Cancel Culture - 17th Century Style
Hammering down the nail that sticks out, for all time
Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) was a Protestant mystic. Yeah, there were Protestant mystics—I was surprised to learn that. And Boehme, apparently, was one of the best.1 His writings consist in a complex visionary world populated by realms of light and wrath, hermetic language and symbols, the eternal battle against evil, and the transformational powers of spirit—oh, and Sophia, lots of Sophia.
Boehme (unlike many of those who followed in his footsteps over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries) didn’t lead a reclusive or monastic life. He was a cobbler, then a merchant, fully engaged in the world around him—though he did host fellow practitioners informally and provide spiritual instruction to those seeking it. The Boehmists as a whole engaged in deep spiritual practice, and considered themselves simply to be doing what Christians should do: becoming Christian.
Otherwise, they led relatively unobtrusive lives. Non-sectarians at heart, they weren’t out to make waves—to subvert or tear down mainstream Christianity, for example. As such, they didn’t see themselves as heretics operating outside the mainstream. They didn’t attack the church, though they did consider mainstream Christianity to be “Babel,” a surface-level faith blind to the deeper visionary and transformative experiences they saw as the heart of their religion.
They even drew inspiration from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mystics, when their writings agreed with what they had confirmed for themselves.2 They weren’t so much concerned with verbally professing the “correct” dogmatic beliefs, but in verifying certain spiritual truths for themselves, through their own experiences. To my reductive brain: Dabrowskian personality transformation clothed in the tradition, imagery, and meanings of an esoteric Christianity. In a sense they were empirical mystics.
But we all know what happens to visionaries and prophets, even those who don’t make efforts to advertise themselves: they become targets. Boehme had his first visionary experience in 1600. He wrote about it in a private manuscript titled Aurora in 1612. But word got out. And like Neo in the Matrix, this act of peering behind the veil attracted his own Agent Smith: Pastor Gregor Richter.
You see, Boehme had shared his manuscript with a friend. This friend had made a copy. The copy had made the rounds. Finally it came to the attention of the authorities. By mid-1613, “Boehme was verbally assaulted by the city magistrates and then by local pastor … Richter” (WC, p. 5). Richter’s obsession with Boehme bordered on the bizarre. Aurora may have been unusual, as Versluis puts it, but it wasn’t heretical.
Maybe Richter was personally offended—here was a man who claimed to have experienced the truth of Christianity for himself, not merely from book learning. Was Richter just jealous that this mere cobbler may have known more than he, a trained professional? Whatever the motivation, Richter hounded Boehme for the rest of his life. When Boehme published his first book in the last year of his life, The Way to Christ (apparently his most down-to-earth, simple, and devotional), Richter was incensed, railing against the book both from the pulpit and in pamphlets. He called Boehme an “enthusiast, or confused phantast”—in other words, a crazy heretic.
Luckily for Boehme—and for Richter’s flock, I would presume—Richter died soon after, only to be replaced by another hostile pastor: Nikolaus Thomas. And Boehme wasn’t the only one to experience this strange phenomenon:
… nearly every one of the theosopohers passed through the wrath of public attack by irate clergy or lay people. Boehme himself was relentlessly attacked for his mysticism by Gregorius Richter, the local Lutheran pastor, and after Boehme’s death his gravestone was defiled; likewise, Johann Georg Gichtel was driven from his native Germany by clergy; Dr. John Pordage was driven from his church position in 1654; and so forth. The conflict between wrath and love … was part of daily life. (WC, p. 171)
Gonzo journalist of the weird John Keel called this the “Hochstetter Syndrome.”
In the 1920s, Lester Hendershot claimed to have invented a motor that ran on the earth’s magnetic field. Whatever the truth of the that claim, the motor was small, and worked, powering various household appliances of the time. But he acquired his own archenemy, Dr. Frederick Hochstetter, who launched press conferences attacking Hendershot. Hochstetter’s motive: that “pure science might shine forth untarnished.” When Hendershot was paralyzed by a shock delivered while demonstrating his motor, Hochstetter’s job was complete—that seemed “to have ended Dr. Hochstetter’s career as a defender of the scientific faith.”3 You’d think he would have had more to say, but nope.
As Keel put it, “Whenever a new Hendershot appears on the scene, a dozen Hochstetters eager to share his limelight rise to protect the gullible public.”
Another example, from the annals of the strange: Dr. J. Allen Hynek ran the Air Force’s Project Blue Book for years, dismissing UFO reports as swamp gas and so much hokum. When he changed his mind about the topic, he acquired his own Hochstetter: Philip Klass, editor of an aerospace trade journal. Klass seemed to have something of an unhealthy obsession with Hynek, spending “all his spare time poring over Hynek’s statements and public pronouncements.”
[Klass] gleefully pounced on each of Hynek’s errors and issued long, well-written attacks. Klass first surfaced in March 1966 at a UFO press conference staged by Donald Keyhoe, a pulp writer. He heckled Keyhoe unmercifully and thus became the chief heckler of the rather trivial UFO field. In 1987, he was still attending UFO conventions, causing disruptions, and heckling the speakers. (DG, p. 28)
In the 1960s, Dr. James McDonald, a respected American scientist, was confronted with the topic of UFOs. He decided it was a subject worthy of serious scientific investigation, and proceeded to do just that. Klass now had a new target, whom he attacked with the same level of obsessive, manic energy.
If you haven’t seen this dynamic in action, it’s something to behold. But chances are you have. Nowadays, it’s all over the place, and we call it cancel culture. But cancel culture as a mass phenomenon doesn’t quite capture the feel of the genuine article. Out of nowhere, some (often anonymous) person with a trollish personality comes out of the woodwork, and with the zeal of a hyperactive stalker proceeds to latch on to you, hyper-vigilant to any error you might make. It doesn’t even have to be an error—just what others might agree to be an error.
They’ll print pamphlets about you, preach sermons against you, find every public mention of you on message-boards, comments sections of articles and blogs, on YouTube, Wikipedia, social media. They’ll make sure that everyone knows who you really are: a person who deserves to be publicly reviled and hated. A person you should never deign to associate with, lest you be tainted with their … something.
Simply put, they find where you deviate from the norm, and they attack—relentlessly. And if you crawl into a hole and disappear, they might do the same, their public presence reduced to what it was before they took on the mission of archenemy, like Hochstetter did. Mission accomplished? As I said, it’s a strange phenomenon. (Of course, they might be like Klass and simply move on to a new target.)
Why the Hochstetter syndrome? Keel thought it had to do with the egotism of belief and there being a counter-obsession to every obsession:
Obsessions with belief systems are worsened when the fragile human ego becomes involved. People with large egos usually have large obsessions. In politics, they become rabid dictators. In religion, they become “holier than thou” types filled with terrible hatreds which in turn cause guilt complexes that drive them deeper into their religious frame of reference. The outlet for their scrambled emotions is to try to foist their beliefs—and their fears—onto the rest of us. (DG, p. 30)
I think there’s more to it. It’s not just a large ego—it’s pathological egotism.
Most people don’t get worked up over what they perceive as “someone being wrong on the Internet” to the extreme of basically cyber-stalking that individual and trying to make their lives a living hell. There even seems to be an element of sexual stimulation in the whole phenomenon. If not literally, the flavor certainly rhymes. Pardon my innuendo, but the Hochstetters of the world seem to have uncomfortably prominent “ragers” for their targets of choice. They’re like serial reputational rapists.
There’s also an element of callous cruelty to the whole endeavor—the familiar stench of Cluster B dynamics. I’ve encountered plenty of fanatics and True Believers in my life. Rarely have any of them taken their fanaticism to the extreme of rage-obsessing over someone, like the Richters and Hochstetters of the world.
And they don’t just focus on your real (or imagined) errors. They lie. (There’s a reason satan is called slanderer.) They will say you said things you never said, that you believe things you have never professed, that you did things that never happened. All to create an impression of you: that you are as evil as they are. That’s what evil people do. They target innocent people and try to convince the public that the innocent person is in fact the evil one, not them. “Listen, friends, I am just like you, I promise. I too hold the proper opinions for the time of year. Not like this kook over there. Look at the crazy things he believes! I heard he also hangs out with other kooks, and engages in kooky behaviors. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s all burn the kook!”
Keel also argued (perhaps tongue in cheek) that even stamp collectors and jugglers had their Hochstetters. I haven’t encountered them, but maybe it’s true. If it is, perhaps it isn’t so much the revelation of hidden truth (like the theosophers) as it is simply openness and genius itself that activates the Hochstetter program: the pursuit of truth and excellence, even if it means contradicting the prevailing consensus. It really seems like there are forces at work whose mission is to tear down originality and excellence wherever it might crop up. Maybe even that of the greatest of stamp collectors.
Here’s how the theosophers themselves interpreted their hellhounds:
… since according to theosophy the human world is subject to Lucifer, anyone who beings this process of transformation must realize that this world will scorn him, revile him, so that Christ’s true way will remain hidden. Boehme warns us that Lucifer—the principle of self-will or pride (including intellectual pride foremost)—will incite whomever he can to attack the soul that has travelled far enough along this spiritual path. (WC, pp. 141-142)
Some readers may not agree with this religious, or even just metaphysical, take on things. But consider Boehme’s advice:
Boehme offers the kind of lighthearted mockery with which one should greet the devil’s insinuations. One should not let one’s thoughts descend into disputes, or be caught in rationalizations, or allow oneself to be flattered or to be frightened. The devil has no power over man save that which man gives him; man always has free will … [Evil] has reality for us only in the degree that we turn away from the divine will, close ourselves off from our own true nature, and let our imaginations dwell in the devil’s insinuations and despair. (WC, p. 23)
When the devil attacks you, let loose the memes of God. If there’s one thing Hochstetters can’t stand, it’s not being taken seriously. They are very serious people, after all.
What they do want is to shut you up, make you disappear, and if necessary, destroy you. If they get to you, they win. If you lose your cool, they win. If you spiral into a depression, they win. If your friends and family turn on you, they win. If they cause you to give up in despair, they win.
So laugh at them. They are, after all, clowns. You don’t have to stoop to their level. Just don’t take them seriously. They’re just ankle-biters in the hierarchy of demons. Yes, in other circumstances, they may evoke pity for being small-minded, petty, and embarrassingly self-important. That much might be forgivable. But when they cross the line into adopting the role of slanderer and Cluster B attack-dog, well—that requires some response.
I like how Chris Langan put it recently:
If you don't act against the evil committed against you, then God assumes that you like evil or are at least willing to tolerate it, and treats you accordingly.
So to all those readers fighting the good fight—some of whom may even have Hochstetters of their own—don’t let the ankle-biters tear you down. If you’re lucky enough to have one, it means you’re doing something right.
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I have yet to attempt reading him, though I’ll get around to it. Arthur Versluis turned me on to him in his books—particularly Wisdom’s Children, the first in-depth study of the Boehmist theosophers—and my conversations with him.
For this example and more, see John Keel’s “A Short History of Boobery” in Disneyland of the Gods (pp. 21-33).