Swedenborg, Emanuel

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SWEDENBORG, EMANUEL (16881772), was a multifaceted genius, scientist, and visionary. He was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29, and he died in London on March 29. Paradox surrounds Swedenborg's intellectual legacy. The scientific and philosophical works that brought him the acclaim of his contemporaries have largely been forgotten. The contributions that he made to the Swedish Board of Mines and the House of Nobles were significant, but like the efforts of most bureaucrats and politicians they were intended to have an immediate and practical impact on policy, not history. Thus, despite his genius, Swedenborg's exemplary life would attract scant notice, apart from his revelatory claims and his voluminous religious writings. He published his writings anonymously for almost twenty years and never attempted to gather a following. Nonetheless, after his death, followers devoted to his religious works appeared first in Europe and then around the world.

Education of Scientist and Civil Servant

Swedenborg was born into wealth and privilege; both of his parents came from mine owning families. His father, Jesper Swedberg (16531735), was ordained into the ministry of the Lutheran Church in 1682. In 1703 he was elevated to bishop and served in Skara until his death in 1735. He name was changed to Swedenborg upon ennoblement in 1719. Jesper Swedberg had pietistical leanings, believed in the importance of works as well as faith, and had both a hymnbook and a translation of the Bible condemned by church censors.

Emanuel Swedenborg matriculated at the University of Uppsala, from which he graduated in 1709 with a degree in philosophy. From 1710 until 1715 he traveled in Europe with a principle focus on studying mathematics and astronomy. On his trip abroad, he also learned various practical skills, including engraving and instrument making. In addition he wrote three volumes of poetry, and before returning home he wrote down descriptions of fourteen inventions, including a submarine, an air pump, and a fixed-wing aircraft.

Upon his return to Sweden in 1715, he began publishing Daedalus Hyperboreus, Sweden's first scientific journal. In addition, he became an assistant to the great inventor and mechanical genius Christopher Polhem (16681751). Together they served King Karl XII by working on various engineering projects. In recognition of Swedenborg's contributions to the realm, the king named him Extraordinary Assessor of the Board of Mines. The death of Karl XII in Fredrikshald in 1718 brought an end to Sweden's era as a great power. Swedenborg was ennobled in 1719 by Queen Ulrika Eleonora (16881741).

The death of Karl XII ushered in what is called in Sweden "the age of freedom" and the renunciation of the King's policies. The new political climate also put Swedenborg's commission as assessor in doubt. Determined to be seated, in 1720 Swedenborg traveled to Europe to study mining techniques. After his return to Sweden he took up his life as a noble and author, and after 1724 as a bureaucrat, having finally been granted a position as a regular assessor and given a salary. In this position he was one of seven men responsible for Sweden's important mining industry. The members of the Board of Mines set policies, inspected mines for safety, tested the metals produced for quality, set prices, and adjudicated law suits. Swedenborg served on the board for twenty-three years. Appointed president of the Board of Mines in 1747, he declined the appointment and resigned from the board in order to devote himself to his spiritual mission.

Natural Philosopher

With his career finally established, Swedenborg turned his mind to understanding scientifically the riddle of creation and the purpose of self-conscious life. In 1734 he took a leave of absence from the Board of Mines to publish his Opera philosophica et mineralia (Philosophical and Mineralogical Works ) in Liepzig. Swedenborg's cosmology is indebted in part to the philosophy of René Descartes (15961650). In a series of studies culminating in Principia rerum naturalium (The Principia; or the First Principles of Natural Things, 1734) Swedenborg presented a theory about the origin of the universe. Starting from a mathematical point of departure, he envisioned the planetary system as developing a series of complicated particle combinations. Swedenborg tried to integrate the soul into this consistently mechanistic structure, and in De infinito (The Infinite, 1734) he presented his future research program "to prove the immortality of the soul to the very senses themselves."

This empirical intention led him into an extensive study of contemporary physiology and anatomy, as well as both ancient and modern philosophy. The first result of this effort was the publication of Oeconomia regni animalis (The economy of the animal soul's kingdom, 17401741). Dissatisfied with his initial effort, believing that he had not been sufficiently thorough, he began again. He published three volumes of Regnum animale (The animal soul's kingdom, 17441745) before abandoning the project.

Religious Crisis and Spiritual Call

It was during this publishing trip abroad that Swedenborg experienced a profound spiritual crisis during the 1743 to 1744 period. The crisis began in dreams that he recorded in a journal for his own personal use. Discovered in 1859, it is known today as The Journal of Dreams. In it, he not only recorded his dreams, he interpreted them. He discovered his sin of pride and arrogance, he prayed, he sought forgiveness, and he found himself held in the bosom of Christ. He recorded intense temptations that affected both his body and his spirit. Drawn deeply inward, he understood that he must follow Christ in all things. He put aside his scientific work, obeying a divine commission to write down and publish the true meaning of the scriptures, in order to make them universally available. Swedenborg's spiritual call can be viewed as either a disjunction in or a culmination of his own intellectual journey.

Returning to Sweden he focused on studying the Bible in Hebrew, searching for the key to its internal or spiritual meaning. Swedenborg had earlier developed a doctrine of correspondences, according to which all phenomena of the physical world have their spiritual correspondences. He wrestled with the meaning of the story of creation and the nature of God. He discovered that in the Bible, words used in one place correspond to words used in another place, and finally he grasped the idea that the garden in Genesis does not refer to the natural creation of the earth and the universe, but to the spiritual process of human regeneration. Genesis details this spiritual process through which every individual can return to and be conjoined with the one God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to eternity. Swedenborg documents this in the eight volumes of the Arcana coelestia (Secrets of heaven, 17491756). In this work Swedenborg states that what he writes about heaven and eternal life is true, because his eyes and spirit have been opened and "I have seen, I have heard and I have felt."

Religious Teachings, Controversy and Impact

The focus of Swedenborg's religious teachings is not on the crucifixion and the sacrifice of Jesus, the only begotten son of God, to atone for the sins of humanity, but on the risen Lord Jesus Christ who overcame the world. According to Swedenborg, the Christian interpretation of the Trinity and redemption led over time to the complete separation of faith and charity, or belief and works, in the Christian churches. This necessitated the Last Judgment and the Second Coming. According to Swedenborg, the Last Judgment was a spiritual event that occurred in 1757. It made possible the Second Coming for everyone who is drawn to understand the spiritual meaning of the new heaven and the new earth, described in the Book of Revelation and spiritually opened by means of correspondences. Like the Last Judgment, the Second Coming was also a spiritual event for Swedenborg. It was announced in the spiritual world on June 19, 1770, by the twelve disciples who had followed Christ in the world. The record of the announcement was published in True Christianity (1771), thus making it an historical event, and it becomes an internal and personal event whenever its truth is accepted by an individual.

Swedenborg's religious writings, set down in eighteen different works, indicate that humanity now lives in a new age in which every one can freely choose his or her spiritual destiny. The spiritual world, which encompasses heaven, the world of spirits, and hell, is inhabited solely by men and women who have lived on this earth or other planets in the universe. In the sight of the Lord, the heavens appear as one "grand man." Individuals find their place there by discovering their dominant affection or love. No one is cast down into hell or raised into heaven apart from the life they have led and chosen here on earth. However, it is not necessary to know about Swedenborg, his teachings, or the new church to achieve eternal salvation. It is only necessary to live a good and useful life within the framework of the many spiritual truths available around the globe.

For twenty-seven years Swedenborg attended to his call to write and publish his new revelation "fresh from heaven." He never attempted to develop a following or organize a church. He initially published his works anonymously, but several clairvoyant experiences that occurred in public revealed his extraordinary powers. Soon Swedenborg and his books became a focus of discussion and conversation in Europe. Immanuel Kant (17241804) became so interested that he ordered a complete set of the Arcana coelestia (Heavenly secrets, 17491756). Although in private correspondence, Kant spoke in a positive tone about Swedenborg and his experiences, in 1766 he published Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, in which he ridiculed Swedenborg and his metaphysics. Kant's critique set the stage for the central controversy surrounding Swedenborg's religious writings, which concerns whether they are what Swedenborg claims they are. Were the works divinely revealed to him, or are they the product of an overactive imagination? Swedenborg's writings have inspired the founding of churches by those who believe that the divine had a hand in them, but they are derided as the product of a mentally unstable man by those who believe that they sprang from Swedenborg's own imagination. A third possible approach to them, particularly attractive to students of religion, is that Swedenborg drew on esoteric practices and traditions to shape his religious corpus.

Despite the controversy surrounding the precise nature of their inspiration, Swedenborg's religious writings have had a profound impact on Western literature and the arts, in large part because of the doctrine of correspondences. To cite one example, in 1972 Joshua C. Taylor, the director of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., testified to the importance of Swedenborgianism in American art in the catalogue that accompanied an exhibit entitled The Hand and the Spirit, which took place at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. In the catalogue Taylor identified several categories of religious art in America, but said that he found no sect or set of beliefs that provided an impulse toward art, particularly in the nineteenth century, with one exceptionSwedenborgianism. Taylor wrote: "only Swedenborgian teaching had a direct impact on art, and this was through its link with a complex philosophical view of perception and aesthetic judgement which suggested not narrative themes but a spiritual context for artistic form" (Dillenberger, 1972, p. 14).

In 1908, and with great pomp and ceremony, Swedenborg's remains were brought back to Sweden and laid to rest in Uppsala Cathedral. The Swedish government, not without controversy, financed an elegant sarcophagus to hold the simple wooden coffin brought from London. The red granite memorial, approved by the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament), was carved to honor Swedenborg the scientist, despite the fact that his worldwide reputation, even then, rested on his revelations and religious writings. The parliament's decision not withstanding, Swedenborg's religious writings continue to shape the human spirit around the world in prayer, poetry, paintings, story, and song.

See Also



The Swedenborg Foundation in West Chester, Pa., is publishing the New Century Edition of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg, with Jonathan Rose as series editor. The first title to be released in the series was Heaven and Hell (2000), translated by George F. Dole. Other series titles include a one-volume edition, also translated by Dole, of Swedenborg's Divine Providence and Divine Love and Wisdom (2003).

Heaven and Hell (2000). This book gives a detailed description of life after death. Divine Providence and Divine Love and Wisdom (2003). This book provides insight into the spiritual laws governing human life, and insight into the divine purpose and order of creation.

Benz, Ernst. Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason. Translated by Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke. West Chester, Pa., 1949; reprint, 2002. A biography that examines Swedenborg's place within the rational and esoteric currents of the eighteenth century.

Bergquist, Lars. Swedenborg's Dream Diary. Translated by Anders Hallengren. West Chester, Pa., 1989; reprint, 2001. The most recent examination of Swedenborg's dream diary with an attempt to connect his dreams to his social world and life.

Dillenberger, Jane, and Joshua C. Taylor, The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America 17001900, Berkley, Calif., 1972. An exhibit catalog exploring American religious art during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Dole, George F., and Robert H. Kirven. Scientist Explores Spirit: A Biography of Emanuel Swedenborg. West Chester, Pa., 1992. A highly readable and clear short biography of Swedenborg.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden, 1996. An innovative exploration of the esoteric roots of the New Age Movement with attention to Swedenborg's role in the transformation of perspective.

Johnson, Gregory, ed. Kant on Swedenborg: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and Other Writings. Translated by Gregory R. Johnson and Glenn Alexander Magee. West Chester, Pa., 2002. A reassessment of Kant's view of Swedenborg suggesting Kant's indebtedness to and use of Swedenborg in his own philosophy.

Jonsson, Inge. Emanuel Swedenborg. Translated by Catherine Djurklou. New York, 1971. A modern intellectual history of Swedenborg's thought, connecting his thought to neo-Platonism and Descartes, as well as linking Swedenborg's philosophy and theology.

Lamm, Martin. Swedenborg. Stockholm, 1915. This work has been translated into German (Leipzig, 1922) and French (Paris, 1936); it was translated into English by Thomas Spiers and Anders Hallengren as Emanuel Swedenborg: The Development of His Thought (West Chester, Pa., 2000). A pioneering biography of Swedenborg that places his thought within the framework of Western literary and intellectual history.

Sigstedt, Cyriel. The Swedenborg Epic: The Life and Works of Emanuel Swedenborg. London, 1952; reprint, 1981. A detailed biography of Swedenborg that draws on the enormous document collection assembled by the Swedenborg Scientific Association during the first half of the twentieth century.

Williams-Hogan, Jane. "The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in Modern Western Esoteric Tradition." In Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion, edited by Antoine Faivre and Wouter J. Hanegraaff, pp, 201252. Leuven, Belgium, 1998. An exploration of Swedenborg's religious system within the framework of the five characteristics of esotericism as defined by Antoine Faivre, as well as a response to Swedenborg's thought by important figures in modern Western Eso-tericism.

Jane Williams-Hogan (2005)