative depth as well as in the fondness for reconciling apparent contradictions which often lends an air of paradox to his statements Eckhart bears a striking resemblance to Hegel; but in some determinations of his system, such as his doctrine of the Absolute, he approaches more nearly to Schelling. In view of these affinities, it has been customary to say that his interest is prevailingly intellectual, and that he is lacking in religious warmth. But this is largely due to the fusion of intellect and feeling which is often found in highly speculative natures. Eckhart’s system is in itself the expression or formulation of religious feeling, and the speculative statement possesses for him a rich spiritual unction of its own. In this he is the typical representative of German, in opposition to what is often called Romanic, mysticism. The latter, both in scholastic times and in its later Catholic representatives, confines itself to the facts of religious feeling without showing itself attracted by ontological speculation.

Eckhart distinguishes between the godhead and God. The godhead is the absolute Essence (Wesen), unknowable not only by man but also by itself; it is darkness and absolute indeterminateness, "Nicht" in contrast to :Icht" or definite and knowable existence. Yet it is the potentiality of all things, and its nature is, in a triadic process, to come to consciousness of itself as the triune God. Creation is not a temproral act, but an eternal necessity of the divine nature. I am as necessary to God, Eckhart is fond of saying, as God is necessary to me. In my knowledge and love God knows and loves Himself. "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one vision, one recognition, one love." To know God, we must become ignorant of ourselves and of all creatures. "Couldst thou annihilate thyself for a moment, thou wouldst possess all that God is in Himself." The complete renunciation of selfhood is called by Eckhart "decease," and when I am in this state God brings forth His Son in me. Or, conversely, it is I who beget God anew in my soul; "God has begotten me from eternity that I may be Father and beget Him who begat me." Our identity with God is recognized by the purely rational and uncreated activity of the soul, which Eckhart calls the "Funklein,: or spark. By this we press on beyond God into the abyss of the godhead, and Eckhart prays paradoxically "to be rid of God, that is, that God by His grace would bring him into the Essence-that Essence which is above God and above distinction."

In spite of Eckhart’s daring assertions of the identity of the human and the divine, there is no reason to call in question his genuinely religious and Christian spirit. His spirit, however, was Christian in a wide sense rather than ecclesiastical; it showed itself in zeal for the upbuilding of Christian life among the people. The condemnation of the church had its effect in later times in obscuring Eckhart’s importance, but it did not avail to check his powerful influence upon his contemporaries. They constantly appeal to him as "the master," the "wise," the "divine" master, "from whom God concealed nothing."

The political circumstances of Germany in the first half of the 14th century were in the last degree disastrous. The war between the rival emperors, Frederick of Austria and Louis of Bavaria, and the interdict under which the latter was placed in 1324 inflicted extreme misery upon the unhappy people. From some places the interdict was not removed for twenty-six years. Men’s minds were pained and disquieted by the conflict of duties and the absence of spiritual consolation. The country was also visited by a succession of famines and floods, and in 1348 the Black Death swept over Europe like a terrible scourge. In the midst of these unhappy surroundings religion became more inward in men of real piety, and the desire grew among them to draw closer the bonds that united them to one another. Thus arose the society of the Friends of God (gottesfreunde) in the south and west of Germany, spreading as far as Switzerland on the one side and the Netherlands on the other. They formed no exclusive sect. They often took opposite sides in politics, and they also differed in the type of their religious life; but they uniformly desired to strengthen one another in living intercourse with God. among them chiefly the followers of Eckhart were to be found. Such were Heinrich Suso of Constance (1295-1366) and John Tauler of Strasburg (1300-61), the two most celebrated of his immediate disciples. Suso was a remarkable combination of self-torturing austerity with an inexhaustible play of poetic fancy. He has been called "the minnesinger of the love of God." Tauler’s eloquence may be said to have made him the center of religious life in the south-west of Germany for more than quarter of a century. In his sermons, while the standpoint is the same as Eckhart’s, the speculative groundwork tends, as is natural, to be less insisted, on and more scope is given to its practical consequences and to direct religious exhortation. Nicolas of Basel, the mysterious layman from whose visit Tauler dates his true religious life, seems to have been the chief organizing force among the Gottesfreunde. He was known as ‘the great friend of God in the Oberland," and Basel continued to be a quiet haven of reunion for the members of the society. Tauler and others retired thither at intervals from the political storms the pious women in the convents of southern Germany. Such were Christina Ebner of Engelthal near Nuremberg, and margaretha Ebner of Medingen in Swabia. Laymen also belonged to it, like Herman von Fritzlar and Rulman Merswib, the rich banker of Strasburg (author of a mystical work, Buch der neun Felsen, on the nine rocks or upward steps of contemplation). Letters passed between the members, as well as presents of books re relics. Some of them, like Heinrich von Nordlingen, the friend of Margaretha Ebner, went much from place to place, and in that way helped to keep up a living connection among the friends. It was doubtless one of their number who sent forth anonymously from the house of the Teutonic Order in Frankfort the famous handbook of mystical devotion called Eine deutsche Theologie. Shortly after the middle of the century most of the friends of whom anything is known drop out of sight. But the combination of warm piety and spiritual freedom in Tauler’s sermons and the Deutsche Theologie exercised a continuous influence on the religious life of Germany till the time of Luther. As is well known, the Deutsche Theologie was first published in 1516 by Luther, who accompanied it by a preface expressing his own obligations to the "noble book," and ranking it inferior only to the Bible and St Augustine. The fact that the book was put into his hands by Staupitz, the vicar-general of the Augustinian order, shows that Luther’s high estimate was not singular at the time.

John Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), the father of mysticism in the Netherlands, stood in connection with the Friends of God, and Tauler is said to have visited him in his seclusion at Vauvert (Grunthal) near Brussels. He was decisively influenced by Eckhart, though there is noticeable occasionally a shrinking back from some of Eckhart’s phraseology. The sect of the Free Spirit is the frequent object of his polemic, and this leads him into somewhat careful definitions of truth and error. For the rest, Ruysbroek’s mysticism is more of a practical than a speculative cast. He is chiefly occupied with the means whereby the unio mystica is to be attained, whereas Eckhart dwells on the union as an ever-present fact, and dilates on its meta-physical implications. Towards the end of Ruysbroek’s life, in 1378, he was visited by the fervid lay-preacher Gerhard Groot (134-84), who was so impressed by the life of the community at Vauvert that he conceived the idea of founding a Christian brotherhood bound by no monastic vows, but living together in simplicity and piety with all things in common, after the apostolic pattern. This was the origin of the Brethren of the Common Lot (or Common Life). The first house of the Brethren was founded at Deventer by Gergard Groot and his youthful friend Florentius Radewyn. Similar brother-houses soon sprang up in different places throughout the Low Countries and Westphalia, and even Saxony. Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), to whom the brotherhood chiefly owes its fame, forms the subject of a separate article.

It has been customary for Protestant writers to represent the mystics of Germany and Holland as precursors of the Reformation. In a sense this is true; and the direct influence of Tauler and the Deutsche Theologie upon Luther has already been referred to. But it conveys a false impression if it is understood to mean that these men protested against the doctrines of the church in the way the Reformers felt themselves called upon to do. There is no sign that Tauler, for example, or Ruysbroeck, or Thomas a Kempis had felt the dogmatic teaching of the church jar in any single point upon their religious consciousness . Nevertheless, mysticism did prepare men in a very real way for a break with the traditional system. Mysticism instinctively recedes from formulas that have become stereotyped and mechanical into the perennially fresh experience of the individual. In the first place, therefore, it brings into prominence only those broad and universal doctrines which it finds to be of vital and present moment for the inward life, while others, though they may have an important place in the churchly system, are (unconsciously) allowed to slip into temporary forgetfulness. It is thus we must explain that almost total absence of distinctively Romish doctrine in Thomas a Kempis which makes the imitation as acceptable to the Protestant as to the devout catholic. In the second place, mysticism accustoms men to deal with their experience for themselves at first hand, and to test the doctrines presented to them by that standard. This growth of spiritual freedom is especially to be marked in the German mystics. It is to be noted, however, that mysticism affords in itself no foundation for a religious community. Its principle is pure inwardness, but it possesses no norm by which the extravagances of the individual may be controlled. Thus, when the Reformers appeared to do their work, the mystics were found opposing the new authority of Scripture to the full as bitterly as they had opposed the old authority of the church. To the thoroughgoing mystic individualist the one standard is as external as the other. When Cellarius was called upon by Luther to substantiate his positions by reference to Scripture, he struck the table with his fist and declared it an insult to speak so to a man of God. a germ of reason may be discerned in this indignation, but none the less we must recognize that, while mysticism showed itself capable at the Reformation of dissolving society into anarchy and atomism, it showed itself perfectly destitute of a reconstructive power. The same people who would claim the pre-Reformation mystics as Protestants in disguise are indignant at the way in which the later mystics oppose, or hold aloof from, the Reformation movement. But the truth seems to be that, in both cases, mysticism was true to its principle. Without some fixed letter to attack itself to, it sinks away into utter formlessness; but its relation to the system is always more or less one of opposition to what it regards as external.

The wild doctrines of Thomas Munzer and the Zwickau prophets, merging eventually into the excesses of the Peasants’ War and the doings of the Anabaptists in Munster, first roused Luther to the dangerous possibilities of mysticism as a disintegrating force. He was also called upon to do battle for his principle against men like Schwenkfeld (1490-1561) and Sebastian Frank (1500-45), the latter of whom developed a system of pantheistic mysticism, and went so far in his opposition to the letter as to declare the whole of the historical element in Scripture to be but a mythical representation of eternal truth. Valentin Weigel (1533-88), who stands under manifold obligations to Frank, represents also the influence of the semi-mystical physical speculation that marked the transition from scholasticism to modern times. The final breakdown of scholasticism as a rationalized system of dogma may be seen in Nicolaus of Cusa (1401-64), who received his education, like Thomas a Kempis, at Deventer, and afterwards rose to be a cardinal of the church. He distinguishes between the intellectus and the discursively acting ratio almost precisely in the style of later distinctions between the reason and the understanding. The intellect combines what the understanding separates; hence Nicolaus teaches the principle of the coincidentia contradictoriorum. If the results of the understanding go by the name of knowledge, then the higher teaching of the intellectual intuition may be called ignorance.-ignorance, however, that is conscious of itself, docta ignorantia. "Intuitio," "speculation," "visio sine comprehensione," ‘comprehensio incomprehensibilis," "mystica theologia," "tertius coleus," are some of the terms he applies to this knowledge above knowledge; but in the working out of his system he is remarkably free from extravagance. Nicolau’s doctrines were of influence upon Girodano Bruno and other physical philosophers of the 15th and 16th centuries. All these physical theories are blended with a mystical theosophy, of which the most remarkable example is, perhaps, the chemico-astrological speculation of Paracelsus (1493-1541). The influence of Nicolaus of Cusa and Paracelsus mingled in Valentin Weigel with that of that Deutsche Theologie, Osiander, Schwenkfled, and Frank. Weigel, in turn, handed on these influences to Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), philosophus teutonicus, and father of the chief developments of theosophy in modern Germany. See BOEHME.

Mysticism did not cease within the Catholic Church at the Reformation. In St Theresa (1515-82) and John of the Cross the counter-reformation can boast of saints second to none in the calendar for the austerity of their mortifications and the rapture of the visions to which they were admitted. But, as was to be expected, their mysticism moves in that comparatively narrow round, and consists simply in the heaping up of these sensuous experiences. The speculative character has entirely faded out of it, or rather has been crushed out by the tightness with which the directors of the Roman church now held the reins of discipline. Their mysticism represents, therefore, no widening or spiritualizing of their theology; in all matters of belief they remain the docile children of their church. The gloom and harshness of these Spanish mystics are absent from the tender, contemplative spirit of Francois de Sales (1567-1622); and in the quietism of Madame Guyon (1648-1717) and Miguel de Molinos (1627-96) there is again a sufficient implication of mystical doctrine to rouse the suspicion of the ecclesiastical authorities. Quietism, name and thing, became the talk of all the world through the bitter and protracted controversy to which it gave rise between Fenelon and Bossuet.

In the 17th century mysticism is represented in the philosophical field by the so-called Cambridge Platonists, and especially by Henry More (1614-87), in whom the influence of the Kabbalah is combined with a species of Christianized Neo-Platonism. Pierre Poiret (1646-1719) exhibits a violent reaction against the mechanical philosophy of Descartes, and especially against its consequences in Spinoza. He was an ardent student of Tauler and Thomas a Kempis, and became an adherent of the quietistic doctrines of Madame Bourignon. His philosophical works emphasize the passivity of the reason. The first influence of Boehme was in the direction of an obscure religious mysticism. J.G. Gichtel l(1638-1710), the first editor of his complete works, became the founder of a sect called the angel-brethren. All Boehme’s works were translated into English in the time of the Commonwealth , and regular societies of Behmenists were formed in England and Holland. Later in the century he was much studied by the members of the Philadelphian Society, John Pordage, Thomas Bromley, Jane Lead, and others. The mysticism of William Law (1686-1761) and of St Martin in France (1743—18030, who were also students of Boehme, is of a much more elevated and spiritual type. The "Cherubic Wanderer,’ and other poems, of Johann Scheffler (1624-77), known as Angelus Silesius, are more closely related in style and thought to Eckhart than to Boehme.

The religiosity of the Quakers, with their doctrines of the "inner light" and the influence of the Spirit, has decided affinities with mysticism; and the quaint autobiography of George Fox (1624-91), the founder of the sect, proceeds throughout on the assumption of supernatural guidance. Stripped of its definitely miraculous character, the doctrine of the inner light may be regarded as the familiar mystical protest against formalism, literalism, and scripture-worship. Swedenborg, though selected by Emerson in his Representative Men as the typical mystic, belongs rather to the history of spiritualism than to that of mysticism as understood in this article. He possesses the cool temperament of the man of science rather than the fervid Godward aspiration of the mystic proper; and the speculative impulse which lies at the root of this form of thought is almost entirely absent from his writings. Accordingly, his supernatural revelations resemble a course of lesson in celestial geography more than a description of the beatific vision.

Philosophy since the end of the last century has frequently shown a tendency to diverge into mysticism. This has been especially so in Germany. The term mysticism is, indeed, often extended by popular usage and philosophical partisanship to the whole activity of the post-Kantian idealists. In this usage the word would be equivalent to the more resent and scarcely less abused term, transcendentalism, and as such it is used even by a sympathetic writer like Carlyle; but this looseness of phraseology only serves too blur important distinctions. However absolute a philosopher’s idealism may be, he is erroneously styled a mystic if he moves towards his conclusions only by the patient labor of the reason. Hegel therefore, to take an instance, can no more fitly he classed as a mystic than Spinoza can. It would be much nearer the truth to take both as types of a thoroughgoing rationalism. In either case it is of course open to any one to maintain that the apparent completeness of synthesis really rests on the subtle intrusion of elements of feeling into the rational process. But in that case it might be difficult to find a systematic philosopher who would escape the charge of mysticism; and it is better to remain by long-established and serviceable distinctions. Where philosophy despairs of itself, exults in its own overthrow, and yet revels in the "mysteries" of a speculative Christianity, as in J.G. Hamann (1730-88), the term mysticism may be fitly applied. So, again, it is place where the movement of revulsion from a mechanical philosophy takes the form rather of immediate assertion than of reasoned demonstration, and where the writers, after insisting generally on the spiritual basis of phenomena, either leave the position without further definition, or expressly declare that the ultimate problems of philosophy cannot be reduced to articulate formulas. Examples of this are men like Novalis, Carlyle, and Emerson, in whom philosophy may be said to be impatient of its own task. Schelling’s explicit appeal in the "Identitats-philosophie" to an intellectual intuition of the Absolute, is of the essence of mysticism, both as an appeal to a supra-rational faculty and as claim not merely to know but to realize God. the opposition of the reason to the undersanding, as used by Coleridge, is not free from the first of these faults. The later philosophy of Schelling and the philosophy of Franz von Baader, both largely founded upon Boehme, belong rather to theosophy than to mysticism proper.

Authorities.- The authorities for the teaching of individual mystics will be found under their names. Besides the sections on mysticism in the general histories of philosophy by Erdmann and ueberweg, and in works on church history and the history of dogma, reference may be made for the mediaeval period to Heinrich Schmid, Der Mysticismus in seiner Entstehungsperiode, Jena, 1824; Helfferich, Die christliche Mystik, Hamburg, 1842; Noack, Die christliche Mystik des Mittelalters, Konigsberg, 1853. On the Germany mystuics the works are very numerous, but decidedly the best is the Geschichte der deutschen Mystik, in course of publication by W. Preger. The first volume, published at Leipsic in 1874, deals with Meister Eckhart and his precursors; the second, which appeared inn 1881, deals with Suso and the general development of mysticism in Eckhart school, but without including Tauler. The works of Eckhart and his precursors are contained in Pfeiffer’s Deutsche Mystiker des 14ten Jahrhunderts, vol. I (1845), vol. ii. (1857). The Theologia Germanica and a selection from Tauler’s Sermons have been translated into English by Miss Susannah Winkworth. (A. SE.)



The above article was written by: Andrew Seth (Andrew Seth Pringle Pattison), M.A., LL.D.; Professor of Logic and Metaphysics in the University of Edinburgh from 1891; Professor of Logic, Rhetoric and Metaphysics at St Andrews, 1887; author of The Development from Kant to Hegel, and other works on philosophy.



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