The Swedenborg epic

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Chapter 18 - Journey to Holland, France and Italy

Two o'clock of a summer afternoon in 1736 found Assessor Swedenborg's carriage rumbling southward from Stockholm. With him were an Englishman and two Swedish merchants, Bohman and Hultman, who had charge of his financial affairs. It was the tenth of July, and once more he was setting out on a foreign journey - his fourth. Again he parted company with his fellow travelers at Fittja Inn and proceeded, as on a former occasion, to Linköping to spend a day or two with Anna and Erik Benzelius.

The family did not relish seeing him depart again for the continent on a hazardous and exacting journey. His sister Catharine's husband, Jonas Unge, wrote:

As much as I was pleased with your former letter, in which you wrote me that your journey abroad was given up, so much the more disappointed was I at your last letter, in which you say the French journey is again determined upon. (Linköping, April 24, 1736).[204]

This time Swedenborg was granted leave of absence from his post for an indefinite three or four years. To obtain so protracted a leave he had made an arrangement with his colleagues, giving them half of his salary to be distributed, together with his duties, among three of his fellow workers on the Board of Mines. Secretary Nils Porath was to receive 300 dalers while the remaining 300 were to be divided equally between Advocate Hans Bierchenius and Baron Cederström.

Why did Swedenborg, after the lapse of only one year in his native land, wish to undertake the hardships of another Continental journey, so soon after the publication of his opus magnum, the Principia? It was, he says, to publish a promised continuation of the previous work, on which he had been laboring ever since his return. This was now so far completed that he had only to collect some necessary information from foreign libraries and to consult the learned abroad. This work was wanted by many and as it required deep concentration of thought and a mind unencumbered with cares, he found it impossible to accomplish while at the same time attending to his official duties.[205]

Both in the Principia and the work on The Infinite, Swedenborg does indeed promise a more extensive treatment. On page 107 of the latter work he says, comparing the soul to a machine: "On this subject I shall speak in detail in the work to which this essay is preliminary" and on the next page: "In our intended work we shall ... show that the soul is perfectly, and in a high sense, purely mechanical, and that it is immortal and cannot perish without the universe being annihilated."

It is easy to understand that the atmosphere of a government bureau would not facilitate the profound speculations now engaging our philosopher's mind in a totally different field-that of anatomy and psychology. In his versatility, Swedenborg has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci, who divided his attention between music and painting and again mechanics, invention, and armaments. The lines of their lives do often seem to run parallel, for both were speculative students of nature and both were unable to confine their genius within the limits of one profession. Both were forerunners of modern discoveries and far ahead of their times.

Swedenborg was now one of his country's prominent men. Before leaving Sweden he had made a trip to Carlsberg Castle to take formal leave of Their Majesties, who received him very graciously and accepted his thanks for granting him leave of absence.

On the seventeenth of July he crossed over to Denmark and spent several days in Copenhagen, visiting celebrated men, studying in the libraries, and making excerpts from the works of Christian Wolff. A new dock which was being built there naturally interested him as he had himself, in earlier days, supervised the building of the dry dock at Carlscrona.

From Copenhagen he went to Amsterdam where "the whole town breathed of nothing but gain." He made some favorable comments, however, on the republican form of the Dutch government.

I here considered why it was that it has pleased our Lord to bless such an uncouth and avaricious people with such a splendid country; why He has preserved them for such a long time from all misfortunes; has caused them to surpass all other nations in commerce and enterprise and made their country a place whither most of the riches not only of Europe but also of other places, flow.

The main cause seems to me to have been that it is a republic, wherein the Lord delights more than in monarchical countries. The result is that no one deems himself obliged and in duty bound to accord honor and veneration to any human being but considers the lowly as well as the high to be of the same worth and consequence as a king and an emperor, as is also shown by the native bent and disposition of everyone in Holland.

The only one for whom they entertain a feeling of veneration is the Lord, putting no trust in flesh; and when the Highest is revered most, and no human being in His place, it is most pleasing to the Lord. Besides, each enjoys his own free-will, and from this flows his worship of God; for each is, as it were, his own king and rules under the government of the Highest. From this again it follows that they do not, out of fear, timidity, and excess of caution, lose their courage and their independent rational thought; but in full freedom, and without being suppressed, are able to fix their souls upon and elevate them to the honor of the Highest, who is unwilling to share His worship with any other . : . Those minds that are held down by a sovereign power are reared in flattery and falsity; they learn how to speak and act differently from what they think; and when this condition has become inrooted by habit it engenders a sort of second nature, so that even in the worship of God such persons speak differently from what they think and extend their flattering ways to the Lord Himself, which must be highly displeasing to Him. This seems to me the reason why the Dutch above other nations enjoy a perfect blessing.[207]

* * * * *

In Amsterdam, about the eighteenth of August, 1736, Swedenborg commenced his work on The Economy of the Animal Kingdom. Its initiation was accompanied by his first supernatural experience of which there is any record. He was staying at an inn called The Golden Lion, and had entered into a state of profound meditation, when he experienced a swoon that lasted for some time. Upon later reflection he noted that this swoon had served the purpose of clearing his brain and ordering his thoughts so as to give him greater power of penetration.[208] Very evident, in the remarkable book he was now engaged on, are the results of this profound penetration into hidden verities. Its conclusions are based on deep study and rational deduction, but also on comforting inner assurances that his conclusions were correct. "These things are true because I have the sign," [Haec vera sunt quia signum habeo] he wrote at the end of a manuscript which summed up his general theory of orderly creation.[209] What "the sign" was, is disclosed in the first volume of The Economy where Swedenborg indicates that in the writing of it he was encouraged in his search for truth by "a certain cheering light and joyful flash" bathing the mind - "a certain mysterious radiation - I know not whence it springs - that darts through some sacred temple of the brain."[210]

He describes this sign again later: "While I was writing a certain little work hardly a day passed by, for several months, in which a flame was not seen by me as vividly as the flame of a household hearth." It was, he says, a sign of divine approval. This is the first statement of the kind to be found in his writings.

In another place Swedenborg also speaks of experiencing, while writing The Economy, a peculiar form of breathing, the tacit, hardly sensible respiration to which he had become accustomed in early childhood.[211]

In this year also Swedenborg first began to record his dreams.

* * * * *

In August he left Amsterdam and proceeded by canal boat through Belgium to Rotterdam on his way to Paris,--a pleasant journey. The people were more civil, their politeness contrasting sharply with the heavy boorishness of the Dutch.

Two Franciscan monks stood for hours on the deck praying devoutly, probably for their fellow passengers.

Such prayers must certainly be agreeable to God, so far as they proceed from an honest and pure heart and are offered with genuine devotion and not in the spirit of the Pharisees; for prayer avails much . . . [212]

His good opinion of monks underwent a change when he came to France, where the people lived in misery.

Everywhere the convents, churches and monks are very wealthy and possess most of the land. The monks are bloated and prosperous; a whole proud army might be formed of them without their being missed; most of them lead a lazy life . . . they give nothing to the poor except words and blessings and, on the other hand, insist on having everything from the poor for nothing. Of what possible use are those Franciscan monks? Some of them are slim, lean, supple . . . and quick at repartee . . . I had a discussion with an abbé concerning the adoration of saints . . . He denied completely that this was adoration.

He noted that there were 14,777 convents in France and between 3 and 400,000 members of religious orders possessing 9,000 palaces and mansions. "The ecclesiastical order possesses one fifth of all property in the state, and the country will be ruined if this goes on much longer." He made a thorough study of French history for his notes on the subject are extensive. He saw the lamentable condition of the people and the signs of brewing revolution.

On September 3, 1736, he arrived in Paris and took lodgings in the Hotel d'Hambourg, and during the first weeks he spent much time sightseeing. He visited the gardens of the Luxembourg, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Palais Royal and Sainte Chapelle. He called on distinguished men and attended theatres and operas.

These things, however, were diversions. His mind was profoundly occupied with his projected work. On pleasant promenades he "speculated on the forms of the particles in the atmosphere," he wrote out the first draft of the Introduction to his new book, embodying the argument that the soul of wisdom is the acknowledgment of a Supreme Being.

On the second of October he moved to new lodgings in the Rue de l'Observatoire, an old street lying within a stone's throw of the School of Surgery and Dissection which had recently been established under the royal patronage of King Louis XIV with Doctor Petit as its head. Swedenborg says nothing in his notebooks about studying anatomy in Paris, but the indications that he did so are convincing, taken together with subsequent statements throughout his anatomical works. For about a year and a half the notes in his Journal of Travels are very scanty, and presumably during this time he was busily engaged on his great anatomical work The Economy of the Animal Kingdom. The manuscript was often rewritten and the plan of the work changed from time to time as the anatomical data piled up.

On March 12, 1738, Swedenborg left Paris at three o'clock in the morning and commenced his journey into Italy, where he was to spend another year and a half. He passed through Burgundy with its beautiful castles and vineyards and set out for Turin and the hazardous crossing of the Alps. He finally passed Mont Cenis, the last and highest peak dividing France from Italy, and spent the night at the Grande Croix from where the view opens into Savoy. It had been a fatiguing journey. On March 21 the lives of the travelers were endangered by the snow that fell the night before. Their mules fairly had to swim in it and the party was forced to dismount. It was fortunate that they were eighteen persons and that they had an attendance of from fifty to sixty porters.

He witnessed the imposing processions during the Easter celebrations in Turin. Six monks "flogged themselves so that the blood streamed from their bodies; others bore a cross of considerable weight; others carried their arms stretched out; still others bore the insignia of the crucifixion and a machine furnished with a large number of candles on which Christ was represented life-size together with Mary."

On April 7 he journeyed to Milan. On this trip he was abandoned by his vetturino and obliged to travel alone with another guide who was untrustworthy. "Often, in arranging his gear, he drew his stiletto," says Swedenborg. "I was on my guard, and led him to think I had not a stiver about me."

Two days later in Milan, he viewed the majestic cathedral. He mentions the statue of St. Bartholomew carrying his skin over his arm, but the bared muscles did not impress this recent student of anatomy as being very well portrayed. He conversed with some young nuns in a convent and bought their flowers. From Milan he crossed northern Italy to Verona where he attended the opera. The singing and dancing, he notes, so surpassed the French opera that the latter seemed mere child's play in comparison. Magnificent churches. Ancient amphitheaters. Wending his way, easterly still, he came, on the evening of April 19, to Venice. He visited the Church of San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute, attended the festival of the Ascension, witnessed the symbolic marriage of Venice to the Sea, and the masques that continued for a fortnight: He attended the opera and took lodgings near the Rialto bridge, in company with one Firencrantz.

On August 9 Swedenborg notes that he has finished his work and is leaving for Padua. What work does he mean? From various indications in the manuscript it has been concluded that this is a reference to the first of his physiological writings, a study on the brain.[213]

After that he spent some time in Florence, delighting in its elegant palaces, paintings, and sculptures.

In the Uffizi Gallery are the most magnificent objects in Europe, rarities old and new, precious stones, mosaics and so forth which it is impossible to describe. The principal statue of Venus is there . . . In the chapel where the Dukes of Medici are buried may be seen the most splendid works of art ... In the Palazzo Pitti are the most beautiful paintings . . . The church of San Giovanni near the Cathedral was formerly a temple of Mars . . . The bronze work on its doors is most precious. According to Michelangelo its like does not exist. Some say that they were sent down from Paradise.[213a]

He left Florence and on September 25 arrived in the evening in Rome, by the Via Flaminia, through the Porta del Popolo, and so to the Piazza di Spagna. "I took lodgings first in the Hotel of the Three Kings, but afterwards moved to a house immediately below the residence Queen Christina formerly occupied . . . "

To mention all the notable places Swedenborg visited would be to repeat the Baedeker. There was evidently little that he missed. He saw the Villa Borghese, with its fountains and the wonderful collection of statues, noting especially, among the modern ones, Bernini's Daphne. The Vatican. The Pantheon. St. Peter's. The Colosseum. Via Appia. The Capitoline Museum. Palazzo Farnese with its wonderful Bull. "In the immediate neighborhood of St. John's in the Lateran is the Scala Santa, where persons go up the steps on their knees, and crawl up to the chapel or holy of holies."

In the Vatican he admired the paintings of Raphael in the Villa Ludovici, its magnificent garden and endless number of, statues and urns. "What I liked most," he says, "was a satyr, and one of the avenues . . . I was in the Vatican Library and saw there splendid paintings, beautiful vases, large halls . . . I saw the manuscripts of Virgil and Terence, and some ancient masks; likewise the splendid New Testament" (the Vatican Codex dating from the fifth century). Swedenborg does not say whether he presented a copy of his Opera Philosophica et Mineralia to the Vatican Library, but it was seen by a traveler later who found it listed in the Index Expurgatorius, presumably because of its liberal discussion of sacred subjects.[214]

On February 13, 1739, Swedenborg left Rome to return to Paris by way of Genoa. Probably he embarked there for Marseilles and returned to Paris through southern France, but here his Journal breaks off abruptly. The pages on which the continuation was written were removed by Swedenborg's heirs and have never been recovered. Possibly they contained a record of certain dreams of an intimate nature experienced by the student of anatomy.[215]

Swedenborg was back in Paris early in May, as appears from a letter of Lars Benzelstjerna dated June 26:

I, no less than all your relations, rejoice most heartily that you are in good health and that you arrived safely in Paris, of which your welcome letter of May 14 assures us.[216]

From Paris, Swedenborg proceeded to Amsterdam, where he completed the first volume of The Economy of the Animal Kingdom. A deep satisfaction filled his mind as he penned the following words on the corner of his manuscript:

I finished writing my work in Amsterdam, on the twenty-seventh of December, 1739, at the stroke of twelve o'clock.[217]

The first volume was now ready for the press, and some nine months of printing and proofreading followed. Early in September, 1740, he visited his friend Ambassador Preis at The Hague, and on the tenth he sent him a copy of his latest work.[218]

In Denmark on his way home, on October 24 he presented an autographed copy of the first volume of The Economy to Dr. Gram, the librarian of the Royal Library in Copenhagen. By November 3 he was back again in Stockholm, ready to resume his official duties.

to Chapter 19