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Who was Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)?
An Evaluation and Biographies

He was a Swedish nobleman, a contemporary of Bach, Benjamin Franklin, Kant, Wesley, and Newton,

 living at the time of the first full flowering of what we now think of as modern science. For the first two-thirds of his life, he was deeply immersed in both the physical and biological aspects of that science and in philosophy as well. He not only studied these subjects but also wrote voluminously and originally about them. His theories about some subjects, such as brain function or cosmology, were proposed many years ahead of those authored by the men generally credited with originating them. He devised a heavier-than-air aircraft and a variety of other inventions that were ahead of their time.

Most significant, however, is not any individual part but the phenomenal scope of Swedenborg’s accomplishments. He lived during the last time in history when one person could master in a lifetime the full sweep of Western philosophic and scientific thought. And this is just what he did, while at the same time living an active political life and working as an engineer and mineralogist for the Swedish Board of Mines, itself a demanding job because the Swedish economy was largely based on mining. He also learned a diverse array of practical skills, from watch-making to celestial navigation.   In summary, it seems fair to say that Swedenborg was a daVinci-like genius of the first magnitude, what would later be called a "system" thinker. In Emerson's words (in the chapter on Swedenborg in Representative men), he was a man "not to be measured by whole colleges of ordinary scholars." (See the chart of his accomplishments.) In sheer volume, Swedenborg’s written work is so enormous that few have read it in its entirety. His fully Divinely inspired theological work alone is not simply 32 volumes long, but densely packed with often profound and theologically ground-breaking ideas.

How do you judge such a person?

How can we know if Swedenborg’s theology is the result of his own great insight or is truly Divine revelation, in fact nothing less than the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? The answer, of course, is that we can't. Here again, God is seeing to it that our spiritual free will is protected. As those who wish to do so can find reasons not to believe that there is a God or that He came to this planet in person, or even that a particular scientific finding is true, so those who wish to can find reasons to credit Swedenborg's theology to him rather than believing it to be revelation from God.

Consider, however, some of the more obvious aspects of Swedenborg's life and work that bear on the believability of his revelatory claim:

1) The actual process of revelation Swedenborg claims to have experienced was not mysterious or occult. It was straightforward and completely in keeping with his description of what is involved in the death process - i.e., becoming aware directly of the "spiritual world." The transition, the conscious awakening directly in the spirit's plane, is something everyone experiences when their body dies. Swedenborg, like the Biblical prophets and seers, was simply allowed to experience it before his actual death and then report back to us. In free will, we may or may not choose to believe there is such a place as the spiritual world, but if we take Swedenborg at his own word, his description at least provides a reasonable explanation for how his revelation worked.

2) Swedenborg has sometimes been termed a "mystic" and his revelation "esoteric." Yet if his theological work is nothing else, it is certainly not mysterious or obscure. The reader may believe what Swedenborg writes or not, but there is certainly no question of understanding what he writes. Indeed, the fact that Swedenborg does not waffle or take refuge in ambiguous prose sets him apart from some other avowed revelators. His dispassionate philosophic-scientific descriptions and reasoning, running on from volume to volume in endless calmly described detail, have more in common with a lab report than with the occult or the visionary.

3) Was Swedenborg insane? This is a charge that has been repeatedly leveled at him but which has never stood up to even a brief examination of the facts of his life. (For a detailed review of this question, see "The Madness Hypothesis," special issue of The New Philosophy 1998;101: (whole number)).  Swedenborg was a humble, genial man, respected and well liked by virtually everyone who came in contact with him (and his life, as a nobleman and scholar, is well documented). He did not, in short, fit the diagnosis of "antisocial behavior," one possible criterion for insanity. Further, his measured philosophic-scientific prose and careful reasoning make it impossible to classify him as "irrational," another criterion of insanity. Was he on an ego trip, trying to show off his big intellect? If so, why did he ever venture into an area of such controversy as he must have known his theology would be? Swedenborg was on his way to being famous as a result of his scientific and other work, as he was well aware. Why did he give that up? Or why did he claim his published work was Divine revelation, an assertion he knew would excite nothing but opposition in those church-dominated times? (His revelation did in fact excite opposition, including his books being banned in Sweden; Swedenborg had to travel to England and Europe to have them published.)

Perhaps Swedenborg had a messianic complex, envisioning himself saving the world with his great theological insight? If so, why did he both write and publish his revelation anonymously for most of the many years he worked on them? Why did he not attempt to start a church of his own, as most other avowed revelators have done? (In fact, the first "New Church" organization was begun in England, not Sweden, after Swedenborg's death.)

When it did become known at last that Swedenborg was the author of the books of the Second Coming, which caused a good deal of stir at the time, he never took advantage of this opportunity to go on a campaign to "sell" them. Although he circulated the books themselves, he personally would only talk about his work if asked and then only in the calm, friendly way that was typical of him. Finally, there are his repeated statements, both in the books of the Second Coming and to those who asked him in person, that this was not his work, that he was but a humble scribe writing at God's command. (Those believing in his revelation do not view him as a saint, but only as a gifted and useful - and quite mortal - man.) Yet even at that, Swedenborg was emphatic in saying, in effect, "Don't take my word for it. I state that these works are revelation from God because I don't want anyone to think I'm trying to take credit for them. But it is not my claim that makes them true but the truth itself contained in them. Let everyone who is interested examine that truth for themselves, as is done in scientific investigations, and make up their own mind."

4) Swedenborg’s desire that each reader test the truth of the revelation brings up another point: if there is a God and He made your mind, does it not seem reasonable that, if He were sending a revelation of truth for that mind, it would "fit?" Would He make your mind with square holes and then send round pegs of truth to put into it? One of the characteristics of the Second Coming teachings that has been admitted even by Swedenborg’s critics is the great wisdom and plain common sense they contain, and on a wide diversity of subjects. Again, this is not proof, but something else to think about.

5) By the same token, if God was going to reveal the full rational explanation of His creation, doesn't it seem likely that He would use a person with as wide a range of knowledge as possible? Wouldn't it be helpful to have that person be one of most brilliant who ever lived? At the same time, shouldn't the revelator be a humble person, someone who would avoid temptation to misuse that truth, someone primarily concerned with faithfully serving God and their fellow human beings? Swedenborg may not have been the only person in history who could have fit all these criteria, but there seem few others who would have filled the bill as well.

6) There were several famous incidents late in Swedenborg's life, after it was known that he claimed to be doing research in the spiritual world, in which he reported things to people still on earth that he learned from people in the other world. It should be noted that Swedenborg only did this when specifically asked to (and often not even then), not to show off. These incidents are well documented - involving, in one case, Queen Lovisa Ulrika of Sweden and in another John Wesley - and there appears no obvious way to explain how he found out the things he did if he was not in communication with the spiritual world. (Swedenborg also accurately predicted the day of his own death.) Again, these facts don't prove the truth of his claim but are something to think about.

7) Perhaps the hardest thing to explain by nonspiritual means about Swedenborg's revelation, however, is simply how he managed to write it at all. He did not even begin work on it until he was 57 years old, and he began by constructing a huge Bible index (based on the Hebrew and Greek originals). In the Second Coming text itself  many pages contained large sets of cross-reference to other books in his revelation and in the Bible (e.g. New Jersualem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 306, Doctrine of the Lord 9) - all compiled without benefit of a database(!). In the next 27 years, he not only wrote thousands of pages - with a quill pen – but rewrote tidy copies for the printer. He then saw the books through publication, did the proofreading, and attended to many other details. And, far from doing all this in the comfort of his home, he had to travel to England and Europe to have his work published.

Yet all this still does not fully make clear Swedenborg’s accomplishment. His revelation was not simply large in page-count terms. It was also of staggering scope, complexity, and originality, especially in the context of Swedenborg’s own time. (One reason some of his ideas no longer seem so original is that, in the 200 years since he wrote them, many of those ideas have worked their way into our culture by indirect means, notably in the works of the many influential people who read his work, ranging from the Brownings to Emerson and Helen Keller.)  Could a man, even a genius like Swedenborg, have accomplished all this and so late in life? The experience of other people, geniuses or not, suggests it would be impossible for a person on his own. But, once again, we just don't know. Whether Swedenborg was simply another theological commentator like Luther or Calvin, or the last and greatest of the prophets, is a matter of belief, just like the question of whether there is a God and whether He reveals Himself to us in the first place. If, as the teachings of the Second Coming state, you are living in spiritual freedom, all you can do is to search for the explanation of reality that makes the most sense to you - with the cautionary note that we all have the tendency, under the affirmative and negative principles (Arcana Coelestia  2568, 2588), to relate to that which confirms what we already believe.

A final thought from Swedenborg, made in the last moments of his life:

"Then, in preparation for the Communion, Ferelius [a priest friend of Swedenborg's]....observed that in as much as quite a number of people thought that his sole purpose in giving out his new theological system had been to make a name for himself, Swedenborg would do well, if that were so, to deny either the whole or part of what he had presented.

"Upon hearing these words [Swedenborg] half rose in his bed and, placing his... hand upon his breast said, with great earnestness:

"'As truly as you see me before your eyes, so true is everything that I have written; and I could have said more had it been permitted.'" (The Swedenborg Epic, p. 432)

After all the huge range of remarkable teachings that had been revealed to him - "I could have said more had it been permitted."  What other amazing things might that "more" have included? We will only discover the answer, presumably, when we ourselves experience the "revelation" of passing into the spiritual world at death.

Biographies of Swedenborg: An Introduction

Swedenborg’s claim to have received the revelation of Jesus Christ in His Second Coming has been, not surprisingly, a controversial one.  The diversity of opinion about it is reflected in the various biographies of Swedenborg, which range across the spectrum from giving full credence to his claim to outright dismissal of it.  There is a similar range of treatment in reviews of the books of Swedenborg's theology. Some biographies primarily cite the works that Swedenborg published himself, which appear to be authoritative Divine revelation, and others quote his unpublished work, typically The Spiritual Diary (Spiritual Experiences in more recent translation) and The Apocalypse Explained, which do not appear to be based on authoritative revelation. (The latter work should not to be confused with The Apocalypse Revealed.  For a list of the authoritative works, see The Second Advent Christian™ Canon of Scripture. For a review of this issue, see "Which of Swedenborg's books are Divine revelation?")

The "outright dismissal" approach is of course a perfectly valid position. Indeed, it would appear to be an inescapable one for a non-believer. As Jonsson notes in his biography (listed below), "Those who do not share his belief [i.e. Swedenborg's belief that he had a true revelation] can only try to fit him into the traditional pattern, and support can be found in the religious-historical view that the assumption of a religious role is always dependent on the entire makeup of the individual, including his level of education." (p. 16).

There is also no question that many ideas similar or identical to those of the Second Coming are to be found in earlier work, such as Origen of Alexandria's (ca.185-254 A.D.) concepts about there being an inner spiritual sense of the Bible (e.g. see "The Theology of Origen" New Church Life, 1903, pp. 132-137, 206-210), Pelagius' teachings on free will, and the Neoplatonists' subscription to the ideas of a spiritual sun and what Swedenborg would later term correspondences (see C. Sigstedt The Swedenborg Epic, New York: Bookman 1952, p. 179). The Neoplatonists' leader Plotinus also had the idea of creation coming out of God, as opposed to the traditional Christian idea of creation ex nihilo.

However, the critical point missing from proposals that Swedenborg took ideas from such sources is consideration of the extent to which those ideas in turn could be traced back to earlier revelations, ultimately to the teachings of the Ancient Church (True Christian Religion 264-266). This oversight is particularly surprising in  view of the explicit detailing of this history of revelation in the Second Coming teachings, such as:

"I have been informed that Enoch (who is mentioned in Gen. 5:21-24) and those associated with him collected correspondences from the lips of [the] men [of the Most Ancient Church, and transmitted this knowledge to their posterity; and that from this it came to pass that in many of the kingdoms of Asia the knowledge of correspondences both existed and was cultivated, especially in the land of Canaan, in Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, Syria, Arabia, Tyre, Sidon, and Nineveh, and that it was thence carried into Greece; but was there turned into myths, as can be seen from the writings of the ancient Greeks." (True Christian Religion 202, see also 275)

"Do you believe that the ancient sages, such as Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca and others, who wrote about God and the immortality of the soul, got this idea first from their own understanding? No, they derived it by borrowing from others, who learned it first from the ancient Word,...." (True Christian Religion 273)

The important point to note here, however, is that - from a "believer" perspective - it really doesn't matter what the apparent origins of the teachings of the Second Coming are.  The rules of the Ten Commandments were not original, having appeared in such places as the Code of Hammurabi (see also L. Boadt Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction New York: Paulist Press 1984) long prior to their being given on Mt. Sinai. What distinguished the Commandments from earlier such lists was that God put His seal of approval on them at Sinai, giving them Divine authority.  Similarly, whether a given teaching of the Second Coming was - under the guiding hand of Providence (i.e. Jesus) - derived from something Swedenborg had read earlier in life or from material he received for the first time as revelation, it is the Divine imprimatur of inclusion in Swedenborg's inspired works that gives the Second Coming teachings their authority.

The Biographies

E. Benz. Emanuel Swedenborg. Visionary savant in the age of reason. (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation 2002. Translation of the German original, published in 1948) - An extensive consideration by the noted German scholar, basically, though not completely, affirmative to Swedenborg’s claims.  Review of Swedenborg's theology is for the most part taken from Swedenborg's published work.

L. Bergquist. Swedenborg's Secret. (London: Swedenborg Foundation 2005.  Translation of the Swedish original.)  Long and scholarly, with some attribution to "inspiration" but basically in the Lamm tradition (see below), e.g., with Swedenborg's "interpretations" seen as influenced by experience ranging from his father to Pietists and Moravians to Swedenborg's knowledge of anatomy and his political experience. Cites both unpublished and published works.

M.B. Block, The New Church in the New World. A Study Of Swedenborgianism In America (New York: Henry Holt 1932; reprinted New York: Octagon 1968).  A brief and readable overview of Swedenborg and his revelation, presented as introductory material to a social history of the individuals and organizations that were affected by the revelation's teachings.  Objective but affirmative, cites published works.

G.F. Dole, R.H. Kirven. A scientist explores spirit. A biography of Emanuel Swedenborg with key concepts of his theology. (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 1997) - Brief and readable, basically affirmative but also ambivalent about the extent to which the Swedenborg's theological works are Divine revelation and the extent to which they are a product of Swedenborg’s own thinking. Cites both unpublished and published works.

I. Jonsson. Emanuel Swedenborg. (New York: Twayne 1971, reprinted by the Swedenborg Foundation in 1999 under the title Visionary scientist. The effects of science and philosophy on Swedenborg’s cosmology. ) - This biography falls squarely in the Lamm tradition (see below), attempting to demonstrate that the source of Swedenborg’s ideas was his culture rather than revelation. Cites both unpublished and published works.

M. Lamm. Emanuel Swedenborg. The development of his thought. (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation 2000. Translation of the Swedish original, published in 1915) - Lamm was the original proponent of the idea that Swedenborg’s work was not based on revelation at all but simply a recycling of ideas taken from other sources in the history of ideas. This position has been echoed in more recent work, such as the Jonsson and Bergquist biographies, and the Lang introduction to the New Century Edition of Heaven and Hell (West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation 2001). Cites both unpublished and published works.

C. Sigstedt. The Swedenborg epic. (Bookman Associates: New York, 1952, reprinted by the Swedenborg Society in 1981) - Affirmative and, in terms of length and historical coverage, definitive. It is written in narrative form, as what would now be termed a non-fiction novel. The book is not a reliable guide to the teachings of the Second Coming, however, since much of its review is drawn from the unpublished works, typically the Spiritual Diary (see "Which of Swedenborg's books are Divine revelation? for an explanation).

S. Synnestvedt. A short biography from The Essential Swedenborg. (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1976) - Concise and neutral selection of passages quoted directly from Swedenborg's works. All but a minority are drawn from the published works.

S. Toksvig. Emanuel Swedenborg: Scientist and mystic. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948) - This brief biography is skeptical of Swedenborg’s claims but relatively balanced. Cites both unpublished and published works, but with Spiritual Diary preponderant.

G. Trobridge. Swedenborg life and teaching. (New York: Swedenborg Foundation 1935, several reprints) - At one time the popular biography.  Intermediate length, affirmative. Majority of citations from published works. (Most of this book is available online.)

Wikipedia entry, "Emanuel Swedenborg." Diverse collection of information, typical of Wikipedia.  Also typical is the various authors' attempt to present Swedenborg and his theology in a fair and neutral way.

J. Williams Hogan. "Swedenborg: A biography," in Swedenborg and His Influence. E. J. Brock (ed.). Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania: The Academy of the New Church, 1988. pp.3-27.  Brief and affirmative. Cites only published works.

For Further Reading

K. Akert, M.P. Hammond. "Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and his contributions to neurology." Medical History 1962 Jul;6:255-6

A brief review.

Dunér D. "[On tremulations. Emanuel Swedenborg's iatromechanics]" Svensk medicinhistorisk tidskrift 2005; 9:27-48.

"On the basis of his daily life experiences of water waves the Swedish natural philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) could use the wave metaphor to transfer the qualities of these waves to other physical phenomena such as sound waves and light waves. In the last issue of his scientific journal Daedalus Hyperboreus (1718), he published an overview of a new theory of tremulations. Swedenborg's most original idea was put forward more in detail in a manuscript of 1720. He maintained that life consists of waves or tremors of the nerves. The body is like a musical instrument. He was a typical follower of iatromechanics, describing the body as a machine with pumps, levers, bellows and so forth. Of special interest is his use of the metaphor of the circle. There are many different kinds of circulations in the body, such as the blood circulation, and respiration, which are parallels to the planetary motions." (from PubMed)

H. Fodstad. "The neuron theory". Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery. 2001;77:20-4

In 1740 the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg described what is the first known anticipation of the neuron (a nerve cell with its processes). One hundred years later Ehrenberg, Remak and Purkinje recognized the nerve cell as the important element of the nervous system and provided its first accurate description. Vilhelm von Waldeyer in 1891 proposed to call the unit 'neuron' from the Greek word for 'sinew'. The 'neuron theory' or 'neuron doctrine', which emerged at the end of the 19th century, asserts that nerve tissue is composed of individual cells, which are genetic, anatomic, functional and trophic units. The pioneers of the neuron doctrine included neuroscientists, physicians, a polar explorer and three Nobel Laureates. The classic neuron doctrine has served well as the theoretical basis for the great advances in our current understanding of the cellular basis of nervous system functions. (from PubMed)

E. Gordh, Torsten ; G.P. Mair, William ; Sourander, Patrick "Swedenborg, Linnaeus and Brain Research and the Roles of Gustaf Retzius and Alfred Stroh in the Rediscovery of Swedenborg’s ManuscriptsUpsala Journal of Medical Sciences 2007; 112:143-164

"Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) at the end of his long life became famous as a visionary mystic and founder of a new religion. However, at younger age, he was recognized as a prominent mining engineer and natural philosopher, particularly interested in geology, mineralogy, cosmology, paleontology and last but not least physiology of the brain. In his Oeconomica regni animalis (1740) and in several posthumously published extensive manuscripts, he described and analyzed e.g. the structural and functional organization of the cerebral cortex, the hierarchical construction of the nervous system, the localization of the cerebrospinal fluid and the secretory functions of the pituitary gland. In these fields, he presented remarkable insights and far reaching conclusions which in some cases have been experimentally verified in modern times. In spite of family relations Swedenborg rarely met the 19 years younger Linnaeus. Linnaeus was not only the founder of the systemic botany but as physician a keen and to some extent original observer of neurological symptoms; one of the first who adequately described motor aphasia. To regard these two men, among the few Swedish authors of the 18th century whose names are still internationally well known, as early precursors of neurological research, seems justified. The young Canadian, Alfred H. Stroh (1878-1922), had a crucial importance for the research on the works of Swedenborg, and the rediscovery of his manuscripts. His work was supported and financed to a large extent by professor Gustaf Retzius, at that time the most prominent Swedish researcher in anatomy and histology. There are many reasons to be thankful for the important contributions made by Alfred Stroh and Gustaf Retzius to stimulate the interest for Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden and internationally." (from PubMed)

C.G. Gross. "Emanuel Swedenborg: A neuroscientist before his time." The Neuroscientist 3: 2 (1997): 142-147 (also appears in C.G. Gross. Brain, vision, memory. (Boston: MIT Press, 1998) and in The New Philosophy 1999;102:429-445)

C.G. Gross. "Twitches versus movements. A story of motor cortex." The Neuroscientist 2003; 16: 332-342

Review of Swedenborg's contributions to neuroscience: sensation, movement, and cognition as functions of the cerebral cortex, function of the corpus callosum, somatotropic organization of the motor cortex, description of the neural pathway of each sense organ to the cortex, functions of the frontal lobe and the corpus striatum, circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid, and interaction of the pituitary gland between the brain and the blood.

Gross, C. "The Discovery of Motor Cortex and its Background." Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 2007; 16:320-331.

"In 1870 Gustav Fritsch and Edvard Hitzig showed that electrical stimulation of the cerebral cortex of a dog produced movements. This was a crucial event in the development of modern neuroscience because it was the first good experimental evidence for a) cerebral cortex involvement in motor function, b) the electrical excitability of the cortex, c) topographic representation in the brain, and d) localization of function in different regions of the cerebral cortex. This paper discusses their experiment and some developments in the previous two centuries that led to it including the ideas of Thomas Willis and Emanuel Swedenborg, the widespread interest in electricity and the localizations of function of Franz Joseph Gall, John Hughlings Jackson, and Paul Broca. We also consider the subsequent study of the motor cortex by David Ferrier and others." (From PubMed)

Gross, C. "Three before their time: neuroscientists whose ideas were ignored by their contemporaries." Experimental Brain Research. 2008 Jul 19. [Epub ahead of print]

"I discuss three examples of neuroscientists whose ideas were ignored by their contemporaries but were accepted as major insights decades or even centuries later. The first is Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) whose ideas on the functions of the cerebral cortex were amazingly prescient...."

R.H Griffith. "Swedenborg in the realm of finance." The New Philosophy 1972;75:283-289. 

H. Söderberg. Swedenborg’s 1714 airplane. A machine to fly in the air  New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1988)

A detailed evaluation of Swedenborg's concept, its place in aviation history, and how a model was constructed for the National Air and Space Museum, all under the supervision of Dr. Paul Garber, Curator of the  Museum. (pp. 32ff.).

- Kurt Simons

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