The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 8 - Proofs of a Deluge

The bullet that found its royal mark at the trench in Fredrikshall has been likened to a period closing a sentence. It ended Sweden's so-called "Era of Greatness;" an epoch in her history which had its beginning at the time of Gustavus Adolphus' successful battles on the Continent during the Thirty Years' War. The crown which Charles XII had placed upon his own head had made him ruler, not only over Sweden, but over Finland, Ingermanland, Esthonia, Liffland, Pomerania, Wismar, Bremen, Stettin and Werden, and responsible to God alone for his actions.

But Providence did not confine its attentions to promoting the greatness of Sweden. Russia also claimed rights in the Baltic Sea, and therefore the great responsibility assumed by a mere boy, and defended by him with heroic determination, in the end drove his people to the brink of ruin. The "Era of Greatness" was also an era of absolutism and tyranny and when it closed the people were determined that nothing like that should ever be possible again. The idea of self-government had deep roots in Sweden, dating from ancient times, and it now burst into bloom again with strong assertiveness. The chance had come to make a drastic change in the power of the king, for the succession to the throne after Charles XII was by no means clear, and this threw the decision into the hands of the people.

All four of Charles's brothers had died in infancy, and of his two sisters, only the younger was still alive. The elder sister, however, had left issue behind-a son who thus also was a pretender to the throne. The Riksdag which assembled in the House of Nobles to decide on the succession, agreed to accept the younger sister, Ulrika Eleonora, as their lawful sovereign, but only on the condition that she sign a paper renouncing all claims to absolute rule. This Ulrika consented to do, buying her right to succession, as it were, at the price of a part of her sovereignty, making Sweden, at one stroke of the pen, into a limited monarchy.

A period of great cultural development was thus introduced which is called Sweden's "Era of Freedom" - embracing the years of Swedenborg's maturity. For the next 100 years a movement for a reform in government became the leading issue in the Diet, now seriously faced with the task of solving its own internal problems and of restoring to the people the responsibilities that they had been so long deprived of, greatly to the lowering of their moral stamina. The loss of her territories proved in the end to be Sweden's gain.

Parliament passed a law that hereafter any ruler who strives to introduce absolutism should lose his crown. Queen Ulrika Eleonora promised to govern the kingdom with the help of the Council, and the power was divided between Her Royal Majesty, the Council and the Riksdag,-consisting of four estates: Nobles, Priests, Burghers and Peasants. The Riksdag reserved the right to make the laws and appoint the Council, but it met only every three years, and in reality the power resided in the House of, Nobles, its dominant estate.

Before any progress could be made to set the country on its feet, there had to be a reform in the matter of the currency which had been so inflated by the Görtz party, to meet the costs of war, that neither citizens nor foreigners could rely on its value in trade. Görtz' solution to the king's need for money had been simply to mint a million copper coins, stamped "one daler in silver" which had to be accepted in the market as silver "dalers." These tokens bore fancy names. The first ones were called "crowns," then came the "publica fide," then the "wit and weapons" and at last the "hope" coins. Their number increased to 42,000,000, all real money being eventually drawn in and exchanged for the nödmynt, or emergency coins.

This had a paralyzing effect on the country's trade, and the burning question of the day was how to redeem the tokens and put the money back on a sound footing. One of the proposals submitted to the Secret Committee of the Diet on Currency came from our young assessor. It was like Swedenborg to tackle head-on any obstacle that came in his way. This time the obstacle was the interruption of his work on the canal, where the men refused to accept the emergency money.

He proposed that those who wanted the full value of their tokens redeemed should receive it in 25 yearly installments, while those who were willing to lose from 25 to 75% could get their token money redeemed in from ten to two years. His proposal was considered one of the best submitted, although it was anonymous.[87] [He also strongly advocated the adoption of the decimal system instead of the current system based on the number 8: 16 ore in copper was equal to 1 ore in silver; 8 ore in silver equaled 1 silver mark; 8 marks equaled 1 riksdollar, and 8 riksdollars, 1 mark sterling.]

New, fresh and hopeful were the spring winds that blew on the seventeenth day of March when Ulrika Eleonora was crowned in the cathedral of Upsala. Emanuel Swedenborg was not missing from the ranks of those who came forward to bend the knee and pay homage to the new sovereign. With him he brought his latest literary effort, entitled: The Height of the Waters, and Strong Tides in the Primeval World,[88] a treatise on geology - although that term had not yet been invented - which he gracefully dedicated to the queen on the day of her coronation:

My fervent prayer to God is that the royal crown which to-day, amid the joy and gladness of all, will be placed upon the head of Your Majesty, may be firm and permanent and, like the starry crown in the firmament of heaven, shine to the Glory of God, to the immortal honor of Your Majesty, to the permanent joy of our subjects, and to the life and prosperity of the literary arts.

The ennoblement of the Swedberg family followed; on May 26; not in consequence of the foregoing but because it was the custom to confer nobility on the families of all bishops. At the same time the new queen elevated one hundred and forty-eight of her subjects to the rank of nobles, thus still further strengthening the power of that estate in its struggle against the peasant class. The name Swedberg was now changed to Swedenborg and Emanuel took his seat on the velvet-cushioned, but far from luxurious bench in the House of Nobles (Riddarhuset). The Swedenborg family coat-of-arms, painted in oil on copper, was subsequently hung in that beautiful hall of assembly.[89]

Ulrika enjoyed the privilege of ruling her country alone little more than a year, after which -time she abdicated in favor of her husband, the Prince Consort of Hesse, who then ascended the Swedish throne, by general consent, as Frederick I. One of the reasons for this shift was the need for a competent hand to lead the country out of the Russian embroilment. During the summer of 1719, the long-expected attack on the coast had come in earnest. With a fleet of thirty warships and one hundred and fifty galleys, the Russians harried the Swedish coastal cities, plundering, burning, and laying in ashes one beautiful estate after the other. On the night of August 13, they had even made bold to attack Stockholm itself, but were easily driven off. Two years later peace was restored through the mediation of England.

Queens may seldom read the books that are dedicated to them, and we wonder whether Ulrika Eleonora read Swedenborg's Height of Water, with his "proofs that Sweden in days past, was covered with water." In any case she could not have known that she held in her hands the first attempt at geologic description of the land she ruled. It was a land of most interesting and provocative configuration, exposing in some places polished granite and in others layer after layer of sandstone, slate and lime, alternating in regular succession. It was a land characterized by many lakes and ridges. She could not have known that the author of this treatise was the first to observe the fact that the great sand and gravel ridges of Sweden ran in parallel lines almost exactly north and south, and that in , between the ridges lie wide tracts of stratified sand, interspersed with finely assorted clays of various colors, and she would probably not have realized that the young author of the treatise was a scientist of rare genius. He had observed, for instance, that here and there, in tracts otherwise flat and open, there lay huge blocks of stone, sometimes the size of houses, as if thrown there in playful abandon by giants. These stones were called by the peasants, "trollkast," superstition accounting for their presence by tales of how, in olden times, the trolls, annoyed at the building of so many churches, had tried to hit them with these boulders, never quite succeeding.

To the farmer, straining to raise his crop of barley or rye between the rocky ridges - generation after generation picking stones out of the soil as they cropped up, and adding its quota of cobbles to the fences raised by the back-breaking toil of his ancestors-these stones were an endless memorial to the fight against an enemy of agriculture. But to Swedenborg the same phenomena were so many hieroglyphics challenging him to decipher them, so many pieces of the puzzle he was beginning to turn over in his mind: What was the origin of it all? How had the world come about? Why were there fossil remains of fishes found far inland? What meant the great round holes cut into the sides of mountains as exactly as if a mighty hand had indeed carved them out for a giant's caldron, or jättegryta, as the people said? By what power had the great blocks been transported hundreds of miles away from the mountains of which they had originally been a part?

Swedenborg looked for his answers in logical reasoning and in Holy Writ. Reason told him that the sedimentary layers of sandstone and slate must have been deposited in water and afterwards have hardened into stone; that the chalky layers holding fossil "insects," which he found so plentiful in Mount Kinnekulle, had once been muddy water in which the little mollusks lived out their myriad lives and died.

His conclusion that this tremendous sea was identical with the universal flood at the time of Noah, which must have covered most of the land in primeval days, making the higher parts into islands - and why not the Isles of the Blessed, as the venerable author of the Atlantica suggested - was an idea forced upon him by the supposedly infallible statements of God's Word. It was typical of Swedenborg's mind that he felt impelled to reconcile these things. In his Height of Water we have the first plain demonstration of a method never relinquished but always modified to suit his growing comprehension. To quote from the Preface:

From the Word of God we have the first knowledge of the universal Flood, which covered all four quarters of the world like an ocean, and destroyed the whole of God's former work of creation, together with all living things which existed on the dry ground. And had not Noah been provided with a new machine wherewith to move on the surface of the waters, all that had life on the earth would have been destroyed in that flood,... There is no one who denies that this universal Flood covered the earth, but worldly wisdom is not content with this fact, it wishes also to have a word in the matter. She therefore investigates and gathers proofs from the things which the Flood has left behind . . . And as I know that it will serve to confirm the Word of God and the truth, I entertain the hope that what I have, with the kindliest intentions, asserted and demonstrated may with equal kindliness be interpreted by others ... Thinkers in southern countries who have labored on this problem will find clearer proofs and traces from our North than they themselves possess.[90]

In a letter written two years later Swedenborg significantly modified this statement. After all, a single year was a short time to account for those myriad fossil deposits![91]

To him the structure of the earth was clear proof that the ocean had once stood at an enormous height above the land. The gravel ridges, he explained, were formed by strong tides which caused the agitated waters to pile up gravel into mountainous furrows in their east-westerly ebb and flow, thus running ridges straight north and south. In this beautifully, readable little pamphlet Swedenborg did not leave unnoticed the layer of hard stone on top of the sandstone and limestone that composes Mount Kinnekulle but that, too, was accounted for as having been deposited in water and afterwards hardened into "granite"!

As to the reasons for those tides, however, which were so strong that they could pile up entire hills at the bottom of the sea, one must refer to the essay previously mentioned, on the Motion and Position of the Earth and the Planets. Here we find the argument that the earth formerly moved more rapidly around the sun than it does now, so that days and years were shorter. The quicker motion of our planet would then have caused stronger tides in the ocean, which would cut into the shore with great violence and thus pile up high beaches.

This former acceleration of its motion gave the earth a perpetual spring and made the whole world a veritable paradise, since it evened out the differences between summer and winter. All countries thus formerly enjoyed a Golden Age and a perpetual springtime, with the pleasant gods and goddesses, Flora, Pan, Pomona and Venus' roaming the lovely earth in company with man. You can prove it yourself, he says, by revolving a thermometer 'faster and slower before a fire, and observing how the quick revolution evens out the temperature! This also would account for the great age of Methuselah and the other patriarchs. It was not that they lived so much longer lives than our own, but merely that a greater number of annual revolutions around the sun gave them, in the same time, a greater number of years.

If this argument is followed out to its logical conclusion - and Swedenborg always tried to follow everything out to its logical conclusion - the days will become longer and longer, as the planet slackens its course and enlarges its orbit, making the climate colder and colder as the earth retreats farther and farther away from the sun until, at the end, our world will be destroyed in a horror of cold and darkness, and the human race will completely disappear. But, he says, the Scriptural predictions about the end of the world might refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, - that is, to the passing of an age. Whatever you conclude ought to agree with God's Word and sound reason. This essay is thus a step in the development of Swedenborg's cosmological thinking. It shows also a glimmering of the idea that the Word of God was not to be taken entirely literally.

Swedenborg was quite right when he concluded that the nethermost horizontal strata in Mount Kinnekulle had been deposited in water. What he did not know was that here he was looking at Silurian sandstone which, next to basic granite, is the oldest of all the rocks. As the study of fossils was in its infancy, he could not have known that the fossil marine shells which he found in the slaty layers date from Paleozoic times, millions of years before man appeared upon the earth.

A hundred and fifty years after Swedenborg's treatise was published it was still thought that the parallel ridges - or hogbacks, as they are called - with their rounded stones and unassorted debris, were raised beaches. So we may remain content to admire Swedenborg's powers of observation and reason, and refrain from blaming him for not knowing, as we do, that the phenomena he attributed to strong tides were caused by tremendous torrents at the bottom of an inland glacier that covered the country with an immense ice-cap and deposited its heaviest sediment in terminal morains. He could not have known that this glacier was the mighty hand which, by means of swift and powerful currents had, in its stride, carved out the giant kettles found at Strömstad and Tröllhattan and also had left in its wake the erratic boulders that lie strewn about in fields. Had Swedenborg's work taken him into certain parts of Norway, he might have hit upon the idea that ice and not water could account for what he saw, and thus have anticipated the modern glacial theory.

At that time, too, there was no knowledge that the trap covering Mount Kinnekulle with a layer of diabase was formed by volcanic eruption which preserved the underlying strata of sandstone and slate, making them stand as a visible monument to the oldest formative periods of the earth's crust. Swedenborg, noticing how straight and well-defined were the lines of the trap, concluded that this also must once have been a sediment deposited in the water at a time when it stood on a very high level. Nor could even such keen observers as he then have guessed that the fine clays and muds seen in various places, were glacial and post-glacial clays dating from the quaternary epoch. For the melting land-ice had washed Sweden clear of all the intermediate layers, and deposited the good earth in the Baltic Sea, or spread it out liberally over north continental Europe - taking away all the carbonaceous and most of the cretaceous layers. Most interested would Swedenborg have been in the story of glacial chronology as told in our own times by Swedish geologists who, by means of a study of the vari-colored stratified clays, have been able to identify the annual layers and thus establish complete dates for the melting and recession of the land-ice, reading the very movements of the glacier from the direction of the deep scores that it cut into the sides of the original mountain, like scars on the face of an old warrior.

Later scientists have indeed recognized Swedenborg as one of the pioneers who exercised a direct influence on the independent science of geology. In the words of Professor A. G. Nathorst: "Swedenborg's contributions in the field of geology are of such significance and scope that they alone would have been sufficient to secure him a respected scientific name and prove him to be an investigating genius of the highest rank, who with his sharp powers of observation left nothing unnoticed."[92]

* * * * *

So far, all of Swedenborg's contributions were to physical science, but his mind was busy reflecting also on the wonders of the human body. He was especially impressed with the idea that the laws of physics and mechanics could be applied to the body as a machine. These ideas were given expression in a treatise dating from this time, first- published in English under the title: On Tremulation, or the Anatomy of our Finest Nature.[93]

The change from physics to anatomy is not so abrupt as it appears to be, if we consider, as a connecting link, a short paper he entered as the sixth number of the Daedalus Hyperboreus.[94] This preliminary paper lays down nine rules in regard to tremulation. The first rule is that anything hard can be made to vibrate even at the slightest touch. The second rule is that the best medium for transmitting tremulations is a stretched membrane, such as the string of a musical instrument. He then applies his physical rules to the anatomy of the human body, to show that its vital force consists in tremulations. Speech is nothing but tremulations, like the sound in a string, hearing is only a collection of such tremulations flowing through membranes up to the brain, and the same is true of all the other senses. No part of the body can be touched without the sensation being communicated to the meninges of the brain, the dura and pia mater, as may be seen from the connection of sinews and nerves which terminate in the cerebral membranes and which are, each and all, enveloped by weavings made of these membranes.

The larger work On Tremulation elaborates in detail the same ideas except that now Swedenborg is primarily intent on bringing out the point that tremulation first begins in the fluids of the body, instead of, as in the previous article, leaving the impression that he believed the tremulations to start in the outer organs of sensation and travel up to the brain.

From various letters dating from the end of 1719 and the early months of 1720 we can see what Swedenborg himself thought of these new ideas taking shape in his mind. His essays were read at the meetings of the newly-formed Upsala Literary Society and the learned professors showed great interest in the ideas, but were not, we gather, always in accord with them. Nevertheless he tells Benzelius that he is most anxious to get their comments, so that, from their objections he can see whether he is on the right track or on a path that might be leading him astray. His argument is quite simple: geometry ought to be given consideration, instead of a lot of indiscriminate scholastic phrases and pretended knowledge about "animal spirits." "I am presuming that the members of the Literary Society are reasonable enough to remove childish prejudices and to place argument against argument or compare proof with proof to see which is the weightiest."[95]

He admits that ideas similar to his own were first broached by others - for instance by the anatomist, Giorgio Baglivi - but he contends that his own proofs are new and original. He is always pleading for the acceptance of proofs, proofs, proofs, for the recognition of new discoveries and untried lines of argument. In reality he was pleading for attention on behalf of great new rational principles, which he was later to develop in laborious minuteness in his anatomical works. Says the translator of the Swedish manuscript, "Through all the magnificent later works of philosophic science there vibrates the key-note which many years before was struck in the work On Tremulation."[96]

Since this work is he first expression of Swedenborg's scientific creed, a short resume of it may be of interest. The first chapter opens with the assertion that:

If common sense be consulted and allowed to guide us, as we inquire further and further into the real cause of life-we must finally come to the conclusion that this cause is motion . . . Those motions in which life resides are the most subtile of all motions, of a nature such as cannot be seen or comprehended by any comparison with the grosser forms of motion.

He brings out arguments to show how all parts of the body are connected by means of the nerves and membranes, proof positive to Swedenborg that every sensation is a tremulation in the whole nervous system and not confined to any particular place in the brain. He describes the effects of various emotions on the circulation of fluids in the body. For instance, fear - or as we might say shock - causes the blood to rush back to the heart and empties out the minutest vessels. The effects of amazement, of swooning, of love and of anger are all separately analyzed and explained as being due to modulations of the vital tremulations.

Essential to the transmission of tremulations is tension, as seen in musical instruments, for instance, the drum. The musical tones become clearer and sharper in the degree that the tension is increased. So also with the membranes and senses of the body. Without tension there is no possibility of sensation. This is shown in a newborn infant whose bones are all soft and who consequently has little or no sensation, and in the aged whose membranes have become slack in the same measure that their senses have lost keenness. Hard substances are needed to produce tension in the membranes, and this is the reason they are attached to the bones of the body.

All the rules that apply to musical instruments, apply also to the human frame which is here unequivocally regarded as an instrument - a fundamental idea later enlarged upon by Swedenborg, but never relinquished. Had he at this time had recourse to the radio, radar, and similar modern instruments, how well would they have served to illustrate his point! We shall see that this very point later became the entering wedge with which he sought to pry open the secrets of nature, and also became the basis for his spiritual experiences.

For some time now, Swedenborg had been occupied with translating various of his works into Latin, for the purpose of publishing them in Holland or England. His plans had at last assumed definite shape and he says, "If fortune favors me with the necessary means . . . my inclination is to play with the idea of setting out to seek my fortune in my craft, which consists of all that has to do with the advancement of mining . . . "

He had worked himself poor over these things, he complains, and, like a wandering mendicant, had "sung long enough to see whether anyone opens up and puts some bread into my hand for it." He considers going abroad and seeking his luck there for, he says, "He who is a free and independent fellow and has a name in foreign lands, may be regarded as a fool were he to remain here in the darkness, freezing to boot, where the Furies and the Envies and Pluto have set up their abode, where they dispose of all rewards, and where such labors as I have undertaken are rewarded with wretchedness." The time may come, he thinks, when sinking into obscurity will be his only joy, and then he can always find a little nook in Starbo or some other place. However, he is not( ready for that yet, and adds that circumstances might make a change in his plans for "man proposes, God disposes." And yet, he reflects, "I have always liked knowing what one is aiming at, and formulating a good plan, along the most feasible lines, to carry out in one's daily life." But in Sweden, he is convinced, "all such speculations and arts are unprofitable and are esteemed by a lot of political blockheads as scholastic matters that must remain far in the background while their own supposed finesse and intrigues push far to the front." (Stockholm, December 1, 1719).[97]

to Chapter 9