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Mysticism at the Dawn of the Modern Age

Giordano Bruno and Angelus Silesius

Giordano Bruno and Angelus Silesius

In the first decade of the sixteenth century, at Castle Heilsberg in Prussia, the scientific genius of Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543) is erecting an edifice of ideas which will compel men of succeeding epochs to look up to the starry heavens with conceptions different from those which their ancestors had in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. To the latter, the earth was a dwelling-place resting at the center of the universe. The stars, on the other hand, were for them entities of a perfect nature, the movement of which proceeded in circles because the circle is the image of perfection. — In what the stars showed to the human senses one saw something belonging directly to the soul or the spirit. The objects and events of the earth spoke one language to man; another language was spoken by the shining stars which, in the pure ether beyond the moon, seemed to be a spiritual being that filled space. Nicolas of Cusa had already formed different ideas. Through Copernicus the earth became for man a fellow creation among the other heavenly bodies, a star that moved like others. Everything in the earth which appeared to man as being different, he could now attribute only to the fact that it is his dwelling-place. He was compelled to stop thinking in different ways about the phenomena of this earth and about those of the remainder of the universe. His sensory world had expanded into furthest space. What reached his eye from the ether he now had to accept as belonging to the sensory world, like the things of the earth. He could no longer seek the spirit in the ether in a sensory fashion.

All who henceforth strove for higher cognition had to come to terms with this expanded sensory world. In earlier centuries, the meditating spirit of man had stood before another world of facts. Now it was given a new task. It was no longer the things of this earth alone which could express their nature out of the interior of man. This interior had to enfold the spirit of a sensory world, which fills the spatial universe everywhere in an identical fashion. — It was such a task that confronted the thinker from Nola, Philotheo Giordano Bruno (1548–1600). The senses have conquered the spatial universe for themselves; now the spirit is no longer to be found in space. Thus man was directed from outside to seek the spirit henceforth only where, on the basis of deep inner experiences, it had been sought by the glorious thinkers who have been discussed in the preceding expositions. These thinkers draw out of themselves a conception of the world to which men later are to be compelled by a more advanced natural science. The sun of ideas which later is to fall upon a new conception of nature, with them is still beneath the horizon, but its light already appears as a dawn in a time when men's thoughts about nature are still enveloped in the darkness of night. — For the purposes of science the sixteenth century gave the heavens to that world of the senses to which they rightfully belong; up to the end of the nineteenth century this science had progressed so far that from among the phenomena of plant, animal, and human life also it could give to the world of sensory facts what belongs to it. Neither up in the ether nor in the development of living organisms can this science henceforth look for anything but factual-sensory processes. As the thinker of the sixteenth century had to say: The earth is a star among stars, subject to the same laws as other stars, so the thinker of the nineteenth century must say, “Whatever his origin and his future may be, for anthropology man is only a mammal; specifically he is that mammal whose organization, needs, and diseases are the most complicated, and whose brain with its wonderful capacity, has reached the highest degree of development.” (Paul Topinard, Anthropologie, Anthropology, Leipzig, 1888, p. 528.) — On the basis of this point of view attained by science, a confusion of the spiritual with the sensory can no longer take place, if man understands himself aright. An advanced science makes it impossible to seek in nature a spirit conceived along the lines of the material, just as sound thinking forces us to seek the cause of the advance of the hands of a clock in the laws of mechanics (the spirit of inorganic nature), not in a special demon who causes the movement of the hands. As a scientist, Ernst Haeckel justifiably had to reject the clumsy conception of a God thought of in the same way as something material. “In the higher and more abstract forms of religion this corporeal manifestation is abandoned, and God is worshiped only as ‘pure spirit,’ without body. ‘God is a spirit and he who worships Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’ Nevertheless, the spiritual activity of this pure spirit is exactly the same as that of the anthropomorphous, divine personality. In reality this immaterial spirit too is not thought of as incorporeal, but as invisible, gaseous. We thus come to the paradoxical conception of God as a gaseous vertebrate.” (Haeckel, Welträtsel, The Riddle of the Universe, p. 333.) In reality, a sensory-factual existence of something spiritual can only be assumed where an immediate sensory experience shows the spiritual; and only that degree of the spiritual can be assumed which is perceived in this manner. The excellent thinker, B. Carneri, could say (in the work, Empfindung und Bewusstsein, Sensation and Consciousness, p. 15): “The sentence, No spirit without matter, but also no matter without spirit — would justify us in extending the problem also to plants, or even to the first rock we come across, where hardly anything could be said in favor of this correlation.” Spiritual processes, as facts, are the results of different functions of an organism; the spirit of the world does not exist in the world in a material manner, but only in a spiritual manner. The soul of man is a sum of processes in which the spirit appears most immediately as a fact. But it is only in man that the spirit exists in the form of such a soul. And to seek the spirit in the form of a soul elsewhere than in man, to think of other beings as endowed with a soul like man, is to misunderstand the spirit; it is to commit the most grievous sin against the spirit. One who does this, only shows that he has not experienced the spirit itself within him; he has only experienced the external manifestation of the spirit that holds sway in him: that is, the soul. But this is just as if somebody were to mistake a circle drawn in pencil for the true mathematical-ideal circle. One who does not experience within himself anything but the soul-form of the spirit, feels impelled to assume such a soul-form also in non-human things, in order not to have to stop at gross sensory materiality. Instead of thinking of the primordial foundation of the world as spirit, he thinks of it as a world soul, and assumes a general animation of nature.

Giordano Bruno, under the impact of the new Copernican conception of nature, could grasp the spirit in the world, from which it had been expelled in its old form, only as a world soul. When one immerses oneself in Bruno's writings (especially in his profound book, Of the Cause, the Principle, and the One) one has the impression that he thought of things as being animated, although in different degrees. He has not in reality experienced the spirit within himself; therefore he imagines it in terms of the human soul, in which form alone it has confronted him. When he speaks of the spirit he understands it in this way. “The universal reason is the innermost, most real, and most characteristic faculty, and is a potential part of the world soul; it is something everywhere identical, which fills the All, illuminates the universe, and instructs nature in bringing forth its species as they should be.” It is true that in these sentences the spirit is not described as a “gaseous vertebrate,” but as a being like the human soul. “A thing however small and minute, has within itself a portion of spiritual substance which, if it finds the substratum to be suitable, strives to become a plant or an animal, and organizes itself into a body of some kind, which is generally called animated. For spirit is to be found in all things, and there is not the most minute body which does not contain such a portion of it that it animates itself.” — Because Giordano Bruno had not really experienced the spirit as spirit within himself, he could confuse the life of the spirit with the external mechanical functions by means of which Raimon Lull (1235–1315), in his so-called Great Art had attempted to unveil the mysteries of the spirit. A modern philosopher, Franz Brentano, describes this Great Art as follows: “On concentric, individually turnable circular disks various concepts were inscribed, and then the most diverse combinations were produced by this means.” What coincidence superimposed upon a particular turn, was formed into a judgment about the highest truths. And in his many wanderings about Europe, Giordano Bruno appeared at various universities as a teacher of this Great Art. He had the boldness to think of the stars as worlds that are completely analogous to our earth; he enlarged the vision of scientific thinking beyond the earth; he no longer thought of the heavenly bodies as corporeal spirits, but he still thought of them as spirits of the soul. One must not do an injustice to this man whom the Catholic church made to atone for his advanced ideas with death. It was an enormous achievement to enfold the whole heavens in the same conception of the world that up to that time had been applied only to the things of the earth, even though Bruno still thought of the sensory as of something belonging to the soul. —


As a personality that made what Tauler, Weigel, Jacob Boehme and others had prepared shine once more in a great spiritual harmony, Johann Scheffler, called Angelus Silesius (1624–1677) appeared in the seventeenth century. The ideas of the above-mentioned thinkers appear in his book, Cherubinischer Wandersmann, Geistreiche Sinn-und Schlussreime, Cherubinic Wanderer, Ingenious Aphorisms in Rhymes, as though gathered in a spiritual focus and shining with a heightened luminosity. And everything Angelus Silesius utters appears as such an immediate, spontaneous revelation of his personality that it is as though this man had been destined by a special providence to embody wisdom in a personal form. The spontaneous way in which he lives his wisdom is shown by the fact that he expresses it in sayings which are also admirable for their artistic form. He floats above all earthly existence like a spiritual being, and what he utters is like the breath of another world, cleansed from the very beginning of all those coarse and impure elements from which human wisdom can free itself at other times only with difficulty. — In the sense of Angelus Silesius only he partakes of true cognition who makes the eye of the All to see within himself; only he sees his acts in their true light who feels them to be performed within himself by the hand of the All: “God is the fire in me, and I the light in Him: do we not intimately belong to each other?” — “I am as rich as God; there is no grain of dust that I (Believe me, O Man) do not have in common with Him.” — “God loves me above Himself; if I love Him above myself I give Him as much as He gives me out of Himself.” — “The bird is in the air, the stone lies on the land; the fish lives in the water, my spirit in God's Hand.” — “If you are born of God, then God blossoms in you; and His divinity is your sap and your ornament.” — “Stop, whither are you running; Heaven is in you; if you seek God elsewhere you will forever miss Him.” — For one who feels himself to exist in the All in this way, every separation between himself and another being ceases; he no longer feels himself to be a separate individual; on the contrary, he feels everything about himself to be a part of the world, while his true essence is identical with this universe itself. “The world does not hold you; you yourself are the world that, in you and with you, keeps you so strongly prisoner.” — “Man does not have perfect bliss till the oneness has swallowed the otherness.” — “Man is all things: if he lacks one, he himself truly does not know his wealth.” — As a sensory being man is a thing among other things, and his sensory organs bring to him, as to a sensory individuality, sensory information about the things in space and time outside of him; but when the spirit speaks in man, then there is no outside and no inside; nothing that is spiritual is here and nothing is there; nothing is earlier, and nothing is later; space and time have disappeared in the contemplation of the universal spirit. It is only as long as man sees as an individual that he is here and the thing is there, and only as long as he sees as an individual, is this earlier and this later. “Man, if you let your spirit rise above place and time you can at every instant be in Eternity.” — “I myself am Eternity when I leave time, and gather myself together in God, and God in myself.” — “The rose which your external eye sees here, has bloomed like this in God through Eternity.” — “Sit down in the center, and you shall see everything at once: what happens now and then, here and in Heaven.” — “As long, my friend, as you have place and time in mind, you shall not grasp what God and Eternity are.” — “When man withdraws from multiplicity and communes with God, he reaches unity.” — With this the height has been climbed where man goes beyond his individual self and abolishes every contrast between the world and himself. A higher life begins for him. The inner experience which takes place in him appears to him like the death of the old life and a resurrection in the new. “When you raise yourself above yourself and let God act, then shall the Ascension take place in your spirit.” — “The body must elevate itself in the spirit, the spirit in God, if you, O Man, wish to live in Him forever in bliss.” — “As much as my I pines away and diminishes in me, so much is the Lord's I strengthened thereby.” — It is from this point of view that man can understand his significance and the significance of all things in the realm of eternal necessity The natural universe appears to him in a direct way as the divine spirit. The thought of a divine, universal spirit which could have its being and continuance above and beside the things of the world, fades away as a concept that has been surmounted. This universal spirit appears to be so poured out into things, to have become so much one nature with them, that it could not be imagined any longer if even a single part of its being were imagined as absent. “There is nothing but I and You; and if we two do not exist, then God is God no more, and the heavens shall fall.” — Man feels himself to be a necessary link in the chain of the world. His acts no longer have any element of arbitrariness or individuality. What he does is necessary in the whole, in the chain of the world, which would fall apart if what he does were taken out of it. “Without me God cannot make a single worm; if I do not preserve it with Him, it must straightway fall to pieces.” — “I know that without me God cannot live for an instant; if I come to nothing then He must needs give up the ghost.” — It is only on this height that man sees things in their true nature. He no longer needs to attribute, from the outside, a spiritual essence to what is smallest, what is grossly sensory. For such as this smallest is, in all its smallness and gross, sensory nature, it is a part of the All. “No dust mote is so poor, no dot is so small, but the wise man sees God in it in His glory.” — “In a mustard-seed, if you can understand it, is the image of all higher and lower things.” — On this height man feels himself free. For coercion exists only where one can still be compelled by something from the outside. But when everything external has flowed into the interior, when the contrast between “I and world,” “outside and inside,” “nature and spirit,” has disappeared, then man feels everything which impels him only as his own impulse. “Fetter me as strictly as you want, in a thousand irons; nevertheless I shall be wholly free and unfettered.” — “When my will is dead, then must God do what I will; I myself prescribe to Him the pattern and the goal.” — Now all externally imposed moral norms cease to exist; man becomes his own measure and goal. He is not subject to any law, for the law too has become his nature. “The law is for the wicked; if no commandment were written, the godly would yet love God and their neighbor.” — On the higher level of cognition the innocence of nature is thus given back to man. He accomplishes the tasks which are set for him with the awareness of an eternal necessity. He says to himself, Through this iron necessity is given into your hand to withdraw that part which is assigned to you from this same eternal necessity. “O Men, learn from the flower of the field how you can please God and be beautiful at the same time.” — “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms; it pays no attention to itself, nor asks whether one sees it.” — When man arises to the higher level he feels in himself the eternal and necessary impulse of the universe, just as the flower of the field; he acts as the flower blooms. In all his actions the awareness of his moral responsibility grows into the immeasurable. For what he does not do is withdrawn from the All, is a killing of this All, insofar as the possibility of such a killing lies with him. “What is it not to sin? Do not ask much; go, the silent flowers will tell you.” — “Everything must be slain. If you do not slay yourself for God, eternal death shall at last slay you for the Enemy.”




Last Modified: 17-May-2018
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