Light Needs Dark

Bosch, Ascent of the BlessedThe Dialectical Mysticism of Jakob Böhme, the Cobbler from Görlitz

Augustine maintains that we are born in the face of death. Even quite literally, we are indeed born between the organs of sex and excrement, waste and procreation. We enter between two exits, as it were. The child emerges from the womb like light emerging from darkness. (Gnostics of course insisting that we more likely fall from some pure supernal light into the nasty darkness of the world.) We emerge into the light of a world that will in due course reveal its own gradations of grey, at times its own inner darknesses. To successfully individuate into this light, our mammalian heritage ordains that the child will then need early bonding experience, an upholding matrix, a mother figure, a family, a community, all of which necessarily contain their own shades of grey and darkness. Living, growing, suffering, eventually ascending towards death, the individual may come to the realisation that light seems to in fact somehow need the dark in order to fully be light.

One day in 1600, the latter simple and overwhelming fact struck one Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), a twenty five year old cobbler from Görlitz on the river Neisse, as he chanced to look up from his work and catch a beam of sunlight glancing off a dark pewter dish hanging on the wall.

At that moment he was re-born into light. This was Böhme’s quite literal moment of illumination, of enlightenment, the spiritual re-birth of this man later known as the philosophus teutonicus. Light issuing from the dark. The light needs the dark to be,  yes needs no, good needs evil, hope needs despair, nothing can come into being without its ‘objectionable’ (widerwärtig, as he termed it) opposite. All the dualities of life and spirit were both antagonistic AND inherently interdependent, dialectically complementary. Apart from Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) and his notion of the unity of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum), this was the first philosophy of ‘objective dialectics’ in Western thought since pre-Socratic Heraclites two thousand years before.[1]

Böhme’s insight was the fruit of a process of questioning that also seems to occasionally move some of us as we move into old age. How do we come to terms with ageing and winter, with darkness and death? What possible ‘meaning’ can there be in the negative, in trauma, suffering, abandonment, loss, in wrongdoing and evil? The questions may lie at the root of all philosophy, possibly of thinking itself. For  religious believers and theists, it is the question ultimately motivating all theodicies philosophical or poetic (like Dante’s trilogy, Milton’s Paradise Lost or Pope’s Essay on Man): how to explain evil in a God-created universe if God is supposedly both omnipotent and the essence of the Good?

Böhme’s way of answering this question is – in the plebeian radical Reformation tradition – to proceed not by consulting divine authorities and books but by reading in the book of himself, as it were, by introspection and contemplation. For, being made in the image of God, we are after all – in Böhme’s Hermetic interpretation –  microcosms that reflect the macrocosm. We contain heaven and earth and all beings and God within ourselves. As without, so within; as above, so below. Thus deep within us lies our source, our beginning, and that of all things. We can discover this source through meditatively sinking down into ourselves, as it were, and touching these wild origins.[2]

There in the source, the Primal Ground (Urgrund), Böhme finds no ethereal, phony New Age harmony but rather dualistic contradiction and conflict, he finds – in Ernst Bloch’s Böhmian and alchemical paraphrase – ‘an inter-being, a cross-fermenting, a self-contradicting, a boiling, a struggling, a wrestling of two elements opposing each other.’[3]  Thus looking inwards, and being a radically egalitarian Christian, Böhme finds both God and the Devil and the corresponding choices and alienating compulsions defining lives. We become journeymen of our own chosen pain:

‘Every person is his own God and his own Devil. Whichever pain he is disposed towards and gives himself to will drive and lead him and he will become its journeyman.’ [4]

He also finds in himself three worlds:  as well as the external material world he finds the spiritual dual worlds of divine heaven (the world of eternal light and joy) and dark hell (the world of eternal darkness, fire and fear); and he finds that all three are dialectically interlinked.[5]

For Böhme, the inner conflict of God and Devil, heaven and hell, light and dark is not rigidly and statically antagonistic and one-sided as in Gnosticism and orthodox monotheisms, but rather fluid and dialectical. Thus, for example, God’s flame of wrath may be another form of God’s fire of love and heaven and hell contained within each other:

‘the power in light is God’s fire of love, and the power in darkness is God’s fire of wrath, and both are but one fire that divides itself into two principles, in order that each become apparent within the other: for the flame of wrath is the revelation of great love. Thus it must be understood that the evil and good angels live close to each other, and yet at the greatest immeasurable distance. For Heaven is within Hell and Hell within Heaven, and neither is visible to the other.’ [6]

The German Marxist utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch further paraphrases the essence of Böhme’s ‘objective dialectics’ as follows.[7] The Urgrund, the Primal Source, has the Ungrund, the ‘Non-Source’, the Negative, within itself. The Divine thus contains the Diabolical within itself, the latter being its other face. In fact, without this internal and oppositional dark negativity there would be no movement, no emergence, no revelation of Light, no appearing of the Good. The Negative (the ‘diabolical’ or ‘Luciferian’) force that drives this emergence is – and here Böhme seems both neo-Platonic and surprisingly modern and ‘psychological’ – egoic will, the drive to separate, to be an other, to become independent, and this is also a dense contracting or withdrawing into oneself. In Böhme’s words: ‘everywhere one thing is against the other, not so that they become enemies but that it be moved and reveal itself.’

And the basis of the Negative is – very much as in Buddhism and Schopenhauer, only here given a very necessary and positive function – desire (Begierde) and/or emotional egoic will, and this will that desires is in turn born of hunger, of a keen sense of absence or want. Hunger and the will are (using modern terminology) autistic or narcissistic, for they have nothing but themselves, nothing but the drive to be filled. Will, seeking itself, can find nothing but the quality of hunger or neediness which it itself is. Will draws hunger, wanting, into itself, i.e. it draws itself into itself. This withdrawing into itself is an alchemical process of contraction or ‘coagulation’, a dense ‘bitterness’ and out of this process what we call nature itself emerges within God.

Thus both the hungry, desiring Negative principle and the pure loving Positivity of the One God share a similar dilemma: alone, without self-contradiction, without their opposite, they cannot know themselves. As in psychodynamic bonding theory: no knowledge of self without an other to truthfully reflect it. Only opposition and contradiction provide the momentum for emergence and development.

Positively, on the one hand, the One or Complete Unity wants (for) nothing. Here Böhme’s depiction of God is very much within the Neo-Platonist tradition, echoing  Plotinus’ notion of the ‘One’ as much as the whole tradition of negative theology or mysticism from Nagarjuna and Dionysius to Meister Eckhart:

‘One cannot say of God that He contains differences within Himself; for He is nature-less as well as affect-less and creature-less within Himself. He has no bent towards anything, for there is nothing before Him to which He could bend, whether Evil or Good. He is the Non-Ground (der Ungrund) within Himself. He has no suffering within Himself ; He is the One Being. He is the Void and the All and a unified Will. He is neither light nor darkness, neither love nor wrath, He is the Eternal One.’ [8]

Thus, wanting nothing, God on the other hand also lacks wanting because there is nothing outside Himself, no other He could want. Lacking an Other, He cannot know Himself. The problem thus becomes one of the necessity of an opposing Other, and thus of relationship, in order for a being to know itself and thus be able to return to itself. The ‘Yes’ needs a ‘No’ to know itself. In Böhme’s own words:

‘The reader should know that all things – whether divine, diabolical or earthly – exist within Yes and No. The One as the Yes is strength and love and is the truth of God and God Himself. God would be unknowable to Himself, and in Him would be no joy or majesty or sensitivity without the No. The No is a counter to the Yes or the Truth in order that the Truth be revealed and realized, so there be a contrariness within it, an eternal Love creating, wanting, feeling. For the One has nothing within it that can want unless it duplicate itself and become two. It cannot feel itself within its unity, but it can do so within duality…Nothing can become revealed to itself without its opposite, for if it has nothing that resists itself it always remains within itself and cannot return into itself. And if it does not return into itself again as into that from which it originally departed it will know nothing of its Original State.’ [9]

Perhaps we can extrapolate from these notions of Böhme that, in order to know our deepest ultimate selves, we need to leave ourselves, to want (in both senses) and form a loving relationship with the opposing, contrary, conflicting ‘other’ in ourselves (Jungians might speak of the ‘anima/animus’ or ‘shadow’), and thus – having left – be able return to our ‘original selves’. This ‘necessary suffering’ would seem to be a spiritual-therapeutic program both for inner work and external marriage or, indeed, any deeper human relationship. As within, so without: to find the without one must go within, to find the within one must go out of oneself. No finding without leaving, no self without other, no life without death, no unity without severance. In fact, the finding needs the leaving, the unity needs the severance, the light needs the dark so that it may, finally, know itself and truly, joyously, in darkness, shine.


[1] E. Bloch, Zwischenwelten in der Philosophiegeschichte, p. 230.

[2] Ibid., p. 233.

[3] Ibid., p. 234 (Own translation, P.L-N)

[4] Cited in Bloch, op. cit., p. 233. (Own translation, P.L-N)

[5] J. Böhme, ‘Einige Sätze aus den Theosophischen Sendbriefen’ (1618-24), in Vom Geheimnis des Geistes, p. 70. (Own translation, P.L-N)

[6] J. Böhme, ‘Mysterium Magnum’ (1622-23), in Vom Geheimnis des Geistes, p. 71. (Own translation, P.L-N).  Apart from the poetically religious imagery, the Hegelian quality of this dialectical and paradoxical passage is striking.

[7] E. Bloch, op. cit., p. 235.

[8] J. Böhme, ‘Der Weg zu Christo’ (1623-24), in Vom Geheimnis des Geistes, p. 78. (Own translation, P.L-N).

[9] J. Böhme, ‘Sechs theosophische Punkte’ (1620), quoted in E. Bloch, op. cit., p. 241. (Own translation, P. L-N)

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 11, 2009.

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