Eckhart on the univocity of justice and equivocity of the just

by | 13 Aug 2012

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.1John 1.1-5

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,2John 1.18 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.3John 1.1-5

[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.4John 1.1-5

[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. 5John 1.4-5

[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.6John 1.18

[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. 7John 1.18

[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

  • 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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