Jakob Böhme Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: In a series of books Böhme developed a profound metaphysical system, rich in myth and symbol, which attempted to explain the nature of God, the origin of the universe and of man, and the Fall of Man and the way of regeneration. His complex and difficult thought influenced many German, French, and English philosophers and poets.

Early Life

Jakob Böhme was born on April 24, 1575, in the village of Alt-Seidenberg, near Görlitz, in what is modern East Germany. He was the fourth child of Jakob Böhme, a prosperous farmer, and his wife, Ursula. The family had been well established in the community for several generations, and Jakob’s father was a Lutheran church elder and local magistrate. Information about Böhme’s early life is scanty. He received an elementary education at the local school, and in 1589 he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, probably for a period of three years. He then traveled as a journeyman, and in 1594 or 1595 he settled in Görlitz. In 1599, he became a citizen of that town and probably at the same time became a master shoemaker. In May, 1599, he married Catharine Kuntzschmann, the daughter of a local butcher, who was to bear him four children.

The following year, 1600, was a highly significant one for Böhme. It marked the arrival in Görlitz of a new Lutheran pastor, Martin Moller. Moller was well read in the German medieval mystical tradition, and he espoused a Christianity of pure and inward spirituality. Böhme was attracted to Moller’s teaching and joined his Conventicle of God’s Real Servants. Moller’s influence was a lasting one. In that same year came an experience which dramatically changed Böhme’s life. As he happened to glance at a pewter dish which was reflecting bright sunlight, he experienced a moment of suddenly heightened awareness. This feeling stayed with him as he went outside to the fields; he felt that he could see into the innermost essence of nature, and he later said that the experience was like being resurrected from the dead. More experiences of illumination followed over the next ten years, and these clarified and amplified what he had seen and understood in his initial experience. These experiences were the foundation of his life’s work. In 1612, he felt compelled to write, and the result was a long, rambling, but thrilling book, Aurora: Oder, Die Morgenröthe im Aufgang (1634; The Aurora, 1656). This work marked Böhme’s first step on the road to becoming one of the most original and profound thinkers in the history of the Western religious tradition.

Life’s Work

Böhme had originally written The Aurora for his own use only, but a nobleman, Carl von Ender, found the manuscript at Böhme’s house, borrowed it, and had some copies made. Unfortunately for Böhme, news of his book came to the attention of the pastor of Görlitz, Gregorius Richter, a strict defender of religious orthodoxy, who had succeeded Moller in 1606. Richter was enraged at Böhme’s bold assertions and assailed him from the pulpit in virulent terms, while Böhme himself sat quietly in the congregation. The next day the town council told Böhme to hand over the manuscript of The Aurora and not to write anymore. Böhme agreed to keep silent, and for seven years he kept his promise. He became prosperous, and as a member of his trade guild he was active in the day-to-day commercial life of the town. In 1613, he sold his business and entered the linen and wool trade, which involved him in yearly journeys to Prague and possibly to the Leipzig Fair.

During this period of silence he was making some learned and influential friends, including Tobias Kober, physician of Görlitz, and Balthasar Walther, who was director of the chemical laboratory in Dresden. From Kober Böhme learned about the work of Paracelsus, and Walther introduced him to the Jewish mystical tradition embodied in the Cabala. Both became major influences on his work, and Böhme also learned from his educated friends some Latin terms which he would later incorporate into his works. One of his friends, Abraham von Franckenberg, gives the following picture of Böhme’s physical appearance: “His person was little and leane, with browes somewhat inbowed; high temples, somewhat hauk-nosed; his eyes were gray and somewhat heaven blew, and otherwise as the windows of Solomon’s Temple: He had a thin beard, a small low voice. His speech was lovely.”

In January, 1619, prompted by the urgings of his friends, Böhme decided that he could no longer keep silent. Taking up his pen once more, he produced a constant stream of lengthy books over a period of nearly six years until his death. The first of these was Von den drei Principien göttlichen Wesens (1619; Concerning the Three Principles of the Divine Essence, 1648), which was quickly followed by Vom dreyfachen Leben des Menschen (1620; The High and Deep Searching Out of the Threefold Life of Man, 1650) and Viertzig Fragen von der Seele (1620; Forty Questions of the Soul, 1647). In all of these works Böhme labored to give expression to his central insights: that all life, even that of God Himself, is composed of a dynamic interplay of...

(The entire section is 2148 words.)