AKA Jakob Böhme
Birthplace: Altseidenberg, Germany
Location of death: Görlitz, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: German Protestant mystic
German mystical writer, whose surname (of which Fechner gives eight German varieties) appears in English literature as Beem, Behmont, etc., and notably Behmen, was born at Altseidenberg, in Upper Lusatia, a straggling hamlet among the hills, some 10 miles southeast of Görlitz. His father was a well-to-do peasant, and his first employment was that of herd boy on the Landskrone, a hill in the neighbourhood of Görlitz; the only education he received was at the town school of Seidenberg, a mile from his home. Seidenberg was filled with shoemakers, and to a shoemaker Jakob was apprenticed in his fourteenth year (1589), being judged not robust enough for husbandry. Ten years later (1599) we find him settled at Görlitz as master shoemaker, and married to Katharina, daughter of Hans Kuntzschmann, a thriving butcher in the town. After industriously pursuing his vocation for ten years, he bought (1610) the substantial house, which still preserves his name, close by the bridge, in the Neiss-Vorstadt. Two or three years later he gave up business, and did not resume it as a shoemaker; but for some years before his death he made and sold woollen gloves, regularly visiting Prague fair for this purpose.
Boehme's authorship began in his 37th year (1612) with a treatise, Aurora, oder die Morgenröte im Aufgang, which though unfinished was surreptitiously copied, and eagerly circulated in manuscript by Karl von Ender. This raised him at once out of his homely sphere, and made him the center of a local circle of liberal thinkers, considerably above him in station and culture. The charge of heresy was, however, soon directed against him by Gregorius Richter, then pastor primarius of Görlitz. Feeling ran so high after Richter's pulpit denunciations, that, in July 1613, the municipal council, fearing a disturbance of the peace, made a show of examining Boehme, took possession of his fragmentary quarto, and dismissed the writer with an admonition to meddle no more with such matters. For five years he obeyed this injunction. But in 1618 began a second period of authorship; he poured forth, but did not publish, treatise after treatise, expository and polemical, in the next and the two following years. In 1622 he composed nothing but a few short pieces on true repentance, resignation, etc., which, however, devotionally speaking, are the most precious of all his writings. They were the only pieces offered to the public in his lifetime and with his permission, a fact which is evidence of the essentially religious and practical character of his mind. Their publication at Görlitz, on New Year's day 1624, under the title of Der Weg zu Christo, was the signal for renewed clerical hostility. Boehme had by this time entered on the third and most prolific though the shortest period (1623-24) of his speculation. His labors at the desk were interrupted in May 1624 by a summons to Dresden, where his famous "colloquy" with the Upper Consistorial court was made the occasion of a flattering but transient ovation on the part of a new circle of admirers. Richter died in August 1624, and Boehme did not long survive his pertinacious foe. Seized with a fever when away from home, he was with difficulty conveyed to Görlitz. His wife was at Dresden on business; and during the first week of his malady he was nursed by a literary friend. He died, after receiving the rites of the church, grudgingly administered by the authorities, on Sunday, the 17th of November.
Boehme always professed that a direct inward opening or illumination was the only source of his speculative power. He pretended to no other revelation. Ecstatic raptures we should not expect, for he was essentially a Protestant mystic. No "thus saith the Lord" was claimed as his warrant, after the manner of Antoinette Bourignon, or Ludowick Muggleton; no spirits or angels held converse with him as with Emanuel Swedenborg. It is needless to dwell, in the way either of acceptance or rejection, on the very few occasions in which his outward life seemed to him to come into contact with the invisible world. The apparition of the pail of gold to the herd boy on the Landskrone, the visit of the mysterious stranger to the young apprentice, the fascination of the luminous sheen, reflected from a common pewter dish, which first, in 1600, gave an intuitive turn to his meditations, the heavenly music which filled his ears as he lay dying -- none of these matters is connected organically with the secret of his special power. The mysteries of which he discoursed were not reported to him: he "beheld" them. He saw the root of all mysteries, the Ungrund or Urgrund, whence issue all contrasts and discordant principles, hardness and softness, severity and mildness, sweet and bitter, love and sorrow, heaven and hell. These he "saw" in their origin; these he attempted to describe in their issue, and to reconcile in their eternal result. He saw into the being of God; whence the birth or going forth of the divine manifestation. Nature lay unveiled to him, he was at home in the heart of things. "His own book, which he himself was", the microcosm of man, with his threefold life, was patent to his vision. Such was his own account of his qualification. If he failed it was in expression; he confessed himself a poor mouthpiece, though he saw with a sure spiritual eye.
It must not be supposed that the form in which Boehme's pneumatic realism worked itself out in detail was shaped entirely from within. In his writings we trace the influence of Theophr. Bombast von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), of Kaspar Schwenkfeld (1490-1561), the first Protestant mystic, and of Valentin Weigel (1533-1588). From the school of Paracelsus came much of his puzzling phraseology -- his Turba and Tinctur and so forth -- a phraseology embarrassing to himself as well as to his readers. His friends plied him with foreign terms, which he was delighted to receive, interpreting them by an instinct, and using them often in a corrupted form and always in a sense of his own. Thus the word Idea called up before him the image of "a very fair, heavenly, and chaste virgin." The title Aurora, by which his earliest treatise is best known, was furnished by Dr. Balthasar Walther. These, however, were false helps, which only serve to obscure a difficult study, like the Flagrat and Lubet, with which his English translator veiled Boehme's own honest Schreck and Lust. There is danger lest his crude science and his crude philosophical vocabulary conceal the fertility of Boehme's ideas and the transcendent greatness of his religious insight. Few will take the pains to follow him through the interminable account of his seven Quellgeister, which remind us of Gnosticism; or even of his three first properties of eternal nature, in which his disciples find Isaac Newton's formulae anticipated, and which certainly bear a marvellous resemblance to components of Schelling's Theogonische Natur. Boehme is always greatest when he breaks away from his fancies and his trammels, and allows speech to the voice of his heart. Then he is artless, clear and strong; and no man can help listening to him, whether he dive deep down with the conviction "ohne Gift und Grimm kein Leben", or rise with the belief that "the being of all beings is a wrestling power", or soar with the persuasion that Love "in its height is as high as God." The mystical poet of Silesia, Angelus Silesius, discerned where Boehme's truest power lay when he sang --
Im Wasser lebt der Fisch, die Pflanze in der Erden,
Der Vogel in der Luft, die Sonn' am Firmament,
Der Salamander muss im Feu'r erhalten werden,
Und Gottes Herz ist Jakob Böhme's Element.
The three periods of Boehme's authorship constitute three distinct stages in the development of his philosophy. He himself marks a threefold division of his subject matter: 1. Philosophia, i.e. the pursuit of the divine Sophia, a study of God in himself; this was attempted in the Aurora. 2. Astrologia, i.e., in the largest sense, cosmology, the manifestation of the divine in the structure of the world and of man; hereto belong, with others, Die drei Principien göttlichen Wesens; Vom dreifachen Leben der Menschen; Von der Menschwerdung Christi; Von der Geburt and Bezeichnung aller Wesen (known as Signatura Rerum). 3. Theologia, i.e., in Scougall's phrase, "the life of God in the soul of man." Of the speculative writings under this head the most important are Von der Gnadenwahl; Mysterium Magnum (a spiritual commentary on Genesis); Von Christi Testamenten (the Sacraments).
Although Boehme's philosophy is essentially theological, and his theology essentially philosophical, one would hardly describe him as a philosophical theologian; and, indeed, his position is not one in which either the philosopher or the theologian finds it easy to make himself completely at home. The philosopher finds no trace in Boehme of a conception of God which rests its own validity on an accord with the highest canons of reason or of morals; it is in the actual not in the ideal that Boehme seeks God, whom he discovers as the
spring of natural powers and forces, rather than as the goal of advancing thought. The theologian is staggered by a language which breaks the fixed association of theological phrases, and strangely reversing the usual point of view, characteristically pictures God as underneath rather than above. Nature rises out of Him; we sink into Him. The Ungrund of the unmanifested Godhead is boldly represented in the English translations of Boehme by the word Abyss, in a sense altogether unexplained by its Biblical use. In the Theologia Germanica this tendency to regard God as the substantia, the underlying ground of all things, is accepted as a foundation for piety; the same view, when offered in the colder logic of Spinoza, is sometimes set aside as atheistical. The procession of spiritual forces and natural phenomena out of the Ungrund is described by Boehme in terms of a threefold manifestation, commended no doubt by the constitution of the Christian Trinity, but exhibited in a form derived from the school of Paracelsus. From Weigel he learned a purely idealistic explanation of the universe, according to which it is not the resultant of material forces, but the expression of spiritual principles. These two explanations were fused in his mind until they issued forth as equivalent forms of one and the same thought. Further, Schwenkfeld supplied him with the germs of a transcendental exegesis, whereby the Christian Scriptures and the dogmata of Lutheran orthodoxy were opened up in harmony with his new found views. Thus equipped, Boehme's own genius did the rest. A primary effort of Boehme's philosophy is to show how material powers are substantially one with moral forces. This is the object with which he draws out the dogmatic scheme which dictates the arrangement of his seven Quellgeister. Translating Boehme's thought out of the uncouth dialect of material symbols (as to which one doubts sometimes whether he means them as concrete instances, or as pictorial illustrations, or as a mere memoria technica), we find that Boehme conceives of the correlation of two triads of forces. Each triad consists of a thesis, an antithesis and a synthesis; and the two are connected by an important link. In the hidden life of the Godhead, which is at once Nichts and Alles, exists the original triad, viz. Attraction, Diffusion, and their resultant, the Agony of the unmanifested Godhead. The transition is made; by an act of will the divine Spirit comes to Light; and immediately the manifested life appears in the triad of Love, Expression, and their resultant, Visible Variety. As the action of contraries and their resultant are explained the relations of soul, body and spirit; of good, evil and free will; of the spheres of the angels, of Lucifer, and of this world. It is a more difficult problem to account on this philosophy for the introduction of evil. Boehme does not resort to dualism, nor has he the smallest sympathy with a pantheistic repudiation of the fact of sin. That the difficulty presses him is clear from the progressive changes in his attempted solution of the problem. In the Aurora nothing save good proceeds from the Ungrund, though there is good that abides and good that fall -- Christ and Lucifer. In the second stage of his writing the antithesis is directly generated as such; good and its contrary are coincidently given from the one creative source, as factors of life and movement; while in the third period evil is a direct outcome of the primary principle of divine manifestation -- it is the wrath side of God. Corresponding to this change we trace a significant variation in the moral end contemplated by Boehme as the object of this world's life and history. In the first stage the world is created in remedy of a decline; in the second, for the adjustment of a balance of forces; in the third, to exhibit the eternal victory of good over evil, of love over wrath.
Editions of Boehme's works were published by H. Betke (Amsterdam, 1675); by J. G. Gichtel (Amsterdam, 1682-83, 10 vols.); by K. W. Schiebler (Leipzig, 1831-47, 7 vols.). Translations of sundry treatises have been made into Latin (by J. A. Werdenhagen, 1632), Dutch (complete, by W. v. Bayerland, 1634-41), and French (by Jean Macle, c. 1640, and L. C. de Saint-Martin, 1800-09). Between 1644 and 1662 all Boehme's works were translated by John Ellistone (d. 1652) and John Sparrow, assisted by Durand Hotham and Humphrey Blunden, who paid for the undertaking. At that time regular societies of Behmenists, embracing not only the cultivated but the vulgar, existed in England and in Holland. They merged into the Quaker movement, holding already in common with Friends that salvation is nothing short of the very presence and life of Christ in the believer, and only kept apart by an objective doctrine of the sacraments which exposed them to the polemic of Quakers (e.g. J. Anderdon). Muggleton led an anthropomorphic reaction against them, and between the two currents they were swept away. The Philadelphian Society at the beginning of the 18th century consisted of cultured mystics, Jane Lead, Pordage, Francis Lee, Bromley, etc., who fed upon Boehme. William Law (1686-1761) somewhat later recurred to the same spring, with the result, however, in those dry times of bringing his own good sense into question rather than of reviving the credit of his author. After Law's death the old English translation was in great part re-edited (4 vols., 1762-84) as a tribute to his memory, by George Ward and Thomas Langcake, with plates from the designs of D. A. Freher (Brit. Mus. Add. MSS. 5767-5794). This forms what is commonly called Law's translation; to complete it a fifth volume (12mo, Dublin, 1820) is needed.
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