Category: Philosophical theories

Western Mystical Thought, 12th – 16th c.

Mystical thinking in the West is influenced constantly by Platonism. The period between the 12th and 16th century experienced a great fertility, significant personalities and numerous ascetical communities appeared emphasizing the immediacy of love and the purification of the soul through the apophatic ascent or unification of mind.

Mysticism in the West is mainly founded on the works of Augustine, Cassian, Gregory the Great, and the Byzantine author known as Dionysius Areopagite. An intense contact with Platonism in the 12th century follows the revival of the relevant studies in Byzantium, and more intrinsic impulses, the renewed interest in the Corpus Areopagiticum, in Eriugena and in Boethius. The Book of the 24 Philosophers (Liber XXIV Philosophorum, unknown author, 12th c.) contains Neoplatonic views and exercises significant influence upon the subsequent mystical thought. In the 13th century William of Moerbeke (Willem van Moerbeke) translates ProclusElements, partly already known through the allegedly Aristotelian Book of Causes (Liber De Causis).

The great impetus of the mystical flow starts with Bernard, Abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux (Bernard de Clairvaux, 1090-1153), who was even considered to be a Platonist, especially for his emphasis on love as a spiritual power elevating the soul.

Hugh of St. Victor (Hugo de St. Victor, c. 1096-1141 ) contributes to the renewed study of the Corpus Areopagiticum. Recognizing God in the soul, he emphasizes true knowledge as self-knowledge.

Hildegard, Abbess of the monastery of Bingen (Hildegard von Bingen, 1098-1179), speaks about the unity of Creator and creatures. Francis of Assisi (Francesco d'Assisi, 1181/2-1226) approaches mystical thinking to some extent, emphasizing the imitation of the Divine Passion and a godlike aspect of nature. From the Franciscan order comes Bonaventure (Bonaventura, 1217-1274), a scholar of great contact with Platonism. Love gives to the soul a power that elevates her to the incarnate Word, then to the Spring where the Word is born and the world comes forth. Bonaventure is the ground of the mystical thinking that followed.

‘Devotio Moderna,’ founded by Groote (Geert Groote, 1340-1384) failed to mitigate the dominance of scholasticism. The most famous work of this tradition is the Imitation of Christ, a moralistic treatise written by Thomas of Kempis (Thomas à Kempis, 1380-1471), bringing something of the mystical urge into conventional piety.

Thanks to their liberality, with the recourse to the creative forces of the mother tongue being most decisive, the ascetic communities of Beguines and Beghards (names of uncertain meaning) developed a more individual religiosity. Ideal love (minne) is the Platonic love, founded in the purity of a soul illumined by the archetypal Word. Their piety seemed threatening to the formality of papacy, although they were not separated from the Church, contrary to the so-called ‘Spiritual Church’ of the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit.’ The case of Porete (Marguerite Porète) is characteristic. She was executed in 1310 because what she taught about the ability of the soul to ascend to the vision of God appeared to underestimate the importance of ecclesiastical institutions. Her work Mirror of the Simple Souls shocked, but it was also admired. In the union with God a soul is immersed to the absolute Good, losing her ability for distinctions. The Mirror of Porete influenced one of the most significant personalities of Christianity, Meister Eckhart (1260-1329).

Eckhart is inspired by personal mystical experiences, the theoretical and ascetical, especially the Dominican, tradition of the Church and the fervent female monasticism, giving shape to all of that through scholasticism, neoplatonism, and a poetic language that never ceased to amaze. In Eckhart’s thought the union of God and man touches absolute identity. All things are like ‘colored’ by Deity, since they preexist ideally in their cause participating in the timeless triadic relations.

Mechtild (Mechthild von Magdeburg, 1207/10-1282/94) confesses her desire for the Bridegroom and her admiration for the overflowing of Deity in creatures. Tauler (Johannes Tauler, 1300-1361) belongs to the ‘School’ of Eckhart; he is influenced also by the Corpus Areopagiticum and Bernard of Clairvaux. Seuse (Heinrich Seuse, 1295-1366), a Dominican student of Eckhart’s, emphasizes the element of love in the relationship between God and man, avoiding concepts suspect for pantheism. German Theology (Theologia Deutsch, end of 14th c.) is founded in the ‘School’ of Eckhart and in Dionysius; it emphasizes the union of mind with its divine origin as an immersing to its own ineffable self.

John of Ruysbrook (Jan van Ruysbroek, 1293-1381) describes the return to the abyss of the Godhead, when beings somehow ‘melt’ in a super–essential bliss. His thinking is influenced by Hadewijch of Brabant (Hadewijch van Brabant, middle of the 13th c.), who emphasizes the power of love to transcend all limits; she understands in the meeting of the soul with God a union of two abysses.

Rolle (Richard Rolle, c. 1305/10-1349 ) draws attention to the ascetic withdrawal as a preparation for the mystical sense, when man acquires angelic laudatory fervor. The Scale of Perfection, by Walter Hilton (1340-1396), emphasizes redemption as a remembrance of the living Christ in soul.

The profundity of mystical thought that characterizes continental Europe, appears in England mainly with Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416). Divine love is founded on a direct theory (contemplation) of the Deity. Immanence of creation in the parental Source is uninterrupted and without end.

The great contact of the English-speaking mysticism with the apophatism of the Corpus Areopagiticum is revealed in the Cloud of Unknowing (14th c.), a work that compels a unification of mind beyond all concepts and works. The author is probably the same with the translator of Dionysius’ Mystical Theology, wherefrom neoplatonism kindled English mysticism with a power that reaches to our days.

Self-knowledge as a proof of the knowledge of God is stressed by Catherine of Siena (Caterina da Siena, 1347-1380). Inspired by the Corpus Areopagiticum and Eckhart, Nicolaus Cusanus (1401-1464) is led to a distinctive apophatism of a continuous openness to the divine knowledge —always escaping and never totally inaccessible— to an infinite form that draws the soul away from the world granting purification.

Inspired by Dionysius Francis of Sales (François de Sales, 1567-1622) and John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz, 1542-1591) emphasize the importance of love in the union with God. According to John, divine grace empties the soul of her old content. The intellectual and desirous night of ignorance gives freedom towards the divine light.

Teresa of Avila (Teresa d'Ávila, 1515-1582) and already Ignatius Loyola (Ignacio de Loyola, 1491-1556) found a kind of Christian ‘meditation,’ seeking rapture in the Godhead through remembrance of the Passion. Teresa gives additional emphasis to an ‘activation’ of the Deity in the soul. In her work ‘Inner Castle’ describes seven stays of the soul in a progress of sinking into her inwardness, entering the Castle where the Bridegroom waits. It is the platonic self-knowledge as a discovery of the divine Source.

The Christian humanist and mystic Pinto (Heitor Pinto, c. 1528-1584), in the Image of Christian Life (between 1563-1572), consisting of eleven dialogues "à maneira de Platão", as introduced by his publisher, seeks definitions of virtues, of goods and of the perfect philosophy, understanding theory beyond all things, when a soul is unified in the divine beatitude. Francis Tavares (Francisco de Sousa Tavares, 16th c.) owes much to the Corpus Areopagiticum, emphasizing the wise ignorance and the divine love, that God inspires in the union with Him. The divine Image is the essence of the soul constituting, as in Plato, the highest ‘point’ of the intellect, where divine and human thinking touch each other.

Author: George Valsamis
  • Ackermann, C. The Christian Element in Plato and the Platonic Philosophy. Edinburgh, 1861.
  • Kallendorf, H. ed. A New Companion to Hispanic Mysticism. 2010.
  • Lamm, J.A. ed. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chri¬stian Mysticism. Oxford, 2013.
  • Petry, R. ed. Late Medieval Mysticism. Louisville, 1957.
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