to Swedenborg's "Worlds in Space"
by John Chadwick
The idea that the Earth is not the only body in the Universe to be inhabited by sentient beings is by no means new. As early as 1686 the French writer Bernard Bouvier de Fontenelle had published an amusing book entitled 'Conversations on the plurality of inhabited worlds'; and we may be sure that the idea was current in the eighteenth century when Swedenborg was writing. The realisation that this world is not the fixed centre of the universe, around which the sky rotates, led naturally to the idea that other inhabited worlds might exist and that there might be human beings elsewhere.
A theological argument was used to reinforce this notion. If the Creator had made not one planet revolving around the Sun but six, He would hardly have gone to so much trouble merely to provide the inhabitants of the Earth with the spectacle of luminous bodies moving against the background of the stars- Divine Providence must have a purpose, and if this involved the creation of planets, they must have been intended as homes for human beings. Swedenborg avails himself of this argument, and he made the broad generalisation: 'Human beings exist wherever there is a world' (§3),
We might object with our superior knowledge of the natural world that we can see other examples of apparent wastefulness on the part of Providence. Plants and animals have a reproductive potential far in excess of what is needed for the survival of the species. It is not inconceivable that a gigantic universe might have spawned only a single place where humanity could evolve. But the idea that we are not alone dies hard, and scientists are now actively seeking for evidence that life may also exist elsewhere.
It is hardly surprising that when Emanuel Swedenborg, already a distinguished scientist, became in middle age able to penetrate beyond the veil of death and visit the world inhabited by those whose life on Earth is over, he was anxious to test the current theories and learn the truth about the natural world. In this he was disappointed, for it was repeatedly made plain to him that the purpose of his visionary powers was to reveal the nature of the spiritual world, and by his writings to guide his fellow men towards a better understanding of religious and spiritual matters. Those who have passed the barrier of death retain the memories they acquired in the natural world, but scientific matters are no longer of interest to them. They live in a world devoid of matter, and hence without space or time as we now define them. Yet their world is not airy and insubstantial; it is as real and solid as this, but it is constructed on a totally different basis.
In the course of his exploration of this spiritual world Swedenborg was able to meet and talk with spirits from various parts of the globe; but he also had the experience of encountering spirits whose lives had been spent on other planets. The first part of this book (Chapters I-VIII) describes meetings with six different groups of spirits, the second part a further five.
Since the natural world cannot be viewed from the spiritual world, it was impossible for Swedenborg to see the worlds from which they came, or to judge their position in space. He understandably identified the six nearer groups as coming from the celestial bodies known to him which might theoretically support life: the five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and the Moon. For us this creates an acute problem, since modern discoveries have shown that none of these has an environment capable of supporting human life.
There are several ways in which this might be explained. Swedenborg was able in the spiritual world to meet spirits who had lived on this Earth long ago. So is it possible that the spirits he met had lived in the remote past? He had of course no idea of the real age of the Earth, and several times quotes the figure of six thousand years since Creation deduced by Archbishop Ussher from Biblical data (see §126.3). There is some reason to think that Mars at one time had water on its surface, and it might then have had an atmosphere fit for human beings. But while this is possible in this case, it is hardly conceivable that, let us say, Venus or Jupiter ever had such an environment. Swedenborg certainly believed that those he met were his contemporaries.
Another possibility that has been canvassed in modem times is that evolution on other planets may have followed a different course; why should we suppose that the highest form of life there bears any resemblance to ourselves? All living forms on Earth are based on the element carbon; but could life elsewhere have a different basis? As far as we know, this seems highly improbable. The physical laws governing the material universe appear to hold good throughout and the structure of matter is the same. It would therefore seem likely that where life developed it would follow a similar evolutionary pattern.
Swedenborg would of course have had no difficulty in dismissing this approach. He would probably have started by quoting Genesis 1:26 'Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.' For if man here is patterned on God, life elsewhere must equally strive to match the same pattern. Secondly, the creatures whom Swedenborg met were in recognisably human form. He mentions slight differences in size, proportion and colouring, but leaves no doubt that these were human beings (§§44, 52, 93, 146, 162). All clearly shared the same anatomy, even down to details like the Eustachian tube connecting the mouth with the ear (arcana caelestia 10587). All spirits derive their humanity from the Lord: 'we are men to the extent that we are images of Him' (§65.4).
Thirdly, an argument might be drawn from Swedenborg's teaching that the whole of heaven appears in God's sight as a single human being, which he calls the Maxim us Homo or Grand Man. Myriads of angelic communities each correspond to organs and parts of the human anatomy. This too implies a pattern to which human beings everywhere must conform.
The conclusion seems inescapable that Swedenborg drew a wrong conclusion in his identification of the homes from which these spirits had come. As has been shown, he was kept in ignorance of facts about the natural world, and was allowed to persist in the false beliefs current in his time. To see why this should be so, we have only to imagine the consequences, if he had been allowed to make huge advances in scientific knowledge. For if he had been able to demonstrate the truth of such knowledge, his reputation would have become such that everything he said would have been automatically accepted. Yet he frequently insists that mere assent to a proposition is not the same as whole-hearted belief, and the dangers are obvious.
Let us rather suppose that Swedenborg encountered a group who claimed that their planet occupied the nearest orbit round a sun (§11). He would naturally assume that they meant our Sun, and infer that their planet must be Mercury. Similarly, if they described a great luminous ring encircling their planet, he would have quickly concluded they meant Saturn. Clues of this kind would have been sufficient to account for his mistaken identifications. We ought therefore to treat the names of the planets where they occur in this book as in inverted commas, that is, as convenient labels for unknown entities.
We now know that there are hundreds of thousands of stars in our galaxy similar to our Sun, and the process by which its planets were formed may have been duplicated countless times elsewhere. It has recently been reported that there is some evidence mat other stars have planetary systems, though they remain invisible to us. There is therefore no difficulty in explaining the people Swedenborg met as coining from other solar systems in the neighbourhood of our Sun.
This is in fact how Swedenborg identified the five other groups described in the second part of this book (X-XIV), but of course this leaves us with the problem of the origin of this second set of groups. In the sections of Arcana Caelestia corresponding to this there is a mention of a sixth world; but since he records that he was visited by spirits from it and could not himself give any details about their planet, he chose to omit this from this book.
Now that we know that there are vast numbers of stars resembling the Sun in our galaxy, it would be possible to regard them as coining from planets orbiting distant stars on the other side of the galaxy. The description of the journeys to these groups emphasises the time it took to reach them: two hours (§128), two days (§138), ten hours (§157), twelve hours (§168). These times are of course absurdly short for travel in the natural universe, where even at the speed of light the nearest star is four years' journey distant. But travel in the spiritual world is not measured in the same way, since it involves changes of state rather than place. It is clear from the times quoted that these worlds were far more remote than those in the first set.
If we think the first set are to be located within the limits of our own galaxy, it must be a possibility that the second set belonged to planets of stars in another galaxy. Perhaps it is significant that in his description of one of these journeys (§128) Swedenborg speaks of a fiery cloud or smoke through the middle of which he passed before crossing a vast gap or chasm. This might perhaps represent the intergalactic separation, which is of course immense even on the scale of the galaxy.
But the chasm is described by the Latin word vorago, which strongly suggests a hole which swallows things up, the word for swallowing being vorare. Some of his accompanying spirits were terrified to approach close to it. It is tempting to think of the 'black holes' which are now believed to exist, gravitational sinks so powerful that even light cannot escape from them. It has been suggested that there is one at the centre of our galaxy. Swedenborg's voyage may have taken him across an analogous feature in the spiritual world.
If the familiar features of the natural world, such as mountains and earthquakes, are reproduced there, why not the unfamiliar denizens of space? The solution to this mystery is probably beyond our grasp; but there is nothing in this description of other inhabited worlds which is inconsistent with what we now know about the physical universe.
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Swedenborg's accounts of the other planets seem to describe worlds not very different from our own. There are plants and animals similar to ours, and the terrain sounds much the same. But his accounts of technology on other planets suggest that all these worlds were less advanced than our own, with one possible exception. This may have been because he was deliberately not introduced to people with a much higher degree of technical knowledge. In several cases spirits expressed surprise on learning of our invention of paper and printing, and this is given as one of the reasons why the Lord chose to be born in this world (§§28, 115-8). The exception is the inhabitants of a planet who knew how to make 'liquid fires, to provide themselves with light in the evening and at night'—an invention which would surely have appealed to a man who devoted so much of his time to writing. This sounds very much like what an eighteenth century reporter might have written, had he seen our use of light-sources contained in glass bottles and tubes. Was this perhaps a kind of electric light?
There is another problem which concerns the passage in §42 where Swedenborg describes the relative position of the solar planets in the spiritual world. This is particularly puzzling, because to our natural way of thinking the relative positions of the planets are constantly changing as they move round their orbits at different speeds, not to mention the complication added by the Earth's movement around its orbit. Swedenborg says explicitly that the planets have fixed positions in the spiritual world. This is a complex subject which can only be summarily addressed here; the reader will find more information in the Author's book heaven and hell (HH).
The first point to be made is that space as we define it does not exist in the spiritual world. Swedenborg repeatedly insists that neither space nor time exist there, for both of these are dependent upon the existence of matter. But there are appearances or, as we might term them, analogues of space and time. Hence he is able to speak of distances and periods of time while describing the spiritual world. The distance between two spirits is determined by their affections, and this applies equally to communities of spirits. The more alike they are, the closer their locations will be in the spiritual world.
Swedenborg uses expressions of two kinds to designate directions: they may be expressed either as points of the compass or as relative to the speaker. But if we are not on the surface of a rotating globe, how can we define north or east? The answer to this question is supplied by heaven and hell:
This introduces the expressions used relative to the speaker's body. Again it would seem that these relative directions would be different for different speakers and constantly changing. But here we must quote a further passage from heaven and hell:
"Angels always face the east, having the west behind them, the south on their right, the north on their left" (HH §142), Swedenborg goes on to explain that "angels like people on earth turn and twist their faces and bodies in all directions, but still have the east always before their eyes" (HH §143). This is, as he admits, a difficult idea to grasp, but "the way angels turn is not as people turn". We might perhaps suggest as an imperfect material analogy the compass needle, which continues to point to the north, however its case is turned. At least this explains how left and right can be used as substitutes for north and south.
This too will explain the use of expressions of relative height, such as 'above' and 'below'. Since our vertical orientation is due to gravity, another property of matter, in a non-material world there must be some other force to produce a similar effect, or angels would resemble astronauts floating free in a satellite. This question is addressed in HH §§142-3. It would appear that this kind of orientation in the spiritual world depends upon affection. The angels have their interiors turned upwards, and since the interiors are revealed through the face, their love for the Lord ensures that their faces are continually towards Him. Presumably the exteriors are repelled by the same force, and thus the effect of gravity is reproduced.
It now remains to apply these ideas to the discussion in §42 of the position of the planets of the solar system. It needs to be grasped that Swedenborg does not here mean the material planets of the natural world, but their analogues in the spiritual world. He does not explain what these are, though he says that the spirits from these worlds live in their vicinity, so that they can be in touch with people still living on them. So perhaps they are the locations of the spirits of those still alive, which are of course invisible to them during their life on earth. But Swedenborg assures us that we are all living simultaneously in the spiritual world, though we are unaware of this. At all events when he speaks of "Mercury" as 'behind a little to the right’ we may understand these directions as relative to the speaker, i.e. further away from the sun and to the south, since the speaker must be envisaged as facing east.
The publication of this new translation at a time when there is keen interest in this subject may perhaps stimulate readers to learn more about the world which awaits us beyond the grave. But we must always bear in mind the warning that Swedenborg was limited in his knowledge of the natural world, and is a guide only to the spiritual world. Once we have passed over, we shall cease to be interested in material affairs, and turn our attention to higher things.
For the complete book and translation, see Worlds in Space (Google Books)