from Robert H. Kirven, "A Concise Overview of  Swedenborg's Theology, (Appleseed & Co. MA 2003)

Table of  Contents


Chapter 2


Freedom of Choice; Will and Understanding; Equilibrium

PERHAPS THE FIRST THING TO REALIZE about freedom of choice is that it is a severely limited freedom. Obviously, no one is free to choose his or her race, gender, or childhood environment. We cannot choose to be born in affluence or poverty, with many or few opportunities, with good or bad health, with great or retarded intelligence. Without the freedom to choose these things, further restrictions appear on almost every choice that we face, even on our freedom to choose the things we will deal with. Some of us have more options than others with comparatively greater freedom, but that freedom is never unlimited, and often it is very narrow.

Swedenborg's teaching on freedom of choice does not deny or question any of these obvious limitations on freedom. In fact, he adds a few. He describes spirits who, associating with the spiritual aspect of our psycho-physical nature, influence our decisions and our ability to make them to such a point that in any particular situation there is only one choice that we are free to make for ourselves. That choice is between what is true or false, good or evil—that is, a choice toward or away from God.

But, after all these limitations on human freedom are recognized, Swedenborg sees that basic, minimal freedom of choice as absolute, irreducible, and unabridgeable. It is an essential quality of human nature. No one who is fully human (an insane person, for instance, might be less than fully human in this sense) is ever denied that freedom. No one who is fully human can ever escape the responsibility that freedom of choice implies.

Freedom of choice is a key teaching in Swedenborg's theology because any other teaching that appears to be in conflict with it has not been correctly understood. Not even the omnipotence of God, or the pervasiveness and power of his providential management of the world and human life, or any other reality, teaching, or principle, ever impairs or suspends human freedom of choice.

The nearest thing to a qualification on the universality and absoluteness of freedom of choice is the human capacity that Swedenborg calls rationality. Freedom and rationality are a matched pair. Neither can exist without the other. Insanity, infancy, ignorance (in some limited cases), or anything that abridges rationality, does abridge freedom of choice at the same time and to the same extent—but that is also an abridgement of full human capacities.

Rationality (and the freedom of choice that goes with it) is a capacity that resides in two human functions, namely, will and understanding. These functions, which Swedenborg's Latin calls voluntas and intellectus, appear in some translations as will and intellect; and in some of Dr. George Dole's translations they are called intentionality and discernment. The root meanings of the Latin words seem to me to be best rendered into contemporary English by "intention and discernment," so I use them often in place of the older terminology. Discernment enables us to distinguish between what is true and what is false, and between what is good and what is evil. Intention enables us to incorporate such distinctions into our lives and act on them or, more precisely, act them out. In a free and rational human being, intending and discerning are separate functions, relating to each other in a kind of creative tension.

That separation makes it possible for us to know intellectually that one course of action is good, and at the same time to want to do something else; so it is the situation that makes temptation possible. When the will rules the understanding in such a case, we succumb to temptation (as the human race "fell" from its original, innocent good). But that separation also makes it possible for us to grow spiritually, when our understanding rules our will and we live the best we know how.

This particular example should not be taken to suggest that our discernment should always dominate our intention. Chapter 4 will point out more details about the interplay between these two functions of personality. The thing to notice about them at this point is the importance of their independence from each other. Swedenborg saw that independence as more clear-cut than psychologists have seen it since the time of Freud; but psychologists have concentrated their studies on pathological conditions, while Swedenborg focused mostly on the healthy pattern of psychological (or spiritual) growth. If Swedenborg pays less attention than modern psychotherapists do to the covert powers of the will over the intellect that represses it, that does not leave him with a naive or simple picture of human spiritual development. The complication or obstacle that he sees is the influence of the hells.

Our soul, or anima, is under constant pressure and influence from both good and evil spirits. This influence appears in our conscious mind as values, motives, affections, preferences, prejudices, and the like—apparently our own, arising from within ourselves. These influences, which actually come from spirits outside ourselves, are so potent that we could not help obeying them, except for the fact that they are continually countered by equal and opposite influences. This balance of influences is what Swedenborg calls the "equilibrium between heaven and hell" as it affects our individual lives. Often, he calls it simply "equilibrium."

What Swedenborg tells us about equilibrium is a vital part of his conception of freedom of choice. Without the equilibrium of spiritual forces, we would have to choose what the stronger influence forced us to choose. But since the good and evil influences are in perfect balance, we are free to choose which we will accept and which we will reject, which means we are free to discern as clearly as we want to what is true, and free to intend what is good.

Because human freedom of choice is so important in the created order of things, this equilibrium that preserves freedom of choice is important, too; so important, in fact, that preservation (or restoration) of the equilibrium between heaven and hell was a principal purpose of the incarnation of the Lord, as we will discuss further in Chapter 10.

It is important to understand, in these first two chapters, that Swedenborg's descriptions of the human spirit and the equilibrium of spiritual forces are meant quite literally. The human spirit is not a vague, amorphous object: it is a person with a spiritual body, spiritual faculties and senses. And our spirit is continually in the company of other spiritual personalities, both good and bad, who influence us as directly as our physical companions, and often more powerfully. We live in two environments at once.


Read the following passages from Swedenborg. For further reading in other published versions, see the passages listed just below:

Secrets of Heaven 3628
Heaven and Hell 589-599
Divine Love and Wisdom 361
Divine Providence 71-73, 96-99
True Christianity  475-485



 SH 3628

[2]There are always two forces which hold everything together at its joints and in its shape. One force acts from the outside and the other acts from the inside so that the object between them is held together. It is this way with each of us—every individual part of us, even the smallest part. We know that our atmosphere holds our body together by its constant pressure, bearing down, acting as a force from the outside. We also know that the atmosphere, breathed as air into the lungs, holds them in their form. . . . Without these corresponding inner forces which react against those outer forces, holding the [lungs and other] intermediate structures of the body together and maintaining their equilibrium, none of these body-structures could last for a moment. This shows us how two forces must act on all things if anything is to exist and endure.

[3]The forces which flow in and act from the inside originate in the Lord and come from him through heaven, and they have life in them. This can be seen clearly from the organ of hearing. Unless there were interior changes occurring from life, with exterior changes in the air responding to them, there would be no hearing. And it can be seen, too, from the organ of sight. Unless there were an interior light, a product of life, to which the exterior light of the sun corresponds, there would be no seeing. This is how it is with all the other limbs and organs of the human body. There are forces at work from the outside, which are not living, and forces at work from the inside, which are inherently living, and these forces hold everything together and give life to every single thing that is. All these forces act as they do according to the form conferred on them for the purpose they serve.

HH 589

[2] Every event or every effect occurs in an equilibrium in which one force acts and the other is subject to being acted upon. One force, the active one, flows in, and the other accepts it and submits appropriately. In the natural world, the thing that acts is called force, and the thing that reacts is called inertia. In the spiritual world, what acts is called life, and what reacts is called intention, for life there is living force, and intention is living inertia, and equilibrium itself (the balance between life and intention) is called a free state. Therefore, a spiritual equilibrium, or free state, arises and endures between what is good acting from one side and what is evil reacting from the other; or between what is evil acting from the one side, and what is good reacting from the other.

HH 590

There is a perpetual balance between heaven and hell. A striving to do something evil breathes and rises incessantly from hell. A striving to do something good breathes and descends incessantly from heaven. The world of spirits is in this equilibrium . . . because people enter the world of spirits after death and are kept there in the same state they were in when they were in the world, which could not happen unless there were a perfect equilibrium in the world of spirits....

HH 591

The reason why something evil is continuously breathing and arising from hell, and something good is continuously breathing and descending from heaven, is that each of us is encompassed by a spiritual sphere which flows out and radiates from the life of our affections and the thoughts deriving from them. Such a life-sphere flows out from every individual, so it flows out from every heavenly society, and from each hellish community as well. Consequently spheres flow out from all of them at once—that is, from heaven as a whole and from hell as a whole.

The reason why good effort flows from heaven is that everyone there is involved with what is good. And there are evil exertions from hell because everyone there is involved in what is evil....

HH 592

If the Lord did not rule both the heavens and the hells, there would be no equilibrium; and if there were no equilibrium, there would be no heaven or hell. Everything in the universe, even every single thing, exists because of equilibrium. That is true of everything in both the natural and the spiritual worlds....

HH 597

Essentially, spiritual equilibrium is freedom, because it is a balance between what is good and what is evil, and between what is true and what is false. All these are spiritual realities. Therefore, to want to do something good or something evil, and to think something true or something false, and to choose one over the other, is freedom.

This freedom is given by the Lord to every human being, and is in no way removed from anyone. Because of its origin—from the Lord—it belongs to the Lord and not to us. But still it is given to us, along with life, as if it were ours, for the sake of our reformation and salvation. Without freedom, there would be no reformation or salvation.

Even a little intuition based on reason enables us to see that we are free to think evil thoughts or good ones, think sincerely or insincerely, fairly or unfairly. But we are not free to speak and act badly, dishonestly, and unfairly, because spiritual, moral, and civil laws keep restraints on our outer manifestations. This shows that our spirits—the part of us that thinks and intends— are in freedom. The same cannot be said for our outer aspects—what we say and what we do—unless these follow [certain spiritual] laws.

HH 598

No human being can be reformed without being in freedom, because we are born into all kinds of evil tendencies which must be removed so that we can be saved. But they cannot be removed unless we see them in ourselves and identify them, then want not to do them, and finally turn away from them. Only after we do that are they taken away....

[2]This is the primary reason for our need to be in freedom. Another reason is that nothing becomes really ours unless our love gives us an affection for it. Other things may intrude, but they get no further than our thinking about them; they do not get into our intention. Anything that does not enter our intention is not really ours. Thinking draws its material from memory, but intention draws its material from life itself.

Nothing is at all free that does not derive from intention. Anything free comes from a feeling of love. Whatever we love we do freely. Therefore our freedom and our love's affection are the same thing. Consequently, each of us has freedom so that we can be affected by what is true and good—so we can love them—so that they become virtually part of ourselves.

[3] Briefly, anything that does not get into us when we are in freedom does not stay with us, because it is not part of our love or intention. Anything that is not part of our love or intention is not part of our spirit. The essential reality of our spirit is our love and intention. Love and intention go together because what we love is what we intend.

DP 71

It is a law of divine providence that people should act from freedom according to reason.[2. Notes] They know that they are free to think and intend as they like, but they are not free to say whatever they think or do whatever they intend. The freedom to be understood here, therefore, is spiritual freedom, not natural freedom—except when the two make one. Thinking and intending are spiritual, speaking and doing are natural.

We can readily distinguish these in ourselves: we can think something and not say it, and intend something and not do it. This shows that we distinguish the two. We cannot move from thinking or intending to speaking or doing without making a decision—a decision like a door which must first be unlocked and then opened. Of course, this door stands open (as it were) for those who think and intend from reason in accord with the civil laws of the state and the moral laws of society: they say what they think and do what they intend. But the door stands closed for those who think and intend contrary to those laws.

If we pay attention to our intentions and consequent actions, we will notice such decisions intervening, sometimes several times in a single conversation. These examples are meant to clarify that doing things from freedom according to reason means thinking and intending—and consequently speaking and acting—according to reason.

DP 73

We have our faculty of discerning, which is rationality, and our faculty of thinking and intending—speaking and doing—which is liberty. These two faculties are ours from the Lord. However, many doubts can arise about both these faculties when we think about them. I want to say a little at this point only about our freedom to act according to reason.

[ 2 ] First you should know that all freedom comes from love, to such an extent that freedom and love are one. Love is our life, so freedom is our life, too. In fact, every delight we have is from our love and has no other source; and doing anything out of our love's delight is being free. Enjoyment leads us as a current bears an object downstream. But there are many kinds of love—some harmonious, others not—so there are many kinds of freedom. In general, there are three categories: natural, rational, and spiritual freedom.

[3]Each of us inherits natural freedom, the freedom in which we love nothing but ourselves and the world. The beginning of our life is nothing else, and all evil purposes arise from loving only ourselves and the world. Thus they become love's evils. This is how our natural freedom is freedom to think and intend evil deeds. When, through reasoning, we confirm evil purposes in ourselves, we become capable of doing evil things from our freedom according to our reason. Doing them from freedom is called liberty, and confirming them by reason is called rationality....

[5] Rational freedom, from our love of having a good reputation for the sake of honor and profit, affords us pleasure from that love when we appear outwardly as moral persons. Loving our reputation, we do not defraud, commit adultery, take revenge, or swear out loud. Making our conduct a matter of reason, we behave in sincere, just, chaste, and friendly ways in freedom according to our reason. From reason, in fact, we can advocate such conduct.

But if our rational faculty is only natural—not spiritual at the same time— our liberty is only external and not internal. We do not love good purposes inwardly at all, but only love them outwardly for reputation's sake. Therefore, the good deeds we do are not good in themselves. We may indeed say that such things ought to be done for the public welfare, but we say this from our love of our own honor and profit and not from love for the public welfare. Therefore, our freedom derives nothing from love for public welfare, nor does our reason—which agrees with our love. Inwardly, then, our rational freedom is natural freedom. The Lord's divine providence leaves everyone free in this way, too.

[6] Spiritual Freedom is from loving eternal life. The only people who come into this love and its delights are those who consider evil purposes to be sins—and therefore do not intend them—and who at the same time look to the Lord. As soon as we do this, we are in this freedom. The fact is that none of us can refuse to intend evil purposes because they are sins (and so refrain from acting them out) without motivation from a more inward (or higher) freedom—which comes from a more inward (or higher) love. At first, this liberty does not appear to be freedom, but it is. Later it does indeed seem free as we do things in real freedom according to true reason—thinking, intending, saying, and doing things that are good and true. This freedom grows as natural freedom fades and becomes its servant. Spiritual freedom also bonds itself with rational freedom and purifies it.

[7]Anyone can come into this freedom if willing to think that life is eternal and that the joy and happiness of life in time and for a time are nothing but passing shadows compared to the joy and happiness of life in eternity and for eternity. We can think this way if we want to, because we have rationality and liberty, and because the Lord, who gave us these two faculties, constantly enables us to do so.

DP 96

In all the workings of his divine providence the Lord preserves these two faculties [rationality and liberty] unimpaired in human beings, protecting them as sacred....

[2] Without these two faculties, human beings would not have will and understanding, and thus would not be human. Human will exists only in our being able to freely intend as if on our own. This capacity, which is called freedom, is continually given by the Lord. Human understanding exists only in our being able to act as if on our own (whether something is reasonable or not), and understanding whether or not something is reasonable comes from the other faculty—continuously given by the Lord—which is called rationality.

These two capacities unite themselves in us as will and understanding. We are able to understand because we can will; there is no will without understanding. Understanding is will's partner and mate, from which it cannot be separated and still exist. Along with the capability called freedom, therefore, we are given the capability called rationality.

[3] In the same way, too, if you take willing away from understanding, you understand nothing. The more strongly you will or intend something, the more you understand it—though this is true only if the instruments of understanding (which are called data) are known or available. Data are like tools to a workman. When I said, "the more strongly you will something, the more you understand it," I meant, "so far as you love to understand," for will and love make a single whole....

[4]Without liberty giving us will, and rationality giving us understanding, we would not be human. Beasts do not have these abilities. They look like they are able to will and understand, but they cannot. They are led and moved to do what they do by natural wants mated with knowledge about what they want.... It is true that they can be taught to do certain natural things which simultaneously become part of their knowing and their wanting. Such knowledge can be invoked again through visual or audible signals, but never becomes part of their thinking—and still less of their reasoning....

[5]Without these two faculties, we could not be bonded with the Lord, and so could not change ourselves or be made new... and would not have immortality or eternal life.... All human beings, bad as well as good, are united with the Lord through these two faculties, so each of us has immortality. But eternal life—that is, the life of heaven—is experienced only by those whose inmost and outmost selves are united with each other....

DP 97

Therefore, it is according to divine providence that we should act in freedom according to reason. It means the same thing, whether we say that we act in freedom according to reason, act from liberty according to rationality, or even act from will and understanding. But it is ... something else to act from freedom itself according to reason itself. If we do something bad because of an evil love and are glad we did it, we are in fact acting in freedom according to reason. However, the freedom in which we do such things is not real freedom. Really, it is infernal freedom, which is actually slavery. And the reason behind our doing those things is not reasonable: it is either spurious, false, or apparent reasoning which we confirm as valid when we enjoy what we have done.

Even though it is bad and wrong, that outcome is governed by divine providence. If our freedom to do bad things were taken away from our human nature, along with our ability to rationalize them and decide we were right to do them, then our freedom and rationality, and our ability to intend and to discern, would perish together. In that condition, we could no longer be held back from evil tendencies, or be able to change ourselves, or be united with the Lord so as to live to eternity. Therefore, the Lord preserves our freedom the way we guard the pupils of our eyes. Through that freedom, he continually leads us away from evil intentions. To the extent that we let him lead us, he plants good intentions in place of bad ones. In this way, little by little, he introduces heavenly freedom in place of hellish freedom.

TC 485

Without freedom of choice in spiritual matters, we would have no means of bonding with the Lord, so... there would be predestination—which is a detestable doctrine.... Unless we are bonded to the Lord, there can be no reformation or regeneration, and therefore salvation would be impossible....

TC 486

Predestination... is the product of a belief in our utter impotence and lack of choice in spiritual matters.... It is said that a person is chosen purely as an act of God's grace, without any activity on the person's part—whether that activity derives from natural powers or from reason.... What more hurtful idea could be brought up, or what more cruel belief could anyone hold about God, than that some of the human race are predestined to damnation? It would be cruel to believe that the Lord, who is love itself and mercy itself, could wish a large number of people to be born destined for hell, or that hundreds of millions [myriades myriadium] are born as lost souls (that is, born devils and satans), or to believe that the Lord did not and does not provide from his divine wisdom (which is infinite) that people who live a good life and acknowledge God are not cast into the fire and everlasting torment. In fact, the Lord is the creator and savior of all. He alone leads everyone. He desires no one's death.


Secrets of Heaven 3628
Heaven and Hell 589-599
Divine Love and Wisdom 361
Divine Providence 71-73, 96-99
True Christianity 475-485


Consider a "patient," judged insane for political reasons, kept under physical restraint in a mental institution (do not include tranquilizers or other drugs in this hypothesis: they raise issues that hadn't occurred to Swedenborg). What meaning does freedom of choice, or spiritual freedom, have for such a person?

Do the physical, biological, social, or psychological sciences suggest any source of freedom that is different from "equilibrium of forces?"

What is the difference between the kind of "predestination" that Swedenborg accepts and the traditional concept as you understand it?

What questions or issues does the lesson raise for you?

To Chapter 3