Thursday, 31 December 2009

Question 5: The General Notion of Good

Why this Question Matters.

In Ia.q4 Aquinas considered the idea of perfection, which he noted has a relation to the good. In this question, he is going to inquire into the nature of goodness itself. Completing the sequence with the next question, Ia.q6, Aquinas is then going to enquire into the relationship between God and the good.

The important principle that Aquinas establishes in this question is that there is a fundamental relationship between good and being: They are two aspects of reality that lie outside Aristotle’s categories (thus they are transcendentals) that present to us different aspects of the same reality; they are what is called convertible. Absolutely basic to Aquinas’s approach to metaphysics is the foundational aspect of being. Although good and being are convertible, being is the more fundamental idea. As we already know that there is a fundamental relationship between God and being we are thus prepared for the idea that God and the good are intimately related.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas launches straight into the main thread of this question: that good and being are the same in reality (i.e. they are convertible as transcendentals) and that we can only differentiate between them conceptually. The main objection to this point of view seems quite reasonable and even to hold the balance of probability: we use the terms good and being in different ways, so they must be different in reality.

Aquinas’s strategy is to admit that they are conceptually different, but that they are different concepts of the same underlying reality. He adopts Aristotle’s definition of the good: things in the world have an innate tendency towards their own perfection (from which, of course, they may be obstructed) and their perfection consists in the actualization of their potentiality. But Aquinas has already argued (in Ia.q3 & Ia.q4) that things actualize their potentiality to the extent that they exist: perfection consists in their fullness of being. Since the good is precisely this actualization of potentiality, good and being are fundamentally the same reality.

Aquinas gives an extended answer to the first objection concerning the different ways in which we use the terms good and being. If we picture a thing as coming into existence and then over the course of its existence as moving towards its ultimate perfection, then we say that at the point it comes into existence it exists “without qualification” but that it is good only in a “qualified way” (it has not achieved its ultimate good). However, if it achieves its perfection then it is good in an unqualified sense but that since its existence is more than just a bare existence, it exist in a qualified way (i.e. its initial existence has had all perfections added to it).

A2: Having established their relationship, Aquinas asks whether one of good or being can be considered more fundamental than the other. He answers that it is being that is the more fundamental; but he continues by addressing some quite reasonable objections. These objections are founded on the facts that we are far more used to the idea that good has a wider range of meanings; that there is a wide range of shades of these meanings; and these meanings can be applied to more than just beings that currently exist.

Borrowing an idea from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, that “in order to be known, a thing must actually be”, Aquinas argues that a thing’s existence is prior to anything that we can know or say about it. Being is the most fundamental intellectual idea and is the proper object of the intellect.

In answering the objections, Aquinas observes that we are often interested in things from the point of view of causality. It is this that gives rise to the idea of good being prior to being. In causality, the end (i.e. a thing’s ultimate good, the “cause of causes”) gives order to all the efficient causes that are directed toward that end; therefore we tend to think of that good as prior to the being that is moving from potentiality to actuality. Aquinas insists that this is not thinking fundamentally enough; being is prior to the good for the reasons he gives in his answer.

A3: Having demonstrated the convertibility of being and the good, Aquinas must now address the obvious question of how we can bring ourselves to call good things that are either conspicuously evil or for which goodness seems a strange description. Aquinas builds on the classic scriptural answer that “all of God’s creatures are good” (1 Tim 4:4). Everything other than God is created by God and is good insofar as it has being; for we have already seen in the first article that good and being are really the same underlying reality. Evil, on the other hand, does not have its own existence. It is a privation, something missing, a failure of actualization of potentiality in something that does exist.

Some things for which “good” seems an odd description, like prime matter or the objects of mathematics, do need careful consideration. Prime matter doesn’t exist in itself (it has to be in-formed), so we should call it potentially good; the objects of mathematics don’t exist in the same sense as concrete objects but only conceptually, so we can think of these things without reference to good.

A4: Having touched on the relationship between good and causation in the second article, Aquinas now returns to give a more thorough treatment. The objections observe that we can talk about the good or about goodness in the context of formal or efficient causation; but Aquinas insists that good is most properly associated with final causation. His answer is basically a reiteration and amplification of what has gone before: from the definition of the good, it is clear that it provides a final cause and such final causes are conceptually prior to the other causes, providing their motivation and ordering.

He makes the important observation that although a final cause orders the other causes, when we observe a caused thing we start with the observation of its form and work backwards inferring its final cause.

A5: Next, Aquinas asks whether goodness is to do with mode, species and order, a question derived from the thought of St. Augustine. The idea of the mode of something’s being is to do with how well that something expresses its form. Augustine relates mode to measure; so, for example, I might say that my mode of being does not express my form too well if I am too fat or lazy. Aquinas seems to take the notion more generally than Augustine but it is still clear that the notion is related to the good of something inasmuch as a poor mode of being reflects a failure to actualize potentiality. Similarly, the species of something is determined by its substantial form, which tells us what sort of a thing it is. Something is good if it is in accord to its substantial form (and accidental forms associated with it are not “obstructing” its substantial form). Finally, things gravitate toward what is natural for them; so if they are correctly ordered, their being is in accord with what their being should be. The objections in this article are dealt with by clarifying the difference in meaning between mode, species and order considered as goods and the good itself.

A6: Having considered St. Augustine’s division of the good in the fifth article, now it’s the turn of St. Ambrose, who divided the good according to the worthy, the useful and the delightful. Aquinas observes that we might think of the motion of a thing from potentiality to actuality in analogy to the usual idea of physical motion. In physical motion from a starting point to a terminal point the thing in motion goes through intermediate points. These intermediate points might be thought of as useful in the journey towards the terminus. The terminus itself may be thought of from two points of view: the final goal itself, which may be thought of as worthy; and the fact of resting in that final goal, which might be thought of as delightful.

Summary and Handy Concepts

  • In this question Aquinas quotes Aristotle saying that “the good is what all things desire”. The sense of the word “desire” corresponds to seeking. Modern translations of the Nicomachean Ethics (directly from the Greek, rather than indirectly via the Latin that was available to Aquinas) usually read “the good is that which all things seek”. This latter is certainly the sense that Aquinas uses. Even more, the sense is that of “have an innate tendency towards”; this tendency is not restricted to creatures capable of desire in the sense that we usually use it.
  • Good and being are transcendental aspects of the same reality, differentiated only conceptually. However, being is the more fundamental concept than the good because “in order to be known, a thing must actually be”.
  • We may connect what Aquinas says in his reply to the first objection of the first article to the distinction between predicative and attributive adjectives made by Peter Geach in considering the good. If we think of a sentence like “this is a red ball” then we will have no qualms in thinking this equivalent in meaning to the pair of sentences “this is red” and “this is a ball”. However, if we consider the sentence “this is a big mouse” we can see that this is not equivalent to the pair of sentences “this is big” and “this is a mouse”. In the first case “red” is a predicative adjective; in the second case, “big” is an attributive adjective. Understanding the latter demands the context within which it is used. In general, Aquinas understands “good” as an attributive adjective; we need to know what aspect of goodness is being talked about. To say that “she is a good chef” is to talk of the perfection of that person as a chef. If we were simply to say “she is good”, then we would have to be talking about Aquinas’s unqualified sense of goodness; we would be attributing to her the achievement of her ultimate end as a human being (presumably in the beatific vision).
  • Evil does not have its own being; rather, it is a privation of the good.
  • Good is most properly associated with final causation.
  • Mode, species and order are aspects of goodness associated with the ways in which a thing may actualize its potentiality and therefore be good.
  • The good may be thought of in terms of the worthy, the useful and the delightful by considering the movement from potentiality to actuality analogically to ordinary local motion.


  • Much of the explanatory meat of the first question is contained in the answer to the first objection. This shows that one has to be careful not to simply trim the summa down to Aquinas’s main responses.
  • It’s interesting to speculate what Aquinas would have made of Descartes’s cogito argument against the radical doubt of self-existence. For Aquinas, being is the very first object of the intellect and therefore he might have considered Descartes’s argument simply to beg the question. We cannot even get started with intellectual inquiry if we do not admit the being of the subject performing the inquiry.
  • Aquinas’s approach to things like mathematical objects and the good looks slightly ad hoc.
  • In the fifth and sixth articles Aquinas’s attempts to marry his notion of the good with the divisions of the good put forward by St. Augustine and St. Ambrose seem a little forced.

Revised 20/03/12

Question 4 - God's Perfection

Why this Question Matters.

Matthew 5:48 tells us to “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. This is always something of a puzzle for those that hear this teaching, as we are so aware of our imperfections before God. Later on in the summa, Aquinas is going to enquire into what it means for us to be perfect and into how the life of grace forms us in such perfection. But first of all, he is going to ask about what perfection is in general and in particular what it means when we ascribe perfection to God. Aquinas will conclude that the notion is to do with how God is the first efficient cause of every created thing; since effects resemble their causes, it is natural at this point for him to also inquire into it means for a creature to resemble God.

In the preamble to this question Aquinas notes that there is a relationship between the idea of perfection and the idea of the good. As he is going to discuss the latter in the next question, it makes sense to see these two questions as a doublet.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: If we look at the etymology of the word “perfect” we see that it carries meanings like “thoroughly made” or “completed”. Since God is not in any sense made, then surely we should not apply the idea of perfection to God. Similarly, if we consider God to be the origin of all things and we observe that origins tend to be less perfect than the completed beings to which they are directed (an acorn being less perfect than an oak tree, for example), then it is hard to attribute perfection to God.

Aquinas answers by making a distinction between meanings of the word “origin”. One should observe that God is the origin of a thing in the sense that He is the first efficient cause of that thing, sitting as the foundation of the chain of causes bringing it from potentiality to actuality. This is in contrast to the notion of origin, exemplified by the acorn, which refers to something material which is in potentiality to become the actuality of the completed thing.

Everything created is a composition of actuality and potentiality and God is the first efficient cause of the movement of such beings from potentiality to actuality. Since the first efficient cause of everything has to be the most actual thing possible, it is reasonable to identify this thing as the most perfect of all things. Indeed, we can go on to extend this notion of perfection by analogy from God to creatures by saying that something is perfect when it has achieved actuality in all that makes it what it is.

Returning to address the objections, we must admit that in ordinary use the word “perfect” does refer to things that are made. But if we are to have a vocabulary that refers to God, we must be able to extend ordinary meanings into the sphere of the transcendental. Indeed, we might even consider that the notions and meanings we apply to created things themselves are better derived from analogies that we make between God and created things. Likewise, if we think about material origins, like the acorn as the origin of an oak tree, we have to remember that the acorn has an origin too! Anything that is in potentiality must have derived its being from something in actuality, and only something actual can actualize something that exists in potentiality. God lies behind all this as the first efficient cause.

A2: God is not only perfect, but His perfection contains the perfections of everything else. Aquinas argues for this point of view by observing that since God is the first efficient cause of created things, and since causes contain their effects, therefore God must contain the perfections of all created things in the highest manner possible.

We saw in Ia.q3.a3 that effects resemble their causes in that something of the nature of a cause must be expressed in the effect that the cause has. If we think about efficient causes, then we can say more: the perfection found in an effect must derive from the cause. After all, it is the efficient cause that moves the thing from potentiality to actuality and is therefore the source of the perfection of the thing. What is more, we can identify this happening both when the efficient cause is the same sort of thing as the effect (i.e. when the cause generates the effect formally) and when they differ (i.e. when the cause generates the effect eminently).

Aquinas goes on to offer a second argument in favour of this position by observing that God is a self-subsistent being, containing the full perfection of existence. Since the movement of potentiality to actuality involves the coming to be of that actuality, created things are perfect inasmuch as they exist in some way. God, being the efficient cause of that being, must contain that being most perfectly within Himself.

A3: There is a profound distance between God and His creatures, but it is reasonable for us to ask how a creature might be considered to resemble God. After all, we are the effects of God’s causality and effects resemble causes. We also have the backing of scripture (Genesis 1:26 & 1 John 3:2) that tells us that we are like Him in some way.

Aquinas answers by observing that similarity is founded in some sort of sharing of form. Therefore to answer the question of the similarity of creatures to God, we must first look into the different ways in which forms may be shared. Then we may identify if any of these ways of sharing form can be applied to the case of creatures sharing form with God. Aquinas rejects a couple of cases of sharing a form, (for which he gives examples of things being identically white and not-identically white), before he settles on the answer that he considers adequate for this question. When two things share a genus or, even more closely, share a species, there will be a closeness of resemblance between them that corresponds to this sharing of genus or species. For the case of God, outside of any genus, the similarity has to be far more remote. What God and creatures do share is being. Now, God is being by His very essence and creatures participate in being in receiving their being from Him. It is in this way that creatures can be considered to resemble God, by participation in the being that He is by essence.

The third objection argued that there can be no resemblance between God and creatures on the grounds that resemblance is founded upon similarity of form and there can be no similarity of form between creatures and that whose essence is to exist. In answering this objection, Aquinas makes the fundamental point that, once we have identified what it means for a creature to resemble God, we have to recognize that there is a profound asymmetry in the resemblance between God and creatures. Creatures can be considered to resemble God, but God cannot be said to resemble creatures.

Handy Concepts

  • God is the most perfect being in the sense of being the first efficient cause of the being of all things and therefore the most actual of all things. Perfection in creatures may be thought of as actualized potentiality; similarly, it may be thought of as fullness of their being.
  • God, because He is the first efficient cause of all created things, contains all the perfections of all these things within Himself.
  • As effects resemble causes, so God’s creatures resemble Him. But this is a remote resemblance founded on the fact that creatures participate in the being of God. There is a profound asymmetry in the resemblance: creatures resemble God in this way, but God does not resemble creatures.


  • At this stage, Aquinas’ notion of our similarity to God may seem not to do justice to the scriptural account. However, Aquinas will develop this account over the next few questions, so it is important to not leap to conclusions quite yet. Questions Ia.q12 and Ia.q13 will be very important in this regard.
  • In this question we get strong hints of Aquinas’s doctrine of the Analogy of Being. Creatures receive their being from God and participate in that being, but as the being of the creature is not identical with being, this being is analogical to God’s being. For more details on the analogy of being, please refer to the bibliography. For a modern, short, but quite sophisticated treatment of the subject, take a look at Steven Long’s book Analogia Entis.

Revised 18/03/2101