On Detachment is an attempt by Eckhart to portray “detachment” (Abgeschiedenheit ) as the highest of all the virtues. Detachment is the pinnacle and crown of the virtues; if the soul possesses detachment it will possess all the lesser virtues as well . “Detachment” is not one of the usual moral virtues that philosophers traditionally speak of in their treatises on ethics. As a matter of fact, to use a Kierkegaardian distinction, detachment is not primarily an “ethical” category but a “religious” one. Hence it is not only the “highest of’ all the virtues, it is also in a sense “higher than’’ any moral or ethical virtue. It is best approached by examining the word “detachment” itself. Literally, it stands for the state of being “cut off” and “away from” something (ab-scheiden). In modern German, Abschied means “departure” and “das Abgeschiedene” means the “departed” in the sense of the dead. Meister Eckhart used the Middle High German word abegescheidenheit as a translation of abstractus, that which is “drawn away” and “removed from” matter and the conditions of matter (see DW, V, 438-40, n. 1). He also uses it to translate separatus ; thus “separate substance” (substantia separata) — a substance which exists separately from matter — is rendered by Eckhart as der abgeschiedene Geist. Meister Eckhart also gives this word a distinctively “mystical” sense as well, which is the meaning it bears in this treatise. Here Abgeschiedenheit means the state of having cut off one’s affection from everything created and creaturely, from the “world” and the “self.” It is a condition of “purity” from created things, from “attachment” to them. It does not refer to a physical or spatial separation ‘but to a detachment of the “heart” from worldly goods.
The key to Meister Eckhart’s claim that detachment is higher than all other virtues lies in the fact that God Himself is pure detachment:
For God is God because of His immovable detachment; and from detachment He has His purity and His simplicity and His unchangeability. (DW, V, 541-2/C1., 164)
God is “detached” for Eckhart because He is the highest, most completely “separate” substance possible — the ens separatissimum, if you will. He is the most fully removed from matter and particularity. God is neither “this nor that,’’ Meister Eckhart is fond of saying. He is no particular “being” because He is pure “being” itself or rather and this amounts to the same thing for Meister Eckhart — because He is a pure nothing. God is separate and detached from every being: he is “nothing.” Thus detached from creatures, God is also removed from all change and multiplicity. Hence Meister Eckhart refers to God’s “immovable” detachment. He illustrates this paradoxically (as is his wont). God is so fully removed from creatures, so detached and untouched by them, that He is completely unaffected by the fact that He even created them — so much so that He would be just the same if He had not created them. Again, He is so fully removed from creatures that His Being is not affected by the prayers we direct to Him and by the good works we do. Now what these seeming paradoxes really amount to, Eckhart explains, is that God’s Being is a perfectly immutable simplicity which is totally untouched by all the fortunes of creatures. This is because God has, in one eternal moment, created the world and listened to all the prayers and entreaties of creatures and considered the worth of all their good works:
And so God has in His first eternal look regarded all things; and God does nothing new, since everything is worked out beforehand (vorausgewirkt). (DW, V, 542/C1., 165)
While changes occur among creatures, God Himself remains the same, standing in immutable detachment. It was for this reason that God told Moses to tell the Pharaoh that “He who is” had sent him. “This is as much as to say,” Eckhart comments, “that He who is there unchangeably [remaining] in Himself has sent me” (DW, V, 543/C1., 166).
If God Himself is pure detachment, then the way of the soul to God is the way of detachment. This is what we might call the “logic” of the way of the soul to God, or what Heidegger would call “the way one moves along the path” (die Art der Bewegtheit: SD, 51/47):
Consequently, should a man wish to become like to God, insofar as a creature can have any likeness with God, then this can only come about through detachment. (DW, V, 542/C1., 164)
Detachment is the key to the mystical union in Eckhart. That is why it is superior to any moral virtue. For the virtues always have to do in one way or another with creatures, whereas by detachment the soul is related immediately to God Himself. There is a rule of inverse proportions in detachment:
You should know this: to be empty of all creatures is to be full of God; and to be full of creatures is to be empty of God. (DW, V, 542/C1., 164)
In the manner of a mystic who is also a scholastic magister — one is reminded of Heidegger’s remark in the Habilitationsschrift about the unity of mysticism and scholasticism in the Middle Ages — Eckhart provides us with some proofs of the primacy of detachment. Thus he argues that detachment is higher than love and humility. Love is praised above all the virtues by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:1); but for Meister Eckhart detachment is higher still than love. For by love, he says, I am able “to suffer all things for God’s sake” (DW, V, 540/C1., 161). But when a man endures something he still retains a relationship to that created thing from which his suffering comes. Whereas by detachment “I am receptive of nothing other than God” (DW, V, 539/C1., 161) and “completely free from all creatures” (DW, V, 540/C1., 161). Detachment makes the soul receptive of nothing other than God because, by detaching itself from everything creaturely, the soul brings itself so near to being “nothing” at all that only the Nothing itself, God, can take up residence there:
But detachment is so near to nothingness, that nothing but God is subtle and rare enough to be contained in detachment [in the detached heart]. (DW, V, 540/C1., 161)
God lives in immovable detachment from everything created, and the soul assimilates itself to God by detaching its affections — its “heart” — from all creatures, including even itself.
The same kind of argument is made against the primacy of humility. By humility, a man lowers himself before creatures and therefore maintains himself in a relation to creatures. But detachment wishes to be neither above creatures nor below them. It wishes to have no relation at all to them. It does not wish to be “this or that,” or to be anything at all:
. . . who wishes to be this or that, wishes to be something. But detachment on the other hand wishes to be nothing. (DW, V, 540/C1., 162)
By detachment, the soul lets God be all, and it wishes only to let God’s will obtain throughout. It purifies itself of itself in order to let God directly inhabit it. That is why Meister Eckhart quotes St. Paul: “I live now not I but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Eckhart’s doctrine of “immovable detachment” leads him to make a most important distinction between the “inner man” and the “outer man.” The outer man is a man of “sensation,” who expends all the energy of his soul in the employment of his external senses. He is a “busy” man, a man of “activity” (Betätigung: DW, V, 544/C1., 167), who is occupied with many sensible things. If his “surrender” to sensuous objects is complete enough, Eckhart says, such a man will be no better than brute animals, who are led about by the desires of their senses. Having fully expended himself on outer things, this man has no inner reserve, no inner life apart from his outward activity. The inner man, on the other hand, does not expend himself entirely on outer things. He allows the higher faculties of the soul — the intellect and the will — to have commerce with the senses only to the extent that it is necessary, and only to that extent that the higher faculties can retain control over the senses. Thus the inner man has to do with the senses only to the extent that he is their “leader and guide” (DW, V, 543/C1., 166), and can never himself be led about by them. The man of interiority could therefore lead an active life — Meister Eckhart, himself, in fact, was a man of prodigious activity. What constitutes him as an internal man is that he preserves within his soul an inner sphere in which, insulated from all outer works, he my have an interior life. Such a man, says Eckhart with his usual fondness of metaphor, can be compared to a door on its hinges. The door which moves back and forth is like the outer man, while the hinge, which remains unmoved, is like the inner man.
If the inner man wishes to turn his mind ’s eye to something “high and noble,” then the soul can summon all its powers back from the senses and devote them exclusively to the object of inward contemplation. In such a state, the inner man is literally “out of his senses” (DW, V, 544/C1., 166), not in the sense of the one who is deranged, but in the sense of the one who is “rapt” (verzückt) in a contemplation of divine things. The object of this inner contemplation is described by Eckhart as “a cognitive representation or a cognition without image.” According to Quint, Eckhart is alluding to a text of St. Thomas in which Aquinas distinguishes two different ways in which the soul can be “rapt” (rapitur) in intellectual contemplation without the use of either senses or imagination:
In one way, according as the intellect understands God through certain intelligible forms where are given to it (per aliquas intelligibiles immissiones), and this is proper to the angels. . . In a second way as the intellect sees God in His essence.
In other words, in Eckhart’s view, the possibility is open to the interior man to rise to a contemplation of the divine essence either by means of a form or idea which is directly implanted in it by God, or by means of a completely non-representational cognition (ohne Bilde). By means of his senses, a man dwells among things and the representation (Bild, Bildvorstellung) of things. But the detached man, who is the inner man, removes himself from both things and their representations, in order to achieve a union with God Who is Himself “nothing,” and of Whom the detached man does not and cannot form an image.
Eckhart concludes this treatise by asking two questions concerning detachment which are quite helpful in determining its true character. The first question is: what is the object of pure detachment? To this Eckhart answers that “. . . neither this nor that is the object of pure detachment” (DW, V, 544/C1., 167). The object (Gegenstand; mhd: gegenwurf) of detachment is “nothing,” the nothing; indeed, he says, “it aims at a pure nothingness.” Eckhart explains this as follows:
God cannot work in all hearts with His whole will because, while He is almighty, He can only work insofar as He finds or makes a preparation [for Himself]. (DW, V, 544/C1., 167)