Among the recurring difficulties faced by translators of Swedenborg’s works are his repeated references to goodness and truth. The difficulties lie not so much in what he has to say about them (though that is certainly extraordinary), but in the way he chooses to say it. He seldom refers to goodness and truth the way we might expect—with the Latin word for the abstract concept of goodness, bonitas; and the word for the abstract concept of truth, veritas. Instead he uses adjectives in a neuter form: bonum, “good [thing],” and verum,“true [thing].” He also uses the plurals of these forms.
This usage gives rise to two questions: Why does he do this, and how can we translate the construction to capture what he is getting at?
He himself explains the philosophy behind this usage in Marriage Love 66:
We need to be fully aware that in order to exist, everything good or true must be within something for which it forms the underlying substance. Goodness and truth cannot exist as abstractions, since if they did they would have nothing in which to reside and could not be even fleetingly visualized. So abstract goodness and truth are nothing but mental figments, about which our reason only believes it is capable of thinking in abstract terms. But in fact it is unable to think of goodness and truth unless they reside in some underlying substance. This is because our every thought, even the loftiest, is substantial; that is, it is attached to something having substance. We should also realize that there is no substance apart from form. A formless substance would be nothing because nothing could be affirmed concerning it, and an underlying substance of which nothing could be affirmed would make no sense whatever.
What he seems to be saying here is that to really make any sense, goodness and truth have to be seen as attached to a particular thing. To use a fancy philosophical word for it, they cannot exist without being instantiated, that is, without being actual instances or examples. He doesn’t want to talk about abstractions, he wants to talk about particular instances of goodness and truth, or goodness and truth as they exist in particular things.
As we move on to our second consideration, how we are to represent this feature of Swedenborg’s Latin in our translations, it’s important to realize the scope of the problem. The abstract word for goodness, bonitas, appears only 59 times in the theological works Swedenborg published, whereas the adjective meaning “good” appears over 34,000 times. The abstract word for truth, veritas, appears some 1,379 times; but that is far outdone by the adjective meaning “true,” which appears nearly 33,000 times. When you consider the vast number of passages in which Swedenborg’s choice of words reinforces his claim that goodness and truth occur only in particular and individual things rather than as some vague and abstract collective blob, his insistence on the point becomes remarkable.
In translating the first of these words, we could resort to the usage traditionally followed by translators of Swedenborg. They used “good” or “goods”; as, for example, in New Jerusalem 26, where in one older translation Swedenborg speaks of “various kinds of goods.” But the problem with using the plural “goods” in this sense is that generally we just don’t. We may say, “Freedom is a good,” meaning, “Freedom is a good thing,” but if we say, “Freedom and love are goods,” people are very likely to think we mean that they are products or commodities such as can be bought and sold. “Goods” in the sense Swedenborg wants is a philosophical term, and most people are not used to seeing it.
The parallel in the case of “true things” would have been “trues.” But the old translators balked at jarring locutions like “various kinds of trues” and fell back on “truths”—which isn’t bad English, though still a bit abstract.
If “goods and trues” would be a misleading and awkward phrase, what else can we try? “Instances of good and truth” is technically correct but a little stiff. In the New Century Edition we often resort to “what is good and what is true.” There are various similar tactics, such as “everything good and true.” Sometimes, in cases in which Swedenborg seems to have been so determined to avoid the abstract that he used “good thing” and “true thing” in the singular as collective nouns, we have to resort to “goodness” and “truth” whether we like it or not. That’s just what English requires of us.
Here is an example from New Jerusalem 47:13. First, the traditional translation:
So far as the internal, which is spiritual, is opened, so far truths and goods are multiplied; and so far as the internal, which is spiritual, is shut, so far truths and goods vanish.
To the average modern reader, the phrase “goods are multiplied” is going to suggest an increase in the output of factories, and “goods vanish” is going to evoke an image of thieves robbing a trailer truck—not what we want here.
Here is the New Century Edition version:
As our inner, spiritual self is more and more opened, the kinds of goodness and truth we have multiply; as our inner, spiritual self is more and more closed, the kinds of goodness and truth we have disappear.
Here the phrase “kinds of goodness and truth” has been chosen as a way of communicating Swedenborg’s emphasis on the instantiated nature of goodness and truth.
What is haunting about Swedenborg’s scrupulousness on this point is that if we follow him in it, we find we cannot talk about one “good thing” without implying an entire universe of good things beside it. As he himself says (New Jerusalem 26), there is an infinite variety of goodness and truth. What his usage does is to force the reader not only to think in terms of goodness (or truth) as it exists in a particular and individual thing, but by implication to think also of goodness (or truth) as it exists in all the innumerable good (or true) things there are in the universe.
Considering Swedenborg’s unflagging awareness of the vastness, complexity, and multiplicity of all things in God, this relentless focus on the big picture should not surprise us. He doesn’t want us to think once of goodness in the abstract and then believe we have a final grasp on the greatness of God’s goodness. No, he wants to remind us again and again how infinitely many are the goodnesses God gives us.
And likewise with truth. We tend to think of truth as an abstract, but in fact it is instantiated countless times over in all the universe.
Swedenborg’s concreteness helps to remind us to seek out and focus on the “good and true things” that are everywhere around us. It was part of Swedenborg’s theological program to open our eyes to the immensity of Creation and our role in it—which is to honor and pursue all things good and true.
One of the goals of the New Century Edition is to bring new discoveries about Swedenborg to light and to share new ways of understanding his thought. If this NCE Minute intrigues you, see the Swedenborg Foundation’s Fall 2017 newsletter for our NCE Minute discussing the reason Swedenborg says love and wisdom are not “abstracts.”