By Means of a Great Contrivance – A Speculation on Servetus

Tuesday , 13, May 2014 4 Comments
  • 1533–A book is published containing history’s 1st scientifically accurate description of blood circulation. The author – an anatomist and theologian,  dies for his failure to renounce his words.
  • 1758–A book is published containing the claim that the Last Judgment occurred fully and completely in the spiritual realm the prior year, and that the author – an anatomist and theologian, claims that he witnessed it in person.
  • 1910–The findings of both authors are linked in time by a scholar of the latter man, though neither indicated through prophecy nor history knowledge of one another.

Michael Servetus is well-known in medical history as the first anatomist to identify the circulation of the blood, but he is more widely recognized as an ideological opponent of John Calvin who was executed for blasphemy. The Swedenborg Society (which came into existence more than 200 years after the death of Servetus) has long recognized a connection between the unorthodox, if unplumbed, theological foresight of Servetus and the later mystical visions of Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Servetus was–quite literally–dedicated to the heart of the matter. He, like many intellectuals of Medieval Europe, could not naturally conceive of the modern and artificial silos into which knowledge is now quarantined. This is why his profound and medicine-changing scientific theory regarding the transference of blood in the chambers of the heart…

but rather, by means of a great contrivance, the subtle blood is pumped forward from the right ventricle of the heart to a large circuit through the lungs.

…was a mere illustration, what we might call a footnote, within his final theological work: Christianismi Restitutio. A copy of this book was burned at his feet during his death by green wood fire.

The connection between Swedenborg and Servetus that the Society identified is this: each man was, according to them, “not only a scientific theologian, but also a theological scientist.” Furthermore, some of Servetus’ conclusions from intense theological and scientific study harmonizes well with the centuries-later visions of Swedenborg, including the most dramatic: his vision of the entire Last Judgment  having occurred throughout the entire year of 1757.

Servetus himself was no less visionary, even going so far as to anticipate the tragic environment in which he would die:

“If you find me in error in one point you should not on that account condemn me in all… The greatest of the Apostles were sometimes in error. Even though you see clearly how Luther errs in some points you do not condemn him. And I sought your instruction but instead you rejected me. Such is the fragility of the humanity that we condemn the others as impostors and impious and except our own, for no one recognizes his own error…. You say that I want all to be thieves and that no one should be punished or killed. I call Almighty God as witness that this is not my opinion and that I detest it. But if ever I said anything it is because I consider it a serious matter to kill men because they are in error on some question of scriptural interpretation, when we know that even the elect ones may be led astray into error.”

So, what does this have to do with science fiction?

You know it as well as I do: an author who does not have some level of scientific competence is going to end up writing romances withing vague science topics. An author with good science who does not have a rooted philosophy will end up writing science-of-the-day allegories.

Literature degenerates when its poles weaken. Servetus never waned at the poles: science and theology. It is what separated him from many men, even in his own day, but it is also what makes his works endure today.

Servetus, a man so prone to use extended metaphors in his life’s work, who was (centuries later) so honored by a Society reliant on mystical metaphor due to the unrepeatable nature of Swedenborg’s transcendent experiences, would seem to have lived and died a metaphor.

After all, had Servetus lived to a natural death–whether in exile or in liberty–his dangerous ideas would very likely have vanished with him. As it is, most of Christianity dismisses him as an unpleasant footnote, and secular society finds him a difficult Humanist to lionize. After all, it is still extremely difficult to acquire a full copy of Christianismi Restitutio translated into English. Nevertheless, the manner of his death ensured that his ideas persisted beyond his life, and in his very writings, he appears to be fully aware of this in advance. There seems to be an uncanny otherworldly coincidence that the man who wrote the first quote above, was himself by great contrivance, the subtle blood who was pumped forward from the right ventricle of the heart of Europe into the great circuit of Western Civilization.

4 Comments
  • Jill says:

    Something seems missing here….hmm, I’m going to say a longer word count. This idea needs further development (for me). It seems you drew your conclusion too quickly because you were writing a blog post. I know scholars have already noted similarities between the two men and their spiritual beliefs. Some have even taken to developing a unified systematic theology based on the writings of both men. However, I’m intrigued by your analogy of Servetus’ heart pumping blood through the circuit of Western Civilization. There is a source of this blood–a heart–that is the basis of a dual understanding, material and spiritual (or scientific and philosophical as you put it). We have a first cause that sends forth signals, but how many men receive pulses of these signals? You talked about Phillip K Dick already, but there are a few others in human history who apparently had an “uncanny” or “otherworldly” understanding–Tesla and Da Vinci come to mind.

  • Daniel Eness says:

    Good grief. You had to go Tesla. Okay, okay, I’ll go PKD, Servetus, Tesla. Eventually we’ll get a decent Event Horizon and make everything all nice and science fictiony. First, I’ve got to look into this business about gothic runes…

  • Jill says:

    Well, Tesla said his visions were like pulsating lights. He couldn’t tell whether they were inside his head or outside. Of course, he didn’t have an established theology, nor did he set about to create one, though he did like the idea of a radio that could contact the dead.

  • Daniel says:

    Theology is – if not irrelevant – at best tangential to the issue of supernatural crossover into the lives of great idea-makers. What I’m slowly, painfully moving towards has nothing to do with how men think of God or gods. More like what God appears to possibly think of men, or at least the extraordinary men…and how that impacts the great ideas…and how those ideas translate to fiction…and back again.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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