The Swedenborg epic

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Chapter 36 - Reactions in Germany

While isolated individuals in England and Sweden were awakening to an interest in Swedenborg, the first serious attention paid to his revelations by persons of prominence was in the German principalities. Here scholars were well acquainted with Swedenborg from his philosophical works which had been printed in Dresden and Leipzig and were widely noticed in the learned press. Here, too, there was a greater interest than elsewhere in anything of an occult nature. With a background of such mystical character as that provided in the thirteenth century by Johannes Eckhart and in the sixteen by Jacob Böhme - who was believed to have had a divine illumination - people in this part of Europe were susceptible to claimants of supernatural powers, and it was particularly the spirit-phenomenal aspect of Swedenborg's works, and not the religious one, that aroused widespread interest in Germany.

As early as 1760, the theologian Dr. Johann August Ernesti had called attention to Swedenborg's theological works in his by no means flattering review of Arcana Coelestia (See Chapters XXXIII and XXXIX). The first affirmative reader that we know of was Prelate Friedrich Christopher Oetinger, a distinguished scholar and prolific writer who presided over the district of Murrhard in Württemberg. Oetinger had long been an admiring student of Swedenborg's philosophy. In 1762, when he first made the acquaintance of the theological works, he was engaged in the composition of a book to be called Earthly and Heavenly Philosophy. Overtaken by a severe illness he stood, as he supposed, before the gates of eternity, and this work was to be his last testament. If Ernesti's review of the Arcana first called his attention to Swedenborg's revelations, the fact that the review was a thorough denunciation would not by itself have detracted from the book's value in Oetinger's eyes, for he was well accustomed to having his own works attacked because of his peculiar predilection for mysticism. In his youth he had been a student of B6hme and had lived for a time with the Moravian teacher Zinzendorf at Herrnhut. He was interested in both philosophy and mysticism and he saw in Swedenborg the desired systematic solution for welding them together.[556]

When the first volume of Arcana Coelestia fell into his hands, Oetinger was so forcibly impressed with Swedenborg's spiritual experiences that he wished immediately to make these amazing disclosures known to a larger public. Writing to a friend, he refers to Swedenborg as "an old gentleman who from having been the greatest of philosophers has become a small apostle." He tells his friend that he is willing to translate the Heavenly Mysteries into German if others will defray the cost of publication. The book contains wonderful, unheard-of and important things, he declares. But while he found Swedenborg's spiritual experiences very interesting he did not think highly of his explanations of Scripture. Oetinger is not disturbed by this, however, for he is able to combine it all. "I am not a theologian of one stripe only. But what a wonderful book this is! Professor Krafft says that the information contained therein is so very detailed that it is better to pass into eternity with faith alone rather than with such a detailed account."[557]

Having secured the promise of financial assistance from his friends, Oetinger set about to translate the Memorable Relations between the chapters of the first volume of Arcana Coelestia, and to insert them into his forthcoming book as examples of "heavenly philosophy." The book was published in Tübingen in 1765 under the title: The Earthly and Heavenly Philosophy of Swedenborg and Others (Swedenborgs and Anderer Irdische and Himmlische Philosophie). In his Preface Oetinger says:

I herewith present for the examination of my readers something rare, which God has given us to know at the present time ... The infidelity which now is rife in the world has induced God to make use of an eminent philosopher in order to communicate to us heavenly information. Mathematics have checked the imagination of this philosopher, wherefore it will not do to say that he reports mere imaginings. Experimental facts are not imaginings. These experiences are due to the influx of heavenly intelligence by the command of the Lord . . . A person anxious to improve himself ought not to forego any opportunity by which he may become acquainted with the new light offered him by truth. Swedenborg, a distinguished assessor of the Swedish Board of Mines, wrote a large work in folio which is most costly [Opera Philosophica et Mineralia]. This I call earthly philosophy in contrast to the following which is of heavenly origin . . . Does not Swedenborg place the Scriptures higher than anyone else? And does he not wish to have his experiences judged thereby? Is not all that he says well connected? And does he not appeal to many witnesses?

The Consistory, of Württemberg - spurred on, probably, by an incensed Ernesti - did not share his enthusiasm. It became highly indignant with Oetinger and shortly after the book appeared took steps to forbid his publishing anything more, either within the country or outside it. On March 4, 1766, the Württemberg government, acting on the Consistory's advice, ordered the entire edition of Oetinger's work to be confiscated and called upon the Prelate to defend himself on three counts: (1) as to the motives which influenced him; (2) as to the censor's permission to print it, and (3) as to the sale of the work.

In his defense Oetinger cited "an inward call to write the book" and "urgent motives sent by the Divine Providence."

Your Serene Highness will please to take into account that this work has been written in the sight of God, with much thought ... Even though a hundred Ernestis should gnash their teeth over it, I considered myself bound in conscience to see it through the press. But since its sale is prohibited under a heavy fine, nothing else remains to me than to obey and keep silence before God. Who is right, O Lord, Thou knowest!

With characteristic German deference to authority, Oetinger bowed, not only to the injunction but also in his spirit. His previous enthusiasm waned, his mind became suffused with doubts. In this state he addressed Swedenborg, on October 7, 1766.[558] He tells the Seer that although he has found much in the theological works that agrees with the Holy Scriptures, nevertheless there is also much that he questions, and adds, "But, my dear Sir, you will hardly be willing to believe how much I had to suffer on your account, merely for having translated the `things seen' recorded in the first volume of your work."

Oetinger's acceptance of Swedenborg was thus partial and not, like Dr. Beyer's, a full and complete acknowledgment. He began to question even the truth of what Swedenborg had written about the life after death, the very things that had formerly stood out for him as self-evident. He wanted a miraculous confirmation.

"Give us a sign that your doctrine is true," he beseeches.

Gideon asked for a sign that God was talking with him. Since Swedenborg conversed with the dead, let him speak with the apostle John and question him as to whether his Book of Revelation should really be interpreted spiritually and not literally. Let him also talk with Paul and with the twelve Apostles. Oetinger is afraid that Swedenborg, by taking away the literal sense, has committed the sin forbidden in Revelation XXII, 18, 19: "If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life."

Signs have little effect, says Swedenborg in his prompt reply to this epistle,[559] as they do not convince a person internally. He cites, as an example, that immediately after Jehovah's descent from Mount Sinai the Israelites were prostrating themselves before a golden calf. And what of the Lord's miracles - did they prevent the Jewish nation from crucifying Him?

He expresses his sorrow that Oetinger has had to suffer for having translated the things concerning heaven and hell. "But what suffers more at the present day than truth itself?" he asks. "How few there be who see it, yea, who are willing to see it! Do not allow yourself to be discouraged thereby, but be a defender of the truth!" (Stockholm, November 11, 1766).

Nevertheless Oetinger's state of doubt grew more and more severe. On December 4 he again assured Swedenborg that his books would acquire much greater power if he would give an account of his conversations with Paul and John, and Moses and Luther. "The affection I entertain for you threatens to become lukewarm amid the many reproaches showered upon me" (December 16, 1767).560 Oetinger often had to defend himself against scoffers who pronounced him a fanatic because of his championship of Swedenborg. But he countered with this argument: "Is it possible that a philosopher who, like Wolff, has weighed and measured everything, should all at once have become an imbecile and suddenly cease to think according to the laws of order?" He admits that many, by a perusal of Swedenborg's writings, now "believe in the immortality of the soul, which they had formerly denied."

He still questions various points in Swedenborg's theology but "hopes that no erroneous views will deceive the author and deprive him of the hopes of his New Church." He suggests that Swedenborg write a history of his life, explaining "what inner experience had caused him to turn from a philosopher into a revelator . . . " (December 4, 1766).

Swedenborg's impressive reply to this question was:

Query: Why, from being a philosopher, have I been chosen?

Answer: The cause of this has been that the spiritual things which are being revealed at the present day may be taught and understood naturally and rationally; for spiritual truths have a correspondence with natural truths, because in these they terminate and upon these they rest. That there is a correspondence of all spiritual things with all things of man, as well as with all things of the earth, may be seen in the work on Heaven and Hell, nos. 87 to 102, and nos. 103 to 115. For this reason I was introduced by the Lord first into the natural sciences and thus prepared; and indeed from the year 1710 to 1744, when heaven was opened to me. Every one also is led by means of natural things to spiritual things; for man is born natural, by education he is made moral, and afterward, through regeneration by the Lord, he becomes spiritual. The Lord has granted to me, besides, to love truths in a spiritual manner, that is to love them, not for the sake of honor nor for the sake of gain but for the sake of the truths themselves; for he who loves truths for the sake of truth sees them from the Lord, because the Lord is the Way and the Truth (John XIV, 6) ; but he who loves them for the sake of honor or gain, sees them from himself, and seeing from oneself is equivalent to seeing falsities. Falsities that have been confirmed close the church, wherefore truths rationally understood have to open it. How else can spiritual things, which transcend the understanding, be understood, acknowledged, and received? The dogma which has been handed down by the Papists and accepted by the Protestants, namely, that the understanding is to be held in bondage under obedience to faith, has a second time closed the church and what else is to open it again except an understanding illustrated by the Lord? But on this subject see The Apocalypse Revealed, no. 914.[561]

A number of people in Germany became acquainted with Swedenborg through Oetinger's courageous defense and through the work of his son-in-law, Heinrich Wilhelm Clemm, professor of theology at the University of Tübingen and editor of a serial publication entitled: Complete Introduction to Theology and the Whole of Religion.[562] In the Fourth Part of this work he now printed a discussion of the Swedenborgian question, together with the text of Oetinger's correspondence with Swedenborg, which added more misery to the headache from which the authorities already suffered. Clemm's work was favorably reviewed in Erlanger Review on February 8, 1766, but heartily condemned by Ernesti.[563]

In his letter to Swedenborg Oetinger mentions anew book that had recently come into his hands, entitled Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (Traüme eines Geistersehers)[564] written by the philosopher Immanuel Kant but published anonymously, containing a discussion of Swedenborg's visions. "The author exalts you as much by praises, on the one hand, as he drags you down by criminations on the other, for fear of seeming a fanatic," says Oetinger. "The theologians in the universities condemn you, on account of your errors in respect to the Trinity, justification and redemption, etc. . . .

* * * * *

To Kant, the phenomenon of Swedenborg presented a puzzle which he now seems to have been willing to consign to the realm of entertainment rather than to give it serious consideration. In his Dreams of a Spirit-Seer the philosopher of Königsberg repeated some of the stories about Swedenborg's intercourse with spirits in an amusing way, playfully leaving it to his readers to resolve for themselves the mixture of reason and credulity in the dish which he thus served up to them.

How this skeptical mind became interested in Swedenborg, Kant himself tells in a letter to Mlle. Charlotte von Knobloch whom he describes as "an ornament to her sex"-probably because, although a mere woman, she occupied her time with intellectual pursuits. Shortly after the incident of Swedenborg's revealing the secret to the queen of Sweden, in November, 1761, Mlle. von Knobloch had addressed a letter to Kant asking him to explain the remarkable stories in current circulation regarding the Swedish seer.[565]

Being a very careful student, Kant decided to make some inquiries before answering the lady's letter. A Danish officer whom he chanced to meet had attended a dinner in Copenhagen where a letter was read from the Mechlenburg ambassador to the Swedish court. The ambassador stated that he had himself been present at the royal residence when Swedenborg made his startling disclosure to the queen of her secret.

Kant was impressed, for he knew it was impossible for one ambassador to communicate to another, for public use, a piece of information relating so intimately to the queen of the court where he resided, and to describe an occurrence which he himself had witnessed in the presence of many distinguished persons, if it were not true. (The event is said to have been communicated by all the foreign ministers to their respective courts.)

Kant thereupon addressed a letter on the subject to Swedenborg himself, who received it politely from the hands of a certain merchant and promised to answer it. This, however, he failed to do, and when some time later Kant heard that a friend of his, "a highly educated English gentleman," was going to Stockholm on business; he requested him to make special inquiries into the truth of the story. This the gentleman did, reporting in his first letter from Stockholm that he found the story accepted as trustworthy by the most respectable people of the city.

In the early part of 1763, Kant's English friend - a Mr. Green - paid a visit to Swedenborg at his home (see p. 304) and afterward wrote a second letter to Kant giving, in minute detail, the results of this interview which had thrown him into a state of profound amazement. He had found Swedenborg "an intelligent, pleasing, open-hearted man," ("ein vernünftiger, gefälliger and offenherziger Mann,") who assured him, without reserve, that God had accorded him the remarkable gift of communicating with departed souls at his pleasure, in proof of which he appealed to certain well-known facts that the gentleman forthwith related.

As to Kant's unanswered letter, Swedenborg had said that "he was aware of having received it, and that he would already have answered it, had he not intended to make the whole of this singular affair public before the eyes of the world. He would proceed to London in the month of May this year [Swedenborg left in June and went first to Holland], where he would publish a book, which would be, in every point, an answer to Kant's letter, probably a reference to The Divine Love and Wisdom, which Swedenborg published in Holland, in 1763, and which discusses the nature of the spiritual world. Whether he made any further answer to Kant's letter is not known.

Mr. Green was in Königsberg during Easter week and it was then that Kant heard the particular details which put "the assertion of Swedenborg's extraordinary gift beyond all possibility of doubt."

Kant was now able to answer Mlle. von Knobloch. He said that he was not aware that anyone had ever accused him of an inclination to the marvelous, or of a weakness tending to credulity. Rather was he known as inclining to the negative side when it came to stories of apparitions and visions. Indeed, so far removed from superstition was this philosopher - so he says - that he never felt any fear in the cemeteries of the dead or in the darkness of night. Not, that is, until he began to examine those reports concerning Swedenborg![566]

Kant's letter to von Knobloch is important as it relates (at second hand) Swedenborg's version of the well-known anecdotes of the Stockholm fire, the lost receipt, and the queen's secret, in reply to a direct inquiry made to himself.[567]

When Kant published his Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, three years later, he reversed his good opinion of Swedenborg! Instead of being "an intelligent, pleasing and open-hearted man," Swedenborg is here held up to ridicule, in biting sarcasm, as "the arch-fanatic of all fanatics," (der Erz-Phantast unter allen Phantasten), his Arcana being "eight quarto volumes full of nonsense" (acht Quärtbande voll Unsinn).

What could have caused this sudden change of front? Was it because Ernesti's denunciations of Swedenborg still continued and Prelate Oetinger had come to grief through his championship of this - as they considered - almost disreputable cause? [An account of Ernesti's further actions is found in Chapter XLII, p. 419 ff.] Surely so great a man as Kant would not tremble before the thought of losing his standing as a critical philosopher? Yet something very like this is indicated by the above quoted letter to Moses Mendelsohn, who had reproached Kant with the deplorable tone of his book, a criticism which the philosopher acknowledged as just. The book had been written, he confessed, in a state of irritation over the persistent talk about Swedenborg's visions. "I realized that I would have no peace from incessant inquiries until I had rid myself of my suspected knowledge of all these anecdotes," he explained. So thoroughly had Kant carried out this disavowal that, in his book, he even misspells Swedenborg's name, referring to him as "a certain Herr Schwedenberg who has neither office nor profession."[568]

Kant's standing as a critical philosopher remained secure. But whatever he thought of Swedenborg's ideas on theology; he certainly could not have repudiated his cosmological principles, for it has been repeatedly pointed out that much of the famous Kant-Laplacean theory of the origin of the solar and sidereal systems shows marked similarity to Swedenborg's theories in the Principia.[569]

In analyzing the character of the German people, Swedenborg comments on their implicit trust in their men of learning. They like to quote the opinions of authorities, he says, rather than to think things out for themselves. He attributes their lack of freedom of thought to the depressing effect of the despotic government under which they lived.

This restraint is like a high wall about the basin of a fountain, which causes the water within to rise even to the orifice of the inflowing stream, so that the stream can no longer leap forth. Thought is like the inflowing stream, and speech therefrom is like the basin.[570]

Dr. Ernst Benz' new searching analysis of the influence of Swedenborg on the romantic movement in Germany, "Swedenborg as the spiritual pioneer of German idealism and German romanticism,[571] wholly justifies the observation quoted above. He describes Kant's book as constituting "a deathblow" to Swedenborg as far as any possible influence on the German academies and high schools was concerned. "There was nothing so deadly, in this century, as the curse of ridicule." This curse Kant had uttered over Swedenborg and it worked. Among poets and writers, however, Dr. Benz traces, through Oetinger, Lavater, and Jung-Stilling, "a stream of Swedenborgian ideas" that colored the writings of such literary lights as Schelling and Hegel. In Goethe, moreover, he attributes the inspiration of Faust to "the compelling influence of the Stockholm philosopher."

In relating the incidents that follow it has been necessary to depart from the chronological sequence of this biography in order to cover the events in Germany as a unit.

The government's ban on Oetinger's book and the continued reviews in the public press had the effect of calling attention to Swedenborg and so, besides the contemporary men of learning, less learned people also became interested in the new revelations concerning the spiritual world, notably the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, Ludwig IX. Around him there formed a circle of acquaintances who eagerly sought information about the state of deceased persons, through spiritistic communications. The Landgrave wrote to Oetinger and received in return one of three copies of Swedenborg's latest work[572] which the author himself had sent Oetinger for distribution to some illustrious men of his acquaintance. The prelate who had been forbidden to publish his "Defense before Württemberg Consistory," begged the Landgrave to use his influence in the matter, but apparently without success. When Oetinger invited Swedenborg to pay him a visit in Murrhard, the Consistory ordered him not to receive the celebrated Swede in the event that he should come.[573]

But the Landgrave, hearing that Swedenborg was in Holland, instructed his resident minister at the Hague, M. De Treuer, to look up the famous author, which De Treuer did, receiving from him the promise of a visit to Germany. He reported that Swedenborg was overjoyed at this evidence of the Prince's interest in his writings. The Landgrave thereupon addressed a letter to Swedenborg so abounding in flattery that Swedenborg was embarrassed. Failing to receive a reply, Hesse-Darmstadt then sent one of his council, Pastor Venator, to interview the seer in person. Swedenborg told Venator that his delay in answering the letter was caused by doubts about its genuineness. "You may perhaps greatly wonder why I did not know from heaven that the letter was signed by his Serene Highness', the Landgrave's own hand," he subsequently wrote. "The reason is because the angels do not know such things, and the Lord our Saviour leaves things which concern temporal matters to my intelligence and judgment, and reveals to me only such things as treat of heaven and eternal life; and I have not ventured to ask the Lord Himself about these earthly matters."[574]

The above is taken from a group of letters recently unearthed by Professor Benz and published by him in his important volume, Swedenborg in Deutschland. These letters are a further indication of the superficial nature of the Landgrave's interest, which focused on the question of how he could come into communication with angels and spirits. When finally Swedenborg replied to Hesse-Darmstadt he said:

The gift of speaking with angels as I speak with them cannot be transferred from one person to another. It has sometimes happened that a spirit enters in and utters some word to a man, yet it is not given him to speak with the man mouth to mouth; this moreover is extremely dangerous, for the spirit enters into the affection of the man's own love, and this is not concordant with the affection of heavenly love.[575]

Once, in answer to a question as to the possibility of others entering into the kind of spiritual life Swedenborg enjoyed, he replied: "Take good care! That is the direct road to insanity!" The danger was that when a man, by his own speculation, tries to fathom heavenly things, he cannot protect himself against the delusions of hell. As for Swedenborg's own case, he had never expected to come into his present state but was selected by the Lord for his mission. His purpose previously had been "to explore nature, chemistry and the sciences of mining and anatomy."[576]

More to the same effect was given in Swedenborg's answer to Baron d'Hatzel, a Hollander who, as early as 1759, had received news of Swedenborg's remarkable revelations from a Swedish friend and at once became an enthusiastic reader. Like Hesse-Darmstadt, d'Hatzel was chiefly impressed with the seer's ability to hold conversations with spirits. This power he coveted for himself and ardently wished to become a disciple so that he, too, could "taste the water of the same fountain that Swedenborg was drinking of." He especially requested "that Swedenborg tell him in which of the five books of Moses, in which chapter and in which two verses, lies concealed the power of entering into communication with spirits." (There was a widespread belief among necromancers that certain specific passages of the Bible can effect such communication.)

Swedenborg, in reply, detailed his reasons for refusing this impossible request and, since this document is important as revealing his personal interpretation of the much-belabored subject, a quotation will be of interest:

With respect to some verses in the books of Moses, which possess the property and power of introducing man to intercourse with spirits, enabling him to speak with them, I do not know of any verses in Scripture which have this property more than others. I only know that the Word of God is everywhere written in such a style that when a man reads it with affection and attention, spirits and angels have a part in it and adjoin themselves to him; for the Word of God is so written that it forms a bond of union between heaven and earth. (See what is written on this subject in the work on Heaven and Hell, nos. 303 to 310.) The Lord, nevertheless, so disposes it that spirits and men are seldom brought together so closely as to converse with one another; for by intercourse with spirits men are brought into such a condition as to their souls that they are speedily in danger of their life; wherefore I would dissuade all from cherishing such desires. The Lord Himself has been pleased to introduce me into converse and intercourse with spirits and angels for the reasons which have been explained in my writings; wherefore I am protected by the Lord himself from the many desperate attempts and attacks of evil spirits . . .[577]

To Swedenborg, his supernatural experiences were "not miracles but merely testimonies" of his intercourse with spirits. His revelation came, not from angels or spirits, but from the Lord alone. "No spirit has dared, no angel has wished to say anything, still less to instruct me concerning anything in the Word or concerning any doctrine from the Word, but the Lord alone has taught me . . . "[578]

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