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Jakob Böhme - Biography

Jakob Böhme’s name takes on multiple spellings and he can be found under Böhme, Boehme and even Behmen. He was born in April 1575 in the German town, Alt Seidenberg, and died in Görlitz during the month of November in 1624. Jakob Böhme was a mystic and theologian whose knowledge derived from revelation and contemplation rather than from traditional academic study. And while his own spiritual path was of utmost importance, he wrote not on his personal spirituality, but of that which inspired it and that he believed effects all persons—God, man, and being in the world. Jakob Böhme was a practicing Lutheran, though maintained many differences with the church yet it was these differences that very much inspired his thinking. For him, suffering, negativity and the finite nature of being were necessary effects of being in the world as their creative actions enabled God to achieve self-awareness. It is in this way that he understood God; understanding God through man, through which one can trace the theological transitions from Medieval thought to the Reformation and Renaissance modes of thought.

While he was born in Alt Seidenberg Jakob Böhme spent the majority of his life in the nearby town, Görlitz, in Upper Lusatia, now divided between Germany and Poland. The son of a farmer, he was one of five children from humble origins though fairly well off for the peasant class. He began school at the state school of Seidenberg in 1581 and first worked as a herder, though was not physically adept for the job. He eventually became a shoe cobbler by profession after working as an apprentice for three years. He traveled for two years visiting Oberlausitz in Niederschlesian and Böhmen where he met Caspar Schwenckfelds, a teacher of the Reformation whose writings became influential. After receiving an invitation from his friend, Dr. Tobias Kober and Abraham von Frankenberg, Jakob Böhme moved to Görlitz in 1594 where he would, essentially, spend the rest of his life.

By April of 1599 Jakob Böhme is officially recognized as a citizen of Görlitz and a “Master” having established his own business as a cobbler. He married Katharina Kuntzschmann, the daughter of a local butcher, a month later. They produced four sons, whom all became craftsmen, and two daughters. From January until June 1612 Jakob Böhme was able to capture his twelve years of study and reflection on science, astronomy and philosophy in Die Morgenröte im Aufgang, which later became known as the Latin Aurora. This work already encapsulated most of the essential elements that appear in his later works, but it remained unfinished. Karl Ender von Sercha received a copy of the work and was very much responsible for spreading the text and hence the emerging ideas of Jakob Böhme. This, it is believed, led to his selling his shoe shop in March of 1612 to pursue writing. A year later in June, Aurora became known in Görlitz and was not well received by the church authorities, in particular the orthodox Lutheran Gregor Richter who declared it heretical and would continue to be an opponent of Jakob Böhme throughout his life. Later in the year of 1613 the conservative Lutheran was able to legally censure Jakob Böhme’s work; the censorship lasted until 1620 yet Jakob Böhme began writing privately again in 1618.

Jakob Böhme and his wife moved into the yarn trade in the rural markets outside of the town for their income. This became a trying endeavor as there was a ban on linens and yarns coming from the rural markets in Görlitz, and his wife was arrested for black market trading. Many have surmised that her arrest was a means of punishment against Jakob Böhme and his ideas. And in fact later that month he was himself charged with black market sales of yarn, which forced him to have to trade in far away regions to earn an income. While this was at first a challenge it proved to be a positive outcome as he met many new friends and supporters.

The Thirty Years War broke out in 1619 and by 1620, due to the various political upheavals and transformations, Jakob Böhme was no longer censored and was able to write freely again. Thus began an extremely dedicated period of writing over the next four years. He then incurred more troubles with church and city authorities due to his book, Weg zu Christo (The Way to Christ), which has become his most widely known and read text. His main opponent, Gregor Richter, deemed it as an attack against the government and in March 1624 Jakob Böhme was forced to leave Görlitz. In a later trial however, the heretical materials in question proved to have not been released by himself, but rather by a Sigismund von Schweinitz. Thus his expulsion was overturned yet he was still advised that he stay away from Görlitz for a time. He left for Dresden on the invitation of local nobility remaining there until October when he was no longer considered a threat to Görlitz and allowed to return. (It is worth noting that his adversary, Gregor Richter, had died just two months prior to this in August). In line with his theological beliefs and theories, Jakob Böhme considered his treatment during these periods of censorship as abusive yet as well they were his passion, in the biblical meaning as well such that he saw it as a sign of the victory of Christ.

In his youth Jakob Böhme had three extremely important mystical experiences that brought him closer to understanding the origin, the Urgrund, in which exists all contradictory principles such as heaven and hell, love and hate, evil and goodness. One such vision occurred in 1600 when a ray of sun, or a ‘sunbeam’, fell upon a pewter dish and producing a luminous sheen. In this moment Jakob Böhme found himself ensconced within a deep sense of revelry as he felt that he had seen the spiritual structure of the world in which he perceived the visible world as a reflection of the spiritual world. Although Aurora would not be written until twelve years after this occurrence, the experience encouraged him to begin to compose his thoughts on spirituality and the nature of the world.

Jakob Böhme’s ultimate concern lay in his attempt to comprehend the transition from the Godhead’s all-expansive unity to its self-imposed position of limitation and multiplicity. (Godhead is God yet it specifically refers to the Trinity, which is created through God’s longing for self-awareness). He argued that such limitation was needed for the Godhead to be able to recognize itself as God—to become fully self-aware. In the infinite, God knows no beginning and no end; in the finite God finds himself, and this dialectical push for self-awareness is what Jakob Böhme understood as having created both the spiritual and the material universe. This struggle, and the inherent struggle in the world, is seen as positive as it gives form to God and enables Him to materialize. This visibility then leads to understanding, will and action. Yet, because God exists in the Urgrund, which is beyond all limitations, opposition cannot simply exist and making manifest remains elusive—it remains a “nothingness” (ein Nichts). Jakob Böhme further questioned this nothingness and its relationship to longing, the foundation for his concept of the abyss, questioning the possibility for which the eternal “no-thing” can even have an experience of longing. For to come into being it was necessary for God to cancel his own essence and eternal freedom, even if this could result in a distortion of the desired attainment.

In concert with these concerns Jakob Böhme developed his concept of the abyss in which God’s position to man flips such that God is positioned below “us”. In German theology this corresponds to God being the source of all things and it is accepted as the foundation for piety. The abyss, as Jakob Böhme understands it, has the possibility of becoming manifest with the first step being “longing.” This “longing,” in its ability for self-awareness, was considered as essential in the development towards self-manifestation even though a perceived distortion of its inner being can result. Based upon this seeming contradiction, Jakob Böhme expounded upon the development of a world-creative process with God contracting then fiercely expanding, resulting in bitterness and wrath, which would then continually turn upon itself, devouring its own substance. This self-destruction was seen as essential to the foundation for life, joy and light. Therefore, “Grimmigkeit” (‘grimness’) can be seen as producing all things and resulting in divine love.

Jakob Böhme believed that the interaction between these two principles, that of divine wrath and divine love, produced the creative impulse out of which the manifold universe evolved. The universe is sustained by the dynamic nature of divine wrath and love as all things embody both these positive and negative elements. Yet, moving beyond the first stage of divine wrath, a third stage is reached and realized in the Holy Spirit, which demonstrates the never-ending movement between the first two. And for Jakob Böhme the Holy Spirit is the living breath of the Cosmos.

His thoughts that develop here are actually quite modern in that they promote a sense of dynamism and freedom. In his view, the world has broken free from its endlessly inert and stagnant structure and is no longer confined to a strict hierarchical system. The world’s struggles and fiery nature results in an energetic process that involves both man and nature. His originality in thought is in light of the way in which he addressed the issue of God’s eternal oneness with the multiplicity of the physical universe. He approached this classical philosophical problem through a structural subject-object polarity in which he reasoned that only through God revealing himself to himself would he obtain knowledge of himself, culminating in the necessity for beings to whom and through whom the revelation would occur.

Although he was not formally trained, Jakob Böhme was intelligently self-taught. He read the Bible extensively, listened to numerous sermons and engaged in works by Paracelsus, Weigel, Sebastian Franck, and Caspar Schwenckfeld. Furthermore, the external factors of Jakob Böhme’s life cannot be separated from his spiritual development or from his relationship to the contemporaneous theoretical and theological currents of his time. He was as well quite aware of the natural sciences, astrology, alchemy and the mystical and religious literature of his time and engaged with many of the contemporary thinkers of the era, through both his travels and his connections in Görlitz. Overall, Jakob Böhme was searching for a divine knowledge, one that he felt could not be found in academia or the accepted texts of his time and tradition. Above all he believed that God could only be found in one’s own heart and, though he was not trapped or fooled by subjective experience alone, he was very much an intuitive thinker. He would often make use of symbols from Christian and alchemical sources in his writings and freely interpret foreign words. This combined with his awkward prose and self-taught knowledge of science and philosophy often masks the actual depth of his insights and ideas. One can see the seeds of Gnosticism, as well as the anticipation of Newton’s formula for the first three properties of eternal nature, which also signal the three apxai of Friederich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s “Theogonische Natur”.

Jakob Böhme’s influence on German philosophy has been widespread, though it is not always directly apparent. It is obvious, however, in the work of Franz Xaver von Baader and Friederich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and is as well perceived in Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer; and overall during the period of Romanticism as his thoughts, and his primary belief in a personal spirituality, were not shackled by dogma and church hierarchy. Thus, these ideas also had a profound effect on contemporary Protestantism and were brought to the “New World” by the English Behmenists who eventually fused with the Quakers. His impact continues to be acknowledged, especially with the more recent and renewed appreciation of his importance in the history of philosophy. Through the importance he placed on the power of the will he conceived ideas for an innovative metaphysics and modern concepts of the will in philosophy have roots in these views, on the need for suffering and strife in the material and spiritual realms.