Eckhart, Meister

Eckhart, Meister
(ca. 1260–1328)
   The Dominican teacher Eckhart was one of the most influential thinkers and preachers of his time. Because of his profound spirituality and visionary language, he has often been identified as a mystic, but the label of philosopher and theologian would be more appropriate for him. Between 1275 and 1280, he joined the monastic order of the Dominicans in Erfurt in eastern Germany, studied at Cologne and Paris, and began teaching in Paris in 1293. Shortly before 1298, he was elected prior of the Convent in Erfurt and vicar of the Province of Thuringia. In 1300 Eckhart returned to Paris and gained his master’s degree, which allowed him to assume a teaching position (hence the honorary name under which he has been known ever since). In 1303, the members of the Saxon province of his order elected him as their first provincial, or governor, and in 1307, he was appointed vicar of the province of Bohemia. Both appointments required extensive traveling throughout northern Europe. In 1310 the province of Alemannia elected him as their provincial, but the General Chapter of Naples rejected this decision to avoid the accumulation of too many responsibilities on one person. Instead he was sent to Paris again to teach, a very rare honor for any member of the Dominican Order. Two years later Eckhart assumed a position as preacher in Strasbourg where he gained tremendous influence, and where he also came into contact with some important mystical writers, such as Henry Suso, and a number of Dominican nuns in southwest German women’s convents. After a series of various posts, Eckhart was sent to teach at the Dominican school in Cologne in 1322, continuing the famous tradition established by his immediate forerunners there, Albertus Magnus and Thomas AQUINAS.
   In Cologne, however, Eckhart soon faced serious opposition to his mystical sermons, especially by Archbishop Henry of Virneburg, who opened a lengthy inquisitional trial against him for heresy in 1326. The following year Eckhart appealed to the pope in defense of his case, but in 1328, he died in Avignon at the papal court while awaiting a decision. In 1329 the pope issued the bull In agro dominico, in which 28 of 108 propositions by Eckhart, for which he had been accused of heresy by the archbishop of Cologne, were condemned as either heretical, suspicious, or dangerous. The bull, however, also stated that before his death, Eckhart had recanted everything in his writing that might have been construed as heretical in the minds of his readers.
   Eckhart is famous for his deeply spiritual sermons, lectures, and treatises, written both in German and in Latin. He exerted a tremendous and long-lasting influence on contemporary philosophers and theologians, and on numerous 19thand 20th-century thinkers and writers.Many of his thoughts bear surprising similarity with fundamental Buddhist ideas, especially as he deeply probed the meaning of human life and human dignity, and investigated the role of the soul, free will, humility, and of man’s relationship with the Godhead. Other questions pondered by Eckhart pertained to the relationship between time and eternity, the issue of transcendentalism and the absolute nothingness, the religious ideal of poverty in spirit, and, above all, the idea of negative theology (God is beyond all human comprehension and can only be approached in negative terms).
   ■ Clark, James M. Meister Eckhart: An Introduction to the Study of His Works with an Anthology of His Sermons. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1957.
   ■ Classen, Albrecht. “Meister Eckhart’s Philosophy in the Twenty-first Century,”Mystics Quarterly 29, no. 1–2 (2003): 6–23.
   ■ Meister Eckhart. Werke. 2 vols. Text and Translation by Josef Quint. Editing and commentary by Niklaus Largier. Bibliothek des Mittelalters 20. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1993.
   ■ Tobin, Frank J. Meister Eckhart: Thought and Language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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