|Table of contents|
2 Theoretical scientific work
3 Theological work and Swedenborgianism
4 Further reading
His father, Dr Jesper Swedberg, subsequently professor of theology at Uppsala University and bishop of Skara. He was charged with heterodoxy, seeing that he placed more emphasis on the virtues of faith, love and communion with God than on the current tenets of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Having completed his university course at Uppsala, in 1710, the younger Swedenborg undertook a European tour, visiting England, the Netherlands, France and Germany, studying especially natural philosophy and writing Latin verses, a collection of which he published in 1710. In 1715 he returned to Uppsala, and devoted himself to natural science and various engineering works. From 1716 to 1718 he published a scientific periodical, called Daedalus hyperboreus, a record of mechanical and mathematical inventions and discoveries. In 1716 he was introduced to Charles XII of Sweden, who appointed him assessor-extraordinary on the Swedish board of mines (Bergskollegium). 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 Frederikshall by the invention of machines for the transport of boats and galleys overland from Strömstad to Iddefjord, a distance of 14 miles. He became a close friend of Christopher Polhem and wrote extensively about his inventions and ideas.
The same year he published various mathematical and mechanical works. At the death of Charles XII. Queen Ulrike elevated him and his family to the rank of nobility, by which his name was changed from Swedberg to Swedenborg, the "en" corresponding to the German "von". In the Swedish House of Nobles his contributions to political discussion had great influence, and he dealt with such subjects as the currency, the decimal system, the balance of trade and the liquor laws (where he was the pioneer of the Gothenburg system) with marked ability. He strongly opposed a bill for increasing the power of The Crown. The next years were devoted to the duties and studies connected with his office, which involved the visitation of the Swedish, Saxon, Bohemian and Austrian mines. In 1724 he was offered the chair of mathematics in the Uppsala University, which he declined, on the ground that it was a mistake for mathematicians to be limited to theory. His inquiring and philosophical mind gradually led him to wider studies.
Theoretical scientific work
As early as 1721 he was seeking to lay the foundation of a scientific explanation of the universe, when he published his Prodromus principiorum rerum naturalium, and had already written his Principia in its first form. In 1734 appeared in three volumes, Opera philosophica et mineralia, the first volume of which (his Principia) contained his view of the first principles of the universe, a curious mechanical and geometrical theor) of the origin of things. The other volumes dealt with (a) iron and steel, (b) copper and brass, their smelting, conversion and assaying, and chemical experiments thereon.
There is no doubt that Swedenborg anticipated many scientific facts and positions that are usually regarded as of much more modern date. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that his voluminous writings began to be properly collected and examined, with the result of proving that there was hardly a department of scientific activity in which he was not far ahead of his time. His work on palaeontology shows him the predecessor of all the Scandinavian geologists, and his contributions in this field alone would have been sufficient to perpetuate his fame. He was also a great physicist and had arrived at the nebular hypothesis theory of the formation of the planets and the sun long before Kant and Laplace. His theory of light and theory of the cosmic atoms were equally astonishing. He wrote a lucid account of the phenomena of phosphorescence, and adduced a molecular magnetic theory which anticipated some of the chief features of early 20th-century hypotheses. The great French chemist, Dumas, gives him the credit for the first attempt to establish a system of crystallography. He was the first to employ mercury for the air-pump, and devised a method of determining longitude at sea by observations of the moon among the stars. He suggested the use of experimental tanks for testing the powers of ship models, invented an ear-trumpet for the deaf, improved the common house-stove of his native land, cured smoky chimneys, took a lively interest in machine-guns and even sketched a flying machine.
This flying machine consisted of a light frame covered with strong canvas and provided with two large oars or wings moving on a horizontal axis, and so arranged that the upstroke met with no resistance while the downstroke provided the lifting power. Swedenborg knew that the machine would not fly, but suggested it as a start and was confident that the problem would be solved. He said "It seems easier to talk of such a machine than to put it into actuality, for it requires greater force and less weight than exists in a human body. The science of mechanics might perhaps suggest a means, namely, a strong spiral spring. If these advantages and requisites are observed, perhaps in time to come some one might know how better to utilize our sketch and cause some addition to be made so as to accomplish that which we can only suggest. Yet there are sufficient proofs and examples from nature that such flights can take place without danger, although when the first trials are made you may have to pay for the experience, and not mind an arm or leg."
In 1734 he also published Prodromus philosophiae ratiocinantis de infinito, et causa finali creationis, which treats of the relation of the finite to the infinite, and of the soul to the body, seeking to establish a nexus in each case as a means of overcoming the difficulty of their relation. From this time he applied himself to the problem of discovering the nature of soul and spirit by means of anatomical studies. In all his researches he acknowledged and contended for the existence and the supremacy of the spiritual and the divine. He travelled in Germany, France and Italy, in quest of the most eminent teachers and the best books dealing with the human frame, and published, as the results of his inquiries among other works, his Oeconomia regni animalis (London, 1740-1741) and Regnum animale (the Hague, 1744-1745; London, 1745).
In no field were Swedenborg's researches more noteworthy than in those of physiological science. In 1901, Professor Max Neuberger of Vienna called attention to certain anticipations of modern views made by Swedenborg in relation to the functions of the brain. The University of Vienna appealed to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for a complete issue of the scientific treatises, and this resulted in the formation of a committee of experts who have been entrusted with the task. It is clear that Swedenborg showed (150 years before any other scientist) that the motion of the brain was synchronous with the respiration and not with the action of the heart and the circulation of the blood, a discovery the full bearings of which are still far from being realized. He had arrived at the modern conception of the activity of the brain as the combined activity of its individual cells. The cerebral cortex, and, more definitely, the cortical elements (nerve cells), formed the seat of the activity of the soul, and were ordered into departments according to various functions. His views as to the physiological functions of the spinal cord are also in agreement with recent research, and he anticipated many of the pre-eminent offices of the ductless glands which students of the present time are only beginning to discover.
Theological work and Swedenborgianism
Up to middle age Swedenborg's position was that of a scholar, a scientist, a practical administrator, a 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 psychical and spiritual inquiry. Neither by geometrical, nor physical, nor metaphysical principles had he succeeded in reaching and grasping the infinite and the spiritual, or in elucidating their relation to man and man's organism, though he had caught glimpses of facts and methods which he thought only required confirmation and development. Late in life he wrote to Oetinger that "he was introduced by the Lord first into the natural sciences, and thus prepared, and, indeed, from the year 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," "his introduction into the spiritual world."
Before his illumination he had been instructed by dreams, and enjoyed extraordinary visions, and heard mysterious conversations. According to his own account, the Lord filled him with His spirit to teach the doctrines of the New Church by the word from Himself; He commissioned him to do this work, opened the sight of his spirit, and so let him into the spiritual world, permitting him to see the heavens ancl the hells, and to converse with angels and spirits for years; but he never received anything relating to.the doctrines of tlie church from any angel but from the Lord alone while he was reading the word (True Christian Religion, No. 779). He elsewhere speaks of his office as principally an opening of the spiritual sense of the word. His friend Robsahm reports, from Swedenborg's own account to him, the circumstances of the first extraordinary revelation of the Lord, when He appeared to him and said, "I am God the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. I have chosen thee to unfold the spiritual sense of the Holy Scripture. I will Myself dictate to thee what thou shalt write." From that time he gave up all worldly learning and laboured solely to expound spiritual things. In the year 1747, to the great regret of his colleagues, he resigned his post of assessor of the board of mines that he might devote himself to his higher vocation, requesting only to be allowed to receive as a pension the half of his salary. He took up afresh his study of Hebrew, and began his voluminous works on the interpretation of the Scriptures. His life from 1747 was spent alternately in Sweden, Holland and London, in the composition of his works and their publication, till his death, which took place in London. He was buried in the Swedish church in Princes Square, in the parish of St George's-in-the-East, and on April 7, 1908 his remains were removed at the request of the Swedish government to Stockholm.
Swedenborg was a man who won the respect, confidence and love of all who came into contact with him. Though people might disbelieve in his visions, they feared to ridicule them in his presence. Those who talked with him felt that he was truth itself. He never disputed on matters of religion, and if obliged to defend himself, did it with gentleness and in a few words. His manner of life was simple in the extreme; his diet consisted chiefly of bread and milk and large quantities of coffee. He paid no attention to the distinction of day and night, and sometimes lay for days together in a trance, while his servants were often disturbed at night by hearing what he called his conflicts with evil spirits. But his intercourse with spirits was often perfectly calm, in broad daylight, and with all his faculties awake. Three extraordinary instances are produced by his friends and followers in proof of his seership and admission into the unseen world. But there exists no account at first hand of the exact facts, and Swedenborg's own reference to one of these instances admits of another explanation than the supernatural one. Immanuel Kant was struck by them in 1763, but in 1765, after further inquiries, concluded that two of them had "no other foundation than common report" (gemeine Sage)." See Kehrbach's edition of Kant's Träume eines Geistersehers (Leipzig, 1880).
As a theologian Swedenborg never attempted to preach or to found a sect. He believed that members of all the churches could belong to the New Church without forming a separate organization. His theological writings roughly fall into four groups: (1) books of spiritual philosophy, including The Divine Love and Wisdom, The Divine Providence, The Intercourse between the Soul and the Body, Conjugal Love; (2) Expository, including Arcana Celestia (giving the spiritual sense of Genesis and Exodus), The Apocalypse Revealed, The Apocalypse Explained; (3) 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; (4) Eschatological, including Heaven and Hell, and The Last Judgment. About forty volumes are available in English, and many have been translated into most of the European languages as well as into Arabic, Hindi and Japanese.
Swedenborg's theosophic system is most briefly and comprehensively presented in his Divine Love and Wisdom. The point of view from which God must be regarded is that of His being the Divine Man. His esse is infinite love; His manifestation, form or body is infinite wisdom. Divine love is the self-subsisting life of the universe. From God emanates a divine sphere, which appears in the spiritual world as a sun, and from this spiritual sun again proceeds the sun of the natural world. The spiritual sun is the source of love and intelligence, or life, and the natural sun the source of nature or the receptacles of life; the first is alive, the second dead. The two worlds of nature and spirit are perfectly distinct, but they are intimately related by analogous substances, laws and forces. Each has its atmospheres, waters and earths, but in the one they are natural and in the other spiritual. In God there are three infinite and uncreated "degrees" of being, and in man and all things corresponding three degrees, finite and created. They are love, wisdom, use; or end, cause and effect. The final ends of all things are in the Divine Mind, the causes of all things in the spiritual world, and their effects in the natural world. By a love of each degree man comes into conjunction with them and the worlds of nature, spirit and God. The end of creation is that man may have this conjunction and become the image of his Creator and creation. In man are two receptacles for God--the will for divine love and the understanding for divine wisdom--that love and wisdom flowing into both so that they become human. Before the fall this influx was free and unhindered, and the conjunction of man with God and the creation complete, but from that time the connexion was interrupted and God had to interpose by successive dispensations. At last the power and influence of the spirits of darkness, with whom man associates himself by his sin, became so great that the existence of the human race was threatened, and Jehovah was necessitated to descend into nature to restore. The connexion between Himself and man. He could not come in His unveiled divinity, for the "hells" would have then perished, whom he did not seek to destroy but only to subjugate. Another purpose of Jehovah's incarnation was the manifestation of His divine love more fully than ever before. Swedenborg wholly rejects the orthodox doctrine of atonement; and the unity of God, as opposed to his idea of the trinity of the church, is an essential feature of his teaching. Another distinctive feature is that Jehovah did not go back to heaven without leaving behind him a visible representative of Himself in the word of the Scripture. This word is an eternal incarnation, with its threefold sense--natural, spiritual, celestial. And Swedenborg is the divinely commissioned expounder of this threefold sense of the word, and so the founder of the New Church, the paraclete of the last dispensation. That he might perceive and understand the spiritual and the celestial senses of the word he enjoyed immediate revelation from the Lord, was admitted into the angelic world, and had committed to him the key of "correspondences" with which to unlock the divine treasures of wisdom. Swedenborg claimed also to have learnt by his admission into the spiritual world the true states of men in the next life, the scenery and occupations of heaven and hell, the true doctrine of Providence, the origin of evil, the sanctity and perpetuity of marriage and to have been a witness of the "last judgment," or the second coming of the Lord, which is a contemporary event. "All religion," he said, "has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good." "The kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of uses." He exercised a great influence over ST Coleridge, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Coventry Patmore, Henry Ward Beecher and Thomas Carlyle. And the attention of modern psychologists is now being drawn to his doctrine of the relation of the elements of the universe to the membranes of the body.
Swedenborgianism, as professed by Swedenborg's followers, is based on the belief of Swedenborg's claims to have witnessed the last judgment, or the second advent of the Lord, with the inauguration of the New Church, through the new system of doctrine promulgated by him and derived from the Scriptures, into the true sense of which he was the first to be introduced. The "doctrines" of the New Church as given in the Liturgy (which also contains the "Creed" and "Articles of Faith") are as follows:
- That there is one God, in whom there is a Divine Trinity; and that He is the Lord Jesus Christ.
- That a saving faith is to believe on Him.
- That evils are to be shunned, because they are of the devil and from the devil.
- That good actions are to be done, because they are of God and from God.
- That these are to be done by a man as from himself; but that it ought to be believed that they are done from the Lord with him and by him.
See 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). Of English lives the principal are those by JJG Wilkinson (London, 1849); E Paxton Hood (London, 1854); William White (1856, rewritten in 1867 and in 1868); G Trobridge (London, 1907); also Emanuel Swedenborg, the Spiritual Columbus, a Sketch, by U. S. E. (2nd ed., London, 1877). Some of his writings, e.g. The Divine Providence and heaven and Hell have been published in popular editions. A useful handbook of Swedenborg's theology is the Compendium of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg by the Rev. Samuel Warren (London, 1885). Summaries of his system and writings are given in all the above biographies, also in Edmund Swift, Manual of the Doctrines of the New Church (London, 1885); and T Parsons, Outlines of Swedenborg's Religion and Philosophy. Important critiques from independent points of view are "The Mystic," in RW Emerson's Representative Men (1850); Kant's Träume eines Geistersehers (1766; the best edition by Kehrbach, Leipzig, 1880); JG Herder's "Emanuel Swedenborg," in his Adrastea (Werke zur Phil. und Gesch., xii. 110-125); JJ von Goerres's Emanuel Swedenborg, seine Visionen und sein Tierhältniss zur Kirche (1827); A Dorner's Geschichte der protestantischen Theologie, pp. 662-667 (Munich, 1867). See also Transactions of the International Swedenborg Congress (London, 1910), summarized in The New Church Magazine (August, 1910).