Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Swedenborg as Theosophist

By G. Baseden Butt – England

The truths of Theosophy continually receive confirmation from unexpected quarters. An instance of this is provided by the Swedish seer and mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg died in 1772 at the age of eighty-four, most of his religious works being produced in the last twenty or thirty years of his life. All his theology is Christo-centric and he betrays no indication of having given the idea of reincarnation even cursory attention.

Emmanuel Swedenborg

But in spite of these limitations Swedenborg anticipates several doctrines to be found in Theosophy and also, of course, in modern spiritualism. He makes what must then have been the revolutionary announcement that man after death pursues for a time a life similar to that which he has followed in the world—thought, character, personality, and tastes remaining unchanged. Swedenborg refers to the astral plane as the “world of spirits” and the lower and higher mental planes are doubtless his “celestial” and “spiritual” heavens, in the former of which dwell angels, grounded primarily in goodness, and in the latter angels grounded primarily in the love of truth.

Although Swedenborg believed in an eternal hell, he never made admission into heaven dependent upon adherence to a particular sect or a special set of opinions, but only upon possessing affection for goodness and truth. Pagans, idolaters, worshippers of graven images, even Roman Catholics, whose system of religion he cordially disliked, are freely admitted into the heavens of Swedenborg. Even some of those in the hells are not without hope, for he distinguishes between irrevocable damnation and the state of “vastation” or semi-conscious sleep, during which evil dispositions and corrupt opinions are removed. He writes (Arcana Coelestia, para. 6493): “When I was there [in hell], I heard miserable lamentations, and amongst the rest, this cry, ‘Oh God, Oh God, be merciful to us, be merciful to us’; and this for a long time. It was granted me to converse with these wretched ones for some time. They complained chiefly of evil spirits burning with a continual desire only to torment them; and they were in a state of despair, saying that they believed their torments would be eternal; but it was permitted me to comfort them.”

Although Swedenborg says nothing about reincarnation, he observes that on the planet Venus there dwells a race of savage and brutal giants, who are delighted with rapine, and especially with eating their booty. Although Swedenborg does not say so, the entire race must, according to the seer’s theology, be destined for eternal damnation. He admits by implication the doctrine of karma in declaring that nothing happens by chance, every detail of existence, even the most trivial event and apparent accident, being determined by law.

He appears frequently to have seen the aura, which he describes in Heaven and Hell and Divine Love and Wisdom as a colored sphere or zone, in some “flashing with hellish fire,” in others opalescent and rainbow-hued. He writes (Arcana Coelestia, vol. 2, para. 6493): “They live in an aura of light, of what I may call a brilliant pearly and sometimes diamond-like luster; for in the other life there are wonderful auras in numberless variety.” Moreover, he was familiar with thought forms (idem): “A discourse of angels sometimes appears in the world of spirits, and thus before the interior sight, as a vibration of light or resplendent flame, and this with a variation according to the state of their affections and discourse.” 

He apparently caught occasional glimpses of the akashic records, for he acquired fragments of occult history that accord with the revelations in Madame Blavatskys Secret Doctrine and Man: Whence, How and Whither by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater. He reiterates continually the statement that the men of the ‘Ancient’ or Antediluvian Church had an interior “respiration,” whereby they were united to the angels, and could see and converse with spirits, which, of course, was actually the case with the Lemurians. From The Earths in the Universe: “Angels could then converse with men, and convey their minds, almost separate from things corporeal, into heaven, yes, could conduct them through the heavenly societies, and show them the magnificent and blessed things abounding therein, and likewise communicate to them their happinesses and delights. These times were known also to ancient writers, and were by them called the golden and also Saturnian ages. . . . When the state of the world was changed [to wickedness] heaven removed itself from men, and this more and more even to the present time, when the very existence of heaven and hell are unknown, and by some denied.”

According to Swedenborg, and other psychics such as the Seeress of Prevorst [Frederika Hauffe (1801-1829)], there existed a primeval language which is the true and natural speech of man and was the means by which intercourse with the “world of spirits” was effected. This language, according to Swedenborg, was one which flowed from mind to mind rather than from mouth to mouth. It was “tacit rather than sonorous,” and it is still the language of angels. It flows from one to another “into their perception” with exquisite subtlety and intense vividness. By this means, the spirits which are always present with man influence his thought and action; by it also inspiration is effected and, in cases of mediumship, obsession. Swedenborg was uncompromisingly opposed to all practice of the ordinary forms of mediumship, even while testifying to their reality (Arcana Coelestia, para. 5862): “The Lord has opened my interiors to see the things of the other life; hence spirits have known that I was a man in the body, and to them has been granted the power of seeing, through my eyes, the things in the world, and of hearing persons in company with me speaking.”

The works of Swedenborg that are most truly in harmony with Theosophy are probably Angelic Wisdom Concerning the Divine Love and Wisdom and Earths in the Universe. In these his thought is less affected by preconceived dogmas and fantasies based thereon. He combines an account of his observations “in the spirit” with profound speculations as to their meaning. And in Earths in the Universe, although quite unconscious of having done so, he surrenders by implication his claim, frequently made elsewhere, to infallibility and finality, for he admits the Theosophical doctrine that, granted sincerity and earnestness, it is possible to worship God under a form: “They [the inhabitants of Jupiter] believe also that after their decease they shall perceive a fire, which will communicate warmth to their faces. This belief takes its rise from hence, that the wiser among them know that fire in a spiritual sense signifies life, and that love is the fire of life, and that the angels have life from this fire. Such of them also as have lived in celestial love, have their wishes herein gratified, and perceive a warmth in the face, and at the same time the interiors of the mind are kindled with love.”

Moreover, the inhabitants of the first starry heaven “said that they worshipped some angel, which appeared to them as a divine man, being bright and shining with light; and that he instructed them, and gave them to perceive what they ought to do. . . . The angel whom they worshipped was an angelic society, to which it was granted by the Lord to preside over them.” Apparently Swedenborg never considered that his own position might be similar to that of the inhabitants of the “first starry heaven” he described, and that he worshipped God under a form. It is this limitation which marks him off from true Theosophy, and led to his originating another sect. Yet notwithstanding his many errors and assumptions, his seership was indubitable, and many precious revelations were given to the world through his writings. It is essential, however, to distinguish between his genuine and original observations on the spiritual planes and the theological notions which he wove around them.

[From The Theosophist, October 1925]


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