Eckhart on the univocity of justice and equivocity of the just

The fol­lowing se­lected ex­tracts from Meister Eckhart’s ex­tremely fecund Expositio sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem have been picked be­cause, while os­tens­ibly working through the dif­fer­ence between justice and the just, they do so using the­or­et­ical tools of ad­di­tional in­terest — not­ably ideas of uni­vo­city and equi­vo­city, of the causal re­la­tion of prin­cipals to beings-​in-​act in the nat­ural sub­strate, and, in­ter­est­ingly, the ex­pos­i­tion of the Spirit as a ‘fold’ which will be of in­terest to scholars of Heidegger and Deleuze.

The broad thrust of the se­lected parts of the ex­pos­i­tion of John’s Gospel is the working through of the formal and ef­fi­cient caus­ality of justice in re­la­tion to par­tic­ular in­stances of the just qua in­di­viduals. It might be helpful to bear in mind a more mundane ex­ample Eckhart gave, that of the building of a house and its re­la­tion to the per­fect House. If an ar­chi­tect is in­spired to build a house, and forms an idea of this house from which he works to con­struct it, and this house is built, then Eckhart notes we have have three mo­ments of the house as (form­ally) gen­er­ated by the House. The House gen­er­ates the house in­sofar as the ar­chi­tect is in­spired to build a house; the House gen­er­ates the form or idea of the house which the ar­chi­tect con­ceives as plan; and the House gen­er­ates the ac­tual house built (and thereby its per­sisting ‘house­ness’). Each of these mo­ments has a nat­ural, ef­fi­cent cause which brings about the events in the house’s con­struc­tion, but for Eckhart these serve simply to ob­scure the per­fec­tion of the House at each in­stant. Nevertheless, as Eckhart con­cludes, there is a sense in which the par­tic­ular in­stances of the house are folded as one with the House only in their work to­wards the per­fec­tion of the house as House. 

The trans­la­tion is some­what free, and par­tic­u­larly trouble­some has been the ren­dering of Eckhart’s reading of the Gospel of John into the English bib­lical equi­val­ents, starting with the sig­ni­ficant dis­tinc­tion between Eckhardt’s ‘Verb’ [Verbum] and the usual English ‘Word’. Thus the trans­la­tion should be treated with great care. Numbers refer to para­graphs. Footnotes in­dicate the pas­sage of John’s gospel ex­plic­ated by the Master of Hochheim.

[14] Yet there is an ex­ample of all that has been often said and of sev­eral other words, if one no­tices the just in the justice which gives birth to it, in­sofar as it is just.1

Further, in second place: the just is prior in being [praeest] in justice it­self, as the con­crete in the ab­stract and the par­ti­cipant in the participated.

[15] In the third place: the just is the verb of justice, by which justice is said and is mani­fested it­self. If, in fact, justice were not jus­ti­fied, no one would know it and it would be known to it alone, ac­cording to this:  No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is him­self God and is in closest re­la­tion­ship with the Father, has made him known,2 later in John 1; And no one knows the Father other than through the Son, Mat.11; and no one knows save he that re­ceives, Ap.2. In a uni­versal manner, in fact, no one knows a di­vine per­fec­tion save he that re­ceives, that is, justice is known through it­self alone and through the just who is as­sumed by justice it­self. This is what the au­thority says: the Trinity, God, is known by it alone and the as­sumed man. Hence in the psalm: happy the one you have elected and as­sumed.3

[16] In the fifth place: the just which pro­ceeds from justice and is gen­er­ated by it is dis­tin­guished by that from justice. Nothing can in fact gen­erate it­self. However, the just is nothing other in nature than justice, either be­cause just sig­ni­fies only justice, as white sig­ni­fies only that quality, or be­cause justice renders no one just if it is in the one and the other of an­other nature, just as white­ness does not render black or mu­sical notation.

Hence it is mani­fest, in the sixth place, that the just is the issue and the son of justice. That which is and is called son, in fact, is that which is made other in person but not other in nature, John 10: the Father and I are one: we are dis­tinct in person, since no one gen­er­ates him­self but one in nature be­cause oth­er­wise justice would not en­gender the just, nor the Father the Son, which is made other, and gen­er­a­tion would no longer be uni­vocal. It is what is said here: The Verb [Word] was God.4

[18] In the tenth place: the just as such holds [mani­fests] that it is wholly and every­where that it is of justice it­self and is in justice. It is what is said: In the be­gin­ning [prin­cipal] was the Verb [Word]. Yet the just, in­sofar as just, neither knows any­thing nor knows it­self save in justice it­self. How in fact does the just know it­self out­side of justice it­self? Justice is the prin­cipal of the just. And it is the prop­erty of ra­tional man to know things by their principals.

[20] In thir­teenth place: the just in justice, its prin­cipal, by that even by which it is gen­er­ated – the prin­cipal of the prin­cipal – is life; is light. Every cog­ni­tion is through its own prin­cipals and in its own prin­cipals, and until it is led back to these prin­cipals it is al­ways ob­scure, shadowy and opaque, in the fear of the other. Yet the demon­stra­tion, that is the syl­lo­gism, which makes known without fear or opinion, comes from its own prin­cipals. This is what is said here: The life is the light of man­kind. Yet it says of man­kind, per­haps be­cause man­kind re­ceives its know­ledge from pos­terior things and pro­ceeds to­wards the prin­cipals by reas­oning. It is not so with a higher ra­tional creature. It is per­haps what fol­lows: the light shines in the dark­ness. Every cre­ated thing has, in fact, the char­acter of the shadow of noth­ing­ness. God alone is light and there are no shadows in him. Hence the light in the dark­ness is know­ledge in and through phant­as­mata.

[21] Or, put an­other way, the prin­cipal is in a uni­versal manner the light of which it is the prin­cipal and that which is su­perior is the light for that which is in­ferior to it. On the con­trary, that which has a prin­cipal and is in­ferior, by that very pos­ter­i­ority and in­feri­ority, be­cause it holds its being from an­other, in it are to be found the shadows of priva­tion and neg­a­tion: of priva­tion in the cor­rupt­ible body; of neg­a­tion in the spir­itual beings-​in-​act. That is what is said: the light shines in the dark­ness. But be­cause the in­ferior never equates to its su­perior, it fol­lows: and the dark­ness has not over­come. 5

[22] The just, in fact, of which we presently speak by way of ex­ample, ac­cording to it­self, ac­cording to what it is in it­self, is not the light. Hence it fol­lows with re­spect to the sub­ject of John the Baptist, the just:  he was not the light. That’s why, in four­teenth place, the just man, or the just, shadowy in it­self, does not shine. But, in justice it­self, its prin­cipal, on the con­trary, it shines and justice it­self shines in the just. But the just, as in­ferior, does not un­der­stand it.

[187] In the first place, every di­vine being, for ex­ample the just, is rendered per­fect on three con­di­tions. The first: that it be gen­er­ated by justice it­self and be the born son of it; the second: that it be gen­er­ated by nothing other than justice it­self and by it uniquely, and these two con­di­tions are in­dic­ated by the term: the one and only Son. The third: it is re­quired not only that it be gen­er­ated and unique, but that it re­main in justice it­self in order to be able to make known and teach or mani­fest justice. And this is what is said here: the one whois in closest re­la­tion­ship with the Father, has made him known.6

[192] What is more, the just, that is to say the son of justice, knows him­self as him­self in the same way that every ‘just’ in justice it­self, in the heart of the Father, i.e. in the heart of justice. 7

[438] Finally, in view of the, how you say, ex­em­plary evid­ence of the premises, it must be re­marked that in speaking so as to be able to say, on the sub­ject of the just, the Son, and of justice, his father, that they are one, that they wit­ness one thing alone, do the same work…we say and have the custom of saying: the just in­sofar as just is justice it­self; it ac­com­plishes the work of justice and other like things. Yet in­sofar as is the re-​duplication, but the re-​duplication, as this noun in­dic­ates, speaks of the knot and the order of the two. By saying re–du­plic­a­tion, in fact, we are saying folding in two, the fold, the knot of two. Thus the Spirit, third Person of the Trinity, is the knot of the two, of the Father and of the Son. And that is what we want to say, that in every nature, every verb and every wit­nessing is held in the mouth of two or three wit­nesses. …

Tomorrow’s se­lec­tion: Cusanus on the just at the limit

Show 7 foot­notes

  1. John 1.1 – 5
  2. John 1.18
  3. John 1.1 – 5
  4. John 1.1 – 5
  5. John 1.4 – 5
  6. John 1.18
  7. John 1.18

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