Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


An Introduction to
Emanuel Swedenborg

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 were like.

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.

Some questions

In reading Swedenborg, a few questions may come to your mind. For example:

  1. 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.)

  2. 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 true.

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 essences."

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

  1. The Ruling Love, and

  2. 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.