The Swedenborg epic

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Chapter 39 - An Amsterdam Acquaintance

In Amsterdam the printing of the new work went on apace. It was finished by the end of September, 1768, for on the first of October Swedenborg sent a copy of it to Dr. Beyer. This was the first of his theological books to which he affixed his name, the title page reading: Delights of Wisdom concerning Conjugial Love after which follow Pleasures of Insanity concerning Scortatory Love, by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swede."[612]

On November 4, in M. François Changuion's French bookshop in Amsterdam, Swedenborg chanced to meet a leading citizen, the merchant and banker, John Christian Curio. As this first encounter proved sympathetic and agreeable to both men, they struck up an acquaintance which led to Curio's writing the most detailed account of Swedenborg's personality that we have.[613]

Cuno had led an interesting and adventurous life. He was born in Prussia and his youth, in Berlin, seems to have been spent in trying to escape the clutches of recruiting officers for the army of Frederick the Great. So eager for new material were they that Curio, who for two years lodged within the walls of the school where he was studying, was impressed into the army when only sixteen, in spite of all efforts of the institution to protect him. For twenty-four years he served under the military authority, was advanced and often entrusted with foreign missions of grave responsibility. He finally deserted and decided to try his fortunes in Holland, a safe refuge for the oppressed. There he eventually married the widow of a Dutch merchant and turned to commerce. All his life Cuno had been a prolific writer in prose and verse and his 4,000-page Memoirs are rich in comments on art, science and social life.

Led by natural curiosity, Cuno made inquiries respecting Swedenborg from Joachim Wretman and other Swedish merchants of the city. On the Sunday following his encounter with Swedenborg at the book shop, he paid the author a visit at his comfortable two-room lodging near the church in Kalberstrass, and he made it a custom during the winter to stop there after attending church.

One of his first questions to Swedenborg was why he did not keep a servant to wait upon him and accompany him on his journeys. Swedenborg replied that he needed no one to look after him because his angel was always with him.

Says Cuno:

If any other man had uttered these words, it would have made me laugh, but I never thought of laughing when this venerable man, eighty-one years old, told me this. He looked far too innocent and when he gazed on me with his smiling blue eyes - as he always did in conversing - it was as if truth itself was speaking from them.

He lived with young burgher folks who kept a shop in which they sold chintz, muslin, handkerchiefs, and the like, and who had quite a number of little children. I asked the landlady whether the old gentleman did not require very much attention.

"Almost none," was the reply. "My maid has nothing else to do for him but lay the fire in the fireplace every morning. Every evening, at the stroke of seven, he goes to bed, and he gets up in the morning at eight o'clock. We do not trouble ourselves any more about him. During the day he keeps up the fire himself and on going to bed he takes great care lest it should do any damage. He dresses and undresses himself alone and waits upon himself in everything, so that we scarcely know whether there is any one in the house or not. I should like him to be with us for the rest of his life. My children will miss him most for he never goes out without bringing them home some sweets, and the little monkeys are so foolishly fond of him that they love the old man much more than their own parents. The man must be very rich . . . "

He lived very frugally [continues Cuno], chocolate and biscuits, served in his own room, usually constituted his midday meal and of this his landlord, landlady, and the children must always have the greater part. If he had a better appetite he went into a neighboring cookshop . . . But he was far from being unsociable and capricious. Whoever invited him as a guest was sure to have him . . . He sometimes dined with his countrymen, the Messrs. Grill and others. Almost every Sunday he dined at Mr. Wretman's, who was also his most intimate companion.

When I first invited Swedenborg to my house I invited Mr. Wretman with him. I might have invited many more, for many were anxious to make the acquaintance of so singular a guest, but as I was not yet sufficiently acquainted with him myself, I dared not venture it, for I was constantly afraid some one would make sport of him. He was very cheerful at my house and uncommonly open-hearted, as I have ever found him since . . .

It soon became known in town that I cultivated the society of this remarkable man and everyone tormented me to give them an opportunity of making his acquaintance. I advised people to do as I had done and to call on him, because he willingly conversed with every honest man. Herr Swedenborg moves with great nimbleness and knows how to address the high as well as the low. I should have liked very much to introduce him into our circle, because he told me that he is very fond of playing an occasional game of ombre [A card game, derived from Spain.]; but since I knew that he never stays up longer than seven o'clock and as, in our circle, only a little German and very little French is spoken, I had to give it up. For the same reason I could not gratify the curiosity of certain ladies.

Once, however, at the urgent request of the wife of my friend Herr Nicolam Konauw, I agreed to bring him to dinner. The old gentleman was at once willing and ready. Herr Konauw sent his carriage for us.

At Madame's we met, among other guests, the two Mademoiselles Hoog, who were very well educated, indeed above the customary sphere of women, having been introduced into the higher sciences, especially the philosophical studies. Herr Swedenborg's deportment was uncommonly polite and gallant. As we were called to the table I offered Madame my hand to lead her to the dining room. Instantly my young man of eighty-one years had his new gloves on and presented his hand to Mlle. Hoog, which became him very well.

Whenever he was invited out he dressed properly and becomingly in black velvet but ordinarily he wore a brown coat and black trousers. I never saw him dressed otherwise than in one of these two suits of clothes. Our old gentleman was seated between Madame Konauw and the elder Mlle. Hoog, both of whom knew right well how to talk, but they had to promise me beforehand that, at least during dinner, they would allow the old gentleman to eat in peace. This promise they faithfully kept, and he seemed to enjoy very much to be so attentively served by the ladies. This time he ate with such a good appetite that I was quite surprised. They could not prevail upon him to take more than at most three glasses of wine, which were besides half filled with sugar; of which he was inordinately fond.

At dessert the talk was very lively and it continued afterward while we took tea and coffee, and thus until seven o'clock when I had taken care that the carriage should be ready to take us home. It is incredible the multitude of questions the ladies addressed to him, and he answered them all. I should have to write a great deal were I inclined to put down all these questions and answers. But I must mention one.

The conversation turned upon a certain distinguished person, an ambassador, I think, who had died some years previously at The Hague.

"I know him!" exclaimed Herr Swedenborg, "although I never saw him in his lifetime. As you mention his name,[614] I now recognize him and know that he left a widow. But in the spirit world he is now married again and therefore has a wife for eternity who is more fully in harmony with his mental disposition than the one he left behind him in this world."

One can imagine how many new questions this singular story called forth, all of which he answered. The ladies discreetly contented themselves with the answers he gave them.

I dined with him several times after that at Mr. Konauw's and also at the home of Herr Odon, one of his partners, where there were always different ladies ...

Cuno describes Swedenborg as a perfect wonder of health. "He is of middle stature and, though more than twenty years older than I, yet I surely would not dare to run a race with him, for he is still as nimble on his feet as the youngest man. When I dined with him the last time at Herr Odon's, he told me that he was growing new teeth - and who has ever heard that of a graybeard of eighty-one years? [This statement, which has puzzled many, is explained by a modern authority as referring to the roots of the teeth which, after having been overgrown by the gum, had reappeared as the gums atrophied.[615]]

On one occasion a young man procured access to Swedenborg and, pretending to agree with everything he said, drew him out on the subject of the Church of Rome and the extraordinary changes that had lately taken place among the Jesuits, expressing his surprise that the King of Portugal had even caused the Bishop of Coimbra to be hanged. [King Joseph II and his minister Pombal had introduced many wholesome reforms into Portugal, curtailing the power of the nobility and clergy. The order of Jesuits was abolished and one of their leaders had been executed.]

"That is not true!" Swedenborg interrupted, "The Bishop has not departed from life, or I should have known it. Only recently I spoke about him with some who were lately deceased, and bantered the Pope on this case."

The young man went immediately to the bookshop of Pieter Meyer and related what he had just heard to a number of people gathered there before the opening of the Bourse. Most were of the opinion that the news was quite true, as it had appeared in all the public papers with an account of the attendant circumstances.

"I will make a note of this," said Hem Pieter Meyer, "for it will soon appear whether it is true or not."

But the gossips declared that the old gentleman was crazed. They said he had disgraced himself at The Hague at the time when rumor related that Voltaire had died. They asserted that Swedenborg appeared very sad and said that he was frightened at the terrible state of Voltaire when he met him in the spirit world. So when the news came out that Voltaire was still alive-the French poet himself having wittily remarked that his death had been "greatly exaggerated"-Swedenborg was stigmatized as a false prophet and left The Hague in disgrace, according to the gossips.

Cuno was easily able to spike this cunning and malicious falsehood by proving that Swedenborg had been in Amsterdam during the whole time that the false report of Voltaire's death was being circulated and never once had put foot in The Hague.

"I am not at all willing to go security for the old gentleman to the extent that everything he tells in his writings should be believed, but what I have just heard concerning him is an arrant falsehood," said Cuno. He told Swedenborg what he heard said about him respecting Voltaire. Swedenborg merely smiled and said,

Indeed, I have not been at The Hague since more than a half a year ago, and I have not once thought of Voltaire for many years. How people can lie! In respect to the Bishop of Coimbra, other sensible people besides myself probably doubted that story. One does not hang a bishop so easily. Nevertheless he- is a prisoner and it is true that I have spoken about him with the late Pope ...

A few days later the papers retracted the statement that the Portuguese bishop had been hanged, and Swedenborg's reputation as a prophet was restored.

In January an Amsterdam paper came out with a review of Conjugial Love:[616]

If ever the rarity of the contents of a book and the eagerness of men to hear something new can be of assistance to its sale, then one should expect this, as a matter of course, from these writings, because they reveal things that have been secret until now ... The only thing that possibly will prevent a big sale of this book is the unbelief of men in our days. Some will think that the writer should be understood not literally but as an allegory. Others are apt to look upon him as a man of immoral character, while those who think a little better of him will look upon him as a first-class fanatic ... The writer can not be looked upon as of immoral character, because he has always real virtue in mind ...

... We encounter so many things which are not quite possible and at the same time are contrary to the teachings of the Word of God that, notwithstanding all that the writer may say, we cannot do otherwise than look upon his writings as imagination and advise the majority of people to refrain from reading the book, for it can make harmful and scandalous fanatics.

After commenting favorably on Swedenborg's descriptions of angels, the reviewer indicates that the situation of the evil is "too disgusting to talk about."

Cuno now had real trouble on his hands:

I had been frequently seen with him, and in all companies where I was asked about him, I had commonly expressed myself as much in his favor as I could, with truth and by conviction; nay, I had defended and sheltered him against all sorts of gossip which I knew consisted of falsehoods. On this account scoffers might have circulated reports about me which might have been anything but pleasant. So it happened more than once that silly talkers - who the less they know about religion the more they are inclined to ridicule it - repeatedly gave me to understand I had already become a heretic.

It is one thing to entertain a celebrity, it is another to be called a heretic! Cuno was a man with whom the opinion of the world had weight. Neither a deep scholar nor an original thinker, he depended for his spiritual life upon piety and honesty. Like many another German, he had an affable personality until crossed. He was conscientious but hidebound in his thinking. He wanted to be fair and honest, but in Swedenborg he met ideas so revolutionary that he did not at first realize their implications. He thought of Swedenborg at first as an interesting character, a gentlemanly figure for his salons, an ornament for his Memoirs. But when public opinion began to go against the seer - as it did during the winter of 1768-9 - Cuno became confused and unable to hold the various threads together. Very likely also his Lutheran church affiliates entered a protest against his heretical association.

Cuno secured all of Swedenborg's writings and made a thorough study of them, one by one, making copious notes but finding little that he could agree with. He accepted the unity of God and the necessity for faith and charity being conjoined, but being thoroughly satisfied with the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by faith alone, he missed completely the essential point of Swedenborg's teachings. He found Conjugial Love very entertaining, but objected to the idea of marriages in heaven. Abhorrent to him also was the idea that all angels and devils have once been men. Conscientious but inconsistent, Cuno thought that the same end Swedenborg had in view-namely the establishment of a New Jerusalem here on earth-was being attained by the Lutheran church of his day. He refused to believe in Swedenborg's mission and the need for any new church.

With all this Cuno had a sincere love for Swedenborg personally, and wished to induce the venerable author to desist from further publications. He was worried about "the good Swedenborg flooding the world with his manifold writings," and "wished that the theologians - whose business it is to examine and defend the truth - had not so long kept silence, allowing this man unchallenged to write things that might be untrue."[617]

When Swedenborg mentioned to Cuno his intention of publishing a compendium of his theology, Cuno tried his best to convince his friend of the danger he was running in publishing a complete system of heretical doctrine. In spite of his entreaties Swedenborg refused to show Cuno a single line of the proposed work, but he decided to publish a summary of it beforehand. Thinking that his remonstrances might prove more effective if he expostulated with Swedenborg at table, in the presence of company, Cuno addressed him in these words:[618]

"As your faithful friend I must advise you not to come out with your new doctrine, or at least to allow the two years which you have announced to elapse, or you will expose yourself to the danger of being banished from the city."

Swedenborg was not dissuaded from his purpose even by this threatening suggestion, however, and before the end of January-to Cuno's great annoyance-he issued a small quarto volume bearing the title: A Brief Exposition of the Doctrine of the New Church, which is understood by the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse.[619]

When Cuno examined the copy of the Brief Exposition which Swedenborg sent him, he found it less dangerous than he had expected. He waxed indignant however, at the statement that Roman Catholics, in respect to the doctrine of justification, would be able to enter the New Jerusalem before the Evangelicals.

He tells them both, to their face, that they do wrong in worshiping three persons in the Godhead; that the Lord alone is God, and that in His One Person there is a threefold Divine Being. Be that as it may, I fully expected that one of the many priests and preachers of our large town would rise up against him.

After waiting until March, Cuno wrote Swedenborg a long letter, probably the most familiar and certainly the most impudent of any he ever received. The Brief Exposition, said Cuno, did not resolve the doubts that had arisen in his mind from having carefully perused the sixteen works previously published. (Cuno never read the Arcana.)

You add nothing to your system, in your latest book, which I did not know from my previous reading ... You talk of great things which the incredulous world dislikes. Your readers - little concerned with their eternal salvation - laugh at such a new and, so to speak, amphibious teacher. It seems that you are seeking adversaries but ... I fear you will not find them. For most men reject your Memorable Relations - marvelous enough and to spare, as they are, but not strongly proved - and laugh at them as the mere offspring of phantasy. Others are delighted with them as poetic fictions, but nevertheless make sport of them. Still others, from common report, judge you to be an arch-heretic, others that you are out of your mind. . . Our age is either too wise, or it looks upon religion as of little account ...

At what great cost have you committed your writings to the press, and when printed at once distributed them! But what fruit has resulted therefrom? Alas, none! ... No one will acknowledge the angelic wisdom, as you call it ... Your treatise on The White Horse would please me above your other works if, toward the close, you did not rashly deny the inspiration and Divine authority of the epistles of Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude because, in your opinion, they have no internal sense ...

. . . Most reverend man, by my intercourse with you I have been convinced of your probity and your sincere love of the truth. Your idea of the incarnate Word, the Redeemer of mankind-who can never be sufficiently venerated and loved-has inspired me with the deepest reverence for you . . . Permit me, my dearest friend, to value this pledge of your love most highly, namely that I may tell you freely and candidly what your haughty and envious readers are unwilling to tell you . . . Pardon me - I have never doubted your honesty. But to me your angels seem very suspicious, and the wisdom which you attribute to them sometimes verges on dementia ... I am afraid that such wicked spirits, being sometimes insufficiently proved, have imposed illusions on you ... If I have succeeded in expressing to you my first doubts ... I am satisfied. Search for reasons . . . whereby the remaining doubts can be removed from your incredulous readers ... Farewell, Joh. Christian Cuno (Amsterdam, March 8, 1769);[620]

Cuno waited a few days for a reply. When none came he went to see Swedenborg. He found him cold, even a little angry. "Nothing seemed to surprise him more than that I had suspected his honest angels, and regarded him as so simple as not to have detected the rogues among them!"

"If you are not willing to believe me," Swedenborg dryly remarked, "you have taken far too much trouble in studying my writings so attentively as you have done." As he spoke these words the smiling and innocent expression Cuno usually saw on Swedenborg's face had totally vanished:

Cuno was disappointed, but nevertheless satisfied that he had done all he could to defend himself against the charge of being one of Swedenborg's proselytes. He made several copies of his letter and distributed them among his friends, confident that anyone who read it would at least not regard him as a flatterer. "Perhaps the old gentleman did not expect me to give him such a piece of my mind or he would not have become angry." At all events the anger did not last very long, and Swedenborg, soon was reconciled with Cuno.

Shortly after this he came to Cuno and put a little paper into his hand. It was no answer to his letter, in Cuno's estimation, but he was glad to have it as the autograph writing of one of the most singular men who ever lived. It was much like the answer Swedenborg had given to Oetinger and Kant, and he later printed it as the concluding paragraph of a treatise called The Intercourse Between the Soul and the Body[621] It begins as follows:

I was once asked how from a philosopher I became a theologian, and I answered: In the same way in which fishermen were made by the Lord into disciples and apostles; and, that from my first youth I also have been a spiritual fisherman. Asked, "What is a spiritual fisherman?" I answered that in the Word, in its spiritual sense, a fisherman signifies a man who teaches natural truths and then spiritual truths, rationally.

After many confirmatory passages from the Word, the note ends: "Hearing this, my questioner raised his voice and said: ‘Now I can understand why the Lord chose fishermen for disciples, and therefore I do not wonder that He also chose you ... The Lord alone knows who is fitted for the perceiving and teaching of the truths which are of His New Church, whether one among the primates or one among their servants . . . ' "[622]

Cuno had great difficulty in estimating Swedenborg. As a philosopher, he was a star of the first magnitude, the Principia alone being proof of that. He compared him to Paracelsus. Swedenborg, the philosopher, he finds modest and unassuming. Only as a theologian does he find him more than arrogant, claiming to have received a call immediately from the Lord and that he was sent to disabuse the whole world of its prejudices! Cuno felt no self-reproach for having written his bold letter nor for spreading it among his friends.

"His errors I leave him to answer for before God. I will not judge him, that I be not judged myself. My intention in writing to him was an honest one. `If the counsel or the work, be of men it will come to nought. But if it be of God, ye cannot suppress it' (Acts V: 38, 39). Far be it from me precisely to determine what here is divine and what human! . . . "

Obviously, Cuno did not know what to think of Swedenborg. But what did Swedenborg think of Cuno? That would be interesting to know. One recalls instinctively the French wit who said, "Defend me from my friends, I can defend myself from my enemies!"[623]  Cuno continued his investigation, and read several reviews written by learned authorities, but whether these influenced him against his friend was still an open question at their meeting the following year.

When Swedenborg was ready to leave Amsterdam he decided to visit Paris before proceeding to London and thence to Sweden.

"He is almost on the point of departing," wrote Cuno "and is waiting only for the confinement of the Princess of Orange, after which he will at once enter on his journey in order to pay his respects, and on his return to Sweden, be able to tell the Queen that he has seen the newborn Prince or Princess of Orange." But in March the princess was delivered of a still-born child and Swedenborg did not pay the intended visit to The Hague but remained in Amsterdam until the 24th of April, 1769, when he left for Paris.

His purpose in going to Paris was to arrange for the publication there of his large work The True Christian Religion, which he had been drafting during his sojourn in Holland and which was not completed until a year later. He wrote Dr. Beyer that his purpose in going to Paris "must not be divulged beforehand."[624]

Cuno describes the leave-taking of his friend:

I shall never forget, as long as I live, the leave which he took of me in my own house. It seemed to me as if this truly venerable old man . . . was much more eloquent this last time, and spoke very differently from what I ever heard him speak before. He admonished me to continue in goodness and to acknowledge the Lord as my God.

"If it please God," he said, "I shall once more come to you in Amsterdam, for I hold you dear."

"Oh, my worthy Herr Swedenborg," I interrupted him, "that will probably not take place in this world, for I, at least, expect no long life for myself."

"That you cannot know," he continued, "we must remain in the world as long as the Divine Providence and Wisdom find good. He who is once conjoined with the Lord has a foretaste of eternal life even here, and he who has this no longer cares so much about this transitory life. Believe me, if I knew that God would take me to Himself tomorrow, I would summon the musicians today and, for a good ending, once more feel quite gay in this world."

One must himself have heard the old gentleman in his second childhood speak these words to feel as I then felt. On this occasion the look from his eyes was more innocent and gay than I had ever seen him before. I let him continue and was in a manner dumb with astonishment.

He then saw a Bible lying on my desk and while I, thus silent, looked quietly before me - and he, could easily notice my emotion - he took the book and opened it at I. John, V: 20, 21. Then he said,

"Read these words," but he closed the book. "Or rather, I will copy them for you so that you may not forget them." Herewith he dipped a pen in ink and wished to write the passage on the leaf which is here preserved. But his hand was shaky, as can be seen from the "I." This, however, I could not bear, so I asked him, in a friendly manner, to repeat the passage to me. I thereupon wrote it myself. As soon as I had done so he rose, saying,

"The time has now come when I must take leave of my other friends." He fell on my neck and kissed me right heartily.

As soon as he had taken leave, I read at once the passage which he had so recommended to me. The words were these: "But we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us His understanding, that we may know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen."[625]

to Chapter 40