"Jacob Boehme and the Essence of His Mysticism"
Jacob Boehme (or Behmen, as he has usually been called in England), the peasant shoemaker of Görlitz, is one of the most amazing phenomena in an amazing age. He was the son of a herdsman, and, as a boy, helped his father to tend cattle; he was taught how to write and read, was apprenticed to a shoemaker, married the daughter of a butcher and lived quietly and humbly, troubled only by years of bitter persecution from his pastor, who stirred up the civil authorities against him. This was his outer life, sober and hardworking, like that of his fellow-seer, William Blake, but, like him also, he lived in a glory of inner illumination, by the light of which he caught glimpses of mysteries and of splendours which, even in Boehme’s broken and faltering syllables, dazzle and blind the ordinary reader. He saw with the eye of his mind into the heart of things, and he wrote down so much of it as he could understand with his reason. He had a quick and supple intelligence, and an intense power of visualising. Everything appears to him as an image, and, with him, a logical process expresses itself in a series of pictures. Although illiterate and untrained, Boehme was in touch with the thought of his time, and the form of his work, at any rate, owes a good deal to it. The older speculative mysticism which rather despised nature, and sought for light from within, coming down from Plotinus through Meister Eckhart and Tauler, had, in Germany, been carried on and developed by Caspar von Schwenckfeld and Sebastian Franck; while a revival of the still older practical or “perceptive” mysticism of the east, based on a study of the natural sciences (in which were included astrology, alchemy and magic), had been brought about by Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus, both of whom owed much to the Jewish Cabbala. These two mystical traditions, the one starting from within, the other from without, were, to some extent, reconciled into one system by the Lutheran pastor Valentin Weigel, with whose mysticism Boehme has much in common.
The older mystics—eastern and western alike—had laid supreme stress on unity as seen in the nature of God and all things. No one more fully believed in ultimate unity than did Boehme; but he lays peculiar stress on the duality, or, more accurately, the trinity in unity, and the central point of his philosophy is the fundamental postulate that all manifestation necessitates opposition. He asserted the uniformity of law throughout all existence, physical and spiritual, and this law, which applies throughout nature, divine and human alike, is that nothing can reveal itself without resistance, good can only be known through evil, and weakness through strength, just as light is only visible when reflected by a dark body. 39
Thus, when God, the triune principle, or will under three aspects, desires to become manifest, He divides the will into two, the “yes” and the “no,” and so founds an eternal contrast to Himself out of His own hidden nature, in order to enter into a struggle with it, and, finally, to discipline and assimilate it. The object of all manifested nature is the transforming of the will which says “no” into the will which says “yes,” and this is brought about by seven organising spirits or forms. The first three of these bring nature out of the dark element to the point where contact with light is possible. Boehme calls them harshness, attraction and anguish, which, in modern terms, are contraction, expansion and rotation. The first two are in deadly antagonism, and, being forced into collision, form an endless whirl of movement. These two forces, with their resultant effect, are to be found all through manifested nature, within man and without, and are called by different names: good, evil and life; God, the devil and the world; homogeneity, heterogeneity, strain, or the three laws of motion, centripetal and centrifugal force, resulting in rotation. They are the outcome of the “nature” or “no will,” and are the basis of all manifestation. They are the “power” of God, apart from the “love,” hence, their conflict is terrible. At this point, spirit and nature approach and meet, and, from the shock, a new form is liberated, lightning or fire, which is the fourth moment or essence; in the spark of the lightning, all that is dark, gross and selfish in nature is consumed; the flash brings the rotating wheel of anguish to a standstill, and it becomes a cross. A divine law is accomplished; for all life has a double birth, suffering is the condition of joy and only in going through fire or the Cross can man reach light. With the lightning ends the development of the negative triad, and the evolution of the three higher forms then begins; Boehme calls them light or love, sound and substance; they are of the spirit, and, in them, contraction, expansion and rotation are repeated in a new sense. 40 The first three forms give the stuff or strength of being; the last three manifest the quality of being, good or bad; and evolution can proceed in either direction.
These principles of nature can be looked at in another way. If they are resolved into two sets of three, in the first three the dark principle which Boehme calls fire is manifested, while the last three form the principle of light. These two are eternally distinct, and, whichever is manifested, the other remains hidden. This doctrine of the hidden and manifest is peculiar to Boehme, and lies at the root of his explanation of evil. A spiritual principle becomes manifest by taking on a form or quality. The “dark” or harsh principle in God is not evil in itself when in its right place, i.e., when hidden, and forming the necessary basis for the light or good. But, through the fall of man, the divine order has been transgressed, and the dark side has become manifest and appears to us as evil. Many chemical processes help to give a crude illustration of Boehme’s thought. Suppose “water” stands for complete good or reality as God sees it. Of the two different gases, hydrogen (=evil) and oxygen (=good) each is manifested separately, with peculiar qualities of its own, but, when they combine, their original form goes “into hiddenness,” and we get a new body “water.” Neither of them alone is water, and yet water could not be if either were lacking.
In reading Boehme, it must not be forgotten that he has a living intuition of the eternal forces which lie at the root of all things. He is struggling to express the stupendous world-drama which is ever being enacted, in the universe without and in the soul of man within; and, to this end, he presses into his service symbolical, biblical and alchemical terms, although he fully realises their inadequacy. “I speak thus,” he says, “in bodily fashion, for the sake of my readers’ lack of understanding.” Unless this be remembered, Boehme’s work, in common with that of all mystics, is liable to the gravest misunderstanding. He is never weary of explaining that, although he is forced to describe things in a series of images, there is no such thing as historical succession, “for the eternal dwells not in time.” 41 He has to speak of the generation of God as though it were an act in time, although to do so is to use “diabolical” (i.e., knowingly untrue) language, for God hath no beginning. Everything he describes is going on always and simultaneously, even as all the qualities he names are in everything which is manifested. “The birth of nature takes place to-day, just as it did in the beginning.”
It would be impossible to give here any adequate account of Boehme’s vision; but the four fundamental principles which he enunciated and emphasised may be thus summarised:
Note 39. “Without contraries is no progression,” as Blake puts it in his development of the same thesis in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
William Law and the Mystics. Vol. 9. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature -- An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes. 1907–21
"Within, Not Without" -- Jakob Boehme, by Grace F. Knoche
Out of the darkness of the Infinite, a comet now and then flashes into light, trailing its cloud of glory, a conglomerate of molecules, each an individual life-spark, yet together held by the dominant will of the cometary being as it orbits around our sun, to recede again into the Unknown. So it is with planets, atoms and suns, each in its own time and place living out its life, and disappearing into the vastness of Space, to reappear when the cyclic hour strikes. The tidal flux, ebb and reflux is universal: we humans also are born and die, as the deathless spark of Infinity urges us ever onward and forward.
Today we probe the outermost reaches of space, to widen our knowledge of how the universe was formed, what properties are needed for the creation of life out of 'nonliving' substance. We probe with equal assiduity into the ever-receding core of the atom. Yet we have not penetrated the mystery of man, how to live -- and how to die with dignity. Perhaps we have been looking for answers in the wrong place. Teachers have come and gone, bibles have been written and learned by rote, moral commandments given by prophets of every age. But the quest for understanding continues.
One of the most illustrious and yet humblest of men was Jakob Boehme, a sixteenth-century cobbler who was born in Old Seidenberg, Germany, and who was to become known as the Illuminate of Corlitz, the Teutonic Theosopher, and later as the Theosopher par excellence. Exponent of a Christian form of theosophy, he was to exert a lasting influence on some of the greatest minds of succeeding centuries -- partly because of the originality of his doctrinal views, but more so, perhaps, because of the integrity of his appeal to seek God within rather than externally.
Among his most ardent admirers was the Reverend William Law (1686-1761), an Anglican divine who arranged for the English translation and ultimate publication of Boehme's writings. (Law himself did not live to fulfill his dream, but his friends did issue several volumes, under the heading: The Works of Jacob Boehmen, the Teutonic Theosopher -- Volume I containing The Aurora and The Three Principles, prefaced by a Life of Boehme, including several engravings illustrative of his teachings. London, 1764.) In Germany, there was J. G. Gichtel, born in Regensburg in 1638, who only discovered Boehme after his banishment from the Lutheran Church and his arrival at Amsterdam. But so illuminating did he find Boehme's development of the "Three Principles" and the "Seven Forms of Nature" that he undertook to issue his works and letters in the original German. And in France, during the height of the Revolution in Paris, we find Louis Claude de Saint-Martin. His Theosophic Correspondence (cf. SUNRISE, November 1965, for review article; full text of book available on TUP Online site) with Kirchberger, Baron de Liebistorf and Member of the Sovereign Council of Berrie, Switzerland, owes its inspiration to Boehme, Saint-Martin regarding him as "the greatest light that has appeared on the earth since Him who is the Light himself."
Jakob Boehme was a simple man, unschooled in high philosophy or the intricacies of theology, a devout Lutheran whose main source of inspiration had been derived from faithful church attendance and the reading of the New Testament. However, when be joined the "Conventicle of God's Real Servants," a group formed by Martin Moller, chief pastor in Gorlitz, his devotional nature was stirred to the depths. New doors opened as he steeped himself in the writings of Meister Eckhart, Bernard de Clairvaux, Suso, Tauler, van Ruysbroeck, and the Friends of God -- medieval mystics who had dared in the darkness of their times to search for divine light from within themselves, rather than to hope for revelation from pulpit or scripture.
But illumination did not come easily to Boehme. He had repeatedly to grapple with the temptations of his mortal nature, and even with doubts as to the justice and mercy of God when he saw so much human tragedy around him. Finally, ridding himself of every vestige of self-seeking, he resolved "unreservedly" to dedicate mind and heart to God. I beat down the portals of Hell and hazarded my whole life . . . until suddenly my spirit burst through the last barriers and I stood in the Presence, apprehending the very essence of Divine Being." (The Aurora, ch. 19, vv. 9-10; see also Sheldon Cheney's chapter on Jacob Boehme in Men Who Have Walked with God.)
It was as if "the eyes of my spirit were opened." But it was to be years before Boebme committed to writing the revelations that would come. He records a remarkable experience, when he was "introduced into the innermost ground or centre of the . . . hidden nature." From then on, he was able by his faculty of instant perception to read the signature of Deity in all things, in the creatures of the fields, in the leaves, the growing grasses, the vital sap of trees, and not least in his fellow humans. This was in 1600 -- the year that Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake in the Campo de' Fiori in Rome, for "speaking the truth," the very truth that Boehme was so shortly to experience at first hand: that the whole of creation was vivified and made radiant with life by the power of Divinity.
This idea had, of course, been a cardinal theme among the Qabbalists for many centuries, who had openly stated in their Zohar or Book of Splendor, that just as the stars and planets "contain hidden things and profound mysteries, so there are on the skin that covers our bodies certain figures and lines which are the planets and stars of our body" (II, 76a). Boehme, however, had arrived at this insight by direct mystical experience, not by book learning. To him man was both microtheos and microcosmos -- god and cosmos in miniature.
It was not until 1612-13 that the rich heritage of symbolism embodied in the Qabbalah and the treatises on Alchemy was revealed to Boehme. Fate, karma, or God's will -- whatever we name it -- uses "Mysterious ways her wonders to perform." One day, Carl von Ender, a nobleman and a member of Pastor Moller's group, chanced to stop by the cobbler's shop, and noticing several pages of manuscript that Boehme had been working on, asked to borrow them. So moved was he by the depth of content and the originality of thought, that unknown to the author he had copies made and circulated among his friends and fellow mystics abroad. Thus was Boehme introduced to the secret network of individuals and groups scattered all over Europe and in Great Britain, who were united by their common bond of dedication to a "traditional wisdom" that traced its ancestry not merely to the theosophic school of Alexandria, but far back into the mists of prehistory. Indeed, the search for the gnosis or wisdom-knowledge and the way to shape one's inner life accordingly is ages old.
Success, however, always exacts its price. The sudden recognition of the spiritual stature of an ordinary shoemaker was too much for Moller's successor, Pastor Richter. Thundering invective against Boehme from his pulpit, he decreed exile, but through the persuasion of friends, the sentence was remanded the next day, though not without Boehme's promise to desist from further writing of his heretical views. To this he acquiesced for several years, and then, realizing that his vows to his own divine promptings were thus neglected, he determined no longer to allow any outside authority to govern his inner life.
Boehme was the ultimate victor, for he soon entered into a fruitful correspondence with his new-found friends in different parts, and often visited them at their invitation in order to exchange views on the alchemical, qabbalistic and rosicrucian themes that were their mutual concern. One regrets at times his generous use of their often obscure terminology, as it tends to veil rather than to elucidate the remarkable contribution to Christian mystical thought that was distinctly his. Nevertheless, his books continued to circulate and to act as a catalyst.
Sir Isaac Newton, whose academic studies were interrupted for a two-year stretch due to the closing down of Cambridge University after the Great Plague in 1665, found himself free to explore and ponder the cosmic mystery. The result, among other discoveries, was a law of gravitation and a method of 'determining the orbital paths of comets.' This, his friend Edmund Halley of comet fame, was to apply successfully to those comets that had appeared during the preceding three centuries, the 14th through the 17th.
William Law firmly believed that "the illustrious Sir Isaac" received signal keys from his study of Boehme. Scholars are divided on this, some disputing any connection, others substantiating it. Of interest is an item that appeared over a hundred years ago in a London weekly devoted to literature, science and the fine arts. Under the heading: Miscellanea -- Jacob Boehmen, a C. W. H. enthusiastically discusses the influence of Boehme on physical science. Not only did he anticipate the "science of electricity," but also, the writer declares, "positive evidence can be adduced that Newton derived all his knowledge of gravitation and its laws from Boehmen, with whom gravitation or attraction is, and very properly so, the first of the seven properties of Nature. . . . Every new scientific discovery goes to prove his profound and intuitive insight into the most secret workings of nature; . . . Boehmen's system, in fact, shows us the inside of things, while modern physical science is content with looking at the outside' " (The Athenaeum, January 26, 1867). (Commenting on the above, H. P. Blavatsky writes: "Thus Newton, whose profound mind read easily between the lines, and fathomed the spiritual thought of the great Seer in its mystic rendering, owes his great discovery to Jacob Boehme, the nursling of the genii (Nirmanakayas) who watched over and guided him, . -- The Secret Doctrine, I, 494.)
Boehme's writings today, however, are little known, and this is understandable, for they are difficult reading. Still, there are passages that reveal the tender humanity of the man, simple, uncorrupt and utterly pledged to the Christian life, and tinctured with a delicious dash of humor that gives the most lofty sentiment a human warmth. It is not so surprising, then, to discover, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a number among his followers who were unlettered and yet were able to grasp intuitively the kernel of his message: that man is intrinsically good, the evil in him needing only to be tamed, its strength made to serve rather than to master; that within each human being was the freedom -- the will -- of God, and that if one would cease to feed the fires of hell in his own nature, he would find that the kingdom of eternity had claimed his soul.
Comets, men, atoms and suns, each and all on a gigantic evolutionary course leading to destinies beyond our human imagination to encompass. If atoms are solar systems in the small, and men gods in miniature, what marvels of consciousness await us as we unfold our hidden resources of awareness. But the here and now -- this is where our present responsibility lies, We are still victims of our duality: creatures of light and darkness, of aspiration so true, yet of tendency so base.
We turn again to Boehme for that sane, calming wisdom that sheds light where shadows deepen. He himself lived in the most violent and disturbed times, between the civil wars of the 16th century and the disastrous Thirty Years' War that drained the very heart of Europe. Through the meeting and dealing with all types of human beings as they came to his shop, and as they met in church and in ordinary daily circumstances, he came to apprehend the underlying causes that had brought such depths of misery upon his people. To him, there was only one sure way for man to go, and that was "to seek that which is lost." But to set ourselves in the true direction, "we need no flattering Hypocrites, nor such as tickle our ears to comfort us, and promise us many Golden Mountains if we will but run after them, and make much of them, and reverence them." Nor should we do as the "high and learned" who think they must "set the University before their eyes (as a pair of Spectacles), and study first with what Opinion they will enter into the Temple of Christ." ("The High and Deep Searching of the Threefold Life of Man, Through or according to The Three Principles," by Jacob Boehmen, the Teutonic Theosopher, The Seventh Chapter, pp. 69-70, London, 1763.) No, he adds, neither the opinion of Luther, nor of Calvin, not even of the Pope, will avail before God "who is within and not without."
If we would set aright our world, then we must start with ourselves and have done with self-interest in the small things as well as in the large, in private dealings with our fellows as well as in public affairs. Then, and then only, shall we prepare the holy ground of the soul for the entrance of light. The way ahead may be difficult and stormy, and the trials many and severe. But as the old Latin couplet phrased it: post laborem quies, post tenebras lux -- after labor, rest; after darkness, light.
(From Sunrise magazine, January 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)