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Johann Eckhart

Dominican preacher, theologian, and mystic, b. about 1260 d. in 1327

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Eckhart (ECKARD, ECCARD), JOHANN, MEISTER (the Master), Dominican preacher, theologian, and mystic, b. about 1260 at Hochheim, near Gotha; d. in 1327 at Cologne. He made his philosophical and theological studies in the Dominican Order. Although a profound mystic he was also an able man of affairs, admirably manifesting the spirit of his order by uniting throughout his career great activity with contemplation. After a period of teaching he was made, in 1298, prior of the Dominican convent at Erfurt and vicar-provincial of Thuringia. Two years later he began to lecture at Paris, where in 1302 his order gave him the degree of Master of Sacred Theology. In the following year he was elected provincial of the Province of Saxony, to which office he was reelected in 1307, when he was also appointed vicar-general of Bohemia and charged to reform its convents. His term of office having expired in 1311, he again took a professorial chair at Paris, whence he went in 1314 to teach at Strasburg. After three years he was made prior at Frankfort. He finally returned to the schools in 1320, when he was made first professor of his order at Cologne, where he remained until his death.

Eckhart's activity was also displayed in the pulpit, of which he was an illustrious ornament, and by his writings in the form of treatises and sayings. As a preacher he disdained rhetorical flourish and avoided oratorical passion; but effectively employed the simple arts of oratory and gave remarkable expression to a hearty sympathy. Using pure language and a simple style, he has left us in his sermons specimens of the beautiful German prose of which he was a master. In these sermons, really short catecheses, we find frequent citations from such writers as Seneca and Avicenna, as well as from the theologians and Fathers. His discourses are directed to the intellect rather than to the will and are remarkable for their depth of mystical teaching, which only those who were advanced in the spiritual life could fully appreciate. His favorite themes are the Divine essence, the relations between God and man, the faculties, gifts, and operations of the human soul, the return of all created things to God. These and kindred subjects he develops more at length in his treatises, which partake of the catechetical character of his sermons. In his sayings he presents them in short and pithy form. Although the writings of Eckhart do not present a connected and studied system, they reveal the mind of the philosopher, the theologian, and the mystic. The studies of Henry Denifle, O.P., while showing Eckhart to have been less of a philosopher than he was supposed to be, show also that he was a Scholastic theologian of very superior merit, although not of the first order. He followed the teaching of Albert the Great and of St. Thomas Aquinas, but departed from their Scholastic method and form. Some opponents of Scholasticism, admiring his aphorisms and originality of method, have pronounced him to be the greatest thinker before Luther. And there have been Protestants who called him a Reformer. It was, however, as a mystic that Eckhart excelled. He is held by many to have been the greatest among the German mystics, and by all to have been the father of German mysticism. To Tauler and Suso he gave not only ideas but also a clear, simple style, possessing a heartiness like that of his own. Although, he frequently quotes from the writings of the Pseudo Areopagite and of John Scotus Eriugena, in his mysticism he follows more closely the teaching of Hugh St. Victor.

The very nature of Eckhart's subjects and the untechnicality of his language were calculated to cause him to be misunderstood, not only by the ordinary hearers of his sermons, but also by the Schoolmen who listened to him or read his treatises. And it must be admitted that some of the sentences in his sermons and treatises were Beghardic, quietistic, or pantheistic. But although he occasionally allowed harmful sentences to proceed from his lips or his pen, he not unfrequently gave an antidote in the same sermons and treatises. And the general tenor of his teaching shows that he was not a Beghard, nor a quietist, nor a pantheist. While at Strasburg, although he had no relations with the Beghards (q.v.), he was suspected of holding their mystical pantheism. Later, at Frankfort suspicion was cast upon his moral conduct, but it was evidently groundless; for, after an investigation ordered by the Dominican general, he was appointed to a prominent position at Cologne. Finally the charge was made at a general chapter of his order, held at Venice in 1325, that some of the German brethren were disseminating dangerous doctrine. Father Nicholas, O.P., of Strasburg, having been ordered by Pope John XXII to make investigation, declared in the following year that the works of Eckhart were orthodox. In January, 1327, Archbishop Heinrich of Cologne undertook an independent inquiry, whereupon Eckhart and Father Nicholas appealed to Rome against his action and authority in the matter. But the next month, from the pulpit of the Dominican church in Cologne, Eckhart repudiated the unorthodox sense in which some of his utterances could be interpreted, retracted all possible errors, and submitted to the Holy See. His profession of faith, repudiation of error, and submission to the Holy See were declared by Pope John XXII in the Bull "Dolentes referimus" (March 27, 1329), by which the pontiff condemned seventeen of Eckhart's propositions as heretical, and eleven as ill-sounding, rash, and suspected of heresy (Denzinger, Enchiridion, no. 428 sqq.; Hartzheim, Conc. Germ., IV, 631).

The entire works of Eckhart have not been preserved. Pfeiffer in "Deutsche Mystiker des 14. Jahrhunderts" (1857), II, has given an incomplete edition of his sermons. Additions have been made by Sievers in "Zeitschrift für deutsche Alterthümer", XV, 373 sqq.; Wackernagel in "Altdeutsche Predigten" (1876), 156 sqq., 172 sqq.; Berlinger in "Alemannia", III, 15 sqq.; Bech in "Germania", VIII, 223 sqq.; X, 391 sqq.; Jundt in "Histoire du Panthéisme" (1875), 231 sqq. There is a translation in High German by Landauer, "Meister Eckharts mystische Schriften" (1903). Eckhart's Latin works bore the title "Opus Tripartiturn". In the first part (Opus propositionum) there are over one thousand theses, which are explained in the second part (Opus quaestionum), and proved in the third part (Opus expositionum). Of these only the three prologues are known. Denifle discovered also a portion of the third part, part of an explanation of Genesis, a commentary on Exodus, Sirach, xxiv, Wisdom, and other fragments.

A. L. MCMAHON


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