The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents



 Chapter 17 - Man the Goal of Creation

In his Principia, Swedenborg deals only with the Infinite and the finite. The Infinite is identified with God and the finite with things of space and time. The existence of spirit, or of something intermediate between the Infinite and the finite, he does not discuss. His philosophy could thus neither classify him as a materialist - since that school denied the Infinite, nor as an idealist - since that school acknowledged no distinction between spirit and God.

After the Principia was finished and Swedenborg was in Leipzig, in 1734, seeing it through the press, the problem of the connection between the Infinite and the finite arose in his mind and he wrote a little treatise which grapples with it boldly and keenly. It is evident to him that the whole of creation is a means to an end, and that the very end or final goal of creation is man, a spiritual being who has a soul that cannot die. The treatise on The Infinite[196] endeavors to prove the immortality of man's soul. It seems to have been addressed to the unbelieving philosopher, and a certain note of sadness runs through the work, particularly when the author is considering the prevailing trend of the learned world towards atheism.[197] Swedenborg may have composed it in a single month, for he says "If all the details of the subject were to be set forth, we should rather be entering on the work of years than of a month . . . "

Valuable clues to the new development taking place in his mind are contained in The Infinite. It forms an important link between his occupation with the physical universe, the macrocosm, and his attention to man, the microcosm or universe in miniature. The use of the word "mechanism" in the work is an interesting example of ideas expanding in Swedenborg's mind. One can almost see a winter bud turning green and bursting into leaves, or twigs stretching out the lines of future limbs. Later, the term mechanism was relegated exclusively to material things, although here it embraced the orderly activity of anything that was definite or finite like soul or spirit.

This rather modest work also received notice in the learned press. (In the case of Swedenborg, a book of 270 octavo pages is small!) A review appeared in the December number of the "Acta Eruditorum," 1735, which Swedenborg probably first saw after his return to Stockholm from Westrogothia. The reviewer refers to The Infinite as "the fruits of Swedenborg's highly refined mind, which so greatly excels in its fitness for lofty subjects."[198]

In the brief account which follows we have noticed only such points in the book as may explain its nature as a link between two distinct periods of Swedenborg's literary life. It is lovingly dedicated to the author's kinsman, Bishop Erik Benzelius: "It was by your advice and wishes that my mind, ripening and eager for study, though nevertheless hesitant and ignorant . . . was directed to the present study."

He explains why he is employing the simple style of writing. He is trying, he says, to divest himself of metaphysical terminology, lest it obscure the mind and divert it from things to dwell on words.

His first proposition is that philosophy, if, it be truly rational, can never be contrary to religion, wherefore the philosopher's hands cannot be tied and withheld from sacred subjects by the dictum that they are revealed,. Error comes, not from reasoning about the Infinite, but from the manner in which it is done - from comparing it with things in the finite sphere.

Matters of faith affect the human mind so powerfully that once an individual is convinced of them by reason there is nothing whatever, not even the loss of human delights nor death itself, that can thereafter make him swerve from them, so greatly does the mind respect itself ... As we are treating of God, of the soul, of the salvation of man, and his happiness after death, it is worth while to put forth all powers and strain every nerve of reason.

As for the ratio between the Infinite and the finite, there is none. No matter how much one subdivides the finite, one can never even approach the Infinite; - it is unfathomable. Some philosophers have drawn the conclusion that nature and God are one and the same. By such reasoning one would at length become a worshipper of nature. There must be an Infinite because nothing finite can exist without a cause.

As for the quality of the first primitive entity, - the first created form - he refers the reader to his Principia. In the primitive, for instance, lay the ability to produce consequences. When we see effects we must admire their cause, just as in a mechanical instrument, like a clock of exquisite workmanship, we admire not the wheels but "the cause of the mechanism in the person of the inventor." So the greater worshippers of nature we are the greater worshippers of Deity we may become. We are led to an acknowledgment of God by two things, by contemplating nature and by contemplating the structure of the human body. Such wonderful effects cannot exist by accident for that would involve a cause apart from intelligence. So we are forced to admit a power by which all elemental things proceed from an orderly beginning and arrive at an orderly end. Infinite God is the builder of the universe.

Aside from the preceding argument there is a tacit consent in the human soul to the being and infinity of God. Much is self-evident, he says; for instance, harmony, "the feeling of our souls which dictates to us the existence and infinity of God" seems to be innate when the soul is not too destitute of cultivation and development and not too troubled by its own ideas. A philosopher who fails to avail himself of any power but his own reason, and who attributes divinity to nature, is little different from a vulgar idolater - in the latter, reason is under-developed, in the former, it is over-developed.

Some, however, fall into the error of cherishing a finite conception of God, likening His power to the power of an earthly potentate who has his favored friends, a being one may win over to one's own side by the "right" approach. They who reason thus have worldly things uppermost in their minds.

To the finite mind it may seem that the Infinite and nothing are the same thing. This is false. Nothing furnishes no cause: from nothing comes nothing.

We know that there is a relation between the Infinite and the finite, but it is neither natural nor mechanical, nor geometrical, nor physical. Nothing whatever is known of it. The connection between the Infinite and the finite is effected by the Only-begotten Son of God. The connection, therefore, is itself infinite. Reason avails us not a whit in exploring the nature of the Infinite. But we can see that man is the ultimate effect, the divine end in creation. All things conspire to make him the end.

We see that water, fire and earth contribute to form him and sustain him for he is nourished by them, he is made up of them . . . out of the air he takes hearing; out of the ether, sight and we might show that subtiler elements likewise ... endow him.

That the divine end may be accomplished, rationality is given to man. There must be something divine, something receptive of divinity, in man; otherwise the end cannot be attained. Man can and does acknowledge God, he can and does believe that God is infinite. Though he is ignorant of the nature of Deity, yet he can and does acknowledge its existence; he is sensible of love or delight resulting from a peculiar connection with the Infinite. Thus the true divinity in man - who is the ultimate effect in which the divine end dwells - is nothing else than an acknowledgment of the existence and infinity of God and a sense of delight in God's love.

The Supreme Being foresaw that the soul He had given to man would succumb to the will of the body and thereby the primary end must needs be lost. Foreseeing this, God gave him rationality as a means for overcoming the dominion of the body over the soul. The divine end would still have been frustrated, however, had not God provided that His Only-begotten Son should take upon Himself to fulfill the Divine End. He is the Mediator between the finite and the Infinite, for through Him somewhat of the divine may dwell in us, namely the faculty of knowing and believing that there is a God and that He is Infinite. But -

Is the soul finite or infinite?

Is the soul amenable to laws and are there any but mechanical laws in finite things?

Is the finite conceivable apart from extension?

Is there passivity in the soul as well as activity?

Is it justifiable to compare the soul with a machine?

Is the soul immortal?

If the soul be created, finite, and natural, there is no escape from the conclusion that it is also subject to mechanical and geometrical laws. This does not mean that it is not spiritual and that it will die with the body. Whatever is most perfectly finite dwells in a purer world and is, by God's grace, secure from destruction. It will never taste of death. The active principle is spiritual, not material.

The laws whereby the soul is governed are at present unknown, but our posterity may not find them unknowable.

We are like the rude and uninstructed inhabitants of some country who are ignorant of the earth's boundaries, and although they see that the land does not end with their own parish, yet they think it must surely cease at no great distance beyond. And when in course of time they travel onward and come to some lake, or to the shores of the ocean, they cry out that they have found the end of the earth. Their posterity, however, having learned the art of navigation, have found by experience that the end is not there, and at last they discover that the earth is round or oval, and that therefore they can circumnavigate the entire terraqueous globe. In short, the children are more enlightened than the parents, and know the very thing which the parents declared unknowable, and accordingly gave up trying to achieve, and so they laugh at the simplicity of their forebears ... Why despair of ultimately reaching the soul, so as to judge of its mechanical operation? . . . Why not do so at the present day, so as to forestall our posterity and prevent them from laughing at us as we now laugh at some of the old philosophers?

Whoever has in him the final cause can never die but is forever a partaker of the Infinite. The immortality of the soul is proclaimed by our very body. Love, with its delicious sense, is purer as the nature is purer and pervades the grosser parts of the body, aiming at perpetuity by the propagation of offspring.

My object at present is especially to demonstrate, to the best of my ability, the nature and properties of the soul, and then to show from these endowments that it can never die without all nature being annihilated. Such being my objective, I do not see how any one, unless indeed some singularly obtuse priestling, can disapprove of the undertaking.

The human body consists of membranes which receive all the motions of the elements. The membranes of the ear receive the undulations of the air, those of the eye collect the rays of light, and so forth. Why may there not also be subtler membranes to receive subtler undulations?

Membranes must be tense, for without tension no motion can be received. Whenever a membrane is touched, a sense is excited, for membranes are nothing but organs mediating between the soul and the body. The soul is the center of all vibrations. The soul is diffused throughout the entire body and as to substance, it is compounded of the higher finites described in the Principia, to which the reader is referred.[199] There is no reason to despair of arriving at a knowledge of the soul provided we assume that it consists of a motion and a power consummately mechanical or that its surface has a form entirely geometrical.

If it pleases God to accord me life and leisure, I intend to show in detail at what stage of the inquiry I myself have arrived ... The more knowledge we possess, the more there is to make us happy and the more to make us unhappy. Hence the Christian philosopher may be the happiest, or the unhappiest, of mortals.

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A current sets up a counter-current, and this is surely as true in the mental as in the physical world. So the prevalence of mysticism in his day may have incited Swedenborg to a mechanistic explanation of psychic phenomena; and in the same way, the tendency toward denial of God urged him on to an attempt to rationalize religion. In an unpublished study from this period he observes:[200]

Ignorance is the shortest path to denial. Men have doubts concerning God because they are ignorant of the soul and question its existence. If a thing is mechanical they think that therefore it will perish. The soul is indeed mechanical, but there is a mechanical which cannot perish; and if this were shown, I do not think so much doubt would arise . . . They say that spirits are not material or mechanical, and that therefore they ought to doubt their existence-at which I do not wonder. For spirits are created and consequently they are finite and not infinite . . . Being unable to have any conception of them, men come to deny them, a refuge and boundary of ignorance. Since they do not know that the soul can enjoy a most subtile sense - a sense of things deeply concealed - therefore, being ignorant, they deny . . . They will come to know that the soul can derive its origin only from the Infinite, in whom is the cause of every finite . . . If the intellect and memory were not mechanical, how is it that the memory can be excited mechanically, can be helped by medicine?

How is it that the soul can live after death? he asks. The answer is that it cannot be dissolved, because the human soul consists of finites of the first and second order, and these are not affected by destructive forces from any lower entities. The souls of brutes, on the other hand, being formed out of the magnetic or second element, are perishable. The soul, angels, immortality, life after death, can all be demonstrated geometrically.

Philosophers see that sensation consists in tremors, and they smile with favor upon those who assert this, hoping that it may be demonstrated. This is a sign that herein lies the truth. "Therefore, if the tremor be fittingly deduced, the world will at once smile assent." Swedenborg was clearly expanding the ideas he first enunciated in the little work on Tremulation, published as early as 1719, where he sought to demonstrate that all living essence consists in tremulations.

The literary world has made great progress in the past, he says:

so that now, from reasoning and experimenting, we seem at last on the point of arriving at causes themselves, and of seeing that all things are done mechanically . . . Why should we not reach forward and establish that which surely our posterity will establish -namely the truth that this body of ours is mechanical, the intellect, the reason, and the soul itself 1 In course of time the learned world will yet come to this position.[201]

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To this treatise Swedenborg appends a passage on "Faith in Christ," from which we select these lines:

"It is clear that no one can be saved except by faith in God. That no one can be saved except through Christ ... It has pleased Him to show Himself, that He might tell and declare that He came for the sake of souls and not for the sake of worldly empire; and that in Him we might see an image of the worship and life we must observe if we are to come to the reception. of faith and be rendered fit for it." [202]

Swedenborg left many unpublished studies written at this time which we must pass by. Important among them is a treatise on The Mechanism of Soul and Body, in which he says:

The actives of the first and second kind form little spaces, and around them there are surfaces of passives, thus producing, as it were, a most subtile membrane in which the actives lie enclosed; thus we have the soul, which is of this consistency in the whole and in every part. Such a membrane cannot but be most highly active and most highly elastic . . . If such an expanse be distributed throughout the whole body ... and enters every most subtile tissue, then it is in the whole, if it be in a part.

If the world of learning continues to grow as it has in the past, it will finally arrive at a knowledge of the mechanism of the animal body, "and then our ignorance of the subject will be evident. Let us then hasten in the same direction, lest, like children, we be laughed at." He proposes the line that his further research is to follow:

All things concerning the animal body and soul should be proved by a first or metaphysical philosophy, by the analysis of natural things, by geometry and mechanism, by figures and calculus, by experiments, by the anatomy of the human body, by effects, by the passions of the body and the mind, by the Sacred Scripture; in this manner this theory should be investigated . . . The reason why we are ignorant and doubt concerning God is that there are so many secrets and so many clouds in the way which cut off the sun...[203]

to Chapter 18