Swedenborg's visions and Kant's remarks



Kant, metaphysics, and the correct way of reasoning

The publication in anonymous form, in 1766, of a pamphlet with a vaguely enigmatic title, Träume eines Geistersheres, erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik (Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Illustrated by Dreams of Metaphysics), marks the historical moment in which the rational critical thought of the Enlightenment culture – represented by the author of the work, the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – begins to confront some problems of psychological and interpretative order posed by paranormal phenomena. By admission of Kant himself (page 112 of the American edition of 1900), his short work did not present those characters of exhaustive analysis and intrinsic coherence that someone would have expected from one of the most eminent thinkers of his time and founder of critical philosophy: «I have treated an unfruitful subject which the inquiries and importunity of idle and inquisitive friends has forced upon me... I have lost the confidence of the reader, whom, in his inquisitiveness and eagerness to know, I have led by a tiresome roundabout way to the same point of ignorance from which he started». However, precisely the writing of this work represented for Kant the occasion for a critical revision of dogmatic metaphysics, then in vogue in German culture («metaphysics, which fate wanted me to fall in love with, although I can boast of having been reciprocated only with rare signs of favor...»), from a discipline debating on topics such as spirit, God, soul, etc. (on the basis of uncertain foundations, since not subjected to direct experience), to a «science of the limits of human reason».

Even before examining Swedenborg's prolific and controversial literary production on the spirits' universe, Kant wondered what meaning the very concept of spirit could have in the light of the cognitive abilities of human reason. It is well known that the very question of the foundations of the correct use of reason for the purposes of knowledge was at the origin of the critical evolution of Kant's philosophical thought: a particularly complex problem, and probably insoluble, due to its circularity. In fact, how can be established the correct use of reason, if not on the basis of some postulates presented by reason itself? But such postulates can always be criticized and rejected, since, apart from the narrow field of mathematics and logic, it is not possible to identify an objectively valid reasoning system based on linguistic bases. Even if Kant only realized this later, these are issues closely related to human psyche. This does not mean that all forms of reasoning are the same, because it is evident, in the light of intelligent intuition, that those based on logic and correct argumentation are more effective, more coherent and more convincing than other statements, opinions and beliefs, which often are neither rational nor reasonable. But the central psychological problem is given by the fact that for the evaluation of the correct way of reasoning, it is also necessary a certain level of intelligence, below which a person can be induced to prefer forms of reasoning (or better: statements of thought) essentially incorrect, but for her/him more involving, more convincing and more seductive, for reasons of psychic origin. This is particularly evident in our days: media and information transmission systems make so that a mass culture can prevail, based on essentially irrational arguments (emotional, sentimental, instinctive), which completely ignore the need to stick to a correct and shared way of reasoning and arguing. 

The personality of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)   

But, to return to Kant, what induced the philosopher to deal in a non-superficial way with a person who openly declared to see spirits and to communicate with them? As Maria Venturini, the first Italian translator of Kant's booklet, rightly observed in her introduction to the 1920 edition, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer represents «the expression of the attitude of a sagacious and eminently critical spirit in front of problems and mysteries that modern consciousness is far from having solved... Kant's pamphlet can also help us to pay attention to the enigmatic figure of the Swedish visionary to whom it is dedicated». The sketch of Swedenborg's personality is then outlined by Venturini: «Emanuel Swedenborg, born in Stockholm on 29 January 1688, by Jasper Swedberg, court preacher, professor of theology at the University of Uppsala and since 1719 bishop of Skara, received a religious education but enlightened and liberal, then studied at the University of Upsala especially Letters and the Sciences and in 1709 obtained his Ph.D.». A more recent commentator, philosopher Guido Morpurgo-Tagliabue (1907-1997), wrote however that Emanuel's father had a mystically superstitious mentality, deriving from beliefs drawn from a naive folklore, which were lavished in his sermons and in a large number of passionate graphomane manuscripts: from the end of the world to the moans of matter on human sins, from the souls of the dead to the vigilant angels, Pastor Jasper's parish was a center of archaic superstitions, and he was used as an exorcist, since an angel had convinced him in his youth to read the writings of the pietists, and now assisted him.     

«After a first long trip to England and France (1710-1715) – Venturini goes on – he devoted his activities to physical and mathematical studies: the publication, undertaken in 1716, of a scientific magazine that received the most favorable reception, opened him the way for offices and honors. Nominated in the same year councilor of the Royal College of Mines, he received letters of nobility for his studies and his services (so he could change his name from Swedberg to Swedenborg), which gave him the right to sit in the National Diet, in whose work Swedenborg took a very active part. During a new journey undertaken in 1721 to visit German mines, he began publishing his numerous scientific works full of observations and ingenious reflections, following which the University of Uppsala invited him in 1724 to succeed Celsius in the maths chair (honor that was declined by Swedenborg) and the Academy of Sciences of the same city welcomed him as a a member a few years later (1729). The decade after his return was actively employed by Swedenborg in studies and researches related to his office; but in 1733 his restless and active spirit led him to a new long journey to Germany, during which he published his great work Opera philosophica et mineralia (Philosophic Work and Minerals)... whose first volume... it is a treatise of natural philosophy, in which the richness of facts and the severity of scientific spirit take nothing away from the power of philosophical synthesis: in it Swedenborg outlines a cosmogony which anticipates in its general lines the theory of Kant and Laplace. The other two volumes, dedicated to mineralogy, also testify to the value of Swedenborg's research, which created crystallography and brilliantly anticipated in other points some theories and discoveries of modern science: yet in 1762 the Paris Academy of Sciences had a part of the second volume translated into French – the Treaty on Iron – as the best that had been written then about the subject. In the same year he published another philosophical work in Dresden: Prodromus philosophiae ratiocinantis de Infinito et causa finali Creationis: deque mechanismo operationis Animae et Corporis (An Essay of Rational Philosophy on the Infinite and the Final Purpose of the Creation: and on Operation Mechanism of Soul and Body)».   

From this picture Swedenborg's personality emerges as that of an eminent scientist, indefatigable investigator of the physical world, whose philosophical interests are part of the Enlightenment culture of his time, according to which science is still perceived as a branch of philosophy aimed at the knowledge of nature. However Morpurgo-Tagliabue points out that, starting from 1734, the year of publication of Prodromus philosophiae (an attempt to reconcile matter and spirit according to Leibniz's metaphysics), Swedenborg's interests were oriented towards psychophysics. According to Venturini: «Returned to Stockholm in 1734, he left again in 1736 to visit the Netherlands, France and Italy in a journey that lasted two years: in this time his studies, devoted to physiology and zoology, were collected by him in his Oeconomia regni animalis (1740-41). This work too deserved to be translated into English a century later: in it Swedenborg was the first to locate the seat of the higher psychic faculties in the cerebral cortex». Morpurgo-Tagliabue believed, however, that Swedenborg's scientific writings were characterized by a long-winded and confused prose, both for the use of a personal terminology, and for the habit of often resorting to very general principles or even to biblical or mythological notions. Thus, even in the scientist Swedenborg (without diminishing his merits and value, taking into account the culture of that historical period), some theological and graphomane components were emerging, attributable to a paternal influence.

The spiritualist period of Swedenborg

In 1745 the spiritual experience of Swedenborg began: «The second journey undertaken in 1744 in the Netherlands and England marks a decisive era in Swedenborg's life: abruptly, his industrious scientific career is interrupted and the man of science becomes a theosophist and a prophet. Already the last work he published in London at the beginning of 1745, De cultu et amore Dei, testifies to the evolution of his spirit which turns with more accentuated interest to religious and moral problems; but a mysterious and profound crisis occurs at this point in the transformation of his being, opening up a new  and strange career to his activity. He was in London in April 1745 when one night he had a vision: a man dressed in purple and surrounded with bright light appeared to him and said: "I am God, the Lord creator and redeemer: I have chosen you to disclose to mankind the spiritual meaning of the scriptures: I will dictate to you what you will have to write". That very night – as Swedenborg writes – the eyes of my inner man were opened: they were made able to look at the heavens, at the spirit world and at hell. Since that day on, he gave up all his studies to fulfill the mission he had received from the Lord and fulfilled it with the same zeal with which he had so far fulfilled his duties in the world».

If it is certainly true that since 1745 Swedenborg devoted almost all his energies to write and to publish the vast material relating to communications and information that he received directly from spirits and angels (whom he claimed to be able to see and hear), according to other sources his involvement in the spirit world would have been already predisposed by his previous psychic orientation. Morpurgo-Tagliabue wrote that Swedenborg, by his own admission, had been subject from a young age to hallucinations, of which he kept note in his diaries. While there is no trace of those prior to 1740, in 1859 the diary of his visions in the years 1743-1744 (Swedenborgs Droemmar) was published in Stockholm. These visions were associated with sudden states of swoon, which, as he said, purified his mind, allowing him greater concentration, also in relation to his scientific studies. In order to help these states to occur, Swedenborg had practiced since childhood in what in his Diarium Spirituale called internal breathing or breath suspension: a kind of yoga practice which, producing a state of temporary hypoxia, would have facilitated the intensity of thought: «so – he wrote – I was allowed to communicate with angels». 

As for the vision of October 6, 1745, Paul Janet, in an article published in 1870 on the Journal des Savants (Kant et Swedenborg), so wrote: «We must think that this first initiation of Swedenborg to supernatural things had a very prosaic form: in fact, one evening when Swedenborg was at the restaurant, and was eating with great appetite until late, towards the end of the meal a sort of fog fell upon his eyes, and he saw that the room was full of horrid reptiles. Darkness became more intense, then, suddenly lightening it, a man surrounded by a radiant light appeared in a corner of the room, who said in a roaring tone of voice: "You must not eat so much". One is surprised that a representative of the other world has taken the trouble to intervene for such a material warning». That very night, after Swedenborg returned to his home, the man appeared again and revealed to him that he was God in person, and after urging him to devote himself to the spiritual interpretation of the scriptures, finally led him into the spirit world. Since that night on it became customary for Swedenborg to converse several times a day with angels and spirits, devoting himself to a huge production of mystical writings.    

These are many thousands of pages, based primarily on the eight-volume edition of the Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Mysteries, a work whose first five volumes Kant managed to obtain for the high price, at the time, of 7 pounds), published in London between 1749 and 1756. Here are some titles among the many other works written by Swedenborg in Latin and then translated into the main European languages: De Caelo et eius Mirabilibus et de Inferno (Heaven and Hell, 1758), De Telluribus in Mundo Nostro Solari (Earths in the Universe, 1758), Doctrina Novae Hierosolymae (Doctrine of Faith, 1763), Apocalypsis Revelata, in quae deteguntur Arcana quae ibi praedicta sunt (Apocalypse Revealed, 1766), Deliciae Sapientiae de Amore Conjugali (Conjugal Love or Marriage Love, 1768), De Commercio Animae et Corporis (Interaction of the Soul and the Body, 1769), Vera Christiana Religio (True Christian Religion, 1771). So Venturini described the last years of Swedenborg's life: «his exterior life was the gentle and tranquil life of a rich, pious, kind, affable gentleman, indeed lover of society and perfectly staid in all things, except in one point: in his absolute conviction of being in continuous communication with the spirits' world... A friend of his from Amsterdam, I. Ch. Cuno, that left us curious news about him, expressed his wonder at seeing the tireless, superhuman activity of this old man, more than 80 years old, who continued to work and write until the last hours of his life. Having fallen ill in London, where he had traveled from Amsterdam, he died there on March 29, 1772, assisted by his humble English guests, after having solemnly sworn three or four days before his death the truth of all that he had written».   

The success of Swedenborg's works

As for the content of Swedenborg's spiritual and religious works, with all evidence these are fanciful absurdities of all kinds, devoid of any possibility of objective confirmation and in some cases clearly false in the light of our current knowledge: those who wanted to get a idea, can read the two volumes of the French edition of 1782 of Merveilles du Ciel et de l'Enfer et des Terres Planétaires et Astrales, par Emmanuel de Swèdenborg, d'après le tèmoignage de ses yeux et de ses oreilles (Wonders of Heaven and Hell and Planetary and Astral Lands). The description of the inhabitants of every planet of the solar system, their customs and their habits, leaves us bewildered by its trivial naivety and the incredible lack of consideration – by someone who had always been, and professed himself, a scientist, even if one of those times – of the physical and environmental features that distinguish one planet from the other. Yet, despite the shallowness and absurdity of Swedenborg's philosophical and theological argumentations – which prove once again, if needed, the enormous power that human psyche has on the conscious Ego – his writings were remarkably successful, first in Europe and then also in the United States, so much so that even today there are several offices of both Swedenborgian Churches and the Swedenborg Foundation. Probably, as already Morpurgo-Tagliabue had noticed: «what most interested his contemporaries was not his work as an indefatigable exegete aimed at offering a new (true) spiritual interpretation of the letter of the sacred texts, and destined as such to lead to a normative and prophetic doctrine, and finally to a true and real theology... The most widespread interest of his readers was aimed at the extraordinarily comics details of his visions, which Swedenborg guaranteed not to have a dreamlike character, but in aperti oculi statu (with wide open eyes)».    

Kant's interest

It is unlikely that Swedenborg's spiritual-religious writings could have aroused Kant's interest, had it not been for three paranormal episodes that had Swedenborg as protagonist, the news of which aroused in those years a wide echo throughout Europe. Two of these are reported by Kant himself in a letter he sent to a noblewoman, Miss Charlotte von Knobloch, whom Kant appreciated despite her young age (she was born in 1740), and who was in the group of those who had urged Kant to deal with Swedenborg's visions. Kant's letter, published for the first time in Borowski's biography of the philosopher, is undated, but we can hypothesize that it was written in the years between 1758 and 1763, the latter being the year of attribution that many scholars consider as more likely, although Kant wrote that Swedenborg, to whom he had addressed some questions by letter, «would go to London in May this year, where he would publish his book, in which the answer to all the questions of my letter should also be contained... I look forward to the book Swedenborg will publish in London, and I have already taken all my measurements to get it as soon as it will be printed». However, as we have seen, the first five volumes of Arcana Coelestia had already been published in London between 1749 and 1756, so it is not clear what publication Kant refers to in his letter, since in his Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, he wrote that he had paid seven sound pounds just for the Arcana Coelestia, and that he had read them (all or in part) with his great effort. Anyway, since two of the paranormal episodes that Kant refers to in his letter occurred after 1760, the enigma of the date remains unsolved.  

The first paranormal episode

Here, in Kant's letter, the first of the episodes: «In order, gracious lady, to give you two proofs, of which the present existing public is a witness, and the person who related them to me had the opportunity of investigating them at the very place where they occurred, I will narrate to you the two following occurrences. Madame Herteville (Marteville), the widow of the Dutch Ambassador in Stockholm, some time after the death of her husband, was called upon by Croon, a goldsmith, to pay for a silver service which her husband had purchased from him. The widow was convinced that her late husband had been much too precise and orderly not to have paid this debt, yet she was unable to find this receipt. In her sorrow, and because the amount was considerable, she requested Mr. Swedenborg to call at her house. After apologizing to him for troubling him, she said that if, as all people say, he possessed the extraordinary gift of conversing with the souls of the departed, he would perhaps have the kindness to ask her husband how it was about the silver service. Swedenborg did not at all object to comply with her request. Three days afterward the said lady had company at her house for coffee. Swedenborg called and in his cool way informed her that he had conversed with her husband. The debt had been paid several months before his decease, and the receipt was in a bureau in the room upstairs. The lady replied that the bureau had been quite cleared out, and that the receipt was not found among all the papers. Swedenborg said that her husband had described to him, how after pulling out the lefthand drawer a board would appear, which required to be drawn out, when a secret compartment would be disclosed, containing his private Dutch correspondence, as well as the receipt. Upon hearing this description the whole company arose and accompanied the lady into the room upstairs. The bureau was opened; they did as they were directed; the compartment was found, of which no one had ever known before; and to the great astonishment of all, the papers were discovered there, in accordance with his description».   

So far the story told by Kant, also reported in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer. Mr. Marteville had died, according to public records, in 1760, so Kant's letter has been written only that year or later. As for the authenticity of the episode, and the speed with which it spread throughout Europe in the version then reported by Kant, here is what Paul Janet wrote on Journal des Savants in his article of May 1870: «At least in relation to one of the three extraordinary episodes reported, we can measure the distance that exists between legend and reality... Now we are able to know the facts through the testimony of the protagonist, Madame de Marteville. This lady had actually remarried, and her second husband, General E., gave a new version of the episode (which still remains very singular, but not so miraculous), based on what his wife had told him. And it is a remarkable example of the way in which faith in miracles takes shape».  

«My wife – said General E. – had the idea of going to visit Mr. Swedenborg. In conversing with him about this and that, she asked him if he knew Mr. Marteville, to which Swedenborg replied that he had never met him in person. I must confirm that the history of the 25,000 Dutch florins is correct, and that my wife was really worried because she had no payment receipt to show. However, during that visit, she made no mention of this matter. Eight days later, Mr. Marteville appeared to my wife in dream, about two o'clock in the night, and showed her the place where a small drawer was hidden, in which she would find not only the receipt, but also a hair pin with twenty brilliants, which was believed to be lost. Full of joy, my wife got up and found everything in the place that had been shown to her. Then she went back to bed and slept until nine in the morning. About eleven o'clock that morning Swedenborg's visit was announced. Before being informed of what had happened, he told that on that very night he had seen several spirits, including that of Mr. Marteville. He felt the desire to spend some time and converse with him, but Marteville refused saying that he had to go at once to his widow to let her make an important finding». In this version Swedenborg's role is not decisive, even if the coincidence remains between his vision and the dream of madame Marteville, a dream that could however be attributed to a form of clairvoyance, or even to the emergence of an unconscious memory on the existence of the hidden drawer. One can also think, with a little bit of malice, that the echo of the events of the night (probably known to the servant staff of Marteville house) had come to Swedenborg. Finally, we do not even have the possibility to verify the version given, several years later, by General E. So, whom can we believe?   

The second episode

Kant so continued his letter: «The following occurrence appears to me to have the greatest weight of proof, and to place the assertion respecting Swedenborg's extraordinary gift beyond all possibility of doubt. In the year 1759, towards the end of September, on Saturday at four o'clock p.m., Swedenborg arrived at Gottenburg from England, when Mr. William Castel invited him to his house, together with a party of fifteen persons. About six o'clock Swedenborg went out, and returned to the company quite pale and alarmed. He said that a dangerous fire had just broken out in Stockholm, at the Sodermalm (Gottenburg is about fifty German miles from Stockholm), and that it was spreading very fast. He was restless, and went out often. He said that the house of one of his friends, whom he named, was already in ashes, and that his own was in danger. At eight o'clock, after he had been out again, he joyfully exclaimed, "Thank God! the fire is extinguished; the third door from my house." This news occasioned great commotion throughout the whole city, but particularly amongst the company in which he was. It was announced to the Governor the same evening. On Sunday morning Swedenborg was summoned to the Governor who questioned him concerning the disaster. Swedenborg described the fire precisely, how it had begun and in what manner it had ceased, and how long it had continued. On the same day the news spread through the city, and as the Governor thought it worthy of attention, the consternation was considerably increased; because many were in trouble on account of their friends and property, which might have been involved in the disaster».   

«On Monday evening a messenger arrived at Gottenburg, who was despatched by the Board of Trade during the time of the fire. In the letters brought by him, the fire was described precisely in the manner stated by Swedenborg. On Tuesday morning the Royal Courier arrived at the Governor's with the melancholy intelligence of the fire, of the loss which it had occasioned, and of the houses it had damaged and ruined, not in the least differing from that which Swedenborg had given at the very time when it happened; for the fire was extinguished at eight o'clock. What can be brought forward against the authenticity of this occurrence (the conflagration in Stockholm)? My friend who wrote this to me has examined all, not only in Stockholm, but also, about two months ago, in Gottenburg, where he is well acquainted with the most respectable houses, and where he could obtain the most authentic and complete information, for as only a very short time has elapsed since 1759, most of the inhabitants are still alive who were eye-witnesses of this occurrence». Incidentally, the distance between Stockholm and Gothenburg is over 400 km.

The third episode

A version of the third episode is so reported by Kant in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer: «Towards the end of the year 1761, Mr. Swedenborg was called to a princess, whose great intelligence and insight ought to render deception of such a nature impossible. The call was occasioned by the common report about the pretended visions of this man. After some questions which were intended to amuse her with his illusions, the princess dismissed him, after having charged him with a secret mission concerning his communication with spirits. Several days afterwards, Mr. Swedenborg appeared with an answer which was of such a nature as to create in the princess, according to her own confession, the liveliest astonishment, for the answer was true, and at the same time, could not have been given to him by any living human being. This story is drawn from the report sent by an ambassador at the court there, who was present at that time, to another foreign ambassador in Copenhagen; it exactly agreed also with all that special inquiry has been able to learn». Actually, at that time two version of this story were spread, the details of which did not coincide.   

The main character (the princess) was Lovisa (Louisa) Ulrika of Prussia (1720-1782), queen consort of the king of Sweden Adolf Friedrich and daughter of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia. Like her elder brother, Friedrich II of Prussia, she was a supporter of the new Enlightenment ideas. An intelligent woman, but also ambitious and arrogant, she actively intervened in Swedish politics, constantly conspiring to establish an absolute monarchy, and entering into open contrast not only with certain aristocratic and clerical circles, but also with the Parliament that she wanted to deprive of authority. As for her meeting with Swedenborg, the Danish general Tuxen so referred to it: «The queen, having heard that there was a man in Sweden talking with the dead, expressed a desire to meet him. Count Schefter (a friend of Swedenborg) took him to the sovereign, who asked if it was true that he had contact with the dead, to which Swedenborg replied in the affirmative. The queen then asked him if he wanted to receive a task relating to her younger brother (August Wilhelm), who had died recently (in 1758). "With all my heart," answered Swedenborg. Then the queen, accompanied by the king and the count, withdrew with him in the hollow of a window and gave him the commission... A few days later, Swedenborg returned to court with Schefter, and when the queen asked him if he had fulfilled his task he replied yes, and communicated the result to the queen, who was so surprised she felt faint. Once she regained consciousness, the queen said only these few words: "Here is something that no mortal could have told me"».        

About the subject of the queen's request, the French writer Dieudonné Thiébault (1733-1807) – member of the Berlin Royal Academy – who had assiduously frequanted the queen in 1772, during her nine-month stay at the court of her brother Friedrich II in Berlin, so wrote in the second volume of his Memories of twenty years spent in Berlin (1804): «I do not remember on what occasion, one day we asked the queen about the famous visionary Swedenborg... The queen replied that, being very little inclined to believe to seemingly wonderful things, she had nevertheless wanted to test Swedenborg, whom she already knew as a counselor for the mines... One evening when Swedenborg had presented himself at court, she took him aside and asked him to get in touch with her deceased brother (August Wilhelm) to let him refer what he had told her on the occasion of the their last meeting, before she left for Sweden. It was something that, by its nature, neither Prince Wilhelm nor herself would ever reveal to anyone. A few days later Swedenborg returned to court, while the queen was at the gaming table, and asked her if he could speak to her in private. The queen told him that she could speak freely before those present, but Swedenborg stated that he could not tell to any other what he had to say to her. The queen, worried by these words, left the table and asked the Count of Schwérin to accompany her. Passed to another room in which there was no one, she asked Schwérin to stay on guard at the door and went to the back of the room with Swedenborg, who told her: "Madame, you have given the last goodbye to your brother, the late Prussian prince, in Charlottenburg, on such a day and hour in the afternoon. Then, crossing the long gallery of the castle, you met him again, and there he took you by the hand to a place where nobody else could hear and he told you these words...". The queen did not refer Swedenborg's words, but said that they were exactly what her brother had told her and she had never forgotten, and that she had felt faint because of the agitation. She then asked Schwérin to confirm her story, who, in his laconic style, simply said: "Madame, it's all true, at least for what concerns me"».  

Thiébault added that the queen, although impressed by Swedenborg's revelations, was not willing to believe that he could talk to the dead: «Many events – she said – seem supernatural and are inexplicable for us, because we know only the results, and smart people who are fond of the wonderful take advantage of them to create an extraordinary reputation for themselves. Swedenborg has always been a scientist and has proved very skilled in the management of his duties: moreover, he has always been considered a good person. I do not understand how he could have known about things that no one should have known, but I can not believe he could communicate with my late brother». It may be added that a more political version of the same episode was spreading, probably connected to the queen's intrigues: it was reported by the Stockholm magazine Monats Schriff, in January 1788. According to this version, the queen had asked Swedenborg to have her deceased brother tell her the reason why he had not replied – when he was still alive – to a letter that she had sent him. The next day Swedenborg informed the queen of the contents of the letter that no one, except her and her brother, should have known, and the queen, troubled and dismayed, recognized that that great man possessed a miraculous science.      

According to the version published by Monats Schriff, the king of Sweden Gustav III (son of Lovisa Ulrika) during a visit to Paris, would have confirmed the truth of this episode: «It is true – he said –, I was present at the meeting: Swedenborg informed my mother that her letter was related to the revolution occurred in 1756, which cost the lives of Horn and Brahe. He added: "The soul of your brother appeared to me and told me that he had not answered, because he had disapproved of your conduct; your imprudent policy is the cause of the spilled blood. I order you, for your part, not to sneak into the affairs of state any more, and above all not to provoke more riots of which, sooner or later, you will be the victim"». French essayist Jean-Pierre de Luchet (1740-1792), in his book Essai sur la secte des Illuminés (1789), on page 90, so explained how the matter reported by Monats Schriff went, according to the testimony of a certain chevalier Beylon: «The queen, having been the chief inspirer of the 1756 revolution in Sweden,... wrote to her brother the prince of Prussia to ask him for advice, but received no answer. Since the prince had died shortly thereafter, she had never been able to know  the cause of his silence. So she entrusted Swedenborg, in the presence of two senators, the Count of H. and the Count of T., to inquire directly from her brother's spirit. The Count of H., who had intercepted the queen's letter and read it, knew well, as did the Count of T., the reason why the queen had received no answer. Both decided to take advantage of this singular circumstance, by sending a message to the queen concerning the political affairs in which she was involved. At night they went to Swedenborg, and dictated the answer to him». But even this is an unconvincing version, which speaks volumes about the foundations of the search for truth, based on the available historical documents, even in a century relatively close to us as the Eighteenth.

Kant's judgment

The judgment given by Kant on the personality of Swedenborg in the Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is considerably more caustic than the relative esteem he showed towards the psychic in his letter to Miss von Knobloch. The reason is simple: when the letter was written the information that Kant had about Swedenborg only concerned the scientific activities of the Swedish and the paranormal episodes attributed to him, while when he wrote the Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Kant had read most of the hogwash of the Arcana Coelestia. So the esteemed scientist becomes: «...a certain Mr. Swedenborg, a gentleman of comfortable means and independent position. His whole occupation for more than twenty years is, as he himself says, to be in closest intercourse with spirits and deceased souls; to receive news from the other world, and, in exchange, give those who are there tidings from the present; to write big volumes about his discoveries... He is not especially reticent about his secrets, talks freely about them with everybody, seems to be entirely convinced of his pretensions, and all this without any apparent deceit or charlatanry. Just as he, if we may believe him, is the Arch-Spiritseer among all the spiritseers, he certainly is also the Arch-Dreamer among all the dreamers, whether we judge him by the description of those who know him, or by his works». On mentioning then the paranormal episodes attributed to Swedenborg, about which – in his letter to von Knobloch – Kant had reported the investigation he made to check their authenticity, in the book so he expressed: «I must quote from what is spread abroad to authenticate the extraordinary capacities of the above-mentioned gentleman at least that which, with most people, still finds some credit... The following stories have no other proof than common report, which is rather doubtful evidence». In short, a decided step backwards with respect to: «The following occurrence appears to me to have the greatest weight of proof, and to place the assertion respecting Swedenborg's extraordinary gift beyond all possibility of doubt», as he had written in his letter. 

In the second chapter (Part Two) of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, entitled A Dreamer's Ecstatic Journey through the World of Spirits, Kant presents the reader with a summary of Arcana Coelestia (page 101): «The big work of this author comprises eight volumes quarto full of nonsense. He puts them before the world as a new revelation... Only the audita and visa, i.e., what he professes to have seen with his own eyes and heard with his own ears, we will extract, principally from the appendices to his chapters, because they are the foundation of all the other fancies, and are also pretty well in the same line with the adventure which, in the foregoing, we have undertaken in the balloon of metaphysics. The author's style is plain. His stories and their arrangement seem really to be based upon fanatic observation, and afford little reason to suspect that fancies of a wrongly speculating reason have moved him to invent them, and use them for deception». After recognizing Swedenborg's good faith, and confirming the doubts about the mental health of the same, Kant continues: «I distinguish, therefore, with our author, between delusions and the deductions thence, and pass over his incorrect reasonings... I have taken care, nevertheless, of (the reader's) sensitive taste by leaving out many of the wild chimeras of the book, and reducing its quintessence to a few drops».   

After emphasizing the role of the one chosen by God that Swedenborg often attributes to himself, always under the badly concealed form of grateful humility – «the difference between himself and others consisting only in the fact that his interiors are opened, a gift of which he always speaks with reverence (datum mihi est ex divina domini misericordia)» – Kant makes some comments on the descriptions of the spirit world: «The presence of spirits, it is true, affects only his inner sense (in fact they were only seen by Swedenborg, and not by other people present). But this makes them appear to him as being outside of himself, and in the form of the human figure. The language of spirits is an immediate communication of ideas, but it is always connected with the appearance of that language which the observer ordinarily speaks, and is represented as being outside of himself... Thus the spirits see in Swedenborg the perceptions which he has from this world, with such clearness, that they deceive themselves, and often imagine they perceive immediately those things which it is impossible for them to see; for no spirit has the least sensation from the corporeal world... For this reason Swedenborg is the very oracle of the spirits, who are just as curious to view in him the present state of the world, as he is curious to observe in their memory, as in a mirror, the wonders of the spirit-world... The spirits therefore believe that those things which have been effected in them through the influence of the souls of men, have been thought by themselves alone; just as men in this life think no otherwise, than that all their thoughts and inclinations come from themselves, although, as a matter of fact, they often flow into them out of the other world».         

Finally, after mentioning some particularly weird aspects of Swedenborg's spiritism, Kant draws his conclusions: «...the enormous distances which divide the rational inhabitants of the world are nothing in regard to the spiritual universe, and it is just as easy for one to talk with an inhabitant of Saturn, as with a deceased human soul... Thus man does not need to have actually dwelt in the other worlds for the sake of knowing them some day with all their wonders. His soul reads in the memory of the deceased citizens of other worlds the perceptions which they possess about their life and dwelling-place, and thereby sees objects as easily as by immediate observation... Thus he talks about the gardens, vast countries, the dwelling-places, galleries, and arcades of the spirits... the many powers and qualities of the soul are in sympathy with those organs of the body which they govern... he classifies a great variety of sensations in his body which he claims are always connected with spiritual contemplation. But their foolishness is too great for me to dare to quote even one of them... I am tired of copying the wild chimeras of this worst of all dreamers, and forbear continuing them to his descriptions of the state after death... Nevertheless, it is only in vain that one would hide the fact which, after all, is conspicuous to everybody, that all this labour finally comes to nothing. For, as the pretended private visions narrated in the book cannot prove themselves, the motive for bothering oneself with them could lie only in the supposition that the author might offer in substantiation happenings of the above-mentioned kind which could be confirmed by living witnesses. But nothing of the kind is found. And thus we retire with some confusion from a foolish attempt, making the rational though somewhat belated observation that it is often easy to think wisely, but unfortunately only after one has been for some time deceived».  

A criticism to Kant

Once recognized the valid reasons that led Kant to distance himself from Swedenborg's visions and revelations – certainly hallucinatory and perhaps with some pathological component (as one can guess by reading his diaries) – we could ask ourselves how the philosopher would react to the objective reality of mediumistic phenomena that began to occur about a century later, and which represent a real puzzle for human reason, since they unite the physical reality of bodily sensory experience with some psychic communications not infrequently as bizarre as those contained in Swedenborg's works. But Kant did not deal any longer with paranormal phenomena. However, despite his intentions, not even he could escape the metaphysical call of the theories on the spirit that were still strongly rooted in the culture of his time. Any form of thought, however evolved, which is beyond mathematical logic, is always connected to the knowledge and the psychic tunings of the age in which it is produced, and can not claim to have a permanent and absolute value. In all likelihood, even the elaborations of thought that in our days seem particularly evolved and deserve respect and consensus, from now to a few centuries will be considered naive, non-convincing or even absurd.    

At the time of Kant, the distinction between the mental faculties attributed to the functioning of the brain and the intellectual activity determined by the presence in the human being of a spirit (or of a soul) independent of the body, was still well established, especially in the philosophical context of metaphysics. Scientific knowledge had not yet produced the cultural framework prevailing in our day, in which any form of mental activity is associated with a brain activity (although some philosophers and scientists continue to support a form of dualism between the phenomenon of consciousness and the functioning of the brain that determines it). Apart from paranormal phenomena, today a person of good culture is led to believe – on the basis of valid evidence – that in the absence of cerebral activity, no mental activity is possible.       

Kant, wanting to escape the deceptions of dogmatic metaphysics to redefine metaphysics as «the science of the limits of human reason», then ended up falling back into the need to hypothesize an autonomous life of the spirit, beyond the limits of human life. Morpurgo-Tagliabue explains it well in his preface to Dreams of a Spirit-Seer: in 1766, the year in which the booklet on Swedenborg was written, the moral sentiment, i.e. the human need for justice, benevolence and right conduct, was considered by Kant to be a natural anthropological fact, the fruit of observation and direct experience. Instead in 1788, in his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant believed that the moral law was demonstrable on the basis of reason itself, transforming it from an anthropological into a metaphysical datum: the duty of the human being, according to Kant, became that of adapting, in every circumstance, our particular individual conception to a universal moral rule. Being however well aware that the concrete experience of human life shows how this process is only a trend, Kant had to recognize: «that this progress may continue uninterrupted as long as our existence lasts, and even beyond this life». In fact, the human being «can not hope for a perfect moral adaptation now or in an imaginable future moment of his life, but only in the infinity (understandable only to God) of its existence».    

What led Kant to be entangled in the issues arising from wanting to attribute a rational basis to moral sentiment? Probably the observation that human beings yearn for happiness, which, according to him, had to coincide with the integral conformity to the moral law. Moral behavior should ensure happiness, indeed it should coincide with happiness, but – in most cases – it does not, otherwise all of us would be much more virtuous. Often precisely the virtuous people are those who manifest characteristic forms of melancholy, if not real bad mood, also due to the fact that they have to witness how little virtue is spread in this world. This does not imply, of course, that the wicked are happy: the fact is that happiness and unhappiness mingle in life according to dynamics that largely escape human reason. And in fact in one of his last unpublished writings (Progress of Metaphysics in Germany after Leibniz and Wolff, 1793), Kant was forced to use the verb to believe, instead of the verb to know: «I believe in an eternal future life as a condition under which the world can incessantly approach the Supreme Good». But this Supreme Good, instead of simply being identified with the happiness to which all human beings aspire, for the Prussian philosopher must coincide with the attainment of perfect moral virtue: that this could be a human aspiration, it can be understood, but that this process should necessarily occur according to a rational logic, that avoids resorting to dogmatic metaphysical premises, we are allowed to doubt it.       

Some analogies between Kant's thought and Swedenborg's visions

In the end Kant was forced to admit, though in a different form, what he would have wished to avoid, and which he had already criticized in Swedenborg's work, namely that the bliss of eternal life is the reward for a morally adequate conduct in the course of human life. This is a feeling and an intuition certainly founded, which at the time of Kant had a cultural value much stronger than today, but that can not be the object of a rational type of knowledge. It is evident, as a sensitive datum, that the human condition is difficult to endure precisely because human psyche manifests itself through nuclei in conflict with each other and changing over time. If this is the limit to be overcome, it can only be overcome in a dimension that frees the conscious Ego from its subjection to the human psyche, and not reasoning on the fact that: «only in the struggle with human impulses... the soul acquires the moral fortitude». The struggle between virtue, passions and impulses is all intrinsic to the human psyche, and because of its conflictual nature it can not lead to bliss. After all, Kant was not so far from some visionary conceptions of Swedenborg, even if exposed in less naive terms.          

For instance, according to Swedenborg, hell was not a place of punishment, but the inevitable state in which the spirits of certain people found themselves on the basis of the inclinations manifested in the course of human life, in relation to other spirits similar to them. Nothing, however, would prevent a spirit from undertaking an evolutionary path: only in the course of human life we see evolution in terms of time, but we do not have any sensitive data that allows us to extend the experience of time beyond of the terms of our earthly life. To Swedenborg space and time in the spiritual dimension do not exist, or at least they have a meaning and an impact quite different from what they have in this life. Swedenborg never spoke of reincarnation: to him every spirit is free to evolve, according to its inclination, in what is its afterlife. After bodily death, in fact, the spirits of the deceased are welcomed into the spirit world: after a first phase, in which they are assisted and informed about their new condition, the spirits begin to act autonomously according to their inclinations. In the spirit world there is full freedom to discover and follow one's own nature, because God, being unconditional love, neither condemns nor compels anyone, but leaves the spirits the freedom to act even in an evil way. The spirit can feel both the call of the lower states and that of the higher realms, and therefore will proceed in accordance with its own desire for evolution.       

According to Swedenborg: «...a spirit is not near or far from another, but stays with it in a purely spiritual relationship. Now our souls, as spirits, are already in this world in such union and communion: only we do not see ourselves, in this communion, because we still have an intuition based on the senses... When then the impediment to spiritual intuition will be removed , this is said to be the other world: which is not another reality, but the same reality, only perceived differently. When a man/woman is righteous in this world, when his/her will is right, when he/she applies him/herself to following the laws of morality, he/she is in communion – already in this world – with all the righteous and good spirits... And so already here the wicked is in communion with all the wicked, who hate each other: only he/she can not yet see him/herself in that state... Every good action of the virtuous man/woman is therefore a step towards a communion of the blessed, just as every bad action is a step towards the communion of the wicked. The virtuous man/woman therefore does not ascend into heaven, but he/she is already there: only she/he will see her/himself in this state only after death. Thus the wicked do not see themselves in hell, although actually they are already there». Once established that there is no way of verifying the reliability of such statements, it may be agreed that these conceptions are not very far from those supported by the philosopher Kant.     


Kant & Swedenborg
Hypnotism & psyche
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Frederik van Eeden
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Ernesto Bozzano
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