My last post quoted a long conversation in the afterlife among several “learned” people from the 1700’s, who reached the conclusion, basically, that they would never reach a conclusion on anything. I mentioned the parallel to postmodernism – that the conversation illustrates the kind of silliness that results from never reaching a conclusion on anything. The thing is, though, it’s not REALLY postmodern in that the assembled folk were trying to reach conclusions, but never did. Postmodernism asserts that there aren’t absolute conclusions to be reached. So, maybe postmodernism, or the idea that all truth is relative, really is a more recent development that the 1700’s.
Except – immediately after talking to those “oh how learned!” folk, Swedenborg recounts another spiritual visit, this time to a group of people surrounded by crowds shouting, “Oh how wise!” The picture it paints is one of epistemological relativism at its finest:
After this, one of the angels said, “Follow me to the place where they are crying out, ‘Oh, how wise!'” And he added, “You will see human monstrosities. The faces and bodies you see will be like those of a human being, and yet they are not human.”
So I said, “Are they animals, then?”
The angel replied, “No, they are not animals, but animal-like. For they are people who cannot see at all whether truth is true or not, and yet whatever they wish they can make to be true. Among us, people like that are called confirmers.”
We then followed the clamor and came to the place. And lo, we found a group of men surrounded by a crowd of people, and in the crowd some people of noble lineage. The men were confirming whatever the latter said and agreeing with them with such manifest accord that when they heard it, they turned to each other and said, “Oh, how wise!”
However, the angel said to me, “Let us not go over to them but instead call one of them out of the group.”
So we called one of them to us, and going aside with him, we talked about various matters. And he confirmed each point so thoroughly that they all appeared entirely as true.
We then asked him whether he could also confirm the converse of these. He said that he could, just as well as he did the previous ones. At which point he said openly and from the heart, “What is truth? Is there any truth in the nature of things other than what a person makes true? Say to me anything you please and I will make it to be true.”
So I said, “Make this true, that faith is everything in the church.” And he did so, so cleverly and skillfully that some learned bystanders looked on in admiration and applauded. I asked him next to make it true that charity is everything in the church, which he did, and afterwards that charity is nothing in the church. And he dressed up both propositions and arrayed them in such verisimilitudes that the bystanders looked at each other and said, “Isn’t he wise!”
But I said, “Do you not know that to live rightly is charity, and to believe rightly is faith? If anyone lives rightly, does he not also believe rightly? Thus showing that faith is connected with charity, and charity with faith? Do you not see that this is true?”
He replied, “I will make it true and then I will see.” And having done it he said, “Now I see.” But shortly he made the converse of it to be true, and then he said, “I see as well that this is true.”
We chuckled at this and said, “But are these not contradictory conclusions? How can you see two contrary conclusions as true?”
Nettled by our response, he replied, “You are wrong. Both conclusions are true, since truth is only what a person makes true.”
Standing nearby was someone who in the world had been an ambassador of the highest rank. He marveled at this and said, “I recognize that something of this sort goes on in the world, but still you are insane. Make it to be true, if you can, that light is darkness, and darkness light.”
To which he replied, “I will do it easily. What are light and darkness but conditions of the eye? Does light not turn to darkness when the eye comes in out of bright sunshine? Or when it gazes intently at the sun? Who does not know that the state of the eye then changes and that light consequently appears as darkness? And conversely, that when the condition of the eye recovers, the darkness appears as light?
“Does an owl not see the darkness of night as the light of day, and the light of day as the darkness of night? Does it not see the sun itself as a dark and shadowy orb? If a person had eyes like an owl’s, what would he call light and what would he call darkness?
“What then is light but a condition of the eye? And if it is a condition of the eye, is not light darkness and darkness light? Consequently the one proposition is true and the other is true.”
After that the ambassador asked him to make it to be true that a raven is white and not black.
To which he replied, “I will do this easily, too. Take a needle or razor,” he said, “and open up the feathers or quills of a raven. Are they not white inside? Then remove the feathers and quills and look at the raven’s skin. Is it not white? What is the blackness surrounding it but an opaqueness to light, which is hardly a basis on which to judge the raven’s color? If you do not know that blackness is only an absence of light, ask experts in the science of optics and they will tell you. Or grind a piece of black stone or black glass into a fine powder, and you will see that the powder is white.”
“But,” said the ambassador, “does a raven look black to the eye?”
“Perhaps,” replied this confirmer of ours, “but as a human being, are you willing to base what you think on an appearance? You may indeed speak in accordance with the appearance and say that a raven is black, but you cannot think it. As for example, you may speak in accordance with the appearance and say that the sun rises, travels and sets, but as a human being you cannot think it, because the sun stands still and it is the earth that moves. It is the same with the raven. An appearance is only an appearance. Say what you will, a raven is totally and utterly white. It even turns white when it grows old, as I have observed.”
We then asked him to tell us honestly whether he was joking or whether he really believed that there is no truth but what a person makes true. And he answered, “I swear that I believe it.”
After that the ambassador asked him whether he could make it true that he was insane. To which he said, “I could, but I do not want to. Who is not insane?”
This total confirmer was afterwards sent to some angels for them to examine and determine what sort of person he was. And having examined him, they said he possessed not even a grain of understanding, because everything that exists above the level of reason in him was closed up, and only that which is below the level of reason was open.
“Above the level of reason,” they said, “is the light of heaven, and below the level of reason is the light of nature. And the light of nature is such that it can confirm whatever it pleases. However, if the light of heaven does not flow into the light of nature, a person does not see whether any truth is true, and so neither whether any falsity is false. An ability to see both what is true and what is false results from the presence of light from heaven in the light of nature, and the light of heaven comes from the God of heaven, who is the Lord.
“This total confirmer is therefore neither human nor animal, but animal-like.”
I asked the angel with me about the fate of people like that and whether it was possible for them to be among the living, since a person has life from the light of heaven, and from it comes his intellect. And the angel said that when people of this sort are by themselves, they are incapable of thought and so have nothing to say, but stand as mute as machines, as though in a deep sleep; but as soon as something catches their ears, they awaken. He added also that people become like that who are inmostly evil. “The light of heaven cannot flow into them from above,” he said, “but only some spiritual element through the world, from which they have an ability to confirm.” (Conjugial Love 233)