Abstract Of Swedenborgianism by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay


(May, 1824.)

—-But now to my hero. If many a forgotten writer, or writer destined to be forgotten, is on that account the more deserving of applause for having spared no cost of toil and intellectual exertion upon his works, certainly Swedenborg of all such writers is deserving of the most. Without doubt his flask in the moon is full; and not at all less than any of those which Ariosto saw in that planet filled with the lost wits of men, so thoroughly is his great work emptied of every drop of common sense. Nevertheless there prevails in every part so wonderful an agreement with all that the most refined and consistent sense under the same fantastic delusions could produce on the same subject, that the reader will pardon me if I here detect the same curiosities in the caprices of fancy which many other virtuosi have detected in the caprices of nature; for instance, in variegated marble, where some have discovered a holy family; or in stalactites and petrifactions, where others have discovered monks, baptismal fonts, and organs; or even in frozen window-panes, where our countryman Liscow, the humourist, discovered the number of the beast and the triple crown; things which he only is apt to descry, whose head is preoccupied with thoughts about them.

The main work of this writer is composed of eight quarto volumes full of nonsense, which he presented to the world as a new revelation under the title of Arcana Coelestia. In this work his visions are chiefly directed to the discovery of the secret sense in the two first books of Moses, and to a similar way of interpreting the whole of the Scripture. All these fantastic interpretations are nothing to my present purpose: those who have any curiosity may find some account of them in the Bibliotheca Theologica of Dr. Ernesti. All that I design to extract are his audita et visa, from the supplements to his chapters–that which he saw with his own eyes, and heard with his own ears: for these parts of his dreams it is which are to be considered as the foundation of all the rest. Swedenborg’s style is dull and mean. His narrations and their whole contexture appear in fact to have originated in a disorder of his sensitive faculty, and suggest no reason for suspecting that the speculative delusions of a depraved intellect have moved him to invent them. Viewed in this light, they are really of some importance–and deserve to be exhibited in a short abstract; much more indeed than many a brainless product of fantastic philosophers who swell our journals with false subtilties; for a coherent delusion of the senses is always a more remarkable phenomenon than a delusion of the intellect; inasmuch as the grounds of this latter delusion are well known, and the delusion itself corrigible enough by self-exertion and by putting more check upon the rash precipitation of the judgment; whereas a delusion of the senses touches the original foundation of all judgment, and where it exists is radically incapable of all cure from logic. I distinguish therefore in our author his craziness of sense from his crazy wits; and I pass over his absurd and distorted reasonings in those parts where he abandons his visions, for the same reason that in reading a philosopher we are often obliged to separate his observations from his arguments: and generally, delusive experiences are more instructive than delusive grounds of experience in the reason. Whilst I thus rob the reader of some few moments, which otherwise perhaps he would have spent with no greater profit in reading works of abstract philosophy that are often of not less trivial import,–I have at the same time provided for the delicacy of his taste by the omission of many chimaeras, and by concentrating the essence of the book into a few drops; and for this I anticipate no less gratitude from him than (according to the old story) a patient expressed towards his physicians–who had contented themselves with ordering him to eat the bark of the quinquina, when it was clearly in their power to have insisted on his eating up the whole tree.

Mr. Swedenborg divides his visions into three kinds, of which the first consists in being liberated from the body–an intermediate state between waking and sleeping, in which he saw–heard–and felt spirits. This kind he has experienced three or four times. The second consists in being carried away by spirits, whilst he continues to walk the streets (suppose) without losing his way; meantime in spirit he is in quite other regions, and sees distinctly houses, men, forests, etc. and all this for some hours long, until he suddenly finds himself again in his true place. This has happened to him two or three times. The third or ordinary kind of visions is that which he has daily when wide awake; and from this class his narrations are chiefly taken. All men, according to Swedenborg, stand in an intimate connection with the spiritual world; only they are not aware of it; and the difference between himself and others consists simply in this–that his innermost nature is laid open, of which gift he always speaks with the most devout spirit of gratitude (Datum mihi est ex divina Domini misericordia). From the context it is apparent that this gift consists in the consciousness of those obscure representations which the soul receives through its continual connection with the spiritual world. Accordingly he distinguishes in men between the external and the internal memory. The former he enjoys as a person who belongs to the visible world, but the latter in virtue of his intercourse with the spiritual world. Upon this distinction is grounded also the distinction between the outer and inner man; and Swedenborg’s prerogative consists in this–that he stands already in this life in the society of spirits, and is recognised by them as possessing such a prerogative. In the inner memory is retained whatsoever has vanished from the outer; and of all which is presented to the consciousness of man nothing is ever lost. After death the remembrance of all which ever entered his soul, and even all that had perished to himself, constitutes the entire book of his life. The presence of spirits, it is true, strikes only upon his inner sense. Nevertheless this is able to excite an apparition of these spirits external to himself, and even to invest them with a human figure. The language of spirits is an immediate and unsymbolic communication of ideas; notwithstanding which it is always clothed in the semblance of that language which Swedenborg himself speaks, and is represented as external to him. One spirit reads in the memory of another spirit all the representations, whether images or ideas, which it contains. Thus the spirits see in Swedenborg all the representations which he has of this world; and with so clear an intuition that they often deceive themselves and fancy that they see the objects themselves immediately–which however is impossible, since no pure spirit has the slightest perception of the material universe: nay they cannot gain any idea of it through intercourse with the souls of other living men, because their inner nature is not opened–i. e. their inner sense contains none but obscure representations. Hence it arises that Mr. Swedenborg is the true oracle of spirits, which are not at all less curious to read in him the present condition of the world, than he is to view in their memory, as in a mirror, the marvels of the spiritual world. Although these spirits stand in like manner closely connected with all other souls of living men, by a reciprocal commerce of action and passion, yet they are as little aware of this as men are aware of it. Spirits therefore ascribe to themselves as the product of their own minds what in fact results from the action of human souls upon them; just as men during their lives imagine that all their thoughts, and the motions of the will which take place within them, arise from themselves, although in fact they oftentimes take their origin in the spiritual world. Meantime every human soul, even in this life, has its place and station in this spiritual world, and belongs to a certain society which is always adapted to its inner condition of truth and goodness,–that is, to the condition of the understanding and the will. But the places of souls in relation to each other have nothing in common with the material world; and therefore the soul of a man in India is often in respect to spiritual situation next neighbour to the soul of another man in Europe; as on the contrary very often those, who dwell corporeally under the same roof, are with respect to their spiritual relations far enough asunder. If a man dies, his soul does not on that account change its place; but simply feels itself in that place which in regard to other spirits it already held in this life. For the rest, although the relation of spirits to each other is no true relation of space, yet has it to them the appearance of space; and their affinities or attractions for each other assume the semblance of proximities, as their repulsions do of distances; just as spirits themselves are not actually extended, but yet present the appearance to each other of a human figure. In this imaginary space there is an undisturbed intercourse of spiritual natures. Mr. Swedenborg converses with departed souls whenever he chooses, and reads in their memory (he means to say in their representative faculty) that very condition in which they contemplate themselves; and this he sees as clearly as with his bodily eyes. Moreover the enormous distance of the rational inhabitants of the world is to be accounted as nothing in relation to the spiritual universe; and to talk with an inhabitant of Saturn is just as easy to him as to speak with a departed human soul. All depends upon the relation of their inner condition in reference to their agreement in truth and goodness: but those spirits, which have weak affinities for each other, can readily come into intercourse through the inter-agency of others. On this account it is not necessary that a man should actually have dwelt on all the other heavenly bodies in order to know them together with all their wonders.

One presiding doctrine in Swedenborg’s ravings is this: corporeal beings have no subsistence of their own, but exist merely by and through the spiritual world; although each body not by means of one spirit alone, but of all taken together. Hence the knowledge of material things has two meanings; an external meaning referring to the inter-dependencies of the matter upon itself, and an internal meaning in so far as they denote the powers of the spiritual world which are their causes. Thus the body of man has a system of parts related to each other agreeably to material laws: but, in so far as it is supported by the spirit which lives, its limbs and their functions have a symbolic value as expressions of those faculties in the soul from which they derive their form, mode of activity, and power of enduring. The same law holds with regard to all other things in the visible universe: they have (as has been said) one meaning as things–which is trivial, and another as signs–which is far weightier. Hence by the way arises the source of those new interpretations of Scripture which Swedenborg has introduced. For the inner sense,–that is, the symbolic relation of all things there recorded to the spiritual world,–is, as he conceits, the kernel of its value; all the rest being only its shell. All spirits represent themselves to one another under the appearance of extended forms; and the influences of all these spiritual beings amongst one another raise to them at the same time appearances of other extended beings, and as it were of a material world. Swedenborg therefore speaks of gardens–spacious regions–mansions–galleries–and arcades of spirits–as of things seen by himself in the clearest light; and he assures us–that, having many times conversed with all his friends after their death, he had almost always found in those who had but lately died–that they could scarcely convince themselves that they had died, because they saw round about them a world similar to the one they had quitted. He found also that spiritual societies, which had the same inner condition, had the same apparition of space and of all things in space; and that the change of their internal state was always accompanied by the appearance of a change of place.

I have already noticed that, according to our author, the various powers and properties of the soul stand in sympathy with the organs of the body entrusted to its government. The outer man therefore corresponds to the whole inner man; and hence, whenever any remarkable spiritual influence from the invisible world reaches one of these faculties of the soul, he is sensible also harmonically of the apparent presence of it in the corresponding members of his outer man. To this head now he refers a vast variety of sensations in his body which are uniformly connected with spiritual intuition; but the absurdity of them is so enormous that I shall not attempt to adduce even a single instance.—-By all this a preparation is made for the strangest and most fantastic of his notions in which all his ravings are blended. As different powers and faculties constitute that unity which is the soul or inner man, so also different spirits (whose leading characteristics bear the same relation to each other as the various faculties of a spirit) constitute one society which exhibits the appearance of one great man; and in this shadowy image every spirit is seen in that place and in those visible members which are agreeable to its proper function in such a spiritual body. And all spiritual societies taken together, and the entire universe of all these invisible beings, appears again in the form of a hugest and ultra-enormous man mountain: a monstrous and gigantic fancy, which perhaps has grown out of the school mode of representing a whole quarter of the world under the image of a virgin sitting. In this immeasurable man is an entire and inner commerce of each spirit with all, and of all with each; and, let the position of men in reference to each other be what it may, they take quite another position in this enormous man–a position which they never change, and which is only in appearance a local position in an immeasurable space, but in fact a determinate kind of relation and influence.

But I am weary of transcribing the delirious ravings of a poor visionary, the craziest that has ever existed, or of pursuing them to his descriptions of the state after death. I am checked also by other considerations. For, although in forming a medical museum it is right to collect specimens not only of natural but also of unnatural productions and abortions, yet it is necessary to be cautious before whom you show them: and amongst my readers there may happen to be some in a crazy condition of nerves; and it would give me pain to think that I had been the occasion of any mischief to them. Having warned them however from the beginning, I am not responsible for anything that may happen; and must desire that no person will lay at my door the moon-calves which may chance to arise from any teeming fancy impregnated by Mr. Swedenborg’s revelations.

In conclusion I have to say that I have not interpolated my author’s dreams with any surreptitious ones of my own; but have laid a faithful abstract before the economic reader, who might not be well pleased to pay seven pounds sterling for a body of raving. I have indeed omitted many circumstantial pictures of his intuitions, because they could only have served to disturb the reader’s slumber; and the confused sense of his revelations I have now and then clothed in a more current diction. But all the important features of the sketch I have preserved in their native integrity.–And thus I return with some little shame from my foolish labours, from which I shall draw this moral: That it is often a very easy thing to act prudentially; but alas! too often only after we have toiled to our prudence through a forest of delusions.

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