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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XII. William Law and the Mystics

§ 8. 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.

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. 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.” 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: will or desire as the original force; contrast or duality as the condition of all manifestation; the relation of the hidden and the manifest; development as a progressive unfolding of difference, with a final resolution into unity. The practical and ethical result of this living unity of nature is simple. Boehme’s philosophy is one which can only be apprehended by living it. Will, or desire, is the root-force in man as it is in nature and in the God-head, and, until this is turned towards the light, any purely historical or intellectual knowledge of these things is as useless as if hydrogen were to study all the qualities of oxygen, expecting thus to become water; whereas, what is needed is the actual union of the elements.