The Visions Of Emanuel Swedenborg
In mid April of the memorable year 1745, two men, hastening through a
busy London thoroughfare, paused for a moment to follow with their eyes
a third, whom they had greeted but who had passed without so much as a
glance in their direction. The face of one betrayed chagrin; but the
other smiled amusedly.
"You must not mind, dear fellow," said he; "that is only Swedenborg's
way, as you will discover when you know him better. His feet are on the
earth; but for the moment his mind is in the clouds, pondering some
solution to the wonderful problems he has set himself, marvelous man
that he is."
"Yet," objected the other, "he seems such a thorough man of the world,
so finely dressed, so courtly as a rule in speech and manner."
"He is a man of the world, a true cosmopolitan," was the quick response.
"I warrant few are so widely and so favorably known. He is as much at
home in London, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, Amsterdam, or Copenhagen as in
his native city of Stockholm. Kings and Queens, grand dames and gallant
wits, statesmen and soldiers, scientists and philosophers, find pleasure
in his society. He can meet all on their own ground, and to all he has
something fresh and interesting to say. But he is nevertheless, and
above everything else, a dreamer."
"Aye. They tell me that he will not rest content until he has found the
seat of the soul in man. Up through mathematics, mechanics, mineralogy,
astronomy, chemistry, even physiology, has he gone, mastering every
science in turn, until he is now perhaps the most learned man in Europe.
But his learning satisfies him not a whit, since the soul still eludes
him,--and eludes him, mark you, despite month upon month of toil in the
dissecting room. If the study of anatomy fail him, I know not where he
will next turn. For my part, I fancy he need not look beyond the
stomach. The wonder is that his own stomach has not given him the clue
ere this; for, metaphysician though he be, he enjoys the good things of
earth. Let me tell you a story--"
Thus, chatting and laughing, the friends continued on their way, every
step taking them farther from the unwitting subject of their words. He,
for his part, absorbed in thought, pressed steadily forward to his
destination, a quiet inn in a sequestered quarter of the city. The
familiar sounds of eighteenth-century London--the bawling of apprentices
shouting their masters' wares, the crying of fishwives, the quarreling
of drunkards, the barking of curs, the bellowing of cattle on their way
to market and slaughter house--broke unheeded about him.
He was, as the gossip had put it, in the clouds, intent on the riddles
his learning had rendered only the more complex, riddles having to do
with the nature of the universe and with man's place in the universe.
Nor did he rouse himself from his meditations until the door of the inn
had closed behind him and he found himself in its common room. Then he
became the Emanuel Swedenborg of benignity, geniality, and courtesy, the
Swedenborg whom all men loved.
"I am going to my room," said he to the innkeeper, in charming, broken
English, "and I wish to be served there. I find I am very hungry; so see
that you spare not."
While he is standing at the window, waiting for his dinner, and gazing
abstractedly into the ill-paved, muddy street illumined by a transitory
gleam of April sunshine, let us try to gain a closer view of him than
that afforded by the brief account of his unrecognized acquaintance. The
attempt will be worth while; for at this very moment he has, all
unconsciously, reached the great crisis of his life, and is about to
leave behind him the achievements of his earlier years, setting himself
instead to tasks of a very different nature. We see him, then, a man
nearing the age of sixty, of rather more than average height, smooth
shaven, bewigged, bespectacled, and scrupulously dressed according to
the fashion of the day. Time in its passing has dealt gently with him.
There is no stoop to his shoulders, no tremor in the fingers that play
restlessly on the window-pane. Not a wrinkle mars the placid features.
Well may he feel at peace with the world. His whole career has been a
steady progress, his record that of one who has attempted many things
and failed in few. Before he was twenty-one his learning had gained for
him a doctorate in philosophy. Then, enthusiastic, open-minded, and
open-eyed, he had hurried abroad, to pursue in England, Holland, France,
and Germany his chosen studies of mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy.
Returning to Sweden to assume the duties of assessor of mines, he
speedily proved that he was no mere theorizer, his inventive genius
enabling the warlike Charles XII. to transport overland galleys and
sloops for the siege of Frederikshald, sea passage being barred by
hostile fleets. Ennobled for this feat, he plunged with ardor into the
complicated problems of statecraft, problems rendered the more difficult
by the economic distress in which Charles's wars had involved his
Kingdom. Here again he attained distinction.
Yet always the problems of science and philosophy claimed his chief
devotion. From the study of stars and minerals he passed to the
contemplation of other marvels of nature as revealed in man himself. And
now behold him turned chemist, anatomist, physiologist, and
psychologist, and repeating in these fields of research his former
triumphs. Still, indomitable man, he refused to stop. He would press
on, far beyond the confines of what his generation held to be the
knowable. "The end of the senses," to quote his own words, "is that God
may be seen." He would peer into the innermost recesses of man's being,
to discern the soul of man, mayhap to discern God himself.
But, if he were scientist and metaphysician, he was also human, and that
pleasant April afternoon the humanity in him bulked large when he
finally turned from the window and took his seat at the bountifully
heaped table. He was, as he had told the innkeeper, very hungry, and he
ate with a zest that abundantly confirmed his statement. How pleasant
the odors from this dish and that--how agreeable the flavor of
everything! Surely he had never enjoyed meal more, and surely he was no
longer "in the clouds"; but was instead recalling pleasant reminiscences
of his doings in one and another of the gay capitals of Europe! There
would be not a little to bring a twinkle of delight to his beaming eyes,
not a little to soften his scholastic lips into a gentle smile. And so,
in solitary state, he ate and drank, with nothing to warn him of the
impending and momentous change that was to shape anew his career and
Conceive his astonishment, therefore, when, his dinner still unfinished,
he felt a strange languor creeping over him and a mysterious obscurity
dimming his eyes. Conceive, further, his horror at sight of the floor
about him covered with frogs and toads and snakes and creeping things.
And picture, finally, his amazement when, the darkness that enveloped
him suddenly clearing, he beheld a man sitting in the far corner of the
room and eying him, as it seemed, reproachfully, even disdainfully.
In vain, he essayed to rise, to lift his hand, to speak. Invisible bonds
held him in his chair, an unseen power kept him mute. For an instant he
fancied that he must be dreaming; but the noises from outdoors and the
sight of the table and food before him brought conviction that he was in
full possession of his senses. Now his visitor spoke, and spoke only
four words, which astonished no less than alarmed him. "Eat not so
much." Only this--then utter silence. Again the enveloping
darkness--frogs, toads, snakes, faded in its depths--and with returning
light Swedenborg was once more alone in the room.
Small wonder that the remaining hours of the day were spent in fruitless
cogitation of this weird and disagreeable experience which far
transcended metaphysician's normal ken. Nor is it surprising to find him
naively admitting that "this unexpected event hastened my return home."
Imagination can easily round out the picture,--the rising in terror, the
overturning of the chair, the seizing of cocked hat and gold-headed
cane, the few explanatory words to the astonished innkeeper, the hurried
departure, and the progress, perchance at a more rapid gait than usual,
to the sleeping quarters in another section of the town. Arrived there,
safe in the refuge of his commodious bed-room, sage argument would
follow in the effort to attain persuasion that the terrifying vision had
been but "the effect of accidental causes." Be sure, though, that our
philosopher, dreading a return of the specter if he permitted food to
pass his lips, would go hungry to bed that night.
That night--more visions. To the wakeful, restless, perturbed Swedenborg
the same figure appeared, this time without snakes or frogs or toads,
and not in darkness, but in the midst of a great white light that filled
the bed chamber with a wonderful radiance. Then a voice spoke:
"I am God the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. I have chosen
thee to lay before men the spiritual sense of the Holy Word. I will
teach thee what thou art to write."
Slowly the light faded, the figure disappeared. And now the astounded
philosopher, his amazement growing with each passing moment, found
himself transported as it seemed to another world,--the world of the
dead. Men and women of his acquaintance greeted him as they had been
wont to do when on earth, pressed about him, eagerly questioned him.
Their faces still wore the familiar expressions of kindliness, anxiety,
sincerity, ill will, as the case might be. In every way they appeared to
be still numbered among the living. They were clad in the clothes they
had been accustomed to wear, they ate and drank, they lived in houses
and towns. The philosophers among them continued to dispute, the clergy
to admonish, the authors to write.
But, his perception enlarging, Swedenborg presently discovered that this
was in reality only an intermediate state of existence; that beyond it
at the one end was heaven and at the other hell, to one or the other of
which the dead ultimately gravitated according to their desires and
conduct. For, as he was to learn later, the spiritual world was a world
of law and order fully as much as was the natural world. Men were free
to do as they chose; but they must bear the consequences. If they were
evil-minded, it would be their wish to consort with those of like mind,
and in time they must pass to the abode of the wicked; if pure-minded,
they would seek out kindred spirits, and, when finally purged of the
dross of earth, be translated to the realm of bliss. To heaven, then,
voyaged Swedenborg, on a journey of discovery; and to hell likewise.
What he saw he has set down in many bulky volumes, than which
philosopher has written none more strange.[E]
With the return of daylight it might seem that he would be prompt to
dismiss all memory of these peculiar experiences as fantasies of sleep.
But he was satisfied that he had not slept; that on the contrary he had
been preternaturally conscious throughout the long, eventful night. In
solemn retrospect he retraced his past career. He remembered that for
some years he had had symbolic dreams and symbolic hallucinations--as of
a golden key, a tongue of flame, and voices--which had at the time
baffled his understanding, but which he now interpreted as premonitory
warnings that God had set him apart for a great mission. He remembered
too that when still a child his mind had been engrossed by thoughts of
God, and that in talking with his parents he had uttered words which
caused them to declare that the angels spoke through his mouth.
Remembering all these things, he could no longer doubt that Divinity had
actually visited him in his humble London boarding house, and he made up
his mind that he must bestir himself to carry out the divine command of
expounding to his fellow men the hidden meaning of Holy Writ.
Forthwith, being still fired with the true scientist's passion for
original research, he set himself to the task of learning Hebrew. He
was, it will be remembered, approaching sixty, an age when the
acquisition of a new language is exceedingly difficult and rare. Yet
such progress did he make that within a very few months he was writing
notes in explanation of the book of Genesis. And thus he continued not
for months but years, patiently traversing the entire Bible, and at the
same time carefully committing to paper everything "seen and heard" in
the spiritual world; for his London excursion beyond the borderland
which separates the here from the hereafter had been only the first of
similar journeys taken not merely by night but in broad daylight. To use
his own phraseology: "The Lord opened daily, very often, my bodily eyes;
so that in the middle of the day I could see into the other world, and
in a state of perfect wakefulness converse with angels and spirits."
His increasing absorption--absent-mindedness, his friends would call
it--his habit of falling into trances, and his claim to interworld
communication, could not fail to excite the surprise of all who had
known him as scientist and philosopher. But these vagaries, as people
deemed them, met the greater toleration because of the evident fact that
they did not dim his intellectual powers and did not interfere with his
activities in behalf of the public good. True, in 1747 he resigned his
office of assessor of mines in order to have more leisure to prosecute
his adventures into the unknown; but as a member of the Swedish Diet he
continued to play a prominent part in the affairs of the Kingdom, giving
long and profound study to the critical problems of administration,
economics, and finance with which the nation's leaders were confronted
during the third quarter of the century. So that--bearing in mind the
further fact that he was no blatant advocate of his opinions--it seems
altogether likely his spiritistic ideas would have gained no great
measure of attention, had it not been for a series of singular
occurrences that took place between 1759 and 1762.
Toward the end of July in the first of these years, Swedenborg (whose
fondness for travel ceased only with his death) arrived in Gottenburg
homeward bound from England, and on the invitation of a friend decided
to break his journey by spending a few days in that city. Two hours
after his arrival, while attending a small reception given in his honor,
he electrified the company by abruptly declaring that at that moment a
dangerous fire had broken out at Stockholm, three hundred miles away,
and was spreading rapidly. Becoming excited, he rushed from the room, to
reenter with the news that the house of one of his friends was in ashes,
and that his own house was threatened. Anxious moments passed, while he
restlessly paced up and down, in and out. Then, with a cry of joy, he
exclaimed, "Thank God the fire is out, the third door from my house!"
Like wild the tidings spread through Gottenburg, and the greatest
commotion prevailed. Some were inclined to give credence to Swedenborg's
statements; more, who did not know the man, derided him as a sensation
monger. But all had to wait with what patience they could, for those
were the days before steam engine and telegraph. Forty-eight anxious
hours passed. Then letters were received confirming the philosopher's
announcement, and, we are assured, showing that the fire had taken
precisely the path described by him, and had stopped where he had
No peace now for Swedenborg. His home at Stockholm, with its quaint
gambrel roof, its summer houses, its neat flower beds, its curious box
trees, instantly became a Mecca for the inquisitive, burning to see the
man who held converse with the dead and was instructed by the latter in
many portentous secrets. Most of those who gained admission, and through
him sought to be put into touch with departed friends, received a
courteous but firm refusal, accompanied by the explanation: "God having
for wise and good purposes separated the world of spirits from ours, a
communication is never granted without cogent reasons." When, however,
his visitors satisfied him that they were imbued with something more
than curiosity, he made an effort to meet their wishes, and occasionally
with astonishing results.
It was thus in the case of Madam Marteville, widow of the Dutch
Ambassador to Sweden. In 1761, some months after her husband's death, a
goldsmith demanded from her payment for a silver service the Ambassador
had bought from him. Feeling sure that the bill had already been paid,
she made search for the receipt, but could find none. The sum involved
was large, and she sought Swedenborg and asked him to seek her husband
in the world of spirits and ascertain whether the debt had been settled.
Three days later, when she was entertaining some friends, Swedenborg
called, and in the most matter of fact way stated that he had had a
conversation with Marteville, and had learned from him that the debt had
been canceled seven months before his death, and that the receipt would
be found in a certain bureau.
"But I have searched all through it," protested Madam Marteville.
"Ah," was Swedenborg's rejoinder; "but it has a secret drawer of which
you know nothing."
At once all present hurried to the bureau, and there, in the private
compartment which he quickly located, lay the missing receipt.
In similar fashion did Swedenborg relate to the Queen of Sweden, Louisa
Ulrica, the substance of the last interview between her and her dead
brother, the Crown Prince of Prussia, an interview which had been
strictly private, and the subject of which, she affirmed, was such that
no third person could possibly have known what passed between them.
More startling still was his declaration to a merry company at Amsterdam
that at that same hour, in far away Russia, the Emperor Peter III. was
being foully done to death in prison. Once more time proved that the
spirit seer, as Swedenborg was now popularly known, had told the truth.
A decade more, and again we meet him in London, his whole being, at
eighty-four, animated with the same energy and enthusiasm that had led
him to seek and attain in his earlier manhood such a vast store of
knowledge. And here, as Christmas drew near, he found lodging with two
old friends, a wig maker and his wife. But ere Christmas dawned he lay a
helpless victim of that dread disease paralysis. Not a word, not a
movement, for full three weeks.
Then, with returning consciousness, a call for pen and paper. He would,
he muttered with thickened speech, send a note to inform a certain John
Wesley that the spirits had made known to him Wesley's desire to meet
him, and that he would be glad to receive a visit at any time. In reply
came word that the great evangelist had indeed wished to make the great
mystic's acquaintance, and that after returning from a six months'
circuit he would give himself the pleasure of waiting upon Swedenborg.
"Too late," was the aged philosopher's comment as the story goes, "too
late; for on the 29th of March I shall be in the world of spirits never
more to return."
March came and went, and with it went his soul on the day predicted, if
prediction there were. They buried him in London, and there in early
season, out of his grave blossomed the religion that has preserved his
name, his fame, his doctrines. To the dead Swedenborg succeeded the
* * * * *
But what shall those of us who are not Swedenborgians think of the
master? Shall we accept at face value the story of his life as gathered
from the documents left behind him and as set forth here; and, accepting
it, believe that he was in reality a man set apart by God and granted
the rare favor of insight into that unknown world to which all of us
must some day go?
The true explanation, it seems to me, can be had only when we view
Swedenborg in the light of the marvelous discoveries made during the
last few years in the field of abnormal psychology. Beginning in France,
and continuing more recently in the United States and other countries,
investigations have been set on foot resulting in the solution of many
human problems not unlike the riddle of Swedenborg, and occasionally far
more complicated than that presented in his case. All these solutions,
in the last analysis, rest on the basic discovery that human personality
is by no means the single indivisible entity it is commonly supposed to
be, but is instead singularly unstable and singularly complex. It has
been found that under some unusual stimulus--such as an injury, an
illness, or the strain of an intense emotion--there may result a
disintegration, or, as it is technically termed, a dissociation, of
personality, giving rise it may be to hysteria, it may be to
hallucinations, it may even be to a complete disappearance of the
original personality and its replacement by a new personality,
sometimes of radically different characteristics.[F]
It has also been found, by another group of investigators working
principally in England, that side by side with the original, the waking,
personality of every-day life, there coexists a hidden personality
possessing faculties far transcending those enjoyed by the waking
personality, but as a rule coming into play only at moments of crisis,
though by some favored mortals invocable more frequently. To this hidden
personality, as distinguished from the secondary personality of
dissociation, has been given the name of the subliminal self, and to its
operation some attribute alike the productions of men of genius and the
phenomena of clairvoyance and thought transference that have puzzled
mankind from time immemorial.
Now, arguing by analogy from the cases scattered through the writings of
Janet, Sidis, Prince, Myers, Gurney, and many others whose works the
reader may consult for himself in any good public library, it is my
belief that in Swedenborg we have a preeminent illustration both of
dissociation and of subliminal action, and that it is therefore equally
unnecessary to stigmatize him as insane or to adopt the spiritistic
hypothesis in explanation of his utterances. The records show that from
his father he inherited a tendency to hallucinations, checked for a time
by the nature of his studies, but fostered as these expanded into
pursuit of the absolute and the infinite. They further show that for a
long time before the London visions he was in a disturbed state of
health, his nervous system unstrung, his whole being so unhinged that at
times he suffered from attacks of what was probably hystero-epilepsy.
It seems altogether likely, then, that in London the process of
dissociation, after this period of gradual growth, suddenly leaped into
activity. Thereafter his hallucinations, from being sporadic and vague,
became habitual and definite, his hystero-epileptic attacks more
frequent. But, happily for him, the dissociation never became complete.
He was left in command of his original personality, his mental powers
continued unabated; and he was still able to adjust himself to the
environment of the world about him.
But, it may be objected, how explain his revelations in the matter of
the fire at Stockholm, the missing receipt, the message to Queen Ulrica,
and the death of Peter III.? This brings us to the question of
subliminal action. Swedenborg himself, far in advance of his generation
in this as in much else, appears to have realized that there was no need
of invoking spirits to account for such transactions. "I need not
mention," he once wrote, "the manifest sympathies acknowledged to exist
in this lower world, and which are too many to be recounted; so great
being the sympathy and magnetism of man that communication often takes
place between those who are miles apart."
Here, in language that admits of no misinterpretation, we see stated the
doctrine of telepathy, which is only now beginning to find acceptance
among scientific men, but which, as I view it, has been amply
demonstrated by the experiments of recent years and by the thousands of
cases of spontaneous occurrence recorded in such publications as the
"Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research." And if these
experiments and spontaneous instances prove anything, they prove that
telepathy is distinctively a faculty of the subliminal self; and that a
greater or less degree of dissociation is essential, not to the receipt,
but to the objective realization, of telepathic messages. Thus, the
entranced "medium" of modern days extracts from the depths of his
sitter's subconsciousness facts which the sitter has consciously
forgotten, facts even of which he may never have been consciously aware,
but which have been transmitted telepathically to his subliminal self by
the subliminal self of some third person.[G]
So with Swedenborg. Admitting the authenticity of the afore-mentioned
anecdotes--none of which, it is as well to point out, reaches us
supported by first-hand evidence--it is quite unnecessary to appeal to
spirits as his purveyors of knowledge. In every instance telepathy--or
clairvoyance, which is after all explicable itself only by
telepathy--will suffice. In the Marteville affair, for example, it is
not unreasonable to assume that before his death the Ambassador
telepathically told his devoted wife of the existence of the secret
drawer and its contents; if, indeed, she had not known and forgotten. It
would then be an exceedingly simple matter for the dissociated
Swedenborg to acquire the desired information from the wife's
subconsciousness. Nor does this reflect on his honesty. Doubtless he
believed, as he represented, that he had actually had a conversation
with the dead Marteville, and had learned from him the whereabouts of
the missing receipt. In the form his dissociation took he could no more
escape such a hallucination than can the twentieth-century medium avoid
the belief that he is a veritable intermediary between the visible and
the invisible world.
Not that I would put Swedenborg on a par with the ordinary medium. He
was unquestionably a man of gigantic intellect, and he was
unquestionably inspired, if by inspiration be understood the gift of
combining subliminal with supraliminal powers to a degree granted to few
of those whom the world counts truly great. If his fanciful and
fantastic pictures of life in heaven and hell and in our neighboring
planets welled up from the depths of his inmost mind, far more did the
noble truths to which he gave expression. It is by these he should be
judged; it is in these, not in his hallucinations nor in his telepathic
exhibitions, that lies the secret of the commanding, if not always
recognized, influence he has exercised on the thought of posterity. A
solitary figure? True: but a grand figure, even in his saddest moment of
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