Who was Emanuel Swedenborg?


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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I am Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And we have been spending an awful lot of time in Italy lately because of our Medici super series, so today we thought we'd move a little further north to Sweden.

Sarah Dowdey: Our subject for today is going to be Emanuel Swedenborg who was famously called by the philosopher D.T. Suzuki the Buddha of the north.

Katie Lambert: He was a mechanical genius who began his whole body of work by looking for mechanical explanations for nature, so a mechanical explanation for the physical world. From there, he began to study the soul as it related to the human body. He was quite advanced for his time as far as science goes. He had anatomical theories that weren't proven until the late 19th century, and we're talking about a 17th century guy.

Sarah Dowdey: What makes him truly interesting is that while in the midst of all these studied about the soul, he has a crisis of faith and abandons his scientific pursuits altogether. He spends the rest of his life trying to explicate the scriptures, and his followers end up founding a church in his name, so this is our subject for today.

Katie Lambert: Let's go back to his roots. He was born January 29th, 1688 in Stockholm as Emanuel Swedberg. His father, Jesper, was a Swedish clergyman, court chaplain, and also a professor of theology who later became the bishop of Skara. Their family was ennobled - which is my current favorite word - in 1719, and that's when they took the name Swedenborg.

Sarah Dowdey: The young Emanuel studied philosophy at the University of Uppsala and spent five years aboard. This becomes a common theme in his life, going aboard and learning lots of new things. For this first trip, he becomes interested in mathematics and natural sciences and pursues study in England, and Holland, France, and Germany learning mechanical skills. Even when he's in England, he moves in Newton's circles.

Katie Lambert: He was a bit of a da Vinci-esque genius. He's a real mechanical hotshot. He thought up new ways to make docks, had some vague ideas about submarines and the airplane, which Sarah mentioned it's a good thing he didn't stick to this if you remember our bungled flight attempts episode.

Sarah Dowdey: This was a high point for bungled flight attempts.

Katie Lambert: He even had some ideas about a machine gun.

Sarah Dowdey: But when he returns to Sweden in 1715, he starts to publish the Daedalus Hyperboreus, which is Sweden's first scientific journal. There he's able to write about mechanical investigation and discoveries. All of his work in the mechanical sciences really starts to impress King Charles the Twelfth, who makes him an assistant to one of the biggest names in Swedish mechanical science at the time. He gets a position at the Royal Board of Mines, and he later becomes an assessor there. But this is his day job. Imagine through almost all the writings we're going to be talking about later in the podcast, this is what he's doing for most of his time, working at the mines, improving the country's mining industry. Mining was a huge pursuit in Sweden at the time.

Katie Lambert: So he goes home from his day of mining science and works on the other sciences and philosophies, everything from cosmology and corpuscular philosophy to math and human sensory perceptions. He does the first work on algebra in the Swedish language, lots of stuff on chemistry and physics. He's a bit of a jack of all trades. He even spends part of his time composing poems in Latin, so he apparently did more in his downtime than I do.

Sarah Dowdey: We're going to catch up with him in his second major trip abroad. A few years after he's ennobled in 1719, he goes abroad again, and he publishes some work, some natural philosophy, and chemistry, but then he doesn't write much for about ten years. It's clear that when he starts again in 1733, he's been reading a lot and thinking a lot. He goes on his third European tour and just goes crazy with the publishing.

Katie Lambert: This is when he switches from thinking about ingestions and starts thinking about the mechanical ways to explain nature that we'd mentioned before. He publishes philosophical and logical works. The first folio is called "Principle of Natural Things." In this work, he comes pretty close to things that modern science comes up with much later. For instance, he has a theory that is very close to what we know about the atom with a nucleus and electrons, and also an idea that's very close to the cont le place nebular theory that the suns and planets form a common nebula, so a man ahead of his time.

Sarah Dowdey: But then his course of study changes again, and he starts to switch toward studying the soul as related to the body. He goes home in 1734, and his father dies in 1735, and he tackles a leave of absence from his assessor job at the mines and starts to travel again. This time he goes to France, and Italy, and Holland. He writes The Economia Regni Animalus, which is translated as The Econony of the Animal Kingdom, and he returns to Stockholm. I read one thing that's interesting that's not the best translation for that title. It's kind of misleading. He means the kingdom of the anima or soul when he says regni animali, not the animal kingdom, which is what you might think when you first read that. Another translation you could think of is The Biological Bases of the Soul.

Katie Lambert: The less literal translation. This work draws Swedenborg closer to the study of the body. He studies human anatomy and physiology, but he's also beginning to think about the study of the soul, specifically trying to prove the immortality of the soul to the senses themselves, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. He has a really excellent understanding of the cerebral cortex's role. Its sensory, motor, and cognitive functions - most people thought it didn't relay have a purpose. It was just kind of a leftover.

Sarah Dowdey: Even "cortex" means rind, so people really thought it was the brain rind, which gives you an idea of the common thought at the time. He realizes this is something important, and it's where he's going to start in his search for the soul. He also considered the pituitary gland to be the crown of the brain, which is a pretty revolutionary thought for the time. He figured all of this out by basically reading and studying the work of other scientists. He didn't report much on his own experiments. He didn't just read their analysis of their own work. He looked at their experiments and looked at all the stuff they found and drew his own conclusions. That's how he was able to come up with these ideas that were so different from what everybody else was thinking at the time.

Katie Lambert: You might think these ideas would be very exciting to the medical and scientific community, but you would be wrong. His anatomical studies weren't given much heed. According to an article by Charles G. Gross and the neuroscientist, this is because these little nuggets of scientific brilliance were embedded in these huge books he wrote about the soul. By the point they were available, he had the reputation of a mystic, so you might be less inclined to listen.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Also, he's not a professor. He's not working with people who are going to read and review his work. There wouldn't be a strong reason for a contemporary scientist to even read what he was writing. By the time that all these works really came out there in the late 19th century, scholars started looking at these ideas, especially these ideas about the brain, and realizing, "Oh my gosh. We just figured this stuff out recently, and he had ideas for this back in the 1700s.

Katie Lambert: After The Economy, he got to work on most studies of anatomy and the soul, but these things were brought to a half by a religious crisis. So he started a new travel journal in July of 1743. It's basic, king of everyday kind of entries. Then suddenly it turns into this dream journal that's know as The Journal of Dreams, detailing recalled dreams and nighttime spiritual experiences from March to October, 1744. Some of these are surprisingly almost pornographic and embarrassed more prudish Victorian readers.

Sarah Dowdey: On April 7th, 1744, he has his first vision of Christ, which makes him feel a little bit better about the temptation of intellectual pride, which was just getting him down, I guess. By April, 1745, he had received a definitive call to abandon worldly learning, so that's the end of his work in the natural sciences.

Katie Lambert: That brings us to his theological work, which is a bit dense. Basically, God called him, according to him, to explain the spiritual meaning of scripture, so Swedenborg started writing about angels, paradise, and the last judgment as well as the New Jerusalem. He was kind of like an old-school profit is what Sarah and I compared him to.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. From then on he gets into Bible interpretation and relating to the world of sprits and angels. He writes 30 volumes in Latin. Most of his works are anonymous and he does them from 1749 to 1771. His best-known theological work is on Heaven and its Wonders and on Hell, and is final work is True Christian Religion. He says he's gotten into this new vocation because of a divine vision and call. Encyclopedia Britannica says that his spiritual senses were opened so that he might be in the spiritual world as consciously as in the material world. The 30 volumes, he really writes them as God's revelations.

Katie Lambert: He wanted to enter a new age of truth and reason to religion, and he thought that these new revelations of his that he was putting down were the second coming. Anything that's as broad as a religion is difficult to get a gr asp on and instill into something as short as a podcast, so we thought it would be a good idea to talk with someone who's well-versed in the Swedenborg an religion, so we talked to Lisa Oz, who was raised as a Sweenborgian and introduced her husband, Doctor Oz, to the religion as well.

Sarah Dowdey: We wanted to start by better understanding Swedenborg's epiphany since clearly; this was the defining experience in his life, so that's where we started.[Begin Recording]

Lisa Oz: Hello, I am Lisa Oz, author of Us: Transforming Ourselves and the Relationships That Matter Most. From what I understand of his epiphany, it seems like it was something overnight, but it was a while in coming in terms of the preparation for what we as Swedenborgians like to see as a spiritual opening of his eyes - and opening of his spiritual eyes - and being able to see into the spiritual dimensions. He had studied. Obviously he studied religion very closely from a very early age, and also practiced breathing techniques. He started journaling his dreams the year before his spiritual awakening. It wasn't that this was out of the blue where one day he was a scientist and the next day he was a theologian. He had written extensively on religion and philosophy and tried to find a connection to the spiritual in the human brain. He was looking for the seed of the soul. So there was a lot of preparation leading up to his epiphany. What I find particularly entertain for me was that the first communication he had with the spiritual world directly was someone telling him not to eat so much, which is I think is really relevant in my own life.[End Recording]

Katie Lambert: Lisa went on to explain that this epiphany didn't stifle Swedenborg's traditional life. He still carried out his duties as a member of the aristocracy, Mr. Nobleman, and he didn't become a recluse, as you might imagine a mystic would. When I think of a mystic, I think of someone who's hidden away from the rest of the world, say at a convent.

Sarah Dowdey: Or a dude living in a cave.

Katie Lambert: But he wasn't a recluse. He was a mystic, however. Since the definition can be a bit of a controversial one when talking about Swedenborg, we asked a Swedenborgian to explain what she thought.[Begin Recording]

Lisa Oz: He was mystical. I think that a mystical experience is one where you have a direct experience of the numinous, and that was exactly what Swedenborg was describing. For most of us who don to have mystical experiences, we have to take it on someone else's word that this other realm exits.[End Recording]

Katie Lambert: So Emanuel Swedenborg spends the rest of his life working on these theological writings. He dies in London in 1772, but despite never preaching, he stuck solely to writing - mostly in Latin - the first Swedenborg an societies start popping up in the 1780s, and the Church of the New Jerusalem is founded in London later in that decade.

Sarah Dowdey: One of the most interesting things about this guy is how his ideas inspire writers like Balzac, Baudelaire, Emerson, Yates, the Brownings, Blake Coleridge, Henry James, Sr., the philosopher, and even Helen Keller.

Katie Lambert: We're not talking about some obscure historical figure, he was actually a very influential person, and that led us to question ourselves as to why we had never heard of this man and don't know who he was, so we asked Lisa a little bit about how he's influenced contemporary thought.

Sarah Dowdey: She said that some of the impact of Swedenborg on contemporary spiritual thought is indirect, and it comes through all of those writers. We could be reading almost a distilled version of his ideas in some of their works. While that was influential in indirect ways, we were also curious about why his church doesn't have a bigger presence today.[Begin Recording]

Lisa Oz: I think mostly there's not a Swedenborgian church today because there's no impetus to convert or proselytize. We just don't care. It doesn't matter if people are other religions as long as they're living a life of love, and compassion, and connection, and relationship. That's great. I think there's not that much movement to spread the church. The otter thing is that Swedenborg's writings are not easy. It is thousands and thousands of pages. I think its 30 some volumes of very dense, translated from the Latin, heavy material. It's not the kind of thing you can just pick up and say, "Wow. This makes sense.[End of Recording]

Katie Lambert: If you're looking for a good place to start with some of Swedenborg's works because, again, it is dense - we tried to read some of it and had a social time. Lisa told me her favorite of his many works is Arcana Coelestia. He does write like a scientist. It's dry and it's too the point, but he also sees some of scripture as - I guess we'd say parables for your spiritual journey."

Sarah Dowdey: She also gave us a word to the wise about Swedenborg. He's a man of his time. For example, his views toward women wouldn't seem particularly enlightened, and certainly not as enlightened as the rest of his scientific work, but just to consider his historical context when reading his works.

Katie Lambert: We were saying it's just so interesting - it's always so interesting - to see someone who's so fully engaged in both science and religion. It was equal interest in both, although it's also interesting that he felt he couldn't do them at the same time. After all, he did drop science as an ego-driven pursuit, at least for him.

Sarah Dowdey: But it's also so interesting that science, he couldn't drop it completely. He may have stopped his scientific writings, but science is clearly unflinching his theological works.

Katie Lambert: Right. it reminded me of a big I'm reading, John Horgan's Rational Mysticism, which tries to impose a sort of rational , scientific framework on top of the idea of mysticism, which is, I toes, something that Swedenborg also did.

Sarah Dowdey: Fortunately for you guys, we have some really great articles on the brain and on religion written by our own Molly Edmonds of Stuff Mom Never Told You. The first is, "Is the Brain Hardwired for Religion." The second is "Is Morality Located in the Brain." you can find both of these at our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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