NCE Minute: Percipere

by George F. Dole


Through the years in which I was occupied with translating for the New Century Edition (NCE), I was repeatedly frustrated by the verb percipere and the related noun perceptio. Translators had traditionally taken refuge in “perceive” and “perception,” which are derived from those Latin words, but do not necessarily mean the same thing they do. This choice seemed to me to be an admission of ignorance, as if the translator were saying, “I don’t know what this word means, but this is what it looks like.”

A quick run through the relevant entries in John Faulkner Potts’s Swedenborg Concordance suggested that the terms were associated with good (bonum) more often than with truth (verum). For a long time, that remained no more than a hint, a suggestion that in seeking the meaning of perceptio and related words, we should look less toward the intellect (or understanding) and its focus on what is true and more toward our volition (or will), with its concern with what is good.

The hint became a pointer when a colleague called my attention to Secrets of Heaven §10155, which I give here with the old standby translations indicated with quotation marks: 

The reason knowing is a matter of understanding, believing, and “perceiving” is that it involves both our intellect and our volition. When we focus on the intellectual part, that is understanding; when we focus on the intellectual and the volitional, that is believing; and when we focus solely on the volitional part, that is “perceiving.” 

In other passages, we find that “perception” is characteristic of the angels of the highest heaven, and for that reason those angels

never try to figure out divine truths, much less argue whether some particular truth is true or not. They do not know what it is to believe or have faith, but say, “What is faith? I ‘perceive’ and see that this is so.” (Heaven and Hell §270)

This is stated at greater length in Secrets of Heaven §202 (and in many other passages), citing Matthew 5:37: “What you say should be ‘Yes, yes; No, no.’ Anything more belongs to evil.”

This would seem to pull the rug out from under any church that prides itself on the rational coherence of its doctrines and evangelizes by means of doctrinal debate. Understood in context, though, it simply takes doctrinal debate down a few pegs. It says that deep down inside (for we all have that third-heaven level within us), we don’t need convincing, we simply know.

I suspect that we have all had little samples of this kind of “knowing,” times we have known what we wanted to say but have been unable to find the right word. We know that this word or that word is simply not right, though we can’t identify what’s wrong with it. Then the right word occurs to us, and we know that it is right. Again, we can’t explain why. It simply is. Obviously, in finding the right word for something, we have not discovered the meaning of the universe, but in the limited context of our immediate consciousness, we have found a simple, secure “Yes,” somehow beyond the whole domain of argument.

The astronaut Edgar Mitchell seems to have had such an experience in a far larger context of consciousness—not cosmic or universal, but quite explicitly global.

It began with the breathtaking experience of seeing planet earth floating in the immensity of space—the incredible beauty of a splendid blue-and-white jewel floating in the vast, black sky. I underwent a religious-like peak experience, in which the presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. This knowledge, which came directly, intuitively, was not a matter of discursive reasoning or logical abstraction. It was not deduced from information perceptible by the sensory organs. The realization was subjective, but it was knowledge every bit as real and compelling as the objective data the navigational program or the communications system was based on.[1]

This is not the certainty of an impulsive, thoughtless “gut feeling.” Mitchell’s was a highly disciplined mind, a mind that actually understood the navigational program and the communications system. His words are carefully chosen and clear; and his sense of the value and validity of the experience led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS)—a clarion call for further research into hitherto unstudied ways of knowing. Were we to heed this, where might we start?

Revelation Explained §273 notes that “what comes into the mind through hearing is both seen and ‘perceived.’ It is seen in the understanding and ‘perceived’ through sharing with volition.” Swedenborg then goes on to refer the reader to New Jerusalem §140, which offers a challenge—no fewer than sixteen descriptive entries with references to passages in Secrets of Heaven that deal explicitly with “perception,” several containing further references.

This leaves us with door wide open to further inquiry—and with a vexing translation problem. That is, the most appropriate English word for percipere might well be simply “know,” which has quite a wide range of colloquial usages. Mitchell came wondrously close with the word “realization,” but you have to strip it down to its core to discover how appropriate it is, how precisely Mitchell intended it. What we “perceive” becomes undeniably real to us. “The presence of divinity,” Mitchell wrote, “became almost palpable.” Perhaps the best we can do is to use the word “know” and italicize it to indicate that we mean this word in its strictest, most essential sense. If exactly the right word does come to mind, we’ll know it. “Right” words take charge.

In the meanwhile, the excitement generated by the NCE urges us onward. We may hope that it is moving us from merely striving to preserve what we have learned (and sometimes preening ourselves for our good fortune) to discovering how very, very much we have yet to learn. After all, the ultimate goal has been described by Swedenborg as the “ignorance of wisdom” (Secrets of Heaven §10225). Or as William Blake, who was a reader of Swedenborg, once said: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”—with every discovery therefore posing new questions, opening new doors. 

George F. Dole has translated several works in the New Century Edition, including its flagship volume, Heaven and HellAll the translations in this article are his.

[1] Edgar D. Mitchell, “Outer Space to Inner Space: An Astronaut’s Odyssey,” Saturday Review, vol. 2 (February 22, 1975): 20 (emphasis mine).

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