By Stuart Shotwell, NCE Managing Editor
In the last NCE Minute, we talked about how Swedenborg insists that bona, “good things,” and vera, “true things,” are not abstractions. They have to occur in reality somehow.
All well and good. But if they are not abstractions, what exactly are they? How do they occur?
One thing that is suggested by a reading of Swedenborg’s statements about goodness is that the term has a strong practical element. “In general,” he says, “it means willing and doing good to others not for any selfish reason but because we like to and want to” (Secrets of Heaven §4538:4). This is connected to what Jesus says in John 14:21: “The people who love me are those who have my commandments and do them.” (See Sacred Scripture §57.) The truths that God sets up as commandments were not given to us to be considered in the abstract; they are to be acted on. This sets up a dynamic between goodness and truth: to think of doing something good is itself a truth, and likewise a truth becomes a good thing when we will it and do it (Soul-Body Interaction §7:1).
So we might say that truth is something that will be a good occurrence when it is carried out in action. Likewise we might also say that a good act is an occurrence, or real manifestation, of truth. For example, the good belief that we should be kind to our neighbor is something true. We can see that it’s true because when we put that law into action and do some kind act, a good thing occurs. Good cannot be good without having truth in it (see Secrets of Heaven §4301:1). But then again, “truth does not contain life,” it only receives its life from good (see Secrets of Heaven §2189:3; New Jerusalem §23). If you take goodness away from truth, says Swedenborg, “nothing remains but mere words” (Secrets of Heaven §725). So not only is goodness critical to the existence of truth, but, as Swedenborg suggests in one passage (Revelation Explained §136), when truth appears in our minds, it is simply goodness manifesting itself in a form we can apprehend.
To give an example: If we truly understand someone, by definition our knowledge of them is true. Our loving actions toward that person, since they are based on truth, will be good. Such an understanding of another individual is one example of the kind of thing Swedenborg means by a verum,“a true thing”; it results in a bonum,“a good thing.” Neither that truth nor that good action is abstract; they occur in us and through us in the real world. Furthermore, in most cases, in order to do good to others, we have to understand them—to know some truth about them. Otherwise, we might do harm to them inadvertently.
But let’s use an example Swedenborg himself gives, honesty (which is a personal, inner form of truth) and honorable conduct (in which our honesty takes the form of good actions):
To be an honest person is sincerely to intend good to another person in matters of public life, while honorable conduct is testifying in one’s speech and actions to that wish to do good to someone. So honorable conduct is, in itself, nothing other than the form in which honesty makes itself visible. This is how honesty is the source of honorable conduct. (Secrets of Heaven §4574:3; my translation)
An understanding of this dynamic between truth and goodness can help explain some of the many specific kinds of goodness Swedenborg mentions. For example, he writes about bonum charitatis (literally, “good of caring”),which we might call “goodness that arises out of caring about others,” as contrasted with bonum fidei (literally, “good of faith”), which we might call “goodness that is based on our faith.” People who have the goodness that arises out of their inner caring and kindness know what religious truth is because they naturally put its goodness into action. They do good first and know truth as a result. On the other hand, people who have the goodness that is based on their faith do what is good only because their faith commands them to. They know truth first and do good as a result. (See Secrets of Heaven §7474:2.) By the way, Swedenborg makes no secret of which sort of goodness is better.
This dynamic between good and truth partially explains how Swedenborg can say that God is goodness and truth: because God engages constantly in an infinite number of good actions, each of which arises from something that is true because it gives rise to good. And thus God is also love and wisdom: because the Divine in its wisdom knows truths that when carried out manifest themselves as good and loving acts.
The previous NCE Minute concluded by saying that goodness and truth occur in an infinite quantity in the universe. This is obviously true on the divine level, where truth is known without striving and the good action that results from it is simply part of God’s nature. On the human level, though, we are constantly striving to know the truth and act it out in goodness. Or at least we ought to be!
The writer wishes to acknowledge his debt to the insights of George F. Dole and other members of the New Century Edition team. For Swedenborg’s view of how we should do good in our lives, see his work Life in the latest NCE Deluxe volume, The Shorter Works of 1763.