1902 Encyclopedia > Jakob Boehme
(also known as: Jakob Böhme)
JAKOB BOEHME, (1576-1624), a mystical writer, whose surname (of which Fechner gives eight German varieties) appears in English literature as Beem, Behmont, &c., and notably in the form Behmen, was born at Alt-Seidenberg, in Upper Lusatia, a straggling hamlet among the hills, some ten miles S.E. of Görlitz. He came of a well-to-do family, but his first employment was that of herd boy on the Landskrone, a hill in the neighbourhood of Görlitz, and the only education he received was at the town-school of Seidenberg, a mile from his home. Seidenberg, to this day, is 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, Morgen Rothe im Auffgang, which though unfinished was surreptitiously copied, and eagerly circulated in MS. by Karl von Euder. This raised him at once out of his homely sphere, and made him the centre 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 l618 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, &c., 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 (1623-4) of his speculation. His labours 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, 17th November. Clerical ill-will followed him to the grave, and the malice of the vulgar defaced his monument.
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 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 are 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 Tirba 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 Newton's formulae anticipated, and which certainly bear a marvellous
resemblance to the three arcai 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, Joh. Angelus, discerned where Boehme's truest power lay, when he sang --
"Im Wasser lebt der Fisch die Pflanz in der Erden,
Der Vogel in der Luft, die Sonn' am Firmament,
Der Salamander muss 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 und 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 till 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 falls -- Christ and Lucifer. In the second stage of his writing the antithesis is directly generated as such; good and its contrary are coincidentally 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.
Boehme's influence has lain chiefly with the learned. 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, circ. 1640, and L. C. de SaintMartin, 1800-9). For the nearest approach to popularity which his writings have enjoyed we must search the annals of the English Commonwealth. 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, &c., 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 5767-94).
This forms what is commonly called Law's translation, to complete it a 5th vol.
(12mo, Dublin, 1820) is needed. Germany has also in this century turned to
Boehme with eyes directly philosophical. "He is known," says Hegel, "as the
Philosophus Teutonicus and in reality through him for the first
time did philosophy in Germany come forward with a characteristic stamp. The
kernel of his philosophizing is purely German" (Gesch. Ph., iii. 1836,
p. 300). Franz Baader is the most remarkable of his recent philosophical
exponents. See also Hamberger, Die Lehre des deutschen Philosophen J. Boehmes, 1844; Alb. Peip, J. Boehme der deutsche Philosoph, 1860,
von Harless, J. Boehme und die Alchymisten,1870. For Boehme's life,
consult the Memoirs, by Abm. von Frankenberg and others, trans. by
Fras. Okely, 1870; La Motte Fouque's J. Boehm, ein biographischer Denkstein, 1831; and, above all, H. A. Fechner's J. Bohme, sein Lebne und seine Schriften, 1857. A comprehensive study of Boehme in English is a
desideratum. See Memorial of W. Law (by Chr. Walton, 1856); Sat. Rev. xxxvi. (1873) p. 52; Unitar. Rev (Amer.), ii. (1874) pp.
243, 447, art. by Prof. R.E. Thomson. Boehme's MSS. went to Holland. His
works, having been separately printed at Amsterdam, 1631-82, by Hen. Beets and
others, were first uniformly edited by J. G. Gichtel, Amst. 1682-3, in 24 pts.
8vo, bound in 6, 7, or 9 vols. reprinted Amst. 1715, 2 vols. 4to; again, Amst.
1730-1, in 21 pts. 8vo, bound in 6 vols. They were re-edited by K. W.
Schiebler, Leips. 1831-47, in 7 vols. 8vo; reprinted 1861, ff.