Boehme, Jakob (1575–1624)

views updated


Jakob Boehme, the Lutheran contemplative, was born at Alt Seidelberg near Görlitz in Silesia and lived there nearly all his life, working chiefly as a cobbler. Among his mystical experiences, the seminal one occurred in 1600, when he glanced at a pewter dish that reflected the sunlight and in a rapt state saw "the Being of Beings, the Byss and the Abyss, the eternal generation of the Trinity, the origin and descent of this world, and of all creatures through the Divine Wisdom" (Second Epistle, §6). Though not formally educated, Boehme read rather widely and was influenced by, among others, Paracelsus (14931541) and Valentin Weigel (15381588), the Lutheran mystic. The above quotation, however, hints at most of the main features of Boehme's Weltanschauung, which he first expressed in his Aurora, oder die Morgenröte im Aufgang (1612) and then in other works (from 1618 onwardhe did not write in the intervening period because of ecclesiastical pressure). The "Abyss" is God considered as the Ungrund the undifferentiated Absolute that is ineffable and neither light nor darkness, neither love nor wrath. The "eternal generation of the Trinity" occurs because the Ungrund contains a will to self-intuition. This will (identified with the Father) finds itself as the "heart" (the Son). Emanating from these is the "moving life" (the Spirit). This eternal process toward self-knowledge and outgoing dynamic activity generates the inner spiritual world, which is the prototype of the visible universe. With differentiation, conflict of wills becomes possible; and Satan, in severing himself from the "heart," falls. Sometimes Boehme writes as if evil were necessary, at others as though it were a contingent spoiling of the cosmic harmony. Indeed, Boehme in general shifted his position, and no single metaphysical theory fits all his writings.

This was partly because, in addition to his doctrine of the Trinity considered in itself, Boehme also enunciated a theory of seven qualities or energies in nature; and the fluidity of his metaphysics results from different ways of coordinating these two main aspects of his thought. The seven qualities divide into two triads, a higher and a lower, between which there is the crucial energy he called "the flash" (Blitz ). The lower triad is (1) contraction (whereby substances become individuated), (2) diffusion (whereby things gravitate to one another), and (3) rotation or oscillation (the tension produced by the interplay of the forces of contraction and diffusion). The higher triad is in effect the lower triad transformed: It is (1) love, (2) expression, and (3) eternal nature or the Kingdom of God, through which there is achieved a harmony between the material and spiritual worlds.

The meaning of this evolutionary scheme is that the Trinity considered in itself is merely formal or ideal. The abysmal will needs a real object to arouse self-knowledge. Thus the Father differentiates himself through the first (lower) triad into material nature. An obstacle is thereby created to the abysmal will, which can be overcome, not by abolition, but only by transformation. The flash is the collision, as it were, between the absolute will and nature. Herein the Spirit reveals in its light the higher triad, identified with the Son as the incarnation of spirit in matter. This is the goal of the divine operation, whereby the opposition is overcome and made into a harmony.

Psychologically, the flash reveals to man his choices. He can remain at the level of anguish implicit in the welter of sensation represented by the oscillation of nature; or he can "die" unto self, and identify himself with the abysmal willwhich also has to negate itself in order to achieve victory. Thus the mystical life is an imitation of Christ's suffering and triumph.

Boehme's doctrines brought him into conflict with church authorities. He was critical of the bibliolatry he detected in contemporary Protestantism, of a formalistic doctrine of election, and of crude notions of heaven (for Boehme, heaven is not a place). In England, William Law and the Behmenists (Boehme's disciples), who merged with the Quakers, were strongly influenced by him. And German Romanticism owed something to himespecially Friedrich von Schelling, notably in his later writings.

See also Evil; Law, William; Mysticism, History of; Paracelsus; Romanticism; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von.


works by boehme

The German edition of Boehme is Jakob Böhmes sämmtliche werke, 7 vols. (Leipzig: Barth, 18321860); translated by J. Ellistone and J. Sparrow as The Works of Jacob Behmen, 4 vols. (London, 16441662; reedited, London: Richardson, 17641781; reprinted, 19091924). The Signature of All Things and two other works are to be found in the Everyman edition, edited by Emert Rhys, introduction by Clifford Bax (London: Dent, 1912). See also W. S. Palmer, ed., The Confessions of Jacob Boehme (London: Methuen, 1920).

works on boehme

A good introduction is Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (London: Macmillan, 1914), Chs. 911. See also H. H. Brinton, The Mystic Will (London: Allen and Unwin, 1931) and H. L. Martensen, Jacob Boehme: His Life and Teaching, translated by T. Rhys Evans (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1885).

Other Recommended Titles

Brown, Robert F. The Later Philosophy of Schelling: The Influence of Boehme on the Works of 18091815. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1977.

Dourley, John P. "Jacob Boehme and Paul Tillich on Trinity and God: Similarities and Differences." Religious Studies (4) (1995): 429445.

Koenker, Ernest. "Potentiality in God: Jacob Boehme." Philosophy Today 15 (1971): 4451.

O'Regan, Cyril. Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob Boehme's Haunted Narrative. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Walsh, David. The Mysticism of Innerworldly Fulfillment. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1983.

Ninian Smart (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)