Emanuel Swedenborg was born in Stockholm, Sweden on the 9th February, 1688. His father was Jesper Swedberg, an army chaplain who was later to become a chaplain to the royal family and then a bishop in the Lutheran Swedish Church. His mother was Sara Behm, who’s family wealth came from mining interests. She was to die when Emanuel was 8 years old, after which his father married again. From the age of eleven Emanuel was educated at Uppsala university, where he studied medicine, astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, Latin and Greek.
We know little about Swedenborg’s childhood. But there’s the suggestion that Jesper’s second wife took a particular shine to him, and Emanauel writes revealingly in a letter to a friend in 1769:
‘From my fourth year to my tenth year, I was constantly engaged in thought about God, salvation and the spiritual experiences of man. And several times I revealed things at which my father and mother wondered, saying that angels must be speaking through me. From my 6th to my 12th year, I used to delight in conversing with clergymen about faith, saying that the life of faith is love, and that the love which imparts life is the love of neighbour; and that God gives faith to everyone, but that only those who practice love receive it.’
As a young man, he immersed himself in more worldly affairs. He was fascinated by mechanical invention. In drawing up plans for both a submarine and a glider aircraft, he anticipated future discoveries in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci; and throughout his life, he was a man hungry for all sorts of knowledge, always using travel as an opportunity to learn. So in 1711, he writes from London: ‘I also turn my lodgings to some use, and change them often. At first, I was with a watchmaker, afterwards at a cabinet maker’s and now I’m at a mathematical instrument maker’s. From them, I steal their trades, which some day will be of use to me.’ He also learned to make brass instruments and grind glass for lenses.
In 1716 he was appointed Assessor of the Royal College of Mines, an important post since the mining industry, both copper and iron, was crucial to the Swedish economy. He held this post for thirty-one years. In 1719 the family was ennobled and took the name ‘Swedenborg’. Emanuel now became a regular contributor in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament and in the House of Nobles, where he remained active in economic and foreign affairs until shortly before his death.
The physical sciences, the search for the soul
Swedenborg had another life, however, for alongside mining and public affairs, he showed a genius for the physical sciences, where his range was wide and his insights, many. He speculated, for instance, about the nature of matter and the universe, anticipating the cosmology later formulated by others: that the planets in the solar system originated in the solar mass.
He was also intrigued by the human body, and studied its anatomy and physiology in an attempt to discover the seat of the soul. He believed at one point that it might be carried by the blood. Fifty years before the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley, Swedenborg came close to understanding how the lungs purify the blood.
He was also ahead of his time in discoveries about both the nervous system and the brain. He studied the formation and function of the nervous system, noting the hierarchical substructures of organs, bundles and single nerve fibres. He saw also how the human body was constructed of smaller units, and each of these units, of yet smaller entities. Concerning the brain, various observations convinced Swedenborg of the primacy of the cerebral cortex; and also that different regions of the cortex were specialised for particular human functions. This is the beginning of the theory of cerebral localisation and shows Swedenborg’s intuitive grasp of a subject which others have since gone on to develop.
He didn’t find the soul in the brain or the blood, however, which led him to psychological investigation. He saw that the human mind was able to possess sense data; was able also to organise these senses into thoughts and ideas, and then to reflect these thoughts and ideas in three different levels of awareness: sensation, thought and reason and judgment. Each level was more advanced than the previous one. This idea of stages of psychological development reappears today in the theories of Piaget, Erikson and many others.
A strange visitation
But there is yet another story to be told of Swedenborg’s life. For in the mid-1740s, his personal direction changed significantly after a strange visitation. In April 1745, Swedenborg was dining in a private room at a tavern in London. When the meal was over, a darkness filled his eyes and the room appeared to alter. Suddenly he saw a figure sitting at a corner of the room, who said: ‘Do not eat too much!’. Swedenborg hurried home scared. Later that night, the same man appeared again in his dreams. The man told Swedenborg that he was the Lord, that he had appointed Swedenborg to reveal the spiritual meaning of the bible, and that he would guide Swedenborg in what to write. That same night, we are told, the spiritual world was opened to Swedenborg.
Around this time, he also experienced six months of very lucid dreams, both pleasurable and disturbing. He recorded these dreams, including many that were erotic, with an honesty that shocked many of his contemporaries. Some psychiologists believe that in these dreams, Swedenborg was experiencing the integration of his thinking and feeling centres. In his pursuit of knowledge in adult life, Swedenborg had concentrated on head-centred analysis of external data, and discarded much of the affective side he knew as a child. Was this aspect of his personality now being restored to him?
As we have heard, he had shown signs of psychic power as a child; signs that had caused his parents to wonder. And even at an early age, Swedenborg could stop breathing for a considerable length of time and freely enter an altered state of consciousness.
In his book ‘Dreams of a Spirit Seer’ the philosopher Immanuel Kant tells of several paranormal experiences attributed to Swedenborg’s early life. One which he investigated and believed authentic was the fire story. One night in Gothenburg, Swedenborg reported and accurately described to those around him, a fire that was raging at that very moment in Stockholm, over 300 miles away. When news of the fire reached Gothenburg two days later, Swedenborg’s report was shown to have been accurate in very particular ways.
From scientist to mystic
In the light of the tavern visitation, Swedenborg now turned his focus from the outside world to the inner world. It was a transition, from scientist to mystic, which has fascinated many down the years including William Blake, Goethe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Balzac, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Carl Jung.
Some claim Swedenborg lost his mind at this time, and suffered some form of breakdown. This idea does not sit easily, however, with his continued work in the Swedish House of the Nobility, in the Riksdag or with the Royal Academy of Sciences. His contributions there speak only of sanity. The other consideration relevant to this is that his visions, which are revealed in ‘Heaven and Hell’, show the same internal coherence that his studies of astronomy and anatomy had done. If these are hallucinations, they are hallucinations rooted in the of the natural order. Here is a scientist doing theology, for whom equilibium and symmetry are quite as important as good and evil.
Spiritual writing, a new theology
His foundational spiritual work was ‘Arcana Caelestia’ or ‘Heavenly Secrets’. It was published in London in eight Latin volumes between 1749 and 1756. At a time when the Genesis creation story was taken literally (i.e., God made the world in six days and created Adam and Eve as the first humans), Swedenborg reinterpreted the story using the idea of ‘correspondences’. This is the notion that everything in the material world has a spiritual counterpart. We will see Swedenborg using this frequently in ‘Heaven and Hell’, as it frees him to understand ancient stories as symbolic rather than literal events.
For Swedenborg, the creation story speaks of the development of the human soul. Humans pass from the darkness and void of the beginning, which signifies the state of ignorance, into the light of spiritual being, a human in the image of God. Swedenborg calls this process ‘regeneration’ or ‘rebirth’.
Only a few of Swedenborg’s theological books could be published in conservative Sweden, which was not yet ready for him. But through his writings over the following twenty years, he assumed the mantle of ‘prophet’ for an enlightened Christianity. At the heart of his theology is the belief that God is revealed to humans as the Lord Jesus Christ, the ‘Divine Human’; to this extent, his theology is Christ-centred. He also believes that God, who is love, condemns no one to hell. As we discover, heaven and hell are self-chosen ways of being, with Swedenborg at pains to emphasise that God’s mercy cannot contradict human choices. Meanwhile, Swedenborg’s disilluionment with the church is glimpsed in his insistence that salvation is found not in rigid adherence to creeds, but in acknowledging God and living a loving life towards your neightbour.
Swedenborg passed away on March 29, 1772.