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|Other names||"Meister Eckhart"|
Near Gotha, Holy Roman Empire
|Died||1327 or 1328|
|Other names||"Meister Eckhart"|
Near Gotha, Holy Roman Empire
|Died||1327 or 1328|
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Eckhart von Hochheim O.P. (c. 1260 – c. 1327), commonly known as Meister Eckhart [ˈmaɪ̯stɐ ˈɛkʰaʀt], was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born near Gotha, in the Landgraviate of Thuringia in the Holy Roman Empire.[note 1]
Eckhart came into prominence during the Avignon Papacy, at a time of increased tensions between the Franciscan Order and Eckhart's Dominican Order of Preachers. In later life he was accused of heresy and brought up before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition, and tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII.[note 2] He probably died before his verdict was received.[note 3]
He was well known for his work with pious lay groups such as the Friends of God and succeeded by his more circumspect disciples of John Tauler and Henry Suso. Since the 19th century, he has received renewed attention. Within popular spirituality he has acquired a status as a great mystic, though contemporary scholarship places him properly within the mediaeval scholastic and philosophical tradition.
Eckhart was probably born in the village of Tambach, near Gotha, in the Landgraviate of Thuringia, approximately 1260. It used to be asserted that he was born to a noble family of landowners, but this originated in a misinterpretation of the archives of the period. In reality, little is known about his family and early life. There is no authority for giving him the Christian name of Johannes which sometimes appears in biographical sketches: his Christian name was Eckhart; his surname was von Hochheim.
Eckhart joined the Dominicans at Erfurt, probably when he was about eighteen and it is assumed he studied at Cologne. He may have also studied at the University of Paris, either before or after his time in Cologne.
The first solid evidence we have for his life is when on 18 April 1294, as a baccalaureus (lecturer) on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a post to which he had presumably been appointed in 1293, he preached the Easter Sermon (the Sermo Paschalis) at the Dominican convent of St. Jacques in Paris. In late 1294, Eckhart was made Prior at Erfurt and Provincial of Thuringia. His earliest vernacular work, Reden der Unterweisung (The Talks of Instructions/Counsels on Discernment), a series of talks delivered to Dominican novices, dates from this time (c1295-1298). In 1302, he was sent to Paris to take up the external Dominican chair of theology. He remained there till 1303. The short Parisian Questions date from this time.
In late 1303 Eckhart returned to Erfurt, and was made Provincial for Saxony, a province which reached at that time from the Netherlands to Livonia. He therefore had responsibility for forty-seven convents in this region. Complaints made against him and the provincial of Teutonia[disambiguation needed] at the general chapter held in Paris in 1306, concerning irregularities among the ternaries, must have been trivial, because the general, Aymeric of Piacenza, appointed him in the following year his vicar-general for Bohemia with full power to set the demoralized monasteries there in order. Eckhart was Provincial for Saxony until 1311, during which time he founded three convents for women there.
On 14 May 1311 Eckhart was appointed by the general chapter held at Naples as teacher at Paris. To be invited back to Paris for a second stint as magister was a rare privilege - previously granted only to Thomas Aquinas. Eckhart stayed in Paris for two academic years, until the summer of 1313, living in the same house as William of Paris.
Then follows a long period of which it is known only that he spent part of the time at Strasbourg. It is unclear what specific office he held there: he seems chiefly to have been concerned with spiritual direction and with preaching in convents of Dominicans.
A passage in a chronicle of the year 1320, extant in manuscript (cf. Wilhelm Preger, i. 352–399), speaks of a prior Eckhart at Frankfurt who was suspected of heresy, and some have referred this to Meister Eckhart. It is unusual that a man under suspicion of heresy would have been appointed teacher in one of the most famous schools of the order, but Eckhart's distinctive expository style could well have already been under scrutiny by his Franciscan detractors.
In late 1323 or early 1324 Eckhart left Strasbourg for the Dominican house at Cologne. It is not clear exactly what he did here, though part of his time may have been spent teaching at the prestigious Studium in the city. Eckhart also continued to preach, addressing his sermons during a time of disarray among the clergy and monastic orders, rapid growth of numerous pious lay groups, and the Inquisition's continuing concerns over "heretical" movements throughout Europe.
It appears that some of the Dominican authorities already had concerns about Eckhart's teaching. The Dominican General Chapter held in Venice in the spring of 1325 had spoken out against "friars in Teutonia who say things in their sermons that can easily lead simple and uneducated people into error". This concern (or perhaps concerns held by the archbishop of Cologne, Henry of Virneburg) may have been why Nicholas of Strasburg, to whom the pope had in 1325 given the temporary charge of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, conducted an investigation of Eckhart's orthodoxy. Nicholas presented a list of suspect passages from the Book of Consolation to Eckhart, who responded sometime between August 1325 and January 1326 with a lost treatise Requisitus, which satisfied his immediate superiors of his orthodoxy. Despite this assurance, however, the archbishop in 1326 ordered an inquisitorial process. At this point he issued a Vindicatory Document, providing chapter and verse of what he had been taught.
Throughout the difficult months of late 1326 Eckhart had the full support of the local Dominican authorities, as evident in Nicholas of Strasbourg's three official protests against the actions of the inquisitors in January 1327. On 13 February 1327, before the archbishop's inquisitors pronounced their sentence on Eckhart, Eckhart preached a sermon in the Dominican church at Cologne, and then had his secretary read out a public protestation of his innocence. He stated in his protest that he had always detested everything wrong, and should anything of the kind be found in his writings, he now retracts. Eckhart himself translated the text into German, so that his audience, the vernacular public, could understand it. The verdict then seems to have gone against Eckhart. Eckhart denied competence and authority to the inquisitors and the archbishop, and appealed to the Pope against the verdict. He then in the spring of 1327 set off for Avignon.
In Avignon, Pope John XXII seems to have set up a two tribunals to inquire into the case, one of theologians and the other of cardinals. Evidence of this process is thin. However, it is known that the commissions reduced the 150 suspect articles down to 28; the document known as the Votum Avenionense gives, in scholastic fashion, the twenty-eight articles, Eckhart's defence of each, and the rebuttal of the commissioners. On 30 April 1328, the pope wrote to Bishop Henry of Virneburg that the case against Eckhart was moving ahead, but added that Eckhart had already died (modern scholarship suggests he may have died on 28 January 1328). The papal commission eventually confirmed (albeit in modified form) the decision of the Cologne commission against Eckhart.
Pope John XXII issued a bull (In agro dominico), 27 March 1329, in which a series of statements from Eckhart is characterized as heretical; another as suspected of heresy. At the close, it is stated that Eckhart recanted before his death everything which he had falsely taught, by subjecting himself and his writing to the decision of the Apostolic See. It is possible that the Pope's unusual decision to issue the bull, despite the death of Eckhart (and the fact that Eckhart was not being personally condemned as a heretic), was due to the pope's fear of the growing problem of mystical heresy, and pressure from his ally Henry II to bring the case to a definite conclusion.
Eckhart was one of the most influential 13th-century Christian Neoplatonists in his day, and remained widely read in the later Middle Ages. However, his trial (he was the only medieval theologian tried before the Inquisition as a heretic) and subsequent (1329) condemnation of excerpts from his works cast a shadow over his reputation for later readers.
The belief of some early twentieth-century writers that Eckhart's work was forgotten soon after his death by his fellow Dominicans was proved mistaken by the 1960 discovery of a manuscript containing around six hundred excerpts from Eckhart, and clearly deriving from an original made in the Cologne Dominican convent after the promulgation of the bull condemning Eckhart's writings, In agro dominico (since notations from the bull are inserted into the manuscript). This manuscript had come into the possession of the Carthusians in Basel - demonstrating that at least some Dominicans and Carthusians had continued to read Eckhart's work.
It is also clear that Nicholas of Cusa, Archbishop of Cologne in the 1430s and 1440s, engaged in extensive study of Eckhart. He assembled a collection of Eckhart's Latin works (a collection which still survives). Notes in the manuscripts show the careful study he spent on it.
Eckhart is considered by some to have been the inspirational "layman" referred to in Johannes Tauler's and Rulman Merswin's later writings in Strasbourg where he is known to have spent time (although it is doubtful that he authored the simplistic "Book of the Nine Rocks" published by Merswin and attributed to the layman knight from the north). On the other hand most scholars consider the "layman" to be a pure fiction invented by Rulman Merswin to hide his authorship because of the intimidating tactics of the Inquisition at the time.
It has been suspected that his practical communication of the mystical path is behind the influential 14th-century "anonymous" Theologia Germanica which was disseminated after his disappearance. According to the medieval introduction of the document, its author was an unnamed member of the Teutonic Order of Knights living in Frankfurt.
The lack of imprimatur from the Church and anonymity of the author of the Theologia germanica did not lessen its influence for the next two centuries — including Martin Luther at the peak of public and clerical resistance to Catholic indulgences — and was viewed by some historians of the early 20th century as pivotal in provoking Luther's actions and the subsequent Protestant Reformation.
The following quote from the Theologia Germanica depicts the conflict between worldly and ecclesiastical affairs:
The two eyes of the soul of man cannot both perform their work at once: but if the soul shall see with the right eye into eternity, then the left eye must close itself and refrain from working, and be as though it were dead. For if the left eye be fulfilling its office toward outward things, that is holding converse with time and the creatures; then must the right eye be hindered in its working; that is, in its contemplation. Therefore, whosoever will have the one must let the other go; for ‘no man can serve two masters.’"
Eckhart was largely forgotten from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, barring occasional interest from thinkers such as Angelus Silesius (1627-1677). For centuries none of Eckhart's writings were known except a number of sermons, found in the old editions of Johann Tauler's sermons, published by Kachelouen (Leipzig, 1498) and by Adam Petri (Basel, 1521 and 1522).
Interest in Eckhart’s works was revived in the early nineteenth century, especially by German Romantics and Idealist philosophers. Franz von Baader, for instance, studied Eckhart in the early 19th century. Franz Pfeiffer's publication in 1857 of Eckhart's German sermons and treatises added greatly to this interest. A second important figure in the later nineteenth-century for the recovery of Eckhart's works was Heinrich Seuse Denifle, who was the first to recover Eckhart's Latin works, from 1886 onwards.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, much Catholic interest in Eckhart was concerned with the consistency of his thought in relation to Neoscholastic thought – in others words, to see whether Eckhart's thought could be seen to be essentially in conformity with orthodoxy as represented by his fellow Dominican Thomas Aquinas.
An ongoing question since the mid nineteenth century has been which works attributed to Eckhart should be considered genuine - and, in particular, whether greater weight should be given to the vernacular works or Latin works. Unlike the vernacular works, today known in over 200 manuscripts, the Latin writings are found in only a handful of manuscripts, but Denifle argued, and has since been followed by many others, that these Latin treatises which Eckhart carefully prepared for publication were essential to a full understanding of Eckhart. In the early twentieth century, an important event was the publication of the Defense (also known as the Rechtsfertigung, or Vindicatory Document), the record of Eckhart's responses to two of the series of propositions brought against him at Cologne. This survives in a single manuscript, and was first published in 1923. It was important not just for providing extra details of the circumstances of Eckhart's trial, but also because extracts from sermons and treatises mentioned in the document and accepted by Eckhart as his own provided sound external criteria for the authenticity of a number of the vernacular works. Today, there remains some dispute about the authenticity of various vernacular works. There is, however, no dispute about the genuine character of the Latin works presented in the critical edition.
The publication of the modern critical edition of Eckhart's German and Latin works began in 1936, and is nearly complete.
One difficulty with Eckhart's Latin writings is that they clearly represent only a small portion of what he planned to write. Eckhart describes his plans to write a vast Opus Tripartitum (Three-Part Work). Unfortunately, all that exists today of the first Part, the Work of Propositions, is the Prologue illustrating the first proposition (with Eckhart intending the first part alone to consist of over one thousand propositions). The second Part, called the Work of Questions, no longer exists. The third Part, the Work of Commentaries, is the major surviving Latin work by Eckhart, consisting of a Prologue, six commentaries, and fifty-six sermons. It used to be thought that this work was begun while Eckhart was in Paris between 1311 and 1313; however, recent manuscript discoveries mean that much of what survives must be dated to before 1310.
The surviving Latin works are therefore:
Questions concerning the authenticity of the Middle High German texts attributed to Eckhart are much greater than for the Latin texts. The problems involve not only whether a particular sermon or treatise is to be judged authentic or pseudonymous, but also, given the large number of manuscripts and the fragmentary condition of many of them, whether it is even possible to establish the text for some of the pieces accepted as genuine. Eckhart's sermons are versions written down by others from memory or from notes, meaning that the possibility for error was much greater than for the carefully written Latin treatises.
The critical edition of Eckhart's works accepts 86 sermons as genuine. Of these, Sermons 1-16b are proved authentic by direct citation in the Defense. Sermons 17-24 have such close textual affinities with Latin sermons recognised as genuine that they are accepted. Sermons 25-86 are harder to verify, and judgements have been made on the basis of style and content.
When Franz Pfeiffer published his edition of Eckhart's works in 1857, he included seventeen vernacular treatises he considered to be written by Eckhart. Modern scholarship is much more cautious, however, and the critical edition accepts only four of Eckhart's vernacular treatises as genuine:
Eckhart wrote on metaphysics and spiritual psychology, drawing extensively on mythic imagery, and was notable for his sermons communicating the metaphorical content of the gospels to laymen and clergy alike. His work has influenced major German philosophers.
As Eckhart said in his trial defence, his sermons were meant to inspire in listeners the desire above all to do some good. In this, he frequently used unusual language or seemed to stray from the path of orthodoxy, which made him suspect to the Church during the tension-filled years of the Avignon Papacy.
Although he was an accomplished academic theologian, Eckhart's best-remembered works are his highly unusual sermons in the vernacular. Eckhart as a preaching friar attempted to guide his flock, as well as monks and nuns under his jurisdiction with practical sermons on spiritual/psychological transformation and New Testament metaphorical content related to the creative power inherent in disinterest (dispassion or detachment).
The central theme of Eckhart's German sermons is the presence of God in the individual soul, and the dignity of the soul of the just man. Although he elaborated on this theme, he rarely departed from it. In one sermon, Eckhart gives the following summary of his message:
When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.
In Eckhart's vision, God is primarily fecund. Out of overabundance of love the fertile God gives birth to the Son, the Word in all of us. Clearly[note 4], this is rooted in the Neoplatonic notion of "ebullience; boiling over" of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being. Eckhart had imagined the creation not as a "compulsory" overflowing (a metaphor based on a common hydrodynamic picture), but as the free act of will of the triune nature of Deity (refer Trinitarianism).
Another bold assertion is Eckhart's distinction between God and Godhead (Gottheit in German, meaning Godhood or Godness, state of being God). These notions had been present in Pseudo-Dionysius's writings and John the Scot's De divisione naturae, but Eckhart, with characteristic vigor and audacity, reshaped the germinal metaphors into profound images of polarity between the Unmanifest and Manifest Absolute.
One major influence was the interplay between western Orientalism, the modernisation of Eastern religions, and the export of the modernised versions of those religions to the west.
Matthew Fox (born 1940) is a former American priest and theologian. Formerly a member of the Dominican Order within the Roman Catholic Church, he was also once a member of the Episcopal Church. Fox was an early and influential exponent of a movement that came to be known as Creation Spirituality. The movement sought to draw inspiration from the mystical philosophies of such medieval Catholic visionaries as Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Dante Alighieri, Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, as well as the wisdom traditions of Christian scriptures. Fox's readings of Eckhart and other Christian mystics has been highly disputed. It has had little positive reception among scholars of medieval mysticism, though he has marked a whole generation's popular perception of Eckhart and others. Creation Spirituality is also strongly aligned with ecological and environmental movements of the late 20th century and embraces numerous spiritual traditions around the world, including Buddhism, Judaism, Sufism, and Native American spirituality, with a focus on "deep ecumenism".
Fox draws heavily on Eckhart for his own theology and whose "Breakthrough" presents an alternative and substantially different view of the nature and significance of Eckhart's thinking from that taken in earlier sections of this article.
Meister Eckhart has become one of the timeless heroes of modern spirituality, which thrives on an all-inclusive syncretism. This syncretism started with the colonisation of Asia, and the search of similarities between eastern and western religions. Western monotheism was projected onto eastern religiosity by western orientalists, trying to accommodate eastern religiosity to a western understanding, whereafter Asian intellectuals used these projections as a starting point to propose the superiority of those eastern religions. Early on, the figure of Meister Eckhart has played a role in those "culture battles".
The first translation of Upanishads appeared in two parts in 1801 and 1802. The 19th-century philosopher Schopenhauer was influenced by the early translations of the Upanishads, which he called "the consolation of my life".[note 5] Schopenhauer compared Eckhart's views to the teachings of Indian, Christian and Islamic mystics and ascetics:
If we turn from the forms, produced by external circumstances, and go to the root of things, we shall find that Sakyamuni and Meister Eckhart teach the same thing; only that the former dared to express his ideas plainly and positively, whereas Eckhart is obliged to clothe them in the garment of the Christian myth, and to adapt his expressions thereto.
Schopenhauer also stated:
Buddha, Eckhart and I all teach the same.
A major force in the mutual influence of eastern and western ideas and religiosity was the Theosophical Society., which also incorporated Eckhart in its notion of Theosophy. It searched for ancient wisdom in the east, spreading eastern religious ideas in the west. One of its salient features was the belief in "Masters of Wisdom"[note 6], "beings, human or once human, who have transcended the normal frontiers of knowledge, and who make their wisdom available to others". The Theosophical Society also spread western ideas in the east, aiding a modernisation of eastern traditions, and contributing to a growing nationalism in the Asian colonies.
The Theosophical Society had a major influence on Hindu reform movements.[note 7] A major proponent of this "neo-Hinduism", also called "neo-Vedanta", was Vivekananda who popularised his modernised inerpretation of Advaita Vedanta in the 19th and early 20th century in both India and the west, emphasising anubhava ("personal experience") over scriptural authority. Vivekanda's teachings have been compared to Eckhart's teachings.
In the 20th century, Eckhart's thoughts were also compared to Shankara's Advaita Vedanta by Rudolf Otto in his Mysticism East and West. According to King, The aim of this work was to redeem Eckhart's mysticism in Protestant circles, attempting "to establish the superiority of the German mysticism of Eckhart over the Indian mysticism of Sankara".
The Theosophical Society also had a major influence on Buddhist modernism, and the spread of this modernised Buddhism in the west. Along with H. S. Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala, Helena P. Blavatsky was instrumental in the Western transmission and revival of Theravada Buddhism.
In 1891, Karl Eugen Neumann, who translated large parts of the Tripitaka, found parallels between Eckhart and Buddhism, which he published in Zwei buddhistische Suttas und ein Traktat Meister Eckharts ("Two Buddhist Suttas and a treatise of Meister Eckhart"). D.T. Suzuki, who joined the Theosophical Society Adyar and was an active Theosophist, discerned parallels between Eckhart's teachings and Zen Buddhism in his Mysticism:Christian and Buddhist, drawing similarities between Eckhart's "pure nothingness" (ein bloss niht) and sunyata. Shizuteru Ueda, a third generation Kyoto School philosopher and scholar in medieval philosophy showed similarities between Eckhart's soteriology and Zen Buddhism in an article.
Reiner Schurmann, a Professor of Philosophy, while agreeing with Daisetz T. Suzuki that there exist certain similarities between Zen Buddhism and Meister Eckhart's teaching, also disputed Suzuki's contention that the ideas expounded in Eckhart's sermons closely approach Buddhist thought, "so closely indeed, that one could stamp them almost definitely as coming out of Buddhist speculations". Schurmann's several clarifications included:
Eckhart has become one of the timeless heroes of modern spirituality.
The notable humanistic psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm was another scholar who brought renewed attention in the west to Eckhart's writings, drawing upon many of the latters themes in his large corpus of work. Eckhart was a significant influence in developing United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld's conception of spiritual growth through selfless service to humanity, as detailed in his book of contemplations called Vägmärken ('Markings').[note 8]
Renewed academic attention to Eckhart has attracted favorable attention to his work from contemporary non-Christian mystics. Eckhart's most famous single quote, "The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me", is commonly cited by thinkers within neopaganism and ultimatist Buddhism as a point of contact between these traditions and Christian mysticism.
The popular writer Eckhart Tolle changed his name in acknowledgement of Eckhart's influence on his philosophy.
In Jacob's Ladder, Louis, the main character's friend, attributes the following quote to Eckhart:
You know what he [Eckhart] said? The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They burn 'em all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. [...] If you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth.
[...] Meister Eckhart would not even admit that God was good [...] Eckhart's position was that anything that was good can become better, and whatever may become better may become best. God cannot be referred to as "good", "better", or best because He is above all things. If a man says that God is wise, the man is lying because anything that is wise can become wiser. Anything that a man might say about God is incorrect, even calling Him by the name of God. God is "superessential nothingness" and "transcendent Being" [...] beyond all words and beyond all understanding. The best a man can do is remain silent, because anytime he prates on about God, he is committing the sin of lying. The true master knows that if he had a God he could understand, He would never hold Him to be God.
I can't help thinking you'd make a damn site better-adjusted actor if Seymour and I hadn't thrown in the Upanishads and the Diamond Sutra and Eckhart and all our other old loves with the rest of your recommended reading when you were small.
The third movement of John Adams's Harmonielehre symphony (1985) is titled 'Meister Eckhart and Quackie', which imagines the mystic floating through space with the composer's daughter Emily (nicknamed Quackie) on his back whispering secrets of grace in his ear.
Since the 1960s debate has been going on in Germany whether Eckhart should be called a "mystic". The philosopher Karl Albert had already argued that Eckhart had to be placed in the tradition of philosophical mysticism of Parmenides, Plato, Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and other neo-Platonistic thinkers. Heribert Fischer argued in the 1960s that Eckhart was a mediaeval theologian.
Kurt Flasch, a member of the so-called Bochum-school of mediaeval philosophy, strongly reacted against the influence of New Age mysticism and "all kinds of emotional subjective mysticism", arguing for the need to free Eckhart from "the Mystical Flood". He sees Eckhart strictly as a philosopher. Flasch argues that the opposition between "mystic" and "scholastic" is not relevant because this mysticism (in Eckhart's context) is penetrated by the spirit of the University, in which it occurred.
According to Hackett, Eckhart is to be understood as an "original hermeneutical thinker in the Latin tradition". To understand Eckhart, he has to be properly placed within the western philosophical tradition of which he was a part. 
Eckhart's status in the contemporary Catholic Church has been uncertain. The Dominican Order pressed in the last decade of the 20th century for his full rehabilitation and confirmation of his theological orthodoxy. Pope John Paul II voiced favorable opinion on this initiative, even going as far as quoting from Eckhart's writings, but the affair is still confined to the corridors of the Vatican. In the spring of 2010, it was revealed that there was finally a response from the Vatican in a letter dated 1992. Timothy Radcliffe, then Master of the Dominicans and recipient of the letter, summarized the contents as follows:
We tried to have the censure lifted on Eckhart', writes Timothy Radcliffe, 'and were told that there was really no need since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian.
Professor Winfried Trusen of Würzburg, a correspondent of Radcliffe, wrote in part of a defence of Eckhart to Cardinal Ratzinger, stating
Only 28 propositions were censured, but they were taken out of their context and impossible to verify, since there were no manuscripts in Avignon.
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