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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.

Detachment Defined

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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.

Detachment as a Virtue

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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 God, but that detachment ranks above love because it made him sensitive only to God. Love is an experience, and an experience must be of something. Detachment creates nothingness so that God can fill the detached heart with himself.

Other philosophers praise humility, but Eckhart declared that although humility is a great virtue, detachment is far better. Humility can exist with detachment but detachment cannot exist with humility. Humility requires self-denial, but in detachment, there is nothing to deny. In humility, people prostrate themselves before other creatures and therefore must pay attention to those creatures. However, detachment stays within itself; thus, as Eckhart quotes David in Psalm 45:13, “the king’s daughter is all glorious within.” A perfectly detached person has no regard for anything higher or lower than his or her own position. Eckhart again refers to Boethius, then points out that even though the Virgin Mary gloried in her humility (Luke 1:48), this was not a contradiction to detachment. Mary spoke what God told her to speak. Therefore, her declarations were a result of her detachment and were addressed to God. Eckhart said that both humility and detachment are virtues attributed to God. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, exhibited ultimate humility by becoming human and dying for the sins of humanity, but he also was the ultimate of detachment.

The third virtue described by Eckhart is mercy. Eckhart states that mercy is a great virtue because it causes a person to go out and meet the needs of others, and as with love and humility, mercy is the result of detachment. Eckhart concludes his comparison of detachment to other virtues by saying that after surveying them, he could find none as flawless or as conductive to God as detachment.

A Detached Mind

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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 different effect on different kinds of dough.

Some questioned Eckhart about the statement of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death” (Mark 14:34). Eckhart answered by saying that a person is in reality two persons: an outward or sensual person and a spiritual person. He declares the it was the outward person in Christ that cried out to God in Gethsemane, and that his spiritual person remained as unmovable as a hinge on a door when the door is opened. Eckhart’s own lamentation at this point is that some people squander the strength of their souls on the outward person, thus robbing the spiritual person of the possibility of detachment.

Eckhart switches back to a human mind by saying that it will dwell in nothingness until it receives a message form God. If ideas are already there, the message from God cannot be fully received. A detached mind, because it wants nothing, will offer no prayer to God. Eckhart quotes one of his favorite writers, Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite, who wrote Peri t/e-macrons ouranias hierarchias (c. 500; The Celestial Hierarchy, 1894), as saying that in the apostle Paul’s comment (First Corinthians 9:24) concerning running a race, Paul meant a race to union with God.

Eckhart discusses the excellence of total detachment. The fastest way to attain that goal is through suffering, which seems to indicate the influence of Buddhism on Eckhart. Eckhart gives five admonitions to those who want total detachment in this life:1. Be aloof among men 2. Do not engage in any idea you get 3. Free yourself from things that accumulate and cumber you 4. Set your mind to virtue 5. Dedicate it all to one end, the goal of perfection

Eckhart never claims to have reached the goal of perfection, and he realizes that a person living in this world cannot achieve this goal. However, he believes that all people should still pursue it, because it is always better to draw closer to God.

Most philosophies are based on the ability of the human intellect to answer the basic questions of life. However, for Eckhart, that intellect must first be detached and be therefore controlled by God. Detachment was the launching pad for Eckhart’s theory of divine knowledge. All knowledge is a gift from God, and to possess divine knowledge, the mind must be undisturbed by the process of how it is given. Knowledge can then be activated by the faith that moves mountains.

Eckhart’s Legacy

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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.


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Additional Reading

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 the impact of those women on Eckhart. Attempts to give a clear picture of Eckhart’s idea of detachment.

Jones, Rufus. Studies in Mystical Religion. London: Macmillan, 1919. Discusses the mystic groups and individuals of the medieval period. Includes a chapter on the life and influence of Eckhart and examines several quotes from his writings. Also has a chapter on the Friends of God, led primarily by disciples of Eckhart.

Kelley, Carl Franklin. Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. A detailed explanation of Eckhart’s theory of divine knowledge and the difficulty in understanding exactly what he meant. Examines the influence of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the differences between the classic Scholasticism of Thomas and the mystic Scholasticism of Eckhart. Has thirty pages of excellent notes.

McGinn, Bernard, ed. Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics. New York: Continuum, 1994. Put together by one of the leading Eckhart scholars, this is an excellent collection of essays by a variety of authors on the mutual influence between Eckhart and the Beguine mystic women, including Hadewijch of Brabant. Reveals both the complexity and the simplicity of medieval mysticism.

Perry, Ray C., ed. Late Medieval Mysticism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957. Puts Eckhart in the context of others with similar beliefs. Gives background and introductory material as well as a good synopsis of Eckhart’s writings. Has both a general index and an index of biblical references for Eckhart’s work.

Schmidt, K. O. Meister Eckhart’s Way to Cosmic Consciousness: A Breviary of Practical Mysticism. Lakemont, Ga.: Center for Spiritual Awareness Press, 1976. Schmidt draws from the writings of Eckhart many concepts that he believes help define the idea of cosmic consciousness. He lists ten levels to achieve that elusive goal.

Schurmann, Reiner. Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. Translations of Eckhart by the author, with commentary and analysis. Gives insight into terms used by Eckhart. Appendix discusses the use of Eckhart by Zen Buddhism.

Smith, Cyprian. The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987. Designed for modern spiritual seekers, as well as for a general audience. Attempts to summarize the major elements in the teachings of Eckhart.

Tobin, Frank. Meister Eckhart: Thought and Language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. Good coverage of life of Eckhart, including his trial and the condemnation of his ideas. Discusses major concepts in Eckhart’s On Detachment. Includes the influence on Eckhart on Bernard of Clairvaux.