A shoemaker from Zgorzelec who became a European cultural trendsetter

Böhme was interested in alchemy. And it was this that aroused the suspicion of the clergy. He was branded a heretic who had entered into dealings with magic.

In January 2006, actor Nicholas Cage visited the town of Zgorzelec in Lower Silesia. The actor is known for his cult roles in the 1980s and 1990s, such as in Alan Parker’s “Birdy” or David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”. So what would have made this Hollywood superstar come to a Polish border town on the banks of the Lusatian river Niesse?

It turns out that Cage is fascinated by the man and work of Jakob Böhme. He lived at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (between 1575 and1624 to be exact). This German religious thinker lived in Zgorzelec, then a part of the Czech kingdom within the Hapsburg empire. Cage visited Böhme’s house in the Niesse suburbs. He also visited his graveside, located on the German side of the River Niesse, in the Görlitz cemetary.

So who was the man who fascinated the American actor so much? Böhme was not formally well-educated. He was not a philosopher like Descartes or Hobbes. He did not bask in the same limelight as they did. He was just a humble shoemaker, who had his individual vision of God in the world (although in the reflection of his metal pot) and his spiritual reflections he committed to paper.

Alexandre Koyré, historian and philosopher of science wrote “The Philosphy of Jakob Böhme” about the mystic. It was a substantial treatment of scholarship by the twentieth century Frenchman, born of Russian Jewish roots, and has been translated into Polish.

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The title appears dry and unengaging. We could be forgiven in thinking that this is an academic work in a boring academic style, aimed at a narrow readership. It’s not like that at all. However. Koyré describes his subject, an ordinary craftsman from the Lusatian region, with a degree of passion, as a subject who became a European cultural trendsetter.

Before this happened, the visionary had to overcome difficult obstacles and it’s in this book that we can discover exactly why and how.

Böhme was a Lutheran protestant whose writings angered the local protestant clergy. In Poland the opinion took hold that the chief perpetrator of religious inquisition in Europe, at any rate, was the Roman Catholic church. But in the seventeenth century at least the Protestant faiths, of whichever shade, were also far from religiously tolerant. Earlier, the pyres were burning in the theocratic Geneva of Jean Calvin. Böhme was to experience this painfully too.

He may be connected to the Baroque era , but fashionable intellectual tendencies from the earlier Renaissance were influential. Böhme was interested in alchemy and it was this that aroused the suspicion of the Protestant clergy that he entered into nefarious dealings with magic.
SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Gregorius Richter, a leading pastor, the pastor primarius, in the town became his chief accuser. He counted on being able to expel Böhme from the place, although this proved to be unsuccessful. But he didn’t mince his words in the meantime. An example: ”You despicable blabbermouth, you blasphemer. Let those who have also read your writings get away from here. Begone, and never come back. Die like an animal!”

The mystic defended himself against these attacks by the clergyman, who wished to compromise him. “The Primarius is criticising my books, to which he has the right, but first he ought to read them, which he hasn’t done.” Above all he refused to renounce his Lutheran faith in front of all assembled. “I do not avoid the church, I attend it. Neither do I show contempt for the sacraments, I accept them. I only acknowledge that the church of Our Lord Jesus Christ is within us”.
Portrait of Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), photo Kean Collection/Getty Images
Böhme’s legacy endured, despite attempts at silencing him throughout his life. We can read in Koyré’s work that we discern him in German idealistic philosophy from the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this context we can read into the work of George Friedrich Hegel and his theory of the unity of the antithesis.

But writers and thinkers who were inspired by the works of this craftsman from Zgorzelec were more numerous. Koyré maintains that they wanted to overturn the Enlightenment and return Man to his proper place in the Universe, and who had been expelled by the likes of Galileo and Newton.” The great Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz was one of these admirers. Koyré makes no mention of him. But his translator, an academic of the Romantic era, Krzysztof Rutkowski, does however. In a brilliantly written afterword, he states that Mickiewicz is a stitched-on Böhme, as is Hegel.

The Polish poet praise the shoemaker from Lusatia as “a soul, blazing with a great and clear flame, painting his visions with fiery words. He is a divine prophet as well as a clairvoyant for today’s Christian peoples, as was Isiah for the Hebrews.”

Mickiewicz was no doubt exaggerating, but his praise illustrates just how the legacy of Böhme was indeed received in European culture.

The modern disenchanting of the world by the wise man of “magnifying glass and eye” as Mickiewicz wrote, was not effective after all. In the face of various paradoxes, secrets, puzzles and a human spiritual thirst, somewhat satisfied by heterodox even subconscious forms, his legacy remains an inseparable part of human nature. Perhaps the visit of Nicholas Cage to Zgorzelec illustrates the point.

—Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

—Translated by Jan Darasz

Alexandre Koyré ”The Philosophy of Jakob Böhme”, Count August Cieszkowski Foundation, Warsaw 2021
Main photo: May 25 2002, the opening of the exhibition “The Time of Lillies. The Mystical Philosophy of Jakob Böhme and the Renewal of the World. Wrocław University Museum. The University Library has the largest collection of Böhme’s original manuscripts. Photo PAP/Maciej Kulczyński
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