Idealized portrait of Böhme from Theosophia Revelata (1730)
Alt Seidenberg near Görlitz, Upper Lusatia, Holy Roman Empire
17 November 1624|
Görlitz, Upper Lusatia, Holy Roman Empire
Jacob Boehme, Jacob Behmen|
|The mystical being of the deity as the Ungrund ("unground") or the ground without a ground|
Jakob Böhme (/, /; 1575 – 17 November 1624) was a German Christian mystic and theologian. He was considered an original thinker by many of his contemporaries within the Lutheran tradition, and his first book, commonly known as Aurora, caused a great scandal. In contemporary English, his name may be spelled Jacob Boehme; in seventeenth-century England it was also spelled Behmen, approximating the contemporary English pronunciation of the German Böhme.
Böhme was born on 8 March 1575 at Alt Seidenberg (now Stary Zawidów, Poland), a village near Görlitz in Upper Lusatia, a territory of the Kingdom of Bohemia. His father, George Wissen, was Lutheran, reasonably wealthy, but a peasant nonetheless. Böhme was the fourth of five children. Böhme's first job was that of a herd boy. He was, however, deemed to be not strong enough for husbandry. When he was 14 years old, he was sent to Seidenberg, as an apprentice to become a shoemaker. His apprenticeship for shoemaking was hard; he lived with a family who were not Christians, which exposed him to the controversies of the time. He regularly prayed and read the Bible as well as works by visionaries such as Paracelsus, Weigel and Schwenckfeld, although he received no formal education. After three years as an apprentice, Böhme left to travel. Although it is unknown just how far he went, he at least made it to Görlitz. In 1592 Böhme returned from his journeyman years. By 1599, Böhme was master of his craft with his own premises in Görlitz. That same year he married Katharina, daughter of Hans Kuntzschmann, a butcher in Görlitz, and together he and Katharina had four sons and two daughters.
Böhme's mentor was Abraham Behem who corresponded with Valentin Weigel. Böhme joined the "Conventicle of God's Real Servants" - a parochial study group organized by Martin Möller. Böhme had a number of mystical experiences throughout his youth, culminating in a vision in 1600 as one day he focused his attention onto the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish. He believed this vision revealed to him the spiritual structure of the world, as well as the relationship between God and man, and good and evil. At the time he chose not to speak of this experience openly, preferring instead to continue his work and raise a family.
In 1610 Böhme experienced another inner vision in which he further understood the unity of the cosmos and that he had received a special vocation from God.
The shop in Görlitz, which was sold in 1613, had allowed Böhme to buy a house in 1610 and to finish paying for it in 1618. Having given up shoemaking in 1613, Böhme sold woolen gloves for a while, which caused him to regularly visit Prague to sell his wares.
Aurora and writings
Twelve years after the vision in 1600, Böhme began to write his first book, Die Morgenroete im Aufgang (The rising of Dawn). The book was given the name Aurora by a friend; however, Böhme originally wrote the book for himself and it was never completed. A manuscript copy of the unfinished work was loaned to Karl von Ender, a nobleman, who had copies made and began to circulate them. A copy fell into the hands of Gregorius Richter, the chief pastor of Görlitz, who considered it heretical and threatened Böhme with exile if he continued working on it. As a result, Böhme did not write anything for several years; however, at the insistence of friends who had read Aurora, he started writing again in 1618. In 1619 Böhme wrote "De Tribus Principiis" or "On the Three Principles of Divine Being". It took him two years to finish his second book, which was followed by many other treatises, all of which were copied by hand and circulated only among friends. In 1620 Böhme wrote "The Threefold Life of Man", "Forty Questions on the Soul", "The Incarnation of Jesus Christ", "The Six Theosophical Points", "The Six Mystical Points". In 1622 Böhme wrote "De Signatura Rerum". In 1623 Böhme wrote "On Election to Grace", "On Christ's Testaments", "Mysterium Magnum", "Clavis (Key)". The year 1622 saw Böhme write some short works all of which were subsequently included in his first published book on New Year's Day 1624, under the title Weg zu Christo (The Way to Christ).
The publication caused another scandal and following complaints by the clergy, Böhme was summoned to the Town Council on 26 March 1624. The report of the meeting was that:
"Jacob Boehme, the shoemaker and rabid enthusiast, declares that he has written his book To Eternal Life, but did not cause the same to be printed. A nobleman, Sigismund von Schweinitz, did that. The Council gave him warning to leave the town; otherwise the Prince Elector would be apprised of the facts. He thereupon promised that he would shortly take himself off."
Böhme left for Dresden on 8 or 9 May 1624, where he stayed with the court physician for two months. In Dresden he was accepted by the nobility and high clergy. His intellect was also recognized by the professors of Dresden, who in a hearing in May 1624, encouraged Böhme to go home to his family in Görlitz. During Böhme's absence his family had suffered during the Thirty Years' War.
Once home, Böhme accepted an invitation to stay with Herr von Schweinitz, who had a country-seat. While there Böhme began to write his last book, the 177 Theosophic Questions. However, he fell terminally ill with a bowel complaint forcing him to travel home on 7 November. Gregorius Richter, Böhme's adversary from Görlitz, had died in August 1624, while Böhme was away. The new clergy, still wary of Böhme, forced him to answer a long list of questions when he wanted to receive the sacrament. He died on 17 November 1624.
In this short period, Böhme produced an enormous amount of writing, including his major works De Signatura Rerum (The Signature of All Things) and Mysterium Magnum. He also developed a following throughout Europe, where his followers were known as Behmenists.
The son of Böhme's chief antagonist, the pastor primarius of Görlitz Gregorius Richter, edited a collection of extracts from his writings, which were afterwards published complete at Amsterdam with the help of Coenraad van Beuningen in the year 1682. Böhme's full works were first printed in 1730.
The chief concern of Böhme's writing was the nature of sin, evil and redemption. Consistent with Lutheran theology, Böhme preached that humanity had fallen from a state of divine grace to a state of sin and suffering, that the forces of evil included fallen angels who had rebelled against God, and that God's goal was to restore the world to a state of grace.
There are some serious departures from accepted Lutheran theology, however, such as his rejection of sola fide, as in this passage from The Way to Christ:
For he that will say, I have a Will, and would willingly do Good, but the earthly Flesh which I carry about me, keepeth me back, so that I cannot; yet I shall be saved by Grace, for the Merits of Christ. I comfort myself with his Merit and Sufferings; who will receive me of mere Grace, without any Merits of my own, and forgive me my Sins. Such a one, I say, is like a Man that knoweth what Food is good for his Health, yet will not eat of it, but eateth Poison instead thereof, from whence Sickness and Death, will certainly follow.
Another place where Böhme may depart from accepted theology (though this was open to question due to his somewhat obscure, oracular style) was in his description of the Fall as a necessary stage in the evolution of the Universe. A difficulty with his theology is the fact that he had a mystical vision, which he reinterpreted and reformulated. According to F. von Ingen, to Böhme, in order to reach God, man has to go through hell first. God exists without time or space, he regenerates himself through eternity. Böhme restates the trinity as truly existing but with a novel interpretation. God, the Father is fire, who gives birth to his son, whom Böhme calls light. The Holy Spirit is the living principle, or the divine life.
However, it is clear that Böhme never claimed that God sees evil as desirable, necessary or as part of divine will to bring forth good. In his Threefold Life, Böhme states: "[I]n the order of nature, an evil thing cannot produce a good thing out of itself, but one evil thing generates another." Böhme did not believe that there is any "divine mandate or metaphysically inherent necessity for evil and its effects in the scheme of thing." Dr. John Pordage, a commentator on Böhme, wrote that Böhme "whensoever he attributes evil to eternal nature considers it in its fallen state, as it became infected by the fall of Lucifer... ." Evil is seen as "the disorder, rebellion, perversion of making spirit nature's servant", which is to say a perversion of initial Divine order.
Böhme's correspondences in "Aurora" of the seven qualities, planets and humoral-elemental associations:
- 1. Dry - Saturn - melancholy, power of death;
- 2. Sweet - Jupiter - sanguine, gentle source of life;
- 3. Bitter - Mars - choleric, destructive source of life;
- 4. Fire - Sun/Moon - night/day; evil/good; sin/virtue; Moon, later = phlegmatic, watery;
- 5. Love - Venus - love of life, spiritual rebirth;
- 6. Sound - Mercury - keen spirit, illumination, expression;
- 7. Corpus - Earth - totality of forces awaiting rebirth.
In "De Tribus Principiis" or "On the Three Principles of Divine Being" Böhme subsumed the seven principles into the Trinity:
- 1. The "dark world" of the Father (Qualities 1-2-3);
- 2. The "light world" of the Holy Spirit (Qualities 5-6-7);
- 3. "This world" of Satan and Christ (Quality 4).
In one interpretation of Böhme's cosmology, it was necessary for humanity to return to God, and for all original unities to undergo differentiation, desire and conflict—as in the rebellion of Satan, the separation of Eve from Adam and their acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil—in order for creation to evolve to a new state of redeemed harmony that would be more perfect than the original state of innocence, allowing God to achieve a new self-awareness by interacting with a creation that was both part of, and distinct from, Himself. Free will becomes the most important gift God gives to humanity, allowing us to seek divine grace as a deliberate choice while still allowing us to remain individuals.
Böhme saw the incarnation of Christ not as a sacrificial offering to cancel out human sins, but as an offering of love for humanity, showing God's willingness to bear the suffering that had been a necessary aspect of creation. He also believed the incarnation of Christ conveyed the message that a new state of harmony is possible. This was somewhat at odds with Lutheran teachings, and his suggestion that God would have been somehow incomplete without the Creation was even more controversial, as was his emphasis on faith and self-awareness rather than strict adherence to dogma or scripture.
Böhme believed that the Son of God became human through the Virgin Mary. Before the birth of Christ, God recognized himself as a virgin. This virgin is therefore a mirror of God's wisdom and knowledge. Böhme follows Luther (and all Christians), in that he views Mary within the context of Christ. Unlike Luther, he does not address himself to dogmatic issues very much, but to the human side of Mary. Like all other women, she was human and therefore subject to sin. Only after God elected her with his grace to become the mother of his son, did she inherit the status of sinlessness. Mary did not move the Word, the Word moved Mary, so Böhme, explaining that all her grace came from Christ. Mary is "blessed among women" but not because of her qualifications, but because of her humility. Mary is an instrument of God; an example of what God can do: It shall not be forgotten in all eternity, that God became human in her.
Böhme, unlike Luther, did not believe that Mary was the Ever Virgin. Her virginity after the birth of Jesus is unrealistic to Böhme. The true salvation is Christ, not Mary. The importance of Mary, a human like every one of us, is that she gave birth to Jesus Christ as a human being. If Mary had not been human, according to Böhme, Christ would be a stranger and not our brother. Christ must grow in us as he did in Mary. She became blessed by accepting Christ. In a reborn Christian, as in Mary, all that is temporal disappears and only the heavenly part remains for all eternity. Böhme's peculiar theological language, involving fire, light and spirit, which permeates his theology and Marian views, does not distract much from the fact that his basic positions are Lutheran, with the one exception of the virginity of Mary, where he invents a more idiosyncratic view.
Böhme's writing shows the influence of Neoplatonist and alchemical writers such as Paracelsus, while remaining firmly within a Christian tradition. He has in turn greatly influenced many anti-authoritarian and mystical movements, such as the Religious Society of Friends, the Philadelphians, the Gichtelians, the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, the Ephrata Cloister, the Harmony Society, the Zoarite Separatists, Rosicrucianism, Martinism and Christian theosophy. Böhme's disciple and mentor, the Liegnitz physician Balthasar Walther, who had travelled to the Holy Land in search of magical, kabbalistic and alchemical wisdom, also introduced kabbalistic ideas into Böhme's thought. Böhme was also an important source of German Romantic philosophy, influencing Schelling in particular. In Richard Bucke's 1901 treatise Cosmic Consciousness, special attention was given to the profundity of Böhme's spiritual enlightenment, which seemed to reveal to Böhme an ultimate nondifference, or nonduality, between human beings and God. Böhme is also an important influence on the ideas of the English Romantic poet, artist and mystic William Blake.
In addition to the scientific revolution, the 17th century was a time of mystical revolution in Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. The Protestant revolution developed from Böhme and some medieval mystics. Böhme became important in intellectual circles in Protestant Europe, following from the publication of his books in England, Holland and Germany in the 1640s and 1650s. Böhme was especially important for the Millenarians and was taken seriously by the Cambridge Platonists and Dutch Collegiants. Henry More was critical of Böhme and claimed he was not a real prophet, and had no exceptional insight into metaphysical questions. More, for example, dismissed Opera Posthuma by Spinoza as a return to Behmenism.
While Böhme was famous in Holland, England, France, Denmark and America during the 17th century, he became less influential during the 18th century. A revival, however, occurred late in that century with interest from German Romantics, who considered Böhme a forerunner to the movement. Poets such as John Milton, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis and William Blake found inspiration in Böhme's writings. Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, speaks of Böhme with admiration. Böhme was highly thought of by the German philosophers Baader, Schelling and Schopenhauer. Hegel went as far as to say that Böhme was "the first German philosopher." Danish Bishop Hans Lassen Martensen published a book about Böhme.
References by modern authors
His description of the three original Principles and the seven Spirits offers a striking analogy with the Law of Three and the Law of Seven which are described in the works of Boris Mouravieff and George Gurdjieff.
On the "Mappa Mundi" that C. S. Lewis included at the beginning of his novel The Pilgrim's Regress, a region in the far South (the area that, in the novel, symbolizes excessive emotionalism and moral and intellectual dissolution) is identified as "Behmenheim". In his preface to the third edition of the book, Lewis said that this region "is named, unfairly, after Jakob Boehme or Behmen". Like many of the other regions on the map, however, Behmenheim does not figure in the plot of the novel itself.
The epigraph of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: An Evening Redness in the West contains a selection from Böhme, giving readers an insight to major themes of the novel.
- Aurora: Die Morgenröte im Aufgang (unfinished) (1612)
- De Tribus Principiis (The Three Principles of the Divine Essence, 1618–1619)
- The Threefold Life of Man (1620)
- Answers to Forty Questions Concerning the Soul (1620)
- The Treatise of the Incarnations: (1620)
- I. Of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ
- II. Of the Suffering, Dying, Death and Resurrection of Christ
- III. Of the Tree of Faith
- The Great Six Points (1620)
- Of the Earthly and of the Heavenly Mystery (1620)
- Of the Last Times (1620)
- De Signatura Rerum (The Signature of All Things, 1621)
- The Four Complexions (1621)
- Of True Repentance (1622)
- Of True Resignation (1622)
- Of Regeneration (1622)
- Of Predestination (1623)
- A Short Compendium of Repentance (1623)
- The Mysterium Magnum (1623)
- A Table of the Divine Manifestation, or an Exposition of the Threefold World (1623)
- The Supersensual Life (1624)
- Of Divine Contemplation or Vision (unfinished) (1624)
- Of Christ's Testaments (1624)
- I. Baptism
- II. The Supper
- Of Illumination (1624)
- 177 Theosophic Questions, with Answers to Thirteen of Them (unfinished) (1624)
- An Epitome of the Mysterium Magnum (1624)
- The Holy Week or a Prayer Book (unfinished) (1624)
- A Table of the Three Principles (1624)
- Of the Last Judgement (lost) (1624)
- The Clavis (1624)
- Sixty-two Theosophic Epistles (1618–1624)
Books in print
- The Way to Christ (inc. True Repentance, True Resignation, Regeneration or the New Birth, The Supersensual Life, Of Heaven & Hell, The Way from Darkness to True Illumination) edited by William Law, Diggory Press ISBN 978-1-84685-791-1
- Of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, translated from the German by John Rolleston Earle, London, Constable and Company LTD, 1934.
- Mills 2002, p. 16
- "Böhme". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
- Sar Perserverando, Grand Master (2015). An anthology for Martinists. The Hermetic Order of Martinists. p. 3.
- Deussen 1910, p. xxxviii
- Debelius, F.W. (1908). "Boehme, Jakob". In Jackson. New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. 2 (3rd ed.). pp. 209–211.
- Chisholm, ed. (1911). "Boehme, Jakob". Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). p. 114.
- Martensen 1885, p. 13
- Deussen 1910, pp. xli-xlii
- Weeks 1991, p. 2
- Deussen 1910, p. xlviii
- Deussen 1910, pp. xlviii-xlix
- Deussen 1910, pp. xlix-l
- "The Way to Christ". Pass the Word Services.
- F. von Ingen, Jacob Böhme in Marienlexikon, Eos, St. Ottilien 1988, 517
- Ingen 517
- Ingen 518
- Musès, Charles A. Illumination on Jakob Böhme. New York: King's Crown Press, 1951
- Stoudt, John Joseph. Jakob Böhme: His Life and Thought. New York: The Seabury Press, 1968
- Ingen 518.
- Ingen 519
- In several works he used alchemical principles and symbols without hesitation to demonstrate theological realities. Borrowing alchemical terminology in order to explain religious and mystical frameworks, Böhme assumed that alchemical language is not only a metaphor for laboratory research. Alchemy is a metaphysical science because he understood that matter is contaminated with spirit. Calian 2010, p.184.
- See Leigh T.I. Penman, ‘A Second Christian Rosencreuz? Jacob Boehme's Disciple Balthasar Walther (1558-c.1630) and the Kabbalah. With a Bibliography of Walther's Printed Works.’ Western Esotericism. Selected Papers Read at the Symposium on Western Esotericism held at Åbo, Finland, on 15–17 August 2007. (Scripta instituti donneriani Aboensis, XX). T. Ahlbäck, ed. Åbo, Finland: Donner Institute, 2008: 154-172.
- See Schopenhauer's On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Ch II, 8
- Popkin 1998, pp. 401-402
- Popkin 1998, p. 402
- Weeks 1991, pp. 2–3
- Jacob Boehme: his life and teaching. Or Studies in theosophy]
- Bailey, Margaret Lewis (1914). Milton and Jakob Boehme; a study of German mysticism in seventeenth-century England. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Calian, George-Florin (2010). Alkimia Operativa and Alkimia Speculativa. Some Modern Controversies on the Historiography of Alchemy. Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU.
- Deussen, Paul (1910). "Introduction". In Boehme, Jacob. Concerning the three principles of the divine essence. London: John M. Watkins.
- Mills, Jon (2002). The Unconscious Abyss: Hegel's Anticipation of Psychoanalysis. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Martensen, Hans Lassen (1885). Jacob Boehme: his life and teaching, or Studies in theosophy. trans. T. Rhys Evans. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
- Popkin, Richard (1998). "The religious background of seventeenth-century philosophy". In Garber, Daniel; Ayers, Michael. The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. 1. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-53720-9.
- Swainson, William Perkes (1921). Jacob Boehme; the Teutonic philosopher. London: William Rider & Son, Ltd.
- Weeks, Andrew (1991). Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth-Century Philosopher and Mystic. State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-0596-3.
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- Works by Jakob Böhme at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Jakob Böhme at Internet Archive
- Works by Jakob Böhme at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Jacob Boehme Online
- The Correspondence of Jakob Böhme in EMLO
- Jacob Boehme Resources
- Large electronic text archive of Jacob Boehme in English
- The Way to Christ in English translation
- A Modern Gnostic from Paul Carus' History of the Devil (1900).
- Boehme: The Ungrund and Freedom, by Nikolai Berdyaev
- Boehme: The Teaching about Sophia, by Nikolai Berdyaev
- The Writings of Jane Lead, Christian Mystic, Prolific visionary writer and follower of Jacob Boehme.