Swedenborg, Emanuel

views updated


Swedish philosopher and scientist; b. Stockholm, Jan. 29, 1688; d. London, Mar. 29, 1772. His parents were Jesper Swedberg, a Lutheran court chaplain and later professor of theology at Uppsala University and bishop of Skara, and his first wife Sara (née Behm).

Early Years. As a boy Emanuel distinguished himself by his intelligence and quick apprehension, and as early as 1699 he entered the University of Uppsala, where he studied most of the subjects offered (though not, apparently, theology and law). After his dissertation in 1709, he went abroad to study languages and mechanical crafts in London, Oxford, Amsterdam, and Paris (171014), and for some years he lived as an amateur inventor and natural scientist. In 1716 King Charles XII appointed him extraordinary assessor of the Royal Board of Mines, and from 1724 to 1747 he worked as an ordinary assessor of that institution. In 1719 he was ennobled by Queen Ulrika Eleanora, and he assumed the name of Swedenborg.

His mining and engineering experiences he described in a huge work Opera philosophica et mineralia (3 v. Leipzig 1733), the first volume of which, the Principia rerum naturalium, contained a mathematical, mechanical explanation of the universe and its origin. For unknown reasons, Swedenborg, while seeing the book through the publication process, seems to have abandoned the materialistic philosophy expressed in it, and the next year he published Prodromus philosophiae ratiocinantis de infinito et causa finali creationis, developing a neoplatonic philosophy, which was similar to and by no means independent of that proclaimed by sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Protestant mystics. In order to demonstrate its truth, Swedenborg then devoted himself to the task of proving the existence of the soul "by experience, geometry and reason," that is, by finding the laws governing the soul's interaction with the body. For this purpose he went abroad to study anatomy and embryology in Paris, Venice, and Rome (173639), and he finally published his results in the Oeconomia regni animalis (two parts, Amsterdam 1739), still a principal work in the history of anatomy. At the same time it is a systematical representation of his philosophy, though not yet applied to the Christian religion. Here his doctrine of series and degrees is developed: the soul, which is the particle of life from the infinite and the formative force causing the body, must descend into matter by four degrees, into four different "auras": (1) the material for the organism of the soul, (2) the intellectual mind, (3) the animus (the seat of sensuous desires and imagination), (4) the external sense and motor organs. An ethical theory was included in the work: man, according to Swedenborg, in his rational mind has the ability to choose between good (philanthropic) and evil (selfish) deeds, and has a free will.

Conversion and Doctrine. When Swedenborg wrote the Oeconomia, he had for several years been suffering from strange dreams and visions, especially visions of lighta psychological peculiarity, inherited from his father. After 1739 the frequency of his dreams and visions increased, and at the same time he was gradually attracted by the Christian religion. From 1743 to 1745, he went through a mental crisis, and having had a vision of Jesus Christ (1744), he felt confirmed in his conversion and spent the rest of his life expounding the doctrines of "the true Christian religion," which should perhaps rather be called a Neoplatonic philosophy admitting the historical figure of Jesus Christ. The theological characteristic of orthodox Swedenborgianism, exhibited in a series of commentaries to the Bible (e.g., Arcana celestia 8 v. 174956) and doctrinal works, such as the Vera Christiana religio (1771), is the denial of the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and of the vicarious atonement: God, the invisible, spaceless and timeless, is one; in Jesus Christ God manifested Himself in time, thus causing a kind of trinity composed of the soul (from the eternal Father),

the body (as the son of Mary), and the Holy Spirit (as the action caused by the union of both). Man's spirit is eternal, and after the death of the body it lives according to its earthly justification; spirits of philanthropic, God-loving men gather in heavens, and spirits of the selfish seek the company of their equals in hells.

After his conversion, Swedenborg believed himself to be in constant communication with spirits who dictated the revelations of the next world to him. Unbiased scholars (Lamm, Benz, Lindroth) tend to believe that Swedenborg's visions were manifestations of a mental disease (paranoia), subconsciously developed to confirm the theories that he had already worked out. In this light, Swedenborg's not too original philosophical and religious theories stand out as typical and pleasant representatives of eighteenth-century mercantilistic and philanthropic ideals. His influence, however, has been considerable, affecting particularly the philosophy and literature of the Romanticists, and the development of the psychical sciences. Although Swedenborg did not found a church, his religious followers organized themselves in 1787 into a body known as the New Church or new jerusalem church, based upon his writings.

Bibliography: Autographa , ed. r. l. tafel, 10 v. (Stockholm 186970) and 18 v. (ibid. 19016). j. j. g. hyde, A Bibliography of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg, Original and Translated (London 1906). m. lamm, Swedenborg (Stockholm 1915). g. trobridge, Swedenborg: Life and Teaching (4th ed. New York 1955). h. de geymuller, Swedenborg et les phénomènes psychiques (Paris 1934). c. s. l. o. sigstedt, The Swedenborg Epic (New York 1953). e. benz, Emanuel Swedenborg: Naturforscher und Seher (Munich 1948). s. lindroth, Ny illustrerad svensk litteraturhistoria, ed. e. n. tigerstedt, 5 v. (Stockholm 195558) 2:177199; bibliog. 600602. s. toksvig, Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and Mystic (New Haven 1948). g. gollwitzer, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:535556.

[t. d. olsen]

About this article

Swedenborg, Emanuel

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article