The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 10 - Early Philosophy

The summer of 1721 found Swedenborg in Amsterdam seeing through the press three treatises which he had translated from Swedish into Latin, the largest of them his work on Chemistry.[108] That he published them anonymously is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that as soon as they were off the press he inscribed two copies, printed on fine paper, with his full name and sent them to friends in Holland. Perhaps the anonymity was intended to ensure his works a more unprejudiced hearing than they might otherwise have received. If so, the secret was badly kept for, of course, it soon became known who the author was. From this and other experiences Swedenborg seems to have learned how to deal with this problem for, many years later, when he published his first theological works anonymously, he kept his authorship successfully concealed for many years.

One of the presentation copies of the Latin essays is now in the British Museum and bears the inscription: "To the famous professor Dr. Hermann Boerhaave, widely celebrated throughout the world for ingenuity, learning and experience . . . " The other copy was sent to Ambassador Joachim Frederick Preis, representing Sweden at The Hague. His business at Amsterdam completed, the young author repaired to the capital to renew his acquaintance with Preis, whom he had met eight years before at the Utrecht Peace Conference. They had long talks about the economic condition of Sweden and the means for promoting their country's welfare. From there Swedenborg proceeded to Leyden for a few weeks' visit with Dr. Boerhaave and to collect material for subsequent publications from the library of the famous university. Then he returned to Amsterdam where he was joined by Johan Hesselius.

On December 8, the two Swedes witnessed the celebration of the signing of the peace treaty that ended twenty-one years of warfare between Sweden and Russia, when the representative of Peter the Great regaled the burghers of Amsterdam with a sumptuous banquet that lasted well into the morning! He opened casks of wine in the streets and entertained the populace with one of the most magnificent displays of fireworks on record. To the tunes of a martial band, fiery arrows and bursting balloons were shot from, a high tower built for the occasion at the water front and surmounted with a huge Russian eagle. Inspired by the occasion, Swedenborg penned some verses in celebration of peace to the troubled North where streams of nectar had replaced the former streams of blood and, "Mars enchained, 't is Bacchus comes to arms."[109]

From Amsterdam the two travelers proceeded to Aix-la-Chapelle and Liege. The mountain strata of the country they passed through afforded interesting material for the two students of minerology. After spending Christmas at Liege, Hesselius returned to his studies and Swedenborg resumed his journey, by way of Cologne, to Leipzig, visiting on the way all the mining districts of the countryside.

Early in April he published a number of articles on scientific subjects under the general title of Miscellaneous Observations,[110 ] in three parts, dedicating the work to Count Gustaf Bonde, the newly appointed president of the Board of Mines. From Leipzig he extended his investigations to all the mining districts of Saxony, the Hartz mountains and Brunswick, where he was received with marked favor by the reigning Duke Ludwig Rudolph of Blankenburg, who could not exert himself enough to do him honor. He presented him with a medal of gold, and a large coffee-pot of silver, and besides all this he insisted on defraying Swedenborg's traveling expenses. No wonder then that, at the end of the month, when Swedenborg issued the fourth part of his Miscellaneous Observations, he dedicated this work to the noble duke.

Swedenborg was now no longer an unknown aspirant for recognition. The beginning of that year, 1722, had seen the realization of his dreams of winning a European reputation. The leading critical journal of Europe, the Leipzig "Acta Eruditorum" (Transactions of the Learned), carried in its pages one review after another of the published treatises, reviews by no means brief and highly appreciative of Swedenborg's theory of applying geometry to determine the causes of natural phenomena. With all this, nevertheless, the first reviewer closed with the guarded comment: "The author has used great ingenuity and no less industry, but as to how much of the truth he has attained in his theories, this may be left to the judgment of others."[111]

It had been Swedenborg's intention to continue his travels into Italy but this purpose was changed by a letter he received from his father. Swedenborg's wealthy maternal uncle, Captain Albrecht de Behm, had left a fine estate which was being managed by De Behm's capable sister, Brita. Some of the heirs had lately become dissatisfied with the distribution of the estate and a lawsuit threatened which Bishop Swedberg was convinced Emanuel could avert. On this account Swedenborg cut short his travels and returned to Sweden early in July, 1722.

* * * * *

In order to see Swedenborg's relation to the learned world of his day, it seems essential to make a short excursion into the story of philosophy. This journey will be in the highest degree inadequate because of its brevity, but it may serve to discover the sources of his system.

The origin of matter, until our own day, has never been a subject for popular excitement. What to do with the materials we have, and how to acquire more of them, has always stirred the masses, but the question of just how it all originated they, have left to a few thinkers. "God created it" was the answer for many centuries and for simple pious souls it was enough. So, until the shock of atomic fission split he lethargy of this generation, newspapers practically snubbed philosophers and what they thought about the constitution of the interiors of nature.

The ancients reflected much on the subject of origins, and their speculations are basic for modern views. The idea that all substances originally consisted of small, impenetrable particles arose with the Greeks. Democritus gave them the name of "atoms." He conceived of the universe as consisting of atoms moving in a great empty space or vacuum. Said Aristotle: "All matter is of one homogeneous kind; only its form is varied." It was all purely speculative, a product largely of reasoning and guessing.

In Swedenborg's day the idea of atoms had been developing in two separate directions by the followers of Descartes and by Newton. To Descartes any explanation of how the universe originated had to be based on motion. This primary motion caused the formation of vortices something like whirlpools. By this motion he explained how the solar systems came into being, each star or sun being a center of finest particles in intense motion. The matter of which the earth consists he explained as particles of a grosser kind, having their own special kinds of motions. No such thing as a vacuum could exist for Descartes because any vacant space between his particles was immediately filled in by particles of a finer degree or kind, ad infinitum. He considered that originally there was only one kind of matter, which was identical with extension. All variations of matter, all diversity of power, he said, depends on motion.[112] When the primary material particles struck against each other, their corners were knocked off, so that particles of a second kind were formed. The knocked-off corners formed a fine dust of "fiery particles" which became the fixed stars. "Give me extension and motion and I will construct the world," was a saying of Descartes. And in spite of the fact that his laws of motion were partly inaccurate, he was the forerunner of many new ideas. Denying a vacuum, he proposed a pressure theory which avoided the corpuscular or emission theory of light, so leaving open the way for the later theory that light is an undulatory motion in the ether.

The Cartesian theory of vortices was, in Swedenborg's day, generally accepted everywhere except in England where Isaac Newton had developed another idea of material particles by whose composition everything was formed. Newton's theory led in an opposite direction from Descartes' and the two were irreconcilable. Said Newton: "It seems probable to me that God, in the beginning, formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles . . . so hard as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God Himself made one in the first creation." Newton recorded experiments of utmost importance for the advancement of science. His idea of light, however, was that it consists of material particles, or luminous corpuscles, sent forth from a luminous body in straight lines which, by their mechanical action on the retina, produce sight. "Are not the Rays of Light very small Bodies emitted from Shining Substances?" he asks.[113]

Newton's solid particles were supposed to move in a vacuum. This was the reason for the slow acceptance of his epoch-making law that gravitation could be explained in terms of the mutual attraction of bodies. To assume that planetary bodies could act upon each other at a distance, in a vacuum, without any intermediating atmosphere, was regarded as preposterous.

In recognizing Swedenborg's relations to Newton and Descartes one should not forget the influence of Christopher Polhem. Ideas have parents, and if Descartes had an activating influence on Swedenborg's mind, surely the mechanical genius of Polhem influenced him in a material sense. Polhem admired Newton's work, although reading him "gave him a headache" as Newton made things much too difficult and involved. In a letter to Benzelius he wrote:

"I must admit that he [Newton] is a great mathematician, but it seems to me that he has been a little childish in making such a fuss and such extensive demonstrations about things which could be settled in a simpler way." But for any one who wanted to sharpen his brains, Polhem thought, Newton and his contemporary Wallis, would make good whetstones.

As for Polhem's own theory, he agreed with Descartes that matter originated by motion. "The creative power in nature is God, and the medium is motion." Polhem recognized six kinds of particles, all round in shape. The foundation of all living things, he said, is "an infinite number of small living particles or specks whose figure and size is indescribable, unless you just give them the name of motion." Probably many of Descartes' ideas would have to be altered, Polhem thought, as the result of experiments. What impressed him most was that "all the properties of nature are founded on mathematical and mechanical principles."[114] Surely here the resemblance to Swedenborg's ideas is striking!

It has become customary to regard the philosopher Swedenborg primarily from his system as explained in his best known and most complete product, The Principia (1734), and it is undoubtedly much easier to do this and to pass over the smaller works of which the so-called Chemistry is one part. But we are here interested not so much in a picture of Swedenborg as he was at any given time, as rather in the story of his development. The phase we are now considering, bears perhaps as little resemblance to his later system as do the cotyledon leaves in a seedling to the plant that developed out of them. In the preceding explanation we have been considering the ideas that circulated in Swedenborg's intellectual environment, the soil from which his system grew. But what we are really concerned with is the nature of the plant.

Swedenborg was thoroughly aware of the fundamental opposition between the ideas of Descartes and Newton. As we have seen, his early position bears a striking resemblance to that of Polhem. Like his teacher, he denied Newton's corpuscular theory of light and rejected his vacuum and action at a distance. He agreed with Descartes on vortices and that particles were formed into various kinds by means of motion. But like Polhem he disagreed with Descartes as to the character of matter. Thus we see him picking his way, rejecting this ea, choosing that, and ever enlarging his concepts.

The treatise published in Amsterdam, popularly called the Chemistry, is the first offshoot of Swedenborg's individual thinking. What makes this work unique is the application of his new idea, that every natural thing can be explained by geometry and mechanics. All the various and manifold properties of matter, he insisted, depend upon the shapes and sizes of the different particles of which matter is composed, on their form and on their motions compounded by an orderly series of changes into substances ever denser.

He presents the central idea on the title-page: "Prodromus (Forerunner or Specimen) of a work on the Principles of Natural Philosophy, comprising New Attempts to explain the Phenomena of Chemistry and Physics by Geometry." "What are physics and chemistry?" he asks in the Preface. "What is their nature if not a peculiar mechanism? What is there new in nature which is not geometrical? What is the variety of experiments but a- variety of position, figure, weight and motion in particles?"[115] Here is the key that fits all locks!

Thoroughly vindicated as Swedenborg has been by subsequent experience - even to present-day knowledge about the constitution of the atom - need we any longer hesitate to say that he was on the right track? The whole century of progress in science that followed based its findings on the proposition that he intimate relationships between the properties of matter depend upon geometrical arrangements. But let us note - the unity and simplicity of Swedenborg's explanatory theory was always linked to the idea of an Infinite Creator!

Thus was the door unlocked, that led out of the vague mystical findings of the intrepid Alchemists, with their beclouded nomenclature, into the clear hard daylight of modern science. For at that time chemistry still clung to the "four elements," earth, air, fire and water. "Water" was the cold, humid element whose particles were supposed to be vermiform and cylindrical. "Air" was the light, subtle, compressible element which, as ether, filled all spaces. "Fire" was the noblest of the "elements" and, in a sense, almost divine, giving soul to all things. "Earth" was essentially a white, dry, dense thing found in its purest form in ashes. The three universal principles were salt, sulphur and mercury, salt being anything of a saline character, sulphur being something of a fiery nature, combining with mercury to form the metals.

Many students were asking the question: What is chemical affinity? "A mysterious attraction," said the Alchemists. "Electrical," said Newton. "The same as gravitation," said Buffon, later. Swedenborg explained it as pressure.

Common salt, he supposes, originated by pressure in a huge primordial ocean which enveloped the entire globe. The pressure of this tremendous mass of water caused some of the water particles to collapse. Their broken parts then got wedged into the, spaces between the water particles, and became salt-particles, whose shape was identical with the spaces in which they were generated, one particle of salt holding in combination six of the particles of water. "If then;" he says, "an ancient ocean stood at such an altitude above the earth, and if the dry land owes its form and, in a certain sense, its origin to this parent, it must surely be concluded that salt mountains must have originated at its bottom."[116]

It will be recalled that Swedenborg had, in previous works, treated at length of the primeval ocean, which he identified with the Deluge. Now, however, he introduces an element of doubt: "The circumstances here mentioned may have been produced by a deluge, but it may perhaps be questioned whether they could all have occurred during Noah's Flood, which lasted only a single year."

This was dangerous ground. If carried further, such reasoning would invalidate the Biblical story of creation. Polhem, like Newton; firmly believed in God and held that no one could dare call into question the traditional story of creation as described in the Bible. "To doubt the words of Moses, which are dictated by the Holy Spirit, is not becoming to any Christian," Polhem had written to Benzelius. However, the Mosaic account ought not to be taken literally, but more as a likeness. God created finite things out of infinite material which He made into finite matter. Still, criticisms against the literal Bible story could be advanced - such as the existence of light before the creation of the sun. Perhaps, Polhem suggests, Moses in the Biblical account was only meeting the needs of his people for knowledge of their God, knowledge of His omnipotence and of their dependence upon Him, and of the punishment that might result from disobeying Him. "People would have difficulty in believing in God unless they had some stories about Him."[117] Apologizing for his bold opinion, Polhem assures his friend that his veneration of God is increased, rather than diminished, by contemplation of His inscrutably wonderful works.

Swedenborg, too, felt at liberty to discuss first causes with Benzelius, suggesting symbolic explanations rather than literal ones for the statements of Holy Writ. For instance, the fire with which the souls of the damned are tormented could not be material fire, he says, since it does not consume or destroy them. Rather must it be understood as the pangs of conscience. "It would be too crass to think that the bodies of the damned are to be tormented by [material] fire, for a burning up without destruction, is not naturally possible," Their situation was not in the sun, for the sun was rather where, God had his seat. "I hope it will not be ill interpreted that I philosophize on this subject; God's Word is still the foundation" (Stockholm, November 26, 1719).[118]

Swedenborg's interest in fire was, at this time, very great, for he had just finished and handed in to the Board of Mines his treatise on Swedish Blast Furnaces, the result of three years' study on the nature of fire. One wonders if he came to any results satisfying to himself for he says on page 199 of his Chemistry, "It must be confessed that no subject can be more embarrassing to the mind than the intimate mechanism of fire and the nature of its particles." "The theory of fire seems to have occasioned more bewildering speculations than that of any other element." Element, of course, in the vague senses Nevertheless, he here states that "the particles of fire are purely bubble-like;" they are "small and subtile," and "on their surface there are mathematical points." His ideas may have been influenced by Newton's corpuscular theory of light. In his earlier treatises Swedenborg seems to have had a more definite and correct idea of the nature of fire, for in 1717 he described light as an undulatory motion and stated that "fire and colors are caused by activity in the air when it terminates in the ether." And in other places he practically identified the "flamy quality" or "igneous matter" with the ether which flows between the other particles - a conclusion more in harmony with modern theories of combustion.

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