Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Question 6 - God's Goodness

Why this Question Matters.

In Ia.q5, St Thomas explored the idea of the good in general. He showed that the good and being are the same in reality but that we can conceptually distinguish between the two. The word “good” especially expresses the idea of being desirable or of being that which all things seek; a meaning that the word “being” does not directly express. We’ve already seen that God is self-subsistent being; therefore it makes sense now to ask how we are to think of the good as applying to God.

If we recall Aristotle’s maxim from the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics that “the good is what everything desires”, we realize the importance of this question. If God were not good in some appropriate sense, then our relationship with Him would be very different. For example, that relationship might be founded on fear rather than love.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The foundational question asked in this article is whether it makes sense to associate goodness with God. That we can and must make such an association is based on the observation that all created things seek their perfection. In moving towards their perfection, things are moving towards a likeness of the efficient cause of that perfection. Therefore the efficient cause of that perfection must be thought of as good. God is the first efficient cause of every created thing; therefore goodness must be ascribed to Him.

The second objection to this article points out that not everything desires God for the simple reason that not everything knows Him and therefore not everything can seek Him. The answer to this objection lies in the observation that was made in Ia.q5; the sense in which the word “desire” is used here is that of “seeking” or of “being ordered towards”. This generality allows for the fact that rational creatures may have cognitive knowledge of what they are seeking but that inanimate objects simply have an innate ordering towards some end. The inanimate object may not know God, but that does not prevent from being ordered towards Him.

A2: God is not only good; He is the greatest good. The objections demonstrate that one has to be careful with the meaning of this in the light of what Aquinas has already demonstrated about God. To say that He is the greatest good would appear to be adding something to Him as simply good; this would mean that He is composite, which we already know cannot be the case. Similarly, to call something “greatest” appears to be making a comparison and we can only make comparisons within a genus; but God is not in a genus.

Aquinas argues that God is the greatest good in the sense of being the source of all the perfections towards which things are ordered. God is not in a genus so, as we have seen in Ia.q.a3, He is the eminent cause of such perfections rather than the formal cause. This approach to the idea of “greatest” deals with the objection based on comparison within a genus, as it is not founded on such comparisons. Similarly this notion of “greatest” does not add some absolute thing to God but merely defines a relation from creatures to God; their goodness is less than the goodness of God. In answering this objection, Aquinas makes the important point (one that he will return to many times) that creatures can have real relations to God but there are no real relations in God to creatures. Such relations to God can only have a conceptual existence.

A3: A thing is good insofar as it is perfect; that is, we may assess the goodness of a thing according to how far it is along the path from its potentiality to its actuality. Therefore, as Aquinas argues, we may identify a threefold perfection in things: the very fact of existence; the accidents possessed necessary to perfect actuality; and the attainment of an extrinsically given goal. This threefold perfection is only essentially possessed by God: only in Him is essence and existence identical; only in Him can there be no accidents perfective of His being; only for Him is there no external goal. Therefore to be good is of the essence of God; and only God is essentially good.

A4: In establishing that God is the source of the being and of goodness of things, one might fall in to the temptation of believing that being and goodness belong only to God. This is a mistake: each individual thing has its own act of existence and it has its own goodness insofar as it exists. God’s being and His goodness are the sources of the being and goodness of creatures; but it is their being and goodness.

In arguing for this position, Aquinas discusses how we may describe things. Relative terms like “by the tree” and “three centimetres long” are defined relative to some other things; in this case, a tree and a ruler. When we consider absolute terms like “horse” or “good” we recognize the differing opinions of Plato and of Aristotle. Plato considered the forms of things to exist in some third realm of being and that instances of such things participate in these forms. So we call a thing a horse if it participates in the form of a horse; we call something good if it participates in the form of good. Aristotle denied that the forms exist in their own realm but claimed that they exist only as exemplified in things. Even with Aristotle’s caveat, it remains true that there is some first thing that is good by its essence and that we can call things good by reference to this first thing. Inasmuch as it participates in the goodness of God we can rightly say that a thing is good by God’s goodness; but we must remember that the goodness is inherent in the thing itself.

Handy Concepts

  • Goodness is most properly associated with God because He is the efficient cause of the being and perfection of things.
  • Because He is precisely the source of all the perfections towards which all things are ordered, it is right to consider Him as the greatest good.
  • We must also think of God as the only essentially good thing; but the goodness of individual things inheres within them. God is not the only good.
  • “The good is that which all things desire” is a definition that comes straight from the opening of Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
  • In the second article, a univocal cause refers to a cause in the same genus as its effects; an equivocal cause is one that is not in the same genus as its effects.


  • When we say that “God is good”, we must be careful not to bring God down to the level of created beings and to consider this as a statement about God as a moral agent. If we understand the term “good” as an attributive adjective then we are led to the conclusion that God is lacking no perfection; He is pure act. We may even take it, in a certain sense, as an identity.

Revised 21/03/12

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