site logo

The Visions Of Emanuel Swedenborg

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

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 yo
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."

"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

his view-point.

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

living Swedenborgianism.

* * * * *

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