Emanuel Swedenborg Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Emanuel Swedenborg 1688-1772

Swedish scientist, philosopher, mystic, and religious writer.

Swedenborg was regarded during his lifetime as one of the great scientific thinkers of Europe but is remembered today chiefly for his theological writings that discuss, among other things, the nature of God, the spiritual life, heaven and hell, providence, and the second coming of Christ. Swedenborg believed that his teachings were divinely inspired and that they would be the foundation for the rebirth of Christianity. These ideas were taken up by his followers, who established the Church of the New Jerusalem based on his theology as well as biblical writings. Swedenborg's best-known work is De Caeló et ejus mirabilius, et de inferno, ed auditis et vsis (Heaven and Hell; 1758), a mystical tract based on the author's experiences in the spiritual realm, in which he discusses heavenly life, universal speech, humans' entry into the next world, sacred and profane love, and the world of spirits. The claims in the work, like most of Swedenborg's ideas, have stirred great controversy over the centuries, but they have also been taken up by a number of famous writers and thinkers. Among Swedenborg's admirers have been the English poet William Blake, the German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and the Argentinian short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges, all of whom have praised his genius combined with remarkable powers of imagination that sought to move beyond the bounds of human rationality to understand the human soul and its relationship to the divine.

Biographical Information

Swedenborg was born Emanuel Swedberg in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1688, to a wealthy and distinguished family. His father was Chaplain to the Horse Guards of Charles XI, then later professor of Theology at Uppsala University, Dean of the Cathedral at Uppsala, Bishop of Skara, and a member of the House of Nobles (a part of the Swedish legislature). The family name was changed to Swedenborg in 1719. Little is known about Swedenborg's early years, save that his mother died when he was twelve and that he was interested in spiritual questions from a young age. After graduating from Uppsala University in 1710, Swedenborg traveled around Europe for four years, at the same time immersing himself in intense self-study of physics, astronomy, mathematics, anatomy, physiology, economics, metallurgy, mineralogy, geology, and chemistry as well as watchmaking, bookbinding, and lens grinding. From 1714 to 1716 he wrote articles on scientific issues, founding the first Swedish scientific journal, Daedalus Hyperboreus (Northern Inventor), in 1716. In 1716 Swedenborg was also appointed Extraordinary Assessor in the Royal College of Mines by the King of Sweden. Three years later he took a seat in the House of Nobles, in which he served for fifty years. From 1718 until the mid-1740s, Swedenborg devoted most of his time to the metal-mining industry, both at the College of Mines and as an engineering advisor, and he earned a reputation in Europe as a distinguished engineer and a scientist of the highest order. But he also continued to study and write on a wide range of subjects, including algebra, chemistry, physics, anatomy, economics, cosmology, psychology, and philosophy.

In 1743, Swedenborg began to have vivid dreams and visions, which he wrote about in his personal journals. He began an intense study of the Bible in order to understand these experiences and also because of his recent work in cosmology and the human soul. In 1745 he claimed to have had a revelation from God, who told him that he was to be the intermediary through which God would further reveal Himself to humanity. From then until his death, Swedenborg devoted himself to studying the Bible, becoming fluent in Hebrew and Greek and writing numerous theological works. He resigned from the College of Mines in 1747 and concentrated his energies on his spiritual studies and writing. He claimed that he continued to have regular communication with God and other spirits, and that it was his calling to disseminate the truths revealed to him through his writings. However, Swedenborg never attempted to preach his message or to organize a following or church. He paid for the publication of his works himself, having them printed anonymously in England and Holland. He suffered a stroke while in London in December, 1771, and died there the following March.

Major Works

Although during his lifetime Swedenborg was known as a gifted scientist and engineer and was highly respected for his writings on mathematics and economics, today he is best remembered for his theological works and his claim that he was a spiritual revelator. He wrote some seventy-five works on non-theological subjects, but even these writings published before his “divine call” show Swedenborg's deep interest in matters of philosophy, psychology, and religion. One of the central problems Swedenborg explores in his earlier, scientific writings is the relationship between the creator and the world of creation. His massive three-volume Opera Philosophica et Mineralia (Philosophical and Metallurgical Works; 1734) investigates the structure of matter and the process of creation itself, touching on subjects such as the matter and mechanics of the universe, the Infinite, and the power of reason; it concludes with a discussion of the place of humans in creation. His Oeconomia Regni Animalis (Economy of the Animal Kingdom; 1740-1741) and Regnum Animale (Animal Kingdom; 1744-1745) focus on the physiological and anatomical nature of humans and on their relationship to God. In those works he also makes some important physiological discoveries about the brain, blood, lung, and heart and their relationship, and he presents some original ideas about human perception and the existence and nature of the soul.

After 1745 Swedenborg turned his attention to his theological writings, producing some thirty-five works. His spiritual ideas are based on three fundamental concepts: the divinity of Jesus, the holiness of the word of God, and the importance of the human life of charity. Some of his theological ideas clearly grew out of his scientific and philosophical beliefs; he thus regarded God as indivisible and rejected the traditional notion of a Trinity. Some of his most important spiritual writings include De cultu et amore Dei (Worship and Love of God; 1745), which outlines his ideas about the nature of human and divine love; Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Mysteries; 1749-1756), which analyzes the books of Genesis and Exodus; De ultimo judicio, et de Babylonia destructa (The Last Judgment; 1758), describing events that prepare the way for the establishment of a new spiritual order and in which Swedenborg claims that the second coming has already taken place; and Heaven and Hell, a long, deeply mystical and philosophical work that describes the structure and phenomena of the spiritual world. The latter work especially captured the imagination of Swedenborg's followers and his critics, and Blake's famous poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is clearly indebted to that work. In 1771 Swedenborg published Vera Christiana Religio (The True Christian Religion), a systematic explanation of his theology which asserts that all things are created by divine love and according to divine wisdom. The work also describes Swedenborg's ideas about God, the ten commandments, faith, charity, repentance, reformation, regeneration, and the second coming. Although Swedenborg wrote and published in Latin, his works have been translated into over thirty languages, and since the beginning of the nineteenth century more than five million copies of his works have sold, making him one of the most widely read spiritual writers of all time.

Critical Reception

During his life Swedenborg earned a reputation as one of the great scientific and mathematical minds of Europe. His findings in areas such as biology, chemistry, and psychology are said to have anticipated major developments in those fields in the twentieth century. He was also a well respected engineer and civil servant, and much of his work as Assessor of Mines was geared toward developing technologies to improve the Swedish economy. His enduring fame, however, is from his writings on spiritual matters. Although his theological works were not widely circulated in his lifetime—Swedenborg distributed them almost exclusively to his learned friends—soon after his death, in 1784, the Church of the New Jerusalem was founded based on his theories. The New Church, as it is also called, holds that Swedenborg's mission was to bring the world into a new era of religious understanding and that his writings set forth God's plan for a rebirth of Christianity. Even in the twenty-first century its adherents look to Swedenborg and his theories for a path to spiritual enlightenment based on principles of reason and the development of one's sense of humanity. The continued popularity of Swedenborg's writings is due in large part to the fact that they are published, read, and discussed by members of that religious organization. While there has been some independent critical discussion of Swedenborg, most Swedenborg scholarship has been generated by these New Church members, or Swedenborgians.

Swedenborg is regarded as one of the greatest minds of all time because of his wide learning and intellectual prowess extending over so many fields. But perhaps more enduring than his own writings and theories is his influence on some of the world's most eminent thinkers and writers. Some famous names that have acknowledged their debt to Swedenborg include Blake, Goethe, Thoreau, Emerson, Borges, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Helen Keller, Honoré de Balzac, Robert Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Frost, Northrop Frye, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Sr., Ezra Pound, George Sand, August Strindberg, and William Butler Yeats. It has even been argued that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote a damning pamphlet about Swedenborg's “fraudulent” ideas, was in fact positively influenced by the Swedish mystic. Indeed, a great deal of critical commentary that is not associated with the New Church has focused on Swedenborg's influence on important writers and thinkers, most especially Blake and writers of the twentieth century. Part of the attraction of Swedenborg's writings and philosophy, it appears, is his attempt to understand religious, spiritual, psychical, and psychological phenomena using principles of reason but at the same time acknowledging the limitations of scientific rationality and recognizing the importance of the human spirit and imagination. A number of psychological assessments of Swedenborg have also been published, as critics have tried to understand his claims of having had visions and revelations from God. Even those from the psychiatric field have taken an interest in Swedenborg's experiences, with one writer claiming that his “visions” were the result of his incredible genius combined with some type of brain injury. In the twenty-first century, Swedenborg remains a controversial figure because of his claims about being a revelator of God, but significantly, a great many prominent writers and intellectuals continue to turn to his writings for insight into questions about spiritual enlightenment and the relationship of humans to the divine.