Review of Boehme, Western Esoteric Masters

Jacob Boehme (Western Esoteric Masters)
by Robin Waterfield
Edition: Paperback

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An introduction to The Teutonic Philosopher, 21 Jan. 2008
Edit Review
Delete Review
This review is from: Jacob Boehme (Western Esoteric Masters) (Paperback)

Heavily influenced by German Spiritual, Kaspar Schwenkfeld, as well as by the Hermetica, the Jewish Zohar, alchemy and astrology, Böhme (1575-1624) always remained a practising member of the Lutheran Church – even though he and his family was persecuted by it. In England he is best known for his influence on seventeenth century sects and yet Böhme himself shows very little interest in sectarianism. In the Third Book of Regeneration he tells us that the `true Christian is of no sect’. Although Böhme went out of fashion for a while, his ideas received the patronage (ironically) of Charles I and were very much in the air whilst Milton was writing Paradise Lost. Others he influenced include: Law, Wesley, Blake, Morgan Llwyd, the Philadelphian Society and the Romantic Movement.

Böhme was born at Alt Seidenberg near Görlitz, Silesia some three decades after Luther’s death. The Reformers were creating their own orthodoxy and attempting to stamp out heterodox strands of theology. Görlitz found itself far to the east of the epicentre of orthodox Lutheranism’s influence and the province of Lusatia became a focus for dissent and a centre in its own right for humanist thought. The astrological advances of Nikolai Kopernik and those in the medical field by Paracelsus were overturning some of the global misconceptions that Lutheranism had inherited from its parent-enemy, Rome. Lutheranism’s block on free-thinking would mean that many further scientific developments were put `on hold’ until the rise of Puritanism in England.

Schwenkfeld emerges as his single biggest influence and yet Böhme was his posthumous pupil, critic and revisionist at the same time. The German-speaking world was brimming over with alternative sects including those with Anabaptist roots – a dangerous association considering what had happened at Münster. Another unexpected influence arrived in Germany in time to influence Böhme. Calling for a Reformatio Nova, Rosicrucian leaflets began to appear – first in Cassel, but later over a wider geographical area.

It seems unlikely that a shoemaker (cf. later Quaker, Fox, who was clearly influenced by Böhme) would have created such a corpus. However, Böhme was only working in shoemaking because he was in too poor health to continue his family’s yeoman farming business. How he developed such literary skills and learned so much remains a mystery. We do know that when Martin Moller became Primarius he established a study group who were self-defined as `The Conventicle of God’s Real Servants’ and Böhme was an enthusiastic participant. Moller was certainly a well-read man with some interest in mystical Christianity. However, Böhme had already had a strange experience when the sun shone on a pewter mug before him and he claimed that the hidden secrets of nature had been revealed to him. It may not have been the first as we also know that as a child, he and some friends claimed to have found a large trove of money in a cave, which was never seen again. In 1610, he claimed to experience a special calling from the Divine and in January 1612 he started work on Morgenrote im Anfang oder Aurora. It was complete by Whitsuntide.

Moller left Görlitz to be replaced by the stringently orthodox, Gregor Richter. According to Böhme he was not simply orthodox, he was a coarse, ignorant alcoholic. What the true motivation behind fellow Conventicle member, Carl von Ender’s, decision to copy and circulate the Aurora text was we may never know. In July 1613 Richter had the shoemaker arrested. Indeed he played on the image of a poorly-educated tradesperson, accusing him of being `smelly’. However, Böhme was released on condition that he refrained from writing further. It was clear to Paracelsian student, Balthasar Walter that Böhme’s work was of great potential influence. He joined Böhme’s extensive family at his house for several months, drawing Böhme into a network of physicians and Paracelsian scholars which included Johann Huser and Tobias Kobler. Although it is not given any attention by Waterfield, the changes in Böhme’s theosophy may have accelerated at this point.

Ironically, Böhme’s first formal appearance in print took place only in the last year of his life – perhaps the most eventful. Der Weg zu Christo was published by Abraham von Frankenburg and was a collection of writings. The Way to Christ operated almost in a coded language accessible only to his followers. Richter was infuriated. In March 1624 the Council decided that Böhme was a delusional fantasist and that he must `pitch his tent elsewhere’. The events that followed brought Böhme to a state of physical exhaustion. Even in death he was not afforded peace.

Waterfield provides not only an interesting selection of longer extracts, but also a good biography and reasonable introduction to his philosophy. The texts follow Sparrow’s seventeenth century translations. Unfortunately, Waterfield equates coming to terms with Böhme with coming to terms with alchemical studies – which is only partly fair. There are indeed some very unfamiliar concepts in a Christian context – such as Grund und Ungrund (Byss and Abyss). The latter is die ewige Stille (eternal rest) but it is not static. Rather, it is a dynamic and ever-increasing perfection. Movement cannot exist without internal opposition and Böhme goes on to describe the 7 `Forms’ of Nature: Harshness, Attraction, Bitterness, Fire, Light, Sound and, finally, Figure – the realisation of the whole. The first six forms parallel the six days of creation and St Augustine’s perfect number.

Waterfield’s decision to focus on texts with an alchemical background is redeemed by his quoting of Böhme at his most direct. On the question of where the Soul goes after death, Böhme states: `It has no need to go; it has heaven and hell within itself. The Kingdom of God is within you – Heaven and Hell are within one another.’ Perhaps this makes up for the lack of emphasis on what Böhme would have wanted to leave as a one line message: that the Husk of the old man needs to be cast away to give birth to the New Man.