Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) was a German religious mystic from the town of Goerlitz (Zgorzelec in Polish) in Silesia, on the Polish side of the Oder river just across from eastern Germany. A cobbler by profession, he was an autodidact much influenced by Paracelsus, the Kabbala, astrology, alchemy, and the Hermetic tradition (Peuckert, 1924 101; Merkel 302-310; Hvolbel 6-17). He experienced a seminal religious epiphany in 1600, when a ray of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish catapulted him into an ecstatic vision of the Godhead as penetrating all existence, including even the Abyss of Non-being. This and other mystical experiences caused Boehme to write a series of obscure but powerful religious treatises. According to him, negativity, finitude, and suffering are essential aspects of the Deity, for it is only through the participatory activity of his creatures that God achieves full self-consciousness of his own nature.
Boehme's first treatise, entitled Aurora, or Die Morgenroete im Aufgang (1612), expressed his insights in an abstruse, oracular style. This work aroused profound interest among a small circle of followers, but it also provoked the heated opposition of the authorities. After being prosecuted by the local pastor of Goerlitz, Boehme had to promise on pain of imprisonment to cease writing. This judgment he obeyed for five years, until, unable to restrain himself any longer, he began writing again in secret for private circulation among friends. The publication of his Weg zu Christo (Way to Christ) in 1623 by one of these friends led to renewed persecutions. Banished from Goerlitz, Boehme lived for a time in Dresden and on the country estates of wealthy supporters. Finally, stricken by illness in 1624, he returned home and died in the same year.
Boehme's bold speculations about development within the Godhead, as well as his rejection of narrow dogmatism and bibliolatry, were to exercise a profound influence on contemporary Protestantism, both in Germany and elsewhere. The English Behmenists (followers of Boehme) merged with the Quakers, who then carried his ideas into the New World. In his own country, the major impact of Boehme was on German Romanticism, notably on the ideas of G.W.F. Hegel, F. von Baader, and F.W.J. von Schelling. Reverberations of his thought continue today, especially among theosophists, Christian mystics, and dialectical theologians.
Principal Philosophical and Theological Ideas
Boehme's primary religious project was the attempt to think through the transition from the Godhead's illimitable oneness to its self-imposed aspect of limitation. This limitation was necessary, Boehme maintained, in order for the Godhead to be able to apprehend itself as God. The Deity needed to experience his epiphany in nature in order to become fully self-conscious. "In his depth," Boehme wrote, "God himself does not know what he is. For he knows no beginning, and also nothing like himself, and also no end. . . ." (SS, vol. 1, Aurora, ch. 23, #17; cf. Works, vol. 1, Aurora, ch. 23, #18).
In the finite creature, however, God found his own revelation reflected as in a mirror. Boehme reasoned that because God desired to reveal himself to himself, and because revelation required a sensible (i.e. experienceable) embodiment, therefore God had to become sensible in order to satisfy his need for self-revelation. Thus, the dialectical drive toward self-awareness within God's originally inchoate will was what gave rise to the spiritual as well as the material universe.
Boehme elaborated a rudimentary form of dialectic, consisting of positive
and negative polar principles. These principles, he said, emerged out
the Godhead's originally undifferentiated non-being (das Nichts), also
described as the primordial Abyss, or "Ungrund," and then developed through
ordered stages of manifestation toward complete self-revelation. In a vivid,
often dramatic style, Boehme portrayed the development from God's quiescent
eternality toward his creation of, and active embodiment in, the physical
In the non-natural, uncreaturely Godhead (Gottheit) there is nothing more than a single will, which is also called the one God, who wants nothing else except to find and grasp himself, to go out of himself, and by means of this outgoing to bring himself into visibility (Beschaulichkeit). This Beschaulichkeit is to be understood as comprising the three-fold character of the Godhead, as well as the mirror of his wisdom and the eye by which he sees (SS, vol. 6, Von der Gnaden-Wahl, ch. 1, #9; cf. Works, vol. 4, On the Election to Grace, ##10-13).
One of Boehme's most daring conceptions was that God's emergence out of
pure Oneness into differentiated actuality required a confrontation with
contrariety and opposition. It was out of this creative struggle that the
sensible universe issued forth. Boehme held that it was inevitable and even
desirable that conflict and suffering should have arisen. These negative
elements were the motivating spurs that stimulated the production of all
the manifold phenomena of nature. Moreover, it was solely through the struggle
with negativity that the minds of finite creatures could become aware of
themselves, their world, and ultimately God:
If the natural life had no opposition (Widerwaertigkeit), and were without a goal, then it would never ask for its own ground, from which it came; then the hidden God would remain unknown to the natural life . . . there would be no sensation, nor will, nor activity, nor understanding (SS, vol. 4, Weg zu Christo, "Von Goettlicher Beschaulichkeit," ch. 1, #9; cf. Way to Christ 196).
If the hidden God, who is but a Single Essence and Will, had not of his
own will gone forth out of himself, if he had not issued out of the eternal
knowing . . . into a divisibility of the will (Schiedlichkeit des Willens),
and had not the same divisibility into comprehensibility (Infasslichkeit)
conducted to a natural and creaturely life, and were it not the case that
this same divisibility in life consisted in strife -- how else then could
he have wanted the hidden will of God, who in himself is but One, to be
revealed? How might a will within a Single Unity be a knowledge of himself
(Erkenntnis seiner selber)? (ibid., #10)
In God's quest for self-manifestation, however, there lurked an implicit dilemma. On the one hand, his eternal purity and freedom consisted in the condition of the Ungrund, which transcended all limitations. On the other hand, the very absence of oppositions within this Ungrund meant that it was incapable of either manifesting or apprehending itself -- it was, in fact, a "nothingness" (ein Nichts).
Boehme next faced the question how to explain the manner in which the eternal "no-thing" could experience longing in the first place. In order to manifest himself, it seemed that God had to negate his own essence and eternal freedom. But even assuming such an act were possible, how would it qualify as a true revelation? Would it not rather be a distortion of what it was seeking to make manifest? Evidently, this primal Abyss was only relatively, not absolutely, "unreal." Its "no-thingness" was somewhat analogous to the indeterminate ain soph in the Kabbala. Although undifferentiated, the Abyss possessed the inherent potentiality to become something actual and concrete; and the first manifestation of this potentiality, according to Boehme, was the experience of a "hunger" or, as he otherwise expressed it, a "longing." As the will of the unmanifest Godhead sought to reveal itself in its primordial freedom -- that is, as containing no other features or attributes than the mere will to become sensible -- all that this will could possibly bring forth was "the quality of hunger, which it itself . . . [was]" (SS, vol. 6, De Signatura Rerum, ch. 2, #7; cf. Works, vol. 4, The Signature of All Things, ch. 2, #10). This will, by means of becoming desire, could find and feel itself, and in so doing it had taken an important step toward self-manifestation. Yet what this will-as-desire initially revealed was only an imperfect reflection of its inner essence. The spiritual hunger began as a "darkness," obscuring the purity of the Ungrund.
Once having established the existence of a primal "darkness," Boehme next proceeded to elicit a series of developmental stages through which, as he maintained, the world-creative process necessarily had to pass. The impetus came from the contradictory character of a situation that could not endure, inasmuch as the "darkness" covering the will conflicted with the purpose that had first given rise to it. Consequently, a second will came into being, whose aim was to return again into the original condition of unity, while at the same time keeping hold of the darkness, which thus far had been the only product of God's will toward manifestation. The result was a movement of drawing in upon itself, a contraction into a core of being. This core then became the ground (Grund) of all subsequent stages (ibid, #8; cf. Eng. trans., #11).
Now, because the introverted "longing" appeared to be incapable of ever finding satisfaction, it took the form of a fierce and chaotic "fire" that burned without giving light. This was the quality of divine wrath or bitterness (Grimmigkeit), which perpetually turned in upon itself and consumed its own substance (SS, vol. 2, Beschreibung der Drey Principien Goettliches Wesens, chs. 1-2; cf. Works, vol.1, The Three Principles of the Divine Essence, chs. 1-2). This self-destructive activity caused tremendous pain and anguish within the divine nature, the first suffering that the universe had ever known. Boehme described this first principle as "the craving to draw into itself."
Yet despite the destructive aspect of the divine wrath, it was, according
to Boehme, essential as the foundation for all subsequent developments.
Without it, there could have been neither light nor life nor joy of any
kind. Hence, the Grimmigkeit could in a sense be described as the generator
of all things: as God the Father. When the first principle turned its primordial
bitterness upon itself, there transpired a dramatic reversal. The anguished
negation of free self-manifestation was itself negated: With a violent thunderclap,
the harsh first principle overcame its own harshness, and a joyous light
supervened (ibid., ch. 2, #9). This symbolized the emergence of harmony
and order out of the original chaos. Triumphant was the second principle,
that of divine love, which Boehme also characterized as God the Son.
Boehme taught that the interaction between these two principles of the divine wrath and love produced the creative impulse out of which the manifold universe evolved. Moreover, the two cooperative forces did not cease to be productive after the universe's creation, for both are necessary also in order to sustain it. All things consist of positive and negative aspects, the divine Yes and No (SS, vol. 9, Theosophische Fragen, ch. 3, #2). In the present age, however, the first principle is no longer violent or chaotic, having been transmuted by the influence of the second principle. Indeed, Boehme's third major principle, identified with the Holy Spirit, is precisely the continual movement between the first two: It is the living breath of the cosmos (Gnaden-Wahl, ch. 1, #24; Eng. trans., #29).
It is perhaps useful to restate briefly Boehme's main problematic in more
standard philosophical terminology:
Boehme's speculations led him to the idea that the first schism within the will of God had to materialize in the form of a concrete self-alienation. He argued (in effect) that there must be a transition between (1) the potential polarity involved in positing an unmanifest non-being's need to become manifest to itself, and (2) the coming-into-existence of a being that was manifest, and yet also contrary to itself. The unmanifest Godhead was prior to all existence and as such absolutely homogeneous; and yet -- this was the first paradox -- it included an inherent tendency to differentiate itself into contraries. Thus the undifferentiated unity passed into the self-differentiating unity. The latter, like the Logos of Heraklitus, contained in posse the germs of a balance of opposites, whose hypothetical contrariety was of such a kind -- and this was the second paradox -- that their transition into concrete actuality was necessary. In this way, the hidden dialectic of God issued forth into the manifest dialectic of nature, and with that, the sensible universe was created.
If one makes allowances for the fanciful quality of Boehme's modes of expression, one can see him wrestling with a classic philosophical problem: namely, how to understand the relationship between God's timeless unity and the multiplicity of the actual universe. Part of what made this problem so formidable was that it involved trying, in a way, to "conceive" of a connection between the conceivable and that which (by hypothesis) is inconceivable.
Since God was the inconceivable essence par excellence, it was a riddle to comprehend how or why this essence could have rendered itself understandable, even if only to a degree. The question was, why should the Deity not far rather remain inscrutable, forever wrapped in absolute mystery? The originality of Boehme's approach consisted in giving the problem a self-referential twist -- in the claim that God would have no knowledge of himself if he did not reveal himself to himself. Inasmuch as revelation consists in a kind of experience, it must require a structural subject-object polarity. Hence, it would follow that God's self-revelation simultaneously implied the existence of a creation and creatures to whom, and through whom, the revelation would take place.
One can easily appreciate how repugnant these ingenious but unorthodox reflections must have been to the Lutheran authorities of his own time. Yet the same features that outraged many of his contemporaries were qualities that ensured his continuing appeal for posterity. Although Boehme's manner of reasoning was far from rigorous, yet viewed as an attempt to account for the emergence of multiplicity out of unity, and existence out of possibility, his thought is richly suggestive.
Recently, there has been a growing appreciation of Boehme's importance in
the history of philosophy. His emphasis on the primacy of the will led him
to sketch out the principles for an innovative metaphysics, an alternative
to the mechanistic determinism that became dominant in Europe for over two
centuries. By focusing on the experiences of lack, need, striving, and conflict
as fundamental dimensions of both human and the divine life, he paved the
way for modern philosophies of the will. One scholar has for this reason
called Boehme "the first significant voluntarist" in Western thought
Notable also were his efforts to work out a theogony which was simultaneously a cosmogony -- an equivalence based on the principle of the close interrelationship between God's self-consciousness and his self-revelation. This principle has since played a pivotal (and controversial) role in modern religious thought. Boehme's thesis that God's coming to self-consciousness was a genetic process led to a new model for revelation, one involving the mediation of successive creations through pre-mundane as well as worldly time. Indeed, it is perhaps not too much to say that Boehme was the first to attempt thinking through the historicity of the Absolute.
To sum up, Boehme's elaboration of a theosophy based on the interactions of divine wrath, love, and movement lacked rigor and consistency. His writing had an ecstatic, visionary style. It is evident that he conceived of his divine principles not as objective laws but as the supernatural fusion of psychological and alchemical properties. Their nature was, to him, dynamically volitional rather than formally logical. Yet no doubt it was partly for these very qualities that Boehme's principles did much to inspire subsequent thinkers, especially his ideas concerning the nature of God's innermost being in relation to the manifest universe.