Meister Eckhart

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Meister Eckhart O.P. (c. 1260–c. 1328), is the most common formula used to refer to Eckhart von Hochheim, a German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born near Erfurt, in Thuringia. Meister is German for "Master", referring to the academic title Magister in theologia he obtained in Paris. Coming into prominence during the decadent Avignon Papacy and a time of increased tensions between the Franciscans and Eckhart's Dominican Order of Preacher Friars, he was brought up on charges later in life before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition. Tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII, his "Defence" is famous for his reasoned arguments to all challenged articles of his writing and his refutation of heretical intent. He purportedly died before his verdict was received, although no record of his death or burial site has ever been discovered. Well known for his work with pious lay groups such as the Friends of God and succeeded by his more circumspect disciples of John Tauler and Henry Suso, he has gained a large following in recent years. In his study of medieval humanism, Richard Southern includes him along with Saint Bede the Venerable and Saint Anselm as emblematic of the intellectual spirit of the Middle Ages.


Eckhart was one of the most influential 14th c. Christian Neoplatonists, and although technically a faithful Thomist (as a prominent member of the Dominican Order), Eckhart wrote on metaphysics and spiritual psychology, drawing extensively on mythic imagery and was notable for his sermons communicating the metaphorical content of the gospels to laymen and clergy alike. Major German philosophers have been influenced by his work.

Novel concepts Eckhart introduced into Christian metaphysics clearly deviate from the common scholastic canon: in Eckhart's vision, God is primarily fertile. Out of overabundance of love, the fertile God gives birth to the Son, the Word in all of us. Clearly (aside from a rather striking metaphor of "fertility"), this is rooted in the Neoplatonic notion of "overflow" of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being. Eckhart had imagined the creation not as a "compulsory" overflowing (a metaphor based on a common hydrodynamic picture), but as the free act of will of the triune nature of Deity (refer Trinitarianism). Another bold assertion is Eckhart's distinction between God and Godhead (Gottheit in German). These notions had been present in Pseudo-Dionysius's writings and John the Scot's De divisione naturae, but it was Eckhart who, with characteristic vigor and audacity, reshaped the germinal metaphors into profound images of polarity between the Unmanifest and Manifest Absolute. (This may interestingly be paralleled with Hinduism's Brahma Nirguna and Brahma Saguna, or, God without form and God with form) One of his most intriguing sermons on the "highest virtue of disinterest," unique in Christian theology both then and now, conforms to the Buddhist concept of detachment and more contemporarily, Kant's "disinterestedness." Meister Eckhart's Abgeschiedenheit was also admired by Alexei Losev in that contemplative ascent (reunion with meaning) is bound with resignation/detachment from the world. The difference is that truth/meaning in the phenomenological sense was not the only result, as expressed in Eckhart's practical guide "for those who have ears to hear", but creation itself. He both understood and sought to communicate the practicalities of spiritual (psychological) perfection and the consequences in real terms.

Eckhart expressed himself both in learned Latin for the clergy in his tractates, and more famously in the German vernacular (at that time Middle High German) in his sermons. Because, as he said in the defence he gave at his trial, his sermons were meant to inspire in listeners the desire above all to do some good, he frequently used unusual language or seemed to stray from the path of orthodoxy. His unorthodox teachings made him suspicious to the Roman Catholic Church during the tension filled years of the Avignon Papacy, and he was tried for heresy in the final years of his life. We do know that he disappeared from the public arena before the papal verdict, and is suspected by some of continuing his ministry in anonymity. However there is no single medieval source giving evidence of this suspicion.

He is also considered by some to have been the inspirational "layman" referred to in Johannes Tauler's and Rulman Mershwin's later writings in Strasbourg where he is known to have spent time (although it is doubtful that he authored the simplistic "Book of the Nine Rocks" published by Mershwin and attributed to the layman knight from the north). On the other hand most scholars consider the "layman" to be a pure fiction invented by Rulman Mershwin to hide his authorship because of the intimidating tactics of the Inquisition at the time.

It has also been suspected that his practical communication of the mystical path is behind the influential 14th c. "anonymous" Theologia Germanica which was disseminated after his disappearance. According to the medieval introduction of the document, its author was an unnamed member of the Teutonian Order of Knights living in Frankfurt.


The Dominican theologian known to the world as Meister Eckhart probably was born in the village of Tambach in the Germanic region of Thuringia in approximately 1260. (Bernard McGinn, in The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001, corrects previous scholarship which had placed Eckhart’s birth in Hochheim.) He was born to a noble family of landowners, but little is known about his family and early life except that he attended the University of Paris. (Christianity through the Centuries, Cairns) James M. Clark states that there is no authority for giving him the Christian name of Johannes which sometimes appears in biographical sketches. His Christian name was Eckhart; his surname was von Hochheim. (James M. Clark, Meister Eckhart, New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1957, 11. McGinn also states that “von Hochheim” is a family name and does not indicate place of birth, see McGinn, 3.)

Eckhart 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. At this point 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 of Piacenza, 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 Strasbourg.(cf. Urkundenbuch der Stadt Strassburg, iii. 236.) A passage in a chronicle of the year 1320, extant in manuscript (cf. Wilhelm Preger, i. 352–399), speaks of a prior Eckhart at Frankfurt who was suspected of heresy, and some have referred this to Meister Eckhart. It is unusual that a man under suspicion of heresy would have been appointed teacher in one of the most famous schools of the order, but Eckhart's distinctive expository style could well have already been under scrutiny by his Franciscan detractors.

Eckhart next appears as teacher at Cologne, where the archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, eventually accuses 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, promptly exonerates him. The archbishop, however, further pressed his charges against Eckhart and against Nicholas before his own court, forcing them to deny the competency of the archepiscopal 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 February 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 Pope John XXII issued a bull (In agro dominico), March 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 February 13, 1327, and it may be inferred that Eckhart's death, concerning which no information or burial site 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. The lay group, Friends of God, followers of Eckhart, existed in communities across the region and carried on his ideas under the leadership of such priests as John Tauler and Henry Suso. (Christianity through the Centuries, Cairns)

Works and doctrines

Although he was an accomplished academic theologian, Eckhart's best-remembered works are his highly unusual sermons in the vernacular during a time of disarray among the clergy and monastic orders, rapid growth of numerous pious lay groups, and the Inquisition's continuing concerns over heretical movements throughout Europe. With the move of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon and the tension between the second Avignon Pope John XXII and Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV who battled for power, Eckhart as a preaching friar attempted to guide his flock, as well as monks and nuns under his jurisdiction with practical sermons on spiritual/psychological transformation and New Testament metaphorical content related to the creative power inherent in disinterest (or detachment).

The central theme of Eckhart's German sermons is the presence of God in the individual soul, and the dignity of the soul of the just man. Although he elaborated on this theme, he rarely departed from it. In one sermon, Eckhart gives the following summary of his message:

"When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature."

Eckhart today

Eckhart's status in the contemporary Church is uncertain. The Dominican Order pressed in the last decade of the 20th century for his full rehabilitation and confirmation of his theological orthodoxy; the late Pope John Paul II voiced favorable opinion on this initiative, but the affair is still confined to the corridors of the Vatican.

The 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer compared Eckhart's views to the teachings of Indian, Christian, and Islamic mystics and ascetics:

If we turn from the forms, produced by external circumstances, and go to the root of things, we shall find that Sakyamuni and Meister Eckhart teach the same thing; only that the former dared to express his ideas plainly and positively, whereas Eckhart is obliged to clothe them in the garment of the Christian myth, and to adapt his expressions thereto.Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. XLVIII

In 1891, Karl Eugen Neumann, who translated large parts of the Tripitaka, found parallels between Eckhart and Buddhism. Shizuteru Ueda, a third generation Kyoto School philosopher and scholar in medieval philosophy showed similarities between Eckhart's soteriology and zen buddhism in an article ("Eckhardt um zen am problem", 1989). In the 20th century, Eckhart's thoughts were compared to Eastern mystics by both Rudolf Otto and D.T. Suzuki, among other scholars. Interestingly, one of the pioneer translators of Eckhart's writings to English, Maurice O'Connell Walshe, was also an accomplished translator of Buddhist scriptures such as the Digha Nikaya.

More recently, although most scholars accept that Eckhart's work is divided into philosophical and theological, Kurt Flasch and other interpreters see Eckhart strictly as a philosopher. Flasch argues that the opposition between "mystic" and "scholastic" is not relevant because this mysticism (in Eckhart's context) is penetrated by the spirit of the University, in which it occurred. Eckhart has also influenced contemporary theologians, such as Matthew Fox, who draws heavily on Eckhart for his own theology and whose "Breakthrough" presents an alternative and substantially different view of the nature and significance of Eckhart's thinking from that taken in earlier sections of this article. The notable humanistic psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm was another scholar who brought renewed attention in the west to Eckhart's writings, drawing upon many of the latters themes in his large corpus of work.

Renewed academic attention to Eckhart has attracted favorable attention to his work from contemporary non-Christian mystics. Eckhart's most famous single quote, "The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me", is commonly cited by thinkers within neopaganism and ultimatist Buddhism as a point of contact between these traditions and Christian mysticism.

Popular Culture References

  • In Jacob's Ladder (film), Louis -- the main character's friend and and an island of calm within a hellish nightmare -- quotes Eckart: "You know what he [Eckart] said? The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They burn 'em all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. ... If you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth" (Rubin 1990, p. 82).

See also



  1. R. W. Southern, Medieval Humanism. Harper & Row, 1970. pp. 19-26.
  2. Bernard McGinn, in The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001, corrects previous scholarship which had placed Eckhart’s birth in Hochheim.
  3. James M. Clark, Meister Eckhart, New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1957, 11. McGinn also states that “von Hochheim” is a family name and does not indicate place of birth, see McGinn, 3.
  4. cf. Urkundenbuch der Stadt Strassburg, iii. 236.
  5. cf. the document in Preger, i. 471; more accurately in ALKG, ii. 627 sqq.


  • Meister Eckhart: Die deutschen und lateinischen Werke. Herausgegeben im Auftrage der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft. Stuttgart and Berlin: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 11 Vols., 1936.
  • Josef Quint, ed. and trans. Meister Eckehart: Deutsche Predigten und Traktate, Munich: Carl Hanser, 1955.
  • Josef Quint, ed., Textbuch zur Mystik des deutschen Mittelalters: Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Seuse, Halle/Saale: M. Niemeyer, 1952.
  • Augustine Daniels, O.S.B., ed., "Eine lateinische Rechtfertigungsschrift des Meister Eckharts," Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, 23, 5 (Münster, 1923): 1 - 4, 12 - 13, 34 - 35, 65 - 66.
  • Franz Jostes, ed., Meister Eckhart und seine Jünger: Ungedruckte Texte zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik, De Gruyter, 1972 (Series: Deutsche Neudrucke Texte des Mittelalters).
  • Thomas Kaepelli, O.P., "Kurze Mitteilungen über mittelalterliche Dominikanerschriftsteller," Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 10, (1940), pp. 293 - 94.
  • Thomas Kaepelli, O.P., Scriptores ordinis Praedicatorum medii aevi. Vol. I (A-F). Rome, 1970.
  • M.H. Laurent, "Autour du procés de Maître Eckhart. Les documents des Archives Vaticanes," Divus Thomas (Piacenza) 39 (1936), pp. 331 - 48, 430 - 47.
  • Franz Pelster, S.J., ed., Articuli contra Fratrem Aychardum Alamannum, Vat. lat. 3899, f. 123r - 130v, in "Ein Gutachten aus dem Eckehart-Prozess in Avignon," Aus der Geistewelt des Mittelalters, Festgabe Martin Grabmann, Beiträge Supplement 3, Munster, 1935, pp. 1099 - 1124.
  • Rubin, Bruce Joel, Jacob's Ladder. Mark Mixson, general editor, The Applause Screenplay Series, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1990. ISBN 1-55783-086-X.
  • Gabriel Théry, O.P., "Édition critique des piéces relatives au procés d'Eckhart continues dans le manuscrit 33b de la Bibliothèque de Soest," Archives d'histoire littéraire et doctrinal du moyen âge, 1 (1926), pp. 129 - 268.

Translations and commentaries

  • Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation, trans. Raymond B. Blakney, New York: Harper and Row, 1941, ISBN 0-06-130008-X, about one-half the works including treatises, 28 sermons, Defense against heresy
  • Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense, trans. and ed. by Bernard McGinn and Edmund Colledge, New York: Paulist Press, 1981.
  • Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, trans. and ed. by Bernard McGinn and Frank Tobin, New York and London: Paulist Press / SPCK, 1987.
  • Meister Eckhart, Sermons and Treatises, trans. by M. O'C. Walshe, 3 vols., Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books, 1987.
  • James Midgely Clark, Meister Eckhart: An Introduction to the Study of His Works with an Anthology of His Sermons, Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1957.
  • James M. Clark and John V. Skinner, eds. and trans., Treatises and Sermons of Meister Eckhart, New York: Octagon Books, 1983. (Reprint of Harper and Row ed., 1958.)
  • Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings, ed. and trans. by Oliver Davies, London: Penguin, 1994.
  • C. de B. Evans, Meister Eckhart by Franz Pfeiffer, 2 vols., London: Watkins, 1924 and 1931.
  • Ursula Fleming, Meister Eckhart: The Man from whom God Hid Nothing, Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1995.
  • Matthew Fox, O.P., ed., Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
  • Armand Maurer, ed., Master Eckhart: Parisian Questions and Prologues, Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1974.
  • Reiner Schürmann, Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
  • Shizuteru Ueda, Die Gottesgeburt in der Seele und der Durchbruch zur Gottheit. Die mystische Anthropologie Meister Eckharts und ihre Konfrontation mit der Mystik des Zen-Buddhismus, Gütersloh: Mohn, 1965.


  • Eckardus Theutonicus, homo doctus et sanctus, Fribourg: University of Fribourg, 1993.
  • Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache, Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics, New York and London: Harper and Row/ Longmans, 1957.
  • James M. Clark, The Great German Mystics, New York: Russell and Russell, 1970 (reprint of Basil Blackwell edition, Oxford: 1949.)
  • James M. Clark, trans., Henry Suso: Little Book of Eternal Wisdom and Little Book of Truth, London: Faber, 1953.
  • Oliver Davies, God Within: The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988.
  • Oliver Davies, Meister Eckhart: Mystical Theologian, London: SPCK, 1991.
  • Robert K. Forman, Meister Eckhart: Mystic as Theologian, Rockport, Mass. / Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books, 1991.
  • Gundolf Gieraths, O.P., '"Life in Abundance: Meister Eckhart and the German Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century", Spirituality Today Supplement, Autumn, 1986.
  • Amy Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart, Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.
  • Rufus Jones, The Flowering of Mysticism in the Fourteenth Century, New York: Hafner Publishing Co., 1971 (facsimile of 1939 ed.).
  • Bernard McGinn, "Eckhart's Condemnation Reconsidered" in The Thomist, vol. 44, 1980.
  • Bernard McGinn, ed., Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics Hadewijch of Brabant, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete, New York: Continuum, 1994.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, ISBN 0-486-21762-0
  • Cyprian Smith, The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart, New York: Paulist Press, 1988.
  • Frank Tobin, Meister Eckhart: Thought and Language, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
  • Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Winfried Trusen, Der Prozess gegen Meister Eckhart, Fribourg: University of Fribourg, 1988.
  • Andrew Weeks, German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Richard Woods, O.P., Eckhart's Way, Wilmington, DE: Glazier, 1986 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991).
  • Richard Woods, O.P., Meister Eckhart: The Gospel of Peace and Justice, Tape Cassette Program, Chicago: Center for Religion & Society, 1993.

External links