The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 9 - Temporal Fortune

Swedenborg was at Starbo, in Dalecarlia, at the home of Hedwig and Lars Benzelstjerna, who superintended the iron works there, when an event occurred which made an important change in his worldly condition. He received the news that his beloved step-mother, Sara Bergia, had died of pneumonia on March 3, 1719, after a short illness. Immediately he departed for Brunsbo where his father was mourning the loss of his beloved wife and companion of twenty-three years. Emanuel did not even stop to take with him the manuscript On Tremulation which he had been copying and sending to Benzelius, a few chapters at a time.

In her will, Sara Bergia left the whole of her valuable mining property at Starbo, Prästhyttan and elsewhere, comprising forges, furnaces; woods and fields, to be divided among the six Swedberg children. Emanuel had been her favorite and she would have left the whole of her estate to him alone, had not the bishop persuaded her to modify her will. When he begged her not to exclude the other children, she said, "They may have equal shares, but Emanuel shall have Starbo alone, and he shall buy out the others."[98] Sara Bergia also provided that he should enjoy the full income of Starbo for one year after her decease. On the day before she died she also added another provision, orally, in the presence of three witnesses, to include her six-year-old granddaughter, Sara Lundstedt, among her beneficiaries, thus reducing their shares to a seventh each. Two of the heirs contested this clause to the will, but its validity was upheld on the basis of a statement handed to the court by Emanuel. Sara's brother Peter, and her sister's two children, the Swabs, also contested the will, but the bishop generously settled their claims by giving them 12,000 dalers outright from his personal fortune. When the final settlement was made it was agreed that Swedenborg and Lars Benzelstjerna should own the property jointly, buying out the other heirs. The full value was estimated at 32,000 dalers in copper, Swedenborg's share being 4,571 dalers. This arrangement was of great advantage to Emanuel. Lars Benzelstjerna lived at Starbo and looked after the property, leaving his studious brother-in-law free to devote himself to travel and research.

When the inheritance was divided, on April 16, 1721, Lars and Emanuel also took over the other children's shares in the properties they had inherited from their own mother, Sara Behm, namely the iron works at Axmar in Gästrikland, at Skinnskatteberg in Västmanland, and at Gebberg in Dalecarlia. The magnificent Axmar estate had a long stretch of coast and its own harbor on the Baltic Sea with many miles of woodland, so essential for the charcoal needed in smelting. [In the year 1900 this property was valued at 20,000,000 Swedish crowns.] The Swedberg children together owned a fifth of the entire property; the other four fifths were owned by their widowed aunt, Madam Brita Behm. It was from these flourishing iron works that Swedenborg derived the comfortable independent income which enabled him to devote his time so largely to non-remunerative work. This was especially fortunate for him at this time since, as we have seen, he repeatedly failed in every effort to elicit a salary from the Board of Mines.

Emanuel's time at Brunsbo was very profitably spent. He found a collection of books on chemistry in the possession of his cousin Johan Hesselius which interested him immensely. Hesselius, Emanuel's senior by a few months, was a close friend of the Swedbergs. He lived at the manse and used to entertain the bishop every evening by playing hymns on his violoncello. He was intensely interested in all scientific discoveries.

I am now engaged in running through all the chemistries that belong to Hesselius. I propose to examine thoroughly everything that concerns fire and metals ... I take the chemical experiments of Boyle ... [and others] ... and trace out nature in its minutest parts, comparing them with geometry and mechanics, and I am encouraged by new discoveries in all that has to do with the nature of subtile substances ... It seems to me that the immense amount of experiments already made affords a good ground for building on. To make use of the toil and expenses of others-to work with the head on that which others have worked out with their hands-from this could come a multitude of deductions in chemistry, metallurgy, the nature of fire and such things. (Brunsbo, May 2, 1720)[99]

To trace out nature in its minutest parts, to investigate the nature of subtile substances! Here we see Swedenborg outlining the course that his development is to follow for the next fifteen years. But why did he, at this point, turn from anatomy to chemistry? This is best explained if we regard the work On Tremulation as a digression, growing perhaps out of his study On the Nature of Fire and Colors, a short treatise left in manuscript form.[100] In the third section of this treatise he discusses motions in the air and ether in relation to sight and hearing, and defines an undulation as resulting from the local motion of a volume of particles, a tremulation from the vibrations in each separate little particle. His work on Blast Furnaces was undertaken largely for the purpose of learning more about fire, for in the memorial to the Board of Mines, quoted above, he states that "his principal object has been to investigate the nature of fire."

Chemistry was closely allied, as a matter of fact, to his chosen profession, mining and metallurgy. But what fascinated Swedenborg was the new power in his mind-his knowledge of geometry and mechanics. This was like a new device which he used as a test for everything that came within his reach. It was as if he had discovered the underlying principle of the universe, the key to Aladdin's treasure house, and was being devoured with curiosity until he had fitted it to every door leading to the unexplored interiors of nature. The very structure of matter could be disclosed by means of this key! Chemistry could be explained by mechanics! That was what held him enthralled. In science there was no guesswork, no reliance on inherited formulas, but a fitting of fact to fact. There was truth to be unlocked!

In a paper On the Causes of Things, in his handwriting, but probably written by Polhem during a time when Swedenborg acted as his amanuensis, we find presented, for the first time, the idea that the particles of which the atmosphere is composed, are round, in three degrees of density, the more inert and inactive particles being formed by compression out of those substances that are more free and active. It is suggested that "sulphur" and "salt" arose, at the time of creation, from the contention between fire and water, sulphur becoming oil and salt becoming a flowing lava finally compressed into the matter of the earth itself.[101]

In his philosophical thinking Swedenborg, like Polhem, was a Cartesian, that is, he believed with Descartes that nature was like a machine. But though he accepted Descartes' view on the existence of a solar vortex and accepted his idea that all variation in matter depends on motion, yet Swedenborg's gradually maturing concept of the function of motion in creation was new and indeed revolutionary. It had in it the first beginnings of the theory of the dynamic origin of matter - that originally a series of discrete substantial forms was created from the Infinite. As to the shapes and properties of these particles, he differed from Descartes. He strenuously objected to the Upsala professors who accepted Descartes' ideas unconditionally, although himself never hesitating to adopt the ideas of others. But he always worked them over in his own mind and set the pattern of his own thinking on them. Were we to sift out of Swedenborg's earlier philosophical works all that he took from Polhem and Descartes there would be very little left.[102]

"I send you something new in Physics on air and water particles showing them to be round, which may militate against the philosophy of many; but as I base my theory upon proofs and geometry, I hope that no one will reasonably deny it . . . " His object was to "thoroughly investigate the nature of air and water in all its parts: for if the true shape of the particles is once discovered, we obtain with it all the properties which belong to such a shape." (Starbo, January 30, 1718).[103]

In December of the year 1720, Bishop Swedberg married his third wife, Christina Arrhusia, daughter of the dean of Fahlun. It is probable that Emanuel was present at the wedding in Brunsbo, which was solemnized by the Bishop's son-in-law, the Rev. Jonas Unge, then rector of a parish some ten miles to the south of Skara. The following February Swedenborg was again in Starbo, standing godfather to his sister Hedwig's infant daughter.[104]

The time had now come when Swedenborg's project for going abroad to publish some of the results of his work in Latin was to be realized.[105] Ample means for this undertaking had come to him, as we have seen, through his step-mother's inheritance.[106] At the end of May he left Sweden for Holland by way of Copenhagen and Hamburg. With him went his cousin Johan Hesselius, intent on obtaining a medical degree at the University of Harderwijk. Arrived at Helsingborg, ready to cross the Sound into Denmark, Swedenborg addressed a letter to the Board of Mines which shows that he was still determined to maintain relations with that body.[107] He declared that his sole object is to become more closely informed about foreign mines and their methods and to make a study of foreign markets for metals, and he begs for instructions and guidance in carrying out his plan. There is no indication that the well-born colleagues ever took any notice of his request other than to file away the letter among their other memorials. The new government in this, as in so much else, had written off all that reminded it of the previous era and had little use for the favorites of Charles the Twelfth, among whom were counted Emanuel Swedenborg and Christopher Polhem. Our ambitious young assessor was justified in seeking other fields for his conquests.

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