The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 7 - Ambitions and Frustrations

As the waters of a stream reach the edge of a cataract there is a moment of apparent calm before the violent downward tug plunges them over the precipice. There are times like these in the life of an individual, and such a time seems now to have come in the life of Emanuel Swedenborg, caught in the pull of his genius. Those who were closest to him felt that a unique role in life was reserved for this young man. His father had written to Cederholm in Lund:

I am glad to learn that my son Emanuel has the happiness of lodging in the same house with you. His drawback, according to human judgment, seems to be that he is young, but surely when God has given a youth as much intelligence and skill as a grown person, then God must have the honor for it.[71]

Swedenborg was now thirty years old, a time when any man might be thinking about taking a wife, and it seems that he then had the prospect of a highly suitable match, that complications arose, and that real romance and strong feeling played a determining part in the drama of his life during the autumn of 1718.

According to his own statement, Swedenborg was always strongly attracted by the opposite sex.[72] And yet he never married. This fact has afforded a rich source of speculation for biographers; inasmuch as his own expressions about it are ambiguous. The outstanding fact that his long life was spent in bachelor solitude, however, must be seen in the light of his tremendous accomplishment. What he achieved during his lonely years of study and extensive travels could scarcely have been done had his life been burdened with family cares.

We have very little evidence on which to base conclusions about Swedenborg's unsuccessful attempts to arrange a marriage. One item is a statement reportedly made to a Danish acquaintance when Swedenborg was an old man. In answer to the question as to why he never married, he replied that "once in his youth he was on the road to matrimony, King Charles XII having recommended the famous Polhem to give him his daughter."[73] When asked what obstacle prevented the marriage Swedenborg is said to have replied, "She would not have me, as she had promised herself to another person, to whom she was more attached."

Which daughter? Polhem had two daughters. We wish that more than meagre hints existed from which to picture them. Maria, the elder, was we suppose, a proper, conventional daughter whose lively young interest centered upon the family and social side of life. She was devoted to external piety and domestic virtues, giving much of her attention to the delicate viands she helped her mother prepare, luxuries which her father's advancement in fortune made increasingly possible. Emerentia, the younger, was a thoughtful girl, shy and pretty, more interested in poetry than in the people around her, but she inherited her father's efficiency' and good, constructive mind. She wrote poems and published a book on Swedish rhyme.[74]

The marriage suggested by the king was perhaps intended to be with Maria, then twenty-three years old. It was customary in those days, to give away the elder daughter before the younger. The engagement, apparently, was never made official, and it seems possible that it may have been averted through the connivance of Emanuel himself.[75] The only bit of direct evidence we have is contained in Swedenborg's letter to Benzelius, written at Vennersborg shortly after the king's last visit there:

Polhem's eldest daughter is betrothed to the king's chamberlain by the name of Mannerström. I wonder what people are saying about this, as it is my arrangement. His second daughter, is, to my mind, much prettier. (September 14, 1718)[76]

This passage has been usually translated: "inasmuch as she was promised to me," - meaning that since it was understood that Maria was intended for himself, Emanuel wondered what would be said about her announced engagement to another. If, however, Maria's engagement to the court chamberlain was brought about by Emanuel's arrangement, or connivance, we see that both these readings of the ambiguous passage would make sense. Why, otherwise, should Swedenborg have mentioned his preference for the younger daughter? Emanuel was well acquainted with the two sisters and he was not one to be pushed into an alliance not to his taste. In his opinion " 'Mrensa" was much prettier than "Maja" and her hand could be given to Emanuel only if Maria's were bestowed on someone else. Obviously, it was to Maria that Swedenborg referred when he said that "she had promised herself to another person to whom she was more attached," for Maria had just then given her hand to Mannerström, whereas Emerentia was not married until five years later.

What, then went wrong with his hopes for a marriage with Emerentia Polhem? An answer to this is contained in a document read before a Stockholm society in 1789.[77] The young lady's brother, Chamberlain Gabriel Polhem, there states that, while his father was working on the construction of locks at Tröllhattan, with Swedenborg as his assistant, "the assessor conceived a violent passion for Polhem's second daughter, Emerentia." But she, who was only fifteen years of age, [The document has "between thirteen and fourteen years of age," but this is obviously a mistake as Emerentia Polhem was born in 1703] could not be persuaded to enter an engagement, whereupon her father, who loved Swedenborg very much, gave him a written claim upon her in the future, in the hope that when older she would become more yielding, and this contract her father obliged her to sign.

However, she fretted about it so much every day that her brother, Chamberlain Gabriel Polhem, moved with compassion, stole the contract from Swedenborg, whose only comfort consisted in daily perusing it and who therefore quickly missed his treasure. His sorrow at this loss. was so evident that her father insisted on knowing the cause; when by; an exercise of his authority he gave orders that the lost document be restored to him. But when Swedenborg himself saw her grief he voluntarily relinquished his right and left the house with a solemn oath never again to let his thoughts settle upon any woman, and still less to enter into any other engagement.

Popular belief notwithstanding, Swedenborg did not give up all thoughts of marriage, for we now have documentary evidence to prove that many years later, he sought the hand of another young lady. (See p. 105.)

* * * * *

The episode related presumably took place in September, 1718. About two days after writing the letter to Benzelius, Swedenborg sailed across Lake Venner for a three weeks' stay at Brunsbo. In October he wrote:

"His Majesty will probably go to Vennersborg at the end of this month, where he will inspect the army. We shall see whether I will not be obliged to go with him to Norway." (Brunsbo, October 5, 1718).[78]

In December Emanuel was still at the episcopal mansion where he planned to remain over the Christmas holidays. After that he intended to spend some weeks in the mining districts and in Stockholm. "Thank God, I have escaped the campaign in Norway! It had very nearly caught me, had I not used intrigues to evade it," he wrote on December 8. Very soon after this he must have received word that the king had been killed during the siege of Frederikshall.

The outer fortifications of the fortress had been taken on November 20, 1718, and Charles was about to attack the principal stronghold. Night and day, in rain and cold, he stayed in the trenches, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep each night. He was seated on the trench wall on the evening of the thirtieth when a bullet pierced the back of his head causing instant death.

They took his body to Vennersborg on New Year's day and from there to Stockholm, where the remains of the hero-king were solemnly interred in the Riddarholm Church. Thus was removed from the earthly scene a man who held in his hands absolute sovereignty over his subjects, a man whom Voltaire called "the most extraordinary, and most peculiar man who ever lived on the earth," and who for his `military genius and headstrong stubbornness was also known as "The Madman of the North."[79] His coffin has been opened and his body several times examined, but it is still impossible to say whether the fatal bullet came from the beleaguered fortress or from the gun of a traitor in the King's own ranks.

The Norwegian campaign had never been popular with the army and, although another week might have terminated it with the surrender of the fort, the officers decided to call off the siege-and withdraw their troops. They wanted to be in their home capital when a new monarch was crowned, to look after their personal affairs, and to seek promotions through the future ruler! The story of what happened to the unfortunate troops left without sufficient leadership at the mercy of howling mountain trolls, in the winter snowstorms of the Norwegian peaks is among the saddest in Swedish history. When the retreat was over frozen corpses stood in stiff postures along the wind-beaten plains and the narrow bottleneck gorges, gauntly testifying to the lack of food, shelter and clothing, disastrous alike for civilian recruit and hardened campaigner.

Among those who in sorrow followed the great chieftain to his last resting place was Emanuel Swedenborg, his fortunes very seriously impaired by the sudden change. Personally he had felt strongly drawn to the king. During an entire year, off and on, they had been in almost daily contact and such a connection, if continued, must have exerted a determining influence upon the young man's career. They had held interesting conversations together, and Swedenborg had succeeded in enlisting the king's approval in behalf of various projects. He had demonstrated his skill in engineering and his talent for writing. He had tried, but failed, to interest him in an observatory, the science of astronomy seeming too remote and impractical to appeal, to the warrior. But finally "favor changed to disfavor, and even to anger," we are told. The reason for this has been a matter of much speculation. It could not have been so trivial a thing as Emanuel's failure to get out the current numbers of the Daedalus fast enough to suit His Majesty which, he says, "caused the king displeasure." It could hardly have been the assessor's failure to wed one of Polhem's daughters. A deeper but more likely cause may have been Swedenborg's disapproval of the Norwegian campaign, about which he later so fervently exclaims: "Thank God, I have escaped it!" Probably the break was caused by his getting an insight into the king's real character, his stubborn and ruthless ambition.

It may also have been occasioned by a clash with Baron Görtz, the king's evil genius. Charles XII was greatly loved by the Swedish people - but not his collector of taxes. The resentment of the whole nation at the terrible sufferings the war drew down upon them centered around the hated figure of Görtz. After the king's death Görtz was immediately apprehended and, following a speedy trial, beheaded on the charge of having led the king astray with bad advice.

Work on the locks, suspended for the winter, was never resumed. A later generation built the modern Göta Canal at another location not far off. While boats are sliding through the locks, passengers may take a look at "Polhem's sluice" where the remains of unfinished excavations are pointed out as an interesting curiosity. Final accomplishments owe much to initial failures.

The Daedalus also had to be suspended, either for lack of funds or from popular indifference. A rift in Swedenborg's relations with Christopher Polhem then occurred which must have caused the young scientist deep distress. Nothing is known of the reason for it. The only hint we have of the two men's disagreement comes from a letter to Benzelius in which Polhem refers to the young assessor who had such a keen mind for science. He is troubled about the interruption of their relations - three of his letters having been sent back unopened - and asks Benzelius to set matters aright, for Swedenborg is highly esteemed in the Polhem family whom he has given "sufficient cause to love as our own son." (Carlsgraf, April 18, 1719).[80] The estrangement probably resulted from one of those disclosures of fundamental differences of character that inevitably lead to separation. The rift was not absolute, for three years later Swedenborg speaks of consulting Polhem about one of his scientific essays. As Polhem is known to have been quite grasping in money matters, one cause of the rift may possibly have been the salt company, in which both men were involved. To further the salt company, 40,000 shares had been issued at one daler each, and Swedenborg "hoped to induce many zealous persons to venture their means in the project." Later he thought, the work would go well, "if self-interest does not obtain too strong a hand in it . . : " (Brunsbo, January 21, 1718).[81]

Another depressing factor in Swedenborg's life at this time was that some of his brothers-in-law seem to have been set against him. "Brother Lars [Benzelstjerna] is somewhat unpleasant toward me," he wrote to Benzelius.

Among all my brothers and sisters I find no one who has wished me well, or who does wish me well save you, dear brother. Of this I became especially convinced from a letter you wrote my father on the occasion of my foreign journey. If I can show my - gratitude in any way it shall not be wanting. Brother Unge [his sister Catharine's husband] has estranged my father's and mother's mind from me for the last four years. Yet it boots him naught. (Brunsbo, October, 1718).

Prospects indeed must have looked rather hopeless to Swedenborg, and perhaps his dejected attitude was reflected in a little work printed at this time on The Motion and Position of the Earth and the Planets.[82] In this treatise proofs are cited from physics, geometry and astronomy to prove that the earth now revolves more slowly around the sun than in former times, and that the end of it all will be total desolation. The earth, by the slowing down of its course, will gradually become unserviceable as a home for mankind and the human race will be destroyed by cold and famine.

The climax of all his disillusionments came when Emanuel presented himself at the Board of Mines for recognition as an official entitled to a salary. This the board refused to consider, regarding, him as only an extra employee who had been appointed for special work and never chosen by them in the way of regular succession. He was simply one whom the depleted state of the public treasury made it a very good policy to ignore. He had done nothing to promote the welfare of Swedish mining - or so they thought. Besides this he had been a favorite of the late king whose policy had ruined the country, and his father was still an ardent royalist of the old order.

Swedenborg's rejection by the Bergskollegium seemed to him the more unfair for the reason that he had indeed endeavored to demonstrate his ability for useful work in a line in which he had had no previous experience, by making an extensive tour of the chief mining districts and handing in a written report on all the different kinds of furnaces in use. His manuscript On Swedish Blast Furnaces was unearthed in recent times, and the present Swedish Iron Office commented on its importance when they printed it in their reports.[83] It contains the first and only description of the furnaces formerly in use all over Sweden - an unsolicited report made on the basis of his visits to foundries and forges everywhere in the country. The author collected all the information he could gather from blacksmiths, charcoal-burners, smelters of ore, superintendents of iron furnaces, and so on. This thoroughly scientific investigation, undertaken by Swedenborg quite independently and in a completely modern spirit, apparently failed to impress the assessors and councilors to whom it was submitted. The majority of them had perhaps never been very near "the ugly iron furnaces" but rather preferred to confine their activities to sitting in stately judgment over legal disputes between Jon Jonson, smelter, and Erik Erikson, cooler. We wonder if they relished the would-be assessor's humble memorial of presentation:

It would have been more becoming in me to bring before Your Excellency and the Honorable Royal College something of greater importance and value than a mere treatise on a coarse and ugly iron furnace; especially as opportunity is afforded in the Swedish mining districts of studying more important furnaces, such as those in which silver and copper are smelted . . . [84]

He also presented a little treatise called New Ways of Detecting Mineral Veins,[85] in which he makes the suggestion that since each mineral "exhales" a vapor or emanation which penetrates the earth round about it and affects the surface vegetation, we ought to be able to tell where treasures lie hidden by "smelling them out as greyhounds do." Then we would know what wealth we are stepping upon and all the important things which the earth hides from us and never intended to reveal: "If God Most High had gifted us with senses 100,000 times finer," he says, "we would without trouble, merely by means of an odor or a flamy light, find how effluvia flow forth like streams out of the rich metalliferous veins . . . But as no knowledge of this has been given us we must use our reason to discover other means" - not, however, by using the divining rod, which he relegates to the realms of superstition.

In words reminiscent of his father's best style, Emanuel then deplores the extravagance and wanton waste of the day, pointing out that "the best metalliferous veins and the richest ores would be to stop extravagance and practice economy, and see to it that debit and credit agree . . . " "What is the use of uncovering new treasures," he asks, "as long as we are spending more gold and silver on decorating our bodies than double the amount our silver mines yield in a year?"

This treatise also failed to arouse much enthusiasm among the gold-braided members of the pompous Board of Mines who perhaps suspected that this son of the inveterate preacher of austerity would be none too comfortable as a bedfellow. It was left to more modern scientists to find a peculiar interest in Swedenborg's treatise on detecting mineral veins by their radiations, for it contains some of the earliest suggestions along these lines. How interested he would have been in the Geiger counters of our day!

What was Swedenborg to do now? A chance to succeed the late astronomer Pehr Elvius in the professorship at Upsala had been turned down by him. To the urging of Erik Benzelius the previous year, his reply had been:

I already have an honorable post. In this post I can be of service to my country, and indeed of more practical use than in the other position. I thus decline a faculty which does not, agree with my tastes and my turn of mind, by both of which I am led to mechanics, and will be in future to chemistry; and our College is noted for having assessors who know very little on these subjects. For this reason I will endeavor to supply this deficiency, and I hope that my labors in this direction will be as profitable to them as their own may be in another way; I trust also that no one will judge me unworthy of my office. With regard to envy, this is more a matter of laughter to me than of apprehension; for I have always striven to cause myself to be envied, and in the future I shall perhaps become a still greater object of envy. The only argument which would induce me to follow your suggestion would be, that I might be with you and enjoy one or two years of leisure to put my thoughts on paper, which I now have some difficulty in doing . . . (Brunsbo, January 21, 1718)[86]

Swedenborg had good reason to be discouraged. Not only had he met with disappointments in his personal relations with the Polhem family, but all the projects he had been working on - the canal, the salt works, the Daedalus - had come to a sudden end with the death of the king. His efforts to develop a popular interest in mechanics through the publication, at his own expense, of the first scientific magazine in the country had failed, as had his Algebra. His work in astronomy was stopped by the lack of equipment. His suggestions for industrial improvements were unappreciated. And yet all these things were so much needed!

He wrote:

It was certainly discouraging to me, to find that my mathematical discoveries were considered as novelties which the country could not afford. Would that I had more of these novelties, yea, a literary novelty for every day in the year, so that the world might find pleasure in them! There are enough men in one century who plod on in the old beaten track, while there are scarcely six or ten in a whole century who are able to generate novelties based upon argument and reason.

After a few days of futile attendance at the Board during the month of February, 1719, when Swedenborg was not even allowed to sign the official papers with the other members of the College, he gave up what must have been a humiliating attendance, and did not again put in an appearance until four years later when his recognition was established.

to Chapter 8