PUTTING FORTH TO SEA
The year is 1719, and Emanuel Swedenborg, the audacious young scientist, driven by the
intellectual promise of the Age of Reason, begins what would become his life's work with a little
book entitled On Tremulation. Here we find the first discussion of action-at-a-distance: how
something here could affect a change in something there, remotely, and yet strangely
After taking time to lay the groundwork for a theoretical mechanism for all of Creation
(Principia, 1735), we find our scientist at work again in a kind of footnote to this massive work,
The Infinite and the Final Cause of Creation (1735). Here we find a new technical term,
“contiguum,” to describe the matrix through which this action works in living things. From this
point on Swedenborg is through with natural points and elementary particles in aggregation to
build matter up, into the complexities of the living world. His attention turns to the problem at
hand: spirit into nature; soul into body; life into living things. Again and again he searches the
human form, in Economy of the Animal Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom, where the cause
becomes soul, its effects are form and function, and their connecting medium is a descending
series of discrete degrees of organization.
Again he pushes on, in Rational Psychology, this time with the promise of a universal mathesis,
to explain this action in comprehensible terms - a formula in which one element corresponds to
another, in a functional, interactive way. And finally, on the other side of a vast spiritual divide,
we find the same thing again, but this time in the Doctrine of Correspondences, that explains the
nature of this function that fills the form.
Explained in depth in Divine Love and Wisdom, this descending series reappears as the chain of
causes that powers the Divine Providence itself. And in 1768, at the end of his life, we find the
topic revisited yet again, in Conjugial Love 101 and elsewhere, where we find this series in the
human being now a simple hierarchy of soul, mind, and body.
From one end of his life to the other, Swedenborg's mind was occupied by a rather short list of
questions. Primary among them was how spirit comes into nature, forming it as it goes, and how
that interaction is maintained, despite the differences between the world above and the world
below. He rightly recognized the answer to this simple question as the spiritual holy grail, Divine
gnosis, the cornerstone of religion itself. “OK,” we are inclined to ask, “but from the perspective
of the intellectual world around us, who cares?” A good question, and well worth considering, in
this anti intellectual, post-modern age.
Andrew Taylor Still was the founder of Osteopathic Medicine in the1870s or so. His philosophy
described a human of body, mind, and spirit, and his therapeutic system was based in
spiritual-natural causality. He was deep, but not wide; he didn't explain himself as well as he
mighthave done. I recently taught an elective course for 1st and 2nd year osteopathic medical students
entitled: Body, Mind, and Spirit: A.T. Still's Philosophy meets Swedenborg's Cosmology. It was a
success. I took Swedenborg's well-reasoned system and built Still's human being up withit. The students left the course with a working model in their heads for a dynamic human being
whose form and function were spiritual-to-natural. And they learned that to really heal the body
you must address those other levels too.
What did I use on them? Oh, the usual suspects: Divine Love and Wisdom, the concept of the
Grand Man, and the soul-body passages from Conjugial Love. But I started them out where the
ideas first appear - Principia, The Infinite, Economy of the Animal Kingdom, Animal Kingdom -
the place you start if you want to really understand the roots of those great spiritual ideas found
in their maturity in the Writings for the NewChurch.
How important are these “pretheological works”? Well how important is preparation? How
important is process, if we are to appreciate the finished product? I'd say that it is not just
important, but essential if we are to reap the full harvest of Swedenborg's contribution to the
modern world. Quaint 18th Century science? Museum pieces? My students didn't think so.
Swedenborg’s science was the real thing to them, and it explained that troublesome connection
of spiritual and natural as nothing in their varied experience ever had.
In the Prologue to Animal Kingdom, Swedenborg extends this invitation:
Let us then gird up our loins for work. Experience is at our side with a full horn of plenty.
The nine virgins are present also, adorned with the riches of nearly two thousand years: I
mean, all the sciences, by whose abundance, powers, and patronage, the work is
constructed. The sciences are indeterminate and of no profit or advantage, unless they be
applied and made subservient to uses. What is knowledge of numbers, ratios, figures, and
forms, in arithmetic and geometry, apart from its benefits in civil life? What are the
philosophical sciences, with their predicates, qualities, modes, and accidents, without
reference to reality? All things, at the present day, stand provided and prepared, and await
the light. The ship is in the harbor; the sails are swelling; the east wind blows; let us
weigh anchor, and put forth to sea.
That was 1744, 259 years ago. I believe that it is past time to deal with these works, time to
dissect them and put them on a front burner for a change. The patience of Swedenborg’s
dedication to this mission would likely be worn thin by now, if he were to visit us today, and ask
how his seminal work was going. The learned world is growing impatient too, in an age of
increasing interest in these same ideas, with no clear answers. “The ship is in the harbor; the sails
are swelling; the east wind blows.” It is up to us, the keepers of these marvelous works, to
finally weigh that anchor and put forth to sea.
Reuben P. Bell
Annual Meeting of the Swedenborg Scientific Association