Online works based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg
14 Influx and Disease
“Is it easier to say to one sick of the palsy, Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk?” Mark 2:9
Order, Freedom, and the Permission of Evil
“Heaven keeps all things in connection and safety.” But “hell destroys and rends all things asunder.”351 This is the general truth from which the Arcana Coelestia proceeds to its teaching about the origin and nature of disease.
The societies of heaven receive from the Lord an influx of mutual love, which seeks to give happiness to others and allows freedom for the uses of others. Therefore there is a general influx from the Lord through the societies of heaven which maintains the order and health of human society and of the human body. By general influx, the human body is moulded into an organism which corresponds to all the uses of the Grand Man of heaven. Similarly, by general influx, a society is moulded into a replica of the human form. So far as a society is performing the uses of communal life, it is in the order of heaven, and in a noble form. So far as the human body is functioning, it has beauty and grace and nobility, even if man’s mind be perverted. For the Lord spreads the sunshine of health upon the evil and upon the good. Only upon the basis of a sound body can a sound mind be built. Only in states of health and rationality can man’s spiritual reformation proceed. The Lord exerts His providence to provide these ultimates of order for all men, because His primary gift to man—the freedom which makes of man a responsible human soul—can be exercised only where order exists.
But freedom would be but a name, if man could not at all reject or disturb the order which the Lord provides for him. Freedom implies that man can, if he will, disturb that order not only for himself, but for others! Freedom implies that man should be free not only to think and will against the order of God, but that he shall also feel able to carry his purposes into act and set up a plane of disorder in the world. In no other way could his free will be conveyed to the comprehension of others; in no other way could he invoke the cooperation or opposition of others, who, in their turn, are free to respond. Life would not be free if it were confined within the airtight space of one’s own intentions ! Man must be free to commit mistakes, to do actual evil, to spoil the handiwork of the Creator, and abuse His agencies.
When this occurs, and order has been disrupted, the general influx from heaven gives way so far as man insists. Fundamentally, and as to all His final purposes, the Lord alone rules the universe, which cannot be upset by fickle man. It is legitimate to inquire, how far evil can derange the ultimate order of life.
That it can do so in the realm of the mind, is of course plain to see. The two higher degrees of the mind of which we are not cognizant in this life, are indeed in the order of heaven.352 But the natural degree, or the “natural mind” in which man is conscious on earth, becomes perverted as to its thoughts and affections, as to its organic habits, its spontaneous reactions, and its reasonings. Indeed, by birth, or from heredity, the natural mind of present day man is utterly opposed to the gyre and flow of heaven. It is within the various degrees of that natural mind that the hells are formed.353 And for one’s salvation, that mind must be reformed and reconstructed into the order of heaven.
But perversions go further than the mind. The brain and the rest of the body can become disordered, and after death they actually disintegrate in the grave. Not only disease, but “death,” comes from “no other source than sin.”354 But let us here pause a moment to free our minds of several possible misunderstandings.
The Actuality of Evil and the Necessity of Death
Swedenborg did not belong to that school of so-called “idealists” which regards the body and the world of matter as mere projections of the mind. He believed in the reality of the natural world which he describes as existing independently of man or man’s thought. He states that man was created last of all—as the culmination of the organic kingdoms. There is therefore no kinship between the teaching of the Writings and that of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of “Christian Science”). It has recurrently been stated that “Christian Science” was partly derived from Swedenborg. And on the surface, we find a great many phrases and ideas in Science and Health which are obviously borrowed from the Writings. “The three great pioneers of mental-healing, Dr. Quimby, Dr. Evans, and Mrs. Eddy, were readers and students [?] of Swedenborg . . . but they were more influenced by Berkeley. . . . “355 As the late Rev. John Whitehead put it: “Many flowers have been culled from Swedenborg’s garden, but they have been transplanted without roots.” Both Swedenborg and Mrs. Eddy teach that the natural mind (or what she called the “mortal mind”) is the seat of evil and the origin of disease. But Swedenborg shows that the mind is a real organism of finite substances, both spiritual and natural, while Mrs. Eddy regarded her “mortal mind” as an illusion —as “nothing claiming to be something.” The body, to her, was merely an offspring of the delusions of mortal mind!
When the Writings state that death has no other origin than sin, the reference is presumably to death from disease. The language of Scripture alludes to the life of sin as the death of the soul. In the symbolic story of Genesis, death is said to have come upon man because of his eating of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”; which made him feel like a god who could decide for himself what was good and evil. This was the spiritual death which overcame the first race— those signified by “Adam”—who were of a “celestial” genius. And the Arcana Coelestia explains that the “antediluvians” who perished in the “Flood” meant some of their descendants who could not master their evil passions—with the physical result that they died of a species of suffocation.356
Thus the symbolic prediction became literally fulfilled. And the same still holds of death from disease. But in a wider sense, death antedates both disease and sin. Death, so regarded, is but a part of finite life. Our blood dies and is restored with each breath of the lungs. The cycles of finite things all end in a death of passivity. Endless successions of plants and animals lived and propagated and died before man’s advent on earth. And mankind, before its fall into sin, was not immune to bodily death. Eternally to live on earth could be no reward for virtue. The statement that death is from no other source than from sin, is therefore qualified by the explanation that “if man had lived the life of good … he would be without disease, and would only decline to extreme old age, even until he became a child again, but a wise child ; and when the body could no longer minister to his internal man or spirit, he would pass without disease out of his earthly body into a body such as the angels have. . . . “357 From this we judge that the absence of evil—actual or hereditary— creates a pre-disposition to health. It does not prevent physical death or the wear and tear upon bodily tissues. But it prevents what the Writings call “disease”—a word which we associate with a destructive influx and with states of pain and mental anguish.
A further word might be premised about the reason why evil, which is a mental state, is permitted to extend its influence into the body and the natural world. Evil that is hidden cannot be examined, shunned, and removed. Evil in the mind exists as a desire not only to think and intend, but also to do and speak. It goes out to change the state of others— forcibly to remould the world more nearly to one’s advantage, and to profit despite another’s hurt! Unless it be seen that such indeed is the effect of the evil state of mind, evil could never be recognized. Evil in a man harms uses—his own and those of others—harms his body and the bodies of others.
In an orderly life we see a balance of good uses—such as we observe in a healthy organism. But when evil and its bodily effects came into existence, one evil is used to counterbalance another. We see this in the constant warfare of insect-pests, in the neutralization of extremes, in the balanced germ-life of our own bodies. It is even suggested that evil men do not defeat the Divine government since “one is the remedy of the other, for evil is cured by evil.”358
On earth there is much grumbling against the Divine Providence because evils and bodily sufferings are permitted. Yet in the view of the angels, bodily sufferings are as nothing when the eternal welfare of a man is at stake. The use of pain—as a signal to man that his body is in disorder—is indispensable. Without pain, man could not be warned of his mistakes or recognize his dangers. Pain and disease are thus necessary as long as man governs himself by his fallible prudence. If one still led a spontaneous life in the order of his creation, and were governed by general influx, and thus lived a life of wise instincts, he would no doubt be less liable to mistakes and abuses, less liable to pain and disease; and the fulfilment of his goals might be far easier than today.
The general effect of the teachings of the Writings seems to be that the real origin of disease was evil and self-will. The insistence on breaking the rules of rational moderation, the indulgence to excess, the refusal to curb the appetites, have caused men to turn aside from the “tree of life” and to eat gluttonously of the fruit of knowledge which would make men as gods who determined for themselves what was good or evil for them.
We rightly call disease and its consequent pains evil, because they imply a partial defeat of the ends of life, for they disturb the uses of society. They pull the mind down and make one conscious of his body, which should serve—as it did in most ancient times—merely as an instrument whereby the soul may perform uses for the minds of others.
Evil spirits love material things and attach material values, material meanings, even to spiritual things. Therefore they seek to immerse man’s mind into his bodily life. They rejoice and are in their delights when they can induce man to reflect on his sensual pleasures or pains. Some spirits would indeed obsess man, if they could, and return into the body through men. Such, however, are now confined in their hells, i.e., they are not permitted near men. To cure them of their desire, certain punishing spirits are permitted to induce upon them the feeling that they, too, actually have a material body. And to spirits it is an inconceivable torture to feel themselves bound within an earthly body, for thus they can be subjected to all manner of tormenting fantasies.359
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To assert that “every one draws disease upon himself from the evil of life” may seem a hard saying.360 We may readily admit that many diseases are obviously traceable to overindulgences, passions, or a useless, self-centered life. But there is some comfort in the further teaching of the Writings which shows that the real cause of disease lies in the other world— thus not necessarily in man’s own evils, but in the influx of the hells. “All the infernals induce diseases. … If infernals apply themselves, they induce diseases, and at last death.”361
The idea that illnesses come from the influence of evil spirits is regarded in the world as a superstition. And yet it must be admitted that all man’s passions and lusts are nothing but effects of the spirits whose invisible presence feeds our contrary moods. If disease comes from such a source, it can readily be understood why the miracles which the Lord performed on earth were chiefly works of healing. His mission was to restore order in the spiritual world. What He did on earth corresponded to His work of redeeming mankind from the dominion of evil spirits.362 He did not come to take away all sickness; but each of His miraculous cures marked a step in the battle against the hells—representing on earth what He was doing in the spiritual world. There were many sick and blind in those days, but only a relatively few were healed.363
Many of the early Christians believed that the Lord came to establish a kingdom of God on earth, in which evil would have no place, nor disease or death. Yet after nearly two thousand years have passed, illness and evil persist. But what the Lord came to do was done. This was the ordering of the spiritual world so that men might be free to choose between good and evil, and progress into heaven if they willed. A spiritual judgment was performed, and certain restraints were imposed on the hells. One of the results was, that the obsessing of man’s body by evil spirits was henceforth made impossible.364 Yet disease, and the consequences of disease, were not removed.
The spiritual law now operating is, that selected good spirits and evil spirits are allowed to inflow into men’s minds. The evil spirits thus stir up lusts and falsities, by particular influx, and man feels these changing states as his own. But, as was shown in chapter XIII, the body is governed by a general influx through the societies of the Grand Man of heaven. So far as spirits are performing uses in the Grand Man, so far their societies are assigned as media for the general influx of life into the various corresponding organs and parts of the human body. The influx takes place “into the use of the organ” and so into the organ itself.365 So far as man’s body is in functional order, so far it mirrors and receives the flux of corresponding spiritual uses which make up the Grand Man; and then evil spirits are entirely unable to cause any disorders in the body. “They are not permitted to inflow as far as into the solid things of the body,” thus not into tissues or organs. But if for any reason the order of the body is disturbed, then evil spirits—who are not within the Grand Man, but together compose an opposite spiritual form which might rather be called “the Grand Monstrosity”—are permitted to inflow into the disorder, or “into the unclean things which belong to disease.”366
(The precise meaning of these teachings may be somewhat debatable. In discussing the subject of disease, we are conscious of the imprudence of trespassing on alien ground; for it belongs to the medical profession to form a philosophy of disease and cure. Yet the doctrinal statements that will provide the principles for such a philosophy must be cited, since we set out to treat of the influence of spirits upon human states. Admittedly, in drawing out these statements, a certain personal perspective cannot be avoided).
Causes and Cures, Natural and Spiritual
“Only when a man falls into disease” can spirits inflow into his body, and then only “into those things in the man where the disease is” or “into such unclean things as belong to the disease.”366 What are these unclean things ? And how does a man “fall into disease” ?
That illnesses exist which flow directly from lusts and passions of the mind has already been mentioned.367 But we are also assured that “diseases do indeed exist from natural causes among men . . . but as soon as they exist, spirits flow thither which correspond to that disease.” Swedenborg continues : “For spirits who are in evil and falsity, produce precisely such things as are sensibly perceived in sicknesses, as I have plainly experienced . . . beyond all mistake. . . . Hence it is, since such spirits apply themselves there and aggravate the disease by their presence, that if they should be removed by the Lord, man would at once be restored; for there are evil and false spirits to whom correspond diseases and ailments of every kind.”368We presume that such a sudden restoral is possible only where no member is actually cut off.
Swedenborg himself seems to have been immune to any diseases which came from natural causes. For he adds: “But such a one who is as to the spirit in the other life, is immune so long as the Lord permits him to live in the world.”369 Certainly, his biographers agree that his health in later days was remarkable.
Why was this? Perhaps because natural causes do not appear as natural to one who is sensible of the spiritual realm ! At any rate, he continues: “But, because we do not believe spirits to be about us, all these things are ascribed to natural causes. Medicines help! But still more the Lord’s Providence—as people do confess. And, strange to say, sufferers pray to God that they may be restored, and declare that God has restored them; but still, when they are out of that state, every one of them ascribes [his cure] to nature !”370
If we analyze natural causes, they are bound to resolve into spiritual causes. Even an earthquake could not affect anyone unless a spiritual cause—a mental state—has led him to abide in the zone of danger. And in the spiritual world those causes which on earth seem utterly disconnected and beyond any visible law, may be seen to be marvelously dependent on spiritual laws of Divine foresight and permission.
Yet man on earth, not knowing these spiritual connections and interior causes, must act according to his own judgment and prudence. For Providence, in His leading of man, uses also man’s prudence. Disasters that appear to have natural causes, can be ameliorated—at least for the time—by natural remedies. “Medicines help!” “Diseases”—we read—”can be, and also ought to be cured by natural means, for the Providence of the Lord concurs with such means; and thus also man is the longer kept from faith in a Divine Providence in most particular things: for if man should believe this, and then deny it, he would profane a most sacred truth, which profanation is itself a most dreadful hell.”371
The fact that there are spiritual causes operating within disease, “does not prevent man’s being healed naturally, for the Divine Providence concurs with such means.”372 Even the Lord Himself, in one instance, used an external means of cure, when He made clay of His spittle and laid it on the blind man’s eyes. There is power in ultimates. For influx is according to the vessel that receives. A disorderly plane attracts evil influx. If the disorder is corrected, the forces of the general influx through heaven—which operate in unison with the soul’s healing power and creative, formative influx into the body—will again take charge and restore the broken tissues so far as is possible.
It is important to distinguish between a disorder in the body and the disease which may follow it. A small wound, accidentally incurred, will heal without difficulty if it be kept clean. It is only a wear in the tissues—such as occurs, in different fashion, again and again in normal life; and the formative powers of the soul immediately begin to weave new fibres, new cell-structures, to repair the damage. For the soul is as it were omniscient as to all that happens in its body, and continually creates new cells, and redistributes the functions of the body most wisely while healing is going on. The soul also unifies the action of all the cells and fibres and organs into a single whole. There is no break in what we have called “general influx.” But when decay and infection set in, then the “unclean things of the disease” also attract a corresponding influx from the spiritual world. For life is constantly present—it is never absent, knows no limitations of time or space. “The expanse of life … is not an extense, but is yet within the extense of the natural sun, and is with living subjects there according to reception, and reception is according to forms and states.”373According to the quality of the natural vessel, such is the quality of the influx. Heaven cannot inflow into the unclean things of disease. But the life-spheres of hell can and do, and they act therein negatively— to oppose the human form, which is in the order of heaven, and to shatter the harmony of its uses.
What occurs in man’s body in illness resembles what takes place in a man’s mind, which is subject to spiritual diseases. “The sins retained in an impenitent man may be compared to various diseases in him: unless medicines are brought to bear on them, and the malignities are thereby removed, the man dies.”374
This is more than a comparison. For the mind also is in the human form, and has its ailments, each of which corresponds to some bodily disease. The mind—we must remember—is a spiritual organism. And while we live on earth, our mind is enclosed within the tissues of our material body, so intimately that every state of the mind has an effect on the interiors of the body; and in turn the mind accommodates itself so closely to the state of the body, that it appears as if the body had an effect upon the mind.
Spiritual states—mental states—are actuated from the presence of spirits. These spirits do not see or know the man. They only see the knowledges of man’s memory, and think by their means just as if they were man. And when we say that evil spirits inflow or act upon the diseased things of the body, this is said according to the appearance. Spirits cannot “enter” man’s body, nor do they seem to themselves to do so. But when they act spiritually into evil ideas, fantasies, and emotions, and follow the “ways” of spiritual decay which correspond to opposites of the human body, then the sphere of these spirits causes a maladjustment of the currents regulating growth in the body.373 Swedenborg notes that with one like himself whose interiors were open to sense the spiritual environment, spirits who corresponded to various diseases actually produced—in different parts of his body—the symptoms and sensations of these diseases, and this on their first approach.376 He felt their operation within him in that way,377 yet his organic body was apparently not affected, for he was protected by the Lord.378 Until he became accustomed to it, the pain was often almost unbearable.379 At the same time the spiritual character and function of the spirits were manifested, and Swedenborg spoke to them and felt how they affected his thought and emotion.
It belongs to the various departments of medicine to determine what the influx of spirits effects in the bodies of men during disease. Some of these effects are well known. There may be a sudden multiplication of bacterial colonies. There may be the engendering of poisons that infect the fluids and retard or disturb the tissue processes. There may be misdirected or cancerous growths of certain tissues. There may be upsets of the body-tone and of the harmonious vibratory motions by which life in the body is sustained. There may be deficiencies of some of the simple elements or of the complex organic chemicals which food must contain to supply the cells and tissues with the means of growth and renewal. In many cases there occurs an abnormal rise or fall of the vital heat upon which the chemistry of the body depends for its balance.
Diseases are sometimes attended by the presence of bacteria—germs which multiply with incredible speed to generate poisons and to clog the tissues. The nature of such disease germs was not known in Swedenborg’s day and is therefore not directly discussed in the Writings. But it is clear that these invading micro-organisms are to be included with the “unclean things” of disease.380 For evil spirits can inflow only into organic receptacles which, while in the body, are in some way isolated from the soul’s control. It is important to note the teaching that medicines wisely administered can serve in the Divine providence as an effective means by which the ultimates of evil influx can be weakened, counteracted, or removed, so that the influx is diverted from the body. In extreme cases the surgeon’s scalpel must remove the disordered tissue to prevent the spread of the malignity. But such external remedies do not reach the inner causes of disease which will be further considered in our next chapter.
That the inmost soul has at its disposal many marvelous agencies in the body is obvious in all stages of the formation of the embryo and the growth of the body. The strange appearance of “anti-bodies” to counter disease germs in the blood stream is an example of how the balance of organic life is maintained as if by an omniscient government; as is also the dominant role played by the secretions of the endocrine glands. That this government is mediated by the spiritual world has been the theme of this book. But man’s mind is his own special spiritual world. And health and disease may both depend on his psychical states. The philosophy of disease and cure which will eventually take form among the people of the New Church must account first of all for the relation of the body to the mind, and thus to the spiritual world.