The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 21 - A Path to Faith
Swedenborg's memorial to the Board of Mines requesting another leave of absence is dated June, 1743. His purpose, he says, is to journey abroad to publish another work, for which he needs to consult books in foreign libraries. How long it will take to collect the necessary information and to publish the work he does not know, but the printing will run to some 4,000 pages. He desires to bring it to a close so that he can return and, in peace and quiet, continue his larger work, the Regnum Minerale, which more properly belongs to the province of the Royal Board of Mines. If he consulted his individual pleasure and preference, he says, he would a thousand times rather stay in his own country serving the illustrious Collegium and contributing his small share to the public good-at the same time watching for opportunities to improve his condition and attend to his property, living at home and spending his time pleasantly. This would be a more comfortable life than traveling abroad, at considerable expense, exposed to danger and vexation, under the severe strain of tedious mental labor, with the probability of meeting, in the end, more unfavorable than favorable judgments.

Yet despite this, ardently driving me is the desire and longing to bring to the light of day, during my lifetime, something real . . . which can be of use to the learned world in general and for posterity, and in that way contribute toward the use, the pleasure and, if I attain my object, toward the honor of my native land. But if I delay any longer in carrying out my design, I might as well give it up altogether . . [248]

Note the reasons he gives for the journey - to produce something real, something of use, something which would contribute to the honor of his country. These were arguments that could be understood in a business office, and good enough to obtain his end. He says that he is ardently [Innerligen=intensely, urgently] driven by them. We shall see that before the new work actually left the press a profound change had taken place in his life, as is distinctly stated in the Prolog to the work itself. The story of this great change is vital for the explanation of Swedenborg's extraordinary career.

In his political and business life Swedenborg was surrounded by the most advanced thinkers of his day. He knew them intimately and he well knew that many, although piously observing the forms of their religion, denied in their hearts what they professed with their lips, because they could not reconcile it with reason. As for himself, he not only favored the truths of religion, he was convinced that those truths could be rationally demonstrated - such truths, for instance, as the existence and immortality of the soul. The search for the soul in its temple, the body, therefore became for him an all-absorbing aim. He pursued it at home, in libraries, in laboratories, in conversations.

His new work, the result of this continued search, he entitled Regnum Animale, which has been translated The Animal Kingdom.[249] It was in fact a continuation of The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, just as that work was a continuation of the Principia. In The Economy he had treated of the blood and the heart, with all their ramifications. But everything convinced him that a more detailed study of the entire body was required:

Not very long ago, I published The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, a work . . . treating only of the blood, the arteries and the heart, etc. . . . I made a rapid passage to the soul . . . But on considering the matter more deeply I found that I had directed my course thither too hastily . . . I am therefore determined to allow myself no respite until I have run through the whole field to the very end-until I have traversed the universal animal kingdom to the soul. Thus I hope that, by bending my course continually inward, I shall open all the doors that lead to her and at length contemplate the soul herself by divine permission.[250]

Let him who by faith comprehends these high truths abstain from my books. He who believes revelation implicitly, without consulting the intellect, is the happiest of mortals, the nearest to heaven . . . These pages of mine are written with a view to those only who never believe anything but what they can receive with the understanding. Such persons are inclined to deny the existence of anything sublimer than themselves, like the soul. Such things as immortality and heaven they deny as empty phrases and fables. They worship nature, the world and themselves; they compare themselves to brutes and believe that their souls exhale and evaporate, and thus they rush fearlessly into wickedness ... For these persons only am I anxious, and to them I dedicate my work.

His ardent desire is "to disperse the clouds which darken the sacred temple of the mind and open a path to faith." "This end is what urges and animates me," he concludes. We see by this that Swedenborg thought it possible to convince skeptics of the truth of religion by arguments and reasonings taken from the human body.

Having previously treated of the blood, he began his new work with a study of the organs that furnished the nourishment for the blood, that is, the organs of digestion. The Prolog discusses his methods and opens with the broad assertion that "nothing whatever is more to be desired than the light of truth." The rational mind, he says, distinguishes the truth of things just as the ear apprehends harmony and melody and as the eye apprehends the beauties of nature. For the soul has order and truth impressed on its very nature and feels instinctively the presence of whatever harmonizes with it.

But there are two methods for discovering truths - the synthetic and the analytic. The synthetic method "begins its thread of reasonings from causes and principles, and evolves and unwinds it until it reaches the effects of the causes." This method belongs exclusively to higher powers, to "spirits, angels and the Omniscient Himself." Men must employ the analytic method which proceeds from phenomena or effects to causes, evolving interior things from exterior ones, thus by an altogether different way. For ages past, he says, synthesis has been the established mode in philosophy. But this scholastic method is contrary to the human mind, and will never attain the goal, because it begins from the goal and leads to the starting place, and when its assumptions are false at the start, it begets monsters which distract the human mind. This method belongs properly only to angels, and the Omniscient Himself; it is not for us who are born in ignorance.

Analysis, on the other hand, commences from facts. It collects materials, arranges them in order, and from them builds a palace or a pyramid on solid ground. "I intend in this way," he says:

to examine the whole anatomy of the body, all its viscera, abdominal and thoracic, the genital members of both sexes, the five senses and the brains. Then, by means of certain new doctrines [italics mine – ed.] I intend to give an introduction to rational psychology, and lastly to deal with the soul and its state after the death of the body. The end I propose is a knowledge of the soul . . . I have chosen the analytic way, and I think I am the first who has professedly taken this course . . .

To accomplish this grand end, I enter the arena, intending to consider and thoroughly examine the whole world or microcosm which the soul inhabits; , for I think it vain to seek her anywhere but in her own kingdom. Tell me, where else can she be found but in that system to which she is adjoined . . . and where she exhibits herself to contemplation? The body is her image, resemblance, and type; she is the model, the idea, the head, that is, the soul of the body. Thus she is represented in the body as in a mirror. I am therefore resolved to examine carefully the whole anatomy of her body, from the heel to the head, and from part to part; and for the sake of a closer approach to examine her very brain, where the soul has disposed her first organs; lastly, also, the fibers, and the other pure organic forms, and the forces and modes thence resulting.

But since it is impossible to climb or leap from the organic, physical, and material world - I mean the body - immediately to the soul, of which neither matter nor any of the adjuncts of matter are predicable . . . it was necessary to lay down new paths - in other words, to discover, disengage and bring forth, by the most intense application and study, certain new doctrines for my guidance, which are ... the doctrines of Forms, of Order and Degrees, of Series and Society, of Communication and Influx, of Correspondence and Representation, and of Modification. These it is my intention to present in a single volume under the title of "An Introduction to Rational Psychology."

When this task has been accomplished I am then admitted as it were by common consent to the soul who, sitting like a queen on her throne of state-the body-dispenses laws and governs all things by her good pleasure, but yet by order and by truth. This will be the crown of my toils, when I shall have completed my course in this most spacious arena . . ;[250]

Among the many remarkable analytical powers exhibited by Swedenborg in The Animal Kingdom, we select his ability to simplify the subject. It is the new doctrines he enumerated that give him this rare ability to simplify. By means of them he views all things in the human body from the point of view of function or use. He sees things as a whole. To Swedenborg each set of organs comprises "a circle of uses" or functions, and this determines every single thread and unit of its structure. "Use determines what the organ is."[251

]This is well illustrated in his treatment of the glands, a subject that has given great annoyance to modern physiologists who have gradually come to verify many of the views expressed so long ago by Swedenborg. Such was his belief in the orderliness of nature that the very existence of an organ meant the existence of a use for that organ. He knew that vital activity consists in a chemistry of enormous complexity. What, then, was more natural than that the glands of the body should be a marvelous system of laboratories for the carrying on of this chemical activity?  Thus he thought that the liver and the pancreas performed much more important functions than were indicated by their excretory ducts, and that the spleen must play a part with them in the purification of the blood from toxins-an idea entirely in accord with modern views, but advanced by him in an age when the spleen was a complete mystery.

In his treatment of chylification, or the nourishment of. the blood, Swedenborg greatly simplifies that subject. In many a textbook on anatomy now, the student's attention is focused not on the nourishment of the blood so much as on the rejection of wastes. Swedenborg directed the thought about nutrition in an exalted, almost poetic manner, inward toward the body's needs for replenishment on the physical plane, and upward to the need for spiritual nourishment as essential to its highest functions. The blood consists of both matter and spirit. That "every globule of blood has both a soul and a body," was with him axiomatic.

All the abdominal viscera, he says, are directed toward the upbuilding of the blood. The veins absorb nutriment from the digested food in the stomach and intestines and carry this "chyle" through the portal system directly to the liver for purification. By a different process the lacteals of the intestines draw a milky juice or chyle into the mesenteric glands and pass it on into the thoracic duct, an organ which Swedenborg regards as the very pivot of the body, providing for the safety and well-being of the entire domain. From there on, he says, the chyle is carried into the subclavian vein and thence into the heart, where it is joined or "married to the spirit" to produce the blood. He compares the chyle to a virgin being prepared for her nuptials. Part of this preparation for marriage or conjunction with the soul or spirit, is the mixture of the chyle, in the thoracic duct, with the lymph. Because the lymph (the white blood or purer essence) thus plays an intermediary role - being, as it were, a link between the chyle (the bride) and the spirit (the bridegroom) - Swedenborg likens it to a bridesmaid![252]

The subject of the glands of the body is one which until very recent times has been shrouded in mystery. In Swedenborg's day the view was often voiced that such an organ as the spleen was a useless part, an error of nature, or was merely intended to fill space. That the glands exercised some obscure function on the nutrition of the body was sometimes hinted at. In recent times, however, the ductless or endocrine glands have been the subject of much attention from anatomists. It has been found that they are of utmost importance on account of the internal secretions which they produce, that they exercise a balancing function without which life would be impossible and growth would run wild.

Swedenborg, inspired as he was with a desire for knowledge of the soul's seat in the body, saw a particular challenge in these organs because of their close proximity to the hidden forces of nature. He applied the simplifying power of his new doctrines to the subject of the glands with startling effect. They sprinkle fresh lymph into the veins, he says, and adapt the chyle to suit the blood. "They regulate and proportion the quantity and quality, the fluidity and essence of their supply to what the state of the chyle, the blood, the body, the cerebrum, and the spirits require and demand."[253] They rectify and refine the lymph and temper it to the needs of the body. (no. 182.) Thus he was keenly aware that "the glands change their state, consequently the nature of their humors, for the most part, to suit the states of the body." (no. 183.s.)

He saw three kinds of glands: (1) the emissary, such as the salivary, the gastric, the biliary, etc., which pour out their juices to aid digestion or to lubricate the tissues; (2) the transmissive, constituting the great lymphatic circulation, conveying the white or middle blood; (3) the ductless glands, such as the spleen, the thyroid, the pituitary, whose function is to purify and secrete into the bloodstream the more vital "spirit" of the blood. (nos. 454 e, 407, 275, 436, 81 f.). Some, like the thymus and the adrenals, have their chief use, he noted, during embryonic life. (nos. 437-8, 275). Others, like the spleen, act on the blood globules. The liver, besides other uses, separates and prepares the blood, refines the new aliment for the blood, thus completing the functions of the abdominal viscera. The glands, moreover, renovate the blood and spirit and look to the perpetuation of life, as is obvious in the case of the gonads, or generative organs. (no. 183.)

The brain, "prince of the glands, the pattern and head of the family," is also a chemical laboratory, for it generates the vitalizing essence that "flashes" as a current of force through the nerve fibres and becomes the "`spirit" and prime constituent of the red blood (nos. 189, 190). The pituitary gland, at the base of the brain - which modern physicists regard as the master gland and chief regulator of the whole endocrine system - Swedenborg described as the gateway through which the "animal spirit" enters the bloodstream. Far from regarding the blood as a mere dead fluid, he saw it as the living essence which conveys in its inmost bosom the very secrets and powers of the soul itself.

Still more remarkable are the deductions noted in a later work called The Brain.[254] Here, as in The Economy, he defended the animatory movement of the brain and declared the motion of the brain to be synchronous with that of the lungs and not with the cardiac circulation. He made a profound study of the cerebro-spinal fluid. He assigned the higher functions to the gray matter of the cerebrum, and demonstrated the localization of various motor functions in the cerebral cortex.

This is not to say that all of Swedenborg's observations or conclusions are correct by modern standards. Professor Max Neuburger of Vienna defined Swedenborg's limitations quite exactly when he said, "The deficiencies, the mistakes, the incomplete proofs, are the defects of Swedenborg's time, but the ideas, the prophetic anticipations . . . constitute the distinctive mental property of Swedenborg and their truth has been wonderfully confirmed by modern science."[255] Compare this statement with Swedenborg's own confession when he wrote in his Journal: "The defects are mine, but the verities are not mine."

* * * * *

The Animal Kingdom was published at the Hague in 1744, in two parts, a third part being later issued in London. Let us now see how this work was received by the contemporary world of science. A review of The Animal Kingdom appeared during the summer of 1744, in the "Bibliothèque Raisonnée," the same magazine that a few years before had been so delighted with Swedenborg's method of extensive quotation. It was now thought that he had gone too far. The reviewer failed to comprehend what he meant by the soul. After discussing the projected Table of Contents, in which Swedenborg says he will have seventeen parts or transactions in the whole work, the reviewer sighs:

I think that the plan formed by M. Swedenborg is far too vast, and I do not see how he can fully carry it out without being obliged to publish four or five more volumes as large, at least, as the first three ...

Two months later the "Neue Zeitungen" came out with a short notice of the work. It stated that the author himself did not hesitate to acknowledge The Economy as "one of his untimely births." (Swedenborg had committed the unpardonable sin of being ahead of his time!)

In 1747 the "Nova Acta Eruditorum" reviewed volumes I. and II. of the Animal Kingdom in an article that is bitter and unfair. Alluding to Swedenborg's recognition of his authorship of the anonymously published Economy, the reviewer makes the stinging remark: If Swedenborg has done this because he feared some other man would attribute the glory of the book to himself, he might safely have omitted it . . . " He dismisses the author's profound deductions on the nature of the glands as so many "figments of the imagination and silly trifles." Many things he receives with a smile and finally, thoroughly annoyed with all that he has failed to comprehend, he dismisses the whole thing as so many "Swedenborgian dreams."[256]

The "Neue Zeitungen" credits Swedenborg with the ability to "write many pages concerning a matter which frequently is of little importance." The reviewer supposes that many things will be beyond the comprehension of most readers, particularly on the subjects of touch and taste. "To one who wishes to make a name for himself by all kinds of peculiar theories, with little danger of incurring the suspicion that he has borrowed them from others, Herr Swedenborg's writings will prove extremely useful."[257]

The Animal Kingdom was the last of his purely anatomical studies that Swedenborg presented to an increasingly ungrateful world. Misunderstood, he pushed on alone, pursuing the course he had mapped out for himself-ever forward, ever upward, ever inward. What he withheld from publication were several profound studies, including a voluminous treatise on The Brain, another on The Senses, another on The Organs of Generation, and a remarkable discourse on Psychology, to mention only a few of the more extensive studies that were found among his unpublished manuscripts and that have seen the light of day during the present century.[258]

Reviewing the work on The Brain, a modern doctor of medicine has said:

By far the larger portions of the conclusions at which Swedenborg arrives are, so far as I can determine, quite original with him, and many of them have since been confirmed by other investigators who were quite unaware of their forerunner Swedenborg's work. Many of Swedenborg's inferences are fallacious, and still others await investigation . . . [but] as one reads this work one cannot help wondering what effect it might have had upon the historical development of neurophysiology had it been published upon its completion two hundred years ago ... and there are still to be found ideas in this book which a neuro-anatomist might find not unsuggestive.[259]

So Swedenborg's premonition that The Animal Kingdom might meet with more adverse than favorable criticism from his contemporaries was amply sustained. But that this lack of recognition had nothing to do with his stopping the publication of his anatomical series appears from the fact that he had decided to suspend further publication before the reviews appeared, as will be shown in the following chapter.

How near had Swedenborg come to his intended goal - the discovery of the Soul itself? Was it possible to reach it by these methods? "I have gone through this anatomy with the single purpose of investigating the soul," he states. "It will be a satisfaction to me if my labors are of some service to the anatomical and medical world, but a still greater satisfaction to me if I afford any light towards the investigation of the soul."[260]

He had blazed a trail, a path to faith. But this path was to lead him into the bitter valley of renunciation before it ascended the mountain peak of Faith. We shall see his course changing, his present methods discarded, his very ego repudiated, before he could attain the object of his quest.

to Chapter 22