Eckhart’s theory of the soul12 min read

The writings and recorded sermons of Meister Eckhart (71260-1327), besides being a potential source of inspiration to anyone trying to tread the mystic path, are a precious witness to the fact the Christian revelation, for all its alleged “uniqueness”, is susceptible of an interpretation which brings it into harmony with the strain of non-dualism to be found in the spiritual traditions of certain other faiths. They were obscure to his contemporaries, and are obscurer still to us. If an effort is made here, on the basis of modern text-books, to say something of his doctrine of the soul, this does not represent a claim to be initiating the reader into Eckhart’s real meaning. Eckhart’s full meaning evidently cannot be understood on the plane of mere study. Of one of his sermons he himself once said, “Until a man actually becomes this truth he will not understand this sermon. For it is the unveiled truth and has come direct from the heart of God”.

Eckhart taught that the soul of the unregenerate man is in bondage and that it can rise by its own efforts, aided by divine grace, to the state of the “just” man (practically an equivalent of the “sant” or “saint universal” of North Indian tradition)—and in some passages he speaks of a state beyond classification altogether in language which might remind us, mutatis mutandis, of the avadhuta or paramahansa of India. Eckhart’s metaphysical terminology was somewhat unstable, but in principle he held to a three-fold classification of grades of being comprising the created realm of objects in time and space, the “generated” realm comprising God as cosmic intellect together with His ideas as the eternal archetypes of created objects, and an unnameable principle as the universal ground, beyond even God in His aspect of creator of the world of objects or generator of the world of ideas.

The created realm, in itself non-being and multiplicity, receives being and unity from God: the generated realm is being and unity, expressed in that form of internal differentiation which does not affect the unity of the whole: the Absolute principle is beyond the categories of being, whole and unity, but is the ground from which the whole springs. Answering to this metaphysic, Eckhart had a three-fold conception of the human soul. In the created realm, it is in a broad sense he mind of the individual man, the thinking, feeling, desiring principle functioning in relation with the body and senses and dominated by ego-feeling. Belonging to the world of time and space, it is both illusory and mortal. In the generated realm, the soul is not individual—it is universal and belongs to the eternal realm of intellect where distinctions do not imply difference, so that it is here coextensive with all real being. Finally, the inmost core of the soul is beyond even the intellectual world of God and the archetypal ideas. It is here beyond the duality of subject and object, beyond the realm even of unity and eternal being, and identical with the ground of God Himself. Hence Eckhart says: “I pray to God that He may make me free from God. For my real being is above God, in so far as we conceive God as the origin of creatures”.

For Eckhart, as for the Upanishadic sages of old, the task that confronts the soul is not to insert itself into the world of created objects and dominate them, but merely to come to a right understanding of its own true nature. This task may be viewed as having two stages. First it must learn to dissociate itself from the illusory creaturely component in its own make-up, the lower faculties bound to the world of sense-perception, and identify itself with its own higher faculties, particularly intellect. And from identification with intellect it may pass, as a second stage, to identification with the ground of the intellect, though Eckhart remarks that this stage is not absolutely necessary.

In order to realize its true nature, the soul does not have to acquire any new knowledge. Eckhart says- “The soul has a light within that is never extinguished, a small spark of supersensual knowledge. But the soul also has another kind of knowledge directed towards external objects. The latter consists in knowledge of sense-objects and also knowledge relating to truths of reason. All this knowledge hides the supersensual knowledge . . . This latter knowledge is timeless and spaceless, without here and now”. Thus in the soul there is a non-dual ground beyond the unity of the intellect, which in its perfect “nudity” coincides with the nonduality of the Absolute beyond the unity of God as cosmic intellect.

The soul, one and timeless in itself, expresses itself in the world of time and space in a variety of faculties and potencies.

The lower faculties are those presiding over the bodily functions and the senses. The higher faculties are memory, will and intellect. Of these, intellect is the highest, for it is the only faculty that bears on being as such, which is beyond temporal change. Memory bears only on the past, will only on the future. Through the lower faculties the soul becomes dispersed in exterior multiplicity. The one falls into the many, hence into evil, into non-being, into error. It alienates itself from itself and forgets itself in time and loses its liberty. Itself an appearance, it binds itself to appearances. It loses its subsistence in being, falls into restlessness and anxious tension, the state of creatureliness. The task of the soul, therefore, is not that of penetrating further into the realm of created things to dominate them. Created things, as such, do not constitute the real concrete element in being. The task of the soul is to transcend the created realm and return to the “generated” or eternal realm of unity, its natural home.

By “transcending the created realm” Eckhart did not mean withdrawal from active life. He meant, rather, abandonment of the creaturely attitude to life. Activity properly-so-called is in fact only possible on this basis. For in so far as the acts of the soul are determined by a particular end, by love or dislike for a particular person or thing, they are not really active but passive. They are not really actions but passions, since their motive force comes to the soul from outside. Eckhart observes that those who relate created objects exclusively to the needs of their own narrow individuality “go astray in God’s path, whereas in reality the creatures are a path to God”. The creatures, rightly understood, are a path to God because the element of reality in them is God. By identifying itself with God as intellect within, the soul may learn to see God in the creatures and to feel its identity with God in them. The intellect sees God in all creatures and all creatures in God because it strips them of the temporal and spatial characteristics they bear when perceived through the senses and beholds them as timeless ideas of God.

The realm of God and His ideas is utterly paradoxical from the standpoint of sense-experience and traditional logic. It is a seamless unity and yet contains distinctions: it is timeless and yet “a becoming without becoming”: it is perfect rest and quiescence and yet immensely active. It is the “breathing without breath” of the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda, the “higher prakriti” of the Bhagavad Gita (VII 5 and 6), the Sutratman or Hiranya- garbha of classical Advaita, the realm of the coincidence of opposites referred to indirectly in the Upanishads and worked out in philosophical terms by Vallabhacharya and Nicholas of Cusa. Speaking of this realm, Shankaracharya says that here all things he timelessly interwoven with God in indissoluble unity like a tree lying latent in a seed and that they are not differentiated in time and space. Vidyaranya speaks metaphorically of all things being here congealed into unity like drops of water congealed into ice. And Eckhart says that in their pristine purity (i.e. as archetypal ideas in the intellect of God) every fibre of every leaf is one. Whoso penetrates to the realm of intellect through transcending attachment to the lower faculties becomes truly active and creative. For he becomes awake to and identifies himself with the play of the divine energy expressing itself in the time-space world through the vehicle of his empirical personality. Eckhart referred to this consummation as the “birth of Christ in the soul”.

In principle, every soul has the capacity to withdraw from identification with the lower faculties and realize God within. But in practice the man that does so is a rarity and a wonder and is not understood by his fellow men. Such a man is not a superman. He is a man like any other, bound to a physical existence based on the senses. He does not enjoy a strident noise so much as the sweet notes of a lute. But he stands firm in his higher vision, and his creaturely experiences do not throw him off the path. Within the exterior man, he is aware of himself as the universal man. The inner man, the universal man, appears as if existing side by side with the exterior man, but is in fact as distant from him as is the centre of the earth from the farthest point of the heavens. The universal man is not in time or space but in eternity. Eckhart is far removed from that type of mystic who dwells on his own rapturous experiences. Such mystics speak of their visions and private communications, and their followers accept these utterances as revelation. Eckhart but rarely refers to what he seeks, what he knows. His concern is not with anything manifested to man in his capacity as individual, with this man of ecstasy or that man of oracular gifts. His concern is with the intellect, that is, with the universal element in the soul in abstraction from its vehicles in the individual personality. He spoke of consolations, raptures and ecstasies as belonging to the realm of sensation, and preferred rational satisfactions where “the oscillations of pleasurable and painful feeling can no longer shake the topmost branches of the soul”.

Though he does not develop the doctrine systematically, Eckhart often speaks of the ultimate ground of the soul as lying beyond the plane of unity in that of non-duality. There is profound agreement here between the Upanishadic dictum “that thou art” as interpreted by Advaita Vedanta and the doctrine of Eckhart. According to Advaita, the soul and God find their ultimate identity only in their common substratum beyond the limiting characteristics which make the soul “the soul” and God “God”. In many passages Eckhart places beatitude in the intellectual act. But in others he places it with more speculative coherence in the realization of the naked ground of the soul. The soul realizes its identity with God on the plane of intellect, but there is yet a tinge of distinction; for the plane of intellect is the plane of unity, and in Eckhart’s logic the plane of unity is that of infinite being, of a whole which expresses itself through parts which do not contradict its fundamental unity. But behind the whole lies the ground from which the whole springs. The being of the soul is anchored beyond the intellect in this non-dual featureless ground. And the ground of the soul has perfect identity not with the God of the Trinity, who is in some sense active and “generates” the eternal ideas, but with the motionless desert of the Godhead of which the God of the Trinity is but an extrinisic form.

Two passages from Eckhart’s sermons may help to make this clearer. The first runs: “When I came out from God* into the world of plurality then all creatures declared ‘A God exists!’ (i.e. a creator God). But that cannot make me blessed. For here I conceive myself as creature. But when I break through to my origin the ground, I am more than all creatures. I am then neither God nor creature! I am that which always was, always remains and ever will be. There I receive an elevation which raises me higher than all the angels. Through this elevation I become such that God cannot satisfy me in all which makes Him God, in all His divine works. For I perceive in this break-through what I and God both are in common. There I am what I ever was”. And the second runs: “I often touch on this light in my sermons to you. God contains this self-same light in Himself, immediately, as His own nature, naked and unveiled. When a man turns away from himself and from all created things … he becomes unified and sanctified in the ‘small spark of the soul’, which is touched neither by time nor space. This spark contradicts all creatures and desires nothing but God, unveiled as He is in Himself … In the simple ground, in the silent desert, into which differentiation cannot penetrate, the spark in the soul desires neither Father, Son nor Holy Spirit. In the inmost point, where no one dwells, there alone does the soul find the satisfaction of this light, and there the soul is more inward than in its empirical self. For this ground is a simple silence, immovable and self-contained. But all things derive motion from this immobility”. These and kindred passages, so reminiscent of the Upanishads and of Advaita, represent the highest point in Eckhart’s teaching. For they provide the sole possible theoretical justification for engagement on that mystical path which aims at perfect identity with the Absolute. For if the soul were not at the core already identical with the Absolute (and not merely similar to it, made in its image, etc.) the urge towards identity would be condemned to failure in advance.

Eckhart on occasion uses the term God to mean Godhead, even as Shankaracharya uses the term Ishvara to mean Brahman.