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Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

The long controverted question concerning the locality of Eckhart's origin has been settled by Denifle, who states that he was born at Hochheim, a village 8 miles north of Gotha. The year of his birth was probably 1260, and he joined the Dominicans at Erfurt. The lighter studies he no doubt followed at Cologne. Later he was prior at Erfurt and provincial of Thuringia. In 1300 he was sent to Paris to lecture and take the academical degrees, and remained there till 1303. In the latter year he returned to Erfurt, and was made provincial for Saxony, a province which reached at that time from the Netherlands to Livonia. Complaints made against him and the provincial of Teutonia at the general chapter held in Paris in 1306 concerning irregularities among the ternaries, must have been trivial, because the general, Aymeric, appointed him in the following year his vicar-general for Bohemia with full power to set the demoralized monasteries there in order. In 1311 Eckhart was appointed by the general chapter of Naples as teacher at Paris. Then follows a long period of which it is known only that he spent part of the time at Strasburg (cf. Urkundenbuch der Stadt Strassburg, iii. 236). A passage in a chronicle of the year 1320, extant in manuscript (cf. Preger, i. 352-399), speaks of a prior Eckhart at Frankfort who was suspected of heresy, and some have referred this to Meister Eckhart; but it is highly improbable that a man under suspicion of heresy would have been appointed teacher in one of the most famous schools of the order.

Eckhart next appears as teacher at Cologne, and the archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, accused him of heresy before the pope. But Nicholas of Strasburg , to whom the pope had given the temporary charge of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, exonerated him. The archbishop, however, pressed his charges against Eckhart and against Nicholas before his own court. The former now denied the competency of the archiepiscopal inquisition and demanded litterce dimissorix (apostoli) for an appeal to the pope (cf. the document in Preger, i. 471; more accurately in ALKG, ii. 627 sqq.). On Feb. 13, 1327, he stated in his protest, which was read publicly, that he had always detested everything wrong, and should anything of the kind be found in his writings, he now retracts. Of the further progress of the case there is no information, except that John XXII. issued a bull (In agro dominico), Mar. 27, 1329, in which a series of statements from Eckhart is characterized as heretical; another as suspected of heresy (the bull is given complete in ALKG, ii. 636-640). At the close it is stated that Eckhart recanted before his death everything which he had falsely taught, by subjecting himself and his writing to the decision of the apostolic see. By this is no doubt meant the statement of Feb. 13, 1327; and it may be inferred that Eckhart's death, concerning which no information exists, took place shortly after that event. In 1328 the general chapter of the order at Toulouse decided to proceed against preachers who "endeavor to preach subtle things which not only do (not) advance morals, but easily lead the people into error." Eckhart's disciples were admonished to be more cautious, but nevertheless they cherished the memory of their master.

Trinitarian Process

The absolute, unqualified being of the Deity Eckhart also calls unnatured nature. This unnatured nature, however, manifests itself in the natured nature, the three persons. The Trinity is the self-revelation of the Deity (540, 31; 390,12-22). In it God comprises himself. Accordingly, Eckhart attributes to the Father a sort of genesis; only the Deity is absolutely without any progression and reposes everlastingly in itself. The Father was made through himself (534, 17). This self-revelation of God Eckhart designates as a cognition, a speaking, or a demeanor. The Father perceives the whole fulness of the Deity (6,S); or, what is the same, he speaks a single word, which comprises everything (70, 25). He procreates the Son (284, 12); for the Father is father only through the Son. The Son, however, is in everything like the Father, only that he procreates not,(337, 3). The essence of the Father is also that of the Son, and the essence in both is no other than that of the Deity. From the pleasure and love which both have for each other springs the Holy Ghost (497, 26). Eckhart leaves no doubt that the entire trinitarian process must not be conceived of as a temporal one, but as a process extending throughout eternity (254, 10). Preger thought that Eckhart's distinction between Deity and God should be interpreted as a distinction between potentiality and actuality. To this interpretation Denifle (ALKG, ii. 453 sqq.) has strongly objected and cited Eckhart's Latin writings, in which he, with Thomas Aquinas and others, designates God as actus purus, thus excluding all potentiality. Denifle is right, in that Eckhart does not consciously and deliberately make any such distinction; but it can not be denied that his conception leads to it. Especially significant is Eckhart's explanation in 175, 7 sqq. where he tries to illustrate the relation between the fatherhood as it is determined in the Deity and the paternity of the person of the Father by the relation between the maternity peculiar to the Virgin as such, and the maternity which she acquires by bearing. But this is exactly the relation of potentiality and actuality (cf. also the peculiar passage 193, 33). It must be admitted that Eckhart here expresses two views which can not be harmonized with one another, though the second is not fully developed. Eckhart had a wealth of ingenious ideas, but he was unable to systematize them.

Relation of the Soul to God

The unqualified Deity, the Trinity (birth of the Son or of the Eternal 117ord), and the creation of the world are to him three immediate moments, which follow each other in conceptual, not temporal sequence. All creatures have part in the divine essence; but this is true of the soul in a higher degree. In the irrational creature there is something of God; but in the soul God is divine (230, 26; 2,31, 4). Though God speaks his word in all creatures, only rational creatures can preserve it (479, 19). In other words, in the soul, where he has his resting-place, God is subjective, while in the rest of creation he is merely objective. The soul is an image of God, in so far as its chief powers, memory, reason, and will, answer to the divine persons (319, 1). This accords with the view of Augustine. Just as there is the absolute Deity, which is superior to the persons of the Godhead, so in the soul there is something that is superior to its own powers. This is the innermost background of the soul, which Eckhart frequently calls a "spark," or "little spark." In its real nature this basis of the soul is one with the Deity (66, 2). When Eckhart sometimes speaks of it as uncreated (286, 16; 311, 6), and then again as created, this does not involve a contradiction. While, on the one hand, it rests eternally in the Deity, on the other it entered into the temporal existence of the soul, i.e. was made or created through grace. But it is not in this original unity with God that the soul finds its perfection and bliss. As it has a subjective being, it must turn to God, in order that the essential principle implanted in it may be truly realized. It is not enough that it was made by God; God must come and be in it. But this has taken place without hindrance only in the human soul of Christ (67, 12). For all other souls sin is an obstacle.

Sin and Redemption

But wherein does sin consist? Not in the finiteness, which is never removed from the soul (3S7, 3; 500, 1 1), but in the direction of the will toward the finite and its pleasure therein (476, 19; 674, 17). The possibility of sin, however, is based in finiteness, taken together with the free will of the creature. If it is the destiny of the soul to be the resting-place of God, then the direction of the will toward the finite makes this impossible; and it is this that constitutes sin. Redemption, therefore, can tale place only when the creature makes room in his soul for the work of God; and the condition for that is the turning away from the finite. For God is ever ready to work in the soul, provided he is not hindered and the soul is susceptible to his influence (27, 25; 283, 23; 33, 29; 479, 31). The inner separation from everything casual, sensual, earthly and the yielding to the work of God in the heart,-that is the seclusion or tranquillity of which Eckhart speaks again and again. For him this is the basis of all piety. But what is it that God accomplishes in the soul? This can be stated in a word: the birth of the son. As the soul is an image of the Deity, if it is to fulfil its destiny, then that process by which the deity develops into the three persons must take place in it. The father procreates in the soul the son (44, 28; 175, 15-20; 479, 10; 13, 12). This takes place during the life of the soul in time; and, too, not merely at a particular moment, but rather continuously and repeatedly. This is not merely a copy or analogon of that inner divine process, but is in truth that very process itself, by which it becomes, through grace, what the Son of God is by nature (433, 32; 382, 7; 377, 17). From this view of Eckhart's follow a number of the most strikino, statements in which the soul is made to share in the attributes and works of God, including the creation (119, 28-40; 267, 4; 283, 37-284, 7). However, according to Eckhart, a complete fusion of the soul with the Deity never takes place (387, 3). He also opposes the doctrine of Apocatastasis (65, 20; 402, 34; 470, 22).

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