Lecture Notes by Hugo Lj. Odhner
Popular concepts of Philosophy are often erroneous. Too frequently, argumentative discussion is called philosophical. Fanciful imagination or poetical moods are mistaken for philosophical thinking. Cynical or skeptical attitudes - such as the saying attributed to Solomon that "all is vanity" - are echoes of oriental pessimism rather than philosophy. A sophisticated pose, or even great learning, does not make a philosopher. For philosophy means a "love of wisdom".
But philosophy means more than a love of wisdom - it means "an unusually strenuous effort to think consistently"(2). It implies the use of a mental discipline, a search for real wisdom and understanding.
Nor is philosophy vain speculation. The history of philosophy describes the actual analyses of the problems of the human mind and shows the bounds within which man's thinking can safely operate.
One of the delights given to man is that of using his God-given faculty of reason. Philosophy gives to a man a real consolation in times of stress. It is like a cold hand on a fevered brow - it allays passion and impatience, encourages knowledge, shows the folly of superstition and intolerance, and gives a new meaning to life.
Not all things which parade as philosophy deserve the name. And the meaning of the word has differed in different ages. The ancients thought of philosophy as the love of wisdom, but by wisdom they meant also goodness - a wisdom of life. In the Renaissance period the phrase 'natural philosophy' meant learning in general - secular in contradistinction with theological. In modern usage, philosophy is often taken to mean "logical" or systematic thinking, and what cannot be inferred from sensuous experience is dismissed as "meaningless". But it is a mistake to think that philosophy is not also obligated to account for the source of existence. And therefore most philosophers of the past have included in their systems a doctrine concerning God, or, in rare instances, a denial of God.
"True philosophy and contempt of the Deity are two opposites."(Swedenborg, Principia I, 1.4). The Writings say:
"There are...two principles, one of which leads to all folly and insanity, and the other to all intelligence and wisdom. The former principle is to deny all things or to say in the heart that we cannot believe them until we are convinced by what we can apprehend or perceive by the senses. This is the principle that leads to all folly and insanity, and is to be called the negative principle. The other principle is to affirm the things that are of doctrine from the Word, or to think and believe within ourselves that they are true because the Lord has said them. This is the principle that leads to all intelligence and wisdom, and is to be called the affirmative principle.
"The more they who think from a negative principle
consult things rational...scientific and philosophical, the more do they...precipitate
themselves into darkness, until at last they deny everything... On the
other hand, they who think from an affirmative principle can confirm themselves
in whatever things rational, scientific, and philosophical they have at
their command; for all these are to them confirmatory and give them a fuller
idea of the subject."(3)
Life can be regarded in many different ways. Some think of it merely as a fact - as experience based on consciousness - and reflect little on it. Others gratefully view it as a gift and turn their eyes to the Giver, not forgetting the many agents, our neighbors, through whom His blessings flow. These also feel their life as an obligation to contribute some use towards the greater self of society. Some are also driven by the urge to find the ultimate reality which is behind everything of life or matter or order and form. These are the philosophers.
Man is endowed not only with sensation and impulse but with reason and can therefore reflect about the meanings of life. Reflecting is often inconvenient, and sometimes it seems futile. Yet it is responsible for the progress of civilization and for the unsung glories of private happiness which history often omits to record. For with reflection comes a self control which makes man truly man.
The Writings teach that only after man has become rational can he become spiritual.(5) For only by reflection can he realize the meaning of the revealed truth that man is only a vessel of life. Only by reflection - the actual use of his reason - can he obtain the sense of real dependence on God - which is the essence of all religion.
Every man must, in a sense, become a philosopher - if not always wise, nor always consistent. And at times, if his philosophy contains falsities, it is wise to be inconsistent! But when derived from true principles, his philosophy should become the means of his seeing the logical interconnection of all things and obtaining an exhaustive, harmonious, and systematic view of the world in which he lives, and of his proper relation to it and place in it.
Swedenborg, in his "Animal Kingdom"(6)
commends the use of introspection in the construction of one's philosophy.
The problems with which philosophy is concerned cover all aspects of life and experience. They even lie beyond experience - in the unseen realms of the yet possible.(7)
First of all, philosophy wants us to know ourselves - what we are, how we are constituted as individuals, how we begin and develop, and what the purpose and end of existence might be.
Secondly, we must know the environment in which we live.
The physical environment is perhaps the most obvious. Its three features which are always together - are, Matter, Space, and Time. By matter we understand the contents of the physical environment. Space describes the quantitative relation of material things. Time describes the relations of objects in respect to their mutual changes. But the whole physical environment is of course never wholly within man's 'scale of observation'. Its creation and formation supply mysteries for philosophy as well as for science.
There is also a living environment which affects us. This consists - to begin with - of organic forms, vegetable, animal, and human; all of which are in mutual relationships in a complex whole. The many-faceted problems which the study of this living work of nature call up are far outnumbered by those concerning the social environment, its history, its customs, morals, and laws, civic and ethical, aesthetic and philosophical.
But man as a spirit has a relation to other spirits. He lives not alone on earth, but in a spiritual environment. A real philosopher must ponder man's relation to the church on earth, to the heavens and the hells, and first and essentially to the Lord in His Divine Human.
It is of course to be realized that man (or even angel) is conscious only of an infinitesimal part of his environment - either natural or spiritual. Yet this environment constantly affects him without his knowing.
Philosophy also examines a man's reactions - be they conscious or unconscious - to his multiform environment. His reactions may be either negative or positive, they may involve the question of good and evil. And man's responses may be either sensitive, emotional, rational, or spiritual; and here is introduced the question of relative values and of uses of discretely different degrees.
In all these phases of life, philosophy must consider three things - end, cause, and effect, or substance, form, and activity. The definition of substance is the key problem of most systems of thought.
From the above considerations it may be concluded that philosophy is primarily the reaction of man's rational mind to his environment. But from the Writings it is clearly seen that a true philosophy must be spiritual-rational, and must lead to the wisdom of life. Such a philosophy is a means by which a man explains to himself and evaluates his experiences (both his own and those learned through other sources) and reconciles his knowledge with the inmost intuitions of his faith and conscience and with a priori concepts. Religion can thus be united with experience only through a true philosophy.
The following definitions of Philosophy are given in the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, 1928:
"The general principles, laws, or causes that furnish the rational explanation of anything: the rationale by which the facts of any region of knowledge are explained..."
"The Science of rational principles; the knowledge, in a scientific system, of the ultimate principles - elements, causes, and laws - that underlie and explain all knowledge and existences, and their application in the explanation of these; metaphysical speculation."
"Philosophy... is the product of human thought, acting upon the data given by the world without or the world within, and eliciting from these data principles, laws, and systems". (H.B. Smith)
"Philosophy - we define to be- the progressive rational system of the principles presupposed and ascertained by the particular sciences, in their relation to ultimate reality." (G.T. Ladd)
"The all-embracing system that furnishes the ultimate
rational explanation of all things; -as, the sciences find their only complete
Positivists regard philosophy only as "the widest generalization on science, taking in all material things..."
These definitions do not, however, clearly show the
confirmative functions of science and philosophy in relation to spiritual
or revealed truth.(8) In the Writings there
are many warnings given about the abuse of philosophy, especially
referring to the artificiality of scholastic reasonings and the tendency
to adhere in mere terms(9), so that a man loses
his common sense.(10) At the same time, it
is necessary to express abstract ideas in proper terminology.(11)
"Without words adapted to the subject, nothing can be described."(12)
"In itself", philosophy is such "that from it man may perceive what is
spiritual and celestial."(13) Therefore philosophy
is among the useful studies.(14)
The tendency of man's natural mind is to think from sensual appearances, from personal bias, and thus from the emotional stirrings of his native will. These are barriers to true thinking.
The Lord has therefore provided that the man of the spiritual genius - the genius of our present day race - should be able to separate his understanding, as it grows, from the corrupt inherited will. Thought in the understanding can thus become independent, so as to oppose the pressure of sensual delights. This is done by an elevation of thought from the corporeal memory and the imagination into the rational, so as to perceive abstractions in "the interior natural" which is the memory of the rational mind. In this way, even spiritual things can be apprehended.
"To think spiritually is to think of things themselves as they are in themselves, to see truths in the light of truth and perceive goods from the love of what is good; also, to see the qualities of things and to perceive their affections, abstractly from the matter. But to think materially is to think, see, and perceive them together with matter, and in matter..."(15) Spiritual thoughts "transcend natural ideas and do not fall into them except in some measure into the interior rational sight, and this no otherwise than by withdrawals or removals of quantities from qualities."(16) Rational thinking therefore involves abstraction from ideas of matter, space, time, and person.
Rational thought sees "relations" or ratios, seeks for causes and ends, and maintains a perspective of life by which all events, uses, emotions, and ideas can be subordinated and ordered according to their true values, and so efficiently contribute to the good of the whole, or to the final end in view.
The state of the ideal philosopher is described in
the Writings as a state of 'illustration' or 'enlightenment', in which
the light of heaven inflows to clarify the objects of the thought.(17)
Every man, as he grows up, consciously or unconsciously develops his own philosophy of life and thought, as a system of interpretative principles. As New Churchmen, through our religious faith in Revelation, we accept the Holy Scripture and the Writings as Divine Doctrine. But each one's interpretations of the world of fact and duty are still colored by his spiritual state and natural experience - by his loves and by his knowledge. Thus he forms his own philosophy.
In this sense, philosophy cannot be transferred from one
man to another. But the principles underlying a true philosophy can be
seen and recognized as true, and thus adopted and used as one's own. We
can benefit immeasurably by a study and application of such principles
through which we may be enlightened to see the order which underlies all
things and to see ourselves and the two worlds about us in the light of
Philosophy has been described as attitude which every one must form for himself, by a special effort of thought; rather than something which can be blindly accepted from others.
But in forming a personal philosophy, one can not avoid being influenced by principles already formulated by others. If true, such principles can be of untold benefit to others who struggle with similar problems.
In the New Church we know that Swedenborg, as he advanced in knowledge, was being led by the Lord towards a definite end - that his rational mind might be enlightened to recognize and formulate the very truths of heaven given by Divine inspiration in the Writings. For this reason we may expect to see even in the rich record of his progressive studies the principles, or "beginnings", of a philosophy which may help to lead us also out of the confusion and darkness of a skeptical age.
Much of Swedenborg's preparatory treatises are occupied with scientific citations and analyses which must eventually be judged on their own merits. But while being thus prepared, Swedenborg was led to perceive certain universals which took an ever clearer form as he progressed in his studies. And these came to constitute a body of perennial philosophical doctrines which are postulated in the Writings.(18) Outstanding among these philosophical doctrines, which have innumerable applications, are the following:
A. The Doctrine of Discrete Degrees
8. The Central Concept of a New Church Philosophy.
To view religion, with its revealed spiritual truth, in the light of philosophy, is to subvert the proper order. "Nothing can be founded on scientifics unless it be previously founded upon the Word. This must be first: the other is only a confirmation from man's knowledges." (SD 5710e) Man must not seek to enter into spiritual things through natural philosophy. But "it is never forbidden to confirm the truths of faith and spiritual things by the things that are in nature..." (SD 2301)(19)
A New Church philosophy commences with the acknowledgment of God as Man - as the Divine Human - and from the light of this central truth it seeks to view all life, all fields of human experience, and all sciences.
Since true philosophy seeks to see the image of God-Man in all creation, the study of the human form in all its aspects becomes most essential.(20) The present NOTES on "The Human Organic" are intended as an introduction to such a study.