- Zhu Xi and Meister Eckhart: Two Intellectual Profiles by Shuhong Zheng
Shuhong Zheng's scrupulously researched book succeeds in putting two men from different cultures into fruitful and relevant conversation with each other.
Comparative studies have many minefields to avoid, and Zheng navigates her way around them with her circumscribed methodology. Rather than comparing Christianity and Confucianism, and hence putting herself at risk for making unsustainable claims about either of these complex traditions, she concentrates on specific elements of the thought of two individuals, Zhu Xi and Meister Eckhart: their shared focus on the power of the human intellect, and their work as commentators and speculative philosophers. In engaging their particularities, she produces a rigorous study that digs deeply into their work, and brings forth the complexity of her project as a whole, in which, as she puts it, "it is almost impossible to keep the differences and the similarities apart, because the apparent similarities between the two thinkers are often underpinned by a fundamental divergence, and an essential agreement is sometimes seen underneath a seemingly radical contrast" (p. 233). Her task is further complicated by the practical demand--ably fulfilled throughout--to provide historical and intellectual context for readers with knowledge of one tradition but not the other.
The book is divided into an introduction, a chapter on Zhu Xi, a chapter on Eckhart, and a closing comparative analysis. Zheng also includes appendices: a table containing (in both English and Chinese) four editions of The Great Learning (Daxue «大學») and their commentaries, including Zhu Xi's; a glossary of Chinese terms (a glossary of Eckhart's Latin and/or German vocabulary would have been similarly useful); and a very helpful translation, again with the original Chinese provided, of a large section of Zhu's Questions and Answers Concerning the Great Learning (Daxue Huowen «大學或問»).
Zheng's analysis of Zhu Xi focuses on his lifelong study of the Daxue, especially as expressed in his commentary on this text, and in his Huowen, which pushed the intellectual boundaries of the Q&A genre with unprecedentedly challenging queries and complex replies (p. 91). According to Zheng, Zhu not only demonstrated his devotion to his tradition through revering its central texts and defending it against Buddhist and Daoist alternatives, he [End Page 1] also broke new ground in putting the intellect (zhi 智), rather than humaneness (ren 仁) at Confucian center stage: "[Zhu] modified or even redefined the classical Confucian theory of human nature" (p. 237). It may be going too far to argue that Zhu developed a new understanding of human nature: after all, the Analects, which Zhu also commented on, mentions zhi more often than ren (per Henry Rosemont, Jr.'s count, 118 to 109 times)1, and Confucius himself was unquestionably dedicated to the academic study of ancient texts. In any case, Zhu would have arguably taken issue with the claim that he was doing something fundamentally new: like Confucius, he claimed to be bringing the truth of the ancients back into the light (see pp. 34–35 for his preface to the Daxue).
Unlike Zhu, Eckhart was not at all concerned about shoring up his tradition against perceived threats: in thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe, Christianity was indubitably king. While he never went so far as to question the divine origin of the Bible (p. 215), Eckhart, like others in his religious milieu, was quite comfortable with rigorous study of the Bible that prioritized logic over piety (p. 172), and believed that the claims of Scripture should not be treated as esoteric revelation, but demonstrated as verifiable truth (p. 131). Throughout her discussion of his Quaestiones (Questions), scriptural commentaries, and sermons, Zheng presents Eckhart's teachings on human intelligence, the most startling of which is that, through proper use of the intellect, human beings may become divine (p. 242). Her remark that this type of thinking, with its sharp and narrow focus on the relationship between the individual soul and God, "[calls] into question the necessity of the church's very existence" (p. 268...