Spiritual writer Emanuel Swedenborg is often seen as sexist. He wrote that a woman’s heart can stay longer elevated into superior heat than can the heart of a man. According to this view women, more than men, are capable of a deeper and more sustained feeling of care and affection.
In contrast, Swedenborg wrote that a man’s mind is able to stay elevated into superior light for longer than that of a woman. In other words a man finds it easier to think rationally and for longer. He worries that the sensible thoughts in his head direct his actions – or if they don’t, he wants them to appear so.
“The female nature is for feeling and desire to reign, rather than understanding to reign and it is said to be visa versa in the male” (Arcana Coelestia 568)
“It is masculine to perceive from the understanding, and feminine to perceive from love” (Conjugial Love 168)
Gender roles according to Swedenborg
As a consequence of his view about the essence of being a woman or a man, he says men cannot do what women can do because they do not have distinctive female feelings of affection.
Accordingly, he writes that a male tends to know things in childhood, understand them in adolescence, and act wisely about them in manhood. So he saw men as engaged in jobs in which the thinking side predominates.
“Seeing to the feeding of babies and the bringing up of children of either sex, and teaching girls up to the age at which they are given in marriage and transferred to the company of husbands, is the proper duty of the wife. But seeing to the education of boys between infancy and adolescence, and beyond this until they become independent, is the proper duty of the husband.” (CL 176)
Swedenborg seems sexist
It sounds today that in discriminating between men and women, Swedenborg was being sexist. He wrote his books in Europe of three hundred years ago. Since then there has been a sea change in how the western world regards men and women. People these days now see males and females as much more mentally and emotionally alike than previous generations saw them.
Women have entered the professions and achieved prominence in the public domain and they have equal value with men.
Individuals show to some extent a mix of gender-related behaviour and traits. For example not all men are more aggressive than all women and not all women are more gentle than all men and this applies to a range of characteristics. In common parlance we speak of a man struggling to get in touch with ‘his feminine side’.
There is now such a considerable overlap, between what men and women do that many think of what they see as a polarised view of gender difference from Swedenborg as outdated and sexist.
According to this contemporary way of thinking, we need to free up our understanding of what women and men can be. Some even say there is no fundamental difference between the sexes other than bodily ones. Heterosexual attraction in this view is based purely on bodily differences.
I’m not so sure Swedenborg was sexist
I am suggesting Swedenborg wasn’t sexist as he highly valued women as much as men. Admittedly, he did often write in absolutist terms in a dogmatic style. However, I would say in so doing he is providing general concepts. He then goes on to particulars which show some degree of variation.
Swedenborg did qualify what he had said about men and women. He suggested that both sexes understand what is true and feel affection for what is good. But in differing proportions.
“… for man is born to be the understanding of truth, consequently that predominates in him, and woman is born to be the affection of good, consequently that predominates in her.” (Apocalypse Explained 121)
I would suggest that the differences between the sexes are one of tendency: the female tending towards a subjective and the male an objective mental set. This doesn’t mean she cannot be objective or he subjective, but rather that often she is orientated to the personal angle rather than the impersonal. Her slant is to be concerned with practical application and implications of ideas. In contrast, he is more interested in the facts, logic and principles behind ideas themselves. She inclines towards expressing her heart and he his head.
In line with the view of Swedenborg on gender, it might be said that for a man to grow spiritually, he needs to learn from women: he needs to be influenced when females express feelings of care and sensitivity to personal issues, in order for him to gain moral wisdom. At the same time, a woman needs to learn from men. She benefits when males think in objective and rational ways.
Is it really sexist to value each sex like this – albeit in different ways?
There is the idea that the ‘physical chemistry’ between male and female reflects their opposite inner nature. According to this viewpoint, complementary elements in the other sex attract us. These are unconscious in oneself.
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems