Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2427

Article abstract: The medieval mystic Scholasticism of Eckhart served as a bridge between the classic Scholasticism of thirteenth century figures such as Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas Aquinas and northern Renaissance scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus.

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Early Life

In medieval times, dates and places for births and deaths, except for royalty and others of significance, were rarely recorded. The best secondary sources indicate that Johannes Heinrich Eckhart von Hochheim was born about 1260 in the village of Hochheim, probably the village near Erfurt, in the province of Thuringia in Germany. His early years were spent in a knight’s castle, of which his father was the steward, in the Thuringian forest. Accounts indicating that Eckhart himself was of noble birth are inaccurate, but his contact with nobility may have influenced his later view of God. His life in a castle, perhaps one on high ground, may have led to his comparison of a castle to a human soul, exalted so high by pride that even God could not penetrate it. His plan to “detach” himself from this pride and all things material may be why he spoke and wrote very little about himself, the result being that knowledge about his early life is very limited.

Probably at age fifteen, Eckhart became a novice in the Dominican order of preachers at Erfurt. The Dominicans were one of the most scholarly monastic orders of the Roman Catholic Church. After a one-year novitiate, Eckhart was accepted as a monk into the order and began his eight to ten years of study for the priesthood. The usual course of study began with Latin grammar and the liberal arts. Before March of 1277, Eckhart was sent to the University of Paris to study arts and philosophy. This was a rare honor for a novice and reveals an early recognition of his academic ability.

From Paris, he was sent for higher studies at the Dominican institute in their monastery at Cologne, where he may have sat under Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), the leading Scholastic teacher of the time. Later, as in his Easter sermon of 1294, he quoted Albertus as if he had heard him in person. Because Albertus died in 1280, Eckhart’s contact with him would have been brief. At Cologne, Eckhart also was influenced by the ideas of Saint Thomas Aquinas, another student of Albertus, although Thomas died a few years before Eckhart arrived. Eckhart himself embraced Scholasticism at Cologne, and there he received a bachelor of theology degree. In 1293-1294, as a requirement for a master’s degree, Eckhart lectured on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; The Books of Opinions of Peter Lombard, 1970, 4 volumes; commonly known as Sentences) at the Dominican College of Saint Jacques in Paris. He earned a master of theology degree at the University of Paris in 1302. It was also then, in recognition of his ability, that Pope Boniface VIII conferred on him the official title of Meister, which means authority. From that time on, he was known as Meister Eckhart.

Life’s Work

About 1290 Eckhart was elected prior of the Dominican convent at Erfurt, and shortly thereafter he became the vicar for the district of Thuringia. He probably wrote The Talks of Instruction about 1300. This is the earliest of his writings still in existence, and it provides the first glimpse into his inner life. Although he had not yet gone beyond Roman Catholic orthodoxy, he separated the essentials from the nonessentials in human life. For example, Eckhart declared that it was better to help a sick person in need than to fast with a heavenly countenance.

In Paris about 1300, while studying for his master’s degree, Eckhart defended the Dominican position in theological debates with the Franciscans, another leading monastic order. These debates are probably the cause of later Franciscan attacks on the orthodoxy of Eckhart. About 1303, soon after receiving his degree in Paris, Eckhart returned to serve his order in Germany. He was first chosen as provincial prior for the Dominican order for Saxony, an area stretching from Thuringia to the North Sea and including fifty-one monasteries and nine nunneries. In 1307, he became vicar general for Bohemia but soon returned to his old position in Saxony. In 1311, Eckhart briefly returned to Paris, but in 1312, he began his distinguished tenure as head of the Dominican order in Strassburg, which was then one of the major religious centers of Europe. Eckhart served as prior, professor of theology, spiritual director, and preacher for the order. He was also in charge of the ring of Dominican convents surrounding the city.

In Strassburg, Eckhart reached his full potential as a teacher and a preacher. He used his excellent knowledge of Latin to convey his ideas in the convents, and he used vernacular German dialects to preach to the laity. However, while Eckhart was in this position, his orthodoxy was questioned, primarily because his thoughts were so deep that most religious leaders could not grasp them. He was supported by the Dominican order, but perhaps because of the opposition, in 1320, he left Strassburg to become prior at Frankfurt. Eckhart was called back to Cologne in 1323 and became regent master of the Studium Generale, the position once held by Albertus. Eckhart was still held in high esteem by most in the Roman Catholic Church, and his writings were affecting much of Europe.

During the most productive years of his life, Eckhart was strongly influenced by like-minded individuals who were seeking change in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Among these were the Beguines (the word beguines may simply have meant “religious”). The Beguines were mostly women, although a few men, called Beghards, belonged. They took vows of celibacy and followed an ascetic lifestyle but did not live in monasteries. Eckhart was especially influenced by three Beguine women: Hadewijch of Brabant, a Dutch mystic who lived about 1240; Mechthild von Magdeburg, who wrote Das Fliessende Licht de Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead, 1953), a book that evidently helped shape Eckhart’s view of God and the Godhead; and Marguerite Porete, who wrote Miroir des simples âmes (c. 1300; The Mirror of Simple Souls, 1968) and was burned at the stake as a heretic by the Paris Inquisition on June 1, 1310.

Although his teaching and preaching were extremely popular and edifying to those who heard him, the most enduring part of Eckhart’s work was his writing. He wrote in Latin and German, and although the exact dates of publication are unknown, most of his works were probably written during the last twenty years of his life. He wrote four major treatises in German: The Talks of Instruction; The Book of Divine Consolation, which was dedicated to the queen of Hungary; The Nobleman; and On Detachment. These four works define four stages of human relationship to God: dissimilarity, similarity, identity, and breakthrough. The driving force behind this process is what Eckhart called detachment. Eckhart’s Latin works, Opus tripartium, are more scholarly than the German works and won him the respect of the academic community, as evidenced by his being called back to Cologne in 1323.

For most of his life, Eckhart faced very little opposition. However, this changed during his last few years. The trouble began with his return to Cologne, where the archbishop was Heinrich von Virneburg (or Henry of Virneburg), a Franciscan who had no love for the Dominicans, especially none for Eckhart. To stem the tide of opposition that had arisen in Strassburg and to pacify the archbishop, Nicholas of Strassburg, who was a Dominican papal representative, conducted an investigation of Eckhart’s ideas. Although Nicholas pronounced Eckhart free of heresy, Heinrich initiated an inquisitorial process in 1325. An inquisitorial commission was established to again investigate Eckhart’s orthodoxy. He was also accused of leading others astray in faith and morals.

Eckhart gave his first defense to the commission on September 26, 1326. In a spirited opening statement, he questioned the jurisdiction of such a commission over a member in good standing of an exempt order, especially an individual who was held in high esteem by much of Europe. He also cast doubt on the scholarship of the commission members, who had found only twelve objectionable articles in his Expositio libri Genesis (commentary on the book of Genesis), which he said contained many more serious deviations from orthodoxy that they had not grasped. Eckhart then told the commission that he might have erred in doctrine, and he agreed to correct the errors if they could be revealed to him. However, he declared that he could never be a heretic because heresy was a matter of the will and not of the mind. Above all else, Eckhart desired to die as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church.

Eckhart eventually responded to several lists of objectionable articles from his writings and sermons, but there was no final decision by the committee. He feared that the delay would lead to public scandal that would damage not just his own work but the entire Dominican order and the laity as well. Therefore, on January 24, 1327, he appealed his case to the papal court at Avignon, France, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. On February 13, he delivered his Declaration of Orthodoxy in the Dominican Church at Cologne. This is the last date on which Eckhart was known to be alive; however, it seems likely that, after making his declaration, he traveled to Avignon to defend himself. He was accompanied by several of his Dominican superiors, demonstrating that he still had the support of his order. In Avignon, he would have joined others, such as William of Ockham, a Franciscan philosopher from England, who were awaiting trial on similar charges.

The charges against Eckhart were gradually reduced to a more manageable list of twenty-eight. It is likely that Eckhart appeared before the papal commission as indicated by William of Ockham in one of his writings but died before the commission issued its verdict. On April 30, 1328, Pope John XXII replied to an inquiry from Heinrich von Virneburg concerning the proceedings against Eckhart. In this reply, the pope referred to Eckhart as being dead, and he assured the archbishop of a quick disposition of the case. That disposition was accomplished by the papal bull In agro dominico (March 27, 1329), in which Eckhart was either partially or wholly condemned on all twenty-eight charges. However, Eckhart himself was never officially declared a heretic.

Influence

Pope John XXII ordered that the bull against Eckhart’s ideas be published in all areas under Heinrich von Virneburg but not in other parts of Europe. This indicates that he wanted to satisfy Heinrich but still limit the scope of his decree. Several of Eckhart’s disciples, who were with him during his final difficult years, perpetuated and circulated his beliefs. The best known were John Tauler (who probably best understood his former teacher), Henry Suso, and Jan von Ruusbroec, all members of the Friends of God, a mystic group based primarily on Eckhart’s ideas.

Eckhart’s philosophical contributions were unique. To his own mystic Scholasticism, he added Greek, Arabic, and classic Scholastic ideas. The universality of his philosophy is attested by its partial incorporation in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Marxism, Zen buddhism, and various New Age movements.

In 1980, a process was initiated by the Dominican order to clear Eckhart’s name. Pope John Paul II expressed approval of this process in September, 1985. Although In agro dominico is not likely to be reversed, the action by John Paul II was interpreted as a practical rehabilitation of the reputation of Eckhart and of his philosophical contributions to the modern world.

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.

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