The Confessions of Jacob Boehme, by Jacob Boehme, ed. W. Scott Palmer , at sacred-texts.com
p. x p. xi
JACOB BOEHME, who reveals to us in this book some of the secrets of his inner life, was among the most original of the great Christian mystics. With a natural genius for the things of the spirit, he also exhibited many of the characteristics of the psychic, the seer, and the metaphysician; and his influence on philosophy has been at least as great as his influence on religious mysticism.
No mystic is born ready-made. He is, like other men, the product of nurture no less than of nature. Tradition and environment condition both his vision and its presentation. So, Boehme's peculiar and
often difficult doctrine will better be understood when we know something of his outer life and its influences. He was born of peasant stock in 1575, at a village near Gorlitz on the borders of Saxony and Silesia, and as a boy tended cattle in the fields. Of a pious, dreamy, and brooding disposition, even in childhood he is said to have had visionary experiences. Not being sufficiently robust for field-work, he was apprenticed to a shoemaker; but, his severe moral ideas causing disputes with the other workmen, he was dismissed and became a travelling cobbler. During this enforced exile, which coincided with the most impressionable period of youth, Boehme learned something of the unsatisfactory religious conditions of his time; the bitter disputes and mutual intolerance which divided Protestant Germany, the empty formalism which passed for Christianity. He also came into contact with the theosophic and
hermetic speculations which distinguished contemporary German thought, and seemed to many to offer an escape into more spiritual regions from the unrealities of institutional religion. He was himself full of doubts and inward conflict; tortured not only by the craving for spiritual certainty but also by the unruly impulses and passionate longings of adolescence that "powerful contrarium" of which he so constantly speaks which are often felt by the mystic in their most exaggerated form. His religious demands were of the simplest kind: "I never desired to know anything of the Divine Majesty … I sought only after the heart of Jesus Christ, that I might hide myself therein from the wrathful anger of God and the violent assaults of the Devil." Like St. Augustine in his study of the Platonists, Boehme was seeking "the country which is no mere vision, but a home"; and in this he already showed himself a true mystic. His longings
and struggles for light were rewarded, as they have been in so many seekers at the beginning of their quest, by an intuition of reality, resolving for a time the disharmonies that tormented him. Conflict gave way to a new sense of stability and "blessed peace." This lasted for seven days, during which he felt himself to be "surrounded by the Divine Light": an experience paralleled in the lives of many other contemplatives.
At nineteen, Boehme returned to Gorlitz, where he married the butcher's daughter. In 1599 he became a master-shoemaker and settled down to his trade. In the following year, his first great illumination took place. Its character was peculiar, and indicative of his abnormal psychic constitution. Having lately passed through a new period of gloom and depression, he was gazing dreamily at a polished pewter dish which caught and reflected the rays of the sun. Thus brought, in a manner
which any psychologist will understand, into a state of extreme suggestibility, the mystical faculty took abrupt possession of the mental field. It seemed to him that he had an inward vision of the true character and meaning of all created things. Holding this state of lucidity, so marvellous in its sense of renovation that he compares it to resurrection from the dead, he went out into the fields. As Fox, possessed by the same ecstatic consciousness, found that "all creation gave another smell beyond what words can utter," so Boehme now gazed into the heart of the herbs and grass, and perceived all nature ablaze with the inward light of the Divine.
It was a pure intuition, exceeding his powers of speech and thought: but he brooded over it in secret, "labouring in the mystery as a child that goes to school," and felt its meaning "breeding within him" and gradually unfolding "like a young plant." The inward light was not constant;
his unruly lower nature persisted, and often prevented it from breaking through into the outward mind. This state of psychic disequilibrium and moral struggle, during which he read and meditated deeply, lasted for nearly twelve years. At last, in 1610, it was resolved by another experience, coordinating all his scattered intuitions in one great vision of reality. Boehme now felt a strong impulse to write some record of that which he had seen, and began in leisure hours his first book, the Aurora. The title of this work, which he describes as "the Root or Mother of Philosophy, Astrology, and Theology," shows the extent to which he had absorbed current theosophic notions: but his own vivid account—one of the most remarkable first-hand descriptions of automatic or inspirational writing that exists—shows too how small a part his surface mind played in the composition of this book, which he "set down diligently in the impulse of God."
Boehme, like the ancient prophets and many lesser seers, was possessed by a spirit which, whether we choose to regard it as an external power or a phase of his own complex nature, was dissociated from the control of his will, and "came and went as a sudden shower." It poured itself forth in streams of strange and turbid eloquence, unchecked by the critical action of the intellect. He has told us that during the years when his vision was breeding within him he "perused many masterpieces of writing." These almost certainly included the works of Valentine Weigel and his disciples, and other hermetic and theosophic books; and the fruit of these half-comprehended studies is manifest in the astrological and alchemical symbolism which adds so much to the obscurity of his style. Like many visionaries, he was abnormally sensitive to the evocative power of words, using them as often for their suggestive quality as for
their sense. A story is told of him that, hearing for the first time the Greek word "Idea," he became intensely excited, and exclaimed: "I see a pure and heavenly maiden!" It is to this faculty that we must probably attribute his love of alchemical symbols and the high-sounding magical jargon of his day.
A copy of the manuscript of the Aurora having fallen into the hands of Gregorius Richter, the Pastor Primarius of Gorlitz, Boehme was violently attacked for his unorthodox opinions, and even threatened with immediate exile. Finally he was allowed to remain in the town but forbidden to continue writing. He obeyed this decree for five years; for him, a period of renewed struggle and gloom, during which he was torn between respect for authority and the imperative need for selfexpression. His opinions, however, became known. They brought him much persecution—"shame, ignominy, and reproach,"
he says, "budding and blossoming every day"—but also gained him friends and admirers of the educated class, especially among the local students of hermetic philosophy and mysticism. It was under their influence that Boehme—his vocabulary now much enriched and his ideas clarified as the result of numerous discussions began in 1619 to write again. In the five years between this date and his death, he composed all his principal works. Their bulk—and also, we must confess, their frequent obscurities and repetitions—testify to the fury with which the spirit often drove "the penman's hand." Some, however, do seem to have been written with conscious art, to explain special points of difficulty; for Boehme's first confused and overwhelming intuitions of reality had slowly given place to a more lucid vision. The "Aurora" had turned to "a lovely bright day," in which his vigorous intellect was able to deal with that which he had
seen "couched and wrapt up in the depths of the Deity." Thus the Forty Questions gives his answers to problems stated by the learned Dr. Walther, principal of the chemical laboratory at Dresden. His reputation had now spread through Germany, and eminent scholars came to his workshop to learn from him. In 1622 he left off the practice of his trade and devoted himself entirely to writing and exposition.
The publication of the beautiful Way to Christ, which was privately printed by one of these admirers in 1623, caused a fresh attack on the part of his old enemy Richter. For once, Boehme condescended to controversy, and replied with dignity to the violent accusations of blasphemy and heresy brought against him. He was nevertheless compelled by the magistrates to leave the town, where he now had a large number of disciples. He went first to the electoral court of Dresden; there
meeting the chief theologians of the day, who were deeply impressed by his prophetic earnestness and intense piety, and refused to uphold the charge of heresy. In August 1624, the death of Richter allowed him to return to Gorlitz; but he was already mortally ill, and died on November 21st of that year, at the age of forty-nine.
In trying to estimate the character of Boehme's teaching, it is important to realize the sources of his principal conceptions. Though his early revelations, abruptly surging up from the unconscious region, seemed to him to owe nothing to the art of reason, yet it is undeniable that they were strongly influenced by memories of books read, beliefs accepted, and experiences endured. The "lightning-flash" in which he had his sudden visions of the Universe, also illuminated the furniture of his own mind and gave to it a fresh significance
and authority. Thus it is often his own interior drama which he sees reflected on the cosmic screen; a proceeding which the "theosophic" doctrine of man as the microcosm of the Universe helped him to justify. His unstable temperament, with its alternations between gloom and illumination, its constant sense of struggle, its abrupt escapes into the light the "powerful contrarium" with which he "stood in perpetual combat"—conditions his picture of the eternal conflict between light and darkness at the very heart of creation; the crude stuff of striving nature and the formative Spirit of God. The "living running fire" which he feels in his own spirit, is his assurance of the Divine fiery creative energy.
Further, the Lutheran Christianity which formed the basis of his religious life contributed many elements to his scheme. Thence came the intense moral dualism, the Pauline opposition between the "dark-world"
of unregenerate nature and the "light-world" of grace, the doctrines of the Trinity and of regeneration, and generally those credal symbols which he often uses in a theosophic sense. He is familiar with the Bible, making constant though sometimes fantastic use of its language and imagery. Finally, the German mystics and hermetic philosophers of the Renaissance, in whom he was deeply read, gave him much of the raw material of his philosophy. Alchemy in his day was still a favourite toy of speculative minds; being understood partly in the physical, partly in the transcendental sense. The "doctrine of signatures," which is the subject of one of Boehme's later works, was still taken seriously as a guide to practical medicine; the stuffed crocodile hung in the laboratory, the toad and the spider were carefully distilled. Yet for the spiritual alchemists the quest of the Stone was the quest of an unearthly perfection,
and human nature was the true matter of the "great work." This "hermetic science," in which chemistry, magic, and mysticism were strangely combined, plainly made a strong appeal to Boehme; and its influence upon his work was not always fortunate. But his debt to the more genuinely mystical writers of the sixteenth century, especially the Silesian reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, and Valentine Weigel, is of far greater importance. Certainly through Weigel, and perhaps also at first-hand, he became acquainted with Paracelsus, whose doctrine of humanity as the sum of three orders—the natural, the astral, and the divine—he adopts in the Threefold Life of Man and Three Principles of the Divine Essence. Through Weigel, too, he traces his descent from the great German mystics of the fourteenth century; for the saintly pastor of Zschopau was soaked in the works of Tauler, and edited that pearl of Christian mysticism
the Theologia Germanica. Boehme, therefore, was far from being an isolated spiritual phenomenon. He was fed from many sources; but all that he received was fused and remade in the furnace of his own inner life. The result was a new creation, as unique as the White Stone which the alchemist made from his mercury, sulphur, and salt; but we do it no honour by ignoring the elements from which it sprang.
It is not possible to extract from Boehme's vast, prolix, and often difficult works any closed system of philosophy. Often he repeats himself, sometimes contradicts himself, or hides his meaning behind a haze of inconsistent symbols; for his writing never wholly lost its inspirational character. But as we study these writings we gradually discern certain guiding lines, certain fixed characters, which help us to find our way through the maze. These, thoroughly grasped, enable us to recognize order and meaning in that
which is often an apparent chaos; to enjoy and understand something of that revelation which transformed the little Saxon cobbler into a prophet of the Kingdom of God.
Boehme's map of reality is based, like that of most mystics, on the number three, and has several interesting points of contact with Neoplatonism. The universe in its essence consists of three worlds, which are "none other than God Himself in His wonderful works." Without and beyond Nature is the Abyss of the Deity, "the Eternal Good that is the Eternal One": a Plotinian definition of the Absolute which may have reached Boehme through Eckhart and his school. The three worlds are the trinity of emanations through which the transcendent Unity achieves self-expression. Boehme calls them the fire-world, the light-world, and the dark-world. They are not mutually exclusive spheres, but aspects of a whole. By them "we are to understand a threefold Being, or three
worlds in one another"; and all have their part in the production of that outward world of sense in which we live.
Fire is the eternal energetic Divine will towards creation; that unresting life, born of a craving, which inspires the natural world of becoming. "What ever is to come to anything must have Fire": it .is the self-expression of the Father. From the primal fire or fount of generation in its fierceness are born the pair of opposites through which the Divine energy is manifested: the "dark-world" of conflict, evil, and wrath which is Eternal Nature in itself, and the "light-world" of wisdom and love, which is Eternal Spirit in itself the Platonic Nous, the Son of Christian theology. The dark-world represents that quality in life which is recalcitrant to all we call divine; "unregenerate nature," which was for Boehme no illusion but a dreadful fact. It is the sphere of undetermined non-moral striving, and of all "biting, hating,
and striking and arrogant self-will among men and beasts." The light-world is the sphere of all determined goodness and beauty; the state of being towards which the fiery impulse of becoming should tend. It is the Word, or "Heart of God," as distinguished from His Will, and holds within itself all those values which we speak of as divine. In the Light is "the eternal original of all powers, colours, and virtues." Here again, we perceive the Platonic ancestry of one of Boehme's most characteristic ideas. In and through this Light the crude strivings of the fiery life-force are sublimated; its titanic zest is transformed into "the desire of love and joy." The Dark is necessary to it, because "nothing without opposition can become manifest to itself."
The outer world in which we dwell according to the body is the creation of the Fire and the Light. Ignoring the separate existence of the dark-world, which
is then looked upon as one aspect of the Fire, Boehme sometimes speaks of this physical order as the third Divine Principle, or sphere of the Holy Spirit, the "Lord and Giver of Life"; who is thus assigned a position very close to the Plotinian Psyche, or "soul of the world." This outer world, he says, is "both evil and good, both terrible and lovely," since in it love and wrath strive together. "The Nature-life works unto Fire, and the Spirit-life unto Light." The business alike of universal and of human life, the essence of its "salvation," is the bringing of the Light out of its fiery origin—spiritual beauty out of the raw stuff of energetic nature. This perpetual shooting up of life from nature-dark to spirit-light is sometimes called by Boehme the "new birth of Christ" and sometimes the "growing up of the Lily." It is happening all the while; the triumphant self-realization of the perfection of God. He
sees the universe as a vast alchemic process, a seething pot, perpetually distilling the base metals into celestial gold.
As with the cosmos, so with its microcosm man. He, too, is in process of becoming. The "great work" of the hermetists must be accomplished in him, and he must accept its "anguish" the conflict of the fire and the light. "Man must be at war with himself, if he wishes to be a heavenly citizen." The combat is inevitable, and the victory is possible, because we have the essence of all three worlds within us, and are "made of all the powers of God." The eternal Light "glimmers" in every consciousness. "When I see a right man," says Boehme, "there I see three worlds standing." Hence human life is "a hinge between light and darkness; to whichever it gives itself up, in that same does it burn." Its possibilities of adventure are infinite. The arc through which it may swing is as wide
as the difference between hell and heaven. Fire—anguish, effort, and conflict—it cannot escape; this is the manifestation of that will which is life. But it can choose between the torment of its own separate dark fire the self-centred craving which is the essence of sin and self-abandonment to the divine fire of God's unresting will towards perfection. The one sets up a whirlpool within the eternal process: the other contributes its store of energy and love to that universal work which transmutes the dark elements into the light, and heals the apparent cleavage between "nature" and "spirit." "Our whole teaching," says Boehme, "is nothing else than how a man should kindle in himself God's light-world." That world is here and now; and his one aim was to open the eyes of other men to this encompassing and all-penetrating reality. All lies in the direction of the will: "What we make of ourselves, that we are."
For him, the universe was primarily a religious fact: its fiery energies, its impulse towards growth and change, were significant because they were aspects of the life of God. His cosmic vision was the direct outcome of spiritual experience; he told it, because he wished to stimulate in all men the spiritual life, make them realize that "Heaven and Hell are present everywhere, and it is but the turning of the will either into God's love or into His wrath, that introduceth into them." When the restlessness of becoming, the anxious craving, which should lead both cosmic and human life to its bourne, is turned back on itself and becomes a fiery self-devouring desire, a "wheel of anguish," the alchemic process goes wrong. Then is produced the condition which Boehme calls the turba; and the turba is the essence of hell. But everyone who yields himself to the impulse of the Light stands by that very act in the heaven of God's
heart; for "Heaven is nothing but a manifestation of the Eternal One, wherein all worketh and willeth in quiet love."
Hence at the end of this vast dynamic vision, this astonishing harmony of the scientific and the Christian universe, we find that the imperatives which govern man's entry into truth are moral: patience, courage, love, and surrender of the will. These evangelical virtues are the condition of our knowledge of reality; for though "God dwells in all things, nothing comprehends Him unless it be one with Him." This is the doctrine of all the great mystics, and they have proved its truth in their own lives. Such an attunement of human to divine life is the real object of Christianity: and we must not forget that Boehme was before all else a practical Christian, for whom his religion was a vital process, not merely a creed. He complained that the orthodox of his day were content to believe that Christ had once died for them; but
such acceptance of history saved none. "A true Christian is not a mere historical new man"—he is a biological fact, the crown of the "great work" of spiritual alchemy. Christian history is only "the cradle of the Child"; the framework within which the law of regeneration is perpetually manifested, and the "heavenly man," citizen of the eternal light-world, is brought forth in the world of time. This, says Boehme, "we heartily wish that the titular and Lip-Christians might once find by experience in themselves, and so pass from the history into the substance." It was from the fulness of his own experience that he wrote, as this collection of his personal declarations shows. In it we see how close was the connection between his inner life and his "mystical" vision; the great moral demands and perpetual conflicts which conditioned his intuitive knowledge of reality. That knowledge was the fruit of the "earnest seeking" pursued
from adolescence to the end of his earthly life: of a will and craving persistently yet humbly set on the only rational object of desire, and turning to its purposes every element of his threefold nature. Such completeness of dedication is the foundation of all sane mysticism, and works in those who achieve it a veritable change of consciousness, an enhancement of life, inconceivable to other men.
"Make trial in this manner," says Boehme again, "and thou wilt quickly see and feel another man with another sense and thoughts and understanding. I speak as I know and have found by experience; a soldier knows how it is in the wars. This I write out of love as one who telleth in the spirit how it hath gone with himself, for an example to others, to try if any would follow him and find out how true it is."