Meister Johannes Eckhart

Theologian, Writer, Mystic

The Story of Meister Eckhart's Daughter
Daughter," from the manuscript Augsburg, Universitätsbibliothek Cod.III.2.8.9,. Public domain; courtesy of Wikimedia

Meister Eckhart, also known as Eckhart von Hocheim, was born Johannes Eckhart in the year 1260. His name is also spelled Eckehart; anglicized as Master Eckhart. Meister Eckhart was a teacher, theologian and writer, known for writing influential treatises on the nature of man's relationship with God. His ideas came into conflict with the orthodox views of the Christian Church, and he would face charges of heresy.​He died in 1327-28.

The Life and Work of Meister Eckhart

A theologian and writer, Meister Eckhart is generally considered the greatest German mystic of the Middle Ages. His writings focused on the relationship of the individual soul to God.

Born in Thuringia (in present-day Germany), Johannes Eckhart joined the Dominican order at age 15. In Cologne, he may have studied under Albertus Magnus, and he was undeniably influenced by Thomas Aquinas, who had died only a year or so earlier.

Once his education had progressed, Johannes Eckhart taught theology at Saint-Jacques's priory in Paris. Sometime in the 1290s, when he was in his late 30s, Eckhart became vicar of Thuringia. In 1302 he received his master's degree in Paris and became known as Meister Eckhart. In 1303 he became leader of the Dominicans in Saxony, and in 1306 Meister Eckhart was made vicar of Bohemia.

Meister Eckhart wrote four treatises in German: Talks of Instruction, the Book of the Divine Consolation, The Nobleman and On Detachment. In Latin he wrote Sermons, Commentaries on the Bible, and Fragments. In these works, Eckhart focused on the stages of union between the soul and God. He exhorted his fellow Dominicans, and preached everywhere to the less educated, to seek the presence of God within themselves.

Eckhart's evangelical activities did not go over well with the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, and they probably had something to do with the failed confirmation of his election in 1309 as provencal. In spite of his popularity (or perhaps because of it), he came under investigation and was wrongly accused of a connection with the Beghards (male versions of the Beguines who led lives of religious devotion without joining an approved religious order). He was then charged with heresy.

Death and Legacy 

In response to a list of errors, Eckhart published a Latin Defense and appealed to the papacy, then in Avignon. Ordered to justify another series of propositions drawn from his work, he replied, "I may err but I am not a heretic, for the first has to do with the mind and the second with the will!" His appeal was denied in 1327, and Meister Johannes Eckhart died sometime within the next year or so.

In 1329, Pope John XXII issued a bull condemning as heretical 28 of Eckhart's propositions. The bull speaks of Eckhart as already dead and states that he had retracted the errors as charged. Eckhart's followers tried in vain to get the decree set aside.

After Meister Eckhart's death, a popular mystical movement arose in Germany, heavily influenced by his works. Though long overlooked after the Reformation, Eckhart saw a resurgence in popularity in the last century, particularly among some Marxist theorists and Zen Buddhists.

Meister Johannes Eckhart may have been the first to write speculative prose in German, and he was an innovator in the language, originating many abstract terms. Probably due to his work, German became the language of popular tracts instead of Latin.