Emanual Swedenborg

A lecture by Rudolf Steiner

for members of the Anthroposophical Society

September 12, 1915, Dornach – GA 253 Translated by C.E. Creeger

Today I would like to talk about difficulties encountered in attempting to enter the spiritual worlds, and I will begin with a specific example. All of you will have heard of the seer Swedenborg. I have often talked about him and have always emphasized that a personality like Swedenborg is not to be dismissed lightly. On the other hand, for those who really want to know what it takes to gain access to the spiritual worlds, visionaries like Swedenborg can serve as an example of how people can still be subject to all kinds of illusions in spite of having entered the spiritual world. The spiritual world is open to them, but that does not mean they are able to break free from the world of illusion.

I said that Swedenborg is not to be taken lightly. He was not one of those seers who lightheartedly give in to their visionary gifts without knowing much about life or about the world. Swedenborg was a profound thinker and an important scholar, certainly one of the greatest of his time, if not the very greatest. His scholarly knowledge encompassed everything the science of his day had to offer. A whole committee of experts has recently been formed to prepare for publication, not what Swedenborg left behind as a seer, but his purely scientific writings — substantial proof indeed of his well-founded scientific approach and striving for the truth.

Swedenborg, then, in his pre-clairvoyant days, before being granted access to the spiritual world, had already accomplished so much that a whole committee of scholars is now needed to edit the great number of manuscripts documenting the sum total of his knowledge. (And in fact, these manuscripts may represent only a portion of what he knew.) This task is beyond the scope of any single expert of today. And we are talking only about his writings that have nothing to do with seership. Swedenborg was already at the peak of a career in academic science when he became clairvoyant— only then did the spiritual worlds become accessible to him. Swedenborg, then, was not simply some ordinary man who one fine day decided to call himself a visionary. On the contrary, he ascended to the level of seership on the basis of an eminently serious and conscientious scientific approach.

However, when we look closely at Swedenborg's clairvoyance, we can see how it is possible for a seer to stop short at a stage that does not yet lead on to the ultimate in knowledge.

This outstanding scholarly and clairvoyant personality clearly illustrates how necessary it is to be extremely conscientious when we talk about entering the spiritual worlds and about what can be brought back from them. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that before his clairvoyance developed, Swedenborg was already an outstanding scholar who had not only absorbed all the knowledge his age had to offer, but also added to it through many scientific discoveries of his own. This fact is already well established, and will undoubtedly become even more apparent once his unpublished works appear in print. He had made some first-class scientific discoveries before becoming a seer.

Swedenborg reported a great variety of information gained through clairvoyant perception. It is interesting to note that when his soul ascended to the heights and he could look into the spiritual worlds, he always felt he was surrounded not only by his own aura, but also by numerous spiritual beings embedded in it. This is very characteristic and quite significant. Whenever Swedenborg's gift of clairvoyance became active, he immediately experienced that he was not alone — he felt his soul expand to embrace his aura and saw in it spiritual elemental beings proceeding from his own organs, as it were. As Swedenborg watched, these beings held counsel among themselves and also with Swedenborg himself, with his own soul.

From the very beginning, then, he was advised by these spiritual beings that are present in each human being. These inner beings were joined by others Swedenborg was able to recognize on the basis of their consultation with the beings that proceeded from within himself. He recognized some of these beings coming toward him as beings of the outer elemental world, and others as beings who have their home on other planets of our solar system.

It so happened that once, after having consulted with his own elemental beings, he recognized certain beings in his surroundings who demonstrated a certain peculiarity. So far, Swedenborg's clairvoyant perception had always allowed him to understand to a certain extent the language of both the elemental beings coming from within himself and the beings coming from Venus, Mercury, the Sun, and so on. He was accustomed to thinking that spirits have an understandable common language — the language of ideas, of the inner weaving of ideas come alive. I have told you about these ideas come alive in several recent lectures.

Swedenborg was accustomed to understanding this language, which is also our basis for cultivating the art of eurythmy. When someone uses sounds in order to speak, the whole complex of forces that exists in order for speech to be able to resound is concentrated in the larynx and adjacent organs. Thus the human being as a totality is freed from having to “act out” speech. This means that the inner structure of speech becomes unconscious, subconscious — it becomes something totally earthly. Eurythmy is meant to enable us once again to participate with our whole being in speech.

But more on the deeper meaning of eurythmy some other time, my friends. For now I only want to point out that Swedenborg had always been able to understand the language of spiritual beings, until a certain moment when he noticed spirits approaching him who, like the others, spoke to him through all kinds of gestures and movements of their limbs or of their actual form, which is how all spirits speak. As I said, Swedenborg was used to understanding the spirits' gesture-language. This time, however, he could see the spirits making certain movements, but was unable to understand them; their movements conveyed no sense or meaning to his soul. He was surprised by that, as surprised as we would be if we were approached by somebody whose lips were moving in speech, but we could hear nothing.

Swedenborg learned a very significant lesson from this after realizing that these beings he could not understand were inhabitants of Mars — that there were in fact beings from Mars whose speech could not be understood even by someone who usually understood the language of spiritual beings. I am talking here only about Swedenborg's experiences. Because he made a point of studying these things rather than simply interpreting them arbitrarily, he gradually realized why he could not understand these souls from Mars. It was because they belonged to a group of cosmic beings who had developed the ability to conceal all their feelings and intentions, to not let anything of what they were feeling flow into their words. The fact that they were able to conceal their emotions and keep them to themselves made Swedenborg realize that hearing words and seeing gestures is not all there is to understanding language—something of the speaker's emotional state flows over to us as well. Understanding speech is actually based on this flow of emotional content. He realized that because these Mars beings had developed the ability to conceal their feelings, the meaning of their speech was not revealed in spite of the fact that they actually were speaking.

A short time later Swedenborg had another experience that led to an additional insight. He came to the realization that the beings from the hierarchy of the Angeloi did understand these Mars beings. He could not understand them, nor could the spirits proceeding from his own body, but the beings belonging to the class of the Angeloi could understand them. This realization was a very deep and meaningful experience for him. Not being able to understand something that was quite clearly understandable to the hierarchy of the Angeloi made him aware of the limits of his own visionary potential for perceiving the spiritual world.

We must avoid simply glossing over an account like Swedenborg's, because it can actually lead us deep into certain mysteries of the spiritual worlds. In order to understand the connection, let us recall several things I have described before. I explained how authentic seership begins, how good seers have to acquire a totally different relationship to the spiritual world than they have to the physical world. I told you that we perceive external beings and objects out there on the physical plane as existing outside us. We face these objects and take something of them into ourselves in the process of perception. Our I knows about the objects and creates mental images of them. This is the experiential basis of any kind of knowing and perceiving on the physical plane—we make mental images of the objects on the physical plane and recognize them.

I have also told you that this basic experience changes as soon as we ascend to spiritual worlds. There it is replaced with a different fundamental experience, the experience of oneself as object. Our I relates to the beings of higher worlds in the same way that objects formerly related to the I. We no longer perceive, but experience that we are being perceived, that the spiritual beings of the higher hierarchies are observing us. This experience of being perceived and observed by the Angeloi, Archangeloi, and other spiritual beings is a total reversal of our former relationship to the physical world. We achieve the awareness that our being has expanded to encompass the sphere of the hierarchies, and that the hierarchies are at work in us and are looking at us just as we used to look at objects on the physical plane.

Without this fundamental experience our whole relationship to the spiritual world is wrong, just as our whole relationship to the physical world would be wrong if we lacked the basic experience of perception and developing mental images. “I am observing” is true of the physical world; ultimately, “I am being observed” is true of the spiritual world.

However, right at the threshold into the spiritual world, we come to a region or current where we still retain the whole structure and essential characteristics of our relationship to the physical world. There, we have not yet rid ourselves of the attitude of “I am observing” and are not yet able to proceed to “I am being observed.” Out of deeply embedded habits, we expect the spiritual world to be essentially a copy of the physical world — a subtler or more refined copy, but a copy nonetheless. And so there are more than a few people who imagine that being at a gathering of spirits would be just like standing here in this room among physical human beings — the spirits would be assembled just like people on the physical plane, but they would be a bit less dense, so you could stick your hand right through them. Because we bring our habits of perception from the physical plane into the spiritual world and retain our underlying mode of experiencing things, we are left with the illusion of being able to “observe the cosmic beings,” and cannot ascend to that other fundamental experience of being observed by them.

As a seer, Swedenborg never freed himself from this illusion, at least not during the incarnation we're talking about. He was never able to ascend to the experience of being observed. If you read everything Swedenborg wrote as a visionary, you will find that he really does describe the higher worlds as if they were nothing more than a misty emanation of the physical world—figures that are very fine and vapor-like but otherwise very similar to those in the physical world.

It's true that Swedenborg describes the world of Imagination very aptly, but he is in no position to assess it because he veils the whole spiritual world in his habits derived from the physical world. That is why all the beings of the spiritual world only reveal to him what they are able and willing to clothe in the form of Imaginations derived from the physical world. In other words, Swedenborg sees only as much of the spiritual world as can be clothed in Imaginations contaminated with habits retained from experience on the physical plane. He sees mighty and important spiritual beings, no doubt, but always in a guise that is not their own, a guise that he himself imposes on them. And when he enters a region where the spirits make every effort to conceal what is within them—like the Mars beings who have learned to conceal their inner life and not reveal it in how they speak — he can no longer understand them; they remain a mystery to him. This lies at the root of all of Swedenborg's very conscientious descriptions, and to understand what Swedenborg's visionary world was like, we need to be aware of it.

Thus, if we really want to enter the spiritual world, we must try to identify our own self with the things around us in such a way that we become accustomed to breaking free of ourselves as we look at higher worlds. I have described this in the last chapter of Theosophy; basically, all the indications are already given there. If we become accustomed to doing this, we will gradually begin to experience things in the other way I described. This is not something we can accomplish purely through our own efforts; all we can do is set out on the right path. The experience of being perceived by spiritual beings of the higher hierarchies comes to us as an act of grace on the part of the spiritual world itself. And it is not simply that higher beings look at us; we become perceptions, concepts, and thoughts for the beings of higher worlds in the same way that objects on the physical plane are for us.

If Swedenborg had been able to get used to being perceived and thought about by the beings of the higher hierarchies, then he would not have experienced the inability to understand the Mars beings while the Angeloi could understand them. He was only capable of applying his own perspective and could not make use of the angelic mode of perception. But that is precisely what we have to be able to do. It is not enough to have concepts; we must become concepts. It is not enough to think; we must become thoughts, thoughts of the beings of the higher hierarchies.

We must learn to stand in the same relationship to the beings of the hierarchies as our own thoughts stand in relationship to us. Swedenborg could not do that. If he had been able to do it, he would have known that as long as he remained within himself he would not be able to understand those Mars beings. However, if he had stepped outside of himself and become an object, a thought, an idea for the Angeloi, then, as expanded self, he would have been able to understand both the Angeloi and that category of Mars beings. He would then have had the same understanding of the essential nature of these Mars beings as the Angeloi had. He was unable to reach this stage because he always remained within the limits of his own consciousness and was never able to let the Angeloi observe and experience him, so that he himself would simply be their field of perception. If he had been able to do that, he would have known what the Angeloi know, for our knowledge of higher worlds comes through higher spirits, spirits of the higher hierarchies, knowing in us.

The important thing for us to keep in mind is that at this stage of evolution, the human constitution is such that we can know only about those worlds that are accessible to our organs of perception. If we want to transcend this limitation, we must open ourselves up to the consciousness of spiritual beings above us so that what these beings' experience becomes the content of our own consciousness. It is important for us to experience ourselves as being included in the choirs of the spiritual beings. If you read everything I have written on the subject of initiation, you will find that all this has already been described there.

The example of an important personality like Swedenborg shows us that it leads to illusions if we ascend to spiritual worlds without being steeped in the ability to step out of the kind of consciousness we apply on the physical plane. We are met by an illusory world. My friends, if you go through all the available visionary literature and read its descriptions of the spiritual world, what you will find for the most part will be illusions of this sort. It is important not to let yourself be deceived by these illusions, because being deceived by illusions at the threshold to the spiritual world is much worse than it would be to fall prey to illusions in the physical world.

We need to use our anthroposophical literature to gradually and rationally discover how we as human beings are meant to relate to the spiritual world. We are presented with a double opportunity to do so, first of all through the fact that this material is available, and secondly because of the fact that it cannot be read without considerable mental effort. I have always made sure of that, even though it has often been suggested that I make my writing more accessible to the general public. I have always resisted such suggestions because these things are just not meant to be popularized.

If we presented what we have to offer in our spiritual-scientific literature in all kinds of watered-down versions for the sake of popularizing it, we would simply be pandering to people's unwillingness to exert themselves, and asking for trouble at the same time. Attempts at loading up on spirituality in easy and thoughtless ways always lead to trouble. The effort we make in learning to understand something difficult to read is a kind of inner training and contributes to shaping our relationship to the spiritual world in the right way. It is an essential part of our literature, or at least it should be, that you really have to think in the most comprehensive way possible while taking in the information; your thinking has to become active. Everything you have at your disposal as a result of prior reading and experience must be brought into connection with the content of our anthroposophical writings.

At this juncture, I would like to demonstrate a particular train of thought as an example of how anthroposophical material can be studied actively and thoughtfully. I once gave a lecture cycle in Munich on the subject of the history of creation with reference to the Bible, in which the working of the Elohim was discussed. This cycle is read frequently, and many people think that when they have read it and gotten it into their heads after their usual fashion, they have really accomplished something special. But that is not all there is to it. First of all, of course, it is important to accompany the reading of a cycle like this with a certain amount of inner effort. The train of thought could be as follows:

The Elohim, led by the being who later became the Christ, are a category of beings who had a particular task during the stage of planetary existence we call the [ancient] Sun stage, when the main thrust of their development was taking place. Because of their particular connection to the Sun stage of existence, we must address the Christ, too, as a Sun being. We can give a lot of thought to how truly Sun-related the Elohim are. The whole tone of the lecture cycle shows that the Elohim's relationship to the Sun underlies the whole thing and can be felt throughout.

After thoroughgoing meditation — not in deep sleep! — we realize how we need to conceive of the character of the Elohim. Then, having immersed ourselves patiently in the character of the Elohim, we will experience after some time that a thought occurs to us, coming toward us from nowhere in particular. For example, it might occur to us — and this is just an example — that Jehovah, one of the Elohim, forbade eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and that after the Luciferic temptation, once human beings had in fact eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, they were barred from also eating from the Tree of Life. How strange that the Elohim should speak of trees!

I have often said that the language of a document such as the Bible should not be taken lightly. If trees are spoken of in the Bible, if the Elohim speak of trees, you can be sure it's significant. Something essential is meant by this expression. It has been said of Homer that he declared that each thing has two names, one in the language of the gods and one in the language of ordinary mortals. With this in mind, we might imagine that the gods' referring to trees may have something to do with this divine language. Considering the subject more deeply, we may wonder what the Elohim are actually talking about when they speak of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. What do they mean?

If you consider our teachings in their entirety, my friends, you will realize that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge must have something to do with the essence of the human being. Being forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge means, as you will eventually discover, that the human soul is not to strive for the kind of knowledge bound to the physical body. This has led to the kind of sense-bound perception we know today. “Eating from the Tree of Knowledge” means becoming bound up with the physical body to the extent that the kind of knowledge brought about by Lucifer now prevails, as I described in a recent lecture. Thus, the Elohim were referring to something inherent in human beings when they spoke of the Tree of Knowledge. And they must also have meant something intrinsic to the human being when they spoke of the Tree of Life.

We may wonder why we see as we do today, how it came about that we perceive as we do. It came about because our soul and spirit, permeated with the being of Lucifer, have become embedded in our physical body and are consuming it, although this is not what was originally intended. This physical body is the Tree of Knowledge, and the ether body is the Tree of Life. After having let themselves be seduced by Lucifer into using their physical body for purposes of perception as we know it now, human beings were prevented from also acquiring knowledge through the ether body. That has been denied us. If you are really thinking, my friends, you will arrive at trains of thought like this one.

The next question to be asked, then, is why the physical body is called the Tree of Knowledge in the language of the gods.

Why do they call it a tree, and why do they also call the ether body the Tree of Life? Why are they talking about trees? It is easy to understand what is meant by this if you recall that the gods in question evolved during the Sun period for the most part and thus assumed some essentially Sun-like qualities. For a moment, just reflect on the fact that during the ancient Saturn period, everything was at the mineral level, while during the ancient Sun period, everything was at the evolutionary stage of plants. Since the gods we call the Elohim developed their characteristic way of speaking during the Sun period, it is natural for them not to speak of things that could only be experienced later, during the Moon and Earth stages of evolution, but about what evolved in the universe during the Sun stage, namely plant life. When using their own language, which is the language of the Sun, it is only natural for them to speak of trees.

You see, my friends, this is the kind of thing you can come to simply by taking what is in my books and lecture cycles and thinking it through in the right way. It is not enough to go on reading and reading and reading and putting together things you have read; you need to go further in your own thinking and use the means suggested by the very nature of things themselves to draw connections between them. But in doing that, you are also doing something else: You're making a real effort, and the result of this effort is that your soul becomes independent. However, this takes work, real work. I have to emphasize again and again that it is not through passively giving ourselves up to something, but through using our own soul forces to grapple with it actively, that we begin to separate the spiritual world from the physical world.

Active effort is what counts in attempts to gain access to the spiritual world. If you really want to enter the spiritual world, you cannot shy away from working through what confronts you and bringing it into connection with everything life has given you. Without this effort, all kinds of crazy things can happen — like someone believing he is the reincarnation of Homer but feeling no need to do anything to prove that something of Homer's genius is welling up in him. Since Homer already put in all the effort, the person in question can spend this incarnation comfortably lying on the couch in mystical slumber! If you make an effort to actively work through whatever confronts you, you will not be diverted into all kinds of mystical monkey business. Instead, you will eventually reach the point where you can develop an appropriate sense for the deeper meaning the spiritual world's truths hold for human beings. Then you will realize that you have to make every effort not to allow your habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving on the physical plane to get mixed up with qualities belonging solely to the spiritual world.

This attitude is crucial, my friends, and once we have really acquired it, it will prevent us from doing anything foolish in our efforts to enter the spiritual world. It doesn't require any particular effort to eat salt for a week in an attempt to descend to subearthly realms, and then eat no salt for a week in an attempt to ascend into higher elemental realms. That takes no effort at all, but there is also nothing to be gained from it except the worst kinds of illusions. Inner work is the only way to really accomplish something in the spiritual world. And inner work, if it is really taking place, will by its very nature lead you to the right thoughts and keep you from getting into trouble with regard to the spiritual world. Without it, however, we are subject to perversions of mystical thinking, and people have every right to laugh at us then.

For example, I once received a letter from a man of sound common sense who said that he had visited a member of an anthroposophical branch and found that people kept all the windows closed although it was terribly hot. I have nothing against closing windows, especially when everything said indoors can be heard outside — that would be a sensible reason for closing them, wouldn't it? But instead of telling him that, people said, “Dr. Steiner has expressly told us to close the windows when lectures are given in our branch, so that the demons can't get in.” This man, who was quite unspoiled by mysticism, wrote to me asking why spirits couldn't get in through closed windows. What kind of an esoteric teacher is that, he wondered, who tells his pupils to close the windows so the demons do not get in? You can see how the physical plane is confused with higher worlds in this kind of careless talk. It is quite true that beings on the physical plane cannot get in through closed windows, unless they break them, but we will hardly be able to keep the spirits out by shutting the windows! We really must develop appropriate and serious concepts to apply to the spiritual and physical worlds.

If we give it some thought, the example of Swedenborg, who was conscientious and energetic and a splendid seer in his own way, can help us correct some fundamental errors in our own way of thinking. More on this subject tomorrow.

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