The Life of Emanuel Swedenborg by Wilson Van Dusen
So many references have been made to Emanuel Swedenborg and so few know of the man that there may be interest in learning of his extraordinary life. He was born in 1688, the son of a devout bishop in Sweden who served the king. Early in his life the family was ennobled, which changed the name from Swedberg to Swedenborg. Emanuel had the customary classical education, with a heavy emphasis on Greek and Latin.
Early in life he was disappointed in a love affair and never married. It was as though all his energy and passion was turned to mastering knowledge. He may have been the last man to have encompassed all that was known. He worked as assessor of mines for Sweden. In this position he traveled all over Europe and brought back new ideas on mining, thereby enriching Sweden. He was interested in practically everything. Up to the age of sixty-one he wrote 154 works in some seventeen sciences, several of which he founded. Though he was later to be known as a mystic, there is no question that he was a master of sciences. It was his habit to learn all there was in a given field, write on it, and then go to another area. To give some idea of his range of areas, they include soils and muds, stereometry, echoes, algebra and calculus, blast furnaces, astronomy, economics, magnetism, and hydrostatics. He was the first to formulate the nebular hypothesis of the creation of the universe. His works in human anatomy alone would satisfy most men as an adequate lifetime accomplishment. He was the first to discover the functions of the ductless glands and the cerebellum.
In addition to mastering nine languages, Swedenborg was an inventor and a craftsman. His inventions include a submarine, air pumps, musical instruments, a glider, and mining equipment. He helped engineer the world’s largest dry dock and once got a ship over a mountain. To pass the time he enjoyed moving in with craftsmen and learning their trade. It appears that he mastered at least seven crafts. He made his own scientific instruments including a microscope. In addition, he was a musician and a respected member of the Swedish parliament.
Had he stopped with these minor accomplishments he would have been remembered as a great scientist. But late in life he went on to other discoveries that were so incredible that they cast a shadow over his name, so much so that many now forget his scientific mastery. In his late fifties he took on the mind itself as his next area. By this time his income was such that he no longer needed to work. He took on psychology with his usual thoroughness. As a starter he surveyed all that was known of the mind and published this in several volumes, together with some observations of his own. He was really trying to reach and understand the soul.
He started writing down and interpreting his own dreams. His understanding of the structure of dream language two centuries ago is about what ours is today. Since childhood Swedenborg had practiced a way of suspending breathing and drawing his attention inward in what looks like Raja Yoga practice. He followed this way of intensifying inner processes. Very soon he was watching the symbol making inner processes. He did the most detailed and revealing study of the hypnogogic state ever done before or since. Yet this was just the beginning of his search. He began to pick up the presence of other beings in this inner state, something that those who study the hypnogogic can relatively easily duplicate. Finally inner processes were intensified until he could walk around in and fully experience heaven and hell while living a normal life. In his usual scientific way he carefully recorded all this in his five-volume Spiritual Diary and other volumes. The Diary was the notes of a great explorer. It was not meant for others to see. It is curious to see in his dreams this great man wrestling with his own normal sexual needs. He had a profound respect for women and marriage that culminated at the age of eighty in his beautiful volume Conjugial Love.
It is fascinating to compare his writings before and after this long period of inner exploration. The work that came before was terribly intellectual and colored with natural pride in his accomplishments. Yet the intellect was always searching for the truth. There is a sudden and dramatic change in his works beginning with the twelve-volume Arcana Coelestia at age sixty-one. Pride was gone. His greatest theological works appeared without his name on them. There was no longer the searching. He was speaking of the most far-reaching spiritual/psychological matters with complete certainty. The brilliant intellect had become very much tempered with feeling. It was clear now that feeling was seen as greater than intellect. He now showed a complete familiarity with symbolism. Swedenborg had changed completely.
From the age of fifty-seven until his death at eighty-four he wrote some 282 works beyond the prior 155 works in science. These were written in Latin, the universal language of his day. He published just the best of these at his own expense to be sold at near cost. These anonymous psychological/spiritual works were sent to the leading bishops and thinkers of his day but received little notice. They gradually caught the interest of more common people. He had found too much to be readily accepted or appreciated then or now.
While enjoying the freedom of heaven and hell he lived a normal life. He retired to a garden cottage in London and lived a very simple life of plain meals and a heavy routine of writing broken only by business trips abroad or royal gatherings. Contemporary observers described him as a modest, friendly man with a slight hesitancy in his speech. His was a life of observing and writing to give his findings to others.
It gradually became known that Swedenborg was the author of these extraordinary works. Because he was far beyond the religious teachings of his day (and, indeed, of today), he was tried as a heretic in Sweden and for many years his works were banned there. Rumors circulated that he was mad. He found too much, described too much. His reputation as a great scientist was overshadowed by his psychological/religious findings. An incident will illustrate this. His servants came to him saying they thought they should leave his employ because there was so much talk that he was not godly. Swedenborg answered simply that they knew his private life in all its aspects. If they could think of any single incident in which he acted un-Christian in their eyes, they were free to go. They stayed. Very understanding friends asked him to at least go to church. He probably found church a bit boring, but to set a good example for others he went anyway.
Swedenborg answered freely any honest questions directed to him about the spiritual world. He must have been something of a conversation stopper when he spoke of his most recent experiences in the spiritual world at a party. Once a group of men joshed him and asked if he could tell who was to die next. Without hesitating Swedenborg said that yes, Mr. so-and-so, who lived nearby, was to die at 2 a.m. the next morning. And he did. The Queen of Sweden asked him to get in touch with a deceased brother. The next day when he reported back she fainted dead away. He revealed what only she and the brother knew. The most famous miracle occurred at a party. He became visibly disturbed. When asked what was wrong, he said that Stockholm was burning. He described the fire in detail. It quit near his home. A couple of days later his report was confirmed. There were many parallel incidents in which Swedenborg put no stock at all. He didn’t bother to write these down, but others did.
The most impressive incident occurred in conjunction with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and is described in Wesley’s writings. Swedenborg wrote to Wesley saying that he had learned in heaven that Wesley wanted to meet with him. Wesley was a little surprised. He said that it was true, and could they get together on a given date. Swedenborg wrote a note of apology. He couldn’t meet on that date because he was due to die on a given date, which he did. There were many signs that he was in touch with worlds beyond this one, but he considered this unimportant. The man who really wanted to know the truth would be able to discern it in his many writings.
Several aspects of Swedenborg’s works interest me. He was an early phenomenologist. Though the mode of approach in his day to psychology was philosophical speculation, he was basically an observer of experience. He explored the inward realm perhaps more than anyone else in the Western world. His works cross the psychological/spiritual boundary with the ease of one accustomed to the interrelationship of these realms. And the richness of his works is sufficient to occupy one for a lifetime. The symbolism of inner states and the Bible becomes very clear and very human. And by minor exploration the reader can find a similar language in himself.
But relatively few are captivated by his works. There is a handful of followers in various lands. Perhaps it is necessary to have personally explored psychological/spiritual states to appreciate the richness of his works.
Swedenborg’s most popular writings, any of which would be an appropriate place to begin study, are Heaven and Hell, Divine Love and Wisdom, and Divine Providence. Arcana Coelestia is more appropriate for advanced scholars, unless one has a particular interest in biblical symbolism.”
Emanuel Swedenborg by D.T. Suzuki
Revolutionary in theology, traveler of heaven and hell, champion of the spiritual world, king of the mystical realm, clairvoyant unique in history, scholar of incomparable vigor, scientist of penetrating intellect, gentleman free of worldly taint: all of these combined into one make Swedenborg. Now, in Japan, the field of religious thought is finally reaching a state of crises. Those who wish to cultivate their spirit, those who bemoan the times, must absolutely know of this person.