The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 11 - Business and Controversy

To cultivate popularity and, if possible, to increase the much curtailed royal power, King Frederick and Queen Ulrika Eleonera revived an ancient Swedish custom and made a grand tour, to all parts of the kingdom to meet their subjects and hear petitions,. In. July of the year 1722, they came to the fashionable spa at Medevi, near Lake Vetter, where society was gathered to take the waters.

Hither also came Erik Benzelius with Anna, and later Bishop Swedberg himself, and here Swedenborg, fresh from his foreign journey, stopped on his way to Stockholm, combining pleasure with business. The King's nameday, July 18, brought sports and dances and festivities to Medevi, and from Swedenborg a Festival Ode of rather stilted verse written for the occasion.[119]

He also had a petition to present. The information be had acquired about mining methods abroad had convinced him that reforms should immediately be instituted to improve Swedish methods, particularly in the smelting of copper. He petitioned the king for the right to conduct a test, taking it upon himself personally to bear all the risks.

August found Swedenborg in Stockholm for a consultation with his aunt on the division of the Behm inheritance. Madam Brita Behm resided in a large house in the center of town which took up a whole city block, later known as "the Rosenadler palace." There, in magnificence, she lived out her life, grande dame and very capable business woman. When Bishop Swedberg had to be in Stockholm to attend the Diet as member of the priestly estate he was glad of an invitation "to share the roof" with Sister Brita and her son-in-law, Johan Rosenadler, the royal censor librorum, who lived with her. The Bishop would have been delighted to mediate a suitable marriage for the rich widow but Brita, to the end of her long life, remained faithful to her late husband, Professor Johan Schwede, whom she had espoused at Upsala when only fourteen years of age.[120] She had managed the Behm estate to the great advantage of all the heirs, but as a reward for her trouble the family quarreled with her and among themselves, a fact which Bishop Swedberg deplored as unjust. If someone else had managed it, the heirs would have fared much worse, he said. His confidence that Emanuel would be able to reach an agreement with his aunt and patch up the dispute without resort to litigation proved to be justified. Swedenborg arrived at a settlement by buying out the shares of his brothers and sisters, and thus one fifth of the Axmar iron works, on the Gulf of Bothnia, 100 miles to the north of Stockholm, came into Emanuel's hands.[121]

In October the Board of Mines, to whom the king had referred Swedenborg's petition for a test of his new method of smelting copper, forwarded it to the mining authorities at Fahlun. Included was his request that they render him every assistance in setting it up, permit him to choose the most suitable place for the test, give him the most skillful smelters and roasters, bind the workmen by oath to make an honest trial, and asking that the first year's increase and a small part of any subsequent profit should go to Swedenborg.

Fahlun's reply was typical of the deadlocked conservative. The method of smelting was the result of centuries of experience, they said, and the miners were unwilling "to follow speculations and intellectual rules" in preference to the teachings of experience. So-called "new workers" were distasteful and tiresome to the mining authorities. However, they were willing, on certain conditions, to let the assessor make the test.

Swedenborg answered that he did not wish to revolutionize the usual methods of smelting, but only to call attention to the condition of the fire, the blast, the furnaces and the ore, so as to save that part of the copper which would otherwise go off in smoke and slag - all of which was to the smelters' advantage. Their attitude, however, being essentially negative, no test seems to have been undertaken.

On his return to his native land, Swedenborg found that his theories had met with opposition. His treatise On Finding the Longitude on Land and Sea by means of the Moon,[122] published in Latin, had failed to arouse any interest. But at least it was noticed in the foreign press without adverse comment. At Lund University, however, Conrad Quensel had contributed quite a discouraging article about it to the Swedish "Acta Literaria" for January-March, 1722.[123] A reply to this appeared later in the same journal which was supposedly contributed "in the author's absence by a friend." Evidence in letters clearly shows that Swedenborg himself wrote it.

The Miscellaneous Observations also had received notices in the Leipzic journal which praised the scientific notebook as "a collection of observations and experiments in which alone lies the hope for the growth of knowledge . . . "[124] Quite a different note was struck by a new magazine calling itself "The History of Learning of our Times," (Historie der Gelehrsamkeit unserer Zeiten), which Swedenborg first saw after his return home. The journal was issued anonymously and had more pretensions to critical analysis than did the "Acta Eruditorum" which consisted mostly of excerpts. It noted many typographical errors in Swedenborg's pamphlets, pointed to a lack of elegance in his diction, and concluded that evidently he did not desire the reputation of being very expert in the mysteries of higher geometry. They criticized his "theories of physics grounded in the imagination of their discoverer." The writer disagreed particularly with Swedenborg's assumption that the powerful movement of water at the bottom of a primeval ocean was able to toss about large boulders, a thing wholly opposed to all know hydrostatic laws-realizing as little as did Swedenborg himself that he had stumbled upon the effects of glacial torrents.

The thing that interests us most is their criticism of his "mathematical points." Discussing the origin of matter, for instance, he had written:

If the nature of particles is derived from the same beginning as geometry, whence then does the line originate? Is it not from an infinity of points combined into length? And whence surface, if not from an infinity of lines combined into width? Whence body, but from an infinity of surfaces combined into depth? The case is the same if we suppose that in the beginning of all things there were only mathematical points without any shape, dimensions, or geometrical attributes; and then suppose motion among these points.[125]

To this the critics objected that: Motion can find no room in mere mathematical points.

This much we know . . . there is no line consisting of points, no plane consisting of lines, and no body consisting of planes ... Mathematical points are not parts but merely signs of the beginning or end of a line . . . an indivisible sign existing in the imagination alone. When one says that the motion of a point describes a line, this is a line existing merely in the imagination ... An exact physicist or mathematician will not readily say that mathematical bodies are actually made up of points, lines and planes, as these are described by mathematicians; and in all fairness we are led to wonder how the author has come to be of this extraordinary and incomprehensible opinion.

But did Swedenborg ever conceive of creation by means of purely mathematical points? Or did he mean something quite different? Note what he had said in the continuation of the passage previously quoted from his work:

Here, however, the reader will object that no motion can exist until a surface or body be previously formed out of infinity. I answer that I take motion for granted. I assume it . . . But if the enquirer demands the cause of this motion, I tell him that no finite mind penetrates, or can penetrate, into this. For the first motion must clearly arise from the Supreme Mover, from the Supreme Life, from God, the Creator of all things, Who by means of His primeval motion, according to our axiom, impressed upon His world of nature the identical principle that governs in geometry..

Had the critics failed to note that Swedenborg, foreseeing their objections, had already answered them? He had explained that his "points" were not devoid of quality but were endowed by their Creator with certain definite attributes. Later there flowed from his pen many more arguments concerning "points" which will be discussed in a subsequent chapter. In one of his theological works he refers to the futility of reasoning about primal substance and form without a clear idea of God. Such reasoning, he says, would be "spectral fancies" that lead the mind to derive the creation of world-substance from "points, and afterwards from geometrical lines which essentially are nothing, because nothing can be predicated about them."[126]

But to continue with the critical review in the History of Learning:

We shall merely consider, in a few words, the singular nature of the Swedenborgian air-particles. As already stated, these are little bubbles; but their outermost shells are constituted of pure fire-particles. According to the author's imagination, these fire-particles are not bubble-shaped but round, hard, and proportionately small. This is the reason why, in our sublunary world, no fire can exist without air . . . How, according to this theory, do the hard, non-bubble-formed fire-pellets arise from the mathematical points? And after what manner, and in what way are the air-bubbles encompassed and likewise garnished with brilliant little fire-balls? . . .[127]

Swedenborg's reaction to this attack was to contribute an article to the Acta Literaria Suecia, entitled, "A Hydrostatic Law" in which he merely noted the critical review in the German paper, remarking that:

In their Preface, these writers tell us that they are anonymous, that they have no director, no chief, no law among themselves; that one contributor is not acquainted with another, and that nevertheless, without the assistance of inspiration, as they say, they bring forth a yearly volume under the above title. Who or what they are is no affair of ours, but as they are anonymous and without law or leader, in order without danger to themselves to lie in ambush for travelers, we would have them know that we consider it neither seemly nor advisable to challenge them to any sort of contest whatsoever.[128]

Swedenborg's critics had failed to consider that imagination is a faculty superior even to that of observation, a faculty as indispensable to a philosopher as it is to an artist or a business man. Had Swedenborg lacked imagination it is unlikely that he would have been called, in our own day, the forerunner of Priestley in the discovery of oxygen gas, or - by Dumas, the eminent French chemist - the founder of the science of crystallography, because he applied geometry to the explanation of the laws of interior nature.[129]

The History of Learning had a very brief life. After one or two more issues, it ceased to exist. But the following year, the author in a critical article in the "Neue Zeitungen" continued to attack Swedenborg's speculations on hydrostatic pressure.

Swedenborg again refuses to enter what in a letter to Benzelius he calls "a most ignoble strife - one with a mask on and the other without a mask. Probably the critic is a gossip-monger, for he seems hardly able to understand my position, thinking that I am referring to the moving of whole mountains at the bottom of the sea." Nevertheless, Swedenborg intends to prepare a further treatment of the subject, to please the learned. "This demonstration," he promises, "I will afterwards send to Councillor Polhem and, after he has passed judgment on it, you might send a copy to Wolff, in Halle, and Julius in Leipzig." (Stockholm, May 26, 1724).[130]

There is no evidence that Swedenborg ever wrote the proposed demonstration. The controversy seems nonetheless to have had the effect of making him more careful of his future expressions in print, as he exhibited phenomenal precision in his later writings.

to Chapter 12