The Madness Hypothesis
Henry Maudsley (1869) wrote a controversial pathography of Swedenborg, proposing that his religious mystical experiences were psychotic in origin. This provoked violent criticism of himself and an angry response from Swedenborg’s disciples. When a new edition of his Pathology of Mind appeared in 1895, all reference to Swedenborg’s psychosis, present in the previous edition of 1879, had been omitted; Maudsley had presumably submitted to the pressures of Swedenborg’s followers.
How do you know that someone is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Maybe the person’s reputation for honesty and integrity, or his or her expertise or specialty or interest in the subject under discussion, or even our past experiences of the person concerned? Maybe the person’s beliefs, biases or presuppositions are enough like ours or exactly like ours to justify believing the person? If we’re talking to someone, maybe it’s their body language or their facial expressions, which convince us of their sincerity, or then maybe we rely wholly or solely on our instincts or ‘gut reaction’? Maybe it’s because their argument or case is reasonable, or their explanation of known or agreed facts is the best? Maybe a lot of their case is based on a commonly accepted authority figure or book, such as the inspired books of the Bible? Maybe we can be convinced by how confident or erudite the speaker is? I remember one of my Mathematics lecturers at university, warning us undergraduates never to believe anyone who said something was “clearly true,” and there are advocates on both sides of any debate who use superlatives and state how clearly, obviously and indisputably true their opinion is.
I here note that those who would prove some form of mental derangement on the part of Swedenborg face some dilemmas. First, no diagnosis is based on any observed behavior of Swedenborg’s, but only on his own notations concerning his spiritual experiences (I shall later report on a rumored behavior); second, he carried on in a highly respected manner his duties as a member of the House of Nobles in the Swedish Diet, and this throughout the years of the theological period; third, he enjoyed a normal social life—i.e. normal in every way, except for the fact that conversations at table tended to turn to his experiences in the spiritual world.
How is it that the name of a brilliant 18th century scientist and philosopher, many of whose exceptional achievements were often advanced for his time, is almost never mentioned in the annals of science? And how did it happen that a man very deeply dedicated to the advancement of science experienced a vision that completely altered the course of his life? We suggest, based on his extensive self-analytical writings, that the source of his spiritual experiences was temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and that he is among the group of creative religious thinkers also suspected or known to have had epilepsy, from St. Paul and Mohammed to Dostoevsky, who have changed Western civilization.
The question we propose to address here, then, is that of how valid and objective the diagnostic process used to arrive at this conclusion in fact is. To what extent can psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists or other physicians gauge Swedenborg’s mental status? Their perspective certainly adds another dimension to the possible viewpoints on Swedenborg’s claims. However, I think their contribution is less authoritative regarding the specific, final answer on this matter than nonprofessionals may think. As with those other groups, subjective bias enters in, and in fact is a constant concern to professionals in all medical diagnosis and treatment studies. They are well aware that no one is objective and that the best we can do is only to broaden our subjectivity enough that it becomes serviceably close to reality. We will thus review here some of the subjective factors in diagnosis.
We find the terms “epileptic psychosis” and “acute schizophrenia” as well as “messianic psychosis.” We will see later in this paper that none of these terms are currently in use. Others drawn from research and clinical consensus have replaced them. Even so, in all of these inquiries the threshold question is whether Swedenborg suffered from a mental disorder at all and, if he did, what was it?
In the question of Emanuel Swedenborg’s mental status, a certain rationalistic bias can be seen peeking through several psychological studies, published over many years, purporting to diagnose the “Swedish Seer” with a variety of disorders.1 The necessity, for one who subscribes to this bias, is to explain the comprehensive, otherworldly nature of Swedenborg’s thirty-volume theological corpus in terms suitable for consumption in a modern (or now post-modern) age. Since all revelation, in this materialistic mind-set, is “schizophrenia,” then schizophrenia it must be. But there are questions here, begging to be asked, about how this definition came to be so universally accepted, and who decides such things.