In the next section of Religion and Rebel, Wilson begins examining several important Outsiders, beginning with Jacob Boehme. I will not give lengthy biographical sketches of any of these men, as Wilson does. I am more interested in his presentation of the Outsider psychology, which begins with Boehme.
With the mystic, Jacob Boehme, Wilson begins to dig into the material I am interested in: Boehme’s inner journeys. He begins by saying, “Boehme was one of the earliest psychologists.” 1 He was aware of a great deal going on inside himself, and, he was also aware, to some extent, of how to travel from the ordinary state of mind into the mental state of the visionary,” which is, as we know, is the journey to Suhrwardi’s Land of Nowhere.
He knew that, in certain moments, he achieved a state of mind completely different from his everyday state. He achieved this quite involuntarily — or, perhaps I should say, by purely instinctive effort. He wanted to retrace his steps consciously and try to understand them, so that he could achieve the same state — and explain to other men how to achieve it, too — by conscious effort. But there was no science of psychology in his day, and he had to invent his own language to describe what he saw. 2
Wilson compares Boehme’s invention of his own psychological terminology to what Freud did at the turn of the twentieth century, except there is a major difference: Freud was investigating “neurosis and abnormality,” 3 while Boehme invented a psychology of superconsciousness, also known as (at least to Wilson) “Outsider psychology.” 4 There are many modes of consciousness, as many in humans “as there are streets in a large town…If the mind is a ‘town,’ the poet or mystic is the man who wants to map the town so that he can find his way around it easily…This is what interests the visionary above all else: the immense area of his own soul, the thousands of realisations and visions that are latent in it.” 5 The topography of Soul is a fascinating subject. It hearkens back to what we’ve learned in past articles from Henry Corbin concerning topographical correspondences between our world and the mundus imaginalis. Boehme was mapping the inner worlds he was traversing, just as some of the Sufi mystics did, and he was creating his own psychological language to describe it.
Boehme was an uneducated shoemaker, but he had amazing intuitive powers and a fertile mind. He created his own psychology without reading “any of the great mystics who were also psychologists.” 6 Science was still in its infancy, so it was of no help to him. Boehme believed he was treading a path no one before him had trodden, and “can hardly even be said to have had any successor until Nietzsche.” 7 Wilson provides a passage from the beginning of Boehme’s Six Theosophic Points:
1.We see…that every life is essential, and find moreover that it is based on will; for will is the driving of the essences.
2. It is thus, as if a hidden fire lay in the will, and the will continually uplifting itself towards the fire wished to awaken and kindle it.
3. For we understand that every will without the awakening of the fiery essences is an impotency, as it were dumb without life, wherein is no feeling, understanding nor substantiality…
4. Thus an unessential will is a dumb existence, without comprehension or life; and yet is a figure of the unfathomable eternal nothing, for it is attached to corporeal things.
6. Thus life is the essences’ son, and will…is the essences’ fatherfor no essence can arise without will. 8
Then, Wilson offers a brilliant translation into modern language of what Boehme was getting at:
Life is a fundamental issue, which cannot be further broken down or analysed, and life is based on will power. But will cannot operate without purpose, and the concept of ‘purpose’ belongs essentially to the material world. Without the material world to reflect it, will is nothing at all, unmanifest. So will requires a purpose to manifest itself. And life is the outcome of purpose (its son). So there is a sort of a vicious circle: increased purpose requires increased consciousness. (one cannot gain more purpose by becoming less conscious), but increased consciousness requires increased will power. And increased will power requires increased purpose, for without a purpose, the will is useless. 9
Because existentialism is very much a philosophy of the will, Boehme shows here he is very much an existentialist. Remember the important phrase from Sartre: l’existence précède l’essence (existence precedes essence). If one is to create something, the image (essence) of it must be in the mind before it can be manifested. Human beings don’t look at their own existence in this manner, however; they “take their existence for granted…They believe they are static…like tables and chairs.” 10 We are not static, however, but dynamic beings. We have “will power and…can change” ourselves, “either for good or evil.” 11 We are capable of transforming ourselves from creatures of lower awareness to ones of higher awareness, and this is done through pure will power. Existentialism is “a philosophy of the will, and its central thesis is that the highest purpose of the will is self-transformation.” 12
More on Boehme in the next installment of this series…
Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.
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