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Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age

Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart

Wholly irradiated by the feeling that things are reborn as higher entities in the spirit of man, is the conceptual world of Meister Eckhart. He belonged to the Order of the Dominicans, as did the greatest Christian theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274. Eckhart was an admirer of Thomas in the fullest sense. This is altogether understandable when one examines the whole conceptual framework of Meister Eckhart. He considered himself to be as much in harmony with the teachings of the Christian church as he assumed such an agreement for Thomas. Eckhart did not want to take anything away from the content of Christianity, nor to add anything to it. But he wanted to produce this content anew in his way. It is not among the spiritual needs of a personality such as he was to put new truths of various kinds in place of old ones. He was intimately connected with the content which had been transmitted to him. But he wanted to give a new form, a new life to this content. Without doubt he wanted to remain an orthodox Christian. The Christian truths were his truths. Only he wanted to look at them in a different way than had Thomas Aquinas, for instance. The latter assumed two sources of knowledge: revelation for faith, and reason for inquiry. Reason understands the laws of things, that is, the spiritual in nature. It can also raise itself above nature, and in the spirit grasp, from one side, the divine essence which underlies all nature. But in this way it does not achieve an immersion in the full essence of God. A higher truth must meet it halfway. This is given in the Scriptures. It reveals what by himself man cannot attain. The truth of the Scriptures must be taken for granted by man; reason can defend it, can endeavor to understand it as well as possible by means of its powers of cognition, but it can never produce it out of the human spirit. What the spirit sees is not the highest truth, but is a certain cognitive content which has come to the spirit from outside. St. Augustine declares that within himself he is unable to find the source of what he should believe. He says, “I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic church did not move me to do so.” This is in the sense of the Evangelist, who refers us to the external testimony: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life ... that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.” But Meister Eckhart wishes to impress upon men Christ's words: “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter [in the German version, der heilige Geist, i.e., the Holy Ghost] will not come unto you.” And he explains these words by saying, “It is as if he said: You have taken too much joy in my present image, therefore the perfect joy of the Holy Ghost cannot be in you.” Eckhart thinks that he is speaking of no God other than the one of whom Augustine and the Evangelist and Thomas speak, and yet their testimony of God is not his testimony. “Some people want to look upon God with their eyes, as they look upon a cow, and want to love God as they love a cow. Thus they love God for the sake of external riches and of internal solace; but these people do not love God aright ... Foolish people deem that they should look upon God as though He stood there and they here. It is not thus. God and I are one in the act of knowing.” Such declarations in Eckhart are based on nothing but the experience of the inner sense. And this experience shows things to him in a higher light. He therefore does not think that he needs an external light in order to attain to the highest insights: “A master says, God has become man; through this all mankind is raised and exalted. Let us rejoice that Christ our brother has ascended by his own strength above all the angelic choirs and sits on the right hand of the Father. This master has spoken well, but in truth, I do not set great store by it. What would it avail me if I had a brother who was a rich man, and for my part I were a poor man? What would it avail me if I had a brother who was a wise man, and I were a fool? ... The Heavenly Father brings forth his only-begotten Son in Himself and in me. Why in Himself and in me? I am one with Him, and He cannot shut me out. In the same act the Holy Ghost receives its being, and it arises through me as it does through God. Why? I am in God, and if the Holy Ghost does not take its being from me it does not take it from God either. I am not shut out in any way.” When Eckhart reminds us of the word of Paul: “Clothe yourselves in Jesus Christ,” he wishes to give to this word the following meaning: Become submerged in yourselves, plunge down into self-contemplation, and from the depths of your being God will shine upon you; He will outshine everything for you; you have found Him within yourselves; you have become united with God's essence. “God has become man so that I might become God.” In his treatise Über die Abgeschiedenheit, Concerning Solitude, Eckhart expresses himself on the relationship of external to internal perception: “Here you must know that the masters say that in each man there are two kinds of men: one is called the external man, that is, sensuousness; man is served by five senses, nevertheless he acts through the force of the soul. The other man is called the inner man, that is, the interior of man. Now you must know that every man who loves God does not use the faculties of the soul in the external man any more than is required by the five senses; and the interior does not turn to the five senses except as it is the director and guide of the five senses and watches over them so that, in their strivings, they do not pander to animality.” One who speaks in this way about the inner man can no longer fix his eye upon a nature of things which lies sensorily outside him. For he is aware that this nature cannot confront him in any kind of sensory outside world. To him one might object, What have the things in the outside world to do with what you add to them out of your spirit. Trust your senses. They alone give you intelligence of the outside world. Do not falsify with a spiritual trimming what your senses give you in purity, without decoration, as a picture of the external world. Your eye tells you what a color is like; nothing that your spirit apprehends concerning the color is in the color. From the point of view of Meister Eckhart one would have to answer: the senses are physical devices. Their communications about things therefore can concern only the physical aspect of things. And this physical aspect of things communicates itself to me by the excitation of a physical process within myself. Color as a physical process of the outside world gives rise to a physical process in my eye and in my brain. Through this I perceive the color. But in this way I can perceive in the color only what is physical, sensory. Sensory perception excludes all those aspects of things which are not sensory. It divests things of all that is not sensory in them. If I then proceed to the spiritual, the idea-content, I only re-establish that aspect of things which sensory perception has effaced. Hence sensory perception does not show me the deepest nature of things; rather it separates me from this nature. Spiritual comprehension, comprehension by the idea, again connects me with this nature. It shows me that within themselves things are of exactly the same spiritual nature as I myself. The boundary between me and the external world is abolished by the spiritual comprehension of the world. I am separated from the external world insofar as I am a sensory thing among sensory things. My eye and the color are two different entities. My brain and the plant are two. But the idea-content of the plant and of the color, together with the idea-content of my brain and of the eye, belong to a unified idea-entity. — This view must not be confused with the widespread anthropomorphizing world view which thinks that it comprehends the things of the external world by ascribing to them qualities of a psychical nature, which are supposed to be similar to the qualities of the human soul. This view says: When he confronts us externally, we perceive only sensory features in another man. I cannot look into the interior of my fellow man. From what I see and hear of him I make inferences as to his interior, his soul. Thus the soul is never something I perceive directly. A soul I perceive only within myself. No man sees my thoughts, my imaginings, my feelings. And just as I have such an inner life beside the one which can be perceived externally, so all other beings must have one too. This is the conclusion of one who takes the position of the anthropomorphizing world view. That part of a plant which I perceive externally must in the same way be only the outside of an interior, of a soul, which in my thoughts I must add to what I perceive. And since there exists for me only a single inner world, namely my own, I can only imagine the inner world of other beings to be similar to my own. Thus one reaches a sort of universal animation of all nature (panpsychism). This view rests on a misunderstanding of what the developed inner sense really offers. The spiritual content of an external thing, which appears to me within myself, is not something added in thought to the external perception. It is no more this than is the spirit of another man. I perceive this spiritual content through the inner sense, just as I perceive the physical content through the external senses. And what I call my inner life, in the sense indicated above, is by no means my spirit in the higher sense. This inner life is only the result of purely sensory processes; it belongs to me only as a totally individual personality, which is nothing but the result of its physical organization. When I transfer this interior to external things, I am in fact indulging in idle fancy. My personal inner life, my thoughts, memories, and feelings are in me because I am a creature of nature with such and such an organization, with a certain sensory apparatus, with a certain nervous system. I cannot transfer this human soul of mine to things. I could do this only if somewhere I found a similarly organized nervous system. But my individual soul is not the highest spiritual part in me. This highest spiritual part must first be awakened in me by the inner sense. And this spiritual part which is awakened in me is at the same time one and the same with the spiritual in all things. Before this spiritual part the plant appears directly in its own spirituality. I need not endow it with a spirituality similar to my own. For this world view all talk about the unknown “thing in itself” becomes devoid of meaning. For it is precisely the “thing in itself” which reveals itself to the inner sense. All talk about the unknown “thing in itself” is only due to the fact that those who speak in this way are incapable of recognizing the “things in themselves” in the spiritual contents within them. They think that within themselves they recognize only unsubstantial shadows and phantoms, “mere concepts and ideas” of things. But nevertheless since they have an intimation of the “thing in itself” they think that this “thing in itself” conceals itself, and that limits are set to the human powers of cognition. One cannot prove to those who labor under this belief that they must seize the “thing in itself” within themselves, for they never would acknowledge this “thing in itself” if one showed it to them. And it is just a matter of this acknowledgment. — Everything Meister Eckhart says is penetrated by this acknowledgment. “Consider a simile for this. A door opens and closes on a hinge. If I compare the outer boards of the door to the external man, then I shall compare the hinge to the inner man. Now when the door opens and closes the outer boards move back and forth, while the hinge remains constantly immobile, and in no way is changed thereby. And here it is the same.” As an individual creature of the senses I can investigate things in all directions — the door opens and closes —; if I do not let the perceptions of the senses arise within me spiritually I shall know nothing of their essence — the hinge does not move —. The illumination mediated by the inner sense is, in Eckhart's conception, the entry of God into the soul. He calls the light of knowledge which is lit by this entry, the “spark of the soul.” The place within the human being where this “spark” is lighted is “so pure, and so high, and so noble in itself, that no creature can be in it, but only God alone dwells therein in His pure divine nature.” one who has let this “spark” light up within himself, no longer sees merely as man sees with the external senses, and with the logical intellect, which orders and classifies the impressions of the senses; rather he sees how things are in themselves. The external senses and the ordering intellect separate the individual human being from other things; they make of him an individual in space and in time, who also perceives other things in space and in time. The man illuminated by the “spark” ceases to be an individual being. He annihilates his isolation. Everything which causes the difference between him and things, ceases. That it is he as an individual being who perceives, no longer can even be taken into consideration. The things and he are no longer separated. The things, and thus also God, see themselves in him. “This spark is God, in such a way that it is an united one, and carries within itself the image of all creatures, image without image, and image above image.” In the most magnificent words does Eckhart speak of the extinction of the individual being: “It must therefore be known that to know God and to be known by God is the same. We know God and see Him in that He makes us to see and to know. And as the air which illuminates is nothing but what it illuminates, for it shines through this, that it is illuminated: thus do we know that we are known and that He causes Himself to know us.”

It is on this foundation that Meister Eckhart builds Up his relationship to God. It is a purely spiritual relationship, and it cannot be formed in an image borrowed from the individual life of man. God cannot love His creation as one individual man loves another; God cannot have created the world as a masterbuilder constructs a house. All such thoughts disappear in face of the inner vision. It is in the nature of God that He loves the world. A god who could love and also not love is formed in the image of the individual man. “I say in good truth and in eternal truth and in everlasting truth that into every man who has gone within himself God must pour Himself out to the limits of His ability, utterly and completely, so that He retains nothing in His life and in His being, in His nature and in His divinity; everything must He pour out in fruitful fashion.” And the inner illumination is something which the soul necessarily must find when it goes down into its depths. From this it already becomes evident that the communication of God to mankind cannot be thought of in the image of the revelation of one man to another. The latter communication can also be left unmade. One man can close himself off from another. God must communicate Himself, in conformity with His nature. “It is a certain truth that God must needs seek us, as if all His divinity depended upon it. God can no more do without us than we can do without Him. Although we may turn away from God, yet God can never turn away from us.” Consequently the relationship of man to God cannot be understood as containing anything figurative, borrowed from what is individually human. Eckhart realizes that part of the accomplishment of the primordial nature of the world is that it should find itself in the human soul. This primordial nature would be imperfect, even unfinished, if it lacked that component of its frame which appears in the human soul. What takes place in man belongs to the primordial nature; and if it did not take place the primordial nature would be only a part of itself. In this sense man can feel himself to be a necessary part of the nature of the world. Eckhart expresses this by describing his feelings toward God as follows: “I do not thank God for loving me, for He cannot keep from doing so, whether He wants to or not, His nature compels him to it ... Therefore I shall not beg God that He should give me something, nor shall I praise Him for what He has given me ... ”

But this relationship of the human soul to the primordial nature must not be understood to mean that the soul in its individual character is declared to be one with this primordial nature. The soul which is entangled in the world of the senses, and therewith in the finite, does not as such already have the content of the primordial nature within itself. It must first develop it in itself. It must annihilate itself as an individual being. Meister Eckhart has aptly characterized this annihilation as an “un-becoming” (“Entwerdung”). “When I reach the depths of divinity no one asks me whence I come and where I have been, and no one misses me, for here there is an un-becoming.” This relationship is also clearly expressed in the sentence: “I take a basin of water and place a mirror in it and put it under the wheel of the sun. The sun casts its luminous radiance upon the mirror, and yet it is not diminished. The reflection of the mirror in the sun is sun in the sun, and yet the mirror is what it is. Thus it is with God. God is in the soul with His nature and in His being and His divinity, and yet He is not the soul. The reflection of the soul in God is God in God, and yet the soul is what it is.”

The soul which gives itself over to the inner illumination recognizes in itself not only what it was before the illumination; it also recognizes what it has become only through this illumination. “We are to be united with God essentially; we are to be united with God as one; we are to be united with God altogether. How are we to be united with God essentially? This is to be accomplished by a seeing and not by a being. His being cannot be our being, but is to be our life.” Not an already existing life — a being (Wesung) — is to be understood in the logical sense; but the higher understanding — the seeing — is itself to become life; the spiritual, that which belongs to the idea, is to be experienced by the seeing man in the same way as the individual human nature experiences ordinary, everyday life.

From such starting-points Meister Eckhart also attains a pure concept of freedom. In ordinary life the soul is not free. For it is entangled in the realm of lower causes. It accomplishes that to which it is compelled by these lower causes. By the “seeing” it is raised out of the region of these causes. It no longer acts as an individual soul. In it is exposed the primordial essence, which cannot be caused by anything except itself. “God does not compel the will, rather He sets it at liberty, so that it wills nothing but what God Himself wills. And the spirit can will nothing but what God wills; and this is not its unfreedom; it is its true freedom. For freedom is this, that we are not bound, that we be free and pure and unadulterated as we were in our first origin, and when we were wed in the Holy Ghost.” It can be said of the enlightened man that he himself is the entity which determines good and evil out of itself. He cannot do otherwise than accomplish the good. For he does not serve the good, rather does the good live within him. “The righteous man serves neither God nor the creatures, for he is free, and the closer he is to righteousness, the more he is freedom itself.” What then must evil be for Meister Eckhart? It can only be an acting under the influence of the lower view, the acting of a soul which has not passed through the state of un-becoming. Such a soul is selfish in the sense that it wills only itself. Only externally could it bring its willing into harmony with moral ideals. The seeing soul cannot be selfish in this sense. Even should it will itself it would still will the mastery of the ideal; for it has made itself into this ideal. It can no longer will the goals of the lower nature, for it no longer has anything in common with this lower nature. It is no compulsion, no deprivation, for the seeing soul to act in the sense of moral ideals. “For the man who stands in God's will and in God's love it is a joy to do all the good things God wills, and to leave undone all the evil things which are against God. And it is impossible for him to leave a thing undone which God wants to have accomplished. As it would be impossible for one to walk whose legs are bound, so it would be impossible for one to do ill who is in God's will.” Furthermore Eckhart expressly protests against an interpretation which would see in his view a license for anything the individual might want. It is just in this that one recognizes the seeing man, that he no longer wants anything as an individual. “Some men say: If I have God and God's freedom, then I can do everything I want. They understand these words amiss. As long as you can do anything which is against God and His commandment, you do not have God's love; you can only deceive the world into the belief that you have it.” Eckhart is convinced that for the soul which goes down into its depths, in these depths a perfect morality will appear, that there all logical understanding and all action in the ordinary sense have an end, and that there an entirely new order of human life begins. “For everything the understanding can grasp, and everything desire demands, is not God. Where understanding and desire have an end, there it is dark, there does God shine. There that power unfolds in the soul which is wider than the wide heavens ... The bliss of the righteous and God's bliss is one bliss; for then are the righteous blissful, when God is blissful.”




Last Modified: 03-Jul-2017
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