|Meister Eckhart,| who has been called the |Father of German thought,| was a Dominican monk, and one of the most profound thinkers of the Middle Ages. He was born about 1260 A.D. in Thuringia, and died at Cologne 1327 A.D. In 1295 he was Prior of the Dominicans at Erfurt and Vicar-General of Thuringia. In 1300 he was sent to the University of Paris, where he studied Aristotle and the Platonists, and took the degree of Master of Arts. It is possible also that he taught at Paris. He already had a wide reputation as a philosopher, and was summoned to Rome in 1302 to assist Pope Boniface VIII. in his struggle against Philip the Fair. In 1304 he became Provincial of his order for Saxony, and in 1307 Vicar-General of Bohemia. In 1311 he was sent again to act as professor of theology in the school of Dominicans in Paris, and afterwards in Strasburg. Everywhere his teaching and preaching left a deep mark. At Strasburg he aroused suspicions and created enemies; his doctrine was accused of resembling that of the heretical sects of the |Beghards| and |Brothers of the Holy Spirit.| The Superior-General of the Order had his writings submitted to a close examination by the Priors of Worms and Mayence. The history of this episode is very obscure. It appears that Eckhart was cited before the tribunal of the Inquisition at Cologne, and that he professed himself willing to withdraw anything that his writings might contain contrary to the teaching of the Church. The matter was referred to the Pope, who, in 1329, condemned certain propositions extracted from the writings of Eckhart two years after the death of the latter.
The importance of Eckhart in the history of scholastic philosophy is considerable. At that period all the efforts of religious philosophy were directed to widen theology, and to effect a reconciliation between reason and faith. The fundamental idea of Eckhart's philosophy is that of the Absolute or Abstract Unity conceived as the sole real existence. His God is the Theos agnostos of the neoplatonists: He is absolutely devoid of attributes which would be a limitation of His Infinity. God is incomprehensible; in fact, with regard to our limited intelligence, God is the origin and final end of every being. How then, it may be asked, can God be a Person? The answer is, that by the eternal generation of the Son the Father becomes conscious of Himself, and the Love reflected back to the Father by the Son is the Holy Spirit. Together with the Son, God also begets the ideal forms of created things. The Absolute is thus the common background of God and the Universe. Like as the Son does, so everything born of God tends to return to Him, and to lose itself in the unity of His Being.
This theology is really Pantheism. Of the Absolute we have no cognizance but only of phenomena, but by the resolute endeavour to abstract ourselves from time and space, we can, according to Eckhart, at rare moments, attain to the Absolute by virtue of what he calls |the spark| (Funkelein) of the soul, which comes direct from God. This is really God acting in man; to know God is to be one with God. This is the final end of all our activity, and the means of attaining thereto is complete quietism. But Eckhart shrank from carrying his doctrines out to their extreme logical conclusion, though some of the more fanatical among his followers did so. On account of his insistence on the immediacy of man's approach to God, apart from Church institutions, he may be justly regarded as a fore-runner of the Reformation.
Note. -- The best account of Eckhart in English is probably to be found in Vaughan's |Hours with the Mystics,| vol. i.