Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Mention has already been made of the Protestant Reformation as one of the causes which led to the change from mediaeval to modern modes of thought. Perhaps it would be more correct to regard both the Reform and the rise of modern philosophy as effects of a common cause; for modern philosophy is, as Erdmann observes, "Protestantism in the sphere of the thinking spirit." At all events, wherever the influence of the first reformers asserted itself, Scholastic philosophy was discouraged, and an effort was made to replace it by a new order of ideas. Lutheranism, according to Erasmus, was opposed to all literary culture: "Ubicumque regnat Lutheranismus, ibi literarum est interitus." Whether this be true or false, certain it is that not only Luther, but also Zwingli, Calvin, and Melanchthon, did their utmost to eradicate the principles of Scholasticism. Scholasticism stood for ecclesiasticism, orthodoxy, respect for authority, in a word, for everything against which the first reformers protested.

Among the reformers themselves there soon sprang up systems of philosophy. Luther (1483-1546), by his distinction between reason (a function of the flesh) and faith (a function of the spirit), laid the foundation for psychological dualism. Zwingli (1484-1531), imbued with the spirit of humanism, maintained a pantheistic doctrine of Divine Immanence, and taught that man is deified by divine regeneration. Melanchthon (1497-1560) developed a system of Aristotelian philosophy which may be styled a Protestant Scholasticism.

Of greater importance than these philosophical tenets of the first reformers are the systems of mysticism which grew out of the religious doctrines of the Reformation. Franck (1500-1545), of whom mention has already been made,{1} developed a system of mysticism characterized by pantheism and psychological dualism (antithesis of flesh and spirit). He was succeeded by Weigel (1533-1588), who taught that regeneration is to be attained by abandoning the I-ness (Ichheit) of the individual nature. All these mystic tendencies find their fullest expression in the writings of Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), the chief representative of Protestant mysticism.


Life. Jakob Böhme was born at Altseidenberg, near Görlitz, in the year 1575. Until he was ten years old, he received absolutely no education and he never extended his knowledge of literature beyond an acquaintance with the Bible and with the writings of Weigel. He earned his living by mending shoes, and the " Cobbler of Görlitz" is sometimes referred to as the "German Philosopher" in allusion to the fact that his works were composed in German -- the only language in which he could write. He died in 1624. His principal work is entitled Aurora, or The Rising Dawn.


Böhme devoted special attention to the problem of evil. He taught that the ultimate cause of the evil which exists in the world is the eternal dualism of God Himself. Perceiving one day the sunlight reflected from a tin vessel, he conceived the idea that, as the dark vessel reveals the brightness of the sun, so the element of evil in God shows forth the goodness of the Divine Nature. For everything, he taught, is known by its opposite. Without evil there would be no revelation of God, no distinction of things, no life, no movement. Nay, more, if there were not in God a principle antithetical to goodness, God could not even arrive at a knowledge of Himself.

Developing this idea of the dualism of the Divine Nature, Böhme describes in the language of mysticism the eternal nature of God as containing seven primordial qualities, of which three represent the divine anger and three the divine love. Intermediate between these is the divine fire which is the principle of life. The Divine Nature in the first stage of development, namely, in that of will without object, is God the Father. The Father, looking into His own nature, forms in Himself the image of Himself and thus "divides" into Father and Son. The procession of this vision from the original groundless nature of God as will, is God the Holy Ghost. Lucifer became enamored of the anger qualities of God, and, refusing to take part in the advance from darkness to light, remained wholly evil. As a result of the fall of Lucifer, the material world was created. Heaven and hell are experienced here on earth: he who, like Lucifer, becomes enamored of evil, and clings to it, is in hell, while he who renounces all the evil that is in self, and joins in the development of light from darkness, is in heaven.

Historical Position. In the writings of Böhme we see the mystic tendency run riot. Free from the restraint of orthodox dogma, Bohme made the fullest use of the Protestant principle of private interpretation, and expounded the doctrines of scripture from the extreme individualistic point of view. No one, however, can question the intense earnestness, the true-hearted sensibility, and the unusually deep and vigorous spirituality of the man. It is these qualities that have secured for Böhme a permanent place in the history of German literature. They also account for the influence which he exerted on such men as Schelling and Hegel.

{1} Cf. p. 414.

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