N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
A NEW BOOK ABOUT J. BOEHME
(A. Koyre. La Philosophie de Jacob Boehme. Paris. Librarie Philosophique I. Vrin. 1929.) 1).
It has to be considered remarkable, that at the Sorbonne has appeared an extensive dissertation concerning Jacob Boehme. Originally the only people to have written about Boehme were those inwardly sensitive to him — religious philosophers, theosophists, mystics, and indeed they generally wrote little.2 The book of A. Koyre bears a different character, this — is a scientific book. For Koyre, Boehme is merely an object of scientific investigation. His book is endowed with great scientific merits. The author did everything possible and even the impossible, so as to get down into an unfamiliar for world of the vision and world of thought of a great Christian theosophist. And he displayed great ability in bringing alive unfamiliar thought. The very fact itself, that Koyre has written in the French language a book about Boehme, suggests the surmounting of enormous difficulties, a virtuosity. Boehme is almost unrendable in the French language and yet nonetheless Koyre has made him accessible to the French. His book will have tremendous significance for the study of Boehme and in its capacity as an objective scientific investigation it has to be acknowledged as the best of all the books about Boehme, it provides quite more than the books of Elerte, Boutroux, Hankamer, Bornkamm. The only books of higher a standing are of a different type, those congenial to Boehme, as for example of Fr. Baader. The evolution of Boehme, his various stages, is beautifully expressed in the book of Koyre, the first with such an extent of detail. Koyre has systematised the work of Boehme, has bestown it the character of a philosophic system, has arranged the insights of Boehme in accord with the customary rubrics of systematic philosophy. In the footnotes he gives abundant German citations from Boehme, in an addressing of the problems. This very much helps in providing one an orientation into the creativity of Boehme, which otherwise can produce an impression of chaos. Yet betwixt the world of the systematising and rationalising thought of Koyre and that of the world of Boehme himself, as given in the footnotes, there exists an incongruity, for these — are different worlds. It remains incomprehensible, why Koyre has written the book about Boehme, it remains inwardly lacking in motive, no compelling reason, therein nowise answering any spiritual need of the author. He does not resolve in the book any sort of problem. And in the final end he does not give any sort of inward evaluation of Boehme. It remains unknown, what Boehme means for the author, whether in all seriousness he accepts those personal revelations which Boehme had. The book was written concerning the philosophy of Boehme. Certainly, Boehme had tremendous significance for all the whole of German philosophy and within him can be discerned a philosophic dialectic. But scarcely is it accurate to regard Boehme foremost of all as a metaphysician, as Koyre tends to do. Boehme was foremost of all a visionary and theosophist, a myth-maker and gnostic. Koyre has an appreciation of Boehme, he sees his remarkableness, but he relates to him in a condescending way, from the summit of the scientific knowledge of the XX Century. He frequently calls Boehme’s thinking naive, childish, barbaric, he speaks about him as “the hapless Boehme”. In the approach of Koyre towards Boehme one senses the sceptic, one senses the grip of historical relativism. Just as with the majority of people occupied by a scientific investigation into the history of thought, it is difficult for Koyre to imagine, that some whatever idea of Boehme could have sprung up from out of his creative genius, could have been totally original with him, — for everything has to be explained by various borrowed derivations. And Koyre encounters great difficulty, when he cannot chase down, from where Boehme took his teaching about Sophia. There was herein something initially unique revealed to Boehme himself, and nowise derived from someone else. Koyre has made an analysis of Boehme, he systematised the chaos of his insights and ideas through an analytic procedure. But he has to get it all together, to give an integrally whole image of Boehme through an inner conjoining with the world of Boehme. This is possible only through an acknowledging of that world. A rational systemisation of the world-view of Boehme does not provide such an integrally whole image. Koyre cites that place in Boehme, where he says, that when the Spirit forsakes him, he ceases to comprehend his own creative work. How then cane someone understand his creative works, someone who lacks his Spirit, foreign to his Spirit? The book of Koyre posits a primal question concerning the limits of a scientifico-philosophical investigation of the manifestations of the spiritual world, and to which also belongs the work of Boehme, concerning the spiritual affinity of the knower with the object of his knowledge. Koyre has done everything, within his human abilities, to make an examination of that, which he is lacking a spiritual affinity for. But the primary question concerning the limits of a scientific investigation is not directly posed by him in his book. Koyre right off however displays a sceptic-rationalistic attitude to these facts in the life of Boehme, so as seem to him occult and mystifying. He reacts negatively to the acclaimed biography by [Abraham von] Franckenberg, he sees in it the creating of the legend about Boehme. He is ready to admit within the life of Boehme only that, which accords with his rationalistic outlook. And he is inclined to deny, that Boehme was a visionary, he becomes apologetic for Boehme’s having believed in magic, astrology and alchemy, and instead regards him primarily as a metaphysician, whose originality he considers merely to be in his dialectical metaphysics. The chief reproach, which I would make against Koyre, is this, that he fails to understand, that it is impossible ultimately to understand Boehme, it is impossible to convey him in the language of clear concepts. And this impossibility ultimately to understand Boehme, to express him in philosophically clear ideas and concepts, is nowise connected with what he thought unclearly, badly, defectively, barbarically, naively, having no theological or philosophic schooling, being a seer of the common people, and not erudite, but the rather it is bound up with this, that he thought upon the basis of personal flashes of insight, of visions and revelations of the spiritual world. Boehme thought mythologically, and not in concepts. He created his myths about the Ungrund, about Sophia, about the androgyne, about the struggle of light and darkness, about the fiery aspect of being, which are not transferable over into mere concepts. The problem of Boehme is the problem of the possibility of a personal gnostic revelation and flash of insight. Koyre knows quite well about the existence of apophatic theology and he wrote about it in his beautiful book about St Anselm of Canterbury. But in his approach to Boehme he left insufficiently deep the question about the limits of the knowing of God through positive concepts. He instead wants to improve upon Boehme’s cognition of God, to express all the unclear, obscure, the difficult and naive aspects into clear philosophical concepts. He does not admit of the sources of Boehme’s cognition and therefore he either rationalises it or criticises it, as at rather a lower stage of thinking.
Koyre quite corrects asserts, that everything for Boehme came out of the torment over the problem of evil. The question tormented him, how God had been content to create the world, knowing, that there would be evil and suffering. In this is the vital significance and profundity of Boehme’s creativity. Koyre tends to think, that Boehme was seeking not so much for gnosis, for knowledge of the mysteries of the Divinity, as rather for salvation, a salvation in the heart of Jesus Christ from the wrath of the Deity. From the wrath of the Father he seeks for salvation in the Son. But the ancient gnostics likewise indeed were tormented over the problem of evil. And in this Boehme was akin to them. He — is the greatest of the gnostics, but he also is the most Christian of them all. Koyre in one place deems it possible to call Boehme an heretic, but it remains unclear, to what sort of tribunal in this case he would recourse and what sort of criteria he would use. In general, however, Koyre defends Boehme against various accusations. Koyre quite justifiably establishes a distinction between Boehme from that of Luther and Protestantism (in contrast to the book of Bornkamm, “Luther and Boehme”.). First of all, the teaching of Boehme about freedom grounded within the basis of being is altogether contrary to Luther. Likewise there is no congruity of the gnosticism of Boehme with the agnosticism of Luther, the cosmism with the acosmism of Luther. One mustneeds further stress, which Koyre does insufficiently, that Boehme was the sole Protestant, for whom was characteristic the cult of the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, and central for all his world-view. Koyre correctly points to the Catholic elements in the world-view of Boehme. Boehme however has an affinity with Luther in an acute feeling of the struggle of opposing principles, of light and darkness, of God and the devil. And for Boehme God is not only the God of love, but also the God of wrath. Within Boehme himself there transpired a struggle of opposing principles. And Boehme became the initiator in modern philosophy of a dynamic understanding of being, in a form such as was unknown to antiquity and the Middle Ages. He comes up with the idea of becoming as a process and in this he anticipates Hegel. For him just like Herakleitos — life is fire, a fiery flood. A fundamental intuition of Boehme is the intuition of fire, and not light. It seems, moreover, that Koyre insufficiently stresses the symbolic character of Boehme’s world-outlook. The whole nature-philosophy of Boehme is symbolic. The whole of nature and its elemental force symbolise the spiritual world. The fundamental problem for Boehme: how within the Gottheit [Godhead], the Absolute, does there come about to be the Divine Trinity, how does the Divinity become Person, how is it possible to make the transition from the Gottheit, the Divine Nothing over to the God creating the world, the creation. In this problem for Boehme, the theogonic process combines also with the cosmogonic and the anthropogonic. God is revealed from out of the Divine Nothing through contradiction, through the resistance of the opposite. Koyre quite justly stresses this, that Boehme was not a pantheist and did not confuse nor jumble up God with the world. Rather indeed, within his world-view there were dualistic elements, corresponding to his primal sense of evil. The metaphysics of Boehme are definitely personalistic. God for him is living Person, just as man is living person. Boehme is distinct from other mystics in his attitude towards nature, the world, and towards man, and for him they do not disappear within God. In this he belongs to that type of a mystical gnosticism, which pertains to the Kabbala and possesses a Semitic offshoot. For him there exists not only the One, but also the cosmic multiplicity. He is very distinct from the Hindus, from Plotinos, from Eckhardt. He is no monist. And this makes him moreso a Christian theosophist. This typology of a mystico-theosophic current is insufficiently stated by Koyre. The most central and mysteried teaching of J. Boehme is about the Ungrund, about the abyss lying at the basic foundation of being. With this he introduces a new principle into the history of philosophic thought. At the fundamental basis of being lies an irrational principle. It is only therefore that freedom exists, it is only therefore that evil becomes explicable, it is only therefore that there is the dynamic within being. Koyre renders the German word Ungrund into the French word Absolu. I think, that this is inaccurate. By this he tends to interpret the Ungrund of Boehme into the spirit of the German Idealism of the beginning XX Century. The Ungrund is first of all an ungroundedness, a fathomlessness, a determinatelessness, i.e. freedom. The Ungrund is a primordial, irrational, dark even, freedom nowise determined by anything. It is not evil, but it makes possible evil, in it there is the potential for evil, just as also the potential for good. The uniqueness of Boehme consists in this, that he brings the Ungrund into the very Divinity and by this allows for the existence of a dark principle within God. It might the more truly be said, that that the Ungrund, i.e. the primordial freedom, lies outside of God, outside of being, it is prior to all being, such as is already determined. But Boehme’s teaching concerning the Ungrund makes possible also both freedom and a philosophy of freedom. Koyre also states, that the philosophy of freedom comes from Boehme. Only upon this ground does it become possible to allow for absolute newness in the world, for creativity, dynamics. The ancient and the medieval world-view was static. The dynamism of German philosophy derives from Boehme.
Boehme’s teaching concerning Sophia is of enormous significance and this side of Boehme’s teachings has been insufficiently dealt with or stressed by Koyre, he quibbles away the sophiology of Boehme into other problems. He does not, as it were, admit of any especially unique significance in the teaching of Boehme concerning the androgyne, about the masculine-feminine, the virginal image of man. And yet with this is bound up all the entire anthropology of Boehme. When the non-erudite Boehme hearkened a first time to the word “idea”, he then exclaimed: I behold the Heavenly Virgin. This was also the vision of Sophia, of the sophianic man, of the masculinely-virgin. The world is created by God through Sophia-Wisdom by the creative imagination, the imaging-within, of God. The role of the imaging-within for Boehme is beautifully explained by Koyre. The imagination, the imaging-within by God creates through pure, sophianic, virginal images. Boehme did not introduce an eternally-feminine principle into God and did not have any cult of the eternally-feminine. For him it was a cult of the eternally-virginal, which blended in with the cult of the Virgin Mary. Man, as the image and likeness of God, is an androgyne, masculinely-virgin, virginal, pure, the integrally whole man. The Fall through sin was also a shattering of the initial integral wholeness, of the chastity, with the fall of the androgyne, and with the arising of an unseemly femininity and an unseemly masculinity, of sex. Man lost his Virgin, i.e. purity, chastity. Sophia also is the heavenly Virgin. the teaching of Boehme concerning Sophia, the most original and remarkable in the history of human thought, is predominantly anthropological. The Sophia aspect, the virginalness of creatures is again manifest in the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ for Boehme likewise possesses an androgyne image, the image of the perfect man. The anthropology of Boehme is inseparably connected with its Christology, its teaching about man with the teaching about Christ — the New Adam. This likewise is insufficiently perceived and insufficiently worked out by Koyre. His systemisation of the world-outlook of Boehme is too set along the lines of the traditional philosophic rubrics. Koyre insufficiently distinguishes in Boehme between virginalness and femininity. I tend to think, that this problem has little interest for Koyre in his reconstruction of the philosophy of Boehme. For Boehme himself, however, it was vitally central. The sophianic and androgyne aspects — are particular categories within his thinking, if perchance these be termed categories. The thinking of Boehme here is mythological, and not conceptual. Koyre thinks, that Boehme did not have the grasp of the mental powers of Hegel and Schelling for the expression of his thoughts. But the genius of Boehme exceeds the genius of Hegel and Schelling, his power was more fundamental, not poisoned yet by “enlightening”, and the expression of his thoughts in a concept system is always defective. Koyre himself says, that Schelling poorly understood Boehme. It would have been interesting, had the concluding chapter of Koyre’s book concerning the influence of Boehme upon German philosophy been more extensive. This is a very interesting and under-developed theme. Koyre corrects establishes the character of Boehme’s influence. This influence was enormous for German idealism and romanticism, although Boehme himself was neither an idealist nor a romantic. The work of Boehme represents a lost paradise for the idealists and romantics, but Boehme belongs to the world, from which they fell away. The visionary and myth-creating aspect of Boehme became lost to the generation of the romantics and idealists. Koyre formulates thus the ideas conveyed by Boehme: the significance of evil in the life of the world, metaphysical dynamism and the idea of becoming, the struggle of contraries, magical imagination, as the intermediary between the intellect and the senses, spirit and nature, the idea of life, as fire, personalism, the idea of freedom, as the fundament of being. These ideas were developed in turn by German philosophy, which it mustneeds be said, was not always consistent with them and sometimes distorted them. Thus the personalism of Boehme became completely detached from German Idealism, which inclined instead towards monism and idealism. Boehme’s idea of dynamic stirrings within the Divinity led to a mixing up of God with the world and to the admitting of God merely developing within the world, something which never was in Boehme. But Boehme’s influence would continue on throughout all of German thought all the way to E. Hartmann. And in Russia this Boehme offshoot was there in Vl. Solov’ev, although his teaching about Sophia was distinct from that of Boehme. The most faithful to Boehme was Fr. Baader. Koyre declines to make an ultimate evaluation as to Boehme, and thus also to German idealism and romanticism. But his book, despite the indicated short-comings, will prove to be an indispensible aid in the study of Boehme, a very fundamental, extensive and moreover well-disposed scientific work about him. The knowledge of Koyre is enormous, his ability of penetration into a world foreign to him is exceptional. Hardly anyone knows Boehme nor the currents involving him, better than Koyre. Koyre has displayed to the maximum degree the capacity for the systematisation and clarification of Boehme’s world of thought. But the rub is in this, that this world is not conducive to such a sort of systematisation and clarity. This is the most important thing missed. Boehme thus remains a mystery and an enigma.
© 2007 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1929 – 347 – en)
NOVAYA KNIGA O YA. BEME. Journal Put’, sept. 1929, No. 18, p. 116-122.
1 I propose to devote a special article in “Put'” to J. Boehme, chiefly his teaching concerning Sophia and the androgyne.
2 On the occasion of the tricentennial of Boehme in Germany there appeared a few books about him, on which I made a review in Put’.