Emanuel Swedenborg was in his fifties when he entered his visionary period. He spent his youth learning from some of the top scientists of Europe, and in his early adulthood he worked for Sweden’s Board of Mines, helping to make improvements to Sweden’s mining technology while pursuing his own studies in mathematics, astronomy, and other areas.
His quest to understand the nature of matter and the laws of physics led him to explore the connection between the soul and the body, which in turn led him to a detailed examination of the science of anatomy. Along the way he made some remarkable discoveries, though his curiosity wouldn’t be satisfied until he turned his attention to the world of spirit.
Swedenborg entered the University of Uppsala at age eleven, already fluent enough in Latin to take classes there, where students were taught in Latin and expected to know Greek as well. There young Emanuel studied a broad range of subjects, graduating ten years later after presenting a dissertation on the maxims of Publilius Syrus Mimus (fl. 1st century BC), a former Roman slave whose philosophy emphasized free will, good works, and the importance of reason above all else.
After graduation, he took an extended trip abroad to further his academic studies, as was the custom for young Swedish men of his class.
His first stop was London, England, where, as he wrote to his brother-in-law back in Sweden, he indulged his “immoderate desire” to learn about mathematics and science. He spoke in his letters of reading the works of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) every day. Newton was living in London at the time, though it’s not known whether Swedenborg ever succeeded in his quest to meet the scientist.
He did, however, meet the astronomers Edmund Halley (1656–1742) and John Flamsteed (1646–1719), the physician and botanist Hans Sloane (1660–1773), and the geologist John Woodward (1665–1728). He also made a point of renting rooms from craftsmen—a clock-maker and a cabinet-maker, for example—focusing on learning applied sciences and sharing the knowledge he gained with the professors back at the University of Uppsala.
After two and a half years in England, Swedenborg went to France by way of a five-month stay in Holland, where he learned the art of lens grinding. In Paris he likewise met and learned as much as he could from scientists of all types, including studies in astronomy and geometry. After a year in France, he returned to Sweden.
Swedenborg returned to his native country full of ideas. He wrote a letter to his brother-in-law describing plans for fourteen inventions, including:
• A flying machine (“a machine, with whose aid a man could rise into the air and travel aloft”)
• A submarine (“a kind of boat in which one could travel underwater wherever one wanted”)
• A machine gun (“a gun machine that will shoot ten or eleven thousand shots an hour”)
• A system of sluices that could be used to transport boats across land
• Several types of water pumps (which he would later put into use when he worked for Sweden’s Board of Mines)
• A universal musical instrument (“by the aid of which the most unskilled in music can play all kinds of harmonies that are found in the score”)
In 1716, Swedenborg established Sweden’s first scientific journal, Daedalus Hyperboreus. The purpose of the journal was to highlight the inventions of Christopher Polhem (1661–1751), who would later become known as the “father of Swedish mechanics.” Though the majority of the articles in the journal focused on Polhem’s work, Swedenborg included a number of his own ideas, including plans for some of the inventions he had described to his brother-in-law.
During the time that Swedenborg edited and published Daedalus Hyperboreus, he also wrote the first work on algebra published in Swedish. In addition, he published several articles on finding longitude at sea by observing the moon and the stars, a special project of his since his time in England.
Mining and the Physical Sciences
In 1716, Swedenborg was appointed as an extraordinary assessor to the Board of Mines, a position that initially involved acting as Polhem’s assistant. Through a series of improvements to mining operations and support of the king’s war efforts, Swedenborg established himself as an accomplished member of the board. Throughout his career on the Board of Mines, he took many trips overseas to expand his knowledge of the physical sciences, especially as they related to the mechanics of mining. His travels resulted in a number of books and articles on those topics.
The most important of these works was his three-volume Opera Philosophica et Mineralia (Philosophical and Metallurgical Works, 1734). Volumes two and three concern iron, copper, and brass and are mainly devoted to the technical aspects of mining and smelting. The first volume, however, lays out Swedenborg’s theory of the cosmos.
Published under the Latin title Principia Rerum Naturalium sive Novorum Tentaminum Phaenomena Mundi Elementaris Philosophice Explicandi (Basic Principles of Nature or of New Attempts to Explain Philosophically the Phenomena of the Natural World), the first volume is commonly called the Principia for short, or, in English, Basic Principles of Nature or First Principles. In this work Swedenborg proposed that all of nature originates from a series of first points, points that are “the medium between what is infinite and what is finite.” The points are actually a power or force, and they move in a spiral motion to form bubbles or globules, which then become the basis of all matter.
In the same year, Swedenborg published the work known as The Infinite, in which he explored the nature of the power behind all creation. Though not a strictly scientific work, even by the standards of the time, The Infinite reflects Swedenborg’s efforts to understand how God relates to his creation and how the body relates to the soul. These questions led him into the next phase of his study: human anatomy.
The Search for the Soul
Swedenborg traveled to Amsterdam in 1736 and began work on Oeconomia Regni Animalis, a two-volume work published in 1740 and 1741. The traditional English version of this title, Economy of the Animal Kingdom, results from a too-literal translation of the Latin word animalis, which in this case means “of the soul.” A more accurate translation might be Dynamics of the Soul’s Domain.
In Swedenborg’s time, the microscope was still a new invention, and it led to a new understanding of human physiology. Swedenborg drew on this research in Oeconomia. He described the blood as containing a fine substance called “spirituous fluid,” which he theorized contained the power of the soul. He also extended his theories on the formation of matter to human beings, arguing that every aspect of our development and our being is determined by the soul—that is, by power flowing into us from the Infinite. Swedenborg also argued that the seat of the soul was in the brain, and specifically in the cerebral cortex.
In 1744 and 1745, Swedenborg followed Oeconomia with another anatomical work, Regnum Animale (usually translated The Animal Kingdom, though once again a better translation would be The Soul’s Domain). In the course of researching and writing these two books, he wrote draft manuscripts that demonstrated an amazingly accurate understanding of the function of the brain. He correctly identified the cerebral cortex’s central role in sensory, motor, and cognitive functions at a time when most scientists denied that it played an important role in brain function at all. He also correctly identified the hierarchical structure of the nervous system, the localization of cerebrospinal fluid, and the functions of the pituitary gland, anticipating modern breakthroughs by more than a century. Swedenborg’s understanding of neuroscience went unrecognized until these manuscripts were discovered, translated, and published for the first time in the late 1800s.
As Swedenborg was preparing to publish Regnum Animale, a series of spiritual experiences would change the course of his life forever, launching him from the world of physical sciences into the world of spirit. He would later describe himself as a “spiritual fisherman”—one “who investigates and teaches natural truths, and afterwards spiritual truths rationally” (Soul-Body Interaction, #20).