TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

From Meister Eckhart to Werner Erhard: Developing the Modern Subject

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Alwin Franke looks at Ben Morgan’s “Developing the Modern Concept of the Self: The Trial of Meister Eckhart,” from Telos 116 (Summer 1999).

All subjectivization is a matter of drawing borders; a history of the subject is a history of the borders drawn to produce the self. Such a history of the borders, as suggested by Foucault, implies an investigation of both its sides—positivity and negativity. To write history, then, means to awaken the contemporary element in the historical, to construct constellations in which the present and the past enter into a state of sympathetic interdependence. Negativity, here, allows for the creation of counter-discourse. However, the relationship between positivity and negativity has been made all the more complex over the past decades. The borders have always been crossed indeed, but in the age of new capitalism we witness a constant blurring and redrawing of borders that allow for the incorporation of negativity into the system itself.

The history of capitalism is inextricably interwoven with the history of the subject and the different shapes the latter took over the past centuries. For a long time the evolution of capitalism was tied to a form of subjectivity that has been analyzed as the result of oppression, disciplining, and coercive unification. The self that emerged from these processes created a space of negativity in which alternative, non-modern forms of subjectivization and the processes producing the modern subject were enclosed. Thus, not only could the self appear in its Cartesian form as the starting point of all reflection but it could also serve as a solid basis for capitalism. That is because its historical contingency and its conditions of production were concealed in this space of negativity.

Drawing on the flaws of canonical attempts to write the history of the modern self, Ben Morgan intervenes in this field of debate by recalling a particularly significant moment in the constitution of modern subjectivity. In 1329, a number of teachings by the German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart were condemned as heretical by a papal bull. Eckhart and the apostolic movements from which his thinking emerged accepted institutional regulation and saw themselves as part of the Church. What offended the Vatican in Eckhart’s teachings was not only that he introduced individual religious experience into the theological discourse but also that he granted precedence to the inner calling over ecclesiastically imposed rules.

He insisted there was no single way to God, nor were there particular rituals or patterns of behavior that guaranteed the passage to grace. Instead, Eckhart encouraged a liberating self-dismantling: “Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, then take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.”

The emphasis on individual spiritual experience along with the plurality of ways leading to God is reminiscent of modern concepts of introspection and self-actualization through self-abandonment. Morgan, however, points out that these two forms of individual experience fundamentally differ from each other. For Eckhart, the self was not a fixed ontological entity but rather a loose compilation of fragments of selfhood. Thus, for Eckhart, overcoming the self did not strive for a final inner truth of the individual, but rather for its “disappearance” in God.

In Eckhart’s context, selfhood was visible in its constitutive elements: a collection of practices that had accrued gradually, but that could equally be abandoned. These practices did not exhaustively define an individual’s identity. On the contrary, the habits were grasped as an obstacle between the individual and the more important experience of being with God. The difficulty for a modern reader in grasping this particular version of identity is that, while Eckhart’s texts clearly show an awareness of individuality and personalization they are not interested in an abstractable self. The end of the personal quest is not selfhood, but self-abandonment in what Eckhart, using the theological vocabulary of his era, calls God.

This amounts to the claim that human beings could achieve a oneness with God—an idea the Church could not tolerate. For it challenged the border drawn between God and his creation and the regulated distribution of the former, and thus the very basis of the Church’s self-legitimization. For Morgan, Eckhart’s condemnation in 1329 marks the end of this alternative form of subjectivization and gives way to the modern concept of the self. This becomes clear looking at Heinrich Seuse, who sets out to defend Master Eckhart in his Book of Truth. Only a few years after Eckhart’s condemnation, he unwittingly subscribes to the inquisition’s discourse. Even though his teachings are still close to Eckhart’s, he places order and hierarchy before personal experience and thus shows how regulations imposed by an outside force have been internalized.

Seuse’s texts portray a form of identity based on the regulation of spiritual longing. In this form of identity, individuals still feel the longing, and still labor to surrender themselves to God. At the same time, they subject themselves to constant internal checks, which limit in advance the form the surrender may take. From these habits of self-control, the modern subject is born, quite literally, in Seuse’s Book of Truth. Where Meister Eckhart’s text had no equivalent to the modern word “self,” Seuse’s text unexpectedly discovers the noun: “das sich.”

Juxtaposing Eckhart’s and Seuse’s writings, Morgan uncovers a pivotal moment in the history of the modern subject and provides glimpses of alternative forms of selfhood. But we should not allow ourselves to be deceived here, for if we shift the focus from a historical to a political investigation we get a different take on the question. Rather than asking how Eckhart’s model of selfhood differed from more recent spiritual approaches, we should ask what use we can make of Eckhart’s alternative concept today. Allowing ourselves an anachronism for the sake of contemporary relevance, we might compare Eckhart’s model of subjectivity to recent spiritual approaches and their entanglement with contemporary capitalism. One of the developments that this comparison alerts us to, I would argue, is that capitalism has been able to incorporate the space of negativity in which alternative forms of subjectivity reside. Post-Fordist modes of production and contemporary financial capitalism are no longer grounded on a disciplined subject whose inner homogeneous self is produced by external regulations and then monitored by their internalization. Rather it is exactly this free invention and reinvention of multiple identities made possible by spiritual introspection and self-abandonment, originally designed as an attack on capitalism and its predominant form of subjectivity, that unleashed capitalism’s greatest forces and engendered a new form of control through management. “The protest was a form of systemic hygiene. . . . It attested again, for the then thousandth time, to the market culture’s innovative brilliance, its ability to shape itself to its own flexible ends, absorbing everything around it,” as Don DeLillo puts it in his 2000 novel Cosmopolis.[1] This becomes much clearer if we draw on the analogy, suggested by Morgan, between Eckhart’s teachings and psychotherapy:

The closest analogy in modern society is a course of constant psychotherapy, but one in which there are no fixed terms, no Oedipus complexes or transcendental signifiers, only the constant exhilaration and frequent terror of self-relinquishment.

The trajectory from psychoanalytic therapy to Reichian therapy through to New Age trainings such as Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training (EST) and the concomitant disappearing of fixed terms, Oedipus complexes, and transcendental signifiers, not only reflects the transition from Disciplinary to Control Society but also doubles the shift that had taken place from Eckhart to Seuse while reversing it. Psychoanalysis can be understood as a technique to regulate the subject and to foster the internalization of societal regulations and therefore stays within the paradigm of classical modern subjectivization whose point of departure Morgan locates in Seuse’s teachings. By contrast, the ESTs are reminiscent of Eckhart’s concept, although under very different conditions indeed. In Adam Curtis’s 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self, Erhard describes the ultimate goal of EST as follows:

The real point of the EST Training is to go down through layer after layer after layer until you got to the last layer and peeled it off where the recognition was that it’s really all meaningless and empty. All the constrictions, all the rules you placed on yourself were gone and what you’re left with is nothing. And nothing is an extremely powerful place to stand because only from nothing you can freely invent yourself.[2]

Here, as for Eckhart, the ultimate goal is not selfhood, but constant self-abandonment. Yet in an age where God is no longer disposable, this self-abandonment aims at nothing as a site of free invention and reinvention.

And this is where marketing intervenes. In the same documentary, Daniel Yankelovich, from Yankelovich Partners Market Research Inc., describes how marketing strategies occupied the place of this nothing under the dictum of conforming to the non-conformists. The overcoming of one’s own self, originally set out as a strategy to overcome capitalist society, was turned into a new individualized consumerism unleashing the forces of the new economy. Here, the self is no longer controlled by oppression but by the process of producing and feeding its indefinite desires. This new regime can “record protests as a free market fantasy and a critique of capitalism as its constant self-optimization,” as Joseph Vogl would have it.[3]

This also provides an interesting perspective on the present-day Occupy movements. Their two-sided character is comprised of a very strong administrative organization, on the one hand, and the lack of a consistent political message, on the other hand. The latter is even said to be their decisive advantage: “There are as many voices as people.” This is a symptom of a system in which political messages are dissipated and replaced by administration and management, even on the side of its critics. With DeLillo, these protests can be called a free-market fantasy because despite their critique they function within the ideological paradigm of post-ideology whose origins are to be found in the mass production of freed subjects constantly reinventing their identities. This, of course, is not what Eckhart taught, but it is what happened to his concept when the space of negativity was absorbed by the system. On occupied Wall Street there are signs saying “LOVE, NOT GREED.” But in the television series Mad Men, the ad man Don Draper reminds us: “Love is an invention of guys like me.”


1. Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis (New York: Scribner, 2004), p. 99.

2. Wolfgang Erhard, in Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self (BBC Documentary, 2002).

3. Joseph Vogl, “The Black Swan,” New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory 1, no. 5: “Scenes of Knowledge,” p. 5.

Read the full version of Ben Morgan’s “Developing the Modern Concept of the Self: The Trial of Meister Eckhart” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

Comments are closed.