Masters of Learned Ignorance: Eriugena, Eckhart, Cusanus. By Donald F. Duclow


Pp. xiii, 330 , Aldershot/Burlington , Ashgate , 2006 , $140.00 .

In each volume of its Variorum Collected Studies Series, Ashgate brings together previously published papers by a distinguished scholar. This volume contains twenty essays by Donald F. Duclow, Professor of Philosophy at Gwynedd-Mercy College. The essays are devoted to three medieval Christian Neoplatonists: John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa. Duclow's essays, which appeared between 1972 and 2002, are required reading for anyone studying these thinkers. Duclow practices fine, careful scholarship. Most of his essays focus on specific texts or passages in the work of Eriugena, Eckhart, or Cusanus, and pay attention to not only what is said but also how. Duclow links his analyses to broader trends in medieval studies and builds on the work of scholars in English, French, and German. His interpretations have philosophical depth, and he writes with elegant clarity and wit.

As a collection of essays, the volume naturally covers many topics. Three essays tackle creation, nature, and Christology in Eriugena. Another two compare Eriugena's style of scripture interpretation with those of his main influences, Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Two essays co-written with Paul A. Dietrich discuss Eriugena's ideas of heaven and hell. The volume's papers on Eckhart include an important article on his Book of Divine Consolation and another notable essay on Eckhart's treatment of the Book of Wisdom. Reflecting recent scholarly interest in Eckhart's relationship to the women mystical writers of his day, Duclow has an excellent paper on how Eckhart and the great Beguine writer Hadewijch portray desire for God as a kind of infinite hunger. The seven articles on Cusanus reprinted here explain his ideas of conjecture, analogy, language, and intellect, and offer comparisons with Gregory of Nyssa and Anselm. Duclow makes a valuable contribution to the question of Cusanus' debt to Eckhart in an essay on Nicholas' marginal notes in his personal copy of Eckhart's Latin writings. There Cusanus reacts frequently and positively to Eckhart's metaphysical ideas but lets passages with a more ethical or pastoral content go by without comment.

The title of the book announces a general theme that often recurs in the essays gathered here. ‘Learned ignorance’ is a phrase most closely associated with Cusanus, who used it in the title of his first major work of speculative theology, but it goes back to an idea in Pseudo-Dionysius, a major influence on all three thinkers. Pseudo-Dionysius asserts that the highest knowledge of God is really a kind of ‘unknowing’. This is because God transcends whatever we think or say about God. Cusanus invented several ingenious images to express the relationship between human knowledge and God. Perhaps the most famous is the polygon inscribed in a circle. As we imagine the polygon with more and more sides, it increasingly resembles the circle but never fits perfectly. Only a polygon with an infinite number of sides would match the circle exactly, but this is impossible. Similarly, human knowledge of God is at best an approximation, and one must always bear in mind the inevitable shortcomings in our knowledge of God.

Yet, as Duclow argues persuasively in these essays, the idea of learned ignorance does not lead to any devaluation of language or the intellect. Indeed, as thinkers influenced by Neoplatonic ideas of causality, Eriugena, Eckhart, and Cusanus also maintained that ordinary things imperfectly reflect their divine creator. Eriugena even portrayed God's creation of the world as a divine act of self-creation. Duclow observes that symbolic expression is Eriugena's root metaphor for the relationship between God and creatures. The mind produces symbols, including words, that disclose one's intentions and reveal them to others. But no matter how many symbols the mind deploys, it still has intentions and thoughts that remain unexpressed, and the mind with all its thoughts forms a unity that the multiplicity of symbols cannot reproduce. Duclow writes that ‘speech and writing not only contain symbols but themselves become symbols, since they provide John the Scot with a paradigm for interpreting both nature and divine creativity.’ (p. 48) This holds true for Eckhart and Cusanus as well. In his important essay, ‘Meister Eckhart and Hermeneutics,’ Duclow interprets two key images in Eckhart's thought, the birth of the Son in the soul and the soul's ‘breakthrough’ to the Godhead beyond the Trinity, as representing acts of speech and interpretation respectively. For all three thinkers, the least bad image of God is the human mind, which stands in a relationship to its ideas that mirrors the relationship between God and creatures.

Duclow's focus on language reflects his own background in the philosophical hermeneutics of Ricoeur and Gadamer, who interpret human beings in primarily linguistic as well as historical terms. Duclow often suggests that Eriugena, Eckhart, and Cusanus foreshadow 20th-century hermeneutics. Yet they are more than museum pieces. He writes, ‘these three thinkers – and the Christian Neoplatonic tradition they represent – remain vital sources for our own attempts to confront the basic questions of our lives and world.’ (p. ix) I hope that in his next work Duclow will elaborate on this claim.