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Summary Article: Eckhart, Johannes (c.1260–1327) from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

German theologian and philosopher, regarded as the first of the great speculative mystics and the founder of mysticism in Germany.

Johannes Eckhart, also known as Meister Eckhart, was born around 1260 in Hochheim, near Gotha, in Germany. He entered the Dominican Order, and in 1300 he went to Paris to lecture and take his academic degrees; the title ‘Meister’, by which he is often known, refers to the academic title he received there. He held a series of offices in his order, becoming the Dominican vicar for Thuringia, vicar-general of Bohemia and Dominican provincial in Saxony, where he was distinguished for his practical reforms and power in preaching. He preached and taught in Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Cologne and Paris from 1311 onwards. He wrote both in Latin, in his tractates for the learned clergy, and, more famously, in the German vernacular, in his sermons to the people. His independent thinking caused him to arrive at views that were not in harmony with the traditional teachings of the Church, resulting in his being charged with heresy by the Archbishop of Cologne in 1325. He appealed against these charges, apparently making a conditional recantation in which he professed to disavow anything in his writings which could be proved to be erroneous, but the charges were upheld, and Eckhart died in 1329, just before Pope John XXII issued a papal bull condemning many of his propositions as heretical.

In his writings, Eckhard communicated his burning sense of God’s nearness to humanity, and the individual soul’s need to be united with God. From his works, it is clear that he was highly learned in the philosophy of his time, and was a Neoplatonist. His method of expression is brief and simple, yet abstract, and his writings on metaphysics and spiritual philosophy draw extensively on mythic imagery and symbolism. His manner of thinking is clear, calm and logical, and in his theories, the element of mystical speculation becomes for the first time of prime importance; he was the first thinker who attempted to give such a basis to religious doctrines with complete freedom and logical consistency, and was thus the first of the great speculative mystics. From his influence there rose a popular mystical movement in 14th-century Germany.

But he wrote his sermons for the ordinary people in German, and it is in his German works that his greatest significance lies, because in them he was striving to impart spiritual truths, not to the privileged and learned few, but to everyone. He thus broke the narrow bonds of medieval scholasticism and became the forerunner of a new understanding of Christianity, making the Church doctrines and dogmas and their importance intelligible to the many. He taught that man’s greatest need is for his soul to be united with God, and that, for this, it is necessary to have both an understanding of God and his relation to the world, and a knowledge of the soul and its nature; such knowledge, he said, is given in the traditional faith of the Church, but anyone who wishes for salvation must arrive at it through their own understanding, and seek the divine spark for themselves.

For centuries none of Johannes Eckhart’s writings was known, except for a number of his German sermons, but in the 19th century a considerable body of further manuscript material in Latin was discovered. His extant Latin writings appear to be part of a very large work, the Opus Tripartitum. See also mystic; mysticism.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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