Jacob Boehme

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

BOEHME, JACOB (15751624)

BOEHME, JACOB (15751624), German mystic. Born in Alt Seidenberg, Lusatia, in eastern Germany in 1575, Jacob Boehme (or Böhme) was the fourth child of a successful farmer. The Boehme legend (established by friend and biographer Abraham von Franckenberg) emphasized his humble beginnings and his lack of education. It is clear, though, that his chosen trade of shoemaking was a success, and in Görlitz (where he moved around 1594 after his apprenticeship was finished), the young Jacob absorbed a rich and eclectic, if not particularly formal, education. In 1600, after severe depression over existential issues such as the place of God in an evil and fragmented world, he had a vision triggered by "the glint from a pewter dish." In fifteen minutes, von Franckenberg claims, Boehme learned more about the relationship between God and nature than all the universities could teach. This vision inspired him to write, and in 1612 he produced a partially finished manuscript called Aurora, oder die Morgenröte im Aufgang (1656; Aurora: that is, the day-spring or dawning of the day).

The work was passed around among Boehme's friends, and eventually reached the hands of the local Lutheran pastor, Gregor Richter. Incensed at Boehme's seeming unorthodoxy, Richter influenced the town council of Görlitz to silence him. Boehme observed the ruling for six years, although clearly his mystical development continued unabated. He continued his contact with the followers of Paracelsus (14931541), Valentin Weigel (15331588), and Kaspar Schwenckfeld von Ossig (14891561), and by 1618 his enthusiastic friends convinced him to begin writing again. Between 1619 and his death on 15 November 1624 he wrote constantly, producing works that ranged from mystical (Forty Questions concerning the Soul [Vierzig Fragen von der Seele ], Six Theosophical Points [Von sechs Punchten ]) to alchemical (Signature Rerum or Von der Geburt und Bezeichnung aller Wesen) to devotional (short writings collected as The Way to Christ [Der Weg zu Christo ]) to theological (Mysterium Magnum or Erklärung über das Erste Buch Mosis) to polemical (Apology to Balthasar Tylcken [Erst Schutzschrift gegen Balthasar Tilke ]).


Boehme holds that there is a fundamental dialectic in the emergence of both God and nature. In the Ungrund, or primordial chaotic nothingness, forces or wills strive to manifestation. There are two kinds of wills: Begierde (craving or desire), an infinite multiplicity of unrealized wills, and Lust (free will), which flows through Begierde to bring them to order and manifestation. Begierde and Lust are nothing prior to their dialectical, cooperative emergence.

This emergence takes the form of "Yes and No," an internal dialectical conflict that allows God to be the source and significance of everything natural, but not to be reducible to it. The two original principles, the No (dark, wrathful, or fire world) and Yes (light or love world), are joined by a third principle, that of movement and creation. These three are mutually causing, interpenetrating, and supporting. They emerge through seven "spirits" into what Boehme sometimes calls "eternal nature," and this threefold dialectic exists at every level for him.

The natural world is the flowing through of the emerged God into the multifarious forces of Begierde. Here too there is a seven-stage developmentthe seven forms of nature. All nature partakes of the three worlds, which emerge from God, and to the extent they are manifest, they are good. This process has sometimes been seen as evolutionary, but Boehme was clear that the dialectical emergence from chaos to full manifestation is present at once within everything. Boehme believes that every existing thing made a choice to align itself with one principle. Only humanity still has the choice of which world to live in.

Boehme calls the result of manifestation Weisheit, or the Virgin Wisdom, which is within all the processes of life and creation, and is a mirror to God. The entire process of creation is folded into every existing thing, and is available to those who have eyes to see. The dialectical emergence of Lust and Begierde results in containers, or husks, which both reveal and conceal the will within. Boehme's mysticism explicates the deep spiritual structure of nature, unavailable to the common person using Vernunft, or discursive reason. If one has Verstand (intuitive reason), one can recognize the common life concealed within the husks, which all of nature shares. "Signatures" are the external evidence of this commonalitythey make Weisheit visible to the human mind. Boehme uses the image of creation as an instrument, which was broken by the Fall, but repaired by the incarnation of Christ. The instrument is still out of tune, but when one knows how to listen, one will hear sympathetic vibrations through everything. All of nature resonates because it all has the same root. But some of the wills in Begierde do not cooperate with Lust. They still strive for manifestation and can only achieve this with the destruction of the manifest world. This is Boehme's account of evila kind of uncreating.

Some look to Boehme as the inventor of modern dialectic. Some look to him as a theorist of freedom, others as one who introduced the idea of the objectification of the will, others as one who laid the ontological foundations for individuality, and still others as one who solved the problem of evil. Boehme is an heir to diverse intellectual traditions, ranging from Renaissance alchemy, hermeticism, and theosophy (via Paracelsus) to German mysticism (in the Rhineland tradition of writers such as Johannes Eckhart, c. 1260?1327) to crypto-Calvinism to Lutheran theology. He is sometimes seen as part of a group of eastern German mystics that includes Schwenckfeld, Weigel, and Angelus Silesius (Johannes Scheffler, 16241677). But his influence surpassed all of them; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) says of Boehme that it was "through him that philosophy first appeared in Germany with a character peculiar to itself."

Boehme's writings were particularly influential in England, where his followers were known as "Behmenists," and in Holland, where many editions of his work were produced. He was also important for seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century movements such as the Philadelphian Society (Jane Leade, John Pordage), the Quakers (George Fox), Pietism (through Philipp Jacob Spener), and Methodism (through William Law). His influence extended into France (Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, 17431803) and Russia (Vladimir Soloviev, 18531900). And he was read closely by later idealists and postidealists (Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling, Paul Johann von Feuerbach), Romantics (Franz von Baader, Novalis, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and existentialists (Martin Buber, Paul Johannes Tillich, Nikolay Berdyayev).

See also Catholic Spirituality and Mysticism ; Methodism ; Paracelsus ; Pietism ; Quakers ; Romanticism.


Berdyaev, Nicolas. "Ungrund and Freedom." In Boehme, Six Theosophic Points and Other Writings. Translated by John Rolleston Earle. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1958.

Stoudt, John. Sunrise to Eternity: A Study in Jacob Boehme's Life and Thought. Philadelphia, 1957. Reissued 1995.

Weeks, Andrew. Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth-Century Philosopher and Mystic. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Bruce B. Janz

views updated

Boehme, Jacob

(b. Alt Seidenberg, near Görlitz, Germany, 1575; d. Görlitz, 17 November 1624)

theology, mysticism.

Boehme was the fourth child of Jacob and Ursula Boehme. The father belonged to a well-to-do, old family of German-speaking farmers. A prominent man in the village, he held lay offices in the local church. As a boy Boehme herded cattle with neighboring farm boys, attended the village school, and was given a Lutheran upbringing. At fourteen he was apprenticed to the village cobbler, perhaps owing to his delicate health, and three years later he set out on his journeyman travels. Around 1595 he returned to Görlitz, where in 1599 he became a citizen of the town, set up as a master cobbler, and married Catharina Kuntzschmann, with whom he had four sons. Her father was a butcher, and her family was prosperous and influential in city affairs. Boehme was now enabled to buy a house in Görlitz, where he spent the remainder of his life, interrupted only by visits to his spiritual friends among the nobility of the region and by travels on business to the Leipzig fair and to Prague. In 1613 he gave up cobbling and entered the cloth trade, but his later years were clouded by financial distress caused by inflation and the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War.

In 1600 occurred the decisive event in Boehme’s life. Through the chief pastor of Görlitz, Martin Moller, he had recently been exposed to the great tradition of German mysticism: to Johann Tauler, Heinrich Suso, and Jan Van Ruysbroeck, among others. He went through a period of anxious search for insight. The result was the profound mystical experience that shaped his life and inspired the Writings that forms the culmination of the German mystical tradition. One day while sitting in his room in a state of melancholy, his eyes by chance caught the sunlight reflected from a pewter dish. His soul was immediately ushered into a mystical vision, and he maintained that the innermost part of the secrets of nature as well as the true nature of good and evil were revealed to him. In a quarter of an hour, he saw and knew more than he could have learned by years of study in the universities. At first full of doubt, he soon became convinced that he had received the gift of vision. When it was upon him, he could penetrate into the very heart and being of all things in creation. But it was twelve years before Boehme recorded this experience and its fruits in his first work, Aurora oder Morgenröthe im Aufgang. Meant only as a private record, and left unfinished, it soon began to circulate in manuscript copies among his friends and thus came to the attention of the local church authorities, who took a hostile view of the work and enjoined him to desist from any further writing.

Devout and humble, Boehme did not write until 1618, when the spirit again urged him so strongly that he could no longer remain silent. The rest of his works, amounting to more than thirty items, were written during the remaining years of his life—some short, somelong, many as responses to questions from friends or as polemics against opponents. He was again called to account by the authorities, but no action was taken, and he died quietly in his house in Görlitz as a member of the Lutheran church to which he had belonged all his life. Among his most important works are Von den drei Principien Göttliches Wesens, Vom dreifachen Leben des Menschen, De signatura rerum oder von der Geburt und Bezeichnung aller Wesen, Mysterium magnum oder Erklärung über das erste Buch Mosis, Der Weg zu Christo (the only work published [1624] during Boehme’s lifetime), and Von der Gnaden-Wahl oder von dem Willen Gottes über die Menschen, which Boehme considered his greatest work.

In all his works Boehme spoke as a prophet; he believed that God had chosen him to reveal to mankind what lay hidden. Convinced that he wrote under direct inspiration, he claimed that he changed nothing once it was written. The obscurity of his style is the expression of his mode of insight—full of bold metaphors, alchemical terms, number symbolism, and Neoplatonic conceptions—and reveals his background in Luther, Paracelsus, Kaspar Schwenckfeld, and Valentin Weigel. Boehme deprecated book learning, distrusted reason and the disputes of the theologians, and was fond of saying, as did Weigel, that all knowledge was revealed within him as in a book, even the Bible, so long as he had Christ’s spirit in him. All the same, it is evident that Boehme was by no means unfamiliar with the thought of his spiritual forerunners, whose work he no doubt knew both from his own reading and from conversations with his visionary friends. Having had only elementary schooling, Boehme was largely self-taught. Later in life he often voiced regret that he had not learned Latin, and his writing in German earned him the title of teutonicus philosophus. His friend and first biographer, Abraham von Frankenberg, observed that Boehme’s eyes were sky-blue and shone like the windows of Solomon’s Temple.

Boehme’s philosophy cannot be reduced to brief, systematic statement; it was not conceived in terms that would permit such reduction, and his own conceptions shifted in the course of time—the Aurora, he later said, was a work of his spiritual childhood. An understanding of his philosophy can, however, be gained by noting a few of its fundamental concerns. Boehme’s initial problem was the existence of evil and the concealment of God from the world of man. His answer revealed a cosmic drama, with opposition of light and dark, spirit and body, love and wrath, joy and pain, eternity and time. All things visible were emanations of things invisible; the hidden God lay revealed under the visible creation. The “outbreathed” or “outspoken” invisible power, the Word, had called forth creation. Nature is the language of God to man, if only man will read it aright. The undifferentiated Ungrund, or nothingness (in the English translations, the “abyss”), is like an eye that seeks an object in order to become aware of itself, a mirror of images whose possibilities suggest the actualities of nature. By a repeated process of reflecting, willing, and creating, God’s self-knowledge finds expression in nature, which is thus ordered according to the heavenly wisdom, the eternal Sophia.

Placed in time and body after Fall, man’s path to regeneration is renewed revelation of the secrets of nature. Adam’s first and decisive fall occurred when he fell asleep and lost the direct insight into creation that he had hitherto possessed, being purely spiritual and ever awake. Sinfulness is caused by a perverse imagination, whose consequence is inadequate or false knowledge. The promise of again placing good over evil, light over dark, was given in the obedience and suffering of Christ, a reversal of Adam’s course into time, history, and body. By placing cosmogony at the center of his theology, Boehme reveals his debt to the Lutheran tradition, and especially to Paracelsus and the Protestant mystics of the sixteenth century. But he is more explicit and detailed than his predecessors. One far-reaching effect of this theology was profound reverence for nature and closeness to it. Nature is given positive reality; its study gains justification; its observation—if rightly used as an avenue to the invisible realm beyond it—is an act of devotion. To the seventeenth century this view was more widely derived from Boehme rather than directly from Paracelsus. To Boehme a meadow in bloom with flowers was a mystical opening.

Adam, the first man, was created in the image of God; as the microcosm, he had the macrocosm in him. Although not original with Boehme, this view is prominent in his philosophy. It was in this sense that he wrote out of the book “which I myself am”, not from other books or the instruction of the learned. He also claimed another special gift, direct insight into the language of nature, the language Adam spoke when he named the animals in the Garden of Eden. He even felt that he had direct access to new truths through his God-given insight into the interpretation of the sounds and forms of his own language, which, like all other languages, reveals the divine plan to the truly inspired mind. The language of nature had been adumbrated before Boehme, but he carried his doctrine on this point far beyond any previous speculation. This doctrine proved especially influential during the seventeenth century, often occurring in isolation from his theology. The observation was made more than once that the hoped-for philosophical language would copy the function of Adam’s language, thus recapturing a measure of the insight into nature and the unity of knowledge that had been lost. Boehme was a mystic, but his mysticism did not advocate with drawal from the world; on the contrary, his way was spiritual immersion in it.

After his death, Boehme’s manuscripts were carefully collected and taken to Holland, where the first published versions appeared. From Holland his works, printed or in manuscript copies, passed into England, where they were all published in English versions between 1644 and 1663, many for the first time in any language. Thus Boehme was first discovered in England, where he had a wide and varied influence, most clearly among the Quakers. In Germany he did not gain prominence until he was taken up by the Pietists during the eighteenth century. He had a strong impact on German Romantic thought and later gained a position of eminence in post-Kantian idealism, in large measure through the French translations of Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803). Boehme has also had a strong and enduring influence on Russian Writers.


I. Original Works. The MSS are described in Werner Buddecke, Verzeichnis von Jackob Böhme-Handschriften (Göttingen, 1934) (= Hainbergschriften, I), The German eds. are listed in Buddecke, Die Jakob Böhme-Ausgaben. Ein beschreibendes Verzeichnis, pt. 1 (Göttingen, 1937) (= Hainbergschriften, 5), and the translations in pt. 2 (Göttingen, 1957) (= Arbeiten aus der Staats-und Universitäsbibliothek, Göttingen, N.F. 2). The best collected edition is Theosophia revelata, J. W. Ueberfeld, ed., 21 pts. (Amsterdam, 1730); repr. in 11 vols., Will-Erich Peuckert, ed. (Stuttgart, 1955–1961). K. W. Schiebler’s edition of Jakob Böhme’s Sämmtliche Werke, 7 vols. (Leipzig, 1831–1847), has a poor text and cannot be used for serious work.

The recently discovered autograph copies of Boehme MSS have been ed. by Werner buddecke in Jacob Böhme. Die Urschriften, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1963–1966). The first collected English edition is The Works of Jacob Behmen, G. Ward and T. Langcake, des., 4 vols. (London, 1764–1781), usually called William Law’s edition. With the exception of Der Weg zu Christo (from the 1775 version of G. Moreton), this ed. reprints the seventeenth-century versions of J. Sparrow, J. Elliston, and H. Blunden.

II. Secondary Literature. There has been a continual flow of Boehme literature since the 1640’s; only the most important can be mentioned here: Gottfried Arnold, Unparteyische Kirchen-und Ketzer-Historie, 2 vols. in 4 pts. (Frankfurt, 1699–1700), pt.2, 656–682; Franz von Baader, “Vorlesungen uber J. Böhme’s Theologumena und philosopheme,” in Gesammelte Schriften zur Naturphilosophie, Franz Hoffmann, ed. (Leipzig, 1855)—Vols. III and XIII, respectively, in Franz von Baader, Sämmtliche Werke, Franz Hoffman and Julius Hamberger, eds., 16 vols. (Leipzig, 1851–1860); R. Jecht, “Die Lebensumstände Jacob Böhmes,” in his ed. of Jacob Bohme, Gedenkgabeder Stadt Görlitz (Görlitz, 1924), pp. 7–75; and will-Erich Peuckert, Das Leban Jacob Bohmes, 2nd ed., rev., in vol. X of the reprint edition of Theosophia revelata listed above. The best full exposition is A. Koyré, La philosphie de Jacob Boehme (Paris, 1929). On particular aspects of Boehme, the following works are useful: Ernst Benz, Der vollkommene Mensch nach Jacob Böhme (Stuttgart, 1937); Der Prophet Jakob Boehme, ein Studie über den Typus nachreformatorischen Prophetentums (Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur. Mainz. Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschftlichen Klasse, 1959, no. 3); “Zur metaphysischen Begründung der Sprache bei Jacob Böhme.” in Dichtung und Volkstum, 37 (1936), 340–357; “Zur Sprachtheologie der deutschen Barockmystik,” ibid., 482–498; “Die Sprachtheologie der Reformationszeit,” in Studium Generale, 4 (Apr. 1951), 204–213; “Die Geschichtsmetaphysik Jakob Böhmes,” in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, 13 (1953), 421–455; M. L. Bailey. Milton and Jakob Boehme (New York, 1914; Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther und Böhme (Bonn, 1925); Emanuel Hirsch. Geschichte derneuern evangelischen Theologie im Zusammehang mit den allgemeinen Bewegungen des europäische Denkens, II (Gutersloh, 1951), 208–255; Serge Hutin, Les disciples anglais de Jacob Boehme aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siecles (Paris, 1960); Wolfgang Kayser, “Bohmes Natursprachenlehre und ihre Grundlagen,” in Euphorion, 31 (1930), 521–562, an especially useful and stimulating study: Peter Schaublin, Zur Sprache Jacob Boehmes (winterthur, 1963); wilhelm Struck, Der Einfluss Jakob Boehmes auf die englische Literatur (Berlin, 1936); and Nils Thune, The Behemenists and the Philadelphians, a Contribution to the Study of English Mysticism in the 17th and 18th Centuries (Uppsala, 1948). The following three works offer good introductions: Howard H. Brinton. The Mystic Will (New York, 1930); Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (New York, 1914; Beacon Paperback, 1956); and John Joseph Stoudt, Sunrise to Eternity, a Study in Jacob Boehme’s Life and Thought (Philadelphia, 1957).

Hans Aarsleff

views updated

Jacob Boehme

The German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) drew unique philosophical and religious ideas from his own spiritual experiences. His thought had a profound effect on German religious life and philosophy and influenced Quakerism in England.

Jacob Boehme was born at Alt-Seidenberg near Görlitz. His parents were peasants who apprenticed him to a shoemaker in Seidenberg. In 1599 he moved to Görlitz, where he prospered as a master cobbler. While still a young man, Boehme experienced mystical visions. These recurred as he grew older, and he became convinced that the inner mysteries of the universe had been opened to him. He had become, as he said, "enwrapped in the Divine Light," and he decided to write an account of his visions, Aurora (1612). This work soon came to the attention of the Lutheran pastor in Görlitz, who tried to have Boehme expelled from the town as a "villain full of piety." The town authorities, however, allowed Boehme to remain on the condition that he write no more books.

Boehme wrote nothing for 5 years, but then, encouraged by a vision, he again felt compelled to compose works that would set forth his ideas. The result was an astonishing number of writings, principally philosophical, theological, and devotional in nature. His most important works include Von der Gnadenwahl (Predestination), Mysterium magnum (Great Mystery), and Der Weg zu Christo (The Way of Christ; all 1623). The last is a collection of four of his devotional works dealing with true repentance, true resignation, regeneration, and the supersensual life.

While some of Boehme's thought remained within a traditional Lutheran framework, he also developed unorthodox ideas. He believed that man was saved by his own effort as well as grace, and he criticized institutional religion, referring to established churches as "churches of stone." But it was his metaphysical speculations that were most novel and that brought him many followers. He believed that all creation proceeded from God "by His self-differentiation into a negation of Himself." Thus, God manifests Himself in contraries. All things consist in yes and no, good and evil, dark and light, and the conflict between these opposites is the fundamental law of being. Boehme's primary religious concern was to demonstrate how the duality of life could be overcome through the reconciliation of opposites in spiritual unity.

Because of the Lutheran pastor's opposition, Boehme was finally obliged to leave Görlitz. He went to Dresden, where he was warmly received by the intellectual community. But he soon returned to Görlitz and, shortly after his arrival, died there on Nov. 17, 1624.

Further Reading

The most complete work on Boehme, based on all the sources, is John Joseph Stoudt, Sunrise to Eternity: A Study in Jacob Boehme's Life and Thought (1957). Another biography is Hans L. Martensen, Jacob Boehme (trans. 1885; rev. ed. 1949). Additional studies are A. J. Penny, Studies in Jacob Böhme (1912); Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1914); George Mervin Alleman, A Critique of Some Philosophical Aspects of the Mysticism of Jacob Boehme (1932); and C. A. Muses, Illumination on Jacob Boehme: The Work of Dionysius Andreas Freher (1951). Numerous editions of all of Boehme's works are available in English translations. □