Emanuel Swedenborg, the scientist, biblical scholar, and mystic, was a member of a famous Swedish family of clergymen and scholars; his father was a prominent bishop and a prolific writer.
Swedenborg studied the classics and Cartesian philosophy at Uppsala and became interested in mathematics and natural science. In 1710 he went abroad, spending most of the next five years in England, where he learned the Newtonian theories and developed a modern scientific outlook.
After his return to Sweden in 1715, Swedenborg was appointed an assessor in the College of Mines by Charles XII. He held this office until 1747, when he resigned in order to devote his time to the interpretation of the Scriptures.
Philosophy of Nature
|Philosophy of Nature|
Swedenborg’s many writings are characterized by great scholarship and by a fervent search for a synthesis of ancient wisdom and modern experience, empirical science, rationalistic philosophy, and Christian revelation.
After some minor treatises on geological and cosmological problems, he published his first important work in 1734, Opera Philosophica et Mineralia (3 vols., Dresden and Leipzig); the first part of this work, Principia Rerum Naturalium, contains his philosophy of nature. Here Swedenborg used the concept of the mathematical point, which he described as coming into existence by motion from the Infinite.
This point forms a nexus, or connection, between the Infinite and the finite world, and by its motion it creates aggregates of elements that build up the Cartesian vortexes, which are interpreted as the fundamentals of nature.
The original motion in the Infinite, however, is not a mechanical motion but a kind of Leibnizian conatus, a motive force in nature that corresponds to will in human minds. In the first point there is a corresponding tendency, which transmits itself to the subsequent aggregates in this great chain of being.
The outlines of Swedenborg’s natural philosophy are derived from René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and other rationalists, but in the Principia Swedenborg was also inspired by empirical philosophy, especially that of John Locke.
A similar English influence can be observed in Swedenborg’s cosmology, which is set forth in the Principia and in a short hexaemeron titled De Cultu et Amore Dei (London, 1745). In these works Swedenborg presents a nebular hypothesis according to which the planets are formed of solar matter.
|Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz|
It has been maintained that the planet theory of Immanuel Kant and Pierre Simon de Laplace might have been derived from Swedenborg via the comte de Buffon, but most probably the similarities between Swedenborg and Buffon depend on their common source of inspiration, Thomas Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra (The sacred theory of the earth; 1681).
This treatise was widely known (even Samuel Taylor Coleridge admired it), and there is no doubt that it guided Swedenborg in his cosmology. Swedenborg’s cosmology was essentially mechanistic, but like the great speculative philosophers of the seventeenth century, he attempted very early to find a theory that could combine these scientific hypotheses with Christianity.
Together with this mechanistic outlook there are several elements in Swedenborg’s philosophy of nature that anticipate the organic theories set forth in his anatomic and psychological works.
These works include Oeconomia Regni Animalis (2 vols., London and Amsterdam, 1740– 1741), Regnum Animale (3 vols., The Hague and London, 1744–1745), and many other posthumously published treatises on the animal kingdom.
The main problem concerning Swedenborg here is the relationship between soul and body. Since he was not satisfied by any of the current philosophical hypotheses, he turned to the study of contemporary microanatomy and physiology.
His own theory, which is sometimes called the harmonia constabilita (coestablished harmony), is similar to Leibniz’s theory of preestablished harmony. The two models are not identical, however, since there is a component of successive growing in Swedenborg’s notion that is missing in the preestablished harmony.
|Pierre Simon de Laplace|
In his physiological research Swedenborg starts with the study of the blood, which in its relation to the organization of the human body corresponds in some important ways to the role of the mathematical point as a nexus between the spiritual and the physical worlds. Swedenborg distinguishes several degrees of purity in the blood, with the highest degree corresponding to the Cartesian spiritous fluid.
This fluid functions both as a concrete communication line between soul and body and as an abstract principle, a formative force of the body (vis formatrix). Swedenborg combined this concept of life force with Aristotle’s concept of form and developed a teleological system very much like Leibniz’s monadology.
DOCTRINE OF SERIES AND DEGREES. Swedenborg’s system may be called the doctrine of series and degrees. The degrees are distinct links in the universal chain and form connected series of several kinds.
Three of these series—the mineral kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the animal kingdom—belong to the earth. In these great series there are also subordinate series, down to the lowest elements. Each series has its first substance, which is dependent on the first series of nature.
The first series of nature is an organic development of the concept of the mathematical point. Here, Swedenborg comes very close to the Neoplatonic conception of a world soul, a creative intellect from which the material world is called forth by the process of emanation.
It seems probable that Aristotle’s notion of the hierarchy of organisms was a decisive influence in the structuring of this gigantic system, in which Swedenborg has tried to arrange all series and degrees in a fixed order that determines all their interrelations.
Swedenborg refused to follow Leibniz and Christian Wolff in calling his first substances monads because he did not look upon them as absolutely simple. For him they are created not directly from the Infinite but via the first substance of nature, in the same way that, according to the Principia, all natural elements are produced indirectly via the mathematical point.
The first substance of the series, its vis formatrix, determines the development of the whole series. There exists nothing in nature that does not belong to such a series.
In the Oeconomia the human series consists of four degrees, the soul (anima), the reason (mens rationalis), the vegetative soul (animus), and the corresponding sense organs of the body, but in the theosophic writings after 1745 the series is reduced to three degrees with the animus subordinated to the mens rationalis. Nor is there any first substance of nature in these later works. The chain of the series extends up to God, who himself becomes the highest series.
The philosophy of the theosophic period thus presents a kind of Neoplatonic emanation system, although in his earlier works Swedenborg was more influenced by contemporary philosophy.
In his psychology he also turned to Locke, and his epistemology coincides with Locke’s tabula rasa theory. According to Swedenborg, there are no innate ideas in the mens rationalis.
He also thought, however, that all a priori knowledge is in the anima but that after the Fall of humanity the soul (anima) was separated from the body; this synthetic source of knowledge—in some ways corresponding to Locke’s notion of intuitive knowledge—was thereby closed for ordinary people.
|Samuel Taylor Coleridge|
If we could return to Adam’s integrity before the Fall, it would be opened up anew. This dream of regaining paradise haunted Swedenborg in the decade before 1745, and he attempted to devise several methods for discovering this lost knowledge.
Doctrine of Correspondence
One of the best-known elements in Swedenborg’s philosophy is his doctrine of correspondence. This doctrine parallels the speculations about harmonia constabilita, but it also has other connections with contemporary thought. The meaning of the term correspondence is stated in a short manuscript written in 1741 and titled Clavis Hieroglyphica (A Hieroglyphic Key; London, 1784).
This work is an attempt to illustrate how linguistic terms may be used with three different meanings—the natural, the spiritual, and the divine. Later, this doctrine becomes the fundamental exegetic principle of the theosophic works.
|Doctrine of Correspondence|
Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondence is an attempt to describe and explain the relations between the spiritual world and our material universe by means of linguistic analogies, the construction of which may be illustrated by the following example from Clavis Hieroglyphica.
- There is no motion without conatus,but there is conatus without motion. For if all conatus were to break out into open motion the world would perish, since there would be no equilibrium.
- There is no action without will, but there is will without action. If all will were to break out into open action man would perish, since there would be no rational balance or moderating reason.
- There is no divine operation without providence, but there is indeed a providence not operative or effective. If all providence were operative and effective, human society would not be able to subsist such as it now is, since there would be no true exercise of human liberty. (Psychological Transactions by Emanuel Swedenborg, pp. 162–163)
The notions conatus, will, and providence correspond; so do world, humankind, and human society. By such means, the principles of the philosophy of nature are given a wider field of application, so that they reveal heavenly and divine secrets.
Fundamentally, this doctrine may be interpreted as a variation of the Platonic theory of the relations between the world of ideas and the world of senses, but it is important to stress that Swedenborg looked upon his system primarily as a synthesis of ancient wisdom and contemporary thought.
The Clavis Hieroglyphica is related to the interpretations of hieroglyphics that were made during the Renaissance. This is apparent in Swedenborg’s use of excerpts from Wolff ’s Psychologia Empirica (1732) where the famous German rationalist discusses the Egyptian hieroglyphs and their mystic signification and gives examples from John Amos Comenius and others.
|John Amos Comenius|
More important, Wolff inspired speculation about the universal philosophical language, mathesis universalium (Swedenborg) or characteristica universalis (Leibniz).
In a posthumously published manuscript (Stockholm, 1869), Swedenborg tried to formulate his psychophysical conclusions in algebraic formulas of sorts, and he declared his conviction that such an attempt might eventually succeed.
But in the meantime he introduced in the Clavis Hieroglyphica what he called a key to natural and spiritual arcana by way of correspondences and representations. Thus, there is no doubt that the doctrine of correspondence must be regarded as Swedenborg’s contribution to the solution of the problem of the philosophical language.
It should be noted, however, that he seems to have been influenced by Nicolas Malebranche in respect to the correspondent relations between the mind and the cerebral base.
Swedenborg also follows another fundamental thought of Malebranche, according to which the omnipotence of God functions in conformity with an eternal order (l’ordre immuable); this idea becomes prominent in Swedenborg’s theosophic writings.
Swedenborg’s scientific and theosophic works are closely related. The decisive difference is that Swedenborg after a profound spiritual experience in 1745 directed his reasoning exclusively toward the interpretation of Scripture according to the doctrine of correspondence.
His first exegetic work is Arcana Coelestia quae in Genesi et Exodo Sunt Detecta (8 vols., London, 1749–1756), and it was followed by many others. In all his exegetic treatises Swedenborg also gives vivid descriptions of his experiences in the spiritual world.
Apart from these descriptions we meet with the same main theories, although they have been developed into an emanationist theology. Like most of his contemporaries, Swedenborg had always been certain of the existence of spirits and angels, and in the exegetic works he went so far as to describe a comprehensive spiritual system.
The spirits live in cities where they have an active social life with social functions (even marriage) corresponding to earthly conditions. The relegation of spirits to heaven or hell from the intervening spiritual world depends on the spirits themselves, since their utmost desire (amor regnans) leads them into suitable company.
Christ and the doctrine of atonement play a very insignificant role in Swedenborg’s theology, and he dismissed the Trinity dogma. Christ is the Divinum Humanum, a manifestation in time of God himself.
Swedenborg’s theology is extremely intellectual and totally dependent on the interpretation of the divine word as the mediating link between the Creator and humankind.
In the course of time decadent churches have destroyed the original meaning of this word, and Swedenborg saw his mission as the restoration of its primary sense. He identified his own exegetic activity with the return of Messiah and the foundation of the New Jerusalem.
However, Swedenborg did not aspire to effect conversions but confined himself to explaining the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures. He felt he had been commanded to do this in his decisive vision of 1745.
This is not the place to discuss the difficult problem of Swedenborg’s mental status. For many modern observers it is only too easy to look upon his theosophy as the result of a pathological development of a pronouncedly schizoid personality whose intense desire for synthesis could not be satisfied within the boundaries of science and normal experience. But this must remain speculation.
What is certain is that hundreds of thousands of followers have seen in him a prophet and visionary explorer of divine secrets. He has had a wide influence in several fields of thought and art, especially in romantic and symbolist literature; for poets like Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and August Strindberg he was a teacher and predecessor.
Swedenborg is, of course, not a philosopher in the modern meaning of the word, but he is an interesting representative of the mystical trend in eighteenth-century thought.