This treatise by Meister Eckhart marks the climax of his German writing. It is the last of four treatises describing four stages of the union between the human soul and God. The first of these stages is dissimilarity, and it is discussed in Reden der Untensweisung (c. 1300, The Talks of Instruction, 1941) in which Eckhart declared that all creatures are pure nothingness until they receive their being from God. They can receive that being only though the Son of God. To receive it, a person must be aware of the nothingness. The second stage, similarity, is described in Das Buch der göttlichen Tröstung (c. 1307-1320; The Book of Divine Consolation, 1941). Once people recognize that their being is from God, they also recognize themselves as images of God. The third stage is identity. Von dem edlen Menschen (c. 1307-1320; The Nobleman, 1941; also known as The Aristocrat) describes this stage as identity with God in operation, not identity in substance. The human soul is uncreated and beyond time and space, and it operates as a part of God. The final stage is breakthrough, in which a person goes beyond God the Creator into the Godhead, the origin of all things. On Detachment describes how this can be done. Detachment is the driving force behind the entire process of union with God, and it is accomplished through the Cross of Jesus Christ. The three previous treatises also discuss detachment.
Although he was a Dominican monk, Eckhart’s idea of detachment transcends monastic vows and traditional asceticism. By detachment, he meant complete metaphysical detachment rather than self-denial or physical separation. According to Eckhart, a person detached in this way is actually in God. Eckhart, who emphasized service to others, said a person could be surrounded by other people, be serving other people, and still be detached.
Understanding On Detachment requires an examination of Eckhart’s use of the German word Abgescheidenheit, which is an abstract noun from a verb meaning “to depart from.” Because Eckhart was speaking about giving up self-interest, some translators have used the word “disinterest” rather than detachment. To strengthen his meaning, Eckhart used various forms of the word and related words with meanings such as “to put off” and “become a stranger to.”
Detachment is the way to achieve breakthrough, the fourth step in union with God, and it also has four steps. First, all perishable things are taken away. Second, those things are destroyed. Third, the things are forgotten as if they had never existed. Four, detachment is achieved. The human soul is in God, which produces happiness far beyond any temporal or carnal pleasure. Only detachment has no negative effect, and only detachment leads to a joy that is no more moved by earthly circumstances than a mountain is moved by a gentle breeze.
Eckhart’s earlier treatise, The Book of Divine Consolation, initiated a divine journey for the human soul. Eckhart began On Detachment with the description of his own journey. He began by reading the writings of pagan and Christian philosophers and both the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible. He quotes from and refers to much from these sources in his treatise. Eckhart was seeking advice on how one could draw closer to God, or how one could become by grace what God is by nature. His conclusion was the admonition of Jesus Christ to Martha (Luke 10:42) that the one thing she needed to become like her sister Mary was “choosing that good part,” or as Eckhart translated it, “detachment.” He then explained the details of that conclusion by taking virtues praised by other philosophers and showing how detachment was better than each of them.
He first explained why detachment is better than love. The authority he uses is the Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 13:1-2. Eckhart explained that even though love made him love God, it was better for God to love him, because his blessing in eternity depends on being identified with God. He realized that the identification begins with God and that he gives himself only to those who are detached. Eckhart refers here to Boethius in De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century). Then, he said that love enabled him to suffer for...
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Eckhart next turns to the condition of a detached mind. He quotes Avicenna, a Muslim physician and philosopher, who stated that whatever a detached mind sees is true and that whatever it desires or commands will be carried out. Eckhart added that such a mind is a free mind and that God is compelled to enter it. God’s attributes then begin to affect the mind so that it is caught up in eternity. The transitory things of this world no longer matter and the person is dead to this world. Eckhart quotes the apostle Paul, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). The truly detached mind is unmoved by affection, sorrow, honor, slander, or vice.
The constant example given by Eckhart for detachment is God himself. God the Creator is so unmovably detached that even his creation of Heaven and Earth affects him as little as if he had not created them. God is not affected by the prayers and good works of his human creations. God in his sovereignty and omnipotence has already heard the prayers and knows of the good works in eternity, and in eternity, he has already answered and rewarded them. The ultimate of God’s detachment is that he was not even moved by his Son becoming human, suffering on Earth, and then dying a horrible death on the cross. Eckhart quotes Philippus, a Roman emperor who reportedly became a Christian, as saying that God ordains the course of all things and holds all things to their course. He also refers to Isidore of Seville, a Spanish bishop who emphasized the immutability of God, that there was never a departure in God and that all things existed in the mind of God before creation. Eckhart declareA that God, in his detachment, works differently with different parts of his creation. He compareS this to an oven whose heat has a...
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Late medieval reformers were greatly influenced by On Detachment. John Tauler and other disciples of Eckhart took the idea of detachment and made it more practical and more devotional by condemning more directly than Eckhart the external ceremonies and dead works that characterized medieval worship. Gerhard Groote founded a semimonastic group called the Brethern of the Common Life. The educational work of this group influenced later mystic leaders. Thomas à Kempis wrote Imitatio Christi (c. 1427; The Imitation of Christ, c. 1460-1530), which helped connect Eckhart’s idea of detachment to the Reformation period of the sixteenth century.
In addition to having a significant impact on the philosophical thought of medieval Europe, On Detachment remains useful to those who want to live a life dedicated more to the service of God than to the service of self.
Colledge, Edmund, and Bernard McGinn. Meister Eckhart. Classics of Western Spirituality series. New York: Paulist Press, 1981. Excellent introduction and detailed historical data and theological summary. Contains good notes on Meister Eckhart’s writing and an extensive bibliography. Includes the full text of the papal bull condemning the ideas of Eckhart.
Hollywood, Amy. The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Puts the teaching of Eckhart in the context of the Beguine mystics and reveals...
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