An Introduction to
The experience of reading Emanuel Swedenborg's
Heaven and its Wonders, and Hell can be an experience that sometimes
strains credulity and sometimes raises questions about sanity and madness.
But it also raises questions about the ultimate nature of all reality.
Swedenborg the person
As you would learn from reading about his
life, Swedenborg was a true Renaissance man, a person of wide talents,
deep integrity, and profound genius. He was probably one of the last people
on earth who knew everything that was available to be known at the time.
He mastered virtually all of the sciences of his time and even wrote several
books that extended the available knowledge in some of those sciences.
But then at one point in his middle 50s he
had an experience that changed his life, that called him to turn his attention
inward instead of outward. It was an experience perhaps not unlike what
we today call near death experiences (NDEs). Today there has been an enormous
amount of solid research on NDEs and there is even an International Association
for Near Death Studies (IANDS) which sponsors research on phenomena associated
with these experiences.
But Swedenborg lived long before there was
any familiarity with NDEs, and he was one of the pioneers who explored
them fully. In the books which he wrote later in his life (such as Heaven
and Hell) he reports to us what his experiences in these other worlds
Swedenborg's philosophy is, of course, a philosophy,
but it is not one simply spun out of his head while sitting in an armchair.
His writings are based entirely on an enormous amount of personal experience,
some of which you will be reading about in Heaven and Hell.
One of the most interesting and readable secondary
sources for help in understanding the work of Swedenborg is Wilson van
Dusen's The Presence of Other Worlds, which is available from the
Swedenborg Foundation. This book is such a good one that I used to
assign it as required reading in this Introduction to Philosophy course
before I began assigning Heaven and Hell.
In reading Swedenborg, a few questions may
come to your mind. For example:
- Is Swedenborg really telling us the truth?
I.e., is he reporting his experiences accurately just as he experienced
them, or is he just making it all up?
(My personal take on this is that he is being
entirely truthful with us.)
- Is Swedenborg crazy?
Now this is an interesting question. It partly
assumes that the difference between sane and crazy is a simple one, and
then secondly assumes that we can tell the difference between the two
fairly easily. I'm not sure that either of these assumptions is actually
In thinking about this question, too, it would
be useful to keep in mind Socrates' concept of divine madness in The
Phaedrus. You will recall that divine madness is, for Socrates and
Plato, one of the human faculties for knowing, and that it is specifically
the faculty for coming to know what Plato called "the world of the
My doctoral dissertation many years ago, long
before I had ever heard of Emanuel Swedenborg, was a study of the kinds
of unusual experiences reported by people who had experienced a change
in consciousness. Titled Altered States of Consciousness: A Study of
Their Psychological, Ontological and Religious Significance, it suggested
that there was much to learn from these experiences in several different
areas. (This, and every other
doctoral dissertation written in the US, is available through University
Microfilms, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Mine is also
available in the library at North Seattle Community College)
If you are interested in reading further about
research done on near death experiences, Raymond Moody's two short books,
Life After Life, and Reflections on Life After Life are
still two of the very best sources.
Two key principles
There are two concepts in Swedenborg's writings
that are absolutely essential to understanding his worldview, and it might
be worthwhile to say a few words about them before you jump into the reading.
These two concepts are
- The Ruling Love, and
- the Principle of Correspondence
You should look over the
mini-lecture on those two ideas before you get too far in your reading
of Heaven and Hell.