Being such a lover of Emerson’s essays, for many years now I’ve been intrigued by Emerson’s references to a Christian Mystic from Sweden by the name of Emanuel Swedenborg. Emerson mentions him several times and with reverence.
So finally finally, I’ve gotten around to readin’ me some Swedenborg. I chose the book EMANUEL SWEDENBORG: Visionary Savant In The Age Of Reason by Ernst Benz, translated by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke—mainly because it was at my library. Benz is very much on Swedenborg’s side, so just be aware of that if you read it yourself. He does do this brilliant little maneuver in which he sometimes actually criticizes Swedenborg—but only Swedenborg’s pre-enlightened life or endearing eccentricities.
Emanuel Swedenborg, son of a devout Christian minister, started life in Sweden as an ambitious 18th century man of science. However, in mid-life Swedenborg began to experience visions which drastically altered his destiny. He did not outright reject reason and science after these visions began, but he no longer felt that science was the path to the Ultimate Truth.
After delving into Swedenborgianism, I see now that Swedenborg is surely a grandparent of New Age beliefs and modern mystical approaches in the West. I’ve not yet decided who the other three grandparents should be, though I know for sure that Eastern Philosophy must have at least one representative in that group.
Swedenborg produced a massive amount of work. He was a writing machine, that man. I think most of it can be divided into three main divisions: 1) his Biblical Interpretations and his founding of “the New Church,” 2) his (somewhat sci-fi) visions of the Spirit World, and 3) his metaphysical and quasi-psychological views.
I would like to explore the third category today and the next post since this last category interests me most. The difficult part for me has been trying to organize Swedey’s thoughts into some sort of cohesive whole. Here’s my best shot…
Where Logic Kinks
The metaphysical beliefs of Emanuel Swedenborg concerning the human condition are not all-together irrational. Also, as in most belief systems which stand the test of time, there is a large degree of internal consistency within the sphere of his pronouncements (I’ve found that most religions or philosophies which have maintained vitality over the centuries eventually accrue enough addendums and interpretations to smooth out any place within themselves where logic kinks). Part of the greatness of Swedenborg’s thought is that it was birthed nearly entirely internally logically consistent (Yes! Four adverbs in a row! Superbly cally fragilly liciously difficult to pull off well!).
Even logic and science (themselves, systems of belief) require that certain precepts be accepted on faith, as “givens.” Upon these rocks we shall build our churches. Once the foundational principles are established, we can construct the rest of the edifice brick by logical brick. For Euclid, a “given” might be that two parallel lines never cross. For a logician, it might be the fact that: if A is congruent with C, and B is congruent with C, then A and B are congruent with each other.
Setting aside his writings on Biblical interpretation and his (ahem) spiritual journeys to other planets (more on those in some later post), Swedenborgian philosophy, basically a new sect or branch of Christianity, is a mixture of assumptions, sometimes wild, and of impressive logical reasoning.
THE CORRESPONDENCE PRINCIPLE
Swedenborg believed that God created –not only Man—but the Universe in His own image. We know where Swedey got the Man in God’s image part, but where does he get the Universe as the image of God thing? Glad you asked…
“The created Universe is not God but comes from God,” he writes, “and because it comes from God, his image is in it, just as the image of a man appears in a mirror, although there is nothing of man in the mirror.”
[Pressing “pause” here: Swedey just did what he does constantly: he makes an illogical leap and papers over the void as if his contention were an unavoidable and irrefutable logical necessity. In this case he says, since the Universe comes from God, it obviously contains his image. Duh. I find it much more fun when coming across these illogical leaps to just go with them and see what he’s leading us to. But we must be on our guard with Swedenborg: his “thus” and “therefore” are not to be trusted. (friendly aside: I warn people to be on their guard immediately anytime anyone uses a word like “obviously”— a majority of times when someone says a word like this, he is trying to have you accept a point for which he does not possess adequate justification for contending) ]
[Pressing “play” again…]
Anyway, now that Swedey has so easily and thoroughly convinced himself that both the Universe and Man are images of God, he can then propose that Man and the Universe share a (fuzzy) equality. I think this deduction is fairly logical if we think of this triple, shared likeness of God-Universe-Man as set of congruences [note: Swedenborg never uses this term to my knowledge]. I use the term congruence here in the way that we used it back in high school geometry class, although for our purposes I would like to define it in terms of corresponding parts, for Correspondence (you will soon see) is a vital part of Swedenborgian metaphysics. Therefore, let me establish that congruence is when: every component of Form A can be matched to a corresponding component of Form B, and vice-versa.
This one-to-one correspondence between forms is known to Swedenborgians as the Correspondence Principle. I’m doubtful that Swedenborg ever so codified it as such himself (probably later acolytes came up with it), but the label proves a good handle by which to grab the concept.
So if we allow that Swedenborg has established a trinity of congruence between God, Man, and the Universe, some wonderful deductions follow…
For one thing, we can re-state this congruence in a number of ways. For modern New Agers one nice re-statement would be: Everything in the macrocosm of the Universe is represented in the microcosm of Man. Now, in my small-percentage-of-the-whole reading of Swedenborg’s work, I myself have not come across the term “microcosm” in his work; nevertheless, his work easily supports such a rendering.
A second restatement of the congruence between Man and Universe is one Swedenborg did indeed point out: that since every thing in the physical World has a corresponding part in the congruent Universe, every truth in our World can be read as symbolic of a Universal Truth—but more importantly, since the Universe is congruent with God himself, we can say that our physical World is full of symbols pregnant with important revelations about God, Himself.
As author Benz says, “Whoever possesses the key to the Correspondences of things can learn the Truth Of Heaven.”
THE SPIRIT WORLD
Now, I should take time-out here to describe to you another of Swedenborg’s illogical leaps that will prove important to know if we wish to continue walking down this creatively cleared path with the man…
Swedenborg—who very frequently, uhm, talked with Angels and was the first to admit, “I see dead people”—believed in the existence of a Spirit World (the mother of all illogical leaps). Additionally, not only did he believe in a Spirit World, but he applied the Correspondence Principle to it as well, maintaining that every thing in our physical world corresponds to some thing in the Spirit World.
I have so far found nothing in Swedenborg’s work that justifies such an broadening of his Correspondence Principle, but I could try to justify it on his behalf thusly: Benz says that Swedenborg believed that the Creation existed on three planes: 1) the realm of Divine Archetypes, 2) the Spirit World, and 3) the physical world. Benz interprets Swedenborg as believing that worldly things represent Spiritual things, and Spiritual things in turn represent the even higher Divine Archetypes.
So let us add as another “given” to Swedenborgian philosophy that the Universe, created in the Image of God, is itself composed of three planes of existence, and each of these planes is congruent with each of the other two planes. In other words, one of the members (the Universe) of our original trinity of congruence, itself, can be divided into another trinity of congruence. Again, if Swedenborg, ever really made such any such argument for the application of his Correspondence Principle, I have not come across it. I think he just took it as a “given.”
What these “Divine Archetypes” are and what the realm is like, author Benz does not say, and I get the impression that Swedenborg himself never explained it. To tell the truth, being Benz never quotes Swedenborg on Divine Archetypes, I’m a little suspicious that Swedenborg much talked about that realm at all. Swedey strikes me as much more interested in his little trips to the Spirit World (where, according to him by the way, he met his future Spirit World wife).
Benz says that the relationship between the Divine Archetypes, the Spirit World, and the physical world is like the relationship between “the Living Face, the Mirror Reflection, and the Silhouette.”
There is one problem with this interpretation, and that is that it destroys Swedenborg’s notion of perfect, one-to-one Correspondence between the worlds: for we cannot claim that every feature of the face will be represented in the silhouette. In fact, the implication is that each reproduction of the original being (God) is of lesser detail or quality. But alas, it is not our job today to iron-out every wrinkle of Swedenborgian thought. It is a game of illogical leap-frog, and oh what thought-provoking fun!
So if we just roll along downhill here and add to our philosophical, Swedish snowball the “facts” that 1) there exists a Spirit World, and that 2) the Spirit World is party to the Congruence Principle, then we can understand why Swedenborg would believe as he did that everything around us is a symbol of the Spiritual World. Swedey felt that each object in our world, no matter how large or small, has a story of enlightenment to share with those who have the “key” to unlocking the secrets of these symbols. Heady stuff. No wonder the New Agers dig it.
“The whole natural world corresponds to the Spiritual World,” says Swedenborg, “not just the natural world in general, but actually, in details.” He states elsewhere his belief that “the natural world emerges and endures from the Spiritual World.”
One glaring (forgive the pun) example of this symbolism: our Sun is the symbol for Jesus Christ (and yes, you might think this another illogical leap, but in point of fact, Swedenborg may have gotten this information straight from the not-actually-physical mouth of an Angel or a Dead Prophet, so there).
In the next post, I want to talk about Swedenborg’s four-part division of the psyche.
Other Hammering Shield articles on Swedenborg: