Andrew Weeks

Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth Century Philosopher and Mystic, (SUNY: 1991)


Andrew Weeks

German Mysticism From Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History, (SUNY: 1993)

Reviewed by Dr. Arthur Versluis

Michigan State University


Certainly Germany has produced an astonishing array of theosophers, philosophers, and literary artists over the centuries, but remarkably, there are relatively few books in English about these traditions and their interrelationships. In fact, we very much need both close studies and broad surveys of the profound and complex connections among European and English esotericism and literature, for which the works of Antoine Faivre, mostly still in French, provide both academic groundwork and model. Here, Weeks provides two works that approach their topics from the rather different perspective of literary history: a general survey of German mysticism and a biographic introduction to the great German theosopher Jacob Boehme.

In Boehme, Weeks aims to consider the visionary cobbler Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) "by interpreting his work with reference to the environment in which and for which it arose." Although at times Weeks's focus on the "specific time, place, culture, and character" of Boehme's writings threatens to submerge the enduring broader meanings of Boehme's works, much illuminating cultural context and reasonable interpretation is offered here. In reminding us that Boehme's writings emerged in a particular social milieu, Weeks's goal is to disentangle Boehme from the legends and "occultism" that have developed around him, and while Boehme's broader significance to us today would have made an interesting element in this book, the author's aim is to show us Boehme as he was, without legendary accretion or reductionist


dismissal, and in this Weeks is successful. At the same time, one wishes for more discussion of Boehme's esoteric doctrines; by discarding "occultism," whatever that is, one runs the risk of also discarding the essence of what Boehme thought.

Boehme is an important book also in considering its subject from outside the current of scholarship in German, which has occasionally been skewed by nationalistic tendencies, even relatively recently. Particularly interesting are Weeks's comments on how political motivations during the twentieth century have conditioned the reception and rejection of Boehme's writings, sometimes almost irrespective of their actual content. Certainly the Nazis must have been of two minds about Boehme, the great Teutonic philosopher who prophesied the collapse and destruction of Babylon and the Antichrist, and whose attacks on blind quasi-religious and nationalist fervor must have come uncomfortably close to home. Weeks is quite right in wanting to extract Boehme from the morass of interpretations and slander in which he is often nearly submerged. At the same time, one must beware of abstracting Boehme from a theosophic context and treating him as if he were merely another philosopher, instead of a theosopher belonging to a larger esoteric context.

Weeks's other book, German Mysticism, is a broad survey that, as the subtitle claims, stretches from medieval through modern times. This is a daunting task, particularly in under three hundred pages, and although Weeks necessarily had to sketch vast areas of intellectual terrain in an extremely economical way, he touches not only on well known figures like Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart, but also on less widely recognized writers like Daniel Czepko and Johann Georg Hammann. At times this brevity approaches injustice, as when Weeks devotes only a couple of paragraphs to, for example, a figure as profoundly important as Franz von Baader, and none at all to Leopold Ziegler. One could easily devote a full volume not only to Boehme, but to each figure in this extraordinary panoply of texts.

But these two books are useful, offering in the one case, good biographical information on Boehme, and in the other, a general survey of the topic. One hopes that more such books will appear, works that also reveal in greater detail the doctrines of the major esoteric figures of the past few centuries, written by specialists in Western esotericism proper. Much has already been done by major European scholars, but certainly there is much more to do in this vast and relatively new field.