18th Century Kantian X-Files

Or perhaps dueling Emanuels is a better title.  Kant was christened Emanuel but changed his name to Immanuel after learning Hebrew as the story’s told. The other Emanuel in question is of course that Swedish enigma Emanuel Swedenborg.  Swedenborg started out life as a scientist’s scientist, the very model of an Age of Enlightenment super genius. He was a prodigious inventor, and his intellect had no bounds, Swedenborg dabbled with many subjects during his lifetime, even stabs in the dark at cosmology and neurology. He suggested the cerebral cortex was the home of the soul, recognizing the importance the cortex held in human physiology.  On those trivia estimates of historical IQ charts, Swedenborg is often ranked in the top ten with an above 200 IQ and is credited with designs for a flying machine, submarine, and machine gun, not to mention numerous pump designs and mining advances.   It is safe to say in 18th century Europe, Swedenborg or at least his work, was well know in scientific circles.

Now normally, aging super genius scientists when facing a mid life crisis form secret societies and write Rosicrucian bed time stories like More’s Utopia, or Bacon’s New Atlantis. Which reminds me, Simon’s The Myth of Sisyphus: Renaissance Theories of Human Perfectibility is worth a read on the history of such things.  I suppose the chess clubs of the day, a way to find solace in a world where you had invented flushable toilets and pubic sewers, yet the powers that be, as well as the people, preferred chamber pots and well, streets full of excrement.  Cue Monty Python. If only you could be in charge, Plato’s dream of a philosopher king come true at long last.  You armed with the scientific method could resist the temptation of that ring of Gyges.  At least until you read that new paper from across the channel taking the foundations of your life’s work and using it for a completely new discovery you never anticipated and weren’t consulted or even acknowledged for.  But I digress, we were talking of Swedenborg.

Swedenborg’s midlife crisis took him in a different direction, haunted by dreams, he wrestled with angels like Jacob until he emerged from the experience a transformed man. And this new man then proceeded to leave his life of scientific investigation and invention behind him and embrace a new phase of spirituality that completely consumed him.  He wrote pretty much nonstop on heaven and hell, alien spirits on other planets, and may have inadvertently given rise to spiritual vegetarianism. My favorite Swedenborg musing is on the Last Judgment.  Historically, the world went through a soul coughing fit in 1666, just look what it did to Newton.  But 1777 represented another opportunity for rapturous numerological interpretive orgies, and 111 years between the hell of 666 and the promise of heaven with 777, not to mention the trinity of 111…really, who could resists the spirits at work in the material world given that.

But even here Swedenborg surprises. He didn’t embrace the apocalyptic destruction of the physical world, the grand finale of universal judgment and smiting! Swedenborg instead placed judgment firmly in the spiritual realm, and on an individual basis.  The apocalypse was a personal experience, a personal judgment.  You weren’t facing God with the rest of the world in tow in some sheep and goat livestock show…you were on the way to a one on one with a principal God to find out if it was expulsion from the school of life or a little gold merit star for attentive behavior.  I jest here, but this personal focus in lieu of universal judgment of mankind was groundbreaking.  Wasn’t new by any means, those pesky gnostics were playing with such ideas in their sandbox of ideas, but the way in which Swedenborg brought it into the forefront of 18th century thought, had a profound influence on the world at large, and by extension, greatly troubled Kant.

Kant was highly critical of Swedenborg’s conversion to a mystic.  I think on the surface, Kant felt Swedenborg sold out, that great fear of death and superstition wining out over his intellectual judgment.  Or perhaps Kant wondered if Swedenborg’s mining ventures exposed him to too many chemicals, ala mercury poisoning, and this was just another case of a mad hatter and a pen. Except there was still genius among the apparent madness, and unexplained phenomenon.  As the story is told, Swedenborg’s gift of prophecy, is what bothered Kant the most.  The infamous case involved a cryptic response by Swedenborg to a visiting guest over dinner. If I remember the story correctly, Swedenborg remarked something about an apology for the gentleman’s house burning down.  Now the gentleman lived quite a distance away and did not know how to take Swedenborg’s statement.  That night however a messenger arrived informing that the gentleman’s house had caught fire, about the time he was having dinner with Swedenborg, and had burned to the ground, Swedenborg’s cryptic message now a puzzle on top of a tragic circumstance.

This was Agent Kant’s X-File.  This prophetic Swedenborg, who had gone from rational scientist and inventor to irrational joke among the scientific community.  Kant needed an answer I think because his own rabbit hole of transcendental idealism was threatening to swallow him up.  Swedenborg’s case was personal for Kant.  How did a man who was working on being the da Vinci of his age go to talking to aliens on the Moon and Mars and taking nightly trips to heaven and hell with angels and demons? A man judged by those statements, most certainly mad, and yet those who were still in contact with Swedenborg did not describe him as changed.  He was still the same Swedenborg, polite and astute. A madman in papers but not person and an equation that did not add up.  I have often wondered if Kant realized suddenly the power imagination can wield over rational minds, and if he feared the same fate one day.

Kant of course published a famous book about Swedenborg in 1766. Dreams of a Spirit Seer is a unique work from Kant.  A purported skeptical attack on the mystic Swedenborg, it nonetheless has a divided mind to it, revealing at times Kant’s fascination and respect for the man if not his ideas. Recently I’ve read musings suggesting Kant recognized Swedenborg’s foresight as anticipation of the reach of reason alone.  That science could not replace religion because of the nature of death on the psyche, that the Utopian dreams of the 16th and 17th centuries were in fact just the fairy tales of frustrated enlightened minds.  And perhaps the only way forward was through new interpretations of religion, new unitary takes that brought science into the fold and not as the opposed enemy of faith.  I’m not sure about all of that, truly I think Kant was just having his own mid life crisis at the time.

I’ve read much of Swedenborg’s publicly available works.  I honestly don’t know what the man was up to but I do think the numerology of 1666 and 1777 was at work subconsciously in the man.  His spiritual awakening in 1747 is a neat trick of numbers in itself if you take it from 1777… you get 30 years.  and 1747-1666 gets you 81 and that 81 plus 30 nets you that special 111 trinity.  Perhaps that is the decoder ring needed to crack Swedenborg’s code.  But perhaps is was just a case of slight mercury poisoning or other fumes.

As to the great prophecy mystery.  Donning my Sherlock cap, I’m positive Swedenborg was a whiz with delayed chemical ignition techniques.  One wonders if there were any mysterious packages or urgent letters delivered the night in question to the gentleman’s house.  Not so much an apology of prophecy as much as an apology of motive perhaps.  Is there a record of mysterious fires in Sweden from the time? One wonders as he wanders down the road to find out.

Theme Music: Suzanne Vega Jacob and the Angel

(2/4/17) Reader Response Edit

A kind reader informed me my Swedenborg numerology musings were a bit mundane, commutative property a given in that 111 equation, and I realized I did not make myself clear. Swedenborg was born in 1688, 22 (double 11) years after 1666.  In 1747, he was 59, and if he had lived to 1777, he would have been 89.  If you play around with the prime numbers at work plus the 30 and 81 (both important numbers in Biblical and Gnostic tradition, a triple 10 dedication to a task, and you can spend all day find meaning in 81) and  in breakdown with 1747 it gives you some idea of the number properties probably subconsciously manifesting in Swedenborg’s mind. Crowley’s Liber Aleph is an interesting take on 111 in reference to 666 and 777 for an example.  My overall point wasn’t the significance of the numbers or numerology, just that it was a method of projection Swedenborg lost himself in, as very smart individuals are wont to do from time to time. He applied significance to patterns observed.


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