Shakespeare the Swedenborgian

AFTER an exhaustive study of approximately five days I’ve concluded that there is ample evidence to prove that William Shakespeare was a Swedenborgian.

According to Wikipedia, the standard of excellence for studies like this, “Emmanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, and theologian.”  He has been termed a Christian mystic by some sources, including the fusty old Encyclopedia Britannica online version and the Encyclopedia of Religion  (1987), which starts its article with the description that he was a “Swedish scientist and mystic.”  Swedenborg termed himself  “Servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” in True Christian Religion, one of his published works. Perhaps he thought he was St Paul.  It annoys some people that he lived smack in the middle of the Enlightenment.  But there you go.

Anyway, he was an extremely accomplished guy and had many radical ideas, such as the idea that the last judgement had already happened (or was happening) and that the Bible should be used as a repository of spiritual truths. Likewise, Shakespeare according to some scholars (though none come to mind except F R Leavis and he didn’t say this) was  very radical and used the Bible as a repository of quotations he could skim for his plays.  The first act of Macbeth, for example is full of biblical references and stuffed with mystical beliefs.  As my full length study, Shakespeare and Swedenborg: A Spiritually Dynamic Duo, will show, these similarities cannot be explained as mere accident.

In his book Life on Other Planets, Swedenborg stated that he conversed with spirits from Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Venus, and the moon.  He did not report conversing with spirits from Uranus and Neptune, however, which had not been discovered in his day.  This crucial piece of information lends veracity to his claim since an unscrupulous scholar might say he had conversed with spirits from undiscovered planets.

Significantly, Shakespeare’s references to planets are also well known. So is his belief in astrology, as we can see in All’s Well That Ends Well (I.i)

HELENA. Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.PAROLLES. Under Mars, I.

HELENA. I especially think, under Mars.

PAROLLES. Why under Mars?

HELENA. The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.

PAROLLES. When he was predominant.

HELENA. When he was retrograde, I think, rather.

PAROLLES. Why think you so?

HELENA. You go so much backward when you fight.

And, of course, references to the moon (“the inconstant moon”) abound.

No wonder Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, was an avid follower of Swedenborg, whose more scientific observations must have had their appeal in an earlier century.

Swedenborg's flying machine; cf. A Midsummer Night's Dream,' Act V. Scene I

OT only this, but Shakespeare also enjoyed writing about human beings conversing with spirits and ghosts.  If the ghost of Hamlet’s father weren’t enough proof, there’s also Banquo, Julius Caesar, probably a dozen in Richard III, and the mother of Posthumus in Cymbeline, which no one has ever read, and several in Antony and Cleopatra, which seven people have.

Geographical evidence for the “Emmanu-Will connection” is not lacking. Not coincidentally, Swedenborg lived in London for four years from 1709 until 1713, almost exactly one hundred years after the first performance of Shakespeare’s blockbuster hit, The Four Noble Kinsmen.  Circumstantially but crucially in my opinion: Shakespeare was also born in England.  One of his most famous plays is about a Scandinavian prince; and Swedenborg, as his name suggests, was also a Scandinavian.

Swedenborg’s scientific accomplishments have often been overlooked, especially his work in metallurgy.  He was a pioneer in the study of the smelting of lead and copper.   We find a similar interest in Act 2 scene 7 of Merchant of Venice, where a drawn curtain reveals three small caskets made of lead, silver and gold. In this scene Shakespeare shows his acquaintance with Swedenborg’s work in the quotation, “All that glisters is not gold” but there are equally decisive references to metals that range beyond a mere casual interest in the topic in both Macbeth and Hamlet.

After his retirement from the Board of Mines, Swedenborg was best remembered as a biblical interpreter. Usually abbreviated as Arcana Cœlestia and under the Latin variant Arcana Caelestia (translated as Heavenly ArcanaHeavenly Mysteries, or Secrets of Heaven depending on modern English-language editions) his writings on scripture swelled to eight volumes of impenetrable prose.

In a nutshell he thought thought the last judgement had begun in 1757 because the Christian church had lost faith and charity.  This is the scenario Shakespeare uses in Macbeth 1.2, when Banquo says to the hags, “If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me” (1.3.60).  There are all kinds of references to the supernatural in Shakespeare’s plays, but after five days I have only been able to track down a few.  One thing is sure, however:  both men believed in heaven, hell, and the devil. To wit, the Comedy of Errors (Iv.iii)

Ant. S. Satan, avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!
 Dro. S. Master, is this mistress Satan?
 Ant. S. It is the devil.
 Dro. S. Nay, she is worse, she is the devil’s dam; and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, God damn me;’ that’s as much to say, ‘God make me a light wench.’ It is written, they appear to men like angels of light.” 

This is just one example of Shakespeare talking about spirits and demons.  There are lots of others that point directly to his mystical infatuation with the idea of conversing with the dead.

Finally, Swedenborg wrote that “eating meat, regarded in itself, is something profane,” and was not practiced in the early days of the human race. Swedenborg’s landlord in London, a Mr. Shearsmith, said he ate no meat but his maid, who served Swedenborg, said that he would occasionally indulge in eating eels and pigeon pie.  Similarly, Shakespeare’s vegetarianism, derived from Swedenborg”s, is evident in the Witch’s Brew of Macbeth, Act I:  According to many scholars, the “ghastly preparation” qualifies for a vegetarian repast because it avoids the flesh of newt and frogs.  This cannot be pure coincidence. According to the same calculation, Falstaff, especially in Henry V,  can be seen as an allegory of the price of a strict carnivorism.  Nor is it merely “interesting” that both Swedenborg and Shakespeare wrote a lot about marriage and conjugal love, though both seemed to have lived as bachelors for most of their lives.

T  SHOULD not surprise us that we can confidently add the name of Shakespeare to the long list of famous men who have been attracted by Swedenborg’s ideas.  Kant, William Blake, Balzac, Henry James, Emerson,  Karl Jung and Jorge Luis Borges, to name only the most turgid,  have all been admirers and disciples.  Women, not so much.

Skeptics may contend that Shakespeare cannot have been influenced by Swedenborg because the bard lived in a previous century.  That, in my view, is the sort of discriminatory, limited, and shallow thinking that has kept history the poor sister of the sciences for a long time.

By what right do we proclaim that influence only moves from antecedent to subsequent events?  In the case of Shakespeare and Swedenborg, the evidence is overwhelming that history moves in all sorts of interesting directions, unlimited, like the cosmos itself, by conventional ideas of cause and effect.

So, Atheism is Just a Belief?

ELL, what did you think it was?  Let me guess.  You thought it was about not believing–and naturally not believing something is the opposite of belief.  And since the opposite of belief is fact, well there we are.

Of course atheism is just a belief.  One of my favourite websites says it best:

Strictly speaking, atheism is an indefensible position, just as theism is indefensible, for both are systems of belief and neither proposition has been (or is likely to be) proven anytime soon.

The rational position for the non-believer to take is to say that there is almost certainly no god, because no credible evidence exists to support the claim that god exists. This is a stronger position than agnosticism, which holds belief and non-belief on an equal footing.

So the debate between atheism is about the evidence and not about the status of propositions.  Oh, and what beliefs are in relation to personal identity.

Which question brings me to a recent post by Joshua Rosenau at his website— that often touches on some really interesting stuff.  This interesting stuff is directed against a not very interesting notion by Ophelia Benson that “beliefs are not really a part of identity and should not be treated as though they are. ”

Rosenau says that

 What’s especially odd about Benson’s claim is that New Atheism is all about belief. The defining difference between New Atheism and other sorts of atheism is that the gnus don’t just want to assert their own belief that there is no god (or their lack of belief that there is a god, depending). They want to assert a belief that other people’s belief in god(s) is dangerous ipso facto. When folks say that belief is only bad if it leads people to do bad things, they reply by emphasizing just how important belief is in shaping personal identity, and arguing that belief matters on its own.

Of course, this has to be true if you are going argue, for example, that bad beliefs cause people to do bad things, and the Gnus think that this correlation goes a long way in explaining why Muslims behave irrationally and why fundamentalist Christians are personally annoying and politically dangerous.

Atheists having their identity revoked in unbaptism: Fun!

Systematized bad beliefs, in the form of doctrine, are the worst because a fully constructed Catholic, or Muslim, will buy wholesale what his faith sells on the subject of sexual morality, suicide bombings, abortion, and who owns Palestine.  When someone says he’s a Catholic he’s making an identity claim, code for any number of agendas stock full of beliefs.  When someone says she’s a good Muslim, same thing.  There are no category errors here, unless you swallow the giddy notion that atheism is not a belief but a non-identity-imposing non-strait-jacketing opinion about belief.

I want to say that Rosenau’s point is elementary, in the sense that it’s fundamental to understanding that religion is identity-shaping.  Is the reason for this sly turn away from seeing belief as identity-forming purposeful among the Gnus?  Maybe it’s a slip of the keyboard: if so there is still time to back away from this preposterous claim.  But if it’s meant as a serious suggestion, somebody’s got some explaining to do.

Isn’t it true that Gnus have a catechism in the making and thus, you should pardon the expression, a fetal identity of their own?  Even though it may be short of the intellectual range of the Catholic Church or the Torah, at least their movement is beginning to resemble the bylaws of a local Masonic Temple. Every movement has to start somewhere.

More important for future development it has in common with these other systems the basic identity-shaping construct that all religions start with: We’re right. You’re wrong.

What an Unbeliever Believes: A Prelude to Winter in a Secular Season

I am a humanist. I do not believe in an afterlife but (to quote Woody), “Just in case, I’m bringing a change of underwear.”

I don’t deny or affirm the existence of God, any god. There have been so many, and all of them had their vague charms and serious hang-ups, ranging from the violent to the sexually perverse. Who could know which to worship? No one. That’s why we usually end up with the god our grandfathers worshiped.

Whether there is a God or not is simply of no consequence to me, and if the truth be told, can anyone in raw honesty claim that the God they pray to for answers, solutions, reversal of fortune, pie-in-the-sky or redress of grievances ever–ever answers their calls. Of course not. I can still see the pious face of a too-close relative asking me, as my mother lay dying in a hospital ICU, whether I believed God answered prayer. “It depends,” I said. “What are we praying for?”

In the paragraph above: the part where I said “is of absolutely no consequence to me.” That was a lie.  It is of enormous consequence, and you are lying too if you say it isn’t. If you are a believer, it is what ultimately matters.  If you are an atheist, it is what ultimately matters.  

Squirm though you may.  Notice that I completed the last sentence with no reference to Richard Dawkins or his feckless bulldog, PZ Myers whose lives would be infinitely emptier if it did not ultimately matter.

I am an Unbeliever, of sorts. Joylessly so. I have no axe to swing at the necks of believers. I dislike the word “agnostic.” It sounds as precious in tone and as pretentious as the era when it was coined. It sounds as though we wait patiently for some impossible verdict to emerge from the skies confirming our hunch that we were right to disbelieve all along, Descartes and Pascal be fucked. But it’s not really about evidence, is it? It’s about hunches.

I am not an atheist. Not on Friday. But it is a noble thing to be, done for the right reasons.

There are plenty of good reasons to be an atheist–most of them originating in our human disappointment that the world is not better than it is, and that, for there to be a God, he needs to be better than he seems. Or, at least less adept at hiding his perfection.

But you see the problem with that.

Goodness and imperfection are terms we provide for a world we can see and a God we don’t.

Taken as it is, the world is the world. Taken as he may be, God can be anything at all. I’m not surprised by the fact, human and resourceful as we are, that religion has stepped in as our primitive instrument, in all its imaginative and creative power, to fill in the vast blank canvas that gives us the nature (and picture) of God.

But let’s be clear that God and religion are two different things, and that atheists err when they say “Religion gave us God.”

What religion gave us is an implausible image of God taken from a naive and indefensible view of nature. I find my atheist friends, even the “famous” ones, making this categorical error all the time.

There are also some very silly reasons to be an atheist. The silliest is the belief that the world wasn’t made by God because God doesn’t exist and that people who think this are stupid and ignorant of science.

There are so many fallacies packed into that premise that it’s a bit hard to know where to begin picking. But perhaps this analogy will help:

This clock wasn’t made by Mr Jones because I made Mr Jones up in my head. It was actually made by a clockmaker whose name is lost in the rubbish of history, so if you continue to think Mr Jones made it just because I said so, you’re ignorant.

No, that is not a broadside in favor of intelligent design (though I happen to think the atheist approach to the question is often tremulously visceral); it’s a statement about how we form premises.

The existence of a created order–a universe–will ultimately and always come down to a choice between the infinity of chance and the economy of causation.  Whatever the choice, my causation is not muscled and bearded and biblical.

The unreal gods of the human imagination from Marduk to God the Father are. If horses made gods gods would be horses. Xenophanes.

That much we can know.

I am a realist. I believe (with a fair number of thinkers, ancient and modern) that human nature is fundamentally about intelligence and that the world (by which I really mean human civilization) would be much further on if we stopped abusing it.

I regret to say, religion has not been the best use of our intelligence, and it has proven remarkably puissant in retarding it. Science is always to be preferred, except in its applied, for-profit form (as in weapons research) because it expands our vision and understanding of the world while religion beckons us, however poetically, to a constricted view of cosmic and human origins.

To be a realist makes me something of a pessimist (a term going out of fashion) not because I don’t believe in the capacity of human nature to become what it seems designed to be, but because–realistically–we have become as flabby in our thinking as we have become corpulent of mortal coil.Obese America is also fuckwit America.  Anti-Enlightenment America. Tea Party America.There may well be countries in the world, developed, developing and undeveloped that  have higher illiteracy rates, worse schools and universities, and greater obstacles to face in providing access to education at any level.

Yet America, it seems to me, is the greatest anti-intellectual country of all.  Even if America continues to monopolize the Nobel Prize, it has the humiliation of having the worst public school system in among G-20 nations.