manuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic, philosopher, theologian, and scientist, was born on January 29, 1688, the son of Jesper Swedberg, pietist Bishop of Skara. Having spent most of his youth living with his sister Anna and her husband, he entered the University of Uppsala. After graduating in 1709, Swedenborg spent the next five years in England, France, and the Netherlands studying mathematics, modern science, and indulging his fascination with skilled craftsmen and their methods of work.
Shortly after his return home, Swedenborg began his country's first scientific journal, Daedalus Hyperboreus, and published a great deal in it himself. King Charles XII appointed the young man as an assistant to the brilliant, acerbic engineer Christopher Polhem, and Swedenborg spent the next five years publishing treatises on various scientific subjects. Swedenborg's relationship with Polhem was apparently more than just professional, seeing as Polhem approved of him sufficiently to allow him to court, and become engaged to, his daughter (this relationship seems to have ended when Swedenborg discovered that she was in love with another man).
After the Polhem interlude, Swedenborg continued studying and travelling, eventually taking up a paid position as an assessor for the Swedish Board of Mines (1924 on). In 1734 he produced a three-volume magnum opus entitled Opera Philosophica et Mineralia. Although much of this work deals with minerology and mining, the first volume (heavily influenced by the writings of Descartes) sports an extensive cosmology, containing, among other things, the earliest version of the nebular hypothesis, i.e., the hypothesis that the solar system originated as a single stellar mass.
Over the next decade, Swedenborg continued to publish works on physiology and psychology, with his interests turning more and more towards the mystery of soul-body interaction, and towards what he then saw as the seat of the soul in the body: the human brain.
As an outgrowth of his interests in the brain and in soul-body or spiritual/natural interactions, Swedenborg, during the early 1740s, embarked on an attempt to create a universal symbolic, or as it was called in his day, "hieroglyphic," language. His investigations in this area led him to what would become his central philosophical concept, the doctrine of correspondence -- which casts the entire natural world as a hypostasis of the spiritual world, i.e., as a complex series of physical symbols instantiating deeper levels of spiritual reality.
In 1743 Swedenborg underwent a religious crisis that led to his (posthumously published) Journal of Dreams, in which he recorded accounts of his dreams and spiritual experiences. In 1744 he had a vision of Christ, and another in 1745. He then abandoned his scientific writings to concentrate on theological writings and research. He began in this venue with a brief work entitled The Worship and Love of God, an imaginative re-telling of the Genesis creation story, somewhat in the tradition of the Renaissance hexameron. Very quickly Swedenborg abandoned this line of work, though, turning his energies once again to the problem of spiritual/natural interactions, specifically to how God communicated truth to humans via the Bible.
Although the prevailing trend among higher critics in Swedenborg's day was to interpret the Bible literally, Swedenborg (following what was in fact a very old strain of biblical interpretation) came to believe that the Bible contained internal, spiritual senses. He also came to believe that these senses could be uncovered through his doctrine of correspondence. Swedenborg's first substantial published theological work, Arcana Caelestia (1749-56), took the form of an exegetical treatise concerning the Pentateuch, in which he uncovered two internal senses using the principles of correspondence that he believed tied the natural with the spiritual worlds.
Interestingly, Swedenborg appears to have enjoyed the fact that, amidst furious (anonymous) literary production, and increasingly frequent and varied mystical experiences and visions, none of his professional or social acquaintences seemed to notice any change.
As his career as a theologian progressed, it became increasingly well known that Swedenborg had authored the anonymous theological works that had begun to irk the dour Swedish clergy. In 1768 he himself removed all doubts about their authorship, signing his name to what was perhaps his most interesting work, Amor Conjugialis - a work articulating his views on the origin and purpose of marriage. Fortunately, his high political and social connections rendered him largely immune to direct persecution by the clergy. Certain of his friends (who were not so immune), however, suffered greatly at their hands.
Swedenborg's basic theological principle was that God was origin of the two basic life principles, love and wisdom. These two ineffable life principles manifested themselves as nested levels of reality, from the innermost celestial level, out to the outermost level of physical existence. Each level in the series corresponded to the next, somewhat as a referent to its symbol or as a body to the shadow it casts, veiling their ultimate source, which was God.
Despite his theocentric views, Swedenborg affirmed human free will as a central tenet of the Christian faith. Swedenborg felt that the original divine order had been perverted by human beings who, using their free will, had progressively severed their intuitive internal connection to the divine. This severing (the "fall" of humankind) progressed through several stages until it reached a climax just before the birth of Christ - by which time humankind had nearly shut off all internal connections with the divine. Christ's birth restored order to the universe by creating a new external pathway through which humans could approach God. To Swedenborg, Christ was a kind of body through which an ineffable spirit, God, could be seen - but in terms even "fallen" humans could grasp. In this sense, he denied the traditional trinity (which portrayed Christ as the instantiation of the second member of a trinal godhead).
According to Swedenborg, Christ's second coming (promised in the Christian New Testament), was precipitated by the Christian rejection of Christ and their perversion of Christ's original teachings. This second coming was accomplished, not in the flesh, but rather through an intellectual and spiritual revolution, which Swedenborg saw as being achieved through his own writings and through his revelation of the internal sense of the Bible. Swedenborg never saw himself as the returned Christ, but rather as the medium through which true Christian doctrine and faith was promulgated.
Swedenborg died of a stroke on March 29, 1772, in his favorite city, London. His body was removed to Uppsala Cathedral in 1908.
Swedenborg himself never established a church, but Swedenborgian societies began to appear shortly after his death, primarily in England. Initially, two sects appeared, one advocating reform of the current Christian order from within, the other advocating the creation of a distinct Swedenborgian church organization. English Swedenborgians were an energetic lot, producing many translations of his works (nearly all originally in Latin), and showing an active interest in social causes such as the Evangelical-led anti-slavery movement. Even today, there are still Swedenborgian organizations (at least three in America alone), and many Swedenborgian ideas have quietly made their way into the mainstream of social thought.
Swedenborgianism exerted a considerable influence on a number of important authors. Kant devoted an entire work to refuting Swedenborg (Träume des Geistersehers). Ernesti, one of the great eighteenth-century biblical critics, spent some energy specifically refuting his exegetical methods. He exerted a considerable influence, as well, on a number of important authors. His influence on the thought of Blake, who was briefly a Swedenborgian, was enormous, and his writings also intrigued Balzac, Baudelaire, Emerson, Yeats, and Strindberg. He also exerted some small influence on modern psychology, primarily through William James, who was raised a Swedenborgian.
A Bibliography of Available E-Texts
- Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Seen and Heard (HTML at primenet.com)
- The Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook (HTML at netaxs.com)
Last modified 16 September 1996