Swedenborg’s Spiritual Hermeneutics

~Henry Corbin

The Theory of Correspondences 

Swedenborgian hermeneutics are governed by a general doctrine of correspondences, which is itself linked to a gnoseology [philosophy of cognition] that places at the highest degree of cognition an immediate spiritual perception, to which we can relate our term hierognosis. This cognition was the privilege of a very ancient humanity, the first humanity, the idea of which is fundamental in the work of Sweden borg. The state of these ancient peoples was still that of a celestial humanity, which means that in observing every possible object in the world and on the surface of the earth, they saw them, certainly, but they thought, by means of them, of the celestial and divine things that these objects represented or signified for them. Their visual (optic) perception was only a means. For them the process was as it is for our hearing when we listen to a speaker; we hear the words, of course, but actually it is not the words that we hear, it is their meanings. The decline began among the descendants of these celestial human beings when the object of sensory perception became the principal thing, instead of being the instrument. While for the first humanity, the objects of sensory cognition possessed a character that conformed them and subordinated them to their "internal man," to the extent that outside of this they had no interest in sensory things, their descendants, on the other hand, by placing the latter before those of the internal man, separated one from the other. In fact, they began to reason about spiritual things in the same manner as they reasoned about sensory things, and in this way they became spiritually blind.

As Swedenborg repeats frequently in the course of his immense work, this is the reason that so few people know what "representations" and "correspondences" are. In order to know, it is necessary, in fact, to know that there is a spiritual world distinct from the natural world, and that the things which are diffused throughout the natural world from the spiritual world are representations of spiritual things. They are given this name because they "represent" the latter, and they represent them because they correspond to them,7 that is, they symbolize with them. A very succinct idea of this is provided by the fact that our internal affections, everything that occurs in our thought and in our will , are manifested in the expressions of our face and look; the features of the face are their correspondences, the looks are their represenations. The same holds true for gestures carried out by the body, actions produced by the muscles. Gestures and actions are representations of things that are in the soul; insofar as they agree, they are their correspondences. But, of course, the mode of existence of these physiognomic images, these gestures and actions of the body, is not the same as that of the thoughts they express; they are natural things "representing" spiritual things. It may be said that the things belonging to the internal person are extended into images ("imaginalized") in the external person; thus, the things that appear in the external man are representatives of the internal man, and the things that agree between them form correspondences.

The bipartition of the world, therefore, should be understood not only in the universal sense, according to which there is, on one hand, a Spiritual World (itself comprising the heavenly angelic world, the intermediate world of spirits, and the infernal world ) and, on the other hand, a natural world where we live in the present life; it must also be understood that this bipartition applies to every human individual, in the sense that for each person his "internal person" is a spiritual world while his external being is for him a natural world. In support of this bipartition, there is value in the principles of a cosmology for which natural forms are essentially effects; they cannot be seen as causes, still less as causes of causes, that is, sufficient to account by themselves for their appearances and mutations. Every form derives from the precise cause that it manifests and represents, and for this reason it is preceded by that cause .The same holds true for the various degrees of the spiritual world. This, too, is a point on which Swedenborg is in profound accord with every theosophy that is closely or distantly related to Neoplatonism, but his conclusion is also based primarily on direct experience . We know how far he extended his studies of anatomy, for example. That a man could, in addition, thanks to angelic assistance of which he was conscious, decipher in transparency the secrets of the invisible spiritual organism on an anatomical plate was an extraordinary privilege that Swedenborg never regarded as a result of personal merit, but as a pure divine favor. It was in this way that he knew, from direct experience, that in the three kingdoms of the natural world there is not the smallest thing that does not represent something in the spiritual world, and that does not have something in the spiritual world to which it corresponds. This is the secret that he elaborated on throughout his commentaries on the Bible, and this is the key to those Arcana that open most often onto an unforeseen horizon.

The more unforeseen because, while he lives in the body, man is capable of feeling and perceiving only a little of all this; we apply to celestial and spiritual things a fatal naturalization that degrades them into natural things homogeneous to our "external man," and within us the "internal man" has lost sensation and perception of these things. "Blessed at that time is he who is in correspondence, that is, whose external man Gorresponds to his internal man."

In the modern Western world, he himself was certainly one of those rare Elect and , indeed, to judge by his influence, one who opened the path to many others. He wrote that "the existence of such correspondence had become so familiar that it would be difficult to name anything else that would be more familiar." He knew by experience that our whole existence derives from the spiritual world, that without this connection with the spiritual world , neither man nor any part of man could subsist for a moment. It was also granted him to understand which angelic communities are in particular relation with each part of the human body, and what their qualities are. Briefly, everything in the natural world, in general as well as in the most infinitesimal detail, including constellations, atmospheres, the entirety and the components of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms-all this is nothing more than a sort of "representative theater" of the spiritual world, where we can see things in their beauty if we know how t o see them in the state of their Heaven. Let us point out that this conception of things agrees, even in Its lexicon, with that professed by the theosophers of the Light in Islam ( the Ishraqfyun of Sohravardi, Ibn 'Arabi, Sadra Shirazi, etc.) : sensory things are apparitional forms, the places of epiphany ( mazahir, plural of mazhar), the theatrum of suprasensory universes (whence the idea of mazharfya, the epiphanic or theophanic function of images). Stated more precisely, this epiphanic relation is already established among the universes that precede, ontologically, the sensory world. Thus, in the intermediate World of Spirits, which, according to Swedenborgian topography, is situated below the angelic worlds, there exist what are designated in his lexicon as continuous and innumerable "representatives" (or symbolic forms), which are the forms of spiritual and celestial things, not unlike those that are in this world, which abound as a result of the ideas, reflections, and conversations of the angels of the higher universes. For every angelic idea contains infinite things, in comparison with the idea of a spirit, and unless this idea were formed and shown "representatively" in an image corresponding to the level of spirits, or more precisely to the lower Sphere where there is a corresponding society of spirits, the latter would have difficulty understanding its content. These "representative" or symbolic forms may constitute long series, and the visionary theosopher to whom it was granted to be their witness could only estimate their length in quantities of earthly time, but he knew that it required pages and pages to describe them: they could present cities, palaces of astounding architectural artistry never seen, landscapes crossed by cavalcades of supernatural horsemen. It is also by means of these visions that humans who have become spirits are initiated after death into the higher universes.

From all this emerges the fundamental plan of the spiritual universes . There are three heavens arranged in a hierarchy of increasing interiority and purity: a lower heaven, a middle heaven, and a higher heaven .The first is a natural realm, the "abode" of good spirits; the second is the abode of angelic spirits or spiritual angels; the third is the abode of the "celestial" angels ( the term celestial here should by no means be confused with anything re - lating to astronomy, nor, in this context, especially with the Angeli caelestes of classical Avicennian cosmology) . Just as there are three heavens, there are three senses in the Divine Word, the Bible : the natural sense, the spiritual sense, and the "celestial" sense . We will soon see that this is the basic doctrine of Swedenborgian hermeneutics. Each of these heavens is differentiated into innumerable communities; each of these, in turn, into innumerable individuals who, through their harmony, constitute, as it were, a person, and all of these communities together form a single Person. The communities result spontaneously from affinities of intelligence and love, just as some are differentiated from others according to the differences of their love and their faith . These differences are so innumerable that even the most general cannot be listed . Each angel and each community are, respectively, an image of the universal heaven, something like a "small heaven."

But though Heaven is spoken of as an "abode ," this must be understood as an abode that is the state of the internal man . That is why the topography of the Infernum, situated opposite, presents a distribution of its "abodes" symmetrical to those of the "abodes" of Heaven, because the demons and infernal spirits, as well as the angels and spirits that inhabit Heaven, were all human beings in this life, and each person bears within himself his heaven as he bears within himself his hell. By this law of interiority it is necessary to understand that the phases of time and the places of space are interior states of man as well;  Swedenborg mentions this frequently, and it must always be remembered . With this hierocosmology that determines in a parallel manner the structure of the hermeneutics of the Bible, we are undoubtedly at the heart of the Swedenborgian vision of the world . But we can only note here, very briefly, a few indications regarding certain aspects that derive from it and that are of consequence to the purpose: there is a double light, a double heat, a double imagination, and finally there is the theme of the Homo maximus, which is of fundamental importance.

[From: Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam]