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Boehme, Jakob (1575–1624)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-K005-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 12, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/boehme-jakob-1575-1624/v-1

Article Summary

Boehme was a Lutheran mystic and pantheist. He held that God is the Abyss that is the ground of all things. The will of the Abyss to know itself generates a process that gives rise to nature, which is thus the image of God. Life is characterized by a dualistic struggle between good and evil; only by embracing Christ’s love can unity be regained. Boehme was highly regarded by such diverse writers as Law, Newton, Goethe and Hegel.

A Lutheran theosopher, with a predilection for both mysticism and philosophy of nature, Jakob Boehme was a Silesian, a native of Alt Seidelberg near Görlitz. Situated between Catholic Poland and Lutheran Saxony, Silesia was a haven for heterodoxies in the late sixteenth century, although its tradition of hospitality ended abruptly with the Thirty Years War. Boehme spent most of his life in Görlitz, as a member of the Cobblers’ Guild. He was an astute businessman, who had no formal training in the liberal arts but read voraciously and wrote inspiringly. His first mystical experience was in 1600, when he contemplated the ‘Being of all beings, the Byss and the Abyss’ in the sunlight reflected in a pewter dish.

Published in 1612, Morgenröthe im Anfang (The Red Light at Dawn) was Boehme’s first attempt at solving the problem of theodicy. It immediately incurred the condemnation of Görlitz’s Lutheran church. He was forbidden to write further, but his reputation was established. Boehme kept silent for seven years and then released the Beschreibung der drey Principien Göttliches Wesen (Concerning the Three Principles of the Divine Essence) in 1619, and Hohe und tieffe Grund von dem drey fachen Leben des Menschen (The High and Deep Searching Out of the Threefold Life of Man), De incarnatione verbi (On the Incarnation of the Word), Sechs theosophischen Puncten (Six Theosophic Points) and Kurtze Erklärung von Sechs mystischen Puncten (Short Exposition of Six Mystical Points) in 1620. A large commentary on Genesis, Mysterium magnum (The Great Mystery), came out in 1623, followed in 1624 by a collection of small treatises, Der Weg zu Christo (The Way to Christ). Written in 1622, De signatura rerum (The Signature of All Things) was posthumously published in 1635.

Like Valentin Weigel (1533–88), a subjective pantheist, Boehme began with the self, but he emphasized its will. The self, the source of all knowledge, is derived from the universal feeling for life (Lebensgefühl). Boehme saw himself as an agent of the Spirit, which, in his worldview, began the process of self-understanding that culminated in the inner vision of a universally present and active Christ. What is God? He is the Abyss (Ungrund), the ground of all things, the undifferentiated absolute, the eternal, natureless, unconscious Nothing that lies at the foundation of everything. At the core of the Abyss lies a will to self-intuition. This will initiates the process of self-knowledge, and its outgoing dynamic activity creates the inner world, which is the prototype of the outer world. In the self-noetic process, the will of the Nothing searches for something and discovers it within itself. Eternal nature finds its being in this process. With differentiation emerge evil, dualism and conflict. Boehme’s voluntarism, which bears Luther’s mark, is coupled with the doctrine of the Trinity and flavoured with the Manichean dualism of light and darkness, good and evil, love and hatred, grace and wrath.

For Boehme, nature is the image of God; he thus formulated the identity of God with nature half a century before Spinoza (§2). He also framed a theory of seven natural properties. In a letter dating from 11 November 1623, which furnishes a clear compendium of his metaphysics, Boehme defines these seven properties as desire, sensation, anxiety, fire, light, sound and being. The Trinity arises from the unfathomable will of the Father, which creates for all eternity the unfathomable will of the Son; from both emanates the Spirit, the ‘moving life’ that mirrors both the Father and the Son. History is where the struggle for life unfolds, which Boehme describes as a fight between good and evil, where the decision for or against God is made. Meaning is to be found in Christ. The purpose of life is to retrieve the lost unity by allowing the fire of love, Christ’s heart, to embrace everything. Life should therefore be an imitation of Christ’s suffering and triumph.

Boehme’s theosophy, which can be characterized as a preparation for the mystical acknowledgement of Christ, shows the influence of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, kabbalism, Paracelsian pansophism, Caspar Schwenckfeld’s spiritualism, and Sebastian Franck’s humanistic illuminism. Boehme’s influence has been considerable. He was the most often translated German author of the seventeenth century. Descartes, Spinoza, the Cambridge Platonists and Newton read his works. His cosmic, metaphysical and ethical dualism enchanted the Romantics Novalis, Tieck and Goethe. Hegel celebrated him as the first true German philosopher, and Schelling owed to him his philosophy of identity. Besides a crucial influence on the devotional writer William Law, the quietist Antoinette Bourignon and the poet William Blake, Boehme had an ecclesiastical following in the Low Countries (The Invisible Church of the Angel’s Brothers) and in England (The Philadelphians).

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Citing this article:
Seban, Jean-Loup. Boehme, Jakob (1575–1624), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/boehme-jakob-1575-1624/v-1.
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