Beginning: From the World to the Mind
Swedenborg’s philosophy began with an interest in mathematics and chemistry. From these subjects his investigations progressed through the physical world—searching for a scientific cosmology—to the realm of the mind—searching for a rational psychology—and on to a search for the soul and its operation in the body. The soul, and the relation of the mind to the body became his ultimate philosophic concern.
Philosophy a Preparation
Looking back on his philosophy, in the second, theological period of his career, Swedenborg regarded his philosophical development as a preparatory groundwork. In response to a question from the German prelate Oetinger, he wrote on November 11, 1766:
“The reason I, a philosopher, have been chosen for this theological task is so that the spiritual things which are being revealed at the present day may be taught and understood naturally and rationally: for spiritual truths have a correspondence with natural truths, because they reach their final stage in these, and rest upon them…. For this reason I was first introduced by the Lord into the natural sciences, and thus prepared, in fact from the year 1710 to 1744, when heaven was opened to me.”
Swedenborg’s philosophizing started with and from his scientific inquiries, as he attempted to provide rational explanations for observed phenomena. He began from the thesis that “nature as given to us by the Supreme Will is simply geometrical, or, to use a freer term, is entirely mechanical.” In the course of years his awareness of creation’s intricacies rose to include elements of reality above the limits of geometry and physical mechanism. His philosophical thought develops and expands as follows.
Harmony in the Body
The seminal work for much of Swedenborg philosophical construct of existence may be said to be his early, 1719, essay “On Tremulation”. In this tentative formulation dealing with human anatomy and physiology, he also speculates on the role of certain anatomical structures in the transfer of information within the body. He here put forward the idea of a harmony of sympathetic vibrations between and progressing through the body’s anatomical components. After this very promising beginning, he abandoned this line of investigation apparently for the pursuit of philosophical topics focusing on cosmology.
Creation from Mathematical Point
1721 – Principles of Chemistry. Here Swedenborg theorizes on the geometrical internal arrangement of various substances. The book’s enduring metaphysical concept is its definition of matter. Matter is defined as the product of serial aggregations of components differing in complexity of arrangement, but not as to substance. From this conception of a connected series the theory emerges that creation originated from a single, mathematical point.
1729 – Lesser Principia. In this unpublished essay Swedenborg refines and improves on the concept of the mathematical point postulated in Principles of Chemistry as being the simplest unit of nature. Here in Lesser Principia, matter is now explained as a binary formulation of two types of simple entities, one flowing and one static, reciprocally interrelated.
Matter = Gathered Energy
1734 – Principia. In this major, published work Swedenborg builds on his explanation of creation (as in his Chemistry) by postulating a series of aggregates compounded from differing units of matter termed elementaries. These are the products of self-similar active and passive entities, termed finites, which in turn are the product of dimensionless first natural points. These points, the first generations of the Infinite itself, are whirls of energy; and their “spiraling” motion among themselves forms the first of series of finites.
Creation thus proceeds in a cascade of energy-filled entities, successively compounded in degrees, i.e., in steps or levels, of increasing complexity, the units on each successive level being compounded formations of units on the previous level.
In an appendix to Principia he then refines his views on motion: Infinite motion itself, he says, can only be conceived of as a state, or as conatus (actuating endeavor); and this conatus is what generates finite motion.
The original mathematical point was thus developed and became a metaphysical ens, or entity, generating a spatial field of force–called for convenience “a figure of one dimension.” The ens was given vague “eminent” qualities, capable of being conceptualized only by analogies to the characteristics of natural things. But in his next work, the Infinite, this ens–no longer termed a mathematical point–is then described as a finite simple, or pure simple or primitive.
The Infinite: The Source of All Creation
1734 – The Infinite and the Final Cause of Creation, and the Interaction Between the Soul and the Body. The Infinite is the peak subject to which Swedenborg’s philosophic thought ascends. Up to this time philosophers had not recognized the importance of the concept of the Infinite and consequently had not made it the fundamental basis of metaphysics. But Swedenborg reasons that what is finite cannot have been the origin of itself. He finds that the source of all existence must be the eternal Infinite. Writing in The Infinite, he says:
“Human reason, willing or unwilling, is obliged to admit that the cause of nature is a Something that is utterly unknown, and that we will never be able to know this Something by what we know-a being who is properly termed Infinite.”
The Infinite Connection
The question Swedenborg then poses is, What is the connection between the unknowable Infinite and all that is finite? He finds this nexus, this connection, to be in the Infinite itself And while he explains that finite human reason can never know the nature of this infinite nexus, he says reason can accept the Scriptures’ declaration that it is the Logos, “Son of God”–who is “not another infinite but a one with the Infinite:
The Father and the Son are one God; both are the Creator of the finite universe (The Infinite and the Final Cause of Creation). The Infinite’s end purpose in creation, he reasons further, is in itself infinite:
The whole universe, the whole realm of the finite, was not created primarily for the finite, or for mankind and souls, but for the Infinite itself. Otherwise there would have been no Infinite in the act of will that produced it; but in which, there could not have been what is finite– and in which the Infinite must be. This is the final cause, therefore, or the end; all the effects of which are ends; all the means which in themselves are ends–although in relation to subsequent issues they are causes, and in relation to the two extremes they are means–all, we say, are for no other final cause but God alone.
This final cause is obtained by two finite ends. The first is the first-created, least entity, the smallest seed from which all nature develops; the world’s originating substance. The second, which the first end makes possible, is man. Man, the human being, is the ultimate end of creation because man is a being endowed with the actual ability to acknowledge and contemplate God without a shadow of a doubt. From that sure faith he can feel a connection with the Divine in the pleasures arising from love-a love which expresses itself in worship of the Divine. Thus man becomes an “embodiment of the Divine intention” (The Infinite).
The Soul/Body Relation
In the second part of his work on The Infinite, The Intercourse Between the Soul and Body, Swedenborg begins by establishing that the soul is finite; and that consequently it is extended and occupies space; and thus, being in the realm of nature and part of the created world, is subject to mechanical and geometrical rules. However, to conclude from this that the soul is not immortal, he says, arises from a gross idea concerning higher-order, purer mechanism such as is the soul. The soul is in the “purer and more perfect realm of nature and consequently not liable to decaying change as are the grosser bodily parts.”
The soul, being of a discretely higher order has its nexus with the body, consequently, not through continuity but through contiguity. The soul resides centrally in the cortical substance of the brain, where the body’s membranes and nerves bring to it all the motions affecting the body. But Swedenborg acknowledges that if the soul is “mechanical and geometrical” as he has postulated, “it may be difficult perhaps to explain many of its faculties, such as imagination, perception, the power of drawing conclusions, memory, self-consciousness as it is termed, the ideas arising from reflection, etc., etc.”. Observing that “some little light” may be gotten on this matter from the study of the human body and also animals, “who have many similarities to us and traces of our mental faculties,” he says that he intends to write in more detail on this subject.
This philosophical/scientific work on the mind-body interaction represents a turning point in Swedenborg’s scholarly life. Here his attention shifts from cosmology and physics to a more vital subject: he begins an earnest search for the human soul itself. In so doing, he realizes his need for more anatomical expertise and he embarks on extensive self-study, ultimately undertaking formal studies in Paris, 1736-1738, in the School of Chirurgery and Dissection.
The Spirituous Fluid: The Life Bearer
Swedenborg’s anatomical studies resulted in a major, two-part treatise on human anatomy, which he published in 1740, Economy of the Animal Kingdom (better titled The Dynamics of the Soul’s Domain). Part I treats anatomically and philosophically of the blood, its arteries and veins, the heart, and “rational psychology“; Part II treats of the brain and the human soul. He introduces this dissertation with the powerful statement that “the blood is as it were the complex of all things that exist in the world, and the storehouse and seminary of all that exists is the body.” He then methodically demonstrates that the soul, considered as the living spirit of intelligence and will, is present in the brain and throughout the body through the blood, whose inmost constituent is the “spirituous fluid, ” the vehicle of the soul.
Series and Degrees
These anatomical explanations lead up to the subject of psychology–“rational psychology,” which Swedenborg defines as the “science that treats of the essence and nature of the soul and of the mode in which it flows into the actions of its body.” But to ascend to a knowledge of the soul, he says, it is quite necessary to understand how the soul descends into the body, namely by “steps or degrees.” To this end he presents his doctrine of Series and Degrees. This doctrine is the explanation of the compounded nature of creation that he had begun in his earlier works.
His doctrine of Series and Degrees teaches in brief, that “there is nothing in the visible world that is not a series, and in a series.” And in every “degree,” i.e., level, of created things there are successive series of entities. Each degree and the series of entities that compose it is formed of aggregations of units from the next higher degree. The human being is the lattermost end in the whole, grand series of all created things, ranging from mineral to plant to animal. A human being is thus the fullness of all things; and is the “microcosm of the macrocosm.”
Defining psychology as the science treating of the essence and nature of soul and how it flows into the actions of the body, Swedenborg’s thesis is that a knowledge of how all things are structured in series and degrees makes possible a “rational,” i.e., relational, psychology, that is to say, a science of the psyche based on a knowledge of the ratios or relations between the various interconnected levels within the human soul, mind, and body.
These functional ratios relating entities on higher and lower levels (degrees) he terms correspondences. For example: a particular facial expression corresponds to the higher level of electrochemical brain activity that caused it, and this specific brain activity corresponds in turn to the yet higher level of thought-process that is within both the brain activity and facial expression. In a similar way everything corresponds to something on higher levels. These are relations of cause to effect.
The Brain: The Soul’s Agent
Swedenborg assembles anatomical evidence to demonstrate that the body’s movements and the mind’s functioning are controlled by corresponding activities in the brain, specifically by the activities of the cortical cells. But the primal source of activity lies yet higher. The brain itself is built by and suffused with the soul, so that it may operate through it into the body.
The Soul’s Function
At the top of the series of all human mental functions is the soul and its function of “representing the universe to itself.” On the level below this is the mind, with its functions of understanding, thinking and willing. And on the next lower level is the body, with its functions of feeling, seeing and acting. All these lower, mental and physical powers derive from the soul.
No Innate Knowledge
There are no innate ideas or imprinted laws in the human mind; they flow into the soul. They are brought into an individual’s conscious mind and memory–and become an actual part of the self–through the processes of sensation, perception and thought stemming from the soul within.
From this philosophical viewpoint a human being is essentially indestructible–immortal.
Swedenborg explains that because the “spirituous fluid” is the body’s first, simplest, highest, inmost, remotest, and most perfect substance–because it is formed of the primal aura of the universe, and partakes of no terrestrial matter–because it is entirely above the world, and the nature of posterior things; and because it is the one only substance in its body that lives; “as surely as these positions are true, so surely does it follow, that a fluid with such endowments is absolutely safe from any harm…. And when emancipated from the bonds and trammels of earthly things, it will assume the exact form of the human body.” For the physical body itself, he says, is the “complex of the forms of the soul”–which is to say, the form of the soul and its body are essentially the same. And this new existence of the soul will be a life “pure beyond imagination.”
Heaven & the City of God
Swedenborg concludes his treatise on the Dynamics of the Soul’s Kingdom with the statement that “there is a society of souls in the heavens, and that the City of God on earth is the seminary of this society, in which and by which the end of ends [God] is regarded.”