Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The revival of the principles of mysticism was a natural result of the decadent condition of philosophy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The heaping of subtlety on subtlety and the interminable controversies of the advocates of Thomism and Scotism bewildered and disgusted the serious seeker after spiritual light and drove him eventually to abandon all intellectual philosophy in favor of a life of contemplation and prayer. Many believed with the author of the Imitation of Christ that it is better to feel contrition than to know its definition, and that he is very learned indeed who does the will of God and renounces his own will. However, the condemnation of philosophy by the mystics reacted on the mystics themselves. Being unwilling to enter into the disputes of the schools, and obeying to the letter their resolve to abstain from philosophical speculation, they were unable to detect error when it was introduced into their own school. They judged all philosophy by the decadent systems which then flourished, and in their depreciation of purely rational speculation they overlooked the fact that without the safeguard of systematic dogma mysticism is unable to resist the inroads of pantheism and other errors. Thus it happened that the first mystics, who drew from the pure Christian sources, were soon followed by others, who drew from sources tainted with the pantheism of the Averroists. We must distinguish, therefore, the orthodox mystics and the heterodox mystics.

Orthodox Mystics. John Ruysbroek (1293-1381) may be regarded as the founder of the orthodox mysticism of this period. After having been chaplain at St. Gudule, in Brussels, he retired to the convent of the Augustinians at Groenendael, where he gave himself to the study and practice of asceticism. Through Gerhard Groot (1340-1384), the founder of the Brothers of the Common Life, the influence of Ruysbroek reached the members of the community at Deventer, among whom was Thomas Hemerken or à Kempis (1380-1471),{1} the author of the Imitation of Christ.


Life. The most influential of the orthodox mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was John Gerson, Doctor Christianissimus. He was born at Gerson, in the diocese of Rheims, about the year 1364. After having studied under Peter d'Ailly in the Faculty of Arts at Paris, he entered the department of theology, and in 1395 became chancellor of the university. In 1397 he went to Bruges, where he made the acquaintance of the Flemish exponents of mysticism. In 1401 he returned to Paris, but about the year 1419 was obliged to retire from the university for having advocated the cause of the opponents of papal authority. He entered the monastery of the Celestines at Lyons, and there devoted himself to prayer and study. He died in the year 1429. His works, which were published in 1483, include De Theologia Mystica Speculativa, De Theologia Mystica Practica, De Elucidatione Scholastica Mysticae Theologiae, and many other treatises on philosophy, theology, and canon law.


Gerson was opposed equally to the formalism of the Scotists and to the terminism of the Ockamists. Indeed, he was opposed to all philosophy except in so far as philosophy is seasoned with piety. In a sermon, De Omnibus Sanctis, he condemns those self-dubbed philosophers who separate philosophy from the practice of religion, "qui se dici philosophos volunt, et non sunt, quoniam dum a religione secernere putant philosophiam, utramque perdunt."{2} In the treatise De Mystica Theologia Speculativa he describes contemplative ecstasy after the manner and almost in the words of his favorite author, St. Bonaventure: "Est igitur extasis raptus mentis cum cessatione omnium operationum in inferioribus potentiis."{3}


Life. Denis the Carthusian,{4} Doctor Ecstaticus, was born at Ryckel, in the Belgian province of Limbourg, in 1402. After having obtained the degree of Master of Arts at Cologne, he entered the Carthusian monastery at Roermonde. He died in 1471. A complete edition of the works of the Carthusian is being published by the monks of Notre Dame des Prés. The eighteenth volume appeared in 1899.


Denis carefully avoids entering into the subtleties of the controversies which were agitating the schools in his day. "Impertinentes subtilitates vitare propono."{5} In the main his system of philosophy and theology is Thomistic. He considers, however, all speculative knowledge to be merely an introduction to the interior life of contemplation and ecstasy. In the mystic elements of his system he draws largely from the Pseudo-Dionysius.

Heterodox Mystics. The Averroism which prevailed during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whether openly professed as it was by John of Gand (or John of Jandun, erroneously called John of Ghent), or taught more covertly as it was in different forms by John De Mirecourt and Guido{6} of Medonta, took the form of an anti-Scholastic movement tending towards a revival of the pantheism of the twelfth century. A similar tendency towards pantheism led some of the mystics of this time to maintain the identity of the creature with the Creator in the act of contemplative ecstasy -- a doctrine which was repudiated by orthodox mystics. Some of the first heterodox mystics, such as Eckhart, show little or no trace of Averroistic influence; it was on the societies or brotherhoods of mystics that the Averroists brought their pantheistic doctrines to bear, thus widening the gulf between true and false mysticism.


Master Eckhart{7} (or Eckhardt) was born about the year 1260. He studied first at Cologne, and afterwards at Paris. He belonged to the order of St. Dominic. In 1326 the archbishop of Cologne instituted proceedings against Eckhart, who was then teaching in the convent of his order at Cologne. Eckhart repelled the charge of heresy, and in 1327 appealed to the Holy See. He died in 1327. In 1329 twenty-eight propositions taken from his writings were condemned by John XXII.{8}


In his Latin work entitled Opus Tripartitum, and in his sermons, written in German, Eckhart advocated a system of mysticism in which he maintained the disappearance of all distinction between the Creator and the creature in the act of contemplation. He taught that the supreme happiness of man consists in a deification by which man becomes one with God.{9}

Henry Suso (died 1366) and John Tauler (1290-1361), who were influenced by Eckhart's mystic doctrines, prepared the way for the Protestant mysticism of Sebastian Franck (1500-1545), Valentine Weigel (1533-1588), and Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), which, together with the cabalistic mysticism of John Reuchlin (1455-1522), flourished in the Renaissance period.

{1} Fifteenth century writers, including Thomas himself (cf. Opera, ed. 1576, Vol. I, pp. 453 ff.), refer to the order as Canonici Regulares Sancti Augustini, vulgo dicti Fratres. It was Florentius, successor of Gerhard Groot, who founded the community at Agnetenberg, near Zwolle, where Thomas spent the greater part of his life. A recent work on Thomas à Kempis is Scully's Life of Venerable Thomas à Kempis (London, 1901).

{2} Opera (The Hague edition, 1718), Vol. III, col. 1517.

{3} Op. cit., Vol. III, col. 391.

{4} Cf. De Wulf, Hist. de la phil, méd., p. 370; also Mougel, Dionysius der Karthäuser (Mulheim, 1898), and American Ecclesiastical Review, November, 1899.

{5} Commentarius in Psalmos, Prooem.

{6} AEgidius de Medonta; cf. Chartul., III, 23.

{7} Cf. Denifle, in Archiv f. Litteratur u. Kirchengesch. d. Mittelalters, 1886; Jundt, Hist. du panthéisme au Moyen Age, pp. 231 ff.; and Denzinger, Enchiridion, Ed. VII, propp. 428-455.

{8} Chartul., II, 322.

{9} Cf. Denzinger, op. cit., prop. 437.

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