God and reason
a review of Meister Eckhart: Philosopher of Christianity, by Kurt Flasch, Yale University Press, 344 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300204865
In traditional accounts of the history of philosophy, Meister Eckhart has usually been presented as a mystic. In opposition to more intellectual schools of the Middle Ages, he was often portrayed as the promoter of an anti-scholastic approach privileging religious experience or as the defender of negative theology, according to which the only meaningful discourse about God is about what He is not.
In this work, Kurt Flasch aims at rebutting what he believes to be misleading interpretations of Eckhart: “There is nothing authentic about the label ‘mystic’ in Eckhart’s case.” Flasch proposes instead to consider him a “philosopher of Christianity”, that is someone who explains Christian beliefs through pure reason.
Flasch devotes an entire chapter of his book to the explanation of what he claims to be a forgotten concept that has been abandoned by theologians and philosophers. A philosophy of Christianity is “an attempt to prove Christian ideas rationally in such a way that believers and unbelievers alike would come to recognize them as true, and not merely as culturally contingent constructs of Christian communities of faith”. He admits that our understanding of reason has not been the same everywhere. Purely rational proofs have changed through time and this approach has been rejected both by those who are Christian, because it would reduce faith to a series of philosophical tenets, and by those who aim to use a completely rational method, because this method would disprove Christian beliefs as illogical or untenable. Flasch instead suggests that this is precisely what Eckhart attempted to do with his works and, even without agreeing with the results, he presents a detailed account of his “philosophy of Christianity”. Before considering what Christianity is, the author discusses what philosophy should be: “the habit to justify one’s statements, to argue most precisely according to a set of common rules”.
The book is an invitation to read Meister Eckhart in his historical context. Eckhart thought of himself as a philosopher but perception of him changed throughout the centuries. He had immediate influence on some of his contemporaries, such as Henry Suso and Johannes Tuler. Nicholas of Cusa studied Eckhart when young but with time, due to the condemnation of the Church, his works became less available and only a distorted version of his thought survived. Nevertheless, he had a strong impact not only on philosophers such as Hegel, Martin Buber or Martin Heidegger but also on writers like Robert Musil and Paul Celan.
There are gaps in his chronology and therefore in our knowledge of him but recent discoveries and studies allow Flasch to present a convincing portrait. The name Meister indicates that he was a magister, a master at Paris in 1302, the highest rank attainable for any academic at the time. Like Albertus Magnus, whom he probably knew personally, and Thomas Aquinas, the most important philosopher of the Middle Ages, he was a member of the Dominican order. In 1303 he was elected provincial of Saxony and then vicar general of Thuringia and Bohemia.
Eckhart lived in turbulent times, both for the church and for the civil power. In his Divine Comedy Dante famously placed all the popes who had reigned in his lifetime in hell. Celestine V had abdicated, Boniface VIII was corrupt, John XII was in exile in Avignon and involved in endless controversies with the antipopes. Interestingly, Eckhart ignored the pope in his works, as both spiritual and political leader. Not only was the church divided; in the final decades of Eckhart’s life two German emperors were simultaneously elected. This was also a period of new intellectual developments. Aristotle’s influence in particular was growing among philosophers and theologians since the discovery and the translation into Latin of his texts, preserved by the Islamic civilisation. Meister Eckhart absorbed and reinterpreted the neo-Aristotelianism he had learned in Paris.