The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 19 - The Search for the Soul

The first volume of The Economy of the Animal Kingdom[219] treats mainly of the blood and the heart, the second volume treats of the brain and the human soul. In opening his anatomical discussions with a study of these topics Swedenborg states from the very outset that he is in search of the soul, which he conceived of as "the inmost life of the blood," having its seat in the brain.

It is of course utterly impossible to describe this amazing work in a few words. Swedenborg traveled far beyond the usual fields of the sciences, far from the safe path of experience and observation, into the realms of intuitive thought. He left contemporary writers behind and projected his mind to the threshold of modern times. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he exerted no apparent influence upon the development of the biological sciences. Now, however, when his large tomes are being taken from library shelves and dusted off, it becomes apparent that a speculative theorist is sometimes able to penetrate as deeply into the exact sciences as the most devoted experimentalist.[220] The eminent Swedish brain specialist, Professor Gustaf Retzius, described Swedenborg as not only a learned anatomist, but also an unprejudiced, acute and deep anatomical thinker. Professor Max Neuburger of Vienna expressed his amazement at the brilliant anticipations of present-day science which this modern Aristotle has packed into every chapter of his work, and prophesied still more wonderful disclosures when Swedenborg's theories concerning the chemical activities of certain organs of the brain are studied, which have so far appeared unintelligible. Professor Martin Ramström of Upsala endeavored to explain how Swedenborg arrived at those ingenious conclusions which have been confirmed in modern times by highly technical methods.[221]

Swedenborg knew how to screen the material under his hand and how to combine pathological facts with anatomical observations. But it was only his thorough knowledge of inanimate nature and his profound reflections on the mechanism of the universe that enabled him to form his theories. An example is the following passage on the nature of the blood:

The animal kingdom, the economy of which I am about to consider anatomically, physically and philosophically, regards the blood as its common fountain and general principle ... The blood is as it were the complex of all things that exist in the world and the storehouse and seminary of all that exists in the body. It contains salts of every kind, both fixed and volatile, and oils, spirits, and aqueous elements: in short, whatever is created and produced by the three kingdoms of the world, the animal, the vegetable and the mineral. Moreover, it imbibes the treasures that the atmosphere carries in its bosom, and to this end exposes itself to the air through the medium of the lungs.[222]

He reasoned that since the blood is an epitome of the riches of the whole world and all its kingdoms, all things must have been created for the purpose of ministering to the composition and continued renewal of the blood. For if all things exist for the sake of man, then all things exist for the sake of the blood. If the texture of any muscle or gland - of which almost all the viscera are composed - be divided into its minutest parts, it will be found to consist wholly of vessels containing blood and of fibers containing spirit, or purer blood.

The study of the blood, being so profound a subject, requires a knowledge of the whole of anatomy, medicine, chemistry and physics. Therefore in this first part, where he investigates the blood, the blood-vessels and the heart, Swedenborg cannot venture to frame other than very general principles and deductions, he says, which may at first appear like obscure guesswork. But, "Whether a statement be true or not is easily ascertained. If it be true, all experience spontaneously evidences and favors it, as do likewise all the rules of true philosophy."

But individual experience can never be sufficiently ample to guide us to a knowledge of the causes of things. We must seek assistance from general experience, such as anatomy, medicine, chemistry and physics, for one science meets and enlarges the other, and each successive discovery throws new light upon the preceding. He adds:

Some seem born for experimental observation, being endowed with a sharper insight than others, as if they possessed naturally a finer acumen - such are Eustachius, Ruysch, and Leeuwenhoek, Lancisi, etc. Others, again, enjoy a natural faculty for contemplating facts already discovered and eliciting their causes. Both these are peculiar gifts, seldom united in the same person. I found, when intently occupied in exploring the secrets of the human body, that as soon as I discovered anything that had not been observed before, I began-seduced probably by self-love-to grow blind to the most acute lucubrations and researches of others . . . I therefore laid aside my scalpel and, restraining my desire for making observations, determined rather to rely on the researches of others than to trust to my own.

He speaks of those who are endowed with peculiar strength of intuitive perception by virtue of which they are able to separate the obscure from the clear and to classify things into series: "Those who are born with this faculty or talent . . . the more profoundly they penetrate into the depths of a science, the less do they trust to their imagination." They avoid as a hydra any premature attachment to unsubstantiated opinions. "When, after a long course of reasoning, they discover the truth, straightway a certain cheering light and joyful confirming brightness plays around the sphere of their mind; a kind of mysterious radiation . . . The mind that has known this delight, despises, in comparison, all merely corporeal pleasures."

On the other hand, those who are infatuated by learning invent senseless hypotheses and then invite the public to visit their castles in the air. They claim that wisdom is an attribute of memory and regard any inquiry into causes as of no account. But one ought to distrust the pleasures of the body and the cares and anxieties of the world, because they bend the mind to low and outward things. He offers the following practical advice to an author who wishes his studies to produce something of genuine value:

Let him be advised, when he has committed to paper what he considers to be of particular merit and is fond of perusing it, to lay it aside for a while and after the lapse of months return to it as to something he has forgotten and as the production not of himself but of some other writer ... Should his writings then raise a blush upon his countenance . . . let him be assured that he has made some little progress in wisdom.

All this by way of introduction. In every subject he takes up in this work Swedenborg follows a definite method. First he puts down the experiences gleaned from the best anatomists. Next he draws his own inferences from his study of these experiences, and lastly he confirms his conclusions from the experiences "to let facts speak for themselves."

Without going into the details of his theory of the blood and "animal spirits," we may note, in general, Swedenborg's teaching that the very life and essence of the heavy, red blood resides in "the spirituous fluid," which he considered to be its prime constituent. This most subtile fluid - the vehicle of the human soul itself - is generated from the first substance of the world, the universal aura, in the inmost recesses of each cortical gland of the brain. Like a vivifying current, it flashes out of these laboratories through "the simplest fibres" which weave not only the cortical glands themselves, but also all the organs of the body.

Besides this there exists a pellucid middle blood or "purer blood" which is formed in the cortical glands from the spirituous fluid combined with substances derived from the ether. This purer blood pours out through the medullary fibres to the terminations of the nerves. Some of it also seeps out into the ventricles of the brain, where it is distributed to the subarachnoid spaces and the spinal canal, and flows within the sheaths of the nerves. From the third ventricle it is absorbed by the pituitary gland which sends it out by various ways into the venous blood and thus to the heart.

Lastly there is the red blood, a compound globule, in which the "purer blood" particles are held together by saline matters and provided with all the chemicals that the animal body needs for its sustenance.

The red blood is nourished from the air by taking in, through the lungs, what Swedenborg calls "atmospheric salts" and other substances "borne in the bosom of the air." (And this fifty years before the discovery of oxygen! ) It also receives nourishment of a grosser kind from the food we eat. This is carried to the bloodstream partly by the intestinal veins and partly through the thoracic duct. In the left side of the heart it is then united with the finer essences that have descended by the jugular veins, from their laboratories in the brain. All these elements are still further churned together in that "great conical mill," the heart, to create the actual blood for the body.

Each one of the three kinds of blood-the red blood, the purer blood and the spirituous fluid-has, he says, its own proper vessels for circulation in the body, these vessels also being in three degrees of fineness. The red blood is conveyed in the arteries and veins; the purer blood is conveyed in the medullary fibers and membranes; the spirituous fluid in "simple fibers" or membranes of the utmost degree of purity. Everything is thus subordinated and co-ordinated in perfect order.

None of the teachings of Swedenborg can be comprehended unless one understands his "doctrine of series and degrees." Degrees are distinct progressions from "ends," through causes, to effects. The fluids of the body are of various degrees. The finest blood, or spirituous fluid, comprises in itself all the ends, or intentions, of the entire body. The middle blood is the plane of efficient causes, and the red blood is the plane of effects or terminations.[223] There are also "continuous degrees" or progressions such as from cold to heat, from darkness to light, by a gradual or continuous increase.

A "series" comprises things subordinate and co-ordinate. There are series of atmospheres-the air, the ether and the auras; series of the vital fluids-the three bloods; series of fibers-a muscle being a bundle of fibers, which again are bundles of fibrils.

Swedenborg studied the human body not as a dead thing but as "the soul's domain." He pictured the brain as a moving, palpitating organ, swelling and subsiding within the braincase and thus forcing the living fluids of the fibers and the ventricles down into all the nerves and cranial spaces.

He persistently taught that after birth the brain moved, not from the heart's pulse but, as it were, of its own decision and in co-ordination with the respiration of the lungs. He showed how the carotid arteries lose their muscular coating when they enter the skull; how these arteries are bent in the osseous canals, and how they unite in the remarkable Circle of Willis - all in order to slow down the cardiac pulsation and thus enable the brain to take over the government of the blood. He insisted that the brain was free! It is the organ of the human spirit itself, for the sake of which the whole body is built! That which is prior does not suffer itself to yield to that which is posterior, a master will not allow himself to be ordered about by his servant.[224]

Among the things that strike the modern brain specialists as most surprising is that Swedenborg should have pronounced the brain cortex to be the seat of the psychic activities. We are now so used to thinking of the cortical cells as the seat of the higher mental activities that it is startling to find Swedenborg's contemporaries still discussing whether the motor and sensory functions arose from "the central cavity of the brain," and whether the soul might not have its seat in "the little round body in front of the cerebellum which is called the pineal gland," or perhaps even in the spine or the liver!

Swedenborg was not a stranger to practical research work in anatomy. We know that he attended lectures on dissection in Paris, and himself used instruments. Nevertheless, his results were obtained chiefly through sharp-sighted reasoning and induction based on his study of the clinical cases reported by physicians, material that had very often been neglected or overlooked by other students. One such instance was the case of a woman who had died after losing all power of sensation and motion, a post-mortem examination showing a cavity in the cortical substance of her brain.

Swedenborg drew on the works of Leeuwenhoek, Malpighi, Ruysch, Bidloo, and others for his intimate knowledge of the structure of the brain. They pictured the gray matter as consisting chiefly of small bladderlike bodies, closely surrounded by blood vessels, and putting forth thread-like processes into the white medullary substance. It was also known that the white substance is composed of fibers connecting with the sense organs and muscles. But Swedenborg ingeniously traced the continuous connections between the cortical "glands" and the fibrils of the medullary substance-which, in turn, continued within the nerves and thus established a communication of the cerebral cortex with the bodily organs of sensation and motion.

Booerhaave had had some idea that the different senses had separate regions in the brain, and Descartes had thought that "little images of things seen" were formed by means of little hollow tubes on the wall of the central ventricle of the brain where they could be "viewed by the soul," which dwelt in the pineal gland. But no one had as yet assigned the psychic functions specifically to the cortex, as did Swedenborg, in his work on The Brain.[225]

He went still further. Having established that the cerebral cortex is the place where sense-impressions become conscious and where the impulses to voluntary motion come into being, he proceeded to reason out that the various regions of the cortex have different functions. Some regions govern the higher, some the lower body parts, he said, and thus the different departments of psychical activity are localized in different places in the brain-cortex. The thought was not entirely new. Vieussens had found that there were three regions in the anterior superior part of the cerebrum. Helped by these studies, Swedenborg identified the three "lobes" and announced that "the muscles and actions which are in the lowest parts of the body, or the soles of the feet, depend more immediately upon the highest parts [of the brain] ; the muscles which belong to the abdomen and thorax depend upon the middle lobe; and those which belong to the face and head depend upon the third lobe"--a conclusion which is similar to the theory of brain localizations reached during the last century after much laborious and complicated work.[226]

In his chapter on "The Chick in the Egg," Swedenborg takes issue with the embryologists of his day. The chick is not pre-formed in the egg, as taught by Malpighi and Haller. Calling on the special powers of his "spirituous fluid" he pronounced that the structures of the new organism are formed successively, in anticipation of their uses. The substance, of the egg is not an unformed chaos. By fertilization, the male has added a substance - an offshoot of the parental soul - which begins to weave the embryonic structure in exquisite order, with a sort of localized omniscience.[227] This substance or fluid is derived, in brutes, from the second or "magnetic" aura and in man from the first or "universal" aura.

But even the spirituous fluid-formed out of the highest and purest substances of the natural world-can not be said to live. For even the most eminent aura is not alive. Nature, considered in itself, is dead and only serves life as an instrument.[228] Hence we must look higher for the principle of life and seek it from the Deity of the universe who is essential life and wisdom. There is an intelligent Being who governs nature. But how His life and wisdom inflow is beyond the power of the human mind to know. We can only compare it with the action of the sun. As the sun of the natural world inflows into the objects of nature by means of mediating atmospheres so the Sun of life and wisdom flows in by the mediation of God's Spirit.[229] This lies beyond the range of philosophy, among the sacred mysteries of theology. This spiritual influx enables the spirituous fluid to live and be wise, to be, indeed, the viceregent of the soul in the body. And therefore it can also be called "the soul." It builds the organic habitations of the higher mind, mens, in the inmost recesses of the cortical glands. It also builds the two brains for the lower mind, animus, and lastly, it builds the organs of motion and sensation. Each man's spirituous fluid is individual to him and can be changed, for better or worse, as to its fitness for receiving wisdom or goodness from God. But it cannot essentially change as regards its powers as a "formative substance." As to that, it is under the rule of the Creator, lest mankind should ever turn into a race of monsters.[230]

Swedenborg believed he had conclusively demonstrated that "the human spirituous fluid is absolutely safe from harm by aught that befalls in the sublunary region," that it is immortal, indestructible, and "when emancipated from the bonds and trammels of earthly things it will still assume the exact form of the human body and live a life pure beyond imagination." He also shows that it will never be able again to enter the mundane world by any kind of reincarnation of the physical body.[231]

* * * * *

In launching The Economy of the Animal Kingdom Swedenborg again donned the cloak of anonymity which he had employed twice before when presenting the public with a work on a completely new subject. This veiled approach may have been due to modesty, embarrassment at having overstepped the bounds of his profession. Or it may have come from his desire to avoid being disturbed by possible criticism. His was a genius that could not be confined by, or held down to, conventional limits. In 1721 when he published his anonymous Principles of Chemistry he was a mechanical expert. In 1722 when he anonymously emerged into political life with a good solution for his country's economic ills he was known as a writer on philosophy. In 1740, when he published The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, he was a famous mineralogist and when, in 1750, he issued anonymously his first theological work, Swedenborg was known as a writer on anatomy! So the beginning of each literary cycle was unidentified with any preceding one, as if to give the ideas he propounded a fair chance of acceptance on their own merits, unbiased and unimpressed by preconceived opinions, and freed from the weight of his personality.

The first notice of The Economy in the learned press came almost immediately after its publication, in the Leipzig "Neue Zeitung" for August, 1740.[232] When the second volume appeared, a year later, a review much more thorough-going than the former one appeared in another learned journal whose lengthy title may be condensed to "Authentic Views on the Sciences."[233] The opening sentence indicates that by this time Swedenborg was known as the author:

For this volume we have to thank the industry of the famous Swedish philosopher, Herr Swedenborg. Although he does not wish to set his name to the work, he has nevertheless earned such a reputation for learning, by other works, and has made his ideas on philosophy so well known that one can easily guess the author from the nature of the work itself.

The reviewer highly commends Swedenborg for having done the learned world a great service in collecting and presenting the most noteworthy of the new discoveries on the structure of the human body, material otherwise unobtainable for students as it lies scattered about in many books in various places. He recognizes that it is only when a student admits into his deliberations all that the medical arts and sciences have to offer on the structure of the human body that he can hope to penetrate into the causes of things and bring to light hidden verities. "The learned Herr Swedenborg imparts a wealth of instruction in noble truth."

The reviewer points out that in this work Swedenborg intends to present an entirely new system of philosophy. He then endeavors to describe what the author means by "series and degrees." In general, he says, Swedenborg recognizes that throughout nature there exist three series of things above the earth and three upon the earth and within it. He points out the doctrine that all things are derived from the units of a first simple substance, but that by these units Swedenborg does not mean "the monads of Morus," "the atoms of Epicurus," nor "the elements of Democritus and Leucippus," for none of these permit of being broken up. The' reviewer regarded Swedenborg's explanations as far from simple. His review, too, is far from simple. Nevertheless he had grasped the essential point in Swedenborg's system, the fact that the "simple units" were capable of further unfolding.

Four months later an Amsterdam quarterly, the "Bibliotèque Raisonnée,"[234] carried a long article which seems to have been written by a physician, who begins:

"There are so many works on the matters treated of in this volume that I am not surprised that the bookseller, ignorant of its value, did not want to risk printing it at his own expense." But this book deserves to be read, even though it contains "only a theoretical knowledge of the principles of life and health."

Thus the physician-reviewer takes great exception to Swedenborg's suggestion that the blood passes through the lungs for the purpose of enriching itself with the nourishment contained in the "globules" of the air-a horrible thought l Why, everyone knows that the air is saturated with poisons and full of harmful bodies which certainly are not fit to enrich Nature, but can only make her the poorer! If, however, the blood does present itself to this unhealthy air(!) it certainly is not for the purpose of drawing anything from it, or taking in anything that the air contains. It is merely because, by the inviolable rules of mechanics, "the blood is forced to present itself to the air, and thus unfortunately exposes itself to epidemic diseases."

Swedenborg's opinion regarding the circulation of the blood the reviewer praises. "Every physician can adopt those conclusions without fear of making an error." He welcomes the promise of more treatises and hopes they will be as useful and pleasant to the learned as is this first volume. "Men can not without reason refuse to applaud it."

One review of the second volume of The Economy referred to the first volume as having been so well received as to encourage the author to publish a second one, and praises Swedenborg's intention to set the science of medicine on a firmer and better foundation by giving medical scholars the gist of the works of so many foreign authors.235

In closing, this reviewer surmises that it has probably occurred to the reader to question

whether we ourselves understand what we have been quoting from the author concerning the soul . . . We should be shameless indeed, and the world would have little faith in us, were we to answer, Yes, to this question . . . His whole treatment, not only of the human soul, but also of its immortality and its difference from the soul of animals, is so constructed that, from the ideas presented, one might easily surmise that he holds the rational soul to be a material entity. To this the theologians will never assent and for this reason we justly hesitate to present further quotations.

Whether the theologians consented or not, Swedenborg persisted in his quest of the soul, fervently believing that "he who investigates the order of nature, investigates the truth."

The Economy must have exerted some influence on the learned public because it was widely read. The first edition quickly sold out. In 1742 both volumes were re-issued, with a new title-page, giving the name and rank of the author and a catalog of his books "published and to be published." This edition also was sold out for, six years later, it was followed by a third. The learned journals printed more reviews, and complimented Swedenborg on having enriched "the republic of letters with a work on an abstruse subject which he treats with much delicacy and penetration, enhancing with honor the reputation he has acquired for himself among the learned." "These works merit the applause of all inquiring minds," says the Bibliotèque Raisonnée," "and with the possible exception of the Latin style, which is somewhat harsh, nothing better has been published on these interesting topics. I doubt not but that the learned writings which the author will unceasingly give to the press will be received with no less favor . . . The republic of letters would be much more flourishing if all writers strove to enrich it equally well."[236]

to Chapter 20