Taller than the others, this man / Walked among them, at a distance, / Now and then calling the angels / By their secret names. – Jorge Luis Borges on Emanuel Swedenborg
BORN in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29th, 1688, Emanuel Swedenborg’s life can be divided into two main facets. Despite having excelled in the field of natural science until he reached middle-age, Swedenborg then embarked upon a rather different course and was to go on to become a famous philosopher and theologian.
Two of Swedenborg’s grandparents – Daniel Isaacsson and Albrecht Behm – were heavily involved in the Swedish mining industry, whilst his father, Jesper Swedberg, who had received his name as a result of the fact that many Swedish families had the curious habit of adopting new surnames, was a well-respected bishop in the Lutheran church and ensured that his son was brought up in accordance with the Christian faith. In fact Swedenborg’s ancestors came from a long and distinguished line of Protestant deans, chaplains and bishops. Many people viewed Jesper Swedberg as a rather pious and saintly figure, not least as a result of his efforts to make biblical texts more affordable to ordinary Swedes and for helping to teach soldiers how to read. On the other hand, his attempts to create a revised translation of the Bible led to charges of heresy and, as G. Trobridge points out:
In every direction he seems to have been thwarted by the jealousy, apathy, and stolid conservativeness of those who should have been his supporters and helpers in good works. Nevertheless, he persevered in his laudable efforts to the end of his long life.
In the seventeenth century, good works were somewhat frowned on in the Protestant church and this had a negative impact upon the propagation of basic Christian morality. Bishop Swedberg’s approach, therefore, had more in common with the Catholicism of the pre-Reformation period than with the often harsh and austere Lutheranism of his age. He was also something of a mystic and not only possessed the ability to heal people through the power of hypnotism, but also believed that he was constantly surrounded by angels.
Emanuel Swedenborg was to inherit his father’s controversial opinions on the relationship between the spiritual and material realms and, by way of a personal letter in which he discusses his childhood many years later, we are able to obtain a useful insight into the formation of his young mind:
From my fourth to my tenth year I was constantly engaged in thought upon God, salvation, and the spiritual experiences of men; and several times I revealed things at which my father and mother wondered, saying that angels must be speaking through me. From my sixth to my twelfth year I used to delight in conversing with clergymen about faith, saying that the life of faith is love, and that the love which imparts life is love to the neighbour; also that God gives faith to every one, but that those only receive it who practise that love.
In 1692, at the tender age of four, the young Swedenborg – the third of nine children – bid farewell to his native Stockholm and was taken by his family to the small municipality of Vingåker, in the county of Södermanland. Living in this rural Swedish idyll, Swedenborg – who was always a very insightful and precocious child – gradually began to flourish, but the family soon relocated north-east to the cathedral square in Upsala for a period of ten years and it was there that his natural intelligence was carefully nurtured by his cousin and tutor, Johannes Moraeus. Swedenborg attended the daily services which took place at the city’s famous cathedral on a regular basis, but his young life was turned upside down when his mother passed away in 1696 and then his younger brother also died several weeks later. To make matters worse, two years later the large stone house – which had been constructed by his father – was completely destroyed in a fire. The event had a deep psychological impact on Swedenborg and in order to allign himself with his unconscious he began meditating at a young age and, unbeknown to him, practising slightly modified forms of Yoga and Buddhist merthods of self-enlightenment:
He would relax, close his eyes and focus on a problem with total concentration. At the same time his breathing would nearly stop. Awareness of the outer world and even bodily sensation would diminish and perhaps disappear. His whole existence would focus on the one issue he wanted to understand.
It is thought that Swedenborg then went to live with his favourite sister, Anna, during his college years, before going on to attend the University of Upsala – where he first composed and then published his Latin verse – until 1709. Despite his Lutheran background, it was at Upsala that Swedenborg first became acquainted with Neoplatonism and the ideas of Greek philosophers such as Plato (424-348 BCE), Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) and Plotinus (204-270 CE).
For a while Swedenborg settled in Brunsbo, an episcopal residence, where he learnt book-binding and, thanks to the valuable help of his close friend and brother-in-law, Erik Benzelius, managed to raise the necessary funds for a tour abroad. This came as a great relief to Swedenborg, as he was becoming rather bored with the Skara district and by 1710 he was in London. The sea journey, however, had been extremely harrowing:
The vessel in which he sailed was nearly wrecked on approaching the English coast; then they were boarded by pirates; the next evening were fired into by a British guardship, being mistaken for the same pirates; and finally, after arriving safely in the Thames, [he] narrowly escaped hanging for breaking the strict quarantine regulations, established on account of the existence of the plague in Sweden.
Benzelius had also introduced Swedenborg to the Hermetic tradition. Indeed, Benzelius himself – as an Hebraist – was personally acquainted with F.M. Van Helmont who, along with Christian Knorr von Rosenroth, had co-authored Kabbala Denudata (Kabbalah Unveiled) in 1684.
During this period, Swedenborg also had the opportunity to study Newtonian physics, astronomy, mathematics and met several leading personalities connected with the Royal Society. In all, Swedenborg spent two years in both London and Oxford, but despite having to survive on a meagre budget – less than £50 spread across a period of sixteenth months – he made a brief visit to Utrecht in Holland and then to Paris for a period of one year. From there he went to the German cities of Hamburg, Rostock and Leipzig in Germany, where he invented various mechanical devices for the maritime industry. He also wrote no less than 150 early scientific works devoted to his employment in the mining industry. At Greifswalde, in Pomerania, he published a series of political fables in Latin (Camena Borea cum Heroum et Heroidum factis ludens: sive Fabellae Ovidianis similes sub variis nominibus) and then, after an absence of four years, returned to his Swedish homeland after the German district became inadvertently embroiled in a dispute with the allied enemies of Sweden itself.
Soon afterwards, the scientific first half of Swedenborg’s life began to take off dramatically and he began hatching plans for the construction of a small observatory devoted to researching longitude, founded the Society for Learning and Science, instituted a Chair of Mechanics at the University of Upsala, published six issues of a technical journal entitled Daedalus Hyperboreas and was appointed by King Charles XII as an ‘Extraordinary Assessor’ to the Board of Mines. Swedenborg’s main influences at this time were René Descartes (1596-1650), Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Christian Wolff (1679-1754).
Elsewhere, however, Swedenborg admitted to living in some poverty as a result of his ambitious publishing exploits and considered working abroad as a mining engineer. His younger siblings, meanwhile, had been ennobled by Queen Ulrica Eleonora and, as an eldest son, Swedenborg was entitled to a seat in the Swedish Parliament but such an entitlement left him feeling completely disinterested. Nevertheless, he accepted the seat as an independent member of the House – specialising in financial matters – and, in accordance with aristocratic tradition, his surname was changed from Swedberg – like his father – to Swedenborg. By this time, he was conversing daily with Charles XII and discussing a whole range of mathematical, astronomical and scientific matters. However, on November 30th, 1718, Charles was killed by a projectile whilst waging a siege against the Norwegians at Fredrikshald and their friendship came to an abrupt end.
In the Summer of 1721, Swedenborg embarked upon a second foreign tour – considerably longer than the first – and, as a representative of the Board of Mines, he went first to Holland and then to the German States. This enabled him to become the guest of Duke Ludwig Rudolf von Brunswick-Luneburg and visit both the Hartz mountains and various mining projects throughout Saxony. A wealth of scientific publications followed in his wake, something he had been unable to do in Sweden’s more limited and restrictive environment, and soon he was earning 800 silver dalers a year from the mining industry. In 1734 he became a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg in Russia and elected to Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences.
But despite his fascination with scientific matters, Swedenborg retained a keen interest in spiritual affairs and met regularly with leading practitioners of both Protestantism and Catholicism alike. Unlike his father, however, he was less dogmatic in his views and had more of an open mind. This led him to him becoming deeply interested in art and nature, although
he showed little appreciation of natural scenery. He tells us of the hidden wealth of the mountains, but not of their outward glory and majesty; he describes his journeys by sea and river, but never a word of the dancing waves and changing light that give endless variety to the one, or the windings that bring ever new beauties to view on the other; he notes the careful construction of the fences, but sees not the flowers of the field that they enclose; he is struck by “an extraordinary fine illumination” at Leghorn, but disregards the rising and setting of the sun. His thoughts were engaged with the nature and origin of things rather rather than their appearances; he was full of awe and reverence for the wonders of creation, but his aesthetic faculty was dormant or untrained.
Swedenborg, it must be said, was at this time a creature of his age and thoroughly preoccupied with the practicalities of science. However, he then began to show more interest in philosophy and his return to Sweden in 1734, at the age of forty-six, soon led to his existing knowledge of natural science being enhanced with increasing philosophical speculation about the location of the human soul and other profound matters that were to shape Swedenborg’s unique spiritual vision. In the Principia (1734), which represented the first part of his three-volume Opera Philosophica et Mineralia, Swedenborg developed his own theory of origins. His nebular hypothesis, for example, dealt with the formation of the solar system and later influenced figures such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), William Herschel (1738-1822) and Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).
In July 1736, Swedenborg set off on his travels once more and visited Norrkoping, Helsingborg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam (“the whole town breathed of nothing but gain”), Rotterdam, Dorp, Antwerp, Brussels and France. Back in Paris, Swedenborg was disappointed with the stark disparity between the various classes of French society and what he regarded as the negative influence of the Catholic Church:
The monks are fat, puffed up and prosperous; a whole proud army might be formed of them without their being missed; most of them lead a lazy life; they try more and more to make all subject to them; they give nothing to the poor except words and blessings, and on the other hand, insist on having everything from the indigent for nothing.
Swedenborg left Paris in March 1738 and travelled, via Lyon, to the Italian city of Turin. Once again, he made a thorough study of Roman Catholicism and its adherents, visiting monasteries and observing the country’s Easter feasts and festivals and then concluding that ordinary Italian people were not always as moral and pious as their religion expected them to be. We learn from his journal that he also visited Milan, Verona, Pisa, Florence, Padua, Vicenza, Rome, Venice and then returned to Paris in May 1739. By November 1740, he had returned to Sweden.
In 1743, after several mystical episodes had taken place in his life, Swedenborg decided to keep a record of his nocturnal observations in a Journal of Dreams. The book, which never actually came to light until 1858, deals specifically with the dreams he experienced between March and October 1744. As far as Swedenborg was concerned, dreams are orchestrated by a hidden power and
were directed by one of whose origin we are ignorant – a circumstance which often seems to us a matter of wonder.
The journal entries reveal an increasing disillusionment with science and philosophy, but Swedenborg not only recorded the details of these nightly adventures, he also attempted to define them and therefore this little book is a very early example in the field of dream analyses. As Gary Lachman explains:
If this seems a remarkable anticipation of Freud’s ideas, it is even more so an early insight into Jung’s notions about the Self, the central psychic archetype and the creative hand behind our dreams. For Freud, dreams are symbols portraying desires and wishes that, were we to recognise them truthfully, would shock us. They have, for him, a negative character, being a kind of camouflage, hiding our secret thoughts from ourselves; hence the need for the psychoanalyst to undercover their true meaning. For Jung, however, dreams are not a substitute for something else, but a symbolic message from the Self; their job is to guide our conscious egos towards a more unified awareness, and they often present our conscious selves with insights into our potentials of which we are usually ignorant.
The Journal of Dreams includes his experiences with insects, serpents, strangled dogs, endless staircases and getting caught in the spokes of a machine. Swedenborg’s dreams often contained a sexual theme, too, and even include amorous adventures with an engorged penis and a vagina with teeth.
Between 1744 and 1745, Swedenborg wrote another three-volume work entitled Regnum Animale, which, despite having been incorrectly translated as ‘The Animal Kingdom’, actually dealt with the quest to discover the location of the soul (anima). The trilogy, which had originally been designed to span no less than seventeen volumes, was published in Amsterdam and London respectively. His intention
was to discover, if possible, where the living force resides that regulates the economy of the animal kingdom, that is, the kingdom presided over by the anima, or soul, to wit, the human body, that wonderful organism which responds to every command and suggestion of the indwelling spirit. Where this living essence resides, and what its nature is, were the object of his ardent quest.
Despite his scientific grounding, Swedenborg realised that neither physics nor chemistry were able to adequately explain how the soul had an effect upon the body. As a result, Swedenborg decided to study both animals and human anatomy in order to establish how the mechanics of the soul operated. The earliest of the books in this series, The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, deals with the workings of the brain, rational psychology and the human soul. More importantly, however, it deals with circulation:
The blood is, as it were, the complex of all things that exist in the world, and the storehouse and seminary of all that exist in the body.
Other passages, whilst adopting a scientific or biological tone, seem to reveal that Swedenborg had a belief in the mysticism and sacral nature of blood itself:
For if all things exist for the sake of man, and with a view to affording him the conditions and means of living, then all things exist for the sake of the blood, which is the parent and nourisher of every part of the body; for nothing exists in the body that has not previously existed in the blood.
For Swedenborg, blood was a divine fluid that came directly from God and represented a manifestation of the ‘corporeal soul’. This essentially materialistic interpretation of a supernatural phenomenon demonstrates that Swedenborg – at that time – was only able to interpret the soul as a sublimated form of matter. He also failed to make a distinction between the spirit and the soul, believing that each was dependent upon the other. Swedenborg’s philosophical method, based on a combination of Aristotle (844-22 BCE) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), epitomised perfectly
the inductive and synthetic methods combined. Commencing by observation, his mind seized upon certain high philosophical axioms; and from them reasoned downwards to the nature and uses of particular objects. Perhaps it is the only attempt the world has seen (with the exception of the unsuccessful efforts of Comte) at rising upwards to purely philosophical ideas from positive and concrete facts.
Swedenborg had the ability to construct a valid scientific analysis by converting the inorganic to the organic. In other words, and as he revealed in a paper delivered to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in December 1740, by observing the visible organs of the body, he could go on to advance his theories about the nature of those unseen factors that were not always so readily discernible. He also believed that one should use philosophy to arrive at a specific conclusion, rather than pontificate about the philosophical methods themselves. Even science, he tells us, must be transcended by the higher faculty of intuition. Indeed, as the intellect begins to establish the truth in accordance with both nature and the universe, the mind begins to awaken. This leads, ultimately, to yet further truths revealing themselves to the individual:
Thus if we wish to invite real truths, whether natural or moral, or spiritual (for they all make common cause by means of correspondence and representation), into the sphere of our rational minds, it is necessary that we extinguish the impure fires of the body, and thereby our own delusive lights, and submit and allow our minds, unmolested by the influences of the body, to be illumined with the rays of the spiritual power: then for the first time truths flow in; for they all emanate from that power as their peculiar fountain.
Swedenborg believed that truth could be attained by the mind, through the senses, and also – in a higher sense – from perception or intuition. This, a truly spiritual and transcendent fusion between philosophy and spirituality, was something which had been scorned or rejected by other eighteenth-century scientists and Swedenborg was convinced that nature could function as a means to an ultimate good.
Regnum Animale also dealt with Swedenborg’s four-part analysis of the psyche, which explained how the infinite life force flows through the body in a series of stages:
The first, or universal force, was the source of gravity; the second force was the source of magnetism; the third force was the ether, which he saw as the source of electricity, light and heat; and the fourth force was the air.
Above these four psychological components stood the soul, or anima, a concept which would go on influence C.G. Jung (1875-1961) many years later, although the latter had his own interpretation of how the anima functioned. For Swedenborg, however, the anima can be distinguished from the rational intellect as a result of its more spiritual nature. The anima enters the intellect, he argues, in the form of light. Below the intellect, meanwhile, is the animus, the source of our sensuous desires. The intellect, then, is affected by the anima from above and the animus from below. This represents a perpetual struggle between the higher and lower selves.
One interesting work that Swedenborg failed to publish, was The Rational Psychology (1743), a text which was originally intended as the seventh part of his Regnum Animale. Although he was unable to define the actual substance of the soul (anima), Swedenborg was able to demonstrate that it had an effect on the biological organs of the human body. The manuscript also dealt with his experiences with various techniques of meditation, a process that often triggered a series of startling visions and hypnogogic states. The latter is the ability to experience dreams whilst still being awake, meaning that the conscious ego remains fully aware and can therefore engage with the vision. This is rather different to experiencing dreams, however, because dreams themselves result in people becoming completely absorbed. Hypnogogic states, then, keep the mind aware of the external world but also allow an individual to observe the inner experience. This is what Swedenborg had to say about them:
But different is the vision which one is in full wakefulness, with the eyes closed. There is such that things are seen as though in clear day. Nay, there is still another kind of vision which comes in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness. The man then supposes that he is fully awake, as it were, inasmuch as all his senses are active. Another vision is that between the time of sleep and the time of wakefulness, when the man is waking up, and has not yet shaken off sleep from his eyes. This is the sweetest of all, for heaven then operates into his rational mind in the utmost tranquillity.
It should not come as a great surprise, perhaps, for readers to discover that Swedenborg was often accused of being insane. But efforts to commit him to a mental asylum failed, as did an attempt to charge him with heresy. But Swedenborg was not insane and was highly respected by scientists, philosophers and theologians alike.
In 1745 Swedenborg published De Cultu et Amore Dei (The Worship and Love of God), a two-part work (a third section remained unfinished) which set out to deal with the idea of creation. This involved a summary explaining how the planets were born from the sun, the manner in which life first began on the Earth and the details relating to the flora and fauna which began to spread across the world in an explosion of multifarious lifeforms. One important theme running through this particular work is Swedenborg’s idea that a correspondence can be established between these natural forms and a higher, spiritual truth. He believed that there is nothing in nature which does not resemble its origin, or soul, and that an inextricable relationship must exist between nature and spirit. All life, therefore, is spiritual and God Himself lies at the root of all things. Furthermore, he argues:
Life has ordained nature to be a consort with itself, and to exercise power accordingly.
By this time, of course, the man who had started out as a natural scientist had certainly ventured into pastures new. However, whilst De Cultu et Amore Dei had marked his progression from philosophical reasoning to spiritual perception, Swedenborg
had as yet no idea that he was to be given a mission as a religious revelator; his aim in this and his other philosophical works seems to have been to establish the Divine origin of creation and the reality of spiritual things.
Nevertheless, his unique blend of physiology and psychology was poised to go one step further and before long he viewed the world, not as a scientist, but as a spiritual mystic. In April 1745, for example, just after he had finished his meal at an inn, Swedenborg claimed that he was visited by Jesus and that he had been instructed to teach people about the spiritual nature of the Holy Scriptures:
From that day I gave up the study of all worldly science, and laboured in spiritual things, according as the Lord had commanded me to write. Afterwards the Lord opened, daily very often, the eyes of my spirit, so that, in the middle of the day, I could see into the other world, and in a state of perfect wakefulness converse with angels and spirits.
Between 1749 and 1756, Swedenborg produced his Arcana Cœlestia (Heavenly Mysteries). The work itself, which eventually ran to a total of eight volumes, examined the author’s ideas about theological correspondences in far more depth, examining the early history of humanity and looking at the books of Genesis and Exodus, in particular. Swedenborg believed that the biblical stories themselves were describing, in a symbolic sense, the spiritual growth of the individual. The work also provides us with a useful insight into Swedenborg’s own personal development during this key transitional stage, something that is also discussed both in his Spiritual Diary and in the Adversaria, the latter being a notebook based on his Biblical studies and written between 1745 and 1747. Again, he made a convincing attempt to reconcile the relationship between nature and spirit, insisting that there is
hence a correspondence of all things, which, with the Divine permission, we shall follow out in its proper series.
In his Spiritual Diary, on the other hand, Swedenborg compiled a record of some of his extraordinary visionary experiences. By July 1747, meanwhile, he had left his position at the Board of Mines as a result of the fact that he considered his role to be detrimental to his new spiritual outlook. In short, he was of the opinion that
spirits cannot speak with a man who is much devoted to worldly and corporeal cares – for bodily concerns draw down, as it were, the ideas of the mind and immerse them in corporeal things.
From November 1747 to October 1748, Swedenborg was in Holland before moving on to London. Once there, he arranged for the publication of an English translation of his Arcana Cœlestia, although the book sold just four copies in two months. Much of the work itself deals with the supreme Divinity of Jesus Christ, which became a common theme in Swedenborg’s later works. Rather than accept that Jesus was part of a three-fold Trinity, therefore, Swedenborg was of the opinion that the Trinity was centred on Jesus Himself. Meanwhile, the questioning, inquisitive tone of his earlier books had disappeared and it was clear that the author of the Arcana Cœlestia was now writing like an enlightened master.
After returning to Stockholm for several years, in 1758 Swedenborg returned to London and published four smaller volumes: De Ultimo Judicio (The Last Judgement), De Equo Albo de quo in Apocalypsi Cap.XIX (The White Horse), De Telluribis in Mundo Nostro Solari (Earths in the Universe) and De Nova Hierosolyma et Ejus Doctrina Coelesti (The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine). A fifth volume, De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de inferno (Heaven and Hell), which presents both domains as self-chosen states of consciousness, was poised to become Swedenborg’s most famous work and it has been compared to the eighth-century Tibetan Book of the Dead. In it, the author claims to have discovered the location of the soul:
When we say that man is a spirit as to his interiors, we mean, as to those things which are his thought and will, for these are the interiors themselves, which cause man to be man, and as his interiors are, such is the man.
Or, as the American psychologist Wilson van Dusen puts it:
The soul is the life, the spirit, the interior of man’s experience. The quality of this life is the quality of the man.
In 1762, now seventy-four years of age, Swedenborg set out for Amsterdam and – one year later – published six further works: Doctrina Novæ Hierosolymæ de Domino (Doctrine of the Lord), Doctrina Novæ Hierosolymæ de Scriptura Sacra (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture), Doctrina Vitæ pro Nova Hierosolyma ex præceptis Decalogi (Doctrine of Life), Doctrina Novæ Hierosolymæ de Fide (Doctrine of Faith), Continuatio De Ultimo Judicio: et de mundo spirituali (Continuation of the Last Judgement), Sapientia Angelica de Divino Amore et de Divina Sapientia (Divine Love and Wisdom) and Sapientia Angelica de Divina Providentia (Divine Providence). In the succeeding years he was just as prolific and went on to publish Sapientia Angelica de Divina Providentia (Divine Providence) in 1764, Apocalypsis Revelata (Apocalypse Revealed) in 1766, Deliciae Sapientiae de Amore Conjugiali (Conjugial Love) in 1768, and both Summaria Expositio Doctrinæ Novæ Ecclesiæ (Brief Exposition) and De Commercio Animæ & Corporis (Interaction of the Soul and the Body) in 1769. Throughout this frenetic period, Swedenborg was travelling to and fro between Sweden and Holland, as well as Sweden and England, risking his life in a series of perilous sea journies.
Some of Swedenborg’s work, especially Conjugial Love, concerns the nature of sexuality and he even condoned prostitution and extra-marital relations. As Gary Lachman explains:
In Swedenborg’s heaven, men and women find their true partners, who are not always the ones they knew on earth, and their sexual life continues: in fact, it is supposed to get even better. Loving eroticism between man and wife is a significant element in Kabbalah, representing on the earthly plane the creative act of the Divine, and helping to reunite the male and female spiritual principles. Swedenborg was highly sexed, and this interest in women was later transformed into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the spirituality and metaphysics of the erotic.
In 1766 the work Swedenborg had based on his psychic experiences was heavily criticised by the famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who – despite having originally expressed an interest in his Swedish counterpart – published an anonymous book entitled Träume eines Geistersehers (Dreams of a Spirit-Seer). Kant used his work to denounce Swedenborg as a “spook hunter” in an attempt to distance himself from those he considered to be obsessed with dreams and the supernatural. On the other hand, it has been said that Kant’s text does not accord with some of the more positive and flattering comments he made about Swedenborg in his lectures. Also, in a letter Kant wrote to Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the former dismissed his own Träume eines Geistersehers as a “desultory little essay”
Five years later, in 1771, Swedenborg issued his Vera Christiana Religio (True Christian Religion) and reiterated his conviction that the Trinity was embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, for Swedenborg
a sort of frenzy has infected the whole system of theology, as well as the Christian church, so called from its Divine founder. […] Men’s minds are reduced by it into such a state of delirium that they do not know whether there is one God, or whether there are three. They confess but one God with their lips, while they entertain the idea of three in their thoughts; so that their lips and their minds, or their words and their ideas, are at variance with each other: the consequence whereof is that they deny the existence of God.
This view rests on the idea of the Atonement, something that was expressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself”. Inevitably, therefore, the author of Vera Christiana Religio was a humanitarian and believed in human redemption:
Swedenborg rejects all schemes of salvation that do not involve reformation of character; yet he is emphatic in his teaching that man has no power to procure his own salvation, though gifted with absolute freedom to choose the good and reject the evil.
Curiously, however, although Swedenborg’s thoughts on free will are no different to those of other Christians, his Sapientia Angelica de Divina Providentia of 1764 had already established that whilst man’s acceptance of religious truth relied upon voluntary co-operation with Jesus Christ, it was also entirely conditional. In other words, despite the fact that many converts or repentent sinners reconciled themselves with the Christian religion in moments of ill-health or danger, Swedenborg believed that it was impossible for an individual to be reformed in states of bodily disease… [and that] No one is
reformed in states that are not of rationality and liberty…
Indeed, according to one of Swedenborg’s biographers:
Since salvation is the attainment of spiritual health, it is evident that eternal rewards and punishments cannot be arbitrarily bestowed. Before we can go to heaven, heaven must have come to us; and no one will go to hell, who has not first received hell into his soul.
Swedenborg also had a rather interesting take on the Last Judgement and the Second Coming of Christ. Believing, as he did, that Heaven was an interior – as opposed to an exterior – realm, Swedenborg did not believe that individuals were judged at the moment of death, but only that a brief interval took place between the death of the body and the beginning of one’s spiritual life. Contrary to the more orthodox Christian view that Jesus Christ would return to the world, eventually destroying the entire planet and then creating a new Heaven and a new Earth, Swedenborg dismissed this interpretation and suggested that the Last Judgement had already taken place in 1757 and that he was there to witness the whole event himself. This episode apparently involved the restoration of order across the world, resulting in the fulfilment of the Gospels and Revelation. G. Trobridge of the Swedenborg Society, who wrote a 1907 biography about the life of Emanuel Swedenborg, had this to say about the remarkable claims that had been made by his subject around 1758:
The remarkable progress of the world since that time is a direct outcome of this judgement. Those who would deny this to be the cause, must be prepared to suggest some better reason for the unprecedented changes that have marked the history of the past hundred and seventy-five years.
Given that the vast majority of Trobridge’s biography presents a very thorough and worthy introduction to Swedenborg’s work, despite its essentially subjective tone, it seems utterly ridiculous for the author to make such a preposterous claim. Swedenborg himself was a mystic, of course, and clearly had his own reasons for believing that the Last Judgement had taken place in the mid-eighteenth century, but there is little evidence to suggest that the modern age is the result of a fulfilment of Christian values. If, on the other hand, Swedenborg had said that the decline of the contemporary world was something that was happening in accordance with Christian revelation, then it might have been considerably more feasible, but when Trobridge uses the word “progress” we are expected to believe that modern civilisation has developed with the full blessing of the Lord Himself. If anything, of course, the world has become less spiritual and increasingly materialistic and there has been a sharp decline in terms of Christian values.
Swedenborg’s view that the Second Coming of Christ should also be interpreted from a purely spiritual perspective, is based on the opinion that the Divine nature of God has already been expressed by way of human nature (i.e. “the Word made flesh”). The fulfilment of the Divine Will, according to Swedenborg, was being expressed through him. He claimed, if you will, to be an instrument of God. In Apocalypse Explained, for example, an unfinished manuscript that was published more than one century after his death (1889-97), Swedenborg argued that it was a total fallacy to regard the material world as something that was actually real:
A fallacy is an inversion of order, it is the judgement of the eye, not of the mind, it is a conclusion drawn from the appearance of a thing, not from its essence.
But Swedenborg believed that spiritual reality, on the other hand, was represented by things such as love and wisdom. Not in the sense that they are merely derived from individuals themselves, but rather that they act as a reflection of the Divine. Swedenborg was often accused of being pantheistic in his approach to the nature of the Divinity within, but this view is based on the belief that all created things are recipients of God; not in terms of continuity, but in a more contiguous sense. Creation, therefore, contains the image of God and reflects His likeness. The natural world is an image of the spiritual world and each corresponds one to the other. However, humans are different to animals because they combine both matter and spirit:
Man is spiritual and at the same time natural, whereas a beast is not spiritual but natural. Man is endowed with will and understanding, but his will is the receptacle of the heat of heaven, which is love, and his understanding is the receptacle of the light of heaven, which is wisdom; but a beast is not endowed with will and understanding, but instead of will has affection, and instead of understanding, knowledge (i.e. knowledge appertaining to its life).
Swedenborg was intrigued by the various correspondences that take place between the material and spiritual domains. But he believed that there is not only a correspondence between outward creation and the spiritual world, but also a close relationship between nature and the spirit of man. So whilst man is created in the likeness of God, there are vast similarities between the physical universe and man himself. The macrocosm in the microcosm. As above, so below. The parallels that exist between Swedenborg’s interpretation of the real worlds (‘hierarchy of the real’) and his analysis of the human condition (‘humanness’) are thus brought together as a complimentary representation of life itself. Indeed, the spiritual world is the foundation of the natural world and without it we would not exist at all. Those who occupy the spiritual realm, meanwhile, indulge themselves in the same activities as we humans, although unlike us they do not appear in natural form and adopt a purely spiritual attire.
In 1771 Swedenborg visited London for the last time and stayed in lodgings owned by a wig-maker in Clerkenwell. On March 29th, 1772, after predicting the date of his death, he passed away and was buried in the Swedish church at Wapping. Years later, in 1910, when the building was demolished, Swedenborg’s remains were returned to Sweden and interred in an impressive sarcophagus in Upsala Cathedral, close to where he had lived as a small child.
Since his death in the late-eighteenth century the sheer impact of Swedenborg’s ideas have been staggering and figures such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and August Strindberg (1849-1912) were all influenced in one way or another by Swedenborg’s work. Modern writers, such as Marsha Keith Schuchard, have attempted to place Swedenborg at the centre of a Masonic conspiracy to overthrow the Hanoverian monarchy of England and restore the Stuart dynasty. It is even alleged that he was in league with people such as Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Samuel Jacob Falk (1708-1782) and Alessandro Cagliostro (1743-1795). Falk was involved with the Moravian Brethren, a community of Freemasons, Rosicrucians Alchemists and Kabbalists who would certainly have concurred with Swedenborg’s liberal views on sexuality.
Finally, Swedenborg’s legacy continues to endure in the twenty-first century through the tireless work of the Swedenborg Society and its efforts to make his work both affordable and widely available. In many ways, Swedenborg – as a European – led the way in his attempts to understand and explore the realities of the world that lies within us and which, inevitably, is to some extent influenced by the Divine. Indeed, regardless whether you happen to agree with Swedenborg’s essentially neo-Christian outlook, the search for our inner nature and our true place in the cosmos goes on and Swedenborg’s work still occupies an important place in the field of metaphysics.
1. G. Trobridge, Swedenborg: Life and Teaching (Swedenborg Society, 1935), p.11.
2. Emanuel Swedenborg in a letter to his friend, Dr. Breyer, Professor of Greek at Gothenburg University, 1769.
3. Wilson van Dusen, The Presence of Other Worlds: The Psychological/Spiritual Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg (Chrysalis Books, 1994), p.19.
4. Trobridge, op.cit., pp.19-20.
5. Ibid., p.45.
6. Ibid., p.51.
7. Signe Toksvig, Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic (Yale University Press, 1948), pp.86-7.
8. Gary Lachman, Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg (Swedenborg Society, 2009), p.72.
9. Trobridge, op.cit., p.64.
10. Emanuel Swedenborg, The Economy of the Animal Kingdom (1744), Part I, No. 3.
11. Ibid., Part I, No. 4.
12. John Daniel Morell, An Historical and Critical Review of the Speculative Philosophy of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Volume One (Adamant Media Corporation, 2004), p.320.
13. Emanuel Swedenborg, The Animal Kingdom (1744-45), Part II, “Epilogue”, No. 463.
14. Gary Lachman, op.cit., p.64.
15. Emanuel Swedenborg, The Word of the Old Testament Explained [Trans. Alfred Acton & Frank Sewall], (Academy of the New Church, 1996), No. 7387.
16. Emanuel Swedenborg, De Cultu et Amore Dei (1745), Paragraph No. 66.
17. Trobridge, op.cit., p.95.
18. Lars Bergquist, Swedenborg’s Secret (Swedenborg Society, 2005), pp.227-8. The story was also recounted by Carl Robsahm.
19. Emanuel Swedenborg, Adversaria (1745-47), i, No. 23.
20. Emanuel Swedenborg, Spiritual Diary, March 4th, 1748.
21. Emanuel Swedenborg, De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de inferno (1758), No. 444.#
22. Wilson van Dusen, op.cit., p.72.
23. Gary Lachman, op.cit., p.23.
24. E. Benz, Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason (Swedenborg Foundation, 2002), p.31.
25. G. Johnson, “Did Kant Dissemble His Interest in Swedenborg?” in The New Philosophy (1999), p.85.
26. Emanuel Swedenborg, Vera Christiana Religio (1771), No. 4.
27. 2 Cor. 5:19.
28. Trobridge, op.cit., p.132.
29. Emanuel Swedenborg, Sapientia Angelica de Divina Providentia, No. 138.
30. Trobridge, op.cit., p.134.
31. Ibid., p.136.
32. Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained (1889-92), No. 1215.
33. Emanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypsis Revelata (1966), No. 1202.
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