Emanuel Swedenborg, 1688-1772
from Swedish Men of Science, by Sten Lindroth 1952
Emanuel svedberg, as he was originally named, was born in Stockholm on January 29, 1688. His father was Jesper Svedberg, one of the most powerful church figures of the Carolinian Era, at that time court chaplain and subsequently theology professor at the University of Uppsala and bishop in Skara. Religious atmosphere saturated the home and Emanuel, who was the oldest son, appears to have had ecstatic experiences as early as his childhood years. The Christian glow dimmed with more mature years. He was conscientious in his studies at Uppsala, at first confined largely to humanistic subjects. During his student years, Swedenborg came under the influence of his brother-in-law, Erik Benzelius, in whose home he lived. Benzelius was university librarian, of encyclopedic learning, a lover of science for whom nothing human was strange. He directed Swedenborg's always impassioned heart toward natural science.
Mechanics and mathematics particularly captivated Swedenborg's interest. Christopher Polhem was then the country's great name in these sciences. Polhem, largely self-taught, had accomplished remarkable things as a practical engineer, praised internationally, but he devoted his activities to the entire range of exact sciences. Polhem and Benzelius were closely associated at this time. Several older and younger investigators, all warmly interested in the development of modern experimental science, flocked around them. Swedenborg joined the circle as perhaps its most enthusiastic member. The progress of his scholar's pains can be followed in his numerous preserved letters to Benzelius. He attempted to be accepted by Polhem as a student but failed for the time being. Instead he took a trip to England to learn to know exact science in the land where it stood highest. In the autumn of 1710 we find Swedenborg, twenty-two years old, in London, where he stayed several years. He lived during that period in what can be called a scientific rush, studied Newton's writings, visited the astronomers Flamsteed and Halley, and lodged with clock and instrument makers to steal their arts. He helped his friends in Uppsala by executing sundry scientific commissions, and he kept them informed of the work of English scientists. The world of religion was now far away, he could even touch in mocking tones on certain outbreaks of Christian eccentricity. He directed his entire will, perhaps not without a naive and humorless self-satisfaction, toward being the foremost of his time at least in mechanics, but he also thought he had made several remarkable discoveries as an astronomer.
Swedenborg gradually proceeded by way of Holland to Paris, where he paid his respects to some of the leading mathematicians and sought vainly to get a couple of scientific dissertations into print. In the autumn of 1714 he was in Rostock, Germany, where he edited his notes and drafts. In a letter to Benzelius he furnished a list of his mechanical inventions, flying machines, submarines, siphon works, a wonderful musical instrument for the unmusical, etc. This imposing list gives a lifelike impression of Swedenborg's tireless inventive richness but also of the light-headed optimism and lack of self-criticism which were never to leave him entirely. He was again in Sweden in the summer of 1715, full of industry. The first years at home he had no official position. He attempted to acquire a professorship at Uppsala, without success. But toward the end of 1716 he was named assistant assessor at the Board of Mines with the special assignment of assisting Polhem with mechanical devices. Swedenborg had fulfilled his desire to work in the service of the master, and moved almost like a son in the Polhem home at Stiernsund. Polhem's ideas, theoretically as well as practically, were of tremendous importance to his own activities. The publication Daedalus Hyperboreus, which Swedenborg edited at his own expense from 1716 to 1718 and which was the first scientific journal in Sweden, was given over principally to publicizing small mechanical devices of Polhem's. Several treatises from the publisher's own hand, however, also found their way into the journal.
Swedenborg undoubtedly regarded the report on a new method for determining longitude, which he gave out in 1716, as the most important of these writings. He had worked with this intensively discussed problem, of vital importance to a seafaring nation, during his visit to England. A prize of ten to twenty thousand pounds according to the accuracy of the method had been promised by the British parliament to the man who first succeeded in finding a usable solution, and this reward probably stimulated Swedenborg's imagination. His treatment of the problem was astronomical. Swedenborg attempted to determine longitude with the moon. Its apparent position in the heavens should, from a given place and time, be determined in relationship to two fixed stars in the same longitude and from this the absolute position calculated. Then, with the help of astronomical tables, the meridian could easily be determined. Swedenborg himself regarded the procedure as infallible and propagandized actively for it. He published a separate edition of his treatise, dedicated to Edmund Halley, in 1718 and a Latin edition appeared in Amsterdam in 1721, to be followed later by others. This contribution to the solution of the longitude problem was contemptuously received by the learned world, naturally enough, because it was completely erroneous. Swedenborg, however, did not allow himself to be convinced by any practical considerations. With blind obstinacy he sought to make his work known, even long after he had turned away from astronomical studies. In the 1760's he attempted to obtain from the Board of Longitude in London part of the sought-after prize. The effort was vain, and just at that time part of the large sum was paid out to the watchmaker John Harrison for his portable chronometer.
During the first years after his return to Sweden, Swedenborg went into several other astronomical and mathematical problems. The king, Karl XII, who had an unusual talent for logic and order, had proposed to him that he work out a method of calculation better suited for practical use and elementary mathematical operations than the decimal system. Swedenborg put together a little treatise on a system using eight as the basis of calculation, first published in our own times. In 1718 he published a Regelkonst, or elementary algebra. It is scarcely important and contains, apart from an attempt to create a Swedish mathematical vocabulary, practically nothing new, although it bears witness to a fairly comprehensive knowledge of pure mathematics. Its practical value was unfortunately diminished by a number of typographical and arithmetical errors. The same year Swedenborg published a little dissertation Om jordenes och planeternas gang och stand (Of the Movements and Status of the Earth and the Planets), a preface to his later, profound cosmological authorship in which he attempted to prove that the earth had travelled faster in its orbit around the sun in prehistoric times. At that time, a better climate was supposed to have prevailed on the earth, a permanent spring, sung by the ancient poets and also surmised by Olaus Rudbeck in his grand patriotic visions. Swedenborg's "On Water Levels and the Strong Ebb and Flow of Former Times," in which he engaged in geological problems, came out the following year and was undoubtedly more valuable than the earlier dissertation. He demonstrated that the Swedish earth had previously been submerged by several incontrovertible proofs, such as pot-holes, shell banks on the west coast, and marine fossils at points of high altitude. Swedenborg's presentation hardly offered anything new in principle, but he was the first who conscientiously proved the huge change in water levels in Fennoscandia—even though he thought of it as a result of a "decrease in water" (and not as a rise in land levels). In this and later dissertations, most of which were made available to readers internationally in Swedenborg's Miscellanea Observata Circa Res Naturales, published in 1722, he also treated a number of other geological questions, often based on acute observations from his foreign trips. His investigations of strata, in which he attempted to explain their formation through marine sedimentation and the reasons for possible irregularities in layer formations, are especially noteworthy. Swedenborg devoted great interest to paleobiology. He reproduced and interpreted, largely correctly, several plant fossils; he rendered an excellent illustration of a reptile from Saxony's copper slate, now known as Proterosaurus Speneri and the subject of much attention from later investigators, and he reproduced several animal fossils from the chalk of Aix-la-Chapelle.
The geological studies were the most valuable of his early mature years, but they often stopped with the fragmentary. Swedenborg was caught in a restlessness that drove him to engage in the most widely different sciences and problems. He was not infrequently inadequately prepared but he was borne by an optimism that soon led him to solutions he believed correct. The glance given here of his scientific activities during these years has only been able to touch upon his more important work. There was hardly any field in the sciences of the era which Swedenborg did not believe himself to grasp. In addition there was his practical work, principally in the service of the Board of Mines. He gave a great deal of time to metallurgy. He sought, without success, to introduce a better copper smelting method at the Falun copper works and he put together two extensive, partially unoriginal works on iron and copper metallurgy, printed in 1734. Swedenborg's intensive activity was undoubtedly nourished by a deep personal passion. He was intoxicated by the power of the newborn experimental sciences. The scientist, and only the scientist, could solve the riddles of the universe. A naive rationalism in certain of his utterances was complementary to such a view, and it applied not only to Swedenborg. This faith in reason led to materialism. Only matter and its movements were comprehensible. "Ipse mundus pure mechanicus est" Swedenborg wrote during these years, the world is nothing but a machine. He regarded the human soul in the same way. Human life and character, Swedenborg taught, consisted exclusively of small tremulations of the body's material particles. Polhem, his admired teacher, appears to have been the progenitor of these thoughts. They are, however, not especially original. Many representatives of the victoriously progressing experimental sciences had about the same point of view.
Swedenborg brought together and developed his mechanical explanation of the world in a monumental work, the fruit of years of toil. Principia Rerum Naturalium was published in Germany in 1734, probably planned as a counterpart to Newton's fifty-year-old Principia Mathematica, which had never been fully appreciated by Swedenborg. The edifice of thought which Swedenborg presented in his great work was utterly speculative. It represented a titanic effort to interpret the origin and construction of the universe on the basis of certain mathematical premises with a metaphysical stamp. For Swedenborg, the mathematical point was the concept by which the whole material world was completely explained; that is, the indivisible points had given rise to the compound bodies through an involved process, which cannot be described here. His presentation of the formation of our solar system, given in the third section, should be noted, however. Swedenborg proceeded from Descartes' influential theory of the sun and stars as each located in the center of their own mass of rotating material, the vortex, at that time still embraced by many scholars. While the faithful Cartesians believed that the earth and other planets were heavenly bodies from space which had been drawn into the vortex of the sun, Swedenborg maintained that the planets in our solar system had originally been part of the substance of the sun, from which they were thrown out. The Swedish thinker theorized that the sun was once covered with a thick crust. This vast, still chaotic complex was in fast rotation. The whirling crust separated in time from the center from centrifugal force, "and by moving outwards thus occupies a larger orbit as well as consequently losing density, until it no longer can hold tightly together but breaks apart at some point." The first phase of the birth of planets had thereby begun. According to the laws of mechanics, Swedenborg continued, the sundered crust first took the form of a girdle around the equatorial plane of the sun, whereafter it broke up into larger and smaller clumps, which, with continued rotary motion, also continued to circle around the central sun. According to size and weight these clumps, the planets, were slung farther out into the periphery until they reached their permanent orbits. The formation of our solar system had thereby been completed.
Swedenborg's cosmological theory was interwoven with wild philosophic speculation and partly characterized by poetic extravagances. Nor is it known that it was of any importance in subsequent development in the field. The theory is, however, of significant interest. The thoughts expressed by Swedenborg in his Principia, whether or not he exerted an immediate influence, later assumed a central position in cosmological-astronomical investigation. The great men in that field in the eighteenth century, Buffon, Kant, Laplace, all proceeded from Swedenborg's idea that the planets stem from the sun in one fashion or another. Particularly notable is the similarity to the theory of the origin of the planets presented by the Frenchman Laplace in 1796, according to which they were cast out from a rotating solar material as glowing rings, later to form into round bodies. It can be asserted in all justice, therefore, that Swedenborg's name represents a notable, to some degree trail-blazing contribution to the annals of cosmology, filled by many obscure visions. In a certain sense he forms a bridge between Descartes and "the moderns."
Swedenborg took his departure from the exact sciences in his Principia. In the years that immediately followed, the human soul was his object of study. This was connected with the decisive change in Swedenborg's religious life which now occured. The late 1730's represent the great period of crisis in his life. The mystic, the visionary was being born. Swedenborg had his first sanctifying luminous vision in Amsterdam in the middle of August, 1736. About the same time he began to chronicle his visions and dreams. The worldy investigator still lived in him, however. Among the ways in which it found expression was in the remarkable, transitional Oeconomia Regni Animalis, 1740-41. Its subject was the human soul, its relationship to God, but also its bodily functions. It was particularly in this book—and the manuscript De Cerebro, published posthumously— that Swedenborg presented his theory on the physiology of the brain.
Fixing the seat of the soul in the human body was one of Swedenborg's aims in these writings. His investigations can be summarized in one sentence: the activities of the soul proceed from the cortex of the great brain. This was, in its essentials, a new departure. Earlier anatomists had expressed a similar thought regarding the sensory functions of the soul, but Swedenborg was the first who appears to have supported it with good evidence. And obviously no one before him had localized the motor functions in, as we now know, the right way (they were generally attributed to the medulla of the great brain). How had Swedenborg arrived at this theory? Not by means of unremitting experimental work—that would not have been like him—but by means of conclusions based on earlier literature. He furnished proof principally in the form of several older autopsy reports, indicating the connection between motor defects and injuries to the cortex, but certain vivisection experiments seemed to point in the same direction. From this basis Swedenborg went further and presented a precise theory of localization. It was not at all new in principle, inasmuch as several seventeenth century investigators had attributed the different faculties to several separate areas of the brain. Swedenborg also drew on the older literature, particularly on the Frenchman Raymond Vieussens' Neurographia Universalis of 1685. With Vieussens, he distinguished three regions as the locations of certain definite psychic functions, but he placed them, in agreement with his general theory, in the cortex and he described their functions with previously unknown precision. According to Swedenborg, the body's movements were regulated by the three lobes in the front half of the great brain in such a way that the muscles of the legs were directed by the top lobe, of the abdomen and breast by the central lobe, and of the head by the bottom lobe. Swedenborg also expressed thoughts on other points—particularly in regard to the small elements of the cortex, "cerebelulla," as the real psychic operating centers—which a later time's research in brain physiology has been forced to recognize as notable and ahead of their time. Something of tragedy, of mistaken premises rests, however, even over his able psycho-physical combinations. They were completely lost, were never followed up, and have obviously not been of any significance in subsequent development.
Perhaps that didn't matter to Swedenborg. He had now been definitely won over to mysticism and celestial visions. The doctrine of correspondence was shaped in 1741. Some years later he was vouchsafed the decisive revelations. The Lord God spoke to him, and Heaven and Hell were opened for him. From the dizzying heights of his new observation point as the herald of divine mysteries, he looked down with contempt upon his earlier, vain activity as a scientist. To be sure, the spiritual world was identical with the world of physical reality—that was taught by his doctrine of correspondence— but it was thereby ordained that the only goal of human effort was to push forward to the spiritual and sublime. "I have turned my thoughts from naturalia to spiritualia," Swedenborg said.
Swedenborg's unusual work as a religious founder is beyond the scope of this essay. It may have stemmed from mania or wisdom—opinions on this point are divided. It is not without importance to emphasize, however, how the man himself was basically the same despite the change. Innumerable threads unite the scientist and the theosophist. It has been shown how mysticism hid itself behind the young Swedenborg's materialistic declarations. The world of the visionary, on the other hand, was not confusing chaos but a well ordered scene, characterized within its borders by clear logic and scientific order. It is hardly a coincidence that the Swedish Swedenborgians counted many scientists among their numbers, the brothers Adam and Johan Afzelius; August Nordenskiold, chemist; Leonard Gyllenhaal and C. J. Schonherr, entomologists, et. al. They succeeded more wholeheartedly than the master in reconciling the search for worldly truth with the demands of the new religion and perhaps, in the doctrine of correspondence, they found a warrant that the fragile objects they worked with had a spiritual significance which sanctified the scientist's working day.
It has already been pointed out that Swedenborg's scientific writings scarcely left any traces. They issued, with their merits and mistakes, from a restless temperament which found no real joy in their construction. It is not without edification that we contemplate the placid and happy old man who passed away in London in the spring of 1772, and we may find it significant that it was as a man of God and the creator of a new church that he finally achieved the world renown coveted so ardently in his youth.