Swedenborg’s Influence on German Idealism and Mysticism

By Xavier Tilliette, S.J.


Friedemann Horn (1921–99) produced the definitive study on Emanuel Swedenborg’s in­fluence on Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), the weighty philosopher of Idealism and a certain form of mysticism, in his landmark Schelling and Swedenborg (1954/1997). The remarkable role that Swedenborg (under the sobriquet “the northern seer” or “the Swedish seer”) played during that brief but intense period in Schelling’s career requires a special treatment, since theosophy has many facets. Although the famous Wurtemburg pietist Friedrich Oetinger (1702–82), who corresponded with Swedenborg and defended the Swede in his heresy trial, may have served as an intermediary, Schelling took his own closer look; and when he did so, he found insights that echoed his own concerns and proved highly valuable to him.

Portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1835

Such a warm reaction from a thinker trained in the school of critical philosophy is hardly to be expected. According to Horn, there was no question that Schelling had read Kant’s Träume eines Geistersehers (Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, 1766), the Konigsberg philosopher’s anonymous attack on Swedenborg; and Schelling’s earlier flippant comment that an­gels were “the most boring creatures of all” seems to demonstrate his agreement with Kant. How, then, did Schelling’s change of attitude take place?

More than once in his life, Schelling burned what he had previ­ously adored and adored what he had formerly burned. Horn makes the case, however, that, contrary to the stubborn miscon­ception of Schelling as an ineffective thinker (indeed, almost invertebrate!), he was a systematizer rather than an eclectic, one who added nothing that would not fit. Breakdowns in his systematic mode of thinking stemmed from internal causes, giving rise in turn to a new effort at systematization. To bring Schelling into confrontation with Swedenborg took a terrible emotional shock, the premature death in 1809 of his beloved wife, Caroline—herself a noted intellectual—at the age of 46.

The theosophy of Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) was the heritage of Schelling’s youth. His renewed interest in it, stimulated by the influential presence of the Munich philosopher and mystical upstart Franz von Baader (1765–1841), was concomitant with his research into mysticism and the development of his Naturphilosophie and began only shortly before Caroline’s demise. Grafted onto this research, Horn asserts, Schelling’s interest in Swedenborg coincided with his work of mourning. His curiosity about the other world was born primarily of his intense desire to be with the dear ones who had departed. To die, said Gabriel Marcel (d. 1973), is to find one’s own again—how much more, the one and only. In a rather strange fashion, Horn calls attention to the Eskimo of Heine’s Romanzero (1851) who was unwilling to be separated from his beloved seals on the other shore; making due al­lowances for scale, the Eskimo’s paradise without seals was Schelling’s heaven without Caroline.

In the same vein, Horn cites with approval the image of­fered by Heine after his conversion in which, over and above belief in God, immortality was granted in the bargain, like a fine marrow bone thrown in by a generous butcher for one of his customers. These odd metaphors, reflecting Horn’s incorrigible zest for irony, run the risk of distracting the reader from the seriousness of the widower’s letters, their poignant nostalgia, and the need for a conso­lation that philosophy could not satisfy. And even then, the cor­respondence presents no more than half the depths of the sufferer’s distress. However, Schelling recovered; he sought the “consolation of philosophy,” but a philosophy buttressed by experiential proofs.

This is where the Swedish seer enters the picture. As the title of his book suggests, Horn’s work moves along Schelling’s lines, dealing with his reception of Swedenborg. This was more significant than explicit references indicate, restricted as they are to two passages in Clara, the dialogue concerning the soul. Ernst Benz (1907–78) directed his attention solely to this work, but his pupil Horn[1] extends the inquiry to include Schelling’s cor­respondence, the Stuttgart Lectures, and his pamphlet against the anti-Idealist Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819). As is well known, Schelling’s literary will consigned the unfinished and unedited Clara to destruction. His son and edi­tor, Fritz, rescued it from disaster but assigned the date of com­position as 1816–17, doubtless to defer it until the year in which the third version of Ages of the World was edited. Horn’s hypothesis for the date of Clara—1810, rendering it contemporaneous with the Stuttgart Lectures—is far more plausible. In Clara, through­out the heroine’s sorrowful words, there echoes the song of mourning. This is the elegy of inconsolable love.

In the first text we are concerned with, Swedenborg is pre­sented essentially as a specialist in and a primary warrantor of the mysterious inner world that is the “world of spirits” (Geisterwelt), possessor of a supernatural ability, of a sixth sense. He is the “plenipotentiary” of clairvoyance. The second and longer text deals with angelic communities (bearing in mind that, for Swedenborg, no angel was ever created as such; angels and spirits are deceased mortals) and with the inhabitants of other planets; these inhabitants supposedly live in peace, family by family, without further social organization, led by inspiration and oral revela­tions from angels, like human beings. This leads to the conclu­sion that earth and the other planets form a single, vast human being, a “meganthrope,” and that the Word’s becoming Flesh is the culmination of all divine revelation (the source of Oetinger’s dictum of corporeality as the culmination of all the ways or works of God).

Under the aegis of the Swedish seer, then, the world of spirits is introduced into Schelling’s meditations. What did he actually read? We cannot deduce much from the first reference, but the second is more explicit, being an almost literal quotation from the Swedenborgian booklet that Oetinger had edited in German, Von den Erdcörpern der Planeten (Earths in the Universe1758). Its text is also found in Swedenborg’s major, multi-volume work, Arcana Coelestia (Die Himmlischen Geheimnisse, 1749–56). Horn plausibly presumes the Arcana to be the source of Oetinger’s German edition, but it is unthinkable that as avid a reader as Schelling would be content with such slight insights. Horn conjectures that Schelling read Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758), Apocalypse Revealed (1766), and True Christian Religion (1771). In fact, a trained ear will perceive more than an echo, more than a nu­ance reminiscent of Swedenborg during this transitional period of Schelling. Moreover, we have the testimony (from 1818) of the Swedish bard Per Atterbom (1790–1855), who visited with Schelling and Baader in Munich and was privy to their discussions. We learn from Atterbom that Schelling was interested in Swedenborg’s work on marriage love and that he proposed to make use of it in his never completed “masterpiece,” Ages of the World. Schelling was a firm believer in commu­nication with the spiritual world; but, like Atterbom, he found in Swedenborg’s writings a confused mixture of poetry, piety, and depth, with abstract dogmatics and poor mathematics—that is, a degeneration from such splendid speculative thoughts as the theory of correspondences. The eulogy of marriage intervenes at this point, a gem of Swedenborgian doctrine on the same level of excellence as the theory of Christ’s Godhood, a theory that Swedenborg shares with Böhme.

Schelling, then, made a distinction. When late in his life he corresponded with his disciple Hubert Beckers (1806–89), who was working on a study of Schelling’s theory of immortality, Schelling made it known that he distanced himself significantly from Swedenborg. Horn, incidentally, at all costs makes no effort to justify Swedenborg or to portray his influ­ence on Schelling as exclusive. The heart of Horn’s work consists of a comparison of two eschatologies, which are marked by similar­ities and differences, the latter due to retractions on Schelling’s part. Horn insists that eschatology represents only a relatively minor part of the seer’s work: to as­sign it major or exclusive importance would be, he states col­orfully, to harness the horse by its tail.

In his initial period, Schelling was quite remote from the no­tion of individual immortality. The Stuttgart Lectures, however, written shortly after Caroline’s death, testify to a major move to­ward Swedenborg. For the first time, Schelling discloses his ideas about the future life. He extends the idea of corporeality in two directions, material and spiritual—Geist-Leiblichkeit (literally, “spirit-corporeality”), which was actually also a conclusion made by Oetinger, doubtless derived from Swedenborg. Death is an al­chemical transformation, a process of purification, the transition from being an incorporeal spirit to being a spiritual body (in­deed, throughout Clara,Schelling is toying with a paradoxical parallelism, the physicality of the spirit and the spirituality of the body). It is the concept of “essentification” that Horn, as well as Beckers, attributes distinctively to Schelling; in fact, though, it is implic­itly characteristic of Swedenborg and comes straight from Oetinger in a text that Ernst Benz cites at length in Schellings theologische Geistesahnen (1955), quietly amending Horn. The feature common to Swedenborg and Schelling but missing from Oetinger, however, is the connection established between essentification and freedom.[2]

The reduction to essence is reduction to the demonic, that is, to full depth of Good or to full depth of Evil, to the radiant source of light or to “the unbreakable core of night.” This is Schelling’s tragic vision of the universe, synthesized in his Freiheitsschrift(Researches on Freedom, 1809). We are torn between heaven and hell (Baader’s influence may be in play here as well). Consequently, the intermediate realm after death is still eventful—a crossing, a wandering—while purgatory as a place of punishment and waiting is abolished as such, at least until Schelling parts company with Swedenborg. Horn properly notes that Schelling relies on a single verse from Revelation (22:11)—“Let him who is filthy be filthy still, and him who is holy be holy still”—stiffly translated by Martin Luther as, “Whoever is wicked, let him remain so; whoever is pious, let him remain so.” In ef­fect, this is the echo of a verse from the Old Testament in which Schelling particularly delights: God is righteous in the right­eous, wicked in the wicked. A similar dichotomy can be found in Swedenborg and Schelling in the pairing of clairvoyance and madness.

Thus far, the visionary and the philosopher travel hand in hand. The intermediate realm, the world of spirits, is where the demonic settles out; it is the place of decision. It is necessary to get rid of the detritus left by the Fall, or by sin. For Swedenborg (and also for Schelling), there was a Golden Age at the begin­ning when angels talked with mortals; but, as always for Swedenborg, these angels were people: “Everyone in heaven and on earth comes from the human race.” It is the fall of Adam (Schelling’s pamphlet against Jacobi identifies the Golden Age with the “original Adamic Church”) that opens the hells and triggers the separation of good and evil spirits.

There are similarities and differences between the Swedenborgian concept of the world of spirits and that of Schelling. The latter does have an angelic world created from the beginning, and it is the fall of Lucifer that sets off the empire of evil—in Schelling’s work on freedom, the recourse to Satan would seem unneces­sary. On the other hand, his comparison of the world of the spirit and the world of poetry is in harmony with Swedenborgian depictions, as are the concepts of correspondence and sym­pathy, amplified when voluntary affinities and a kind of symbiosis are added. Swedenborg, however, does not go so far as to reserve the title of “spirits” to demonic beings alone.

One of the major axioms of Swedenborgian eschatology is that our resurrection is not deferred until the end of time but happens when we enter heaven or hell after our temporary stay in the world of spirits, which does not last longer than thirty years. This is the first sign of a break, albeit a partial one and one that is less with Swedenborg than it is in the very heart of Schelling’s eschatology. For the two states of Swedenborg, Schelling substitutes three: in death, the human being remains threefold—body-soul-spirit—and it is the whole person who is immortal. Death is the first step into the true esse, and the resurrection is simply a kind of higher development. But toward the end of the Stuttgart Lectures, the philosopher contra­dicts himself: the true spiritual world—heaven—is demoted to a status ancillary to the true and authentic eternal life, and the Last Judgment looms in sight. This change of course takes place in the middle of Clara, admitted by Clara herself and taken up ex­plicitly in what Horn calls Clara II, referring to the sketch of a sequel published by Manfred Schröter, Clara and the Connection of Nature with the Spirit World: a Conversation (1948).

Why did Schelling abruptly abandon a hypothesis that implied immediate resurrection? Clara explains it: to make room for the redemption of St. Paul’s “moaning of Nature” (about which Paul Tillich, inspired by Schelling, wrote a beautiful sermon). It may also be that he wanted to accede to Baader’s critique, which de­nied that the deceased were, instantly and automatically, the res­urrected ones; or he may have done so to reconcile common or orthodox conceptions. Horn, however, notes that the underlying cause is that Schelling had a different conception of death itself. For Schelling, with the separation of the two worlds, death is the direct conse­quence of original sin and has as its corollary the whole history of salvation, redemption, and the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgment. As Swedenborg sees it, however, death is a nor­mal process. The natural body and, in fact, all nature are de­voted to the path of mortality, while the true death, the death that is the consequence of sin, is spiritual death, enslavement to the life of the physical senses. Horn emphasizes that this “vision­ary exegesis of death” does not lack arguments in its favor. The brief stay in the limbus[3] does away with the problems that bur­den eschatology and that in Swedenborg’s and Schelling’s days went by the name of psychopannia (the deep sleep of the soul), the possibility of which disturbed Rosmini, or thnetopsychism (the death of the soul), in which the immortal and disembodied soul survives only until the restoration of the body in the pleroma—an orthodox hypothesis that led Luther to exclaim, “What an insane soul, to be in heaven and to covet a body!”

The difficulties have not gone away in the meantime; and scholarly theology, the theology of the handbooks, repeats these solutions (or bet­ter, these puzzles) by rote. What has changed is the mentality. Even the official documents of the recent Ecumenical Council recommend discretion or silence. Such bolder theologians as are not willing to delude themselves with abstractions, like Karl Rahner (d. 1984), grope around and then back down; or, like John Hick (d. 2012), they manufacture strange fictions like “cloning” or the replication of a physical identity on some distant star! The concept of a Seelenleib (soul-body) is picked up in the form of a phenomenological or subjective body that can escape the condi­tion of mortality. The thought of interplanetary travel or of Mar­tians revives interest in the thought of a plurality of inhabited worlds. All of this testifies to the persistent, in­escapable reality of the questioning. Still, nothing is settled. The dilemma persists in which resurrection, in order to escape the nebulousness of the interim state, continues to plague theologians.

Not without reason, Horn deems that Swedenborg is better suited to a modern scientific mindset. This world here below, with the temporary limbus that is closely connected with it, is the “nursery garden of heaven.” Schelling saw in it an anticipation of the essentification that he claimed as a personal stroke of inspira­tion. Hubert Beckers’s reference to the old Lutheran theologian Valentin Ernst Löscher (1673–1749) was less of a surprise than a comfort to Schelling. He appreciated in Löscher the synthesis of the intermediate state and a subli­mated corporeality. The solution toward which Schelling was tending at the close of his life was a kind of compromise be­tween Swedenborg and orthodoxy. This is because any theory concerning the intermediate state, as Horn observes, represents an anticipation and a weakening of the Last Judgment.

The mark of Swedenborg on Schelling is not limited to escha­tology. The Swedenborgian background is evident in the sparkling scene that constitutes the charge against Jacobi, where Schelling has regained all his bite. In addition to the analogies and similarities already noted, one can establish a parallelism be­tween Schelling’s “potencies” and Swedenborg’s “degrees.” The persistence of gender after death, integral to Swedenborg’s the­ory of marriage, as well as the doctrine of correspondence and the dominant theme of a Christology centering in the incarnation of the Word, all represent other points of contact, which could be multiplied. On the other hand, in order not to undermine the universality of the redemption, Swedenborg effortlessly peoples the planets that Schelling holds to be deserted. In this instance, Horn shows a preference for Swedenborg.


Xavier Tilliette, S.J., is a French philosopher, historian of philosophy, theologian, and professor emeritus at the Catholic Institute of Paris, Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome, Lateran University, and the Centre Sèvres in Paris. This piece is a revised version of Tilliette’s foreword to Horn’s Schelling and Swedenborg (1997).


[1] Ernst Benz was Horn’s thesis adviser at the University of Marburg. Schelling and Swedenborg is based on Horn’s doctoral dissertation.

[2] “This term, ‘essentification,’ was created by Schelling, but borrowed from the theosophical, or rather cabalistic, terminology of Oetinger. In Oetinger’s . . . works, there is a whole group of concepts formed by the word essence such as ‘essentialize,’ ‘essentify,’ ‘essentification,’ ‘essentificator,’ (God understood, of course, as the ‘essentificator’)” (Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy,51). “In the thirty-second lecture of his Philosophy of Revelation, Schelling develops his view of death as an ‘essentification,’ . . . ‘The death of man,’ he writes, ‘is not so much a separation as an essentification, in which only the contingent is destroyed, while the essence, that which is most truly man, is preserved. For no man in his life appears wholly as he is, but after death he remains purely himself” (Joseph Campbell, ed., Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Eranos 5: Man and Transformation, 234).

[3] The term limbus, as it is used here by Tilliette, refers to the world of spirits, “the intermediate realm after death.” It is in the limbus where essentification occurs, “a process of purification” that makes possible “the transition from being an incorporeal spirit to being a spiritual body” in the spiritual world.


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