Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the spring of 2004.
by Jonathan Rose
Swedenborg was a persistent person. He had an omnivorous mind and wrote on a wide range of subjects, yet some individual topics seemed to haunt him throughout his life. One of his well-known preoccupations was the nature of the connection between the body and the soul (or mind). He published his first work on this subject in 1734 and his last in 1769. It is perhaps less well known that he had a longstanding interest in economics. He published a work on inflation and deflation in the Swedish economy in 1722, then issued a revised and expanded edition in 1771, almost fifty years later and just a year before his death.
The example that is best known to students of Swedenborg, however, is his interest in solving the problem of longitude. He offered his solution in three articles in Swedish in 1716; in a book in Swedish in 1718; and in a book in Latin in 1721, with a second edition in 1727, a third in 1754, and a fourth in 1766. From the age of 28 to 78, then, well into the time of his spiritual experiences, he continued to write and publish on this practical topic.
And, of course, his tenacity is reflected in his writing over 6,000 pages of manuscripts for Secrets of Heaven (Arcana Coelestia), then copying all of them over again more carefully and legibly, and seeing them through the press. He did little else for an entire decade but write and publish this single title.
In some ways, then, it might seem that, if Swedenborg latched onto a topic (or it latched onto him), it was difficult for him to let go.
But further evidence suggests otherwise. In some ways, Swedenborg was masterful at letting go. He stated in print that he planned Soul’s Domain (the formerly mistitled Animal Kingdom) as a work in seventeen parts, but abandoned the project after just three volumes. He planned to cover the entire Bible in Secrets of Heaven but stopped after Genesis and Exodus.
In other cases, he stopped even more suddenly. He planned at least three volumes of Worship and Love of God but stopped literally in mid-sentence, while the type was being set for volume three, never to resume.
And after laboring to write 2,590 pages of draft and a simultaneous fair copy 1,985 pages long of Revelation Explained (Apocalypse Explained), an exposition of the Book of Revelation, he suddenly abandoned the work partway through verse 10 of chapter 19, leaving seventy-four verses in the last four chapters unexplained.
Neither was he the least bit sentimental about his own manuscripts once they had been published, it seems. With the exception of all but the first volume of Secrets of Heaven, once a work was in print he generally destroyed the final draft and the fair copy of it. Thousands of pages of his manuscripts have not survived.
He was also apparently unsentimental about the letters he received from others. A number of letters survive that he wrote or received, but not because he saved them. There is some evidence to suggest that he received letters from Voltaire (François–Marie Arouet, 1694–1778) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), but threw the letters away after he had read them (Acton, Letters and Memorials, p. 767). He certainly received letters from many prominent government officials, bankers, printers, academics, and clergy, all of which he discarded.
If it was time to hang on, few were as determined as Swedenborg. He published 13,920 pages of material, and wrote more than 28,000 pages that survive. We have no idea how much he wrote in total, but it was far more than these 42,000 pages.
But if it was time to let go, he would not keep a project artificially alive. If he felt that his own papers or those of others should be thrown out, his hands were not sticky.
Perhaps this holding on and this letting go were two aspects of his single-mindedness. Swedenborg had a vision for his publications. If a given project was contributing to that vision, it might continue indefinitely, but if it was not, it would quickly come to an end.
In 1743, as he approached the spiritual turning point of his life, Swedenborg wrote to his employer, the president of the Board of Mines, for permission to travel abroad to publish. In this letter, Swedenborg hints at the drive that kept him going and shaped the decisions of his life:
“Were I to follow my utmost desire and pleasure, I can give the assurance that I would a thousandfold wish to remain at home in the Fatherland . . . rather than to journey abroad, to subject myself to dangers and discomforts, especially in these unquiet times, to put myself to considerable expense, and to undergo a headache and indescribable labor, and yet, in the end, to expect therefrom harsh criticism by many men, rather than mild. Yet, despite all this, inwardly driving me is the desire and longing to bring to the light of day, during my lifetime, something real. . . .”—Emanuel Swedenborg (Acton, Letters and Memorials, pp. 497–498, emphasis added)