Eckhart was born in around 1260 and joined the Dominican priory in nearby Erfurt probably at fifteen years of age.1 In joining the Friars Preacher, he was following a well-trodden path which would guarantee him an education commensurate with his ability: the opportunity to study, to teach and to travel. Eckhart appears to have followed the Dominican route typical of the best students of his time. He may have undertaken his early studies of the Arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) either in his native Germany or possibly in Paris, which was the principal centre of medieval academic excellence, but he was certainly in Paris, as a Reader of the Sentences, in 1294. As the title suggests, he was engaged at this time in studying Peter Lombard’s Sentences, which was the main textbook of the Middle Ages that formed the basis of intermediate theological studies. He left Paris soon after to serve as Prior of the Dominican house in Erfurt, where he wrote his early Talks of Instruction and, perhaps, a number of early sermons (including Sermons 1 and 2 of the present selection).2 The Talks of Instruction, which are included here, are an important testimony to the relative maturity of Eckhart even at this stage. It is indeed striking how little change there is in the principal structures of his thought between this exciting early work and the later, more sophisticated, sermons of his maturity. In 1302 Eckhart left Erfurt to return to Paris, this time in order to take up the Dominican chair in theology, and it is possible that during this period he wrote some of the extensive scriptural commentaries (composed exclusively in Latin) that survive from his hand.
Eckhart’s success as an academic theologian was matched by his popularity as an administrator. In 1303 he was named the first Provincial of the new Dominican province of Saxonia, a post which he seems to have held with great ability and energy. In 1311, despite an attempt to lure him to the province of Teutonia, Eckhart was sent back to Paris to the same Dominican chair he had occupied a decade previously. Thus, in addition to receiving high administrative honours, Eckhart twice held a chair in theology at the University of Paris, an achievement which he has in common only with the greatest of Dominican theologians, Thomas Aquinas.
Eckhart’s next move was to Strasburg, in the year 1313, where he served as Vicar-General with oversight of the many women’s convents in south-west Germany. This move was out of the ordinary in that a Parisian professor would generally return to his native province. Eckhart’s arrival in Strasburg was probably the result of decrees formulated at the Council of Vienne (1311–12) which had accused a number of religious women known as Beguines of holding heretical views. The many Beguine communities of continental Europe had for some time represented a challenge to the Bishops in that these devout women, with temporary vows and sometimes practising mendicancy (begging), did not fall easily into any of the existing categories for women’s religious life. During the thirteenth century they were increasingly seen as a threat, culminating in two decrees which accused Beguines of harbouring the so-called heresy of the Free Spirit (which supposedly taught that a soul in union with God was freed from conventional moral constraints), although there was also an attempt to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Beguines. One of these decrees specifically refers to the problem of the Beguines in ‘the German lands’, and both probably reflect the influence of the two prominent German prelates at the Council: John of Zürich (Bishop of Strasburg) and Henry II of Virneburg (Archbishop of Cologne). The political connotations of the Vienne decrees were immense in that it was the Franciscans and Dominicans who were responsible for many of the Beguine communities, which were often loosely affiliated to one or other of the mendicant orders. Eckhart’s move to Strasburg in 1313, then, can easily be viewed as an attempt by the Dominican Order to protect its own interests in the face of an imminent conflict with the Bishops. This would centre on the condemnation of ‘certain’ women for whom they, the Dominicans, bore a close pastoral responsibility.
It was probably during this period in Strasburg that Eckhart’s own troubles began. It was here that he wrote the Liber Benedictus (‘The Book of Divine Consolation’ and ‘On the Noble Man’, both included in the present selection), and we begin to hear references to ‘those who do not understand’, suggesting that Eckhart was himself becoming subject to criticism. Also, much of the material which was used in the first trial of his work during the subsequent period in Cologne was taken from the Liber Benedictus. But when Meister Eckhart arrived in Cologne, in around 1323, he came as a leading Christian scholar and senior figure within the Dominican Order.
And yet in 1325 Nicholas of Strasburg, who was both the papal Visitor to the Dominican Province of Teutonia and Eckhart’s academic subordinate, conducted an investigation into his work, pronouncing it to be orthodox. It is impossible not to see this as an attempt to pre-empt a more serious threat from the Archbishop of Cologne, who did however initiate inquisitorial proceedings against Eckhart in 1326. The charge against him was the grave one of heresy, and it was in certain respects an extraordinary accusation. Eckhart was both the first (and only) Dominican to be charged with heresy under the Inquisition and he was also the first theologian of major rank to face this particular charge. Controversial theologians were otherwise subjected to an examination of faith, since heresy was a matter of the will and not merely the propagation of theological error. It is notable that the charge against him was immediately reduced when his case was finally referred to the Holy See. Eckhart responded to the lists of suspect propositions, drawn up by his accusers, with a written defence, which has survived. It is significant that the attitude adopted by Eckhart in this and at other points in his defence is not that he was introducing new teachings which were either different or superior to the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but rather that he was within the orthodox tradition and was being misunderstood. If his accusers charged Eckhart with heresy, then he charged them with stupidity.
When his case moved to Avignon, where Pope John XXII was currently in exile, he was flanked by Henricus de Cigno, the Dominican Provincial of Teutonia, and three lectors. Despite such strong local support, there is some evidence to suggest that the Dominican Order at large had already distanced itself from Eckhart during its General Chapter at Venice in 1325, and again in Toulouse in 1328, which prepared the way for his condemnation. This duly followed on 27 March 1329, shortly after Eckhart’s death, with the publication of the Bull In agro dominico. This identified twenty-eight articles, seventeen of which were judged to ‘contain error or the mark of heresy’ and eleven of which were ‘evil-sounding, rash and suspect of heresy’. We have already indicated the extraordinary character of the accusations against Eckhart, and his condemnation is no less strange. In the first place, it was published only in Cologne, although Eckhart had also lived and taught (in German) in Erfurt and Strasburg. Secondly, the Bull was published after his death, when any threat from Eckhart’s preaching, if threat there was, could reasonably be considered to have passed. To this extent In agro dominico stands out as a condemnatory text without parallel in the history of Catholic medieval Europe.
But there is, in fact, a single perfectly consistent explanation for all the unusual factors that surround the accusations against Eckhart and his condemnation.3 It was the Archbishop of Cologne who instigated inquisitorial proceedings against Eckhart and who opposed Eckhart’s appeal to the Holy See. It was Henry too who wrote to John XXII evoking the assurance that the condemnation would be pronounced despite Eckhart’s death. The fact that the Bull was promulgated only in Cologne well illustrates Henry’s key influence in the affair, and we need only inquire why it was that the Pope felt himself unable to oppose Henry or, as we might have expected, simply to allow the case to sit on the shelf. The condemnation of a prominent Dominican can only have embarrassed the Pope and his close ally, the Dominican Order.
A clear answer to this question emerges from a consideration of the political situation in which the papacy found itself in the first decades of the fourteenth century. Since the exile of the papacy to Avignon in 1309, Clement V and his successor John XXII entertained the ambition to return to Italy. In particular, the latter viewed the Italian ambitions of Lewis of Bavaria, the German Emperor, with great foreboding, fearing that the incursions into Italy by Lewis would destroy his hope of returning to Rome with a benign Habsburg buffer to the north. Accordingly the Pope engaged in a fierce controversy with Lewis which culminated in his excommunication in 1324. Henry of Virneburg’s role in this complex political situation was that of chief supporter of Lewis’s challenger to the throne, the Habsburg Frederick of Austria, and he was thus one of John XXII’s principal allies. The extent of the Pope’s obligation to the Archbishop can be judged by a letter which John wrote to Henry on 3 June 1324 in which he urged him to publish the process against Lewis (which he had so far failed to do on account of local opposition). As an enticement, the Pope offered to force the return of whatever toll-rights King Albrecht had removed from him during the toll-war in the Rhineland area; all the Archbishop had to do was inform him who the present owners of such rights were. This letter clearly shows that shortly before the trial against Eckhart began, the Pope believed himself to be so indebted to the Archbishop of Cologne as to explicitly offer him favours.
Finally, the question must be asked why Henry of Virneburg should have felt himself provoked by Meister Eckhart, to the extent of pursuing him mercilessly by all the means at his disposal. The answer probably lies in Henry’s campaign against the Beguines. Not only did Eckhart become involved in that controversy on behalf of the Dominican Order and thus, indirectly, on behalf of the Beguines themselves who were their pastoral charges, but also he himself seemed, to an unsympathetic mind, to be teaching the very heresy of which the Beguines stood accused. In sermons attributed to Eckhart it is not difficult to read certain statements, removed from their context, as advocating a mystical religion which is potentially free of ethical content. Indeed, it is very likely that his sermons were read in this way in certain quarters. Eckhart himself was aware that there was much that was subtly put, with a rhetorical élan, but in his defence he also disclaimed a number of statements attributed to his name. Also, of course, he frequently warned against just such an antinomian misinterpretation of his thought, stressing the place of morality and of the practices of the Church.
With hindsight we know today that Meister Eckhart emphatically taught the Christian faith, albeit in a highly original manner and with certain philosophical presuppositions which lent his thought a wholly distinctive edge. But the distasteful events surrounding his trial point not only to the political machinations of the age, they also remind us how easy it is to misread Meister Eckhart and to misappropriate his teachings for purposes remote from his own. To some extent this was the consequence of his own occasional predilection for quite extravagant rhetoric, but it was also the result of the discrepancy between the deep structures of his thought and the brilliant surface of his imagery and language. Moreover, the failure to see any single part of Eckhart’s work within the context of the whole, and the whole in the context of his intellectual and social world, remains as much a danger now as it was then.
Once again it is Meister Eckhart’s status as a Dominican which is of importance as we assess the intellectual influences upon him. Since his entrance into the Dominican Order guaranteed him an immensely privileged education and access to the finest libraries, there is little philosophical or theological material extant in the medieval West which we can assume Meister Eckhart did not read. This is in marked contrast to the great majority of medieval writers for whom access to texts was severely restricted on practical grounds. But, most importantly of all, the education Eckhart received specifically as a German Dominican proved to be a fundamental influence upon his thought. The existence of a German Dominican school, centring upon the figure of Albert the Great, has only recently been fully established. It has been shown to be a radical form of Augustinianism, particularly indebted to the neoplatonic influence of, among others, Proclus (a Greek), Avicenna (an Arab) and Maimonides (a Jew). It is this association, rather than the more general Dominican trends which Eckhart has in common with Thomas Aquinas, that makes Eckhart such a challenging thinker.
One of the foremost representatives of this German Dominican school was Dietrich of Freiberg. Dietrich belonged to the generation before that of Meister Eckhart but, like him, he was an outstanding administrator and scholar, who also held a chair of theology at the University of Paris. Dietrich must have been Eckhart’s mentor in the Dominican Order and, as Provincial of Teutonia, would have appointed the younger man Prior of the Dominican convent at Erfurt. The two works by his hand which are of most consequence to us are On the Intellect and On the Beatific Vision.4 We do not find in Eckhart a treatise on the intellect as such, but the theory of intellect which is everywhere present in his works is virtually identical to that held by Dietrich and expounded in these two texts.
The key area that Eckhart has in common with Dietrich, and others of the German Dominican school, is an intense interest in the nature and meaning of ‘intellect’, by which is meant something that corresponds more to ‘consciousness’ than to ‘intellect’ in modern terminology. For our present purposes, Eckhart’s chief debt was his belief that ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ exists in so far as it is dynamically active. The degree to which the mind is active, and therefore the degree to which it exists, is determined by the actuality of that which it knows. Intellect therefore can be said to attain varying degrees of existence, and this depends on the extent to which it is activated, which depends in turn on the degree of actuality of the object with which it engages. Thus the concept of ‘intellect’ is an appropriate one to describe the nature of God, who is all-knowing and all-being. In the case of human beings, however, the intellect is locked in a body and in a world of objects whose reality is distinctly less than that of God and the divine realm. Accordingly, the human intellect is generally only partially actualized. Secondly, from Dietrich’s On the Beatific Vision Eckhart took the idea that the human soul is itself intellect. In technical terms, this was the identification of the Augustinian ‘ground of the soul’ with the Aristotelian ‘agent intellect’, which meant that, for Eckhart, our essence, which is our innermost part, is itself intellect. Therefore in order to locate and explore ‘mind’ in this most dynamic and radical sense, we must look within to the most interior and intimate part of our being.
Although Meister Eckhart owed a great deal to his fellow German Dominicans, the tenor of his thought is markedly different from that of both Dietrich and Albert the Great. He does not share their encyclopedic and scientific tendencies; also, in Eckhart’s case, a boldly speculative intellectualist philosophy takes on mystical and personal contours which are lacking in his contemporaries. The works of Dietrich or Albert, Ulrich of Strasburg or Hugh Ripelin, are for the specialist, while Eckhart’s sermons still unfailingly excite, provoke and challenge the general reader. Nor are we alone in making that judgement, since Dietrich and Eckhart’s contemporaries chose to preserve the sermons of the latter and not of the former. The difference between them can perhaps be summed up by the atmosphere of urgency which prevails in Eckhart’s works and which makes us feel that he bears a great burden of truth. Indeed, we can feel in Eckhart the preacher a sense of the presence of God which underlies all his thinking and which lends it an astonishing communicative power. If the structure of Eckhart’s thought is largely that of the philosophical movement which dominated German Dominican circles during the second half of the thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth centuries, the spirit which animates it is entirely his own.
MEISTER ECKHART’S THOUGHT
To reduce a great thinker’s work to a single idea is always to risk oversimplification. Nevertheless, in the case of Eckhart there is some justification for taking the view that one primary perspective is the controlling principle to which all else is in some degree subordinate: the concept of unicity or oneness.
A theology or philosophy of oneness has as its starting-point the belief that the ultimate principle of the universe is distinguished from all else by virtue of the fact that it is entirely one and undivided. All except this One is multiple, contingent and fractured. But, generally, the One is also understood to be in dynamic relation with the rest of the universe, which originates from it and which thus also ‘looks back’ to its source. The One is therefore everywhere present, since all exists only by reference to it, but it is also everywhere absent, since – for us – all objects of experience are multiple. The One alone is primal and permanent being (if indeed the term ‘being’ is attributable to it), while the being of all that is multiple shall inevitably decay. Redemption, for Neoplatonists such as Proclus or Plotinus, involves the ascent of the human mind away from the spheres of multiplicity and contingency back to a primal oneness which is grasped through an ecstasy of the mind. The challenge to Eckhart the Dominican is fundamentally to set a vigorous metaphysics of the One in the context of the Christian revelation, which in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation professes multiplicity precisely at the level of the Godhead.
Firstly, Eckhart affirms that he does indeed find the notion of the One the most adequate way of speaking of God. All else (God the ‘good’, the ‘all-powerful’, etc.) appears to ‘add’ something to him and therefore to conceal him. Oneness alone comes close to capturing something of God’s essence in language, without clothing him in concepts which seem to owe more to our nature than to his.5 But the doctrine of the Trinity, of course, demands multiplicity in God, and there are passages in which Eckhart appears to place the unity of God above his plurality, or at least to make his ‘oneness’ prior to his ‘threeness’. Underlying such passages is Eckhart’s belief that names and concepts belong essentially to the realm of created things: they denote specific and localized being. Among such concepts Eckhart includes ‘threeness’ but not ‘oneness’ (Sermon 30). But this tendency to prioritize God as One at the cost of God as Three must be set against another, which is also strongly present in Eckhart’s thought: the belief that God is essentially fertile. God the Father constantly gives birth to God the Son. In other words, God is always dynamic and he always reproduces himself within the Trinity and within the human individual. Eckhart stresses that this generative function of God is not incidental to his nature but is his very essence.
It is not the case therefore that Meister Eckhart simply rejects Christian doctrine in favour of a neoplatonist metaphysic. Rather his thought seems a bold attempt to reconcile the neoplatonist inheritance with Christian orthodoxy in a way that parallels the fusion of Aristotelianism and Christianity that we find in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. That he should have ventured upon the task at all is a result of his strong Christian convictions together with his deeply held belief in the timeless veracity of neoplatonic philosophy. At one point he wrote that the pagan philosophers, Moses and Christ all professed the same truth, although each did so differently and at different levels of realization (thus the pagan – that is to say, neoplatonist – philosophers taught the truth while Christ is the truth). In any case, whether we judge the fusion to be successful, or whether we feel that there are residual tensions in Eckhart’s exposition of the Trinity and the Incarnation, his work stands as one of the great theological and philosophical syntheses of the Middle Ages.
In common with most other medieval systematic theologians, Meister Eckhart has an intense interest in the processes of the Creation itself, which for him is both ongoing and outside time. This latter point, which Eckhart liked to emphasize, was typically daring, for it appeared to approximate to the (condemned) Aristotelian teaching that the world exists from eternity. Eckhart’s meaning, however, was that the Creation must be considered eternal as it cannot be said to have occurred within time since time itself did not pre-exist the created order. Also, for Eckhart, the Creation is not an event located in the remote past whose consequences we experience today but is rather an ongoing and dynamic process. Also, like many other medieval theologians, Eckhart places great stress on the existence of creatures in the mind of God, as well as in their created state, and throughout his sermons he urges his audience to attain knowledge of things as they exist eternally in the mind of God and not as they exist temporally here below. In particular, he stresses that we should become fully united with the image or idea of ourselves that exists from eternity in the mind of God.
Similarly, Meister Eckhart shows a great concern with the typically medieval question of the nature of the relation between creatures and God. In technical terms this is the field known as the theory of analogy. According to the most influential system of analogy, which is that associated with the name of Thomas Aquinas, terms borrowed from the created order are not wholly without meaning when applied to God, but neither are they wholly accurate. Rather, they fall somewhere in between. Thus the alignment between the world and God is neither one of identity nor one of complete difference, but is rather one of a real, though imperfect, relation. A further feature of this system is that, although created qualities have their origin in God, they can truly be said to belong to creatures. Thus Thomas is always concerned to preserve the real being of creatures, while affirming the transcendence of their Creator.
But Meister Eckhart approaches these questions with a subtly different emphasis. He is concerned generally to stress the extent to which the created world remains within God, and so, for Eckhart, it can be said that being is only ever ‘on loan’ to creatures. It never becomes authentically their own possession, as it does for Thomas. Thus the individual quality of whiteness, justice, goodness, or whatever it may be, is identical with the universal principle of whiteness, justice and goodness, and remains within God. According to Eckhart, the philosophical principle which prevents the being of all creatures from collapsing into a pantheistic identity with God is the fact that properties exist in a mixed state in individual beings while they are wholly united within God. This is expressed as the inquantum maxim, which means ‘in so far as’. Thus a man or woman who is ‘good’ is wholly identical with ‘goodness’ itself but only in so far as they are ‘good’. In so far as we are ‘just’, we are ‘justice’ itself, but Eckhart well knows that ‘justice’ is only one among many elements which constitute the human person.
The general effect of Eckhart’s thinking on the relation between God and his creation therefore is to stress the extent to which God can be said to be immanent within his creatures, since those properties which essentially combine to make things what they are still remain within God. Moreover, the use of the inquantum principle in order to distinguish between God and creatures can be seen in effect to be a subtle form of the oneness/multiplicity paradigm that we have discussed above. In God all properties are One, while in the created order they exist in combination. In other words, Eckhart knows that God is One, and so any or all his properties must exist in a state of unicity, while all that is not God partakes in multiplicity.
The one exception to this rule is a single element located within the human person which Eckhart sometimes calls the ‘soul’, a ‘light’, the ‘ground of the soul’, the ‘spark of the soul’ or, more generally, simply ‘intellect’. In any case, it is this which, being unified and transcendent, sets us apart from other creatures and makes us a place of special interest to God. And it is this, a divine presence at the heart of our being, which is the foundation of our right action and the promise of our blessedness.
The Ground of the Soul
In his emphasis upon the importance of the divine image in the human person Meister Eckhart stands squarely within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, even if his insistence that the ‘image’ is to be equated with the human mind or intellect betrays his debt to Greek rationalism and the neoplatonic tradition. In one sermon (Sermon 23) Eckhart specifies what it is about the intellect that makes it the image of God within us. He tells us that it is ‘detached from the here and now’, that the intellect ‘bears no likeness to anything else’, that it is ‘pure and unmixed with anything else’ and that it is ‘active or exploratory in itself’. In fact, these are remarkably close to the terms in which Eckhart speaks of God himself. And, like the deity, the ‘image’ or ‘intellect’ is higher than the angels, ‘more nameless than with name’ and ‘more unknown than known’ (Sermon 3). But most crucially, it is a ‘single oneness’, ‘entirely one and simple, as God is one and simple’ and is ‘entirely spiritual’ (Sermon 13). This means that the image-intellect belongs intrinsically to the unified, divine and spiritual realm of transcendent Oneness, and the many metaphors which Eckhart applies to it (i.e. the ‘spark’, the ‘crown’, the ‘fortress’, the ‘ground of the soul’) simply serve to underline that, like oneness itself, it is quite beyond conceptualization and that human thought can only delimit and negate it.
It is the immensely elevated terms in which Eckhart speaks of the divine image in us which have led some to believe that he is postulating that we contain a ‘portion’ of God within the self, as in the Brahman-Atman scheme of the vedantic tradition. But in the defence that he delivered in Cologne on 13 February 1327, Eckhart was careful to point out that he did not conceive of the divine spark as being in any sense something that was ‘added’ to the soul. We should read this statement as meaning that Eckhart conceived of the divine image as a potentiality within us: far from being substance, it is a transcendental potentiality within the soul through which the soul can enjoy a cognitive unity with God. In Dietrich’s terms, this is the recognition that our human essence is ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’, as God is ‘mind’, and that the nature of ‘mind’ is a oneness that is above being. All ‘intellect’ in this sense therefore is one, and so the soul in its essence and God are one. But this is not to say that Eckhart taught that we are God, or anything of the kind. Rather, Eckhart’s whole system rests upon the unremarkable observation that we are not God. His appeal is always to what we could be, to our potentiality, although he fully recognizes that as earthly creatures we cannot evade the confines of our embodied state (Sermon 21).
The chief way in which Eckhart anchors this transcendental symmetry between the human and divine mind is through his theory of the image. This forms the subject of one sermon in particular (Sermon 20) but it occurs widely throughout his work. The Christian notion of the image derives originally from two sources. The first is Genesis 1:26–7, which states that humanity is made ‘in the image’ of God, and the second is Trinitarian theology which asserts that the Son is the ‘image’ of the Father. The meaning of the latter is that the Son is generated by the Father but remains identical with him. By conflating the terms ‘in the image’ and ‘image’, Eckhart uses this same idea in order to articulate the connaturality between the Father and the human intellect. The latter is generated by the former but remains (potentially) identical with him. Eckhart states that the source of an image is fully present within that image; in his own metaphysical terms the image is ‘in’ its source and the source is ‘in’ the image. Thus, through the motif of the image, Eckhart is able to argue that even within our fallen state there is something in our human essence that enjoys a very special affinity with God, which is not paralleled by anything else in Creation.
The Birth of God in the Soul
The ‘breakthrough’ of the individual into a realization of God’s immediacy is conveyed in Eckhart’s work by the metaphor of the birth of God in the soul. This is a felicitous device, and as with the image metaphor above, it serves to combine his distinctively metaphysical and intellective sensibility with traditional Christian doctrine. Firstly, of course, the concept of the birth evokes the doctrine of the historical Incarnation: the birth of Christ in space and time. But, more generally, it refers to the birth, or generation, of the Son within the Trinity. Indeed, Eckhart’s insistence upon the birth of the Son within the human soul serves to outline the possibility of our return to the Trinity, from which, according to Christian theology, we originally emerged. It is thus an image of our inner and essential union with God who, as the Father, gives birth to the Son in the Trinity and, as the same Father, gives birth to the same Son in the depths of the human soul.
But Eckhart’s metaphor of the birth also tells us something about the nature of that union between the human and the divine. The Son is often referred to as the ‘Word’, and Eckhart tells us that the birth of God in the soul is God’s uttering of his Word in the ground of the soul. The ground of the soul, which is ‘intellect’, is the ‘image’ of God in us, just as the Word (the Son) is spoken by the Father and is the ‘image’ of the Father within the Trinity. Now ‘words’ and ‘images’ have the same property in that they both ‘go out’ while ‘remaining within’ (Sermon 5). In other terms, both ‘words’ and ‘images’ belong to the divine-spiritual-intellective-unified realm. Thus, by hedging the metaphor of birth with terms such as ‘Word’ and ‘image’, Eckhart skilfully shows that the character of the birth is itself intellective, and succeeds in uniting ‘birth’ and ‘intellect’, which are his two principal images of transcendentality. Eckhart wishes us to understand that if the birth of God in us stands for a changed state of being, then it is also and fundamentally a changed state of knowing.
The metaphor of God’s birth in us holds a central place in Eckhart’s system in that it provides a place of unity for the many diverse strands in his thinking. Here transcendence and immanence are one, as are being and knowing, and the subjective dimension of personal interiority combines with the objective dimension of Christian doctrine. But we can discern a further principle within it: that of ethics and morality. Thus Eckhart tells us that only they ‘who walk in the ways of God’ can understand this birth, while those who are ‘natural and undisciplined’ are remote from it (Sermon W I). Through the birth we are made ‘like God’, we are sanctified and established in virtue. It is not difficult to see this as a variation upon the traditional scholastic and patristic teaching on grace. Grace is the free action of God which causes the establishing of his moral order within us, whereby we are increasingly conformed to his nature.
Discussions of the nature of grace reached a high point during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and Eckhart’s teaching on the birth of the soul can be viewed as his contribution to this debate. In his metaphor of the birth, Eckhart, the Parisian master, strongly states his understanding of grace as the uncreated self-communication of God, which is to say as the transcendental union of the human and divine. He always remained scornful of the more orthodox notions of ‘created’ grace since this appeared to relegate God’s activity to the world of finite entities, whereas, for Eckhart, God’s essential nature is itself pure unified activity (as birth) and as such should be thought of as uncreated and as existing beyond the world.
If we view the metaphor of the birth as a veiled theology of grace, then several points emerge. The first is that it is in a sense mystical, being based upon the union of the human and divine. Secondly, it stresses the extent to which grace is God’s initiative. Few theologians have so wonderfully captured the urgency and the abundance of grace, which results from God’s nature rather than our own. Eckhart tells us that God ‘must’ give birth to himself in us fully and at all times. He has no choice in the matter; this is simply his nature. If we do not receive the spiritual benefits of this birth, then that is because we are not content to allow God to act in us. Rather, we obstruct him with our false notions of self and the determination to cling to the nothingness which is the true reality of our own creaturely being.
The convergence of metaphysics and ethics in Eckhart is most clearly shown in his concept of ‘detachment’. This English word translates the Middle High German abegescbeidenbeit or sometimes gelâzenbeit. The former means ‘being cut off from’, and expresses the freedom of the enlightened soul from attachment to things in the world. Of course, Christian asceticism had always stressed that the human person must shed his or her attachment to worldly things in order to progress in the spiritual life, but what is distinctive in Eckhart is the extent to which this moral liberation is seen as a liberation of the mind. ‘Detachment’ is simultaneously freedom from a libidinous attachment to things through our appetites and a cognitive freedom: that is, liberation from the images of physical things which serve to restrict the mind and alienate it from its own transcendental possibilities. Although not unique within the Christian tradition (there are parallels, for instance, in Evagrius of Pontus), such a metaphysical understanding of morality is unusual.
For Eckhart, the ‘detached person’ lives in the world but is not of it (cf. John 17:16). The ‘birth of God’ has taken place within them, and their ‘knowing essence’ is now engaged with God and not with the world. Since the metaphysical keynote of the spiritual and divine realities in which the human person now participates is oneness, the moral manifestation of this state is the practice of altruism, that is treating other people as if they were oneself (cf. Lev. 19:18). Thus we should be as concerned with the welfare of others as we are with our own, and all that we do will be conceived in the spirit of humility. Indeed, of all the virtues most associated with detachment humility is the most foundational. In one passage of great rhetorical brilliance Eckhart urges us to enter our own ‘ground of humility’, which is our lowest part, but it is also our highest part, since God is present there and raises us up, and it is no less our innermost part, for it is our own essence (Sermon W 46).
The second manifestation of detachment, which results from the birth of God within us, is indifference to suffering and to pain. Many of Eckhart’s comments on this seem to be of an ideal and rhetorical type, as when he suggests that the mere fact of experiencing suffering means that God’s birth has not taken place within us, or when he tells us that we should be indifferent to whether ‘our friend lives or not’ in the name of a general passivity to God’s will. Such passages need to be read together with others, however, such as in Sermon 21, where he seems to be correcting precisely these views. We will comment further in a later section on Eckhart’s rhetorical method of holding before his audience perspectives which derive from their potential and ultimate union with God rather than their present state of alienation from him.
If Eckhart’s doctrine on the ‘ground’ or ‘spark’ of the soul appears to be an exploration through images of the traditional Christian teaching on the image of God within us, and if his teaching on the ‘birth of God in the soul’ is a similar presentation of a doctrine of grace, then Eckhart’s teaching on ‘detachment’ can also be understood as a personal and expressive exposition of Christian virtue. The ‘detached man or woman’ is loving and humble, possessing serenity and wisdom, and with a will that is wholly taken up by God. And yet here too we find the distinctively Eckhartian emphasis upon intellectuality since the virtuous soul is one which has withdrawn from the ‘multiplicity of its powers’ into its unified ground. There it loses selfhood, which is the primary obstacle to the practice of virtue, and merges with the oneness of intellectual essence. It is this, the absence of distinction within the enlightened or detached self, which in Eckhart’s system forms the metaphysical basis for the Christian life of virtue.
The chief consequence of Eckhart’s understanding of virtue as an interior state, both existential and intellective, is his teaching on the role of devotional works. Eckhart lived in an age which gave great emphasis to explicit and visible piety, and the particular environment with which he chose to be closely associated, namely that of women’s religious communities, reflected this trend in a high degree. According to the records of such communities, the religious women of the fourteenth century often practised a life of astonishing austerity as part of a culture of spiritual attainment. This is not to deny the great spiritual and literary achievements of women in the late Middle Ages, or indeed the fact that their sometimes extreme ascetical practices were rooted in the dominant misogyny and patriarchy of the age. But it is difficult not to read Eckhart’s repeated and emphatic appeal to interiority and to interior intention with respect to devotional works as being a subtle critique of the widespread spiritual mores of his contemporary world. He does not attack the principle of devotional practices within the religious life as such, however (as some of the reformers were to do two centuries later), but always seeks to relativize them within the context of a personal and interior relationship with God. As he wisely reminds us: ‘they do him wrong who take God just in one particular way. They take the way rather than God’ (Sermon 19).
MEISTER ECKHART’S METHOD
The works of Eckhart included in the present volume reflect his activity as a preacher rather than a scholar. The Dominicans, or Friars Preacher as they are also known, are an evangelical Order who put great stress upon the role of preaching. Thomas Aquinas described this practice as ‘conveying to others the fruits of meditation’. It is within this tradition of proclamation that Meister Eckhart stands, and his philosophical background serves largely to articulate, even to embody, his personal mystical vision. It is the coincidence of these two – boldly speculative philosophy/theology and the personal intuition of a transcendental state of consciousness – that forms the essential structures of Eckhart’s thought and creates its compelling atmosphere. But it is the interaction of these two also which motivates Eckhart’s particular use of language. Primarily in the German sermons, he exploits rhetorical imagery and radical linguistic strategies in order to effect a change in the minds of his listeners that conforms to his own understanding and experience. It is this intentionality which creates the rhetorical surface of the sermons, fall of contradictions and flourish, metaphysical drama and hyperbole, and it is this too which has at times in the past caused the learned to believe that Eckhart is a confused thinker, and those less learned to believe that he preached a wildly mystical religion, freed from the trammels of Christian doctrine and institution.
One commentator has perceptively remarked that Eckhart is not so much a thinker who seeks after truth as one who articulates it.6 And indeed, it is this element of proclamation which makes Meister Eckhart the most unsystematic of systematic theologians. There have been numerous attempts to impose system upon his thought but, as the great medieval scholar Etienne Gilson once remarked: ‘Nothing is easier than to reduce Eckhart to a system founded upon one’s own evidence; the problem is that having done so, one will see that one could just as easily have constructed an entirely different system, even though based on texts which are just as authentic as the other.’7 Such attempts are ultimately futile, however, since the very truth which Eckhart was attempting to articulate is by definition one which defies systematization. The very last thing Eckhart wanted to cultivate in the minds of his listeners was the comfortable feeling that they now ‘understood’ what God was: for that, he was sure, would be the greatest error and ignorance of all (Sermon 28). Accordingly, an account of Eckhart’s method is principally an account of the various strategies he employed in order to subvert the systematic process and to trigger in the minds of his listeners the possibility of truly transcendental knowledge.
Nevertheless, there are particular ways in which Eckhart was contradictory, imprecise and unsystematic which are themselves subject to some degree of systematization. The first such trend is his tendency to contradict himself when presenting a theology of God. This is true primarily in the Latin works, where God is described alternatively as ‘being’, ‘naked, unveiled being’, the ‘purity of being’, as ‘oneness’, and as ‘intellect’ or ‘understanding’, which (as he tells us in Sermon W 67) is as far above being ‘as the highest angel is above a gnat’.8 Taken together, such variations disrupt any premature complacency in the mind of the listener who is thus powerfully reminded of the fact that God transcends what can be said or thought about him. Eckhart uses a similar technique in the German sermons when he heaps a whole succession of metaphors upon the ‘ground of the soul’ as if to suggest that this too escapes the net of language.
In the German sermons, however, we find a different kind of ‘confusion’ which results in part from the fact that here Eckhart is responding to diverse scriptural texts which present to him a variety of images and theological concepts. He is always concerned to adapt these to the parameters of his own thinking and, in so doing, often adopts positions which are easily contradicted by statements he makes elsewhere. Thus he tells us that our union with God is not love but knowledge (Sermon W 72), not knowledge but love (Sermon W 77). Speaking also of the birth of God in the soul, he tells us that it is both intellect (Sermon 23) and not intellect (Sermon W 72), that it is to be identified with grace in one sermon (Sermon W 68) and not in another (Sermon W 41). Such imprecision underlines the extent to which Eckhart employs theological concepts and imagery relatively loosely. Even central figures such as ‘the birth of God in the soul’, or indeed ‘the ground or spark of the soul’, function as metaphors and not as calculated theological propositions. These serve not so much as details of an argument but as vehicles of expression to stir and move the imagination of Eckhart’s audience.
A further element in the expressivity of Eckhart’s style is his predilection for speaking from an ideal position. Time and again Eckhart makes statements which would be true if we were already united with God. As he himself tells us, it is his intention to adopt a ‘God’s-eye’ view and to speak as though this were his audience’s sole reality (Sermon 11). A sermon such as ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Sermon 22) abounds in such statements; as when Eckhart urges his audience to become as they were before they were created. These are not intended to be taken literally but are an attempt to hold before his listeners the transcendental possibilities of their own natures, and they too belong to what Eckhart himself at one point acknowledged to be his ‘emphatic speech’.9
For Eckhart, breakthrough to God is a breakthrough in knowledge. Lower forms of knowledge serve to obscure God from the soul, and the soul from its own transcendent essence. And so we come to language itself, which (as Eckhart knows) is a fundamental part of the problem. Language mediates the world to us with all its finiteness in space and time. And when we use it of God, it gets in the way by making an object of him, clothing him in concepts and images which are inappropriate to his uncreated nature. But if language is the obstacle, it is also paradoxically the place of our redemption. Through purifying language into its most abstract and internal forms, through using wildly metaphorical language of God, Eckhart believes that he can aid the breakthrough into transcendental knowledge which, for him, is union with God. While knowing that God is – infinitely – beyond language, Eckhart also believes that he can be authentically proclaimed through a disruptive critique of language. Indeed, this is summed up in Eckhart’s phrase: ‘words come from the Word’. This formula also tells us why Eckhart believes that language can be redemptive: language belongs to the intellect. Like intellect, it belongs to the ‘spiritual’, ‘mental’, ‘unified’ sphere of ‘word’ and ‘image’ which is eternally opposed to the finite, coarse, pluralistic world of ‘things’ and the senses. That former reality is abstract and divine, and it is summed up in the Word, or Second Person of the Trinity, in the ‘image’ of which the human intellect was created and from which ‘words come’.
However bewildering and confused the surface of Eckhart’s thought might at times seem, the primary structures remain remarkably consistent. These may be described as divine oneness on the one hand and divine self-reproduction (the birth, the image) on the other. These two ideas, the first of which derives in the main from the neoplatonic and the second from the biblical tradition, can be restated as two further principles: the transcendence and immanence of God. God who is far away and near at hand; God who is beyond and within. It is between these two poles that Eckhart’s thought turns and which together form a dialectic, of which he himself is well aware.10 But the effect of that dialectic, which can be thought of as a particular momentum in all that Eckhart argued, is at times to distort the pattern of concepts and ideas that form the content of Eckhart’s teaching as these are made to serve the ends of one or other of these two foundational and interrelated principles.
MEISTER ECKHART AND THE EUROPEAN INTELLECTUAL TRADITION
As we take stock of this complex figure, we can see that he stands at a critical point in the evolution of European intellectual life. Prior to Clement IV’s injunction to the Dominicans in 1267 to take over the pastoral care of religious women’s communities, which directly led to the use of German for the purposes of preaching, all intellectual thought was written down in the Latin language. Whatever the achievements of the first generation of Dominicans may have been (these are lost to us today), we have in the sermons of Meister Eckhart, who belonged to the second generation, the first substantial body of sophisticated philosophical and theological discussion in a European vernacular language. This then is the first context in which we must see Eckhart, as the father of a distinguished German philosophical and theological tradition which extends to the present day. Indeed, there is much in Eckhart that points down the centuries to later, distinctively German, schools of philosophical thought. The primacy of the intellect and human mind which is so characteristic of Eckhart and the German Dominican school anticipates nineteenth-century German Idealism, and Eckhart’s recourse to the rhetorical resources of language in order to communicate his ideas is reminiscent of German thinkers of the modern period, such as Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Heidegger.
Secondly, Eckhart’s theology needs to be seen as one of the great medieval attempts to achieve a synthesis between Greek thought and Christian faith. If in the case of Thomas Aquinas it was the newly-translated Aristotle who mediated the Greek tradition, then for Eckhart it was the Neoplatonists, and particularly Proclus, who offered a philosophical inheritance he could claim as his own.
The coincidence moreover of neoplatonic and Christian thought in Meister Eckhart created a number of ideas and perspectives that have exercised a real fascination upon the minds of many leading modern thinkers. This modern response began with the rediscovery of Eckhart’s works in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. Hegel was intrigued by those elements in Eckhart which suggested a synthesis of philosophy and religion, while Schopenhauer saw in his teaching on the nothingness of creatures an affinity with Eastern religions and with his own pessimism. In the twentieth century this interest has extended from Ernst Bloch to Martin Heidegger (who made extensive and explicit use of Eckhart’s term Gelassenheit – ‘detachment’) and Jacques Derrida.
If the philosophical world has been interested by Eckhart’s treatment of themes such as being, spirit and negativity, then the Christian community has found in him a powerful advocate of religion based upon a sense of transcendent experience. He seems also to be largely free of the weight of theological language and thus able to present classical religious themes in a way that is both fresh and challenging.
Many of those who have read Meister Eckhart, whether Christian or not, have found in his work a geniality of style, profound speculation and spiritual vision that still move us today as they once did those who gathered in the churches and convents of medieval Germany to hear a Master who spoke in so strange a way of the ‘God beyond words’.
A NOTE ON THE SELECTION AND TRANSLATION
The material presented in new translation for this volume derives overwhelmingly from the German works of Meister Eckhart since it is here that he lays aside the conventions of formal writing and seeks to speak to the hearts of those whom he is addressing. The first text, The Talks of Instruction, is a superb and relatively straightforward account of Eckhart’s understanding of the spiritual life, while the two treatises of the later Liber Benedictus (‘The Book of Divine Consolation’ and ‘On the Noble Man’) are altogether more complex and are generally an exploration, in German, of Eckhart’s theory of analogy. Among these treatises I have not included On Detachment since it is by no means clear that this is by the hand of Eckhart.
In selecting from the German sermons, I have sought to give an overall impression of Eckhart’s thought, paying special attention to those texts in which he shows his most characteristic positions. Work on the critical edition of Eckhart’s sermons is still in progress, and Sermons 29 and 30 are presented here in English for the first time.
The selection concludes with a number of Latin sermons, some of which (Sermons 1,3 and 4) have not appeared in English translation before. These present familiar Eckhartian themes in a style which reflects the academic milieu in which they were originally preached.
Eckhart’s highly original prose presents numerous challenges to his English translator. In particular, I have found difficulty with his use of spacial metaphors in order to describe metaphysical states (for example, ‘going out of yourself’, ‘being in justice’). Generally, I have followed this same device in English; if the result is stylistically a little unconventional, then it is no more so than the original German. I have also experienced some difficulty with the verb werken and its cognates, which contain a whole range of diverse meanings. These range from ‘active’, ‘act’ and ‘action’ (often to be contrasted with passivity and receptivity) to specific ‘works’ of ascetical piety. Inevitably in such cases something of the consistency of the original is lost in English translation. I must also record that I have greatly profited from M. O’C. Walshe’s translation of the complete German works. While not agreeing with all his judgements, and myself opting for a slightly different register of modern English, I have nevertheless found his work, on particular points, a valuable and consistent guide. Finally, I am indebted to Josef Quint and the Stuttgart edition of Eckhart’s work for a number of points in the notes, which I have designated by square brackets.