Jacob Boehme was born in the little village of Alt Seidenburg, near Goerlitz, in 1575. Although his Theosophical co-workers, Giordano Bruno and Robert Fludd, incarnated in families of wealth and distinction, Boehme was the son of poor German peasants. It would be useless to speculate about the complications of Karma which led him into a life filled with such apparent obstacles. The point to be observed is that he turned his difficulties into opportunities for growth, and, as Mr. Judge says, “There can be no manner of doubt about his succeeding incarnation. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita, he has been or will shortly be ‘born into a family of wise devotees,’ and thence ‘he will attain the highest walk.'”
It is quite evident that Jacob Boehme grasped the fundamental truths of the ancient Wisdom-Religion without being able to express them in a clear and lucid form. His Theosophical knowledge, however, did not come to him through books, for, although he learned to read and write, his education stopped at that point. This, however, did not keep the knowledge he had acquired in past lives from welling into his mind. Nor did it prevent the living Guardians of eternal Truth from aiding him and using him as their agent. H.P.B. calls him the “nursling of the Nirmanakayas.”
His inner vision having opened at an early age, Jacob Boehme, like all probationers, had to pass through certain moral tests before he was allowed to use his occult powers. One day, while he was tending his father’s cattle, he had a vision of a great vault filled with money, which he knew would be his for the taking. He interpreted the vision symbolically and determined then and there never to use his occult powers for selfish purposes. His second occult experience happened shortly afterward in the bootmaker’s shop where he was working as an apprentice. A stranger entered the shop to buy a pair of shoes. As he left, he turned to the young boy and said, “Jacob, thou art small now; but thou wilt become a great man, and wilt cause much wonder in the world.” He then warned the boy of the poverty, sorrow and persecution which awaited him, admonishing him to lead a pure and virtuous life and to remain true to his convictions. This strange experience made a profound impression upon Boehme’s mind, and he began to practice charity, patience and resignation, fully aware that these virtues must be acquired before divine illumination could take place.
This attitude, firmly and consistently maintained, brought about his first “illumination,” and for seven days he was in a state of “ecstasy.” During those days much of the knowledge he had gained in former lives returned to him. He realized that duty, well-performed, is the highest form of Yoga, and began to apply his knowledge in the humble tasks of his every day life, becoming, as a result, an excellent shoemaker. At the age of nineteen his apprenticeship ended, and he became a journeyman shoemaker. When he was twenty-one he married a simple peasant girl, and from their union four sons were born, each of whom followed his father’s profession.
Boehme’s second “illumination” occurred when he was twenty-five — in that fatal year of 1600 when Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. On this occasion “Nature opened wide the portals of her secret chambers and laid bare before his gaze the treasures hidden in the very depths of her pure virgin bosom.” Describing this experience, Boehme says,
No words can express the great joy and triumph which I then experienced. Neither can I compare this gladness to anything except to a state in which life is born in the midst of death. While in that state, my spirit immediately saw through everything, and recognized God in everything, even in the herbs and grasses. (Aurora, xix:4.)
The knowledge which came to him in this second vision was incorporated in one of his most illuminating books, Signatura Rerum, or The Signature of Things. In this book he repeated the Paracelsian theory that the inner qualities and properties of all things are displayed in their outer forms, just as the character of a man shows itself in his facial expression. He advised all men to study Nature with this in mind, assuring them that “the greatest understanding lies in the signatures, wherein man may not only learn to know himself, but also the essence of all essences.”
Boehme’s third “illumination” occurred ten years later, in his thirty-fifth year. In this vision all his former experiences were synthesized, and he recognized them as but different expressions of one underlying truth, the source of all religions, sciences and philosophies. This vision caused him to publish his Aurora, symbolically setting forth the fundamental ideas of Cosmogenesis which are given in the first volume of The Secret Doctrine. He described the Great First Cause as a Trinity of will, intelligence and action, thus paralleling the Eastern teaching of the three emanations of Brahm. How could this poor, uneducated German shoemaker have known about these things unless he were an Initiate, or under the supervision of the Nirmanakayas? In his Three Principles, which followed, he says that by the activity of the Will-fire at the center, the eternal consciousness of the latter was reflected in Space as in a mirror, and from this activity Light and Life were born. He then describes how (by the action radiating from the center into the element of matter, and the subsequent reaction from the periphery to the center) rotation was caused, and how the world of forms came into existence and fell into material density. In this book Boehme also gave out the sevenfold classification of principles familiar to all Theosophists.
The publication of Aurora resulted in Boehme’s first public condemnation. A copy of the manuscript fell into the hands of the head parson of Goerlitz. Too ignorant to understand the depths of Boehme’s philosophy and too vain to admit that an ignorant shoemaker might possibly possess knowledge which a Christian minister was unable to grasp, this priest denounced Boehme from the pulpit and accused him of heresy. Boehme was banished from the city, but on the following day was recalled, forced to turn over his manuscript to the City Council, and ordered to refrain from further literary work. He obeyed, and for the next seven years confined himself entirely to his trade. But at the end of that time he returned to his writing and about a year before his death some of his devotional works were published under the title, The Way of Christ.
The parson of Goerlitz, however, had not forgotten his grudge, and published an insulting and calumnious attack against Boehme. This time Boehme sent a written defense of his teachings to the City Council. He was again banished, and though finding refuge in the home of a friendly physician of Dresden, by this time his health was seriously impaired and he died in Dresden on November 17, 1624. The persecutions against Boehme continued after his death, the parson of Goerlitz objecting to the burial of the body in the village churchyard. Even when one of Boehme’s influential friends secured the right of interment, Christian enemies took their revenge by removing a cross, covered with occult symbols, which some of Boehme’s admirers had placed upon his grave. Sixty years later George Gichtel, who republished some of Boehme’s works, was thrown into prison, and Querinus Kuhlmann, one of Boehme’s devoted followers, was burned at the stake.
The message of Jacob Boehme was addressed to all men, irrespective of their race, color or creed. In his books he inserted the picture of an angel blowing a trumpet, from which issued the words: “To all Christians, Jews, Turks and Heathens, to all the nations of the earth this trumpet sounds.” Although born a Christian, Boehme interpreted the Christian Scriptures from the symbolical point of view, extracting from them precious pearls which had escaped the eyes of the priests. In his Theoscopia, written two years before his death, he boldly attacked the orthodox Christian concept of a God outside His own universe. “Has any one ever seen that God?” he questioned. “Can any one describe His dwelling place?” If there is no actual proof of the existence of such a God, why spend one’s time listening to sermons about Him, or reading superficial descriptions of Him in the Scriptures? The only true understanding of God, he says,
. . . must come from the interior fountain and enter the mind from the living Word of God within the soul. Unless this takes place, all teaching about divine things is useless and worthless. (Theosophical Letters xxxv:7.)
Jacob Boehme’s God was a Universal Principle, not a Being, but rather the potentiality of Being. He did not consider It even as the First Cause, but declared that It preceded the First Cause, expressing Itself as the First Cause only at the beginning of a “New Day of Creation.” He described It as the Essence, or Source, from which everything in the universe has emanated. It is
Eternal Unity, having nothing before or after IT that could possibly endow IT with something or move IT. IT is without qualities, without beginning in time, within Itself only ONE. Requiring neither place nor locality for ITS dwelling, being at once outside of and within the world. Into ITS depths no mind can penetrate, neither can ITS greatness be expressed, for IT is Infinity Itself. (Theosophical Questions I:1.)
The first quality to arise in the Absolute (which Boehme calls Groundlessness) is Desire, or Will. In describing this purely Eastern teaching Boehme says,
The Eternal Essence, being desirous of revealing Itself to Itself, had to conceive within Itself a Will or Desire. But as within Itself there was no object for Its Will or Desire, the seven states of eternal Nature had to be born from within. (Threefold Life iii:21.)
Passing from the realm of absolute negation, Boehme saw duality appear in the contrast of spirit and matter. He called these the positive and negative poles of Being, the Yea and the Nay of the outspeaking Supreme One, and said that their union produced eternal nature, or the outspoken Eternal One. Describing them in terms of Light and Darkness, Boehme declared that “between them there is a link, so that neither of them could exist without the other. (Threefold Life ii:86.)
Although spirit and matter are one and the same thing in their origin, as differentiations they begin their evolutionary process in contrary directions, Spirit falling gradually into matter, matter ascending gradually into its original spiritual condition. Both are inseparable, and yet ever separated, “and thus eternal nature becomes like a revolving wheel.”
Jacob Boehme taught the Theosophical doctrine that the universe, arising from the unknown, evolves on seven planes, thus giving everything in the universe a septenary constitution. As his devoted follower, the Marquis de St. Martin says,
Jacob Boehme took for granted the existence of a universal Principle. He was persuaded that everything is connected in the immense chain of truths, and that the Eternal Nature reposes on seven principles or bases, and that these seven bases exist in eternal nature.
Theosophical students, even at the present day, are frequently confused by the word “principle.” Many regard the seven principles in man as seven bodies made of different degrees of substance, despite the fact that H.P.B. declared that they could not be conceived as existing in time or space — meaning doubtless our time and space. In reality, a principle is a basis for thought and action in connection with a specific plane of substance. To be conscious on any plane of being implies that one is acting in and with that principle in himself which corresponds to that particular plane of being. That was Jacob Boehme’s teaching. He said that “a principle is where a form of life and motion begins, such as has not existed before.” He sometimes described the seven principles as “tinctures,” at other times calling them powers, forms, spiritual wheels, sources and fountains.
Each principle is derived from and exists within the One Supreme Principle, which Jacob Boehme described as Being, or the “thing itself.” This Principle — called Atma in modern Theosophy — not only corresponds to the Absolute but is identical with the Absolute. The Real Man, therefore, is as beginningless and endless as the Absolute Itself.
At the beginning of a great day of evolution, the first great pair of opposites appears in Space, or the Absolute. They are Spirit and Matter, which in manifestation become consciousness and its modes, with matter and its differentiations. As a totality these are the principles of man and nature — six from the point of view of consciousness, six from the point of view of matter. Jacob Boehme associated the highest of these six principles with sound, saying that “Sound is the intelligence wherein all the qualities recognize each other.” The next principle is described as “light,” which “penetrates hardness and enkindles love.” From that is derived the principle which “commenceth all corporeal nature,” and which produces in the moral nature that which corresponds to bones in the physical nature. Then comes the principle of “anguish,” followed by the principles of “gall and bitterness” and “astringency.” These divisions, although confusingly identified by strange names, are clear indication that Jacob Boehme well understood the nature of the principles, in spite of his difficult explanations.
Jacob Boehme recognized the occult threads connecting the seven principles in man with their corresponding principles in the Cosmos. “Each principle,” he said, “is attracted by, knows and Ioves that which is like to its own self.” As man is a perfect copy of the universe, everything can be found in man: God, Christ, all the angels and all the powers of hell. Hence there is no God outside of man to judge him, no outside Christ to save him, no outside devil to tempt him. Man himself must make his own choice between good and evil. Man’s ultimate salvation, therefore, rests entirely upon himself.
The regeneration of man and the method by which it may be accomplished occupy a prominent place in all of Boehme’s writings. Man, he says, is imprisoned by his lower nature, and can release himself only through his own free-will. Before he takes his first step upon the Path, certain temptations must be met and overcome. The first is where “the dragon of the soul turns its eyes in vanity toward the world, and shows to her the glory and beauty of the world, and derides her because she desires to become another creature.” The second temptation is spiritual pride. The third comes when one is tempted to use one’s occult powers for selfish purposes. When these three temptations have been overcome, then
There is born within the earthly man of flesh a new spiritual man with divine perceptions and with a divine will, killing day by day the lust of the flesh and causing the inner spiritual world to become visible. (Mysterium, Supplement viii.)
The influence of Jacob Boehme continued long after his death. Schopenhauer was a follower of Boehme, although not fully comprehending him. Schopenhauer declared that “Schelling’s works are almost nothing except a remodeling of Jacob Boehme’s Mysterium Magnum, in which almost every sentence of Hegel’s book is represented.” The “unknown philosopher” of the eighteenth century, Louis Claude de Saint Martin, learned German in order to read Boehme. “I find in his works such a profundity and exaltation of thought,” he wrote, “that I would consider it a waste of time to seek for such things in any other place.” Even Sir Isaac Newton, whose great mind read easily between the lines and fathomed the spiritual thought of the seer, owed his discovery of the law of gravitation to Jacob Boehme, for whom the law of attraction and repulsion was the first law of nature.