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Alchemy in Jacob Boehme's Theosophy

Paul Kiritsis - Monday, December 31, 2012

Jacob Boehme's Weltanschauung

 

During the Early Modern Period the world was undergoing a major transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmogony; from an occult and animistic landscape to a mechanistic and reductionist one defined by mechanistic processes that operated independently of any conscious and creative force. The indeterminate space left vacant between Copernican limelight and the Newtonian sunrise was quickly filled by the speculative and metaphysical vision of Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), a German cobbler who integrated streams of Hermetic, Renaissance Neo-platonic, alchemical, mystical, Christian, and early scientific thought to create a Weltanschauung (a comprehensive view of the world) apprehended in theosophical terms. In 1600 Boehme had been overrun by a spiritual emergency involving the sun’s reflection in a pewter dish, a phenomenon which convinced him that the being and body of God was omnipresent in all things animate and alive or inert and seemingly lifeless. Quintessentially esoteric in his reasoning, this leitmotif is blatantly expressed in Aurora (1612) when he says: “Where is God? Listen you blind human, you live in God and God in you…"

This unfettered radical attitude extended to all avenues of his theosophy, reaching a crescendo in his decision to reject the Ptolemaic system adhered to by the Aristotelian Scholasticism of the Catholic Church which continued to place great faith in Aristotelian theories of matter. Looking at the cosmos through the Ptolemaic lenses, the four ethereal elements of fire, air, water, and earth differentiated from the prima materia were the glue that held the earthbound plane together. According to the Aristotelians the derivation of order from chaos was contingent on the hierarchical arrangement of the four elements into a perpendicular spectrum. Fire, the quality of hot and dry, was always uppermost because of its propensity to rise. Directly beneath that and joined through the intermediate secondary quality of hot was air, an element heeded by an inclination to rise but also to expand. Water, a child of moist and cold, was heavier than both fire and air and always gathered underneath them. Last was the ethereal element of earth, the quality of cold and dry; as the heaviest of the four it tended to drop downwards, deep towards the centre of the corporeal world.

This, according to Boehme, was no longer valid. Neither was the theological conception of God having created the cosmos as a cogitative creatio ex nihilo. Engaging leitmotifs that would later be condemned by the Catholic Church, Boehme gravitated towards Copernican heliocentrism and the more seductive notion of creatio ex materia. These dramatic assertions also flow translucently from the pages of Aurora (1612) when he postulates: “From what sort of materia or force did the grass, vegetation, and trees proceed? What sort of substance and circumstance [Gelegenheit] was involved in this creation? The simple person says that God made everything from Nothing; but he does not know this God, and does not know what He is. When he beholds the earth together with the depths above the earth, he thinks “that is not God, there is not God”. He has formed the notion that God dwells only above the blue heaven of the stars…”

Faith in a divine substance of un-creation which stands outside the earthbound realm with its spatiotemporal notions and perceptive limitations such as the one just mentioned had been indigenous to alchemical thought since late antiquity, and it was to this discipline that Boehme now turned for answers. During the seventeenth century the crux of scientific discoveries being made frequently featured nitre, a chemical compound parading nowadays under the label potassium nitrate. Given its prominence in the chemical scene, a morbid fascination with its uses and properties ended up developing amongst circles of alchemists and emerging chemists, one that Boehme with his exposure to practical alchemy wasn’t     exempt from. At some stage he married the organic compound and his notion of a divine substance together and the latter assimilated qualities belonging to the former. By drawing the formless yet forming prima materia into his speculative theosophy under the name Salitter (the German word for nitre), Boehme was allying himself with a Platonic dualism that had woven itself in and out of the intellectual tapestry of all ages and attempting to comprehend a seemingly detached Christian conception of the universe in organic terms. This early engagement with alchemy and understanding of its practical and psychospiritual aims seems to have been a great influence on the formation of his theosophical paradigm.

Boehme transcribes his philosophy surrounding the nature of Salitter as a divine substance in Aurora (1612). So what exactly was the Salitter and in what context could it best be understood? According to Boehme it was the force of divine love and mutual attraction that infused all created matter in the spiritual, the lower celestial realm, and the material realm with vital life force and increments of consciousness. It was concurrently visible and invisible and everywhere present; it was the unconscious origin and determined the nisus of all things. In describing its qualities Boehme posits that, “The corporeal drying is to be called in this book the Divine SALITTER. For the seed of the entire Divinity is in it, and it is like a mother which receives the seed and bears the fruit again and again, in accordance with all qualities of the seed.” Hence it was in the sphere of the fixed stars; in the hydrogen powering the sun; in the planetary motions; in phenomena that facilitate an illusion of time; in vegetable and tree growth; and in human thought-desires, dreams, and mentation. In fact it compelled the cosmic animal called nature to subject her children to the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration. It was the reason for life, self-awareness, and the spontaneous will of nature to want to subdue another extension of nature or its own inherent nature.

We could probably equate the Salitter with the mother membrane responsible for the emanation of a multiverse in modern superstring theory. Just as the splendid sun shine its rays and ensouls the entire solar system, so too does the Salitter permeate an ethereal septenary body of source-spirits named Dry, Sweet, Bitter, Fire, Love, Sound, and Corpus. Similar in function to Renaissance planetary daemons and serving as intermediaries, Boehme‘s primary purpose in conceiving them was to reciprocate a link between the spiritual and material through differentiation of the divine Salitter into an upper spiritual realm of perfection and bliss; a lower celestial realm where perception of opposing forces like light and dark or good and evil was possible; and a material plane plagued by sympathies and antipathies that had lost their fundamental harmony and were no longer in equilibrium. As a miniature replica of the entire cosmos, the human being was imagined a pitiful creature, a fallen angel and assigned by Boehme to the debased realm of material existence.

Representing a hierarchical ladder of devolution from an inchoate, undefiled substrate to one qualitatively and quantitatively expressed by a dense condition of corporeal determinacy, the individual source-spirits were imagined to arise from the continual contractions of psychic ether or fluid of God’s eternal nature. As the Salitter was transposed from one source-spirit to the next, it became polarized in composition and identified with either a sensate or animate property. In this way each replication or multiplication drifted further and further away from the undefiled state of being that was God. In Aurora (1612) Boehme continuously draws our attention to differences in the fertile humus from whence the celestial and material planes emanate; the first is a child of a pure, scintillating, and translucent form of the divine Salitter whilst the second of a crude, defiled, blackened, poisonous and stinking version full of dissonance and impurities. The creation of the unshakable laws and gatekeepers that are the everlasting angels are a by-product of the higher form; on the other hand the cosmic totem pole with its animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms are the spawn of the lower form. Even though the second Salitter was a debased reflection of the first, it could still replicate the paradisal perfection of the celestial realms by synthesizing diamonds, gold, states of illumination, and other everlasting things. The impetus for this dual conception of Salitter can be found in mechanistic processes whereby saltpetre was purified for commercial use; the first, the celestial version corresponds with the hard, translucent crystals generated by its subjection to repeated distillations whereas the second “earthly” form of the divine substance can be equated with an unrefined brownish filtrate called sal terrae that stunk because it was still undergoing purgation from organic animal matter. There is a vast corpus of evidence in support of the idea that qualities and corroborating aspects of Boehme’s Salitter are an idealised paradigm of chemical properties and reactions manifested by the chemical compound of the same name.

Salitter is the German word for saltpetre (sal petrae), earth salt (sal terrae), or sal nitre (sal nitri). In Boehme’s time saltpetre was known as a prevalent compound in nature, making it an obvious choice for induction into an important role (as prima materia) that had formerly been held by other naturally occurring substances like earth, water, mercury, lead, dew, and menstruum. Saltpetre was also a vital ingredient in the fabrication of chemical explosives like gunpowder and it’s not difficult to see how a creative and dexterous mind perceiving cosmogony through laws of analogy might link it with claps of thunder, bolts of lightning, and other spontaneous acts of violence qualitatively allied to demiurgic powers and Christ’s second coming. These associations would have been transparently palpable given that celestial thunder and lightning had been considered portents of divine displeasure for time immemorial. The spontaneous deflagration that nitre suffers when brought in contact with molten rock, black coals, or any other sweltering surface might also be apprehended as a corporeal expression of divine intervention and intent. On the other hand, when the compound is tossed into topsoil it enhances the growth and quality of trees, plants, flowers, and all agricultural produce, recalling the fecundity of the divine seed in harnessing the miracle of life from the most hostile and unlikely circumstance.

Saltpetre also exhibits some other uncanny features reminiscent of Boehme’s divine Salitter. When calcined in an alchemical vessel or retort it transforms into a matrix of colourless white prisms. These little prisms have an astringent texture to them and are cold to the touch. Courtesy of chemico-operative alchemists like Basil Valentine (c. 1400) we also know that heating an amalgam of common salt and green vitriol produces hydrochloric acid, or the ‘spirit of common salt’. Similarly the confluence of vitriol (ferrous or cupric sulphate) and saltpetre generates the ‘fiery spirit’ of aqua fortis or nitric acid. When these two are married in an alchemical retort they spawn an ultimate agent of dissolution in aqua regia, named so because of its ability to liquefy the noblest and most incorruptible of all metals–gold. In the sixteenth century nitric acid was also famed for its propensity to yield ethyl nitrate or what the alchemists termed the ‘dulcified spirit of nitre’ when combined with ethanol or ‘the spirit of wine’. The amalgamation of the two inverted the corrosive properties of the former and rendered the entire tincture saccharine so that it emanated an intoxicating odour that was at times reminiscent of honey-based fermented infusions like mead and at other times of sweet apples. In scrying the aforementioned, it appears that many primary qualities of the divine Salitter like transparency and purity of form as well as the primary characteristics of the septenary source-spirit system which sprouted forth from it (i.e. dry, sweet, bitter, and ‘hellish fire’) must have been modelled from observations of chemical experiments involving saltpetre in a laboratory setting.    

The seven source-spirits or principles differentiating from the divine Salitter can also be understood from the perspective of the seven major alchemical operations comprising the Magnum Opus. The first, called Dry or herb by Boehme, denotes qualities like coldness, hardness, inertia, lamentation, and death and is connected to the Saturnian sphere. Its embodiment by the forces of chaos and destruction links it to the alchemical solutio or nigredo, a phase were old forms are annihilated and replaced by new and more comprehensive ones. Following this is Sweet, a fiery, pleasant, and milt condition responsible for the mysterious and spontaneous irruption of life. Mediated by the Jovian force, its main purpose is to counter the polarized force set in motion by the first principle. His second quality is synonymous with the active, masculine principle of the Paracelsian triad called sulphur which wills itself to consciousness and corresponds to calcinatio, the chemical reduction of a solid into a fine, granular powder through the element of fire. The mutual interaction of the first two principles produces the Bitter energy ruled by Mars–a destructive and choleric force associated with elevation, penetration, and subjugation. Its inclination to rise upwards and permeate spatiotemporal dimensions links it to the sublimatio, a chemical reaction whereby solids are rendered straight into gases and vapours without passing through transitional liquefaction.

The continual action of forces upon the inchoate substrate of the Salitter produces a fourth quality mediated by the Sun and Moon called Fire or Hot. Boehme postulates that this spiritual force injects the vital life principle into inert matter and as such is inexplicable linked with the nisus or any object or substance incarnating on the corporeal plane. Because it involves the aggregation of opposites and mystical union along with invigoration and insemination, the fourth principle can be equated to the lesser conjunctio, the conciliatory union of substances in an alchemical retort usually personified by sulphur and argent vive, the Sun and Moon, man and woman, and a horde of other couplets including male-female pairs of animals. Next along the chain of divine generation is Love, an extension and exaggeration of the fourth principle brought about through the concentration of warmth. According to Boehme, this power manifests consciousness through kinesthesis and sense perception and is facilitated by the Venusian sphere. A crucial prerequisite for the emergence of consciousness is the ability to discriminate, separate, and compartmentalize; to carve out the universe using the ‘Logos-cutter’ within ourselves. This first occurs at one’s birth and recurrently transpires until the time of death. We should not then be surprised that Boehme chose the mythological goddess of birth, herself depicted as being born out of a scallop shall on the shores of the froth-filled sea, as keeper of the fifth quality. In alchemical terms this is the stage of separatio which always follows the lesser conjunctio.

Immediately before corporeal generation comes Sound, the principle of expression and illumination where incarnating beings receive the verbal gift of language, speech, and harmony. This sixth stage arises under the arbitration of the Mercurial sphere and renders melodies composed by the angelic forces audible. Looking at the alchemical cycle in its entirety, the only time when angelic and ethereal voices could be comprehended was during the deepest stage of blackening, the mortificatio; save for being a period of torturous suffering and lamentation, it also represented a dynamic psychophysical and spiritual situation called by alchemists the ‘black sun’ in which divine wisdom or Sophia was temporarily eclipsed and enslaved by the bonds of physis (nature). Thus there is a palpable, qualitative link between Boehme’s Sound principle and mortificatio. To end with we have the Corpus or Body, an embodiment of the other six qualities arbitrated by the Earth. In alchemy, the act of becoming earth can be equated with coagulatio or fixatio, a subdivision of the Opus concerned with the congealing of elusive quicksilver until it acquires tangible contours and consistent qualities within spatiotemporal parameters. Despite the feasible and sometimes obvious analogies and interrelationships, it’s difficult to know to what extent operations of alchemical theory and practice influenced the speculative septenary system that Boehme conceived. The acquisition of such intimate knowledge would require the possession of a mind long expired. As this is unfeasible, we must remain contented with the conviction that divine Salitter and its septenary emanation stand at the intellectual crossroads of alchemo-Paracelsian natural philosophy and an empirical chemistry in the process of distancing itself from the esoteric and occult.

Of course the alchemical leitmotifs remained a lifelong love affair for the Christian theosopher and featured prominently in his extensive treatise on the transfiguration of the divine Word into Jesus Christ, De Signatura Rerum or The Signature of All Things (1622). For this particular work Boehme assimilated the Paracelsian doctrine of signatures into his septenary system of correspondences between planetary spheres, qualities, and humoral-elemental relations, placing it under the aegis of the sixth source-spirit of Sound. In the preceding century, Paracelsus (1493-1541) had stipulated that: “Hereto also do refer the vertues and Operations of all creatures, and their use, they being stamped or markt with their arcanums, signs, characters and figures, so that there’s scarce left in them the least occult point which becomes not evident by examination” (Aurora, 11). In layman’s terms Paracelsus was articulating that any natural object and substance created by God had been infused with an occult virtue by the spiritus mundi which, correctly interpreted, lay bare the inner vital life force in all its glory. This was its individual signature, a seal or mark revealing its exact coordinates on the multifarious and multi-layered tapestry of nature and consequently its therapeutic properties and uses (if any). Following in Paracelsus’s stead, Boehme also believed that God wasn’t separate from creation and that life force passed directly into stars, planets, plants, trees, humans, animals, stones, minerals, and every other thing via the cosmic mirror of Mother Nature. “He shines with his power through all his beings… and each thing receives his power according to its property,” Boehme declares, illuminating this animistic and panentheistic cosmogony. The doctrine of signatures adds yet another metaphysical dimension to his inspired paradigm of divine Salitter and God’s spontaneous sevenfold act of creative imagination.

        

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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