I. Mystical Philosophy in Germany

I. Mystical Philosophy in Germany


THE traditions of the Neo-Platonic philosophy, with its
elaborate theurgical system, were to some extent perpetrated
through the whole period of the Middle Ages, for
beside the orthodox theology of the great Latin Church,
and amidst the clamour of scholastic philosophy, we find
the secret theosophy of the magician, the Kabbalist, and
the alchemical adept borrowing, directly or indirectly, from
this prolific fountain of exalted mysticism. The traces of
its influence are discoverable in Augustine, in Albertus
Magnus, in St. Thomas, the angel of the schools, and in
other shining lights of western Christendom, while the
metaphysical principles of Johannes Scotus Erigena, even
so early as the close of the ninth century, were an actual
revival of this philosophy. He translated the extraordinary
works of Pseudo-Dionysius on the celestial hierarchies, the
divine names, &c., which were an application of Platonism
to Christianity,1 “and proved a rich mine to the mystics.”

1Tennman’s “Manual of the History of Philosophy,” ed. Bohn,
p. 207.

page 28
This translation was largely circulated and held in the
highest repute, more especially in Germany, where the
Areopagite was appealed to as an authority by Eckhart at
the beginning of the fourteenth century. At this time
Germany was a stronghold of mysticism, which, according to
Ueberweg,’1 was at first chiefly developed in sermons by
monks of the Dominican Order; its aim was to advance
Christianity by edifying speculation, and to render it comprehensible
by the transcendent use of the reason. “The
author and perfecter of this entire development was Master
Eckhart,” who taught that the creature apart from the
Absolute, that is, from God, was nothing, that “time, space,
and the plurality which depends on them,” are also nothing
in themselves, and that, “the duty of man as a moral being
is to rise beyond this nothingness of the creature, and by
direct intuition to place himself in immediate union with
the Absolute.”2
Eckhart was followed by Tauler, a great light of German
mysticism, and one profoundly versed in the mysteries of
the spiritual and interior life. A century later, with the
revival of Platonism, came the Cardinal Nicolas Cusanus,
“a man of rare sagacity, and an able mathematician, who
arranged and republished the Pythagorean ideas, to which
he was much inclined, in a very original manner, by the
aid of his mathematical knowledge.”3 This representative
of the mysticism of Eckhart provided Giordano Bruno
with the fundamental principles of his sublime and poetical
conceptions. Bruno “renewed the theory of numbers, and
gave a detailed explanation of the decadal system. With
him, God is the great unity which is developed in the

1 “Hist. of Phil. Trans.,” Morris, i., p. 468.
2 Ibid., p. 469. 3 Tenneman, p. 257.

page 29
world and in humanity, as unity is developed in the
indefinite series of numbers.”1
The death of Giordano Bruno in the year 1600 brings us
to a period of palmary importance and interest in the
history of religion, science, and philosophy. The revival
of learning had for some two centuries been illuminating
and enlarging the intellectual horizon of Europe; the
Reformation was slowly removing in several countries those
checks which had hindered freedom of inquiry on most
speculative subjects; that which had been practised in the
privacy of the study might be displayed almost on the
house top, that which had been whispered at the Sabbath
of the Sorcerers could be canvassed with impunity in the
market place. The spirit of the age which had dethroned
the crucifix, burnt candles before the busts of Plato and
Plotinus. The revolution in theology was followed by a
general revolt against the old philosophical authorities, the
seeds of which revolt must be looked for at the time when
Aristotle and the Peripatetic successors were enthroned upon
the ashes of the scholiasts, who pretending to follow Aristotle,
had perverted and disfigured his doctrines. As the
birthplace of the Reformation, Germany enjoyed a greater
share of intellectual unrestraint than any other country of
Europe, and it was a chaos of conflicting opinions on all
debateable topics. The old lines were loosened, the old
tests failing, the chain of tradition was breaking at every
point, a spirit of restless feverish inquiry was abroad, and
daily new facts were exploding old methods. Copernicus
had revolutionised astronomy by his discovery of the true
solar system, Galileo already had invented the thermometer,
and was on the threshold of a glorious future; a century

1 Cousin, “Course of the Hist. of Mod. Phil.,” ii., p. 48.

page 30
previously Columbus had opened the still illimitable vistas
of the western world; great minds were appearing in every
country; amidst a thousand blunders, the independent
study of the Bible was pursued with delight and enthusiasm,
and in every city the hearts of an emancipated people were
glowing with hope and expectation at the promise of the
Now, in an age of progress, of doubt, and of great intellectual
activity, it is singular to remark the almost invariable
prevalence of mysticism in one or other of its manifold
phases, and the close of the sixteenth century beheld
spreading over the whole of Germany and passing thence
into Denmark, France, England, and Italy, a mighty school
of mysticism in the great multitude of magicians, alchemists,
&c., who directly or indirectly were followers of the
renowned Paracelsus.
The sublime drunkard of Hohenheim, the contemporary
of Agrippa, but grander in his aspirations, vaster in his
capacities, and, if possible. still more unfortunate than the
brilliant pupil of Trithemius, was the intellectual product
of the great school of Kabbalism represented by Reuchlin
and Picus de Mirandola. He united to his theoretical
knowledge of theosophical mysteries an unrivalled practical
acquaintance with every form of magic, and was as much
an innovator in occult science as a reformer in medicine.
For all orthodox alchemists, magicians, and professors of
hidden knowledge, Paracelsus is a grand hierophant second
only to the traditional Hermes. His brief and turbulent
career closed tragically in the year 1541, but the works
which he left secured him a vast posthumous audience, and
the audacity of his speculations. were undoubtedly instrumental
in the emancipation of the German mind from the
influence, of traditional authority.

page 31
At the close of the sixteenth century, then, we find the
disciples of Paracelsus seeking, after the principles of their
master and by the light of experimental research:—1. The
secret of the transmutation of metals, or of the magnum opus,
and applying to chemistry the usages of Kabbalism and
ancient astrology.1 2. The universal medicine, which included
the Catholicon, or Elixir of Life and the Panacea, the
first insuring to its possessor the prolongation or perpetuity
of existence, the second restoring strength and health to debilitated
or diseased organisms. 3. The Philosophic Stone,2
the great and universal synthesis which conferred upon the
adept a sublimer knowledge than that of transmutation or of
the Great Elixir, but on which both of these were dependent.
3 “This stone,” says a modern writer, who fairly
interprets the more exalted and spiritual side of Hermetic
traditions, “is the foundation of absolute philosophy; it is
the supreme and immoveable reason. . . . To find the
Philosophic Stone is to have discovered the Absolute,”4

1 “If thou comprehendest not the practice of Kabbalists and the
primeval astrologers, God has not made thee for the spagiric, nor has
nature elected thee for the operations of Vulcan.”—Paracelsus, “De
Tinctura Physicorum.”

2 “There is a great difference between the Stone of the Philosophers
and the Philosophick Stone. The first is the Subject of Philosophy,
considered in the state of its first Preparation, in which it is
truly a stone, since it is solid, hard, heavy, brittle, frangible. . . .
The Philosophick Stone is the same Stone of the Philosophers, when
by the secret magistry it is exalted to the perfection of the third
order, transmuting all imperfect metals into pure gold or silver, according
to the nature of the ferment adjoined to it.”—“The Hermetical

3 The base metals are transmuted into the perfect gold by the possessor
of the Philosophick Stone, and the Elixir of Life, according
to Bernard Trévisan, is the resolution of the same stone into mercurial
water, which is also the aurum potabile of the wise.

4 Eliphas Lévi, “Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie;”
”Mysteries of Magic,” pp. 199, 201.

page 32
that is, the true raison d’être of all existence. Thus the
initiate aspired to that infallible knowledge and wisdom
which is afforded by divine illumination, his search for
which is sometimes spoken of as the search for the quadrature
of the circle, that is, for the extent or area of all
sciences human and divine.
Among the concourse of inquirers, and the clamour of sup~
posed and pretended discoverers, there rose gradually into
deserved prominence an advanced school of illuminati, who,
employing the terminology of the turba philosophorum, under
the pretence of alchemical pursuits appear to have concealed,
a more exalted aim. The chief representative of this sect
at the end of the sixteenth century was Henry Khunrath,
and the work in which its principles are most adequately
expressed is the “Amphitheatrum Sapientiæ Æternæ.”
The student is directed by these writers from the pursuit of
material gold to the discovery of incorruptible and purely
spiritual treasures, and they pretend to provide a mystical
key or Introitus apertus to the “closed Palace of the King,”
in which these treasures are contained. Physical transmutation,
the one and supreme end of the practical alchemist,
sinks into complete insignificance; nevertheless, it is performed
by the adept and is a landmark in his sublime progress.
Rejecting the material theory even for this inferior
process, they declare its attainment impossible for the unspiritual
man, and just as the alchemical nomenclature is
made use of in a transfigured sense, so the terminology of
metaphysics appears to be pressed into the service of a conception
far transcending the notions commonly conveyed by
the words wisdom, spirituality, &c.
The result of this singular division in the camp of the
alchemists was the inevitable mental confusion of that great

page 33
crowd of inquirers into the secrets of nature who formed
the audience of professional adepts. Every year books and
pamphlets were issued from the German press, and purported
to contain the secret of the Magnum Opus, expressed
for the first time in plain, unmistakeable terms, but no writer
proved more intelligible than his predecessors; the student,
surrounded by authors whose search had been crowned
with complete and unexampled success, could himself make
no progress, new methods, though warranted infallible,
were as barren as the old in their operation, and the universal
interest in the subject was an incentive to innumerable
impostors, who reaped large profits from the publication
of worthless speculations and lying recipes. At such
a juncture the isolated investigator naturally sought the
assistance which is afforded by association; meetings of
men like-minded took place for the discussion of different
questions concerning the secret sciences; doctrines and practices
were compared; men travelled far and wide to exchange
opinions with distant workers in the same fields of experimental
research, and the spirit of the time seemed ripe for
the establishment of a society for the advancement of esoteric
science and the study of natural laws. It was at this
interesting period that the Rosicrucian Fraternity made
public for the first time the fact of its existence, and
attracted universal attention by its extraordinary history,
and by the nature of its claims.