The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 15 - The Universe a Mechanism

In 1728, after his sister Hedwig had died, Swedenborg. moved to a house in the western quarter of the city on the corner of Stora Nygatan and Göran Helsinges Gränd, had a servant, and paid 600 dalers copper in rent. Here he stayed for five years until his three-volume work, Opera Philosophica et Mineralia, was completed. After that he removed to "Räntmästarehuset" at No. 63 Slussplan where he remained until he moved to his own house.

In contemplating Swedenborg's life at this time we become aware that his philosophical masterpiece was the product of his spare time, during active work in the Board of Mines. It occupied some ten years of his life, being the first output of that rationalistic period when logic played as great a role in his work as scientific inquiry had in the preceding period. Preparation for it had begun much earlier, for some time before 1729 he had completed a 560-page manuscript work known as The Lesser Principia,[160] his first approach to a philosophic system. In this work he outlines the same general plan of the formation of matter as in the later published work, but with different nomenclature.

From this point on our interest shifts from the external features of Swedenborg's life to his developing mind. It is as if we are watching him climb up a steep mountainside of thought where the path is covered with heavy clouds. Will he gain the sunlit summit or fall a victim to his ambition? While he was performing his official duties his mind was centered on this upward struggle for light. He felt as if he must gain the top of the mountain and see what lay there under the clouds! He continued his studies, piling up information, delving ever deeper into profundities of philosophy.

What kind of ambition was driving him on? Was it the ambition that dreams of dignities and power, that dreams of knowing all things so as to subjugate them under its will? Was it the ambition in which the dreamer sees himself as the focal point of the universe? Or was it the ambition that urges a man to uncover the secrets of nature and life for the service of mankind? More than comfort, more than honor, to one inspired with the latter impulse, is the welfare of his fellow man, and he sees himself as a small part of creation, not the whole of it. Knowledge to him is a means and not an end in itself. The first kind of ambition breeds disillusionment and disappointment, the latter leads to elevation and contentment.

So wide is the scope of Swedenborg's system in the Principia[161] - first volume of the three Philosophical and Mineralogical Works - explaining the origin of finite creation, that it would be presumptuous to attempt to describe it here! But though it is impossible to give a just account of this profound work in a few words, it is by no means impossible to outline some of its basic ideas, his "Principles of Natural Things," and this we shall endeavor to do, since the Principia is Swedenborg's great contribution to cosmology.

It is, however, important to regard Swedenborg's philosophical system as dynamic and not static. It is not a last word about the origin of the natural universe but an earnest endeavor to find the true approach to a solution of the problem. We summarize briefly the first chapter of The Principia, "On the Means which Conduce to true Philosophy," since that chapter indicates how he defined his methods and objectives:

"If the mind be well connected with the organs of the senses or, in other words, if man be truly rational, he is perpetually aspiring after wisdom . . . He who wishes to attain the end, must wish likewise to attain the means. Now the means which more especially conduce to a knowledge truly philosophical are three in number - experience, geometry[By "geometry" he meant everything that comes under the term measurement, or the laws of geometry], and the faculty of reasoning.

By philosophy is here understood the knowledge of the mechanism of our world or of whatever in the world is subject to the laws of geometry . . . To attempt to explain philosophically the hitherto secret operations of elemental nature, far removed as they are and almost hidden from our view, is an arduous labor . . .

In such an ocean I should not venture to spread my sail without having experience and geometry continually present to guide my hand and watch the helm. With these to assist and direct me I may hope for a prosperous voyage over the trackless deep. Let these therefore be my two stars to guide and enlighten me on my way . . . "

Experience, he says, is not confined to one man or to one age. The sciences have now advanced so far that an investigation into the secret and invisible operations of nature needs no longer be delayed. Too many facts, however, are misleading and one can become confused, like a person exploring a labyrinth who loses his way in the intricacies of the maze, unless he first gets some general idea of its configuration. If one possessed too great an accumulation of facts they would merely increase his difficulty in arriving at a true philosophy.

Swedenborg lived at the close of a period when it was still possible for a single individual to know practically all that was known of a given subject. With the accumulation of knowledge in our day this is no longer possible. Relatively little was then known about chemistry, physics and anatomy. There was no knowledge of the nature of oxygen, of the composition of water or of blood, no knowledge of spectrum analysis or of atomic tables. Instruments such as microscopes, thermometers, balances and air-pumps were so crude and inaccurate that they would be rejected as unfit for use even in elementary physics classes today. Variations of a thousandth of a degree of heat are now observable with suitable apparatus. The hundredth of a milligram is weighed, measurements not dreamed of in the eighteenth century. And yet the laws of nature that then had been defined by the great chemists, astronomers and mathematicians have remained unchallenged through the centuries that followed.

Man is distinguished from brutes by education alone, says Swedenborg, and education is acquired from the perception of objects by experience and the relation between experience, reason and judgment. Education orders and disposes the small membranes and organs for communicating the most subtle tremors and thus of opening the secret avenues to the soul. Man becomes instructed. "But after all, alas! What is our wisdom?" he exclaims, "Truly such, as is what is finite to what is infinite, and therefore, in respect to infinite wisdom - it is nothing!"

The best instructed are by no means always the wisest. Scientific knowledge is only the first step towards wisdom. It is the arrangement of the knowledge, the ability to connect it into chains of inferences, that constitutes wisdom. The true philosopher must know how to digest the things he knows, to reason from them. A painter is not a master of his art because he is in possession of colors and can draw lines with them, nor is the one who can manufacture musical instruments necessarily a musician.

The finite has its origin in the Infinite, without which it can neither begin nor continue to exist. But all is governed by law, geometrical law. The smallest as well as the largest of natural things acts in a mechanical manner and is governed by the laws of geometry or measurement. Here we come to the main theme, and it is merely a development of ideas laid down in Swedenborg's previous works which were discussed in a former chapter. The animal body is governed by these laws irrespective of size. The feet and lungs of elephants and whales are moved in the selfsame manner as those of animalculae so small that they cannot be seen by the eye.

There are things, however, that are exempt from the laws of mechanics. For instance, "the intelligent principle" in animals, namely their souls-as witness the artful tricks of the fox. Such things do indeed follow laws, but laws that are above the province of the mechanical. But, while intelligence itself is not mechanical, the manner in which it operates is.

The true philosopher is he who can, by the above mentioned means, arrive at real causes and a knowledge of those things of the mechanical world that are invisible. Man, in his original unperverted state, was a true philosopher, so that he was able to venerate the Deity, the Being who is all in all. "When the philosopher has arrived at the end of his studies-even supposing him to have acquired so complete a knowledge of all mundane things that nothing more remains for him to learn-there he must stop; for he can never know the nature of the Infinite Being, of His Supreme Intelligence . . . "

Man at this day is born into a perverted and imperfect state. His various vices have done violence to his original state of integrity, his finest fibres have become distorted. The cupidities that now govern his will have impaired his faculty of reasoning, and his impure emotions and desires have disarranged the organs that mediate between his body and his mind. Such an emotion as anger, for instance, destroys this fine connection. Intoxication paralyzes it and confuses and destroys the power of analysis. Indulgence in depraved pleasures and appetites have, as it were, tainted and tarnished every human being from the cradle so that his mental vision has become dim, as if a dense cloud interposed itself between the sun and the eye, overshadowing his intelligence by inherited and acquired disorders.

Some of the ideas which Swedenborg brought out in The Principia are basic for his later works. One of these concepts he inherited from he ancient Greek philosophers; namely, the principle that "Nature is alike in her greatest as in her smallest productions." [[Ut Natural . . . "similis in maximis producendis fuerit, prout in minimis."] This precious seed of thought grew and expanded in the mind of the earnest scholar for him to apply to all the universe as a theater displaying order and harmony. By the help of this principle he was enabled to make ingenious guesses at the construction of matter and later to offer anticipatory explanations of the interior architecture of the brain and nervous system. And even more, for the same idea provided Swedenborg with a basic concept for his later theological doctrine of "degrees."

Another basic concept in Swedenborg's cosmological system is the law of the active and the passive. There is always something that acts and something that is acted upon, was an axiom with him. Later it became a basis for his doctrines of "influx and reception."

Again, "Everyone from the light of reason may perceive that nature, conforming to principles of geometry, is ever pursuing a most simple course, a course proper to herself, and truly mechanical."[162]

Except the Infinite, nothing can exist without a cause. Swedenborg therefore supposes a simple, produced from the Infinite, out of which everything else was successively made. He calls this simple "the first natural point" and says that it is the means by which all else was formed and is, indeed, pure motion, for without motion nothing can exist. Of this simple only a single limit can be predicated, namely the boundary which looks to, or defines, the creation of the universe. The other side of it, as it were, looks toward the Infinite and is therefore unlimited.

The "first point" came about, not by chance but by an intelligent agency or will. As it is the medium between the finite and the Infinite something of infinity enters into it. It resembles two-faced Janus, the mythical door-keeper of the gods, who looked both ways at once. All finite things originate from this first cause. The point cannot be viewed geometrically because it is pure and total motion and existed prior to the world of mechanical things. But it can be viewed rationally, and indeed only thus. However, it is by no means, on that account, nothing. Essentially it is not motion but "a conatus" or endeavor to motion, to spiral motion, the most perfect of all motions. By this endeavor to spiral motion it tends to form perpetual surfaces. There is no way of proving this, Swedenborg adds, but it is in harmony with the flow and tendency of nature. Motion is the only medium by which anything can be produced. Swedenborg was the first to distinguish between actual and potential motion, giving them separate names. "Truth is my single end and aim," he says, in closing this chapter.

The points or simples, by flowing into a complex spiral motion, produce the "first finite" or first substantial entity, the least or smallest thing of nature, and out of this, in turn, is produced everything else in the world. It is geometrical and limited. Its parts-unthinkably minute-are nevertheless disposed in a spiral figure and thus the first finite has an equator, poles, meridians and so forth, which gives it both axillary and progressive motion. When the finite has swung into its progressive motion it is called an active, but when it is not in this . motion it is a passive. (Swedenborg expresses apprehension lest, at the very outset, his readers should be discouraged by the use of new words such as "actives," "passives," "finites," etc.) (Appendix D).

A second finite arises from the first finite by a motion similar to the preceding. From these two is formed the first of all composite things-an elemental particle which goes to -make up a universal element, the first atmosphere of the universe. In the little vortex-like units that compose this first element, the second finites occupy the surface while the first finites, active, occupy the center.

This first element is the origin of all subsequent elements and is therefore the most universal of all auras, filling all space and connecting star to star. When the units of this first atmosphere are compressed, so that their central "actives" escape, the second finites fill in that center. From this arises a new entity-the third finite, out of which, by further composition, is derived the second atmosphere which is the magnetic element of the world.

The particles of the second or magnetic element, like those of the first, may be compressed or expanded. Around large active solar spaces they change, by compression, into new entities which Swedenborg calls the fourth finites. The second atmosphere constitutes the solar vortex and is the principal cause of magnetic phenomena. We now have a sun, the parent of all the planets in its system.

Before going further in his speculations on the constitution of the universe Swedenborg, in the Second Part of his Principia, undertakes thorough-going discussion of the magnet and its forces. According to him, the second or magnetic element consists of effluvia moving in a vortical gyre around a central axis, the sun. These effluvia produce the lines of force which activate the magnet by arranging its particles into an orderly pole-to-pole arrangement. The magnetization of iron is such an alignment of the particles of iron that the magnetic aura or atmosphere can flow through them, as is proved by a wealth of experiments.

Nature is always the same, in greatest things as in least, in the macrocosm as in the microcosm. The magnet is a picture of the universe! Each solar mass or vortex is a large magnet and, even more-the suns themselves are similarly arranged into a vast order whose axis is the galaxy or Milky Way! But we must not suppose from this that Swedenborg thought there could be no diversity in the vast array of worlds. The laws of geometry are indeed the same everywhere but the laws of mechanics may operate differently in different solar systems. "In other worlds the air and ether, if there be anything similar to them, do not vibrate in the same way."' The organs of sight and hearing would consequently be affected differently in different worlds. Archimedes, who boasted about theoretically being able to move the world out of its place by his mechanism, might have been less confident when he found his skill disappear in those worlds where mechanical factors are different. Swedenborg says:

From these observations we may conclude how great is the extent of our ignorance. Everyone measures his wisdom by his understanding of those things with which he is acquainted. The limit of his own information he considers to be the limit of all that is attainable; for he is ignorant of all else. The bounds of his knowledge are the bounds of his wisdom . . . and therefore he imagines that he is a very wise man. To the things of which he is ignorant he can place no limits . . . It is therefore a mark of the highest wisdom to know . . . that our knowledge extends to a very few things.[163]

Resuming the subject of the finites, Swedenborg supposes a fourth finite arising from the particles of the second element or atmosphere, in the same way as the third arose from the first element, namely by compression. The whole solar and planetary chaos consisted originally of this fourth finite. We now have nebulous matter. This encloses the sun and prevents it from acting outwardly, thus setting a limit to the solar vortex, which may now properly be called space. But as yet there was no time - no hours, no days, no years; no east, no west, no worlds. Yet in that active solar space there was everything that could produce and give birth to worlds. The ancient philosophers favored this conjecture of a chaos out of which all things originated. Ovid declaims:

Ere Earth and Ocean and all-covering Heaven
Grew into separate form, great Nature's face
Through all existence but one aspect wore:
Chaos 't was called - a rude unfeatured mass -
A mere vast weight, inert - discordant seeds
Of ill-matched things in one huge heap compressed ... [164]

The Mosaic story of creation also is cited as agreeable to some form of original chaos: "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the abyss . . . and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Genesis, I).

Swedenborg describes the :effect of motion upon the nebulous mass surrounding the sun which now has an extremely dense crust or cloud revolving around the solar axis. By centrifugal force the matter in this crust removed itself farther and farther outward from the active center, occupied a' larger space and became attenuated until finally it collapsed upon itself so that it enveloped the sun like a belt or broad circle. This belt eventually broke and formed into larger and smaller globes, corresponding to the number of the planets in our solar system. The central core of each globe consisted of fourth finites - the original protean substance.

Gradually extending their orbits, these planetary masses slowly swing themselves far out from the sun, until each one finds an orbit that balances its weight with the volume of the vortex. Some brought with them little orbs or satellites, and our earth brought its moon. These satellites floated in the particular vortex or atmosphere which invested each of the planets and which Swedenborg calls the ether, or third element. The bubbles of the ether are bigger and relatively more passive than the units of preceding auras, for their envelopes consist of fourth finites, their active centers of units of the first element. The ether is the atmosphere which reflects light and gives rise to electric phenomena. Around each earth or planet there now forms still another atmosphere - the air - medium for hearing as the ether is for sight. The particles of the air resemble those of the ether but are coarser and denser in structure. Their surfaces consist of fifth finites, their centers of units of the magnetic aura. Fire originates from the activity of the fourth and fifth finites. The first inert particle - the water particle - is purely material, not atmospheric.

"The thread of our principles extends from the simple to the ultimate without a single broken link, and we may therefore see how, from one and the same force and cause, all things derive their origin." In adjusting his Principia system to his later doctrine, he reduced his four auras into three.

The Principia finites differed little in structure but mainly in size. The dimensional ratio between the first finite and the second was tentatively assumed as 1:100, but our philosopher admitted that it might be 1:1000.[165]

Various attempts have been made to correlate Swedenborg's "finites" with the discoveries of modern physical science, although no completely satisfactory results have been arrived at. Some students identify the fifth finite with oxygen, others compare the fourth finite with hydrogen. One compares the fifth finite of Swedenborg with the electron of modern physics. As to the central concept that the atoms are actually knots of energy or- fields of activity, Swedenborg and modern science agree. When noting the new theory of the structure of the atom, which postulates a nucleus of proton and electron and a surrounding satellite array of revolving electrons, students are reminded of Swedenborg's elementary particle, which he described as consisting of an outer layer of passive finites surrounding an interior of actives. We have seen that Swedenborg, like all the earliest cosmologists, Kepler, Descartes, Leibnitz, explained the origin and motion of the heavenly bodies by means of hypothetical vortices or whirlpools. Recent experiments have tended to disprove an 'ether drift and thus cast doubt upon the existence of a stationary ether such as science had assumed. Yet they do not disprove Swedenborg's ether which, like the air, travels with the earth.[166]

The characteristic of Swedenborg's system is that it makes every least part of the universe to be teemingly active. Not only the vegetable kingdom emanates effluvia from its parts, but also the mineral. From experiments with the magnet and its lines of force and also from such phenomena as phosphorescence, Swedenborg concluded that there was an activity in the particles of matter, an activity that could affect the ether or third atmosphere which he postulated as the medium for the transmission of light to the eye. It is plain that he could not have come upon his remarkable theory of the mechanics of matter had he not first studied crystallography, magnetism and phosphorescence.[167]

Swedenborg's confidence that some future age would be able to recognize the truth of his concept of matter was definitely justified in 1899, when the discovery of radioactive matter completely disproved the postulate that the atom of matter was indivisible. A key lying in a drawer of the Curie laboratory, under a certain uranium compound called pitchblende, was found to have photographed itself in the dark upon the sensitive paper lying underneath it - and, after years of diligent research, radium was discovered: thus the first actual proof that the least units of matter are, knots of energy came into modern science with the discovery of radium emanations. Before that, any such concept was regarded as fantastic.[168] But when, from the very least particle of matter there was found issuing a constant stream of actual substantial entities, at a high velocity, a stream powerful enough to penetrate plates of metal; and when it was furthermore found that this stream of emanations can even be deflected and separated into different kinds of rays by a magnetic flux, the old atomic theory of matter was doomed. The very stones were crying aloud l It was no longer speculation.

"The beliefs of all mankind about the material surroundings in which it dwells are now not only imperfect but fundamentally wrong," said one scientist. "The molecules of which all substances are compounded are not something rigid," said another. Some of the eminent modern scientists began to look back into the past and to turn over the neglected pages of Swedenborg's Principia, and they found with utter amazement that their latest results fitted remarkably well into his theory!, His Principia system did not answer all the questions. He did not succeed in every detail. Swedenborg was an imperfect mathematician, but he succeeded in arriving at a dynamic concept of matter by showing that the energy of which matter is built up could come from within. A statement in one of his theological works shows how his earlier philosophy prepared him to grasp the ideas he later claimed as revelation. He says in the True Christian Religion:

If there were not an analogy of free will in every metal and stone, there could be no metal or stone, or even a grain of sand ... for all these freely absorb the ether, breathe out their native essences, cast off what is obsolete, and redintegrate themselves anew with fresh substances, whence it is that each has its own sphere round about it.[169]

Svante Arrhenius points to the fact that some of the ideas of Buffon, Kant, Laplace, Wright and Lambert bear a remarkable resemblance to ideas that Swedenborg had already expressed, such as: that the planets have originated from the solar mass; that the suns are arranged along the axis of the Milky Way; and that there are still greater sidereal systems into which the galaxies are arranged.[170]

The fact that many scientists after Swedenborg consciously or unconsciously adopted some of his ideas has led a recent writer to insist that "It is clearly the duty of historical justice, when recounting the History of attempts by the human spirit to obtain a view of the origination of the world based upon philosophical foundations, not to forsake the man who, before Kant and Laplace, had deduced their results - Emanuel Swedenborg."[171]

The author of the Principia always approached these profound and mysterious subjects with deep humility:

Few are the objects comprehended within the range of our bodily vision; the greater number are to be comprehended only by the mind. The starry` heaven, stupendous as it is, forms perhaps but a single sphere of which our solar vortex constitutes only a part, inasmuch as this' universe is finited only in the infinite. Possibly there may be innumerable other spheres and innumerable other heavens similar to those we behold; so many indeed and so mighty that our own may be in respect to it only as a point. For all the heavens, however multitudinous, however vast, yet being but finite and consequently having their bounds, do not even amount to a point in comparison with the infinite. Consequently, if all the spheres, if all the heavenly hosts, are not even a point in respect to the infinite; if the whole -visible sidereal expanse, which to our eyes appears so immense, be only as a point in relation to' the finite universe; if our solar vortex form only a part of the sidereal' expanse and our own world only a small part of the solar vortex; truly we may ask, What is man? Can he be such a one as he feigns himself to be? Vainglorious mortal, why so inflated with self-importance? Why deem all the rest of creation beneath thee? Diminutive worm! What makes thee so big, so puffed out with pride, when thou beholdest a creation so multitudinous, so stupendous around thee? Look downward upon thyself, thou puny manikin! Behold and see how small a speck thou art in the system of heaven and earth; and in thy contemplations remember this, that if thou wouldst be great thy greatness must consist in this - in learning to adore Him who is Himself the Greatest and the Infinite.[172]

to Chapter 16