Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Emanuel Swedenborg's

The Ruling Love and
The Principle of Correspondences

The ruling love

Swedenborg's concept of the ruling love is his answer to the question, Who are you? His answer is: You are what you love. The answer is not You are what you think you are, nor is it You are what you eat, nor You are what you wear. It is, You are what you love. But this will need a bit of explaining.

A personal story

I almost want to apologize for having to tell you another personal story, but in some of these matters the only thing a person has to go on is their own personal experience. That is particularly true when it comes to understanding Swedenborg's concept of the ruling love. So I have to tell you yet another story about a fishing trip.

One summer when I had come back to Eugene from being away at college all winter a buddy and I took a float trip in a drift boat down the McKenzie river, one of the premier fly fishing streams in Oregon. He and I had made this trip many times together, but this day was particularly beautiful. I clearly remember standing in the bow of the boat that afternoon, casting a fly out onto a nice riffle and hoping for a strike, thinking about how very much I enjoyed fly fishing. Almost simultaneously I was also thinking about how much I enjoyed reading and studying Philosophy. Then it occurred to me to wonder whether there was any connection between my love of fly fishing and my love of Philosophy.

As soon as I asked the question the answer immediately came to me: Of course there was a connection. I love both Philosophy and fly fishing because they are both essentially the same exact thing.

For those of you not familiar with it, fly fishing is both a useful skill and a creative art form (much like Philosophy is). I particularly like wet-fly fishing which entails laying a small fly - ideally one that you've tied yourself - out on the water and then letting it float just an inch or two beneath the surface. While it's floating there just under the surface you watch it very closely in hopes that you'll see the trout come flashing up from the deep and take it. That will all happen in less than a second and you had better snap back on the line just as the fish takes the fly or you will miss it. It all happens very quickly. So essentially what happens with wet-fly fishing is that you cast something of your own creation, something that is almost part of you, out there on the water. It does not stay up on the surface but goes beneath the surface in hopes of finding there something beautiful, alive and nourishing. (I think trout are some of the most beautiful fish in the world.) And if you are fortunate in your fishing, you can take home your catch and share its beauty and nourishment with others.

Well, Philosophy means something very similar to me. Not satisfied with staying only on the surfaces of things, Philosophy watches very carefully beneath the surface of things, in hopes of finding there something beautiful, true, alive and nourishing. And if you find something valuable there, perhaps you will be able to take it and share it with others.

Those thoughts came to me that day on the river. Later in the day I wondered if there might also be a connection between those two loves (fly fishing and Philosophy) and other loves I also have. Drums, for example. I like drums, am moved by them, and love to play them. Percussion instruments seem to appeal to me more than almost any other instrument. Well, of course, I thought: drums are usually the foundation of a piece of music, and may have even been the primitive origin of human music-making. Even now, musical pieces often begin by first laying down a foundation of rhythm and then slowly putting various melodies, instruments and/or voice on top of that rhythm.

All of these loves (and others I've discovered since then - e.g., love of gilnetting, a preference for deep relationships rather than superficial relationships, a love of stone, love of the tactile over the visual, etc) seem to have some similar themes in them. They all seem to have something to do with going beneath the surface of things, something to do with being drawn toward the deep foundations of things, of looking for what's beautiful, alive and profoundly nourishing in the depths, etc.

Now what would Swedenborg say about all these loves? He would say that a person's loves are not just an accidental, happenstance and random assortment of loves, but that all those particular things a person loves are actually variations on a central theme (as I tried to hint at in the paragraph above). The central theme, says Swedenborg, is your Ruling Love, your central love, the very center of who you are.

You might picture your ruling love, your central love, as a kind of hub at the center of your existence, and all the particular loves you have are the spokes that radiate outward from, and have their foundation in, that central hub. Swedenborg calls this "hub" love your ruling love. The reason he called it that is because "ruling" was a meaningful metaphor for him and his fellow countrymen. He lived in a country governed by a monarchy (as were most European nations at the time), and he thought of the king or queen as sitting in the center of the kingdom and exerting their will (their wishes, loves) throughout the rest of the country. However, they do not exert their will directly, by themselves, on the people and institutions in their country but do it instead through their officers, agents and lieutenants. These lieutenants are the agents that actually express and carry out the ruler's will. In a similar manner, says Swedenborg, your central love, the core of who you are, resides at the center of your being and expresses itself, expresses its will, in all your particular loves. So Swedenborg called it your ruling love.

Monarchical rulers are not a very meaningful part of our experience any more, of course, so the metaphor of a "ruling love" does not really resonate with us. Central love, or hub love might be a more meaningful metaphor for us. But in any case, the ruling love (or whatever else we wish to call it) is the foundation of who we are, it is who we are, and for this reason it would be worthwhile to understand what it is.

A valuable journal exercise

There is a highly fruitful journal exercise a person can do to help approach the question Who am I? This, of course, is a question that the Greeks, at least, thought was absolutely central to being human. Over the divine oracle at Delphi was inscribed "Gno se auton" (Know thyself), and Socrates said that "The unexamined life is not worth living." If you want to begin addressing this question about who you are, one of the best first steps you could take would be to start keeping a list of all the things you can think of that you love. And by "love," in this context, is meant the things that you are in some way drawn toward, the things that appeal to you, things that you really like or like doing. That list for me, for example, would include things I've already mentioned above as well as things like reading good books, trying to get to the root of things, anything about the ocean, our family, states like Oregon, Alaska and Montana, all kinds of stones, oreo cookies, mountains etc etc. So you start this list with everything you can think of that you love and then, for the next week or two, you add to it every time you think of another thing you love. After you have a list of maybe 50 or 100 loves, then you start looking for some common themes among them to see if you can get some hint of what your central "hub" love might be.

Swedenborg believes that you probably will not be able to really express in words what your central love is because it is too ultimately fundamental and multi-dimensional. But the way that your central love does get expressed is in each of your particular loves. Each of your particular loves is an articulation, an attempt to express, what your central love is and, thus, an attempt to express who you really are. Your loves are rich expressions of who you are, but only you will probably be able to accurately see the inner connections among your particular loves, and what it is about each of them that is so appealing.

The conclusion of such a journal exercise, Swedenborg believes, would be some important insights into who you fundamentally are.

The principle of correspondence

So what does Swedenborg say is the nature of the relationship between your individual particular loves and your central ruling love? Are your individual loves symbols of your central ruling love? Are they expressions of your ruling love? The word that Swedenborg uses to describe the relationship between the individual loves and the ruling love is "correspondences." The individual loves correspond to the ruling love. They are more than symbols of it, they are manifestations of it.

Arthur Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation, saw all the individual items in the world (including individual people) as so many various manifestations, or objectifications, of Der Wille. He saw them all as various forms of "the will made object." In a somewhat similar way, Swedenborg sees all your particular loves as manifestations of your central love, i.e., as your central love "made object." Your particular loves are not the exact same thing as your central love, but they do correspond to it. The relationship between your individual loves and your central love is one of correspondence. They co-respond to each other.

This principle of correspondences is, according to Swedenborg, more than just a description of the relationship between a person's individual loves and their ruling love. Much more than that, it is also the principle that describes the relationship between all the different layers of being in the entire universe. The heavens, the hells, the entire physical world, spirits, human beings, etc, and God at the center of it all ("God is love"), all these layers are somehow related to each other by the principle of correspondence. If God is, in a sense, the ruling love at the center of all being, then everything that exists, i.e., all being, is in some sense a manifestation, a correspondence, of that fundamental central divine love. Or, as one neo-Platonic philosopher expresses it,

Things here are signs;
they show therefore to the wise teachers
how the Supreme God is known.
- Plotinos, The Enneads VI, IX, ii

The principle of correspondence, then, is one of Swedenborg's absolutely central principles for understanding what the universe actually is. This minimal outline here of what the principle means can be filled out more completely in your reading of Heaven and Hell, by looking at some of Swedenborg's other works, and perhaps even by rummaging around a bit at the website of the Swedenborg Foundation.