Emanuel Swedenborg (born Swedberg) (January 29, 1688–March 29, 1772), Swedish scientist, philosopher and mystic, was born in Stockholm, the third son of the renowned but controversial bishop, Jesper Swedberg. Emanuel had a prolific career as an inventor and scientist. Then at age 56 he entered a psychological crisis, experiencing first dreams, and later visions of a spiritual world where he talked with angels and spirits, many of them from the Bible, such as Moses and Jesus. Amongst other things, these spirits guided his interpretation of Bible scripture.
Claims of veracity
Swedenborg's transition from scientist to mystic has fascinated people ever since it occurred--people such as Immanuel Kant, Goethe, sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Balzac, Jorge Luis Borges and C.G. Jung, just to mention a few. While fascinating, this transition also creates difficulties in accounting for Swedenborg's life. Many simply assert that he lost his mind. Others sidestep the issue of his sanity, focusing instead on the historical, philosophical, and theological issues his writings raise. Still others regard Swedenborg as a prophet who, as Swedenborg himself claimed, was able to see into the spiritual world. Books accounting for Swedenborg's life usually take one of these three stances depending on which axe the author intends to grind. It is therefore impossible, despite best efforts, to satisfy everyone's points of views in an article such as this.
Swedenborg's father Jesper Swedberg (1653—1735) had a modest background, but after studying theology and travelling abroad he was eloquent enough to impress the Swedish King Charles XI with his sermons in Stockholm. Through the King's influence he would later become professor of theology at Uppsala University and Bishop of Skara.
Jesper took interest in the beliefs of the dissenting Lutheran Pietist movement, which placed more emphasis on the virtues of love and communion with God than on sheer faith, which was the prevailing view of the Lutheran Church in Sweden. These beliefs were to have a major impact on his son Emanuel's spirituality, though they were unpopular among other Swedish churchmen of the time. Jesper was charged with being a pietist heretic, because his writings emphasized good deeds rather than the virtues of faith. Jesper also held the belief that angels and spirits were among us all the time. Emanuel never doubted this either. It would be his own guide as he became a seer.
Emanuel completed his university course at Uppsala, and in 1710 toured through the Netherlands, France, and Germany, before reaching London, where he would spend the next four years. At this time London was the largest city in the world, and the most liberal place in Europe for philosophical discussion and freedom of speech. It was also a flourishing center of scientific ideas and discoveries. Emanuel studied physics, mechanics, and philosophy, read and wrote poetry, and attended a lecture by Isaac Newton. Later in life Emanuel claimed to have met Newton in the spiritual world, where Newton confessed to him that he had been mistaken in his theory of colors. While in London, Emanuel developed a taste for the scientific life. He wrote to his benefactor and brother-in-law Eric Benzelius that he believed he might be destined to be a great scientist.
In 1715 Swedenborg returned to Sweden. Here he was to devote himself to natural science and to engineering projects for the next two decades.
In 1716, he met with King Charles XII of Sweden in the city of Lund, where the king was sojourning on his way between military expeditions. The Swedish inventor Christopher Polhem, who became a close friend of Swedenborg's, was also present. Swedenborg's intention was to persuade the king to fund an observatory in northern Sweden. However, the warlike king did not consider this project important enough, and appointed Swedenborg assessor-extraordinary on the Swedish board of mines instead (Bergskollegium). From 1716 to 1718 he also published a scientific periodical entitled Daedalus Hyperboreus which was a record of mechanical and mathematical inventions and discoveries. His reports on smelting and assaying were remarkable for their detail and for the comparisons drawn between Swedish and other methods. Two years later he distinguished himself at the king's siege of Halden in Norway by the invention of machines for the transport of boats and galleys overland from Strömstad to Iddefjord, a distance of fourteen miles.
Upon the death of Charles XII, Queen Ulrika Eleonora ennobled Swedenborg and his siblings. It was common in Sweden during the 17th and 18th centuries for the children of bishops to receive this honour as a recognition of the services of the father. The family name was changed from Swedberg to Swedenborg.
In the parliamentary House of Knights, Swedenborg's contributions to political discussion exerted great influence. He dealt with such subjects as the currency, the decimal system, the balance of trade and the liquor laws. The next few years were devoted to the duties and studies connected with his office. In 1724 he was offered the chair of mathematics at Uppsala University, but declined on the ground that it was a mistake for mathematicians to be limited to theory. He considered practical studies just as important.
In the 1730s Swedenborg became more interested in spiritual matters and became determined to find a theory which would explain how matter relates to spirit. In 1734 he published Prodromus Philosophiae Ratiocinantis de Infinito, et Causa Finali Creationis, which tries to explain how the finite is related to the infinite, and how the soul might be related to the body. He also devoted himself to discovering the nature of soul and spirit by means of anatomical studies.
In 1743, at the age of 55, Swedenborg requested a leave of absence to go abroad. His purpose was to collect information for Regnum Animale ("The Animal Kingdom"), a subject for which material could only be found in books published abroad. The aim of the book was to explain the soul from an anatomical point of view. During the The Age of Enlightenment the tenets of René Descartes' materialism were increasingly influential among scientists. According to Descartes, humans consist only of atoms and are made purely of matter. He denied the existence of the soul or an afterlife. Swedenborg spent much labour researching information to disprove Descartes' opinion, because he felt in his heart that it was invalid. All his anatomical research during the 1730s-1740s was dedicated to this end.
Swedenborg proposed 150 years earlier than any other scientist, that the activity of the brain was synchronous with respiration and not with the action of the heart or the blood circulation. He had arrived at the modern conception of the activity of the brain as the joint activity of its individual cells. The cerebral cortex and more specifically, the cortical elements (nerve cells), formed the seat of the activity of the soul. They were organized into subdivisions according to their various functions.
His views as to the physiological functions of the spinal cord are also in agreement with later research, and he discovered the purpose of the ductless glands.
Until middle age Swedenborg's career included positions as a scholar, scientist, practical administrator, legislator, and a man of affairs. But a profound change was coming over him, which led him to leave the domain of physical research for that of psychological and spiritual inquiry. Neither by geometrical, nor physical, nor metaphysical principles had he succeeded in fully understanding the soul, the brain or their functions, but he had none the less learned much which would now guide him into the new phase he was about to enter.
By 1744, in the Netherlands, Swedenborg had competed publication of his scientific works. Shortly thereafter he travelled once again to London. Around this time he began having strange dreams. It appears in hindsight as though his mind was being ripped apart by the two diametrically opposed powers of belief and disbelief. He was dreaming about angelic states and about demonical states, about spiritual things and material, and was often very frightened. All these dreams he analyzed and wrote down in a notebook, found a century later and published as Journal of Dreams.
In October 1744 he was instructed in his dreams to abandon his old career as a scientist and pursue a new one in which he would write about spiritual things. He soon began working on The Worship and Love of God which was published in 1745.
According to Swedenborg's own account, the Lord filled him with His spirit to teach the doctrines of the New Church. God commissioned him to do this work and opened his sight to the spiritual world, permitting him to see the heavens and the hells, and to converse with angels and spirits for many years. Late in life he wrote to Oetinger that "he was introduced by the Lord first into the natural sciences, and thus prepared indeed, from the years 1710 to 1745, when heaven was opened to him." This latter great event is described by him in a letter to Thomas Hartley, rector of Winwick, as "the opening of his spiritual sight", "the manifestation of the Lord to him in person", and "his introduction into the spiritual world".
Elsewhere he speaks of his calling as primarily an opening of the spiritual sense of the Word. His friend Robsahm reported Swedenborg's testimony that the Lord Jesus Christ revealed Himself to him and said, "I am the Lord thy God, Creator and Redeemer of the world. I have chosen thee to unfold the spiritual sense of Holy Scripture. I will Myself dictate to thee what thou shalt write." From that moment, Swedenborg gave up all scientific learning and only worked towards spiritual knowledge.
Period of visions
In the year 1747, Swedenborg resigned his post of assessor of the board of mines and devoted himself to his higher quest. He requested that he might receive half his salary as a pension. He took up afresh his study of Hebrew and began to work on the spiritual interpretation of the Bible. His plan was to interpret the spiritual meaning of every verse, starting with Genesis. Even though he worked very hard and wrote eight dense books in Latin, after two years he only managed to complete Genesis and parts of Exodus, and abandoned the project. These interpretations were published under the title Arcana Caelestia. It is said that there were only three people who purchased this expensive volume during Swedenborg's life, one of whom was the young Immanuel Kant.
His life from 1747 until his death in 1772 was spent in Sweden, Holland and London, working on the composition and publication of his works. Throughout this period he was befriended by many people who regarded him as a kind and warm-hearted man. Though many people disbelieved in his visions and thought he had lost his mind, they didn't ridicule him in his presence. Those who talked with him understood that he was devoted to his beliefs. He never argued matters of religion. If obliged to defend himself he did it with gentleness and in a few words.
In particular three instances were reported about Swedenborg's seership. The first was when, during a dinner in Gothenburg, he told the party that there was a fire in Stockholm (405 km away), and even explained details of the fire that were later confirmed. The second was when he visited the Queen of Sweden, who asked him to tell her something about her deceased brother. The next day, Swedenborg whispered something in her ear that turned the Queen pale and she explained that this was something only she and her brother could know about. The third was a woman who had lost something important, and came to Swedenborg asking if a recently deceased person could tell him where it was, which he also did the following night. Immanuel Kant, then at the beginning of his career, was struck by these in 1763, and made inquiries to find out if they were true. At first he could find no flaws in the reports, but in 1765 he concluded that two of them had "no other foundation than common legend" (gemeine Sage)." See Kant's Träume eines Geistersehers.
His manner of life was simple in the extreme; his diet consisted chiefly of bread and milk and large quantities of coffee. He paid little attention to the distinction of day and night, and sometimes lay for days together in a trance, while his servants were sometimes disturbed at night by hearing what he called his conflicts with evil spirits. But his communication with spirits was often perfectly calm, in broad daylight, and with all his faculties awake. It has been discussed whether his visions were the result of hallucinations, if he had lost his mind, or if he actually had gained a unique access to the spiritual world. By all first-hand accounts, he behaved as normally as other people.
As early as 1721, Swedenborg was seeking to lay the foundation of a scientific explanation of the universe. That year saw the publication of his Prodromus Principiorum Rerum Naturalium, and he had already written his Principia in its first form. In 1734, his Opera Philosophica et Mineralia appeared in three volumes, the first volume of which (the Principia) comprised his view of the first principles of the universe, a mechanical and geometrical theory of the origin of things. The other volumes contained various metallurgical studies, probably connected to his work on the board of mines.
Swedenborg is believed to have anticipated many modern scientific discoveries. It was not until the end of the 19th century that his voluminous writings began to be examined by scientists, and he was shown to have been ahead of his time in many sciences. What should be kept in mind, however, is that his early, scientific researches are fundamentally different from the mystical discoveries of his later life. His paradigm shift from the objective experimentalist to the subjective mystic, beyond falsifiability, was complete indeed. If one combines the two periods, Swedenborg can be said to have made contributions to palaeontology, geology, physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, neuroscience and astronomy, to name a few areas.
Contributions as a scientist
He made several practical and important inventions concerning the mining industry in Sweden. He worked on a method for determining longitude at sea by observations of the moon's path among the stars, trying to win the longitude prize offered by the British government in 1714.
He investigated patterns on rocks along the coast lines, and was one of the first to notice that rocks on a high altitude have marks from water. He was, however, wrong in ascribing this to the Flood; the actual cause was the ice age.
He invented an ear-trumpet for the deaf, improved the common house-stove of his native land, cured smoky chimneys, and even sketched a flying machine. The sketch for the Swedenborg's Flying Machine, which he drew in one of his notebooks, still exists in the library of Linköping.
Contributions as a seer
He believed in a holistic anatomical system where every spiritual condition manifests itself in the body, so that things that belong to a person’s life are not only of their mind but of their whole body, from head to foot (1); where worrying, for instance, corresponds to stomach problems. He also proclaimed that there exist life forms on every planet in the universe. Besides suspect claims like these, the sheer bulk of his writings has contributed to making scientists largely ignore him up to this day.
As a physicist he was the first to write about the nebular hypothesis, a theory attributed to Kant. It is possible, although not confirmed, that Kant—one of the few to have purchased and read Arcana Caelestia—had derived the idea from Swedenborg. Swedenborg himself claimed it had been told to him by angels. Some creationists argue that this provenance disproves today's scientific view, which is in support of Swedenborg.
Swedenborg also had theories about light and about atoms. He wrote a lucid account of the phenomenon of phosphorescence, and proposed a molecular magnetic theory which anticipated some of the chief features of early 20th-century hypotheses. In chemistry, the French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas gives him credit for the first attempt to establish a system of crystallography.
Some of his beliefs were:
- Life after death. When a human being dies, he moves over to the spiritual world. The spiritual world consists of two main divisions: heaven and hell. Good people are in heaven, bad people are in hell. People associate with one or the other during this life, but it is not visible because of the limitations of the physical body.
- All good comes from God. The light of heaven is the same as the truth from God, the warmth of heaven is the same as love towards God. When a person lets the Lord Jesus Christ lead his life and opens his heart towards God, he will enter the light and warmth of heaven, and his speech and actions will be governed by the Lord.
- Evils are from the Self. When a person is occupied with the self-preservation of his body, he concerns himself primarily with material things and is without spirit. The human body is for Swedenborg the external, while the Spirit is called internal.
- People possess free will. A person can only love something he believes in. Therefore God lets human beings think and act according to what they believe is best. They can only love God by their own choice.
(from Swedenborg's The New Jerusalem, and its Heavenly Doctrines.)
Swedenborg was influenced not only by Biblical figures such as Paul, Jesus, Moses and Abraham, but also many others, like Augustine, Plato and Cicero. All of these he claimed to have met and spoken to in the spiritual world. This claim was the main reason for some to view him as a madman. However, Swedenborg claimed to have reported only what the Lord told him to.
Swedenborg wholly rejected the traditional Christian notion of God as three separate persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, arguing instead that the three supposed persons were really just three different aspects of the one God. He also rejected the Protestant doctrine that "faith alone" (Sola fide) is enough to save a person, i.e., render him spiritually fit, arguing instead that this doctrine stems from a tendentious reading of the Pauline Epistles.
Swedenborg spent considerable time and effort not only grounding his theological beliefs in scripture, i.e., in the Bible, but also relating and/or contrasting them with various seminal church creeds and historical events such as the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Swedenborg's theological writings roughly fall into four groups:
- Books of spiritual philosophy, including The Divine Love and Wisdom, The Divine Providence, The Intercourse between the Soul and the Body, Conjugal Love;
- Expository, including Arcana Celestia (giving the spiritual sense of Genesis and Exodus), The Apocalypse Revealed, The Apocalypse Explained;
- Doctrinal, including The New Jerusalem, and its Heavenly Doctrines, The Four Chief Doctrines, The Doctrine of Charity, The True Christian Religion, Canons of the New Church;
- Eschatological, including Heaven and Hell, and The Last Judgment.
About forty volumes are available in English, and they are continuously being translated into languages from all continents, such as Arabic, Hindi, and Japanese.
Notable persons influenced by Swedenborg include Johnny Appleseed, Henry Ward Beecher, William Blake, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, S. T. Coleridge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Inness, Henry James Sr., C.G. Jung, Helen Keller, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and Coventry Patmore.
- C. Sigstedt,The Swedenborg Epic. The Life and Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (New York: Bookman Associates, 1952). The whole book is available online at Swedenborg Digital Library
- Signe Toksvig, Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic, Yale University Press, (1948), and Swedenborg Foundation, (1983), ISBN 0-87785-171-9
- Martin Lamm Swedenborg: En studie (1987; first ed. 1915). A popular biography that is still read and quoted. It is also available in English: Emanuel Swedenborg: The Development of His Thought, Martin Lamm (Swedenborg Studies, No. 9, 2001), ISBN 0877851948
- Olof Lagercrantz Dikten om livet på den andra sidan (Wahlström & Widstrand 1996), ISBN 9146169326. In Swedish.
- James Leon Overcoming Objections to Swedenborg's Writings Through the Development of Scientific Dualism An examination of Swedenborg's discoveries. The author is a professor of psychology and an avid reader of Swedenborg.
Swedenborg and His Influence, ed. Erland J. Brock, (Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: The Academy of the New Church, 1988), ISBN 0910557233.
Older material of importance, some of it not in print:
- The most extensive work is: RL Tafel, Documents concerning the Life and Character of Swedenborg, collected, translated and annotated (3 vols., Swedenborg Society, 1875—1877);
- J Hyde, A Bibliography of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (Swedenborg Society).
- Kant's Träume eines Geistersehers (1766; the most recent edition in English is from 1975, ISBN 3787303111 );
J. G. Herder's "Emanuel Swedenborg," in his Adrastea (Werke zur Phil. und Gesch., xii. 110-125).
- Transactions of the International Swedenborg Congress (London, 1910), summarized in The New Church Magazine (August, 1910).
The Swedenborgian Church A community of faith based on the Bible as illuminated by the spiritual teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Official name: The General Convention of the New Jerusalem in the United States of America. This is the original Swedenborgian denominational body in North America, organized in 1817, and covering the U.S. and Canada.
The New Church The New Church (Church of the New Jerusalem) is based on the Bible, and on the teachings of the 18th Century Scientist and Theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg.
The Holographic Universe: Comparison of Emanuel Swedenborg's observations with later theories by David Bohm and Karl Pribram
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