Life of Swedenborg
I. The Scientist
Emanuel Swedberg, later known as Swedenborg, was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 29, 1688.
Sweden is a vast, thinly-populated country, full of mountains and forests, lakes with romantic names, and rivers full of floating logs. During the short, light summers, wild flowers spring up everywhere, and there are mosquitoes; in the winter, darkness and snow! Towards Lapland in the north, one sees the aurora borealis, and, in summer, the midnight sun. The mountains are rich in copper and iron; mining and smelting are important industries, charcoal being obtained from forest timber. Stockholm, the capital city, is on the southeast coast, at a point where Lake Malaren empties into the Baltic. It is built on both sides of the effluence, and on many rocky islands interconnected by bridges and ferry boats. Shipping is everywhere. Today, Sweden is an industrial country, and the Swedes are among the most highly civilized nations in the world; but in the 18th century it was a cultural backwater.
The word Swedenborg has no connection with the name of the country, which should be "Svergie"—as every stamp collector knows! "Swedberg" or "Svedberg" means a burnt hill, and was the name of the family's ancestral homestead near Falun in Dalarna. "Swedenborg" is a more aristocratic form of this name—"borg" (castle) instead of "berg" (hill) and the definite article "en" added, "Swed-en-borg."
Emanuel's father was the Reverend Jesper Swedberg, of the Swedish Lutheran Church. When Emanuel was born, he was regimental chaplain, resident in the royal barracks. Later he became chaplain to King Charles XI, then dean and professor of theology at the Uppsala Academy (or university). Eventually he was appointed Bishop of Skara in central Sweden, where he enjoyed considerable fame and influence. (Skara Cathedral is one of the finest in the country.) Today he is mostly remembered as the author of hymns, many of which are still in current use.
Childhood and Youth
Emanuel was a student at Uppsala, graduating with a Master of Arts at 21. He then travelled abroad for five years to complete his education, visiting England, Holland and France. While in England he lodged with craftsmen such as watchmakers, bookbinders, printers and optical instrument makers, so that he could learn their skills. He met many of the intellectuals of his day, including Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, with whom he studied at Greenwich Observatory, learning how to make astronomical calculations. He himself devised a method for finding the longitude at sea by observations of the moon. He designed a number of mechanical inventions, including a suction pump, a machine gun, an ear trumpet, a glider-type aircraft, an airtight stove, and a means of obtaining mechanical power from heat.
On his return to Sweden in 1715 (aged 27), Emanuel lodged with his father at Skara and published a technical journal: Daedalus Hyperboreus ("The Northern Inventor"), which ran to six issues. In it he presented a number of his own inventions, and also descriptions of inventions made by the famous engineer, Christopher Polhammer (later known as Polhem), who was constructing canals, docks, salt works, etc. This brought young Emanuel into close, personal contact with Polhammer, who took him into his home and began to employ him as his assistant. (There was a vain hope that Emanuel might marry one of his daughters.) It was Polhammer who introduced him to the youthful warrior king, Charles XII, at his court at Lund in the south. Emanuel presented the king with a specially-bound set of his Daedalus Hyperboreus, and they had many lively conversations on technical and mathematical topics. They even amused themselves planning a new way of counting numbers, using eights instead of tens! Later, Emanuel was to help the king in his war against Norway by organizing the transportation of a number of ships on brushwood and rollers, across bogs, marshes and hilly country, down into Norwegian waters. The project had a tragic ending, as the king was killed during the subsequent siege of Fredrikshall. His sister, Ulrika Eleanora, now became queen, and ennobled the Swedberg family, changing their name to "Swedenborg." The bishop himself retained his former name: Jesper Swedberg.
Before Charles XII's untimely death, he had nominated Emanuel to the Board of Mines—a royal commission which controlled the important copper and iron industry of Sweden. His actual appointment was delayed until 1723, after which he served as Assessor for 24 years—until 1746.
The members met regularly in the large square stone building in Stockholm that contained their offices, library and committee rooms, and a laboratory for assaying metals. Swedenborg also had to travel about the country, on horseback or by coach, inspecting blast-furnaces and mines, sometimes actually descending shafts on a rope. He advised the owners on improved methods for extracting metal from the ore; he settled quarrels, and judged in labor disputes. On three occasions he made long journeys abroad, mostly in Germany, to study mining methods developed in other lands and he introduced the best of them into his own country. All this time he was writing and publishing books on mining and minerals, mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, cosmology, and other scientific and philosophical subjects, which brought him fame and honor. By the time he was fifty, he was acknowledged as one of the world's most-learned men. In many areas Swedenborg was far in advance of his times. He pioneered the "nebular hypothesis" to explain the creation of the stars; he described the molecular structure of crystals; he investigated fire before the discovery of oxygen, and magnetism before the discovery of electricity and postulated that matter consisted of "points of pure motion," long before the splitting of the atom!
As a nobleman, Swedenborg took his seat regularly in the House of Nobles (one of the four Houses which constituted the Diet—the others being the Clergy, Burghers, and Peasants). Sweden was at that time in a state of utter bankruptcy as a result of Charles Xll's disastrous wars. Overseas trade had almost come to a standstill. Paper money was flooding the country; inflation was completely out of control, and people were pawning their furniture and possessions to provide themselves with food (warehouses were crammed with unredeemed property.) The government itself was shaky, and some politicians were urging the overthrow of the monarchy. Swedenborg devoted time and energy in an attempt to stem inflation and solve these terrible problems, writing "memorials" which were placed before the Diet and various commissions. These memorials were not always heeded, but they reveal Swedenborg's remarkable practical spirit, and his clear understanding of political, economic and fiscal realities.
Search for the Soul
Though so great a scholar, Swedenborg was not satisfied with his knowledge. One problem was continually nagging at his mind. "What was the human soul? Where was it situated? How did it act upon the body to make it function? What becomes of the soul at death?" To find answers to these questions, he decided to take up the study of anatomy and search for the soul himself! Dissection of human corpses was already being performed at Uppsala, but the main center of this work was Paris; so Swedenborg obtained an extended leave of absence from his official duties on the Board of Mines (in 1736, aged 48) and travelled to Paris, by coach and canal boat, to study anatomy with the French doctors.
Always he was inquiring: "Where is the soul?" At one time he thought it must be in the blood stream; at another time in the brain; then, again, in the heart and lungs. At last he began to see that it was not confined to any one particular organ, but was in the whole body, in every part at once. The soul was, in fact, in the human form, and the physical body took its form from that development. Where, then, was the soul? Within the whole physical body, but on a different and more interior plane of being. Why can't we see the soul? Because it is made of spiritual substance, whereas our eyes and other sense organs are made of matter and can therefore only sense matter. If our spiritual eyes were opened (he argued), we could see the spiritual body, but that was something still to be achieved! In the meantime he concluded that if he could get a clear idea of the operation or function of every organ of the physical body, then he would be able to understand the nature of the soul.
The great anatomists of his day had already made considerable progress in their description of the structure of the body, but little had as yet been done in what we now call "physiology"—the study of function. This was the area that interested Swedenborg. He mostly accepted the observations of the anatomists, but brought his penetrating intellect to bear upon the interpretation of these observations. So he began to prepare a series of massive volumes on physiology, explaining many things which had never been previously understood, especially with regard to the brain, the spinal cord, the ductless glands and the nervous system.
Assessment of the Church
Being the son of a Lutheran bishop, Emanuel Swedenborg had had a great
deal of experience of the Protestant Church and was fully aware of how
external and worldly it had become. But France was a Roman Catholic
country, and now for the first time he was living among Catholics. This
interested him tremendously, and he devoted his spare time to making a
detailed study of the state of the Roman Catholic church, with lists of
the monasteries and convents, the number of priests, their incomes, etc.
This led him to make a journey across the Alps through Italy to Rome,
where he obtained an audience with the Pope. He came to the conclusion
that, though there were many thousands of priests, they had little
influence on the spiritual life of the people. In fact, it appeared to
him that all branches of the so-called Christian church at that time,
whether Protestant or Catholic, were dead.