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


  1. Here, and in the next few comments, is some of the discussion that Steve and I had about this question.

    1a.5.1 Reply to Obj 1: What is the difference between 'initial act' and 'ultimate act'?

    There’s a short answer and a long answer to this! The commentators have had a field day with how Aquinas inherits and develops Aristotle’s description of the structure within act and potency. I’ll try and give a short answer: here Aquinas is being teleological – he’s saying that in any being there is a mixture of act and potency with respect to pretty much any aspect, and that the being will move from its “first actuality” to its “ultimate actuality” as it fully realizes potential with respect to this aspect.

    Feser gives a pretty good description of this structure within act and potency:

    “‘A thing’s various actualities and potentialities exist in a layered fashion and constitute a hierarchy, as I will now demonstrate with a paragraph full of somewhat dry technical distinctions. (Bear with me.) Since you are a human being, you are a rational animal; because you are a rational animal, you have the power or faculty of speech; and because you have this power, you sometimes exercise it and speak. Your actually having the power of speech flows from your actually being a rational animal; it is a “secondary actuality” relative to your being a rational animal, which is a “primary actuality.” And your actually exercising that power on some occasion is in turn a “secondary actuality” relative to your having the power – which, at least relative to the actual exercise of it, is “primary.” (Note that you have the power even when you don’t exercise it, e.g. when you are sleeping or competing in a breath-holding contest.) There are similar distinctions to be drawn with respect to potentiality. Suppose you don’t speak German. You nevertheless have the potential to speak it, in the sense that you might learn it. Call this a “first potentiality” for speaking German. Now, even once you do learn it, you won’t of course be speaking it all the time, even though you could speak it at any particular moment if you wanted to. You thus now have the potential to speak German in another sense. Call this a “second potentiality” for speaking German. Now acquiring this second sort of potentiality for speaking German – the ability to speak it at will – is also, of course, a kind of actuality, insofar as you now actually have the ability to speak it. So a second potentiality is also a kind of primary actuality; and when you really do go ahead and speak German, exercising your new ability, the act of speaking counts as a secondary actuality relative to this primary actuality. I could make further distinctions – and I know you want me to – but that’s enough to make the point.’ “(The Last Superstition, p. 56)

    Of course, here Aquinas is concerned with the “convertibility” between being and the good in this article, so things are a little more complicated because he is talking about being itself rather than just some aspect of a being. But the general idea remains: a being is certainly good insofar as it exists, but is unconditionally good insofar as it has reached its perfection.

    [A nasty technical metaphysical complication may arise in that Aquinas appears to be identifying second act (or ultimate act) with “operation” that is, being in the process of actually doing something – think of the Feser example above. How would this then apply to being itself? This has been spotted by the commentators and given a careful explanation which we could go into at some time if we felt like it.]

  2. 1a.5.5 Art 2 'Is good conceptually prior to being': Why does this idea of being 'conceptually prior' matter? Why is this an important question? It comes up several times so St Thomas must have thought it was important!

    Aquinas is concerned throughout the summa with epistemology and its relation to ontology – how and what can we know and how is this related to what there is. In asking whether something is “conceptually prior” to something else, Aquinas is asking about the nature of our knowledge of those things; how our intellect organizes our knowledge of those things. He is going to spend a good long section later on (qq. 75 – 102) on human nature and a big part of that consists of discussing epistemology and its relationship to our intellect and will.

    In this case, Aquinas establishes that being is the proper object of the intellect and is thus conceptually prior to the good. So it seems that here Aquinas is establishing a concordance between the “order of being” and “the order of knowing” despite the effects of original sin.

    It’s also conceivable (though this is my speculation) that Aquinas is getting his retaliation in early against those who would argue that the good being prior to being and our wills being clouded by original sin means that it is only by divine order that we know what is good and what we may do to please God. Later on, the proponents of “voluntarism” would argue precisely this.

  3. 1a.5 Art 2 reply to Obj 1 The idea of matter 'desiring' anything is a bit odd. 'For primary matter participates in the good—since it desires the good, and nothing desires what is not similar to itself—but it does not participate in being, given that it is claimed to be a non-being'. What's that all about then?

    This is some of the anthropomorphic language that is (unfortunately) used analogically in teleology. The Latin uses the word “appeto” which can be translated “to desire” but can also mean “to approach”. The idea here is that all things are created to an end and that all things will be ordered to that end by their very nature. Now there comes the problem of how one describes the process by which things are ordered to their end: for rational beings one can talk about desiring our end without any problem; but that word is used analogically of non-rational and inanimate objects, which does sound strange! Non-animate things in nature will proceed towards their natural end unless something else prevents them; in saying that they “desire” the good we simply mean that they are ordered towards some end and we will observe that other things help or hinder that end.

  4. Good evening, is giving me some trouble. Is It correct to say that a thing has esse simpliciter/esse substantiale in respect to it having primum esse or simply is or is not while it's esse secundum quid refers to the degree in which it has become fully actualized/achieved a complete manifestation of some accidental?

    Bonum simpliciter would then refer to the attainment of a given esse secundum quid in a thing/the degree in which to which it has fully realized a given potential

  5. Hi Matthew,

    I think you've basically got the gist of Aquinas's argument there. What's troubling you about it?