Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the spring of 2003.
By Stuart Shotwell, Managing Editor New Century Edition
Swedenborg wrote his theological works for “people of simple heart and simple faith” (Heaven and Hell §1). Readers of Logos who have been following its articles about the translations of the New Century Edition will know that one goal of this project is to translate Swedenborg’s works in the same simple style as the Latin in which they were written. Sometimes, however, we who are working on the New Century Edition are asked, “Why annotate the translations if you are trying to keep them simple? Don’t the annotations just complicate the reader’s experience of the text?” I would like to explore the answer to that question by examining a paragraph from George F. Dole’s forthcoming translation of Divine Providence:
“It is widely recognized that there is only one substance that is the first and is the basis of everything, but the nature of that substance is a mystery. People think that it is so simple that nothing could be simpler, that it is like a dimensionless point, and that dimensional forms emerge from an infinite number of such points. However, this is an illusion arising from spatial thinking; spatial thinking makes the smallest element look like this. The truth is that the simpler and purer anything is, the greater and fuller it is. This is why the more deeply we look into anything, the more amazing, perfect, and beautiful are the things we see; so in the first substance of all there must be the most amazing, perfect, and beautiful things of all.” (§6)
This is a very simple paragraph, and seems indeed to be making a simple statement. We might even say that it is so simple that nothing could be simpler. But as Swedenborg points out, the more deeply we look into anything, the more we see; so let us look more deeply into this paragraph and explore some of the facts that an annotation might mention.
When Swedenborg uses the word simple here, he means “not compound,” that is, made up of only one thing, indivisible, incapable of being broken into parts. This idea of some absolutely simple, basic substance that cannot be divided began (in the Western tradition) with the Greeks, particularly Leucippus and Democritus, who both lived in the fifth century B.C.E. The Greeks were the first to call this simple object the “atom,” which means something that is indivisible. These original ideas were further developed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.E.). His follower, the Roman poet Lucretius (94–55 B.C.E.), explained the theory in his poem On the Nature of Things, which was rediscovered during the Renaissance and widely published in Europe. By around 1550, these and other currents of thought led to renewed speculation about the basic constituents of matter.
Atoms were a challenging subject for conjecture, if only because it seemed nothing certain could ever be known about them. Shakespeare, writing around 1600, even used atomic research as a metaphor for the impossible: “It is as easy to count atomies [atoms] as to resolve the propositions of a lover,” complains Celia in As You Like It. Whenever Swedenborg uses a phrase like “It is widely recognized,” as he does here, he is usually referring to knowledge that was not only well known to thinkers in his day, but interesting enough to them to be a source of controversy. Today, atomic theory (under the name “particle physics”) is a field rich with competing theories; and it was no less so during the century or so before Swedenborg wrote.
Among the many contributors to atomic theory during the Enlightenment was the French philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). He speculated that atoms are physical objects of a definite minimum size. Criticizing Gassendi’s theory, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) declared that, although the material atom might be thought to be perfectly “simple” (in the sense in which Swedenborg used the term), it was in fact infinitely subdivisible. The only truly “simple” thing, said Leibniz, was a metaphysical or spiritual atom he called the monad (from the Greek for “single thing”). From these monads, which were “infinite and dimensionless points,” emerged “dimensional forms,” as Swedenborg expresses it here. Swedenborg most certainly had read Leibniz’s theories, and is certainly referring to them.
We could stop there and suppose that we have now discovered the thinker Swedenborg had in mind when he composed the passage. But Swedenborg himself has some renown in the history of atomic theory, and we should not neglect to examine his own contribution. In his 1734 scientific treatise the Principia (First Principles), written thirty years before Divine Providence, he had developed a theory of what he called the “natural point,” a kind of atom, that arose from divine motion and so had a tendency to continue in motion. He used that theory to speculate that magnets were composed of elementary particles that were fixed in regular alignment. Both of these ideas are striking insights into matter at the atomic level. We know now that the molecules of air in a container, for example, move about randomly at speeds of over 1,000 miles per hour, and that each collides with another 3.5 billion times a second. And we use the alignment properties of magnetic materials to date strata in the earth.
Yet there is still more to the story than that. If we compare the discussion in the Principia to the present passage, we see that there Swedenborg described the “first point” in almost exactly the same terms used here in Divine Providence—as something “so very simple that nothing could be more so” (Principia 1:2:8). Suddenly, it is clear that it is not just Leibniz that Swedenborg is looking back on—he is looking back on himself in his younger days.
With that fact, we gain an insight into Swedenborg’s own spiritual growth. He himself had once speculated on a point “so simple that nothing could be simpler”; but now that his spiritual eyes have been opened, he knows that any discussion about the most basic constituents of the universe will be limited by the illusions of spatial thinking. In anything, even the most simple thing of all, lie divine depths of greatness, fullness, and beauty we cannot even begin to imagine. So to those who ask, “Why annotate?” one can only answer: “Because the more we look into Swedenborg’s works, the more amazing and beautiful are the things we see.”