Swedenborg’s View of Spiritual History
Extracts from Emanuel Swedenborg with commentary by P L Johnson. Swedenborg Society, 2008; ISBN 978-0-85448-154-5; xv + 243 pp; £11.95 + p&p. To buy
This intriguing book is a selection of quotations from Swedenborg’s writings that relate to his view of different spiritual ages of the world in human history. In bringing together this material, nowhere found in one place in Swedenborg’s voluminous writings, Patrick Johnson has provided a useful service. His added comments are helpful in giving continuity and relevant recent historical knowledge, as well as some of his own suggestions.
Swedenborg can give us little guidance on dating these past ages, for his account is derived from an interpretation of the Bible as to its religious meaning. Despite this, The Five Ages shows how current ways of speaking might relate to both ecclesiastical terminology and biblical figures and events. The claim is that this holistic approach helps us to understand mankind’s psycho-spiritual development across different epochs, despite the wide range of religious culture found in the world, both now and in the past.
We each make a personal inner journey – progressing or declining through various states of mind at different points in our lives from infancy onwards. From what the book says, I understand these to be as follows:
1. Conformity to expectations of what is right — or the opposite, a disregard for duty and social obligation
2. Using a wise understanding of what is true — or the opposite, foolish wrong-thinking
3. Having heartfelt selfless concerns — or the opposite, self-centredness
The big idea is that each of these six mind-sets have characterised the general nature of humanity at different points of history, due to an unconscious inflow of mental state, from a hidden spirit realm, which Swedenborg called ‘the spiritual world’. This is quite a breathtaking scenario for those unfamiliar with the visionary writings of this eighteenth century philosopher. I thought I was fairly familiar with these writings but nevertheless I found The Five Ages a stimulating and absorbing experience.
Firstly we are presented with the idea of an epoch dominated by selflessness, based on a simple love for, and trust in, the creative source of life. Self-centredness and desire for things of the world were not part of people of that age. Such was the loving purity of their spirit that they would have been inspired with an immediate perception into moral questions without the need for discussion and argument. The ways they each felt and thought were in harmony. This state is associated with the classical idea of a golden age, gold being said to symbolise the good of love; a state of mankind at the beginning of human development, perhaps during Palaeolithic times, pre-8000 BC.
Johnson wonders whether this state of mind might still be alive today in such places as Aboriginal Australia, amongst the Bushmen of Africa and other tribal areas before Western influence polluted their innocence. Swedenborg maintains that people of this nature were internal rather than external in their orientation, in the sense that all they did and felt was linked to higher feelings and thought. Their closeness to the divine was in the way they lived their lives and so they had no need for external forms of worship.
The book interestingly points out that primitive tribes are sometimes said to have no religion, or alternatively that everything they do is religious. For example they might pray before setting out hunting and insist that that the forest is their mother. As Swedenborg puts it, ‘In each object they perceive something Divine and heavenly.’
A second spiritual period – perhaps during Neolithic times tentatively suggested by the author as between 8000-3000 BC – is thought to be characterised by mutual care among human beings derived from an interest in an illuminated understanding of what is truly good. Such a people needed a conscience in their understanding to prevent them from doing things contrary to the good of their faith. For their beliefs and desires like us today were not necessarily in harmony. At the height of this age the people’s heads led the way and their hearts would follow.
This state of doing what is believed is true is associated with the notion of a silver age. It also is said to be basically similar to the Christian idea of the individual requiring a new spiritual birth by means of religious faith before one can be saved from what is bad. We are told that the ancient people of the silver age like many people of religious faith today, both in the western and eastern world, used symbolism in their myths, fables and religious customs and this was the means by which they knew about spiritual matters. The author adds that this was also the means by which they expressed their awareness and deep respect for such things allowing them to affect most aspects of their lives.
An intermediate period
There is said to follow a less enlightened period associated with a bronze or copper age. The author says that whereas the two previous ages were spread over three continents, this one seems to have been limited to what today is the area covered by Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.
Around the time of this and the next age, people’s minds were said to be more materialistic in their thinking and I suppose that more than previously they needed symbols to embody higher thoughts. Nevertheless, like the previous age, it is characterised by charitableness arising from what the head believes is true. According to Swedenborg the people of those times had a sacred scripture which is now lost which predated the Old Testament and so had the ability to ‘nurture or record’ the word of God and then ‘spread it among other nations’.
Further periods are described in the book. For example there is one associated with an iron age characterised by faithful service to duty and adherence to the rituals and tenants of religion rather than any deeper state of enlightenment. There is also said to be a final new epoch just starting now associated with rational love and wisdom – the pinnacle of humanity’s development.
How many ages were there? The author faced a problem in answering this apparently simple question. Swedenborg’s writings provide more than one framework and his terminology is not always consistent. Not everyone alive at the time during the age in question would have been part of the state of mind described. The answer is also complicated by the point that some ages were apparently spread over several continents and some limited to a specific area. Another complication is said to be a spiritual decline during each period.
The account at times seems to be limited to specific western world faiths, Swedenborg having little or no knowledge of eastern world religion. Despite these difficulties the book manages to clearly explain the complications and provide a cogent account of what Swedenborg does say.
The reader is given much more than this brief outline. For the book also covers for each age the nature of divine revelation, sexual relations, as well as relevant biblical figures and passages plus much more.
I have some doubts whether The Five Ages is suitable as an introductory text for someone totally new to Swedenborg’s philosophy. However, readers with some familiarity with his use of religious terminology, will hopefully find it opens several avenues for further exploration. And for them I enthusiastically recommend a good read.
Copyright Stephen Russell-Lacy