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Paul Carus – Angelus Silesius - Introduction

A selection from the rhymes of a german mystic

quarta-feira 21 de setembro de 2022, por Cardoso de Castro


Ao lado do fervor piedoso que permeia seus poemas, há uma corrente subjacente do pensamento   mais radical que, se fosse expresso em prosa e sem a intenção   religiosa, seria considerado por muitos como pura infidelidade. Da mesma forma que na mística dos Amigos de Deus   e outros movimentos místicos, os dogmas cristãos aparecem no fundo do pensamento de Angelus Silesius  , mas para ele o dogma   é de pouca importância em comparação   com seu significado.

CARUS, Paul. Angelus Silesius. A selection from the rhymes of a german mystic.


Though by education a physician and a scientist, Johannes Scheffler was a mystic and a poet. His most famous book is entitled “Cherubinischer Wandersmann” (The Cherubinean Wanderer), and it is from this that the present selection has been made. It was first printed by the Society of Jesus   at Vienna in 1657 and was given the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church. The imprimatur reads as follows: [...]

The publication of the “Cherubinischer Wandersmann” was followed by that of another pious effusion called “Heilige Seelenlust oder geistliche Hirtenlust der in ihren Jesum verliebten Psyche  .” Angelus Silesius   is also the author of several Church songs which breathe fervor and piety. As the best-known of his hymns which are still in use, we cite the two beginning:

“Mir nach! spricht Christus, unser Held,
Mir nach, ihr Christen alle,”


“Liebe, die du mich zum Bilde
Deiner Gottheit hast gemacht.”

Like Newman’s “Lead, kindly light!” his hymns have become the common property of both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Some of his songs have been translated into English, notably, “Earth has nothing sweet and fair.”

Angelus Silesius is very little known to English readers; and we must grant that a perusal of all the 1676 little poems of his book would be extremely monotonous. But among the chaff there are golden grains, and we have selected the most striking verses, and offer them here to our readers as some of the most beautiful expressions of thought that has been produced by mysticism  , not the mysticism of vagaries and vain speculations, such as characterize so many mystics of to-day, but the noble mysticism of Eckhart   and Tauler  , of Jacob Boehme   and Frankenberg, and mainly of Valentin Weigel  , all of which are founded on a deep philosophical conception.

Mysticism endeavors to solve the problems of existence by sentiment where philosophy offers intellectual statements in abstract formulas, and so we have a contrast here between two conceptions. The mystic is sensuous; his religion is all feeling, and he even exhibits a dislike for intellectuality. On the other hand, the intellectualist demands first of all clearness of thought and scorns the sentimentality of the mystic.

This contrast comes out well   when we compare a quatrain of Angelus Silesius with one of Schiller’s Xenions. Angelus Silesius contemplates with satisfaction that religion appeals to the senses. He says:

“Hope gropeth after God  ,
Faith grasps His vision dim;
Love on His bosom leans,
Devotion eateth Him.”
“Der Glaube greift nach Gott;
Die Hoffnung nimmt ihn wahr;
Die Lieb umhalset ihn;
Die Andacht bst ihn gar.”
—III, 230.

How different is Schiller who, though a poet of great force, scorns the sensuality of mystics whom he calls “Theophagi” or God-eaters and censures them in this distich:

“All is enjoyment with them,
They eat and they relish ideas.
E’en into heaven to God
Spoons they will carry and forks.”
”Diesen is alles Genuss.
Sie essen Ideen,
und bringen In das Himmelreich
selbst Messer und Gabel hinauf.”

We will not decide between the two views. We simply state the difference and will recognize the right of every one to be as he is. No doubt but there is a danger in mysticism when it revels in symbols and delights in an unstinted display of feeling. On the other hand we must bear in mind   that pure intellectualism is as cold as the glaciers of Alpine heights, and in spite of its loftiness it leaves a longing for that warmth of sentiment which so richly pervades mysticism.

The first edition of the “Cherubinischer Wandersmann” appeared in 1657 and bears a quaint frontispiece which we have reproduced to occupy a similar position in the present edition. It pictures the soul soaring aloft on an eagle toward a six-pointed star. The sun   is the symbol of the Trinity, as indicated by the three marks on its disk. On a cliff at the left side lies a mariners’ compass with the inscription, “Es zeigt den rechten Weg,” (It points out the right path). Underneath an allegorical figure rings a bell below which we read, “Es wecket auf vom Schlaffe,” (It awakens from slumber). On a rock at the right-hand side a hand is seen lighting a candle from a burning taper. The explanation reads, “Es zündt andren,” (It kindles for others). The allegorical figure in the lower right-hand corner is taking from a beehive a wafer which is the symbol of the Sacrament, and words underneath declare, “Es speist und schmekt süsse,” (It nourisheth and tasteth sweet). In the background lies a city, the heavenly Jerusalem  . On the back of the frontispiece of the first edition we read the verse:

”Ein Mensch der schauet Gott,
Ein Thier den Erdkloss an;
Aus diesem, was er sey,
Ein jeder kennen kann.”
“A man beholdeth God,
A brute the clod of earth;
Hence every one may know
His nature and his worth.”

The translator is not a mystic if by mysticism is understood the supremacy of the emotional in the domain of human mentality, or even if the term presupposes the doctrine of agnosticism, that the main problems of philosophy and religion lie outside the pate of human cognition  . He believes, however, that the short cut taken by the .emotions for. the sake of rightly attuning the soul to God is a very helpful expedient by which those natures that lack intellectual power may gain a substitute for truth. His views on this subject have been expressed in a special article in “The Monist” [XVIII, 75] entitled “Mysticism.” Being in sympathy with such men as Tauler, Eckhart, Scheffler, Boehme and others, he wishes to set forth a typical mystic character and trusts that Angelus Silesius will best serve this purpose.

Though Angelus Silesius was an extraordinarily zealous Roman Catholic it may appear to most readers very difficult to conciliate his mysticism with Church doctrines, unless it be granted that the Christian dogmas are exoteric and admit of an esoteric interpretation. By the side of the pious fervor which permeates his poems, there is an undercurrent of the most radical thought which, if it were expressed in prose and without the religious intent, would be regarded by many as sheer infidelity. In the same way as in the mysticism of the Friends of God and other mystical movements, Christian dogmas loom up in the background of the thoughts of Angelus Silesius, but to him the dogma   is of little importance in comparison to its meaning. We feel that to the mystic it is of no consequence whether the data of the life of Jesus are true or not, but it is of paramount importance to him that God should be born in man’s own soul. Our own deification is the whole burden of the story of Christ, and in the same way all the dogmas have no other purpose than to symbolize spiritual truths to help us actualize them in our own lives.

The God-conception of Angelus Silesius, if expressed in a dry dogmatic formula, appears pure atheism. He speaks of God as a mere naught, and even less than naught; he denies that the deity thinks; he does not believe in providence because God can not see ahead. God is nowhere, and the expression “God is” is a mere “soi disant,” a trope, i. e., an expression which can not be taken literally, in the sense   in which we speak of ourselves as existing [1]. If God could be said to be something he would be such only in name.

The views of self in the “Cherubinean Wanderer” of Angelus Silesius, like the views of other mystics, e. g., the auther of “Theologia Germanica  ,” are quite Buddhistic, and salvation consists in freeing one’s self from egotism and all the narrowing limitations of selfhood. We are saved by self-annihilation. Nevertheless the soul of man is divine, provided the ideal selfhood be overcome. Indeed, it is as great as God himself, yea it maybe more than God. The Soul is infinite and heaven and earth are too small for it.

In this sense the creation is an actualization of God, and the actualized God maybe greater than the God who is still a mere naught. God is within his creatures, and he is God everywhere. From the standpoint of this mystic contemplation all creatures are alike before God; the fly is as important as man himself, and to Him the frog’s croaking is as beautiful as the lark’s song.

The indifference of God toward all implies that before Him the saint and the sinner are alike, but our deeds are not for that reason indifferent. The divinity of God is realized in us according to the life we lead. Nor must we wait for another life but do our duty here. We conquer the evils of life through not having our own will, but doing God’s will. Death is called our best friend, because he is the liberator from selfhood, and the thought of self—nothing else—is hell. When body and soul are healed (i. e., at the termination of our life) we become God ourselves.

There is a thoughtful pun in one of the epigrams on time. The balance-wheel of a clock is called “Unruhe” in German, which, literally translated, means, “unrest.” Time is made, says Angelus Silesius, by the clock-work of our senses; if we stop the balance in us, which is the restlessness of our heart we stop time itself and live in eternity.

The reader notices that here Angelus Silesius anticipates Kantian idealism. Not only lies the center of the world and all its wealth within ourselves, but even time ‘I and space are declared to be functions of the soul. They are parts of our “Weltbegriff,” i. e., our conception of the world.

The coincidence of the views of Angelus Silesius with those of Kant   seems strange, but both are apparently based on older traditions. Valentin Weigel propounded the same views before Angelus Silesius and Swedenborg after him, yet before Kant. How far any one of these men has influenced his successors is a question that has caused much discussion.

It is interesting to note that Leibnitz speaks of Angelus Silesius in two passages, comparing his philosophical-views to Spinoza  ’s system, and this is perhaps natural for we cannot doubt that our mystic poet has devoted much thought to speculative philosophy.

Yet Angelus Silesius would be no mystic if he rated comprehension higher than sentiment. It is true he prizes only that simplicity of heart which is accompanied with wisdom and scorns that simplicity which is mere stupidity, but he places love higher than knowledge and science, for through love only we gain an immediate admission into God’s presence.

The present edition contains the original German [2] but is not intended as a contribution to Germanic philology, and therefore we would deem it improper to burden the book with annotations concerning the oddities of Scheffler’s language. Upon the whole the spelling of the original has been retained, but in some cases where the sense was not the least affected more modern readings have been preferred.

Any one who is even superficially acquainted with Germanic philology will find no difficulties whatever, but there are a few pitfalls to readers familiar with modern German only, to which we might here quite incidentally call attention. “Witz,” “wit,” (p. 122) means wisdom, not smartness. “Der Schlaf” (p. 160) is the genitive plural, the grammatical construction being, “Of sleeps there are three kinds.” “Gemein” (p. 69 and p. 99) is to be taken in the literal sense “to commune,” not in the modem sense, “vulgar  .”

We must bear in mind the German original with its crude rhymes and archaic language if we want to appreciate Angelus Silesius in an English translation, and a close study of these epigrams has convinced us that the naivete of the style is particularly adapted to the thought, both of which we have endeavored to preserve in our English version. We are convinced that no one can read these verses, be he religiously inclined or not, without being interested in the man and in his attitude towards the world.


[1The use of “eigentlich” in the line here referred to is very idiomatic. When Angelus Silesius says: “Gott ist nur eigentlich,” he means: “If we say, ‘God is,’ the words are to be taken as true, ‘nur eigentlich,” i. e., only in a particular sense.” The word “eigentlich” is derived from “eigen,” i. e., “own,” or “proper” and may pretty literally be translated by “properly speaking.” The phrase “nicht eigentlich” means “not exactly,” and “nur eigentlich,” “only in a special sense.”

[2The entire collection consists of six books, and for the benefit of students who may be interested in comparing original readings, we have inserted after each German quatrain its reference to book and verse of the original collection.