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.
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.
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...
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