The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 2 - Upsala Days

Upsala is more than a center of learning, more than a picturesque old town with cobbled streets, low, broken-gabled houses and an ancient castle. It is more than the stately university and the venerable Gothic cathedral, rising from the Upland plains beside the Fyris river. One does not need to see the mounds of Viking chiefs or to drink of the mead still brewed on the site of ancient temples, to feel that here is the very root of Swedish culture; here the past is always present, the future forever linked with the past. It is in the very air of the place.

It may be worth while to present briefly the intellectual background of the university where Swedenborg received his education. The new century opened upon an age when superstition still held the whole world in bondage. Any day a person might point to some old woman who was said to ride on a broomstick to a witches' sabbath or cast an evil eye on a neighbor's cow to sicken it. Any day a man might cross the street to avoid meeting another who was thought to have signed a pact with the devil. The Church was established as the interpreter of truth in the minds alike of credulous peasants and ignorant overlords. The churches with their flickering candles provided the only refuge to which men could turn for help with their problems and assurance of a better hereafter. Like a fog-horn in the gloom, the voice of the Church rang out to warn men of danger to. their souls and to teach them what to believe, and many a priest waged continual warfare against superstitions which threatened to drag his hearers back into heathendom.

Jesper Swedberg had a strong belief in the presence of spirits, beneficent and malicious, but he turned the people's credulity to good account. For him the unseen world had a very real existence. Good spirits were in attendance and guardian angels ministered to God's children. The Devil was a very real person, and could be cast out only by prayer. Swedberg, on various occasions, gave proof of hypnotic healing powers and cured hysteria and mental ailments by personal persuasion, and by reading Holy Writ for hours to distressed men and women. So we must count as another important factor in the shaping of Swedenborg's mind his father's early positive conviction of the presence of another world.

As for the atmosphere of the university itself, there were crosscurrents in it. In the seventeenth century it had been a matter of course to refer all problems of learning and religion to the Church, and to decide any conflict of opinion by ecclesiastical decree. The teachings of Aristotle - explained and diluted by the theologians to fit into their system - were, supposed to be the right and proper dose of worldly science for the training of the human mind. But then, above the insistent clamor of the churches there came, from a different direction, a voice clear, high and distinct, and not in the least foggy. People were listening to it in France and Holland, and it soon began to be heard in all the countries of Europe. It was new, it was different. It spoke a language that appealed to the reasoning faculties. The voice that had startled the learned world proceeded from the philosopher René Descartes.

Descartes' studies led him in direct opposition to scholasticism - the idea that philosophical problems can be solved by book-learning or by citing authorities. The right method of attacking the unknown, he taught, was not to ask what Plato and Aristotle taught about it but to make one's own deductions and form independent conclusions. So he was vitally concerned about methods of thinking. He began with mathematics, because that was the only subject where such independent conclusions were tolerated. In mathematics, he said, you start with simple propositions and advance to things unknown. Why not use the same procedure with other subjects? Why not solve unknown quantities in philosophy by a kind of universal mathematics, by a methodical science? Descartes was a Frenchman and a lover of precision:  "In our search for the direct road to truth, we should busy ourselves with no object about which we can not attain certitude equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry." His rule, however, applied only to natural truth. He also believed in intuition. "First principles are given by intuition alone," he said, defining intuition as an undoubted concept arising from the light of reason itself. Such an intuition is the fact that you exist You can doubt everything else but you cannot doubt that you exist. Therefore Descartes, begins with the axiom: "I think, therefore I am." [8]

Word of Descartes had reached the ears of Queen Christina of Sweden who in 1650 enticed the profound and original thinker to her own rough, boreal shores where, after a few months , the great scholar died of pneumonia. But Descartes' philosophy had lit the torch of freedom of thought at Upsala University. A great controversy on freedom for philosophy broke out between the faculties of medicine and theology. Sometimes the Church won out and sometimes the defenders of untrammeled investigation had their day. Heretical sentiments such as these were let loose upon a bewildered world of learning: "The things of faith are set forth by the Holy Spirit, but not matters of physics." "No priest shall be granted a professorship in the faculty of philosophy at Upsala." When the case was finally referred for settlement to King Charles XI, he decreed that "The doctrines of the Christian faith may not be subjected to philosophical criticism , but for the rest, philosophy shall be free, in practice and discussion." The result was that, by the end of the seventeenth century, a measure of freedom of thought had been established in Sweden's chief seat of learning, giving a stimulus to unfettered scientific research.[9]

Such was the background of Upsala University when Emanuel's name, on the fifteenth day of June, 1699, was inscribed in its big matriculation journal. After his name, is written: "Son of the Primary Pastor and Professor, a youth of the best talent." [Primarii Pastoris et Professoris filius optimae indolis.] On the same day Emanuel became a member of the Westmanland-Dalecarlian fraternity or "Nation."[10] Every student belonged to one of these clubs, which in a truly democratic manner represented the several provinces of the country. That these so-called "university students," some as young as eleven years, were much like children of the same age today is evident from a notice posted by the rector and school board warning them not to cause any damage to the new castle gardens,, and forbidding them to climb the walls on pain of punishment.

There were four faculties: theology, law, medicine and philosophy, the latter embracing science and mathematics. Swedenborg studied in the faculty of philosophy. He may also have taken courses in law, since he took part in debates on that subject. His first task, of course, was to perfect his knowledge of the Latin language, the rudiments of Which he had already learned from his tutor, since all instruction was then imparted in the ancient tongue. Greek appears to have been added after the first year and Hebrew somewhat later. An elaborate catalogue of studies gives us precise information as to the lectures offered each year. Not only the names but also the portraits of the illustrious professors in their stately robes of office have come down to our day. We see Pehr Elfvius, professor of astronomy, holding a sextant, Lars Roberg, professor of anatomy, with a skull in his hand, and Harald Wallerius, professor of mathematics, with his hand resting on a volume of Descartes. While concentrating upon a mastery of the classics, Swedenborg's studies included also branches of natural science and mathematics.[11]

His interest in poetry began at this time, the first known product of his pen being a' Swedish poem of twelve verses commemorating the marriage of "the reverend and most learned gentleman, Mr. Johannes Kolmodin, to the virtuous maiden, Mistress Beata Hesselia." It is creditable verse-making for a lad of twelve. The last stanza, rendered freely into English, reads:

    Grant that these twain may, in a happy life,
    Angelically live as man and wife.
    As they arrayed for bridal stand today,
    Let them before Thy Throne be Thy Bride alway.[12]

As much as ecclesiasticism would permit, the atmosphere of Upsala was liberal, romantic, and humanitarian, dominated by the majestic figure of Professor Olof Rudbeck. This venerable literatus was known far and wide for his remarkable book, The Atlantica, in which he put forth the novel claim that Plato, in describing his ideal Atlantis - birthplace of gods and heroes of antiquity - meant none other than Rudbeck's own native land of Sweden. He substantiated his claim at great length, with thorough philological derivations, fantastic to us but swallowed whole by the credulous public of his day. Here, in Sweden, had grown the apples of the Hesperides and, though Rudbeck could find no grapes in so cold a climate, he found a reasonable facsimile in the currants (called in Swedish vin-bär) which produce a fairly good vintage.

During the night of May 17, 1702, a fire broke out in Upsala which laid three-fourths of the town in ashes within fourteen hours, because of a raging wind. The treasures of the Library were saved in part by the presence of old Dean Rudbeck on its shingle roof, directing the movement of pumps and hoses. The students worked diligently on the burning house of Dean Swedberg. Roof, windows and doors were consumed but a Biblical motto in gold lettering escaped undamaged in the large living room. "Fear God and Keep His Commandments," it said, a proof to Jesper that God's word shall not pass away. Plans were speedily undertaken for rebuilding the town and the remaining years of Emanuel's residence at Upsala were years of construction, material as well as mental.[13]

The following spring Jesper Swedberg was appointed Bishop of Skara, in central Sweden. He took leave of Upsala and the students, to reside in the episcopal mansion at Brunsbo in Westrogothia. Swedberg, like his sons a member of the Westmanland-Dalecarlian fraternity, was at that time its curator. The students presented to him, as a farewell gift, two heavy silver candlesticks, costing the considerable sum of 327 dalers in copper coin, "which His Reverence accepted with marked favor." He invited them to his home and gave them much good advice:

"I beg you most earnestly that you fear and love God above all else, for without this fear of God all other training, all study, all learning is of no account, indeed quite harmful." Three things, in particular, he told them, they ought to observe for their continued happiness: piety, which ought to increase among them by the daily reading of Holy Scripture; selection of some special kind of calling; and a striving for unity. (It is interesting to compare these with the so-called "Rules of Life" reportedly found among Swedenborg's manuscripts.)[14]

The Bishop and his wife took the two youngest girls with them to Brunsbo, leaving fifteen-year-old Emanuel, his sister Hedwig and two brothers in the care of their seventeen-year-old sister Anna, who that spring had been married to the university librarian, Erik Benzelius, the younger. For the remainder of his student years Emanuel lived in his sister's home and looked upon Benzelius as a second father. Eliezer and Jesper (Daniel died as an infant) were placed under the tutelage of Andreas Hesselius, a brother of the "virtuous Beata" whose nuptials Swedenborg had celebrated in his Marriage Ode. Annotations in the fraternity account books record regularly the receipt of Emanuel's "30 öre" in dues, and at the same time "1 crown 28 öre" for "Andreas Hesselius and his Swedbergs." It must have been a lively household, especially as the young wife was raising her own family in addition to her four brothers and a sister.

Erik Benzelius, whose home Swedenborg shared for the next six years, deeply affected the course of his life. An ardent Cartesian, convinced that the future of learning lay in the realm of the sciences, Benzelius carried on a lengthy correspondence with the most prominent men of his day and was constantly in touch with the newest trends of thought. Before Emanuel left Upsala a love for learning had been powerfully aroused in him and, as he explicitly states, he was advised by his brother-in-law to apply himself to mathesis, as the study of the exact sciences then was called.[15]

The little that is known of Emanuel's advance through adolescence to early manhood is gleaned from the fraternity records. In the fall of 1704, he was selected by his fellow students to participate as one of three in a debate on "God's Providence," which took place in March. The following term he took part in debates on "Marriage" and "The Duties of Parents and Children." Later, at a debate on "Natural Law," he offered to preside, but the offer was declined since he was still a junior, and it might set a bad example to let a junior member "encroach too closely on the privileges of the gentlemen seniors." The episode is evidence of considerable initiative on the part of young Emanuel, and also as showing his interest in law, which was to become so important in his professional career.[16]

History records that in 1706, sister Hedwig made a biretta out of gold-moire for the graduation of one Magister Andreas Rhyzelius who was given a master's degree. The document describes the beautiful clothes that were purchased for him, and mentions a long-haired peruke brought from Stockholm by Benzelius which, however, the candidate did not accept, since his own hair, after being suitably dressed, was found more becoming. The wig was later worn by Erik's brother, Lars Benzelstjerna, who afterward married Hedwig and so became Emanuel's brother-in-law and for many years his close companion.[17]

The first of June, 1709, was the long-awaited day of Emanuel's "graduation" which, however,, involved no granting of a degree in any modern sense. In the dignified attire of a candidate, he mounted the platform to read his thesis in the presence of his father who, appointed to be one of the judges for the event, had made the long journey from Skara to attend it. Emanuel was of medium height and resembled his mother protruding lower jaw. Instead of Jesper's full, sensuous lips, however, his mouth had Sara Behm's calm, cheerful expression, and he also had her rather in features, although he had his father's slightly protruding lower jaw. Instead of Jesper’s full, sensuous lips, however, his mouth had Sara Behm’s calm, cheeful expression, and also her rather high, vaulted forehead. Smiling blue-gray eyes, however, were Emanuel's most striking feature. As he began to read, his words were impeded by a noticeable stutter."[18]

The essay was a commentary on Latin writers entitled: Select Sentences from Publius Syrus Mimus and L. Annaeus Seneca.[19] About two thirds of the printed work consists of quotations; the remaining third is supposedly Swedenborg's, although this is a matter of debate, since the "disputation" was written to defend the teachings of his instructor, in this case Magister Fabian Turner.

Here are a few of the maxims discussed:

"He who fights with a drunken man hurts one who is absent."

"I will show thee what is lacking to those who possess all things - a man who speaks the truth."

"To thee shall be imputed the sin thy friend committed, when thou dost not admonish him."

"That is not art which reaches its effect by chance."

"Except the mind, there is nothing in thee that is marvellous, nothing great in him who is great."

"Stretching breaks the bow; the lack of it breaks the mind."

"The contrast is very fine," Swedenborg here observes. "As the bow is broken when stretched, so is the mind when loosed. Exercise and meditation, therefore, is like food to the mind, and unless it is continually nourished and sustained, it will deteriorate."

This thesis has been noted as an indication of the far from superficial nature of Swedenborg's mind. It shows a command of Latin and a wide acquaintance with the classical authors but more than this, it gives a definite indication of his bent and foreshadows his future work. For when one considers that he devoted the last thirty years of his life to explaining the meaning of the Scriptures, it is certainly interesting to see him, so early as this, choosing as the theme for his thesis, a commentary on a classical text.

Select Sentences was dedicated to Emanuel's father with the words: "May I grow, with increasing years, in the imitation of those deeds which have covered the name of my parent with honor and fame! May I resemble him in his writings as well as in mind and character!"

The customary verses in honor of the occasion which serve as introduction to the printed pamphlet, were written by Rhyzelius - the same young man of the flowing locks who three years before had graduated in sister Hedwig's biretta. They end with the prophetic lines:

    Thou, I am certain, wilt become a useful man
    To thy native land, and an ornament to Christianity,
    The eternal muses cherish golden hopes of thee.[20]

to Chapter 3