SERPENTS >> Sensuous things in man >> Sensuous man who only
believes in his senses >> Evil >> Love of self

sn2ake How are serpents unlike other animals? They have no feet, or perhaps we may say they are all foot, and lie full length upon the ground. Not all serpents are dangerous,  though there are some with very violent poison, which is numbing to their victims, and often fatal, and some which are dangerous from their habit of coiling about their prey. Even the harmless snakes are exceeding cautious, and with their gliding, insinuating motion are peculiarly repulsive. Snakes have also the power to fascinate or charm their prey, so that while they terrify, escape is almost impossible.

Serpents are members of the animal kingdom. They therefore correspond to affections of some kind. Does the fact that they lie full length upon the ground suggest that they correspond to high and spiritual affections? Rather it suggests external affections, those which are in closest contact with the body and the world. And what are these most external affections? The enjoyments of the senses. The enjoyment of pleasant taste, and smell, and sound, and sight, and touch-these enjoyments are the spiritual serpents. (AE 581; AC 196, 195)

Is the enjoyment of pleasant taste, and of other pleasant sensations, necessarily an evil thing? The Lord gave these sensations, with their pleasures, to be useful to us, to help us to adapt ourselves wisely to conditions and circumstances. The sense of feeling warns us to avoid extreme heat and cold and other dangers, and to preserve healthful conditions. The sense of taste when unperverted and wisely educated is a guide in choosing wholesome food. The senses are our point of contact with the world, and their enjoyments enable us to live wisely in the world. These enjoyments are the good serpent, prudent and circumspect. (AE 714)

And may we in a little deeper sense "feel our way"? If we have a request to make or an opinion to suggest may we approach the subject cautiously, noticing the first sign of favor or disfavor, if need be withdrawing the subject unobserved? Sensitiveness to the attitude of others, enabling one to adapt himself wisely to the situation, we call "tact "; it also is the serpent in a good sense. Even in religious matters is there need of this sensitiveness and caution? for example, in speaking of spiritual subjects with persons whom we wish to interest in them? There is especial need of this prudence here. Was it not this which the Lord meant when He charged the disciples as He sent them forth, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harm less as doves "? (Matt. x. 16; AC 197; AE 581)

As there any danger connected with the enjoyments of the senses? May the affection for pleasant tastes and sounds become an evil thing? We know that it may. How such an affection - the appetite for some pleasant but hurtful food or drink, for example -how such an appetite creeps in silently and unobserved, till before we are aware, it holds us in its coils, and can with the greatest difficulty be shaken off! It comes unnoticed. Even when we perceive its presence and are terrified, still it fascinates us till escape seems impossible. It numbs our conscience, our sense of right and wrong, and our perception of spiritual things. We are then its prey. No temptation is more insinuating than this of pleasant sensation. "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made." (Gen. iii. i; AE 581, 544; AR 455; AC 194-197)

The poisonous serpents also correspond to the power of the senses to mislead the understanding, when they are not corrected and interpreted by a higher intelligence. How persuasive their arguments are, and apparently how convincing; and yet how false! (AC 195, 6400) This meaning is plain in the prophecy: "Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward." (Gen. xlix. 17) An external state of mind is here described, which takes life in a very natural and superficial way. The danger is pointed out, that in such a state of mind the deceptive appearances of the senses will destroy the understanding of spiritual truth, and leave the spiritual life without support. (AC 6.396-6401, 2761; AE 581, 355)

  Can we now understand in a simple way the story of the temptation in Eden, and the first disobedience? "Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. . . . And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. . . . The woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. . . . And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (Gen. iii. 1-15) It was the enjoyment of pleasant things of sense which beguiled men from their innocence, and made them assume to judge for themselves of good and evil instead of listening obediently to the Lord. They began to indulge in what seemed pleasant, to judge by mere outward appearances, and to think that they knew best. We can understand it, for the same thing exactly has taken place many times in our own lives. "The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat." (AC 194-210; AE 739, 581; DP 310)

The curse upon the serpent is a revelation of the character of the sensual nature, now that it has become self-indulgent and misleading, and of its relation to the spiritual life. "Upon thy belly shalt thou go," means that the senses and their enjoyments have turned away from the higher life and turned downward to the world and evil. It is not necessary to conclude that serpents originally were raised above the earth, though there is scientific evidence that they did once have legs like lizards. Before men turned to evil, the serpent's contact with the ground symbolized the external nature of good sensual pleasures; it became now a symbol of their aversion from heavenly life and their proneness to evil. Their sole regard for external gratification is described in the words, "Dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." There is perpetual warfare between this self-indulgence, with the tribe of evils which spring from it, and the developments of spiritual life. There is enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. (AC 229-249; Cor. 30)

And what power can conquer for us these most deceitful and deadly tempters? The Lord alone can give us power to overcome. In His human life He met all our temptations, even those temptations to the indulgence of appetite and sensual pleasure. He met and overcame them all, and He will give us power to overcome. His conflict and His victory for our sake are predicted in the words, "It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." (AC 250-260; AE 768; DP 211)

Nearly the same spiritual lesson is taught in one chapter of the story of the desert journey. "Our soul loatheth this light bread," the people complained, remembering the plenty of Egypt. "And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. . . . And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." (NUMB. xxi. 5-9) Plainly it tells of the turning back with longing from the interior satisfactions of a spiritual life, to the indulgences of sensual pleasure. The love of such pleasures bites us with its inflaming poison, and without some help our spiritual life must perish. The only help is to look up to the Lord who has overcome the temptations of the senses, and can give us strength. The raising of the serpent of brass upon a pole represents the Lord's lifting up of the sensual nature in His own humanity, making it good, yes, Divine. It is the source of strength to us when bitten by the serpents of self-indulgent appetite. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." (John iii. 14, 15; AE 581; AC 197, 8624, 4911; AR 49; see Chapter 37)

Remember the signs given to Moses by which to prove that the Lord had appeared to him. "The LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it . . . . And he put forth his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand." (Exod. iv. 2-5) So is our lower, sensual nature if we deny the presence of the Lord with us, and cast it on the ground to do as it will; it is a serpent. But when in the Lord's strength we take this serpent in hand, it is no longer dangerous, but a staff to support our spiritual life. Our helplessness without the Lord to control our appetites, and the change when we accept His help, are proof that the Lord is with us even in our most external life. (AC 69466956) The Lord promised the same sign in His farewell words to the disciples. "And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name they shall cast out devils; . . . they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them." (Mark xvi. 17, 18; Luke x. 19; AC 9013; AE 581)

"And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain." (Isa. xi. 8, 9) The Lord will protect from the deceitful and deadly allurements of sensual pleasures, and from the influences of hell which inspire them, all who are children in heart-who are innocent in their lives and put their trust in Him. (AC 9013; AE 410, 314, 581)


sn1ake  The most ancient people did not compare all things in man to beasts and birds, but so denominated them; and this their customary manner of speaking remained even in the Ancient Church after the flood, and was preserved among the prophets. The sensuous things in man they called "serpents", because as serpents live close to the earth, so sensuous things are those next the body. Hence also reasonings concerning the mysteries of faith, founded on the evidence of the senses, were called by them the "poison of a serpent", and the reasoners themselves "serpents;" and because such persons reason much from sensuous, that is, from visible things (such as are things terrestrial, corporeal, mundane, and natural), it is said that "the serpent was more subtle than any wild animal of the field".

[2] And so in David, speaking of those who seduce man by reasonings: -

They sharpen their tongue like a serpent; the poison of the asp is under their lips (Ps. 140:3).

And again: -
They go astray from the womb, speaking a lie. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent, like the deaf poisonous asp that stoppeth her ear, that she may not hear the voice of the mutterers, of a wise one that charmeth charms (sociantis sodalitia ) (Ps. 58:3-6).

Reasonings that are of such a character that the men will not even hear what a wise one says, or the voice of the wise, are here called the "poison of a serpent". Hence it became a proverb among the ancients, that "The serpent stoppeth the ear". In Amos: -

As if a man came into a house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Shall not the day of Jehovah be darkness and not light? even thick darkness, and no brightness in it? (Amos 5:19, 20).

The "hand on the wall" means self-derived power, and trust in sensuous things, whence comes the blindness which is here described.

[3] In Jeremiah: -

The voice of Egypt shall go like a serpent, for they shall go in strength, and shall come to her with axes as hewers of wood. They shall cut down her forest, saith Jehovah, because it will not be searched, for they are multiplied more than the locust, and are innumerable. The daughter of Egypt is put to shame, she shall be delivered into the hand of the people of the north (Jeremiah 46:22-24).

"Egypt" denotes reasoning about Divine things from sensuous things and memory-knowledges (scientifica). Such reasonings are called the "voice of a serpent;" and the blindness thereby occasioned, the "people of the north". In Job: -

He shall suck the poison of asps; the viper's tongue shall slay him. He shall not see the brooks, the flowing rivers of honey and butter (Job 20:16, 17).

"Rivers of honey and butter" are things spiritual and celestial, which cannot be seen by mere reasoners; reasonings are called the "poison of the asp" and the "viper's tongue". See more respecting the serpent below, at (verses 14 and 15). [AC 195]. 

In ancient times those were called "serpents" who had more confidence in sensuous things than in revealed ones. But it is still worse at the present day, for now there are persons who not only disbelieve everything they cannot see and feel, but who also confirm themselves in such incredulity by knowledges (scientifica) unknown to the ancients, and thus occasion in themselves a far greater degree of blindness. In order that it may be known how those blind themselves, so as afterwards to see and hear nothing, who form their conclusions concerning heavenly matters from the things of sense, of memory-knowledge, and of philosophy, and who are not only "deaf serpents," but also the "flying serpents" frequently spoken of in the Word, which are much more pernicious, we will take as an example what they believe about the spirit.

[2] The sensuous man, or he who only believes on the evidence of his senses, denies the existence of the spirit because he cannot see it, saying, "It is nothing because I do not feel it: that which I see and touch I know exists." The man of memory-knowledge (scientificus), or he who forms his conclusions from memory-knowledges (scientiae), says, What is the spirit, except perhaps vapor or heat, or some other entity of his science, that presently vanishes into thin air? have not the animals also a body, senses, and something analogous to reason? and yet it is asserted that these will die, while the "spirit of man" will live. Thus they deny the existence of the spirit.

[3] Philosophers also, who would be more acute than the rest of mankind, speak of the spirit in terms which they themselves do not understand, for they dispute about them, contending that not a single expression is applicable to the spirit which derives anything from what is material, organic, or extended; thus they so abstract it from their ideas that it vanishes from them, and becomes nothing. The more sane however assert that the spirit is thought; but in their reasonings about thought, in consequence of separating from it all substantiality, they at last conclude that it must vanish away when the body expires. Thus all who reason from the things of sense, of memory-knowledge, and of philosophy, deny the existence of the spirit, and therefore believe nothing of what is said about the spirit and spiritual things. Not so the simple in heart: if these are questioned about the existence of spirit, they say they know it exists, because the Lord has said that they will live after death; thus instead of extinguishing their rational, they vivify it by the Word of the Lord. [AC 196] 

Among the most ancient people, who were celestial men, by the "serpent" was signified circumspection, and also the sensuous part through which they exercised circumspection so as to be secure from injury. This signification of a "serpent" is evident from the Lord‘s words to His disciples:--

Behold, I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; be ye therefore prudent as serpents, and simple as doves (Matt. 10:16).

And also from the "brazen serpent" that was set up in the wilderness, by which was signified the sensuous part in the Lord, who alone is the celestial man, and alone takes care of and provides for all; wherefore all who looked upon it were preserved. [AC 197] 

The reason why the "serpent" means all evil in general, and specifically the love of self, is that all evil has had its rise from that sensuous part of the mind, and also from that memory-knowledge [scientifico], which at first were signified by the "serpent;" and therefore it here denotes evil of every kind, and specifically the love of self, or hatred against the neighbor and the Lord, which is the same thing. As this evil or hatred was various, consisting of numerous genera and still more numerous species, it is described in the Word by various kinds of serpents, as "snakes" "cockatrices" "asps" "adders" "fiery serpents" "serpents that fly" and "that creep" and "vipers" according to the differences of the poison, which is hatred. Thus we read in Isaiah:

Rejoice not thou, whole Philistia, because the rod which smiteth thee is broken, for out of the serpent's root shall go forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a flying fire-serpent (Isa. 14:29).The "serpent's root" denotes that part of the mind, or that principle, which is connected with the senses and with memory-knowledge [est sensuale et scientificum]; the "cockatrice" denotes evil originating in the falsity thence derived; and the "flying fire-serpent" the cupidity that comes from the love of self. By the same Prophet also similar things are elsewhere thus described:

They hatch cockatrice's eggs, and weave the spider's web; he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and when it is crushed there cometh out a viper (Isa. 59:5).

The serpent described here in Genesis is called in the Revelation the "great and red dragon" and the "old serpent" and also the "devil and satan" that "deceives the whole world" (12:3, 9; 20:2), where, and also in other places, by the "devil" is not meant any particular devil who is prince over the others, but the whole crew of evil spirits, and evil itself. [AC251] 

 (1) What is meant by evil uses on the earth. By evil uses on earth are meant all noxious things in both the animal and vegetable kingdom, also in the mineral kingdom. It is needless to enumerate all the noxious things in these kingdoms, for to do so would merely heap up names, and doing this without indicating the noxious effect that each kind produces would not contribute to the object which this work has in view. For the sake of information a few examples will suffice:-In the animal kingdom there are poisonous serpents, scorpions, crocodiles, great snakes, horned owls, screech owls, mice, locusts, frogs, spiders; also flies, drones, moths, lice, mites; in a word, creatures that destroy grasses, leaves, fruits, seed, food, and drink, and are harmful to beast and man. In the vegetable kingdom there are all hurtful, virulent, and poisonous herbs, with leguminous plants and shrubs of like character; and in the mineral kingdom all poisonous earths. From these few examples it can be seen what is meant by evil uses on earth; for evil uses are all things that are opposite to good uses (of which, in the preceding paragraph, n. 336). {DLW338}           

 (2) All things that are evil uses are in hell, and all things that are good uses are in heaven. Before it can be seen that all evil uses that take form on earth are not from the Lord but from hell, something must be premised concerning heaven and hell, without a knowledge of which evil uses as well as good may be attributed to the Lord, and it may be believed that they are together from creation; or they may be attributed to nature, and their origin to the sun of nature. From these two errors man cannot be delivered, unless he knows that nothing whatever takes form in the natural world that does not derive its cause and therefore its origin from the spiritual world, and that good is from the Lord, and evil from the devil, that is, from hell. By the spiritual world is meant both heaven and hell. In heaven are to be seen all those things that are good uses (of which in a preceding article, n. 336). In hell are to be seen all those that are evil uses (see just above, n. 338, where they are enumerated). These are wild creatures of every kind, as serpents, scorpions, great snakes, crocodiles, tigers, wolves, foxes, swine, owls of different kinds, bats, rats, and mice, frogs, locusts, spiders, and noxious insects of many kinds; also hemlocks and aconites, and all kinds of poisons, both of herbs and of earths; in a word, everything hurtful and deadly to man. Such things appear in the hells to the life precisely like those on and in the earth. They are said to appear there; yet they are not there as on earth, for they are mere correspondences of lusts that swarm out of their evil loves, and present themselves in such forms before others. Because there are such things in the hells, these abound in foul smells, cadaverous, stercoraceous, urinous, and putrid, wherein the diabolical spirits there take delight, as animals do in rank stenches.  From this it can be seen that like things in the natural world did not derive their origin from the Lord, and were not created from the beginning, neither did they spring from nature through her sun, but are from hell. That they are not from nature through her sun is plain, for the spiritual inflows into the natural, and not the reverse. And that they are not from the Lord is plain, because hell is not from Him, therefore nothing in hell corresponding to the evils of its inhabitants is from Him. [AC339] 

Author: EMANUEL SWEDENBORG  (1688-1772)

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