The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 27 - Heavenly Secrets

When Swedenborg left Holland for England, in the fall of 1748, his purpose was to publish the Arcana Coelestia in London. He desired the new work to be anonymous and this could better be effected in London than in Amsterdam, where he was very well known.

In preparation for the journey he made a list of things that needed his attention, giving us an intimate glimpse into the domestic life of the scholar. He had to remember to take with him tea, pens, shirts, neckties, handkerchiefs, his nightcap and dressing gown, his silken scarf, the wig-case, the snuff-box, the lead pencils and the penknife, his spectacles, his signet-ring, and money. Certain items had to be purchased-stockings, a string for his nightshirt, a "stomach-warmer,"

- probably of red flannel - and two bags of strong snuff! He had to send to the tailor for his fur coat, also to find out when the ship left harbor, and to see his landlord.[368]

Among the books to be packed were his Hebrew Lexicon, some notebooks, and his documents. Of special interest is his annotation: "Start with the Exp.Sp. and afterwards put them together"-a reference probably to his spiritual experiences which he extracted from the Diary and subsequently incorporated into the Arcana.[369]

Numbers 3423-7 of The Spiritual Diary were written "on the way." On the twenty-third of November he secured lodgings in London for six shillings per week, and engaged the rooms for six months only, perhaps intending to return to Holland in the spring. Settled in his lodgings he began his new work, Arcana Coelestia.

For six years now two elements had been dominant in Swedenborg's life - the work of unfolding the meaning of Sacred Scripture and the phenomenon of extra-sensory perceptions. The first had come about as a result of his explorations into the interiors of nature and afterward into the interior meaning of words. His psychic experiences, on the other hand, were entirely independent of any voluntary effort or invitation. In his new work these two elements were blended together, even in the title of the book:

Arcana Coelestia, or the Heavenly Secrets which are in the Sacred Scripture or the Word of the Lord, disclosed: here those which are in Genesis: together with the wonderful things which have been seen in the World of Spirits and in the Heaven of Angels.[370]

In the opening pages Swedenborg asserts, in the most positive manner, that the Old Testament contains a hidden meaning; that the Christian world is profoundly unaware of this fact; and that no one can possibly know it except from the Lord. Thereupon he presents, as it were, his credentials or the reason why he expects to be believed. His words of introduction proclaim to all the world that he has been instructed in regard to the life after death by spirits and angels:

From the mere letter of the Word of the Old Testament no one would ever discern the fact that this part of the Word contains deep secrets of heaven, and that everything within it, both in general and in particular, bears reference to the Lord, to His heaven, to the church, to religious belief, and to all things connected therewith. For from the letter, or sense of the letter, all that any one can see is that - generally speaking - everything therein has reference merely to the external rites and ordinances of the Jewish Church. Yet the truth is that everywhere in that Word there are internal things which never appear at all in the external things except a very few which the Lord revealed and explained to the apostles, such as; that the sacrifices signify the Lord; that the land of Canaan and Jerusalem signify heaven . . and that paradise has a similar signification.

The Christian world, however, is as yet profoundly unaware of the fact that all things in the Word, both in general and in particular, nay, the very smallest particulars down to the most minute iota, signify and enfold within them spiritual and heavenly things, and therefore the Old Testament is but little cared for. Yet that the Word is really of this character might be known from the single consideration that, being the Lord's and from the Lord, it must of necessity contain within it such things as belong to heaven, to the church, and to religious belief, and that unless it did so it could not be called the Lord's Word, nor could it be said to have any life in it. For whence comes its life except from those things that belong to life, that is to say, except from the fact that everything in it, both in general and in particular, bears reference to the Lord who is the Very Life itself? So that anything which does not inwardly regard Him is not alive . . . And it may truly be said that any expression in the Word that does not enfold Him within it, that is, which does not in its own way bear reference to Him, is not Divine . . .

That this is really the case no one can possibly know except from the Lord. It may therefore be stated in advance that of the Lord's Divine mercy it has been granted me now for some years to be constantly and uninterruptedly in company with spirits and angels, hearing them speak and in turn speaking with them. In this way it has been given me to hear and see wonderful things in the other life which have never before come to the knowledge of any man nor into his idea. I have been instructed in regard to the different kinds of spirits, the state of souls after death, hell, or the lamentable state of the unfaithful, heaven, or the blessed state of the faithful, and especially in regard to the doctrine of faith which is acknowledged in the universal heaven. On which subjects, of the Lord's Divine mercy, more will be said in the following pages.[371]

The Arcana treats the book of Genesis chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word, giving first a brief summary of meanings involved and afterwards an explanation of each verse in turn, unfolding its inner sense in great detail, and telling how all of it relates to man's salvation. Looked at in this way, the Genesis story of creation has as little to do with the physical world as such, expressions of ours as "it has just dawned upon me" or "the grounds for an argument," refer to the sunrise or the soil under our feet.

The first day of creation is said to describe the condition of a man's mind before he has become regenerated or born anew. Man is then like the earth when it was empty and void, for his mind is then enveloped in the thick darkness of spiritual ignorance - void of any good and empty of any truth that concerns the Lord and heavenly life.

But the spirit of God moves upon the face of these "waters." The Lord's mercy hovers over the mind's obscurity and lack of vitality, broods over the human soul as a hen broods over her eggs - the eggs being the things that are to be hatched out of this state of spiritual chaos. For, by God's mercy, hidden away in it, there are good impulses treasured up from infancy, and some remnants of heavenly knowledge instilled especially during childhood.

When a man begins to realize that whatever good and truth he possesses is not really his own but the Lord's, then there breaks for him the light of the first day. Temptations, misfortunes and sorrows may be the means of awakening him to a realization of his own unworthiness. As a consequence he emerges more and more out of his darkness and moves more and more into the morning of his spirit. He now sees that all that he has acquired and built up for himself, in his mental world, are such things as relate to his external or worldly life, and that everything really good and lastingly true he has' received from the Lord. He is thus able to discriminate between the one and the other, and this is to separate the waters above from the waters beneath, to distinguish what is of eternal from what is of temporary value.

Now the dry land can appear! A little ground is at hand for spiritual things to grow in, and he is able to produce the tender herb in the soil of his soul. There is very little life in him, for he is still persuaded that the good which he does and the truth which he speaks are from himself, whereas in reality they are all from the Lord. But the third day has dawned. He speaks piously, he acts charitably. His tender herb is growing but his world is still inanimate. His new truth is only intellectual.

Nevertheless two great luminaries - faith and charity - have begun to illumine his mind. They are as important for the life of his soul as are heat and light for his physical existence. His will is warmed with love, like the ground in early summer; his understanding is becoming more and more affected with spiritual truth.

Now first he can be said to live! Before this he was hardly animate. He sees that, like a child, he has been under the illusion that' he lived from himself. When this illusion is abandoned, live creeping things are brought forth out of his animated memory. Birds, or rational thoughts, fly about in the sky of his newly awakened understanding.

Man's spiritual mind grows. It becomes fully alive. Gentle animals are brought forth; genuine living affections increase. God blesses them and tells them to multiply and fill the earth. The mind now acts from love, instead of mere faith or obedience. Last of all man is created in the image and likeness of God.

When faith is conjoined with love, a holy sabbath exists in the inner mind of man and the Lord's work is accomplished! God rests and calls it very good. The re-generated soul has won the victory in its combats with the evils of selfhood. Adam, a truly human being, is born and ready to be introduced into his heavenly paradise.

The seven days of creation, so viewed, says Swedenborg, describe man in his state of integrity, man as his Creator intended him to be. And of such a character, he says, were the most ancient people who lived on earth and at the same time in heaven. These people conversed openly with the angels and also received instruction through delightful dreams and visions. They had the faculty of knowing instinctively whether a thing was true or false, and in the latter case they regarded it with horror.[372]

Because a childlike humility and dependence combined with great power is so foreign to most of us, it would be almost impossible to conceive of such celestial characteristics were it not that occasionally, even now, there emerges a man who exemplifies this state of integrity. Such a man scorns the worldly things of show, of comfort, and walks with his hand in God's hand. He concentrates on a sublime aim of service to others.. He glows with love for his Master, whether it brings him much or little reward. He feels helpless without the Lord to show him the way, and in prayer he communes with the mind of the All-wise One. On account of his tireless striving and his dynamic faith, such a man is a measuring-stick by which each one of us may judge himself, because such a man regards himself as nothing. Such a man ascribes to the Lord all thoughts given him for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God, and with angelic patience faces loneliness and prejudice, happy in heart over what he experiences in the present and what he confidently hopes for in the eternal future.

The character of the people of this primitive period, this Golden Age which Swedenborg calls "the Most Ancient Church," is described in the first chapter of the Arcana Coelestia. They were "born into the order of their creation," their intuition was a kind of "internal sensation." Love ruled their entire mind, because their will and understanding acted as one. Thus whatever a man thought, shone forth from his face and eyes. Deceit was a monstrous iniquity. They dwelt in tents and were shepherds. Each home was a church of God, the father being both priest and king.[373]

It was from the writings of the descendants of these most ancient peoples that Moses gathered up the story of creation and the accounts of the patriarchs who lived before the Flood. For, like poets, they delighted in weaving spiritual stories into dramatic and allegorical forms.

* * * * *

The question of how evil originated in a race of men with whom everything was good is also explained in the Arcana. Men had free will, and there was always the possibility of turning from a higher faculty to a lower one, and giving that the dominion. This is what happened in the course of time. The descendants of the church typified by Adam did not continue to derive their knowledge by the inward, intuitive way. Instead they gave ear to the seductive whispers of the serpent, that is, their lower nature. They ate of the tree of knowledge, that is they began to give credence to what their senses told them. The woman - representing the love of self - perverted the man - the rational mind, so that it heeded the promptings of lower loves. The eating of the forbidden fruit was the exploring of matters of faith by means of self-intelligence, and in the end this drove the last posterity of the Adamic "church" out of their heavenly paradise.

The voice of Jehovah was still heard in the garden. They still had the gift of intuition, but they became conscious of sin and, in their shame, hid from their Maker. The ground, their outward or external mind, now was cursed. They ate bread in the sweat of their brow and cherubs with flaming swords prevented them from again entering into the state of infantile innocence in which they had formerly lived.

The first race of men were now subject to evil influences that would, in the course of time, drag down their descendants to the lowest depths. Yet out of this misery and spiritual destitution, a hope and a promise emerged. Not forever was mankind to be shut off from its heavenly heritage. While cursing the serpent, Jehovah God added the words:

"And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed. He shall trample upon thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Genesis III:14) "Everyone is aware that this is the first prophecy of the Coming of the Lord into the world . . . Indeed, it clearly appears from the words themselves . . . that a Messiah was to come." (no. 250).

Unrelenting warfare would ensue between the serpent of self-love - the snares of the body and its senses - and heavenly love with its faith. But in the fullness of time the seed of the woman, the Lord in His Supreme Incarnation, would come on earth to take upon Himself the battle against the accumulated power of all evil in the perverted human race, and by victories over this "serpent," would restore mankind to its state of integrity through His Divine Human.

The mind of those most ancient people was ruled exclusively by love or desire, we are told. When, therefore, they gradually fell from integrity and became possessed by wicked impulses, they were absolutely unable to refrain from committing evil and to curb their wicked desires. Their will was so completely one with their understanding that they were powerless to view their impulses from the judgment-seat of reason and thus to condemn the thing they wanted to do. Their minds therefore became flooded by direful fantasies and dangerous illusions of grandeur. They were "Nephilim" or giants in their own sight. They supposed themselves to be as gods, and that their thoughts were consequently divine. Their love of God turned into intense hatred of Him, and self-love took full possession of them.

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was multiplied on the earth, and that all the imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil every day ... and the earth was filled with violence . : . " (Genesis, V and VI).

The doom that befell this depraved generation took the form of a flood, not a physical flood of waters, says Swedenborg, but an inundation of evils and falsities which suffocated the first race of men, breaking off their connection with heaven.[374]

Not all, however, perished. There were some, called Noah, whose nature underwent a change. They lost the ability to commune openly with the inner world, but were given a new faculty, conscience, to replace intuition. Conscience enabled them to understand and see apart from their own will, and thus to resist the inclination to evil. This is what characterized the Age of Silver, which succeeded the Golden Age, and which is called the Ancient Church. The men of that church were "spiritual" in genius, instead of "celestial," we are told. They were not led by dreams and visions, but through doctrinal instruction that appealed to their understanding, removed or as it were apart from their self-directed wills. Everything they did had to be scrutinized in the light of reason instead of coming instinctively through intuition. They derived their wisdom from what had been handed down from their predecessors, and thus they preserved the wisdom of the Most Ancient people under the guise of legends and traditions. These traditions they finally inscribed as pictures in stone and wood, and thus they became the inventors of writing, or hieroglyphics, depicting ideas by means of symbolic objects: the origin of art. This Ancient Church, says Swedenborg, was spread throughout the Land of Canaan and to all the surrounding nations such as Assyria, Egypt, Babylonia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, Syria, and more remotely to Greece and Rome.[375]

But in the course of time the Ancient Church also declined. The truths of religion deteriorated into mere matters of memory and then, degenerating still further, turned into idolatry. This was the origin of the widespread polytheism of the Mediterranean peoples. Isis and Horus, Diana and Athena, Dagon and Ashtoreth, took the place of God. What remained was the mere shell of the thing that had originally held such rich spiritual content. Finally a nation arose, we are told, whose minds retained nothing at all of spirituality, a nation whose virtue consisted in sheer obedience.

The Israelitish nation was formed by the Lord into a "representative of a Church," in which the knowledge of things that had formerly constituted the very wisdom of the human race could be preserved as in a casket. Like children they were told minutely what to do and how to conduct their ritualistic, representative worship with its washing of pots and its sacrifice of animals. For in this lowest of all forms of religion God purposed to make His Own entry into the world, in human form.

Such, in a very general way, is the idea that runs through the first eleven chapters of Genesis as described in Arcana Coelestia. Adam and Noah were not two persons but two religious eras. The account is not historically but only representatively true, Swedenborg says.[376] For the ancient inspired records from which Moses copied these eleven chapters were composed by a people who wrote everything down in symbolic language with no thought whatsoever that it should be accorded historical accuracy. This record or Ancient Word, therefore, must not in any way be understood as having literal or scientific validity.

True history begins with the story of Abraham which, although told as historical narrative, also contains an internal meaning or signification that differs entirely from that of the literal story. It is to be understood abstractly from the letter, just as if the letter did not exist! Abraham was more than Abraham, Jacob was more than Jacob.

* * * * *

Between the chapters of his book Swedenborg incorporated many of his spiritual experiences, which he considered quite as important as the expositions of Scripture. He had no illusions about the difficulty of convincing others of the truth of these experiences, but the probability that it might be rejected did not deter him from printing and publishing what he knew about the life after death.

He relates many startling things about spirits and angels, and about heaven and hell, incidents frequently copied from accounts in The Spiritual Diary. "This may indeed seem incredible, but yet it is true," he says, after one of these relations.[377]

Spirits and angels have been permitted to see things in this world through my eyes as plainly as I could see them myself and also to hear men talking with me . . . It has sometimes happened, to their great astonishment, that some, through me, have seen their friends whom they had in the life of the body . . . Some have also seen their married partners and their children, and have desired me to tell them that they were close by and saw them, and to give an account of their state in the other life. But I had been forbidden to tell ... that they were seen in this way, partly for the reason that they would have called me insane, or would have thought such things to be delirious fancies of the mind; for I was well aware that, although they would acknowledge it with the lips, they did not believe in their hearts in the existence of spirits, or that the dead are risen.

When my interior sight was first opened and spirits and angels, through my eyes, saw the world and the things that are in it, they were so amazed that they called it the miracle of miracles; and they were affected with a new joy, that in this way communication was opened of earth with heaven and of heaven with earth. This delight lasted for months, but afterward it became familiar, and now they do not wonder at all . . . These things show that man was so created that while living on earth among men he might at the same time also live in heaven among angels, and the converse . . . But in consequence of man's becoming so corporeal he has closed heaven to himself.

When man dies, "the internal parts of the body grow cold, the vital substances are separated from the man wherever they may be, even if enclosed in a thousand labyrinthine interlacings, so that nothing vital can remain behind . . . " Since man's spirit consists of organic substances, a man who comes into the other world supposes that he is still living in the same body, with sensations and thoughts altogether similar to those he experienced in the world.[378]

The newcome spirit is first received by angels and good spirits but, being free to associate himself with his like, he gradually comes into his own delights and ambitions and pursues a life similar to that which he had led in the body. There are three heavens, each succeeding one more interior and pure, and each distinguished into innumerable societies governed by the harmony of mutual love. The Lord there appears as a sun, the source of all the ineffable delights and innumerable blessings of angelic life. There are also three hells, whose indwellers are grouped together according to the kind of cupidities and fantasies in which they wish to be - hatred, revenge, cruelty, adultery, deceit, robbery, avarice, and other evils.

Midway between heaven and hell is "the world of spirits," where souls fresh from the world first arrive. At that time, says Swedenborg in 1750, it was full of evil spirits from the Christian world who "think and plan for scarcely anything else than how to become the greatest and to possess all things" - a sign that the Last Judgment was about to take place.

* * * * *

The first volume of Arcana Coelestia appeared in London during the summer of 1749 and was sold by the printer John Lewis on Paternoster Row. Like other works of Swedenborg when he embarked on a new subject, the Arcana also was anonymous. But, unlike former times, the anonymity lasted. Swedenborg had learned how to protect his privacy while giving the world his thoughts. The volume of 640 quarto pages sold for only six shillings, unbound - too low a price by far, in the estimation of the printer since, as he says in an advertisement, the work is printed in "a grand and pompous manner. But it was the generous author's absolute command that it should be so, for he lacks neither purse nor spirit to carry out his laudable undertaking."[379]

In September, 1749, the London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, carried a brief notice of the initial volume of Arcana Coelestia. Here were the first fruits of Swedenborg's mission. He had delivered to the world, by means of the press, the message divinely given him to transmit. The first sales were less than even he could have expected, although his expectations had not been high. In a memorandum in his Diary he wrote:

I have received a letter informing me that not more than four copies had been sold in. two months, and this was made known to the angels. They indeed wondered, but said that it should be left to the Providence of the Lord, which was such as to compel no one, though it might be done, but that it was not fitting that any others should read my work at first but those who were in faith, and that this might be known from what happened at the coming of the Lord into the world, who was able to compel men to receive His words and Himself but yet compelled no one, as was also the case in respect to the apostles. But still there were found those who would receive, to wit, those who were in faith, to whom also the apostles were sent . . . [380]

In another place he discusses more explicitly how his doctrines would be received by men:

Evil spirits insinuated that no one would perceive [=grasp] these things, but that men would reject them . . . There are five kinds of reception. The first are those who wholly reject, and who are enemies of faith. These reject it because it cannot penetrate their minds. Another class are delighted with the new things as curiosities. A third class receives them intellectually but, in respect to life, still remain as before. A fourth class receives so that it penetrates to the improvement of their lives, a fifth class receives the new things with joy and are confirmed.[381]

Although the wisdom from heaven created no great stir in the London of Goldsmith and Gainsborough, one man there was who received the new message with joy. His name suggests something of slight value, but his value was by no means slight. Stephen Penny is the' first person known to have accepted the new revelation.

Writing from Dartmouth, on October 15, 1749, Penny expresses "the extraordinary degree of pleasure" the reading of the Arcana has given him, and requests that the continuation be sent him. "I have long ardently wished to see the historical part of the Old Testament . . . proved to be as delightful, instructive and necessary for the knowledge of Christians as the New . . . But the illumined author . . . must expect a considerable army of gown-men to draw their pens against him. It is a blessing their power is prescribed within impassable bounds."[382]

This enthusiastic letter was very welcome to the printer, who lost no time in inserting it in the London Daily Advertiser on Christmas Day!

Others, too, were impressed with the Arcana. "Soon after the publication of Mr. Penny's letter a grave, judicious and learned old gentleman called at the bookseller's and inquired who the author [of the book] was. He would be extremely glad to have made his acquaintance for, he earnestly stated, `I never saw, nor heard, nor read of so surprising a man in all my days!"'

Lewis undoubtedly expected a large sale for this work, which he says is intended to be such an exposition of the entire Bible as was never attempted in any language before. He admits in his "Advertisement" that "the English nation abounds in commentaries and expositions on the Holy Bible, yet ... this author has struck out a new path through the deep abyss of sacred scripture, which no man ever trod before. He neither meddles with any of the other commentators nor does he copy them. His thoughts are all his own. But the Arcana is not a book to be understood with a slight and cursory reading. The thoughts of this author are sublime and deep. Let the reader peruse them over and over and they will yield a noble repast to a pious mind."

Lewis gives us some interesting details:

Though the author of Arcana Coelestia is undoubtedly a very learned and great man, and his works highly esteemed by the literati, yet he is no less distinguished for his modesty than his great talents, so that he will not suffer his name to be made public ... How this great work of Arcana Coelestia will succeed in the world it is impossible at present to determine. If all men of learning were of the same mind with the ingenious and pious Mr. Penny of Dartmouth, we need not fear success ...

In February, 1750, Swedenborg was ready to begin the printing of the second volume, which had presumably been written in England while he was seeing the first volume through the press. He decided to publish it in an English edition simultaneously with the Latin, and to let the public have both, in sections, instead of having to wait for the continuation until the entire second volume was ready. In Lewis' statement in his "Advertisement for the Second Volume"-from which the previous quotations have been taken-he says that Swedenborg advanced two hundred pounds to print the first volume and the same sum for the second. It might be supposed that the English edition originated in the mind of the publisher himself except for the declaration of a reliable witness who vouchsafes the information that the translation of the sixteenth chapter of Genesis was made "by Mr. John Merchant, a literary gentleman of good character, at the express desire of the Author himself, who remunerated him for his trouble."[383]

The English version was entitled: "Arcana Coelestia or Heavenly Secrets, which are in the Sacred Scriptures or Word of the Lord, laid open ... together with the wonderful things that have been seen in the world o f spirits and in the heaven o f angels. I., 1750. Price eightpence." Only two copies of this rarity have come down to our day. One of them is Swedenborg's own copy, now in the Royal Library in Stockholm. The other is in the library of the Academy of the New Church, in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.

The manuscript copy for the printing of the Latin text of the second volume was sent to London from France, where Swedenborg spent the winter. It seems that in the fall of 1749, after the first volume of Arcana had left the press, Swedenborg was advised by his doctors to take a needed rest, and that he spent the next year at the fashionable watering place of Aix-la-Chapelle.

Several letters were sent to that address by his friend Joachim Wretman, a Swedish merchant in Amsterdam who acted as his agent. A letter of February, 1750, indicates that Swedenborg was then preparing to return to his native land, and refers to parcels of books that were being held for him to pick up on his way through Amsterdam 384 Like many persons of quality in those days, Wretman was a fancier of rare plants and flowers, and he was now filling Swedenborg's order for seeds and bulbs to be planted in the author's garden in Stockholm. Did Swedenborg perhaps discern a "correspondence" between these little earthly seeds and those precious heavenly ones which through his instrumentality were being sown in the minds of men - the newly disclosed heavenly secrets?

to Chapter 28