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Swedenborg's Visions

1759-1761, as reported by Immanuel Kant, 1766 & 1763


Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) worked for years a scientist (metallurgy and mining), but his reputation today is as a mystic. Kant, an Enlightenment rationalist, found Swedenborg's talk of angels indigestible, but still compiled accounts of his three best-known psychic hits, finding them a real conundrum for strict materialists. He described them twice; once formally, once, in more detail, in a letter.

1: In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1766), pp 42-44
Toward the end of the year 1761, Herr Schwedenberg [sic] was summoned by a princess whose great understanding and insight ought to have made it nearly impossible for her to be deceived in such a case [the 'princess' was Louisa Ulrica (1720-1782), actually queen of Sweden]. The occasion for this was the general rumor about the alleged visions of this man. After some questions that were intended more to amuse her with his imaginings than to obtain actual news from the other world, the princess dismissed him after having charged him with a secret mission concerning his community with spirits. After several days [Nov. 15, 1761], Herr Schwedenberg appeared with an answer that put the princess, according to her own admission, in the greatest amazement, for it was true and nevertheless could not have been imparted to him by any living human being. This story is drawn from the report of an ambassador at the court there, who was present at the time, that was sent to another foreign ambassador in Copenhagen, and accords exactly with what a special inquiry could discover.

The following stories have no other guarantee than common hearsay, which is quite dubious proof. Madame Marteville, the widow of a Dutch envoy at the Swedish court [he died 1760], was reminded by the relations of a goldsmith to pay the balance for a silver service manufactured for her. The lady, who knew of the scrupulous finances of her deceased husband, was convinced that this debt must have been settled already in his lifetime, but she found no proof whatever among the papers he left behind. Women are especially prone to attach credence to stories of soothsaying, dream-interpretation, and all other wondrous things.

She therefore revealed her trouble to Herr Schwedenberg, with the request that, if it were true what people said of him, that he stood in intercourse with departed souls, he obtain from her deceased husband a message about the disposition of the aforementioned request for payment. Herr Schwedenberg promised to do so and a few days later presented to the lady in her house the news that he had obtained the desired information: that in a cabinet that he showed her and that in her opinion had been completely emptied, there was a secret compartment that contained the necessary receipts. Following his description, a search was immediately made which found, together with secret Dutch correspondence, the receipts, which completely voided all claims.

The third story is of the sort that it must be very easy to give a complete proof of its truth or untruth. It was, if I am rightly informed, towards the end of the year 1759, when Herr Schwedenberg, coming from England, landed one afternoon in Gothenburg. He was that same evening invited to a gathering by a local merchant and after a time delivered, with all signs of consternation, the news that at that very moment in Stockholm a terrible fire was raging in the Südermalm [southern suburb]. After the lapse of several hours, during which he had from time to time gone out, he reported to the gathering that the fire was under control and at the same time how far it had spread. That very evening the wonderful news spread and the next morning had gone around the whole town; but only after two days did the first report from Stockholm arrive in Gothenburg, completely agreeing, it is said, with Swedenborg's visions.

2: In a letter to Charlotte von Knobloch, August 10, 1763
...I received this account from a Danish officer, who was my friend and former student who had been at the table of the Austrian ambassador to Copenhagen, Dietrichstein [Karl Johan Baptist Walter, Count von Dietrichstein-Proskau-Leslie], at the same time as this gentleman received a letter from Baron [Johann Joachim] von Lützow, the Mecklenburg ambassador to Stockholm, which he himself, along with other guests, had read, where the aforementioned von Lützow informed him that he, in the company of the Dutch ambassador [Frans Doublet van Groenevelt] with the queen of Sweden [Louisa Ulrica] had himself been present at the singular affair involving Herr von Swedenborg, which is already known to you, gracious Fräulein. The credibility of such an account astonished me. For one can hardly accept that one ambassador would write to another ambassador an account for public use that would relate something that was untrue concerning the queen of the court where he is posted and during which he would have been present together with a reputable company. Now, to avoid blindly rejecting the prejudice against apparitions and visions for a new prejudice, I found it reasonable to investigate the story more closely myself. I wrote to the aforementioned officer in Copenhagen and assigned him all sorts of inquiries. He answered that he had spoken yet again to Count von Dietrichstein on this account, that the matter was really as maintained, and that Professor Schlegel had assured him that it was beyond all doubt. He advised me, since he was then going to the army under General St. Germain, to write to Herr von Swedenborg myself to more closely investigate the circumstances. I accordingly wrote to this singular man, and my letter was personally handed to him by an English merchant in Stockholm.

I was informed that Herr von Swedenborg had favorably received the letter and that he promised to answer it. But the reply never came.

Meanwhile, I had made the acquaintance of a refined gentleman, an Englishman who spent last summer here, whom I, on the strength of the friendship that we had established together, charged with the task, in the course of the visit he was about to make to Stockholm, of gathering more precise information about Herr von Swedenborg's miraculous gift. According to his first report, the story that I have already mentioned was, according to the most reputable people in Stockholm, exactly as I have recounted it to you. At that time, he had not yet spoken to Swedenborg but hoped to speak to him, yet he found it hard to persuade himself of every supposed truth told by the most reasonable persons of the city regarding his occult dealings with the invisible spirit world. But the following letters sounded completely different. He had not only spoken to Herr von Swedenborg, but he had also visited him in his house; and he now felt utterly astonished about the whole strange matter. Swedenborg is a reasonable, agreeable, and sincere man; he is a scholar, and my aforementioned friend has promised to dispatch to me some of his writings shortly. He told this gentleman without reserve that God had granted him the singular capacity of communicating with departed souls at his pleasure. He appealed to certain widely acknowledged confirmations. As he was reminded of my letter, he said that he was aware that he had received it and that he would already have answered it if he had not intended to publicize the whole of this singular matter before the eyes of the world. He would go to London in May of this year, where he would publish his book in which the answer to every point of my letter is supposed to be found.

In order, gracious Fräulein, to give you a pair of confirmations witnessed by still living spectators and investigated immediately on the spot by the gentleman who reported them to me, listen, as you please, to the following two occurrences.

Madame Harteville [Marteville], the widow of the Dutch envoy in Stockholm, some time after the death of her husband, was reminded by the goldsmith Croon of the payment for a silver service, which her husband had commissioned from him. The widow, although convinced that her late husband was far too meticulous and orderly in his affairs not to have settled the debt, was unable to produce a receipt. In this predicament, since the sum was considerable, she asked Herr von Swedenborg to call on her. After begging his pardon several times, she asked him, if, as everyone said, he had the extraordinary gift of conversing with departed souls, he might be so good as to inquire with her husband about the situation with the claim for the silver service. Swedenborg was not at all hesitant about complying with this request.

Three days later the aforementioned lady had company for coffee. Herr von Swedenborg called on her and reported, in his off-hand manner, that he had spoken to her husband. The debt had been settled seven months before his death, and the receipt was to be found in the cabinet in the upstairs room. The lady reported that the cabinet had been thoroughly cleared out and that the receipt had not been found among all the papers. Swedenborg said that her husband had described to him how, if a drawer on the left side were pulled out a board would be revealed that must be pushed aside, whereupon one would find a concealed drawer in which his secret Dutch diplomatic correspondence was kept and also the receipt would be found. After this report, the lady repaired, alongwith the entire company to the upper room. The cabinet was opened, the description was followed completely and the drawer, of which she had known nothing, was found, and the papers described were inside, to the great astonishment of everyone who was present.

The following occurrence, however, seems to me to have the greatest evidential force of all and really deprives all conceivable doubt of excuse. It was in the year 1756 as Herr von Swedenborg, at the end of the month of September at four o'clock in the afternoon, returning from a journey to England, disembarked at Gothenburg. [Translator notes "The fire took place on July 19, 1759" the year stated in Spirit Seer.] Mr. William Castel invited him over along with a company of fifteen persons. That evening around six o'clock Herr von Swedenborg left and then returned to the drawing room pale and agitated.

He said that there was even now a dangerous conflagration in Stockholm in the Südermalm (Gothenburg lies more than fifty miles from Stockholm) [German miles; 500 km or 300 miles], and the fire was rapidly spreading. He was restless and went out frequently. He said that the house of one of his friends,whom he named, already lay in ashes and his own house was in danger. At eight o'clock, after he had gone out again, he joyfully exclaimed: "Praise be to God, the conflagration has been extinguished, three doors from my own house!" This report caused a great stir in the whole city and especially in the gathering, and that same evening someone gave a report to the governor. On Sunday morning, Swedenborg was called to the governor. He asked him about the matter. Swedenborg described the conflagration exactly, how it started, how it had been extinguished and the time it lasted. That same day the report spread through the whole city, where it now caused an even greater stir because the governor had taken notice of it, for many were concerned for their friends or for their goods. On Monday evening, a mounted messenger, dispatched by the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce at the time of the fire, arrived in Gothenburg. In his letters, the conflagration was described in the exact manner as it had been related. On Tuesday morning, a royal courier arrived at the governor's with news of the fire,the damage, its cause, and the houses that it affected; this report did not differ in the least from the one Swedenborg had given at the same time, for the conflagration had been extinguished at eight o'clock.

What can one offer against the credibility of this occurrence? The friend who wrote me this has personally investigated everything, not only in Stockholm, but also about two months ago in Gothenburg, where he is well acquainted with the most reputable people and where he could completely inform himself from the whole city, where, since 1756 is a short time ago, most of the eyewitnesses still live. He has also given me an account of the manner in which, according to the testimony of Herr von Swedenborg, his intercourse with other spirits takes place, and also the ideas he presents regarding the condition of departed spirits. This portrait is remarkable, but time fails me to describe it. How much I wish that I could have questioned this remarkable man myself, for my friend is not so well versed in method as to ask about what would throw the most light on such a matter. I await with longing the book that Swedenborg will publish...


Kant seems to conclude that Swedenborg's sixth sense is real, but in Spirit Seer he alternately accepts and mocks. G.R. Johnson, the translator above, argues Kant's ambivalence is real, but partly driven by a need to distance himself from Swedenborg if Kant wanted a respectable academic post. Even philosophers have to eat. My take (from passages not quoted here): Kant concedes a psychic may indeed pick up useful information about our familiar world, but is less reliable when describing spirits and such, where he'll inevitably translate unfamiliar impressions into his own mortal, material and cultural mindset--a problem Swedenborg himself admitted (and added, amusingly, that spirits are equally naïve about material life--about us).

So for Kant, a sixth sense can be possible, even useful, but the seer can misconstrue what's seen--as with any sense. You needn't be utterly skeptical OR utterly credulous. A realistic position, and one I'd endorse as still relevant. Given that most modern people ignore the evidence and take one of those extremes--for life.

Source: Kant on Swedenborg: Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and other writings, Immanuel Kant, translated by Gregory R. Johnson & Glenn Alexander McGee, 2002. Spirit Seer, pp 42-44; letter to Knobloch, pp 68-71.

LISTS AND LINKS: more ESP examples - ESP as a social phenomenon - ghosts, revenants & spirits in general - privacy & secrets - fires - house & home - a mid-1980s echo of the secret only the 'princess' knows: Ted's Death - a 1947 echo of the widow's hidden receipt: Insurance - a wild pseudo-Swedenborgian dream: In the Star

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