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.
It is difficult to reconstruct the progression of Eckhart’s thought due to a lack of sources that can be dated with certainty. Even his date of birth can only be speculated to be before 1260, while we know that he died at the beginning of 1328. His works are of various kinds: he spoke or wrote for educated audiences, mostly in Latin, but also for lay people, in German. One of his models was Albertus Magnus, also a Dominican and a teacher, among others, of Thomas Aquinas. In his treatise On the Intellect and the Intelligible, Albertus taught that the object of our intellect is the universal, which exists in reality and is the foundation of individual things. Following Plato, he claimed that philosophy is the knowledge of one’s self. The intellect finds God and truth within itself, as it immanent principles. It is the link between God and the world. Albertus’s treatise, in Flasch’s interpretation, opened the way for Eckhart’s philosophy of Christianity.
There are conflicting opinions about Eckhart. In order to gain a better understanding Flasch presents and comments on a series of self-portraits supplied by him. It was a commonplace in academic commentaries that the author would explain his intention, expectations and assumptions to his readers. Those self-portraits can help us interpret Eckhart but they are only points of departure that have to be compared with the achievements of the author and checked with the text of the works. This is precisely what Flasch does in the rest of his work. He laments that previous readings of Eckhart often lack linguistic discipline, semantic specification and a philological basis. He presents a rigorous analysis based on a number of important developments in the study of Eckhart: a critical edition of his German sermons, a more comprehensive understanding of his cultural milieu thanks to our improved knowledge of medieval German philosophy and a recent discovery by the Italian medievalist Loris Sturlese of a manuscript in Oxford. Sturlese has proposed a revision of the chronology of Eckhart’s works in Latin and also edited his trial records, shedding new light on the last years of his life. In combining philosophical considerations with philological and historical methods a new portrait merges from Flasch’s book.
What concept does Eckhart have of reason? He doesn’t prove the existence of God from the order of nature. Reason finds God in itself. Reason is the location of God’s birth; it unites man and God. This metaphor of God’s birth expresses important elements of Eckhart’s philosophy and caused him troubles with his inquisitors. The soul forms itself according to its objects. “It has a greater unity with that which it seeks, knows, and loves than with its physical and psychological organism.” It becomes what it is after, it reshapes its character in consonance with what it longs for. It doesn’t stand fixed but becomes what it takes up, what it consistently places itself in relation to. Through seeing and loving, man becomes what he sees and loves in the mind. Likewise, someone who loves justice becomes justice. Eckhart uses the metaphor of birth to express the plasticity of the soul. The soul’s entering into justice is the birth of God within it. It has to be a birth that occurs unceasingly; it is the divine’s perpetually new activity. This is an unprecedented interpretation of some fundamental teachings of Christianity. The birth of the Son in the Godhead only interests us insofar as it happens within us. God births his son in us in the same fashion as he does in eternity. We don’t have to imitate Christ’s life and virtues in order to resemble him. We share with him an identical flow of life that everyone can recognise and find operating within himself. God is mind and his nature is self-disclosure; he must disclose himself. This is not a special feature of Christianity but, according to Eckhart, a philosophical truth that can be found in the traditional awareness of God as formulated by many pagan thinkers. The birth of God occurs within us as mind. Human beings obscure the ground of their soul, instead of looking for the truth within they scatter themselves in the external world and they lose their unity.
The thesis that the divine begetting of the logos in eternity is identical to the birthing of the Godhead in men raised a few problems for Eckhart as this view was clearly against the orthodox theology of the time. Another controversial thesis he defended is that becoming one happens in an unmediated form as nothing created steps in between the soul and God. Man becomes deified without any intermediaries. This opinion questioned the idea of grace, which according to Aquinas is created within the soul and given freely (gratis). If nothing created steps in between the soul and God what is the role of sacraments?
Eckhart’s approach to the Bible is also peculiar. He sets out to explain it with philosophical arguments and also wants to show that it contains all the principles and conclusions required for knowing nature. His commentaries are not philological. Rather he aims to demonstrate the main truths of the scriptures (the nature of God, the Trinity, the creation of the world and the incarnation etc) philosophically but also to prove that the insights of the ancient philosophy and its later developments, particularly the Aristotelian tradition both from the West and the Middle East, were in the Bible either explicitly present or implied. We only have to be able to locate them through philosophical arguments. All biblical interpretations have little value for those who have not already thought through its philosophical premises. For instance, in his commentaries on the book of Genesis Eckhart reads it as a work of natural history and he wants to prove that God, who is Truth, included all truth in his revelation. He doesn’t say that Genesis teaches the traditional three fields of knowledge, that is metaphysics, physics and ethics, but he maintains that the Bible suggests this and it is his task to make explicit its implicit teachings. He wants to prove them first on the grounds of reason and then find them in the scriptures. He wants to determine the philosophical truths contained in the text.
Flasch demolishes the idea that Eckhart was a mystic. He did not approach God through spirituality or through the natural world but through being. What is peculiar in his philosophy is that he rejects any examination of being in terms of its efficient and final cause. The philosopher doesn’t look for the origin or for the purpose of something. This would be appropriate for the investigation of the natural world but Eckhart is searching for the pure form as the true being. The divine life and the life of the deified man are disclosure of form outside efficient and final causes. When discussing the primary determinations of being, what the medieval called the transcendentals, Eckhart adds Idea, Wisdom and Love to the traditional Oneness, Truth, Goodness and Being (esse). The essential determination of God is intellect. He created everything within himself by contemplating ideas and he carries the world as the realm of ideas within himself. Flasch highlights the strong influence of neoplatonism on Eckhart, but also of Aristotle and Avicenna. Thomas Aquinas is often referred to but mostly as a philosophical antagonist. The Jewish Moses Maimonides, particularly his negative theology, was also a source of inspiration for Eckhart. In discussing God’s darkness as a surplus of light he quotes from Maimonides: “The intellect that approaches God butts against the wall” and he explains that there is no darkness in God but only light, too much light that blinds our intellect and makes us ignorant.
Eckhart broke with tradition in many respects. For instance he reinterprets monastic values, such as obedience for example, transforming them into a theory and practice of self-understanding. Obedience is radical self-abandonment, separation from ambitions, honours and possessions. We hinder ourselves when things hinder us. If I willingly surrender my will to God then the God within me will act for me. This is not self-punishment but rather the exchange of the I for the Godhead. Obedience is “letting the self be”, under the guidance of God who determines and perceives my interests. Thus, begin with yourself to let yourself be, recognise yourself as having the power to say no. According to Flasch, Eckhart encouraged his contemporaries to realise that it is they who attribute values to objects and situations; they create what matters to them. He encouraged them “to see through and reject every dependence on external things as a self-made shackle”. In this renunciation of reliance on things we experience the solitude of our interior, which is not loneliness but a practical understanding and active reassessment within our social context. Eckhart teaches that we must keep silent and let God speak and act. Man must leave everything be. Detachment is the entry point of life. The next step is insight into the presence of God in the soul, when man recognises the purity of God’s nature. This is not passivity but active withdrawal as inward action is needed. Obedience as “well-practiced detachment” does not require supernatural intervention, and this is why Eckhart relativised all monastic practices and exercises. Those who have achieved detachment will know how to act; they will know what to do because they flow with God. On the other hand, no ascetic exercises can substitute this state in those who have not achieved it yet, those who are not one with the One. Eckhart did not devalue monasticism and asceticism, but he considered them to be good only as long as they assisted the birth of God.
Meister Eckhart was aware of being an outsider. Two of his Dominican confreres reported him as a heretic to the archbishop of Cologne in 1325 or 1326 and the episcopal inquisition initiated the trial. The pope sent an official visitor, Eckhart was given a list of errors, wrote an apologia and was absolved, but his accusers presented more allegations. Eckhart recanted potential errors and lamented misunderstandings. As a Dominican he claimed to be beholden only to the pope and the University of Paris. The trial was moved to Avignon, where he had more rights and would have been examined by more expert theologians. These trial records are now accessible thanks to Sturlese’s recent critical.
In 1327 he was interrogated in person. The panel produced an extensive evaluation of Eckhart’s writings but at the beginning of 1328 he died. The trial continued despite his death. The pope issued his final judgement in March 1329 and condemned some of Eckhart’s teachings. He distinguished them according to their degree of reprehensibility. Of twenty-eight theses, fifteen were found heretical, eleven were suspected of being so and in the case of two more Eckhart denied he ever taught them and so they could not securely be attributed to him. Eckhart was dead and could not be condemned but his books were to be destroyed.
In his study Flasch demonstrates that Eckhart’s views, particularly the idea of the deified man, are incompatible with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. For instance he had conferred the traditional attributes of Christ onto man and claimed that he was not “made” but “begotten”. He transferred man as God’s son into the Trinity. Divine filiation, becoming sons of God, is a concept present in the scriptures and in the teachings of the Fathers but Eckhart did not maintain the fundamental difference between Creator and creature. In the orthodox version, well expressed by Aquinas, divine filiation consists of similarities between God and his sons, not substantial oneness. God is the cause of the life of the soul, but Eckhart had rejected efficient cause in his theology. He claimed that divine goodness does not make the good man but it begets him. There is no more distinction between God and the soul, no separation. This understanding of the deified man had consequences for Eckhart’s views on the Trinity, which were also denounced as heretical. If every man becomes God then Christ’s singularity is disregarded. Moreover, he claimed that in God there is no distinction of persons. Eckhart provided a robust defence of his views, defending the orthodoxy of some of them, rejecting misinterpretation of others, blaming his emphatic style of preaching for some excesses in his sermons and, on rare occasions, retracting them. Flasch emphasises that Eckhart’s formulations expressed a new philosophy of Christianity that inevitably deviates from and conflicts with tradition. “They saw him as being in opposition to all Christian theologians of the time, and in this they were right.” Flasch notes moreover that the inquisitors never accused Eckhart of having gone overboard with mysticism.
Even though not intended for a specialised audience, this book requires a substantial knowledge of classical and medieval Western philosophy to be enjoyed. The author is a distinguished scholar of the Middle Ages and his theses are throughout convincing and well argued. In the different chapters of the book he provides an acute analysis of all of Meister Eckhart’s works, both popular and academic, which inevitably implies repetitions. Flasch’s commentary is interspersed by engaging personal reflections on his historical method and on writing about Eckhart today. When he cannot present an adequate account of some of the works, he refers to his own studies on the subject. The notes at the end are detailed and useful but they contain passages from the Sermons not only in Latin but also in medieval German, which are hardly readable by anyone today.
Kurt Flasch has contributed to a reassessment of Eckhart as a philosopher rather than a mystic and this work represents a definitive word on the matter. His aim is also to give an account of a phase in the history of European thought. Whether Eckhart was orthodox or not, Flasch demonstrates that he has had an undeniable role in the history of Christian self-understanding.