The Essence of Human Individuality

~Wilson Van Dusen

For over two centuries there has lain a little noticed gem in the voluminous writings of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Let us dig out this gem and see its color and brilliance. This gem defines the nature of each person's uniqueness and individuality. It will be seen to be a central concept for understanding ourselves and others in this world. But its use is even greater in the spiritual world to come.

In Swedenborg's writings this idea has been variously translated in English as the life's love, love of the life, the reigning love or the ruling or dominant love. We will primarily use the term the love of the life. In Swedenborg's own index to Arcana Coelestia he did not give the idea any prominence. Subsequent indexers have also mostly failed to give it prominence so it took some digging to pull it out of these writings. In a quick search of the collateral books and pamphlets on Swedenborg's writings we found barely any reference to it. So it might fairly be said that no follower of Swedenborg seems to have given the idea any real prominence. Indeed the most complete work on the love of the life is my own Chapter 5, "The Gentle Root of Existence," in The Presence of Other Worlds. There it was presented as part of an introduction to Swedenborg. Here we intend to show it as perhaps the most central idea of the design of persons it is possible to elaborate. Has this idea been found by the deluge of studies in modern psychology? No. It was prominent in the spiritual worlds making it easier for Swedenborg to work backwards to this world and to describe it here.

There will be difficulties in dealing with this subject. Love and the Lord are the most central ideas in Swedenborg's writings. It is as though everything stems from love and leads back to it. So, if we keep coming back to love, don't be surprised, this is part of the centrality of what Swedenborg found.

The Love of the Life

Love is the very life of a person. And such as the love is, such is the life. This constitutes the whole person (N 54). The love of the life is in the innermost person. This means it is not immediately conscious. The innermost of a person's life is its spiritual aspect. So it takes some life experience and spiritual development to even become aware of your love of the life, your own central tendency.

How does the love of the life arise? It is given by divine providence so that there will never be two persons with the same love of the life (M 35, H 486).

All the delights that a man has are the delights of his ruling love, for he feels nothing to be delightful except what he loves, thus especially that which he loves above all things. It means the same whether you say the ruling love or that which is loved above all things. These delights are various. In general, there are as many as there are ruling loves; consequently as many as there are men, spirits, and angels; for no one's ruling love is in every respect like that of another. For this reason no one has a face exactly like that of any other; for each one's face is an image of his mind; and in the spiritual world it is an image of his ruling love. In particular, everyone's delights are of infinite variety. It is impossible for any one delight to be exactly like another, or the same as another, either those that follow one after another or those that exist together at the same time, no one every being the same as another. --H 486

As we look closer at the love of the life it will become more apparent why each person's must be different. The love of the life is the unity of practically an infinity of human tendencies, so ultimately the overall design can easily differ from one person to another. The key point thus far is that the love of the life is in the person's innermost. It is set by divine providence and ultimately defines a person's real uniqueness (P 200). How faces of people differ is an outer sign of this interior and more spiritual uniqueness. The differences in fingerprints and other bodily aspects would be other correspondences or signs of this uniqueness. Swedenborg's writings make clear each person differs in the love of the life through eternity. But is this difference assigned from the beginning or is it developed? As we come to look closer at the function of the love of the life it will become clearer it is assigned from the beginning and this is the work of divine providence. There is a function of these differences. Swedenborg's writings make it clear heaven becomes more perfect with greater numbers. Heaven is the unity of the full range of differences. On earth many religions hope to convert the whole world so we will be more alike, but the design of heaven, the goal of our existence, appears to be a perfect unity of immense differences. (H 405)

A person's love is his or her central tendency. It extends itself outward into all our affections or feelings. These affections are continuations of the love. By means of them the person's love can fill all aspect of the life. Love is then like a king ruling the entire domain of being a person.

Love dwells in its affections like a lord in his domain and a king in his realm; its domain or realm is over the things of the mind, that is, of the will and understanding and thence of the body. By its affections and the perceptions from them and by its enjoyments and the thoughts therefrom, the life's love of man rules him completely, the internal of the mind by the affections and perceptions from them, and the external by the enjoyments of the affections and of the thoughts from them. --P 106.2

Elsewhere it is said the love of the life is like a fountain with streams coming out of it (DLDW 22). As we will see later, affection is the very basis of thought. Thought arises out of affection and is simply its outer form. Affection rules, but this is not so apparent. Love and affection are the subtle background. Thoughts are more obvious to us. Since the love of the life rules through its continuations as affections, and on into thought, the love of the life is the key even to a person's thoughts. There is no question that in this simple formulation we are dealing with the real design of persons. The person is the organ of the life's love (P 319).

Inasmuch as the enjoyments of his affections, from in-roosts down through interiors to exteriors and finally to outermost things in the body, bear man along as wave and wind bear a ship; and inasmuch as nothing of this is apparent to man except what takes place in the outermost things of the mind and the body, how can he claim for himself what is divine on the strength merely of the fact that those few outermost things seem to be his own? Even less should he claim what is divine for himself, knowing from the Word that a man can receive nothing of himself unless it is given by heaven; and knowing from reason that this appearance has been granted him in order to live as a human being, see what is good and evil, choose between them, and appropriate his choice to himself that he may be united reciprocally with the Lord, be reformed, regenerated and saved, and live forever. It has been stated and shown above that this appearance has been granted to man in order that he may act in freedom according to reason, thus as of himself, and not drop his hands and await influx. From all this it follows that proposition three to be demonstrated has been confirmed: Through his divine providence the Lord leads the affections of the life's love of man and at the same time the thoughts, too, from which human prudence comes. --P 200

In this we begin to see a wider implication. In our externals we feel in charge of ourselves. Our few outermost things seem to be our own. It is intended in the design of things that we should seem to be in charge of ourselves and hence responsible. Yet the idea of the love of the life, which actually rules, has implications of divine providence. Our innermost design is set by providence. It takes almost a lifetime of experience and maturity to begin to see our own life's love even though it is the real us. If we come to live it out and realize it, then our love of the life has everything to do with our status in the world to come. At this point we may as well confront this apparent paradox. It appears we are designed for a role from beyond ourselves (it is there at birth, it takes much life experience to even see it, it has much to do with our eternal destiny). The central paradox of Swedenborg's writings is that we are given the sense that we are responsible for ourselves, but a great deal of experience shows we are designed from beyond ourselves ("how can he claim for himself what is divine on the strength merely of the fact that those few outermost things seem to be his own?"). The key lies in the definition of freedom in Swedenborg's writings. We feel most free when we are doing what we most enjoy doing (A 9585-9591). What we most enjoy doing is governed by the love of the life and its delights and affections. We are internally designed to find where we best fit in the eternal design. Our life on earth is full of difficulties and joys which guide us to discover where we individually fit best in the scheme of things, to really realize ourselves. The love of the life is the goal we are working towards. The love of the life is the area of life that is most meaningful and most fully engages the person. It is where our innate skills and predilections lie. Also it is what they naturally remember best. In all senses people are at their optimum when they realize the love of their life. It is recognizable because it

The particular activity of the love of the life is what a person would freely choose. We might analogize to a plant. A seed falls to the ground and has enough soil and moisture to come to discover what it is. It eventually reaches full stature as a camellia bush with lovely pink flowers. It has really, really realized finally what it is. Our situation is similar. But perhaps a camellia wants to be an oak tree. Then it must be quite mad because in every cell, in all its predilections, in its very gene code it is really a camellia. It is better to be what it really is than to hopelessly dream of what is not ever possible. Humans fully experience what they are when performing the uses that arise out of their love of the life. They reach their highest and best use which is their unique contribution to creation.

Let me illustrate with the case of a woman. She remembers big moments in her childhood when she sat on the ground and designed things with dirt, pebbles and water. In high school she took art courses in drawing and painting, clearly not her tendency, so she concluded she was not an artist. Instead she took the more precise mechanical drawing and served in this area during World War II. In the university she tried science but finally discovered her place in an art history class. The exam required recognizing instantly hundreds of slides of art works, and she was astounded to get an A. In marriage and children her talents were only evident in a thoughtfully decorated home. With children gone she turned to ceramics, fiber arts, and a host of crafts. Rarely was the same thing created twice. The earlier precision of drafting turned up in quilting and weaving. One of her recreations is examining house plans. She was not an artist in terms of drawing and painting, but rather in the broad field of the decorative arts. Her visual memory for spatial relationships and art is excellent. She sees beauty everywhere. She lives in a world of beauty. In her fifties she began to realize herself as a unique kind of artist. Any understanding of her that didn't include her living in and creating beauty would be too limited. It is her center, her central tendency, the essence of her nature--an essence that conditions countless details of her life.

The love of the life plays a role both in this life and in the spiritual world to come. In this world it is very much involved in our real discovery of ourselves. If we go to heaven we naturally come into a society of people of similar loves. It must be like being an astronomer and coming to be with astronomers with similar interests and enthusiasms. At the spiritual level the love of the life is our very own avenue to come to know God, the love of all loves. It would be like discovering that we are each a ray of the divine light, and what the love of the life led to all along was that particular avenue (or ray of the divine) by which we return to the All. The love of the life is then the natural, built in, personal way to enlightenment. Our whole existence had been designed from beyond ourselves to return to God by this means. It is central in several different ways. It is clearly central to all the tendencies of the human in this world. Realizing our love of the life is also central to reaching heaven and it is the center of our role there. Furthermore, realizing our love of the life is our own personal way to enlightenment and to God. This neglected concept in Swedenborg's writings could hardly be more central than this.

The Difficulty of Realization

The love of the life is in the innermost of a person. The innermost is an inner spiritual level which many people never realize. Such people would doubt an inner more spiritual level even exists. There are a lot of factors that militate against realizing it. In infancy we begin in great ignorance. Through our parents and the daily activities of eating, toilet training, dressing, etc., we have much to learn of the world. Even movement and the possible uses of our body all have to be learned. It would seem unfair to charge children with being too much of this world. Yet, if they died as a child they would be instructed by angels who enjoy working with children (H 329- 345). The real issues are then with adults who are too much of this world to see beyond it. Religion is a counterbalance which starts suggesting at an early age there is more. But the person may have no religion, or it may not take. The entire society suggests we are so and so, a responsible person. It takes some reflection or special experiences to suggest we are designed from beyond ourselves.

Actually what we love operates both in the external and the internal realm. In the external we can fall into lesser delights of lust and everything that seems to magnify the self. If these come to rule we are withheld from the innermost love of the life.

A person does not see the lusts of his evil; he see their enjoyments, to be sure, but still he reflects little on them, for they divert thought and drive off reflection. Unless he learned from elsewhere that they are evils he would call them goods and give them expression freely according to his thought's reasoning; doing so, he appropriates them to himself. So far as he confirms them as allowable he enlarges the court of his ruling love, which is his life's love. Lusts constitute its court, being its ministers and retinue, as it were, by which it governs the exteriors of its realm. But such as is the king, such are the ministers and retinue, and such is the kingdom. If the king is diabolic, his ministers and the retinue are insanities, and the people of his realm are falsities of every kind. The ministers (who are called wise although they are insane) cause these falsities to appear as truths by reasonings from fallacies and by fantasies and cause them to be acknowledged as truths. Can such a state in a man be changed except by the evils being removed in the external man? Then the lusts which cling to the evils are also removed. Otherwise no outlet offers for the lusts; they are shut in like a besieged city or like an indurated ulcer. --P 116

So we can be beguiled into lesser delights because they are all we have known. These delights "drive off reflection" so we are not able to find there is more. People are then caught in their own externals. There are so many aspects of our current life that lead to externals it would seem difficult to blame anyone for this error.

Let an example serve for illustration. A man who has taken pleasure in defrauding and deceiving sees and inwardly acknowledges it to be sin and resolves to desist from it; with this a battle begins of his internal with the external. The internal man is in an affection for honesty, but the external still in the enjoyment of defrauding. This enjoyment, utterly opposed to enjoyment in honesty, does not give way unless forced to do so and can be forced to do so only by combat with it. When the fight is won, the external man comes into the enjoyment of a love of honesty, which is charity. Then the pleasure of defrauding gradually turns unpleasant to him. It is the same with all others sins. with adultery and whore-dom, revenge and hatred, blasphemy and lying. The most difficult battle of all is with the love ruling from self-love. A person who subdues this love, easily subdues all other evil loves, for this is their summit. --P 146

A person can be caught in external delights. In a way these are a partial image of what is possible when the innermost love of the life is found. Also there is some sense in which we need to be caught in externals for a time to begin to see through them (P 251). We can either be caught in external delights or, worse yet, want to dominate and control everything. Generally everything and everyone puts an end to our domination or we are condemned. This failure to find our real love of the life leads ultimately to hell. In Swedenborg's writings hell is not an eternal judgment. The individual, having found sufficient satisfaction in the lesser, simply chooses it as their real way. A person I know of has a long career of delight in creating difficulties for others. This is his delight, his little triumph. He seems to have chosen his eternal life. Swedenborg's writings have some dramatic images of what it is like to get caught in externals. Notice how closed in and self serving this image is.

Infernal love, with its affections or lusts of evil and falsity, together with the enjoyments of the lusts and thinking from those enjoyments, may be compared to a spider and the web spun about it. The love itself is the spider; the lusts of evil and falsity together with their subtle cunning are the net of threads nearest the spider's post; and the enjoyments of the lusts together with their crafty schemes are the more remote threads where flies are snared on the wing, enveloped, and eaten. --P 107

This is the essence of being caught in the lesser delights possible in the externals of ourselves and of life itself. But all these delights are quite temporary. The spider catches a fly and all is well for a little while. My friend who creates disturbances delights in the current one but soon must work on another. Isn't there some way of really finding ourselves in a more permanent and steady way?

In the Spiritual World

You will recall that we said Swedenborg first discovered the love of the life in the spiritual world since it played a central role there. We will look at this now to get a sense of what the love of the life leads to beyond this world.

After we die we first come into the world of spirits (H 421-535). In this in-between and temporary world our real inner nature is opened up.

This first state of man after death continues with some for days, with some for months, and with some for a year; but seldom with anyone beyond a year; for a shorter or longer time with each one according to the agreement or disagreement of his interiors with his exteriors. For with everyone the exteriors and interiors must make one and correspond. In the spiritual world no one is permitted to think and will in one way and speak and act in another. Everyone there must be an image of his own affection or his own love, and therefore such as he is inwardly such he must be outwardly; and for this reason a spirit's exteriors are first disclosed and reduced to order that they may serve the interiors as a corresponding plane. --H 498

In this world of spirits we cannot remain a mix of good and bad. We all must become an image of our real love. Out of this we decide whether to go to heaven or hell based on what we are accustomed to. To those persons caught up in a lesser love, hell is more of what they are accustomed to. Those who have known something of heaven simply prefer heaven. This so-called judgment is not pronounced by God but by the individuals out of the sum total of what their life has really become. This is a more psychological model than most religions teach. We set our future by the sum of what we have become.

Suppose we were all suddenly in a theme park. The full range of experience is available here, all listed for us to consider. We might try this and that but soon settle down where we would feel happiest. Personally I would pass up the wild parties and gravitate to where the learning of ultimate things is possible. Thus we would sort ourselves out. Beyond the opposites of heaven and hell we find ourselves in societies of similar loves. We are what we love above all else.

Every man's ruling affection or love remains with him after death, nor is it rooted out to eternity, since a man's spirit is wholly what his love is, and what is unknown, the body of every spirit and angel is the outward form of his love, exactly corresponding to his inward form, which is the form of his disposition and mind; consequently the quality of his spirit is known from his face, movements, and speech. While a man is living in the world the quality of the spirit would be known if he had not learned to counterfeit in his face, movements, and speech what is not his own. All this shows that man remains to eternity such as his ruling affection or love is.

It has been granted me to talk with some who lived seventeen hundred years ago, and whose lives are well known from writings of that time, and it was found that the same love still rules them as when they were on earth. --H 363

We are what we love the most, our love of the life. Those in heaven and in hell are in societies of people of like loves. Our ultimate role in the spiritual world will be a further development of our love of the life.

Like are drawn spontaneously as it were to their like; for with their like they are as if with their own and at home, but with others they are as if with strangers and abroad; also when with their like they are in their freedom, and consequently in every delight of life.

All this makes clear that all in the heavens are affiliated by good, and are distinguished according to the quality of the good. Nevertheless it is not the angels who thus affiliate themselves, but the Lord, from whom the good is. The Lord leads them, conjoins and separates them, and preserves them in freedom proportionate to their good. Thus he holds everyone in the life of his love and faith, of his intelligence and wisdom, and the resulting happiness. --H 44-45

So the love of the life is not only the role we most enjoy, it also shapes the spiritual society we will live in. Being in a society of like-minded people would produce interactions that very much further and reinforce our love of the life. This linking together is from the Lord who designed our love of the life in the first place. If you consider this picture you might begin to see such a society functioning as a whole toward some end. This society would be the living and active carrying out of a divine end. So our love of the life is the proximate realization of some divine end. This gives the love of the life an ultimate place in the universe quite beyond what we most love doing. Our lives fit into a larger scheme of things. By doing what we most enjoy doing we become a willing and conscious part of some larger purpose.

There would be an immense and easy communication in these societies, people have similar ends there and can easily and intuitively work together. It is open and free. Others know you well and you know them well. Angels can detect the love of the life of another angel from a few words said or from the facial expression (H 269). There is no deception. It would be a safer and more relaxed world. Everyone is helpful. No one desires power or control over others. What is there to do in heaven? The range of occupations is greater there than on earth (H 393.3).

It now becomes difficult to speak, of the further ramifications of the love of the life because it leads directly into the design of heaven. Many people think that their eternal destiny is according to their thoughts, especially of piety and faith (P 305). But the truth is our thoughts are the outer form of our love and affections. Love forms the understanding as an expression of itself (DLDW 126). Love is actually spiritual conjunction, joining (N 2). We are joined with what we love. The whole of Divine Love and Wisdom can be summed up. Love wishes to be to realize itself. Love creates wisdom (or understanding) which finds a way to ultimate itself in use. By coming to discover and express our love of the life we not only find our real nature but also our greatest use. It is the key to our highest role in this world and in the world to come.

But how do we come into such a heavenly harmony as to be a functioning part of a heavenly society? In effect on the way through old age, dying and the spiritual world all that is discordant with the love of the life is removed (H 479). A person becomes his/her own true center (D 6058). In this center we are far more effective, we come into the richness of ideas that is common in heaven (H 269). But love does not exist for itself but for others. It wishes to be of use to all. The Lord is ultimately the all. The highest realization of the love of the life is conjunction with the Lord, the All. "By creation the human being can be conjoined more and more closely to the Lord." (P 27.3) The more closely conjoined to the Lord the wiser and happier one becomes (P 27.3).

How to explain this last paradox? Suppose the Lord were the real life in a person. Then by following the love of the life, the intrinsic way in the person, they would come to the real source of all life, the Lord. So you can become most truly yourself and the Lord's at the same time. Your very love of the life, your eternal uniqueness is your own way to the Lord. Discover your real nature and discover God. So your love of the life is your own personal way to your highest delights and greatest use, and yet is your path to enlightenment. Consider the divine as an infinite number of beams or rays of light. Your love of the life is one beam that can be followed back to the source. As you come to realize your love of the life you can actually reflect on its wonder and see the source of all light and life. A person is the potential realization of some aspect of Life. All people can fully realize in themselves some aspect of the All. This is a poor statement of such a grand idea.

The Love of the Life in This World

We presented the spiritual aspects first because they represent what all aspects of the love of the life in this world drift toward.

What can we say of the love of the life in this world? We are each given a totally unique love of the life. It is in our innermost, so it is a potential to be realized. But it is always present and acting. In our outer sphere it is in competition with all the external things we need to pay attention to and learn. The more trying and restrictive our outer circumstances the less our interior is realized. We can picture children fighting for life, starving or in constant physical danger. But if a child is alone and free to play, the first signs of the love of the life appear. One child who became a biologist remembers his amazement at the amount of life in a few square inches of grass. A later cosmologist used to climb up to the roof to quietly commune with it all. The love of the life is the central drift of a person and it is most likely seen when free to play and to shape the situation one's own way. In early life it is not absent but in competition with all the other pressures of the environment. It also begins to appear early when youths design their own rooms their own way and in hobbies and interests. One future geologist on grammar school traffic patrol duty dug interesting rocks out of the street. Our cosmologist began to collect books that spoke of the cosmos. All other books got discarded, traded, or lost. When given options for courses to take it appears, even though none of the offerings appear directly related to the love. Our quilter-weaver took mechanical drawing which is a part of these arts.

If you were to look for the love of the life in a young person or adult, here are a series of questions to ask. What were their highest or most memorable experiences? What do they like to do when alone? What are their hobbies and interests? Ask what they remember most easily. Memory serves the love of the life. What is easily remembered is in its direction; what is easily forgotten is opposite to the love of the life. It can be seen in a person's most comfortable manner. The voice quality can be the music which subtly suggests it. What music, art, or literature does he or she most appreciate? It is suggested there. In a few words, it is always present, especially in all that is freely and independently chosen. The older people are, the more likely they can speak rather freely and directly about what they love above all else. All the difficulties of our lives serve to take us away from the love of the life into stresses which are its opposite. It is as though difficulties serve to show us ways that are not right for us. Our youthful cosmologist thought he wanted to be important, have a fancy uniform, be famous. By old age that disappeared. All fame immediately took him away from the quiet reflection he loved. The only fame he enjoyed was in speaking to people of a like interest. Yet for all people who early on realized their real love, we could point to dozens who spent a lifetime just approaching it.

Can people know their own love of the life? At first sight Swedenborg's writings seem to say yes and no. "The affections of the life's love are known to the Lord alone." (P 192) "When a man is thinking solely from his own spirit, as he does in private meditation at home, he thinks from the affection belonging to his love." (P 61) Those who know how their love relates to the universal love "can know what his own state will be after death" (H 487). The answer is this: those caught in the lesser love of their self and things of the world cannot really experience their love of the life which is more internal and spiritual. But those whose loves lead to heaven can come into some awareness of the love of the life. Yet the full range of the love and its affections will only gradually be discovered, first in this world and later in the next. We can begin to experience it in this world (DLDW 55). One difficulty is that we experience our thoughts (which stem from the life's love) more clearly than our affections. People who have found what uses they love to perform have some use in the world, and have begun to experience their life's love. But its full ramifications await development in the spiritual world. Those whose loves point them to hell have not begun to find the life's love. The whole hell aspect of Heaven and Hell illustrates this. One clear sign the life's love has started to emerge is that the individual is happy, unique, and useful. Such people can begin to experience heaven while in this world. Those bent towards hell seem more limited and alike, and tend to be a burden on society rather than a use. Ask what a person has contributed and that person's use can probably be seen.

Love has an end which is what is sought above all. The end shows itself and ultimates in use or the good of a person. Has a woman or man raised children? That is a use. An occupation can both make a living and serve uses. Even a manufacturer is making what others need. The more an occupation is chosen out of other possibilities the more likely it is to reflect some aspect of the life's love.

There is so much on this in Swedenborg's writings that it is difficult even to summarize it. The function of the life's love is seen best in Heaven and Hell, Divine Providence, and the chapters on love and the internal-external in Heavenly Doctrine. In terms of this world the love of the life is: 1. The innermost nature of a person.

Is this known in contemporary psychology? Not really. There are countless tests of aptitudes, interests, intelligence, personality, etc. They all report on persons in terms of population norms. They provide rather remote pointers toward the individuality defined here.

Can we make use of this idea? I have for years thought of people in terms of their uniqueness. By asking questions mentioned here we can begin to see another's love of the life. Yet with further maturity, and more free choices, this uniqueness continues to unfold and to surprise. The better we see another's love of the life, the more that person's life falls into an understandable pattern. Teenagers and young adults have vague notions of their love. In the aged it is easier to find people who can lay out much of their uniqueness. Swedenborg's writings describe how extraneous and unsuitable elements of the life fall away. As the aged prepare for the spiritual world they can fairly well describe what has become less important and fallen away. So in this sense age seems much wiser than youth. In a study of what people know of the love of the life, the study of the aged who have happily found their way of being would be the place to start.

What could be more central in this world and the next than the love of the life? It is difficult to present because its ramifications extend into everything. It is the very center of a persons unique way in this world and in the next.


W. Van Dusen, The Presence of Other Worlds, Chrysalis Books, West Chester, PA, 1994.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom, Swedenborg Foundation, West Chester, PA, 1995.

Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg Foundation, West Chester, PA, 1995.