Aquinas’s Argument from Degrees of Perfection Part 2: Goodness and Being

In the first post in this series on Aquinas’s Fourth Way, we discussed modern “moral” arguments for the existence of God, considered how such arguments are based on the modern “fact/value distinction”, and how this modern assumption is completely antithetical to the classical view of “the good” as an entirely objective feature of reality. In this post, we will examine the classical view of the good.

As we saw, Hume famously posited that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”; in other words, we cannot say something about what ought to be the case based purely on what is actually the case. “Oughtness” thus comes to have a certain level of subjective sentiment involved. How far removed this is from Plato’s theory of knowledge, in which the highest, purest, most real knowledge is the knowledge of the Good itself, while knowledge of other things is more obscure and not as definite:

“Well, understand the soul in the same way: When it focuses on something illuminated by truth and what is, it understands, knows, and apparently possesses understanding, but when it focuses on what is mixed with obscurity, on what comes to be and passes away, it opines and is dimmed, changes its opinions this way and that, and seems bereft of understanding . . . So that what gives truth to the things known and the power to know to the knower is the form of the good. And though it is the cause of knowledge and truth, it is also an object of knowledge. Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they. In the visible realm, light and sight are rightly considered sunlike, but it is wrong to think that they are the sun, so here it is right to think of knowledge and truth as goodlike but wrong to think that either of them is the good–for the good is yet more prized” (Republic 508d3-5092) [1].

And elsewhere:

“You’ve often heard it said that the form of the good is the most important thing to learn about and that it’s by their relation to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial . . . If we don’t know it [the form of the good], even the fullest possible knowledge of other things is of no benefit to us, any more than if we acquire any possession without the good of it. Or do you think that it is any advantage to have every kind of possession without the good of it? Or to know everything except the good, thereby knowing nothing fine or good?” (Republic 505a1-b2) [2].

So for Plato, the very reason why we know anything at all is to come to ultimately know the Good. For Plato, there is an inherent “good” for everything that exists, and everything that exists seeks this good, such that in knowing things we ought to know their good, and come ultimately to know the Good Itself, the form of the Good which is the highest, most real Being. He says:

“Every soul pursues the good and does its utmost for its sake. It divines that the good is something” (505e1-2, emphasis mine) [3].


“Therefore, you should also say that not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their being is also due to it, although the good is not being, but superior to it in rank and power” (509b6-8) [4].

The Good is superior to being in rank and power, for by the Good all else has its being. And finally, at the conclusion of Plato’s famous “Cave Allegory”:

“In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it” (517b7-517c4) [5].

In another dialogue, the focus of which is specifically about the nature of love, Plato writes:

“In a word, then, love is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a11) [6].

And then, describing the nature of “the good” (which he identifies also with “the beautiful”):

“First, it always is and neither comes to be nor passes away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another; nor is it beautiful here by ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others. Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that, in such a way that when those others come to be or pass away, this does not become the least bit smaller or greater nor suffer any change” (211a2-b5) [7].

We often hear the expression that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but here Plato is declaring the exact opposite (admittedly not referring to physical attractiveness, however): the form of beauty/goodness is completely itself, unchanging, eternal, non-physical/corporeal. As you might notice, this description sounds suspiciously like some conceptions of God; we’ll be returning to this later in the series.

Plato’s entire metaphysical, ethical and epistemological theory is, of course, much more complex and developed than just this, but this sampling gives us a good, introductory idea of the objectivity of “goodness” in reality.

Aristotle’s idea of the good is much more concrete and down to earth. He does not find reason to believe there’s some ultimate, independently existing “form of the Good” which all beings participate in; but he does, nevertheless, think that there is an intrinsic “good” or “oughtness” built into all things. Aristotle’s ethical theory flows directly from his metaphysical framework. Hence in order to understand his view of the good, we must understand his view of final causation. For Aristotle, “nature is for the sake of something” (Physics 2.7, 198b4) [8]. In considering human activity, it is easy to perceive that we act for certain ends. Someone builds a house in order to have shelter to live in. We work for the sake of having means of providing for ourselves and our families. We read a good book for the purpose of entertainment, etc. This teleology in human action is uncontroversial. But for Aristotle, teleology does not exist merely in human action; rather, teleology is actually built right into the very fundamental structure of the universe, and human action is just one particular, advanced instance thereof. He says:

“Nature belongs to the class of causes which act for the sake of something” (1.8, 198b10-11).

“Action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature” (1.8, 199a7-8).

“Now surely as in intelligent action, so in nature; and as in nature, so it is in each action . . . Now intelligent action is for the sake of an end; therefore the nature of things also is . . . If, therefore, artificial products are for the sake of an end, so clearly also are natural products” (1.8, 199a10-18).

“It is plain then that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose” (1.8, 199b32-33) [9].

So all of nature acts for certain ends, but human action is unique in that we have knowledge and self awareness, and thus can know our desired ends, and will, and thus can choose to act for our ends. Speaking of such, Aristotle begins his most popular work, the Nicomachean Ethics:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that which all things aim” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1.1, 1094a1-3) [10].

Furthermore, Aristotle deliberates, some goods which we seek are subordinate to other, superior ones. For an example, he gives bridle-making and riding. Bridle making is a subordinate good to the art of riding horses itself, because we make bridles for the sake of ultimately riding horses. Since this is the case, then it must be that there is some “highest good”, which all other goods are subordinate to, and to which all our actions ultimately aim:

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good” (1.2, 1094a17-22) [11].

Aristotle then argues that this “chief good” or highest good for humans is happiness. Happiness, not in terms of pleasure or feeling, but rather of actual, objective human flourishing. He rejects the Platonic notion of “the form of the good” as some independently existing reality which all others share in, but still maintains that everything acts for the highest good as its final end. It is clear that happiness is this highest good, but in order to know exactly what this means, we have to “ascertain the function of man” (1.7, 1097b25) [12]. After defining the essence of man so as to determine his function, Aristotle concludes that

“human good turns out to be activity of [rational] soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete” (1.7, 1098a17-18) [13].

Aquinas builds his own understanding upon the foundation of Aristotle’s system, both in terms of final causation generally and human action specifically. Aquinas states that “the essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable” (ST I, Q. 5, Art. 1) [14]. Philosopher Ed Feser comments on this quote:

“By ‘desirable’ Aquinas does not mean that which conforms to some desire we happen contingently to have, nor even, necessarily, anything desired in a conscious way. Here as elsewhere, it is the notion of the final cause–the end or goal towards which a thing is directed by nature” [15].

As we’ve said, the reason modern “moral” arguments exist is because, on the modern view, nature just works as it does, driven along mechanistically by blind forces, particles and atoms and molecules bumping into each other, while humans alone of all beings have an inherent tendency towards certain goals/purposes; we recognize an “oughtness” to which we are directed. But, the classical thinkers such as those we’ve just examined would say, this is just entirely incorrect. Everything has an inherent tendency towards certain goals/purposes; everything has an “oughtness”, everything has natural ends and final causes towards which they are directed. And this is how we’re to understand the good. Just as we might call a husband and father a “good” husband and father to the extent that he fulfills the functions/role of a husband and father, we can say of anything that it is “good” to the extent that it fulfills its natural ends and final causes. Human moral goodness is just one particular type/instance of teleological goodness more broadly. So, far from a supposed “fact/value distinction”, the nature of reality is such that “the facts in question are, as it were, inherently laden with ‘value’ from the start . . . the goodness a flourishing instance of a natural kind exhibits is ‘natural goodness’–the goodness is there in the nature of things, and not in our subjective ‘value’ judgements about them” [16].

But what does all this have to do with Aquinas’s Fourth Way argument for the existence of God? As was quoted from Aquinas at the end of the previous post, “The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like” [17]. But in order to fully grasp his argument from gradation in degrees of goodness, we first needed to understand his conception of what goodness itself is, as we have now done. Aquinas, building on the thinking of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and other classical philosophers, defined the good “in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence” [18].

Which brings us to an extremely significant doctrine in Thomistic and scholastic thought: the Transcendentals. If, as we’ve argued, goodness has some real, intrinsic existence in reality, and it is not just subjective evaluation thereof, then goodness must have some real relation to being. In fact, Aquinas asserts, goodness just is being; they are “convertible” with one another.

As this might very well seem like a radical claim, let’s take a step back and examine it from a different perspective. For Aristotle and Aquinas, every science is the study of being from some specific reference, or the study of some particular aspect of being. Biology, we might say, is the study of being qua living organisms. Chemistry then would be the study of being qua elements and chemical relations. Physics, the study of being qua nature and physical reality. But of all sciences, metaphysics is absolutely the most basic, fundamental. For metaphysics alone studies being qua being, being as it is in itself. When we see this, we can see that the concept of “being” is the most general and “the most comprehensive concept we have, applying as it does to everything that exists, so that there is no way to subsume it under something more general” [19]. There is nothing more fundamental or more general than being. It applies to literally everything, because everything that exists must have being in some sense. Philosopher W. Norris Clarke comments:

What does ‘is’ mean? It is so fundamental that it is impossible to define it by anything clearer, or by setting it off as a class within a wider class, as is done in ordinary definitions, for outside of it there is nothing” [20].

Aristotle contended that we can divide aspects or types of beings into various conceptual “categories” or classes, such as substance, quantity, quality, etc. We can also consider different aspects or types of beings in terms of species and genus–certain species of beings fit into a certain genus, in which the different species are distinguished from each other by certain differentiae. But, we must immediately notice, despite these various conceptual categories/classes which show that existing things are distinct in many ways, all these things nevertheless share in that they exist, they have being. “Being” as such, in general, is thus common to everything, regardless of category, class, genus, species, etc; it transcends all the different individual existing realities–hence the titling of this doctrine as that of “the Transcendentals“, for the doctrine asserts that there are some things, like “being”, which completely transcend all categories/aspects of existence.

Aquinas also point out that “being” cannot be considered a genus under which all existing things fall as species:

“nothing can be added to being as though it were something not included in being–in the way that a difference is added to a genus or an accident to a subject–for every reality is essentially a being” [21].

If we think of “humans” as a genus, we can categorize members of this genus by certain features that distinguish them, such as, say, gender. The definition of human, as “rational animal”, does not intrinsically include any reference to gender; so in order to categorize male and female under the genus human, we would need to “add” something to the concept of human to allow for such differentiation–such as:
“rational animals with biological genders”. But, Aquinas asks here, how could you add something in this manner to the concept of being? For there is literally nothing outside the concept of being. “Maleness” and “femaleness” are both aspects of being, which can be added to a broader category of human being. But there is no such broader category outside being, to which being could be added. Furthermore, “maleness” and “femaleness” are accidents of the subject humanity, meaning that, again, it is not a part of the intrinsic definition of human essence to be either male or female. But it is a part of the intrinsic definition of every essence to exist, to have being. So being transcends all categories, classes, and aspects of existence.

And as we noted, “the good” must have some real relation to being. As Aquinas said above, nothing can actually be added to being in reality, but, he later maintains, we can add to being conceptually. Or, in other words, we can think about being under different aspects, from different reference points:

“Yet, in this sense, some predicates may be said to add to being inasmuch as they express a mode of being not expressed by the term being” [22].

For example, consider the relation between a substance (a thing itself) and its accidents (its characteristics). Both are real, both have being and existence. But we can refer to them as different beings because each term, substance and accident, refers to a distinct sense or aspect of being. Substance is being, accident is being, and yet each considers a different mode of being.

The “Transcendentals” are like this, but they are, as the term “being” itself, completely beyond even the categories of substance and accident, since they are common to all substances and accidents. The Transcendentals include concepts such as: being, thing, one, something, true, and good. All, Aquinas insists, are actually the same, all are convertible with each other, all refer to the same thing. But they differ conceptually.

Here we will just consider how “being” and “goodness” can be identical. After establishing that goodness only adds something to being conceptually, Aquinas states:

“What is merely conceptual, however, can be of only two kinds: negation and a certain kind of relation” [23].

Negation, says St. Thomas, by definition, does not have actual existence, since it is the absence or privation of some positive existence. But we can still consider it as an abstract concept. Relation is also conceptual. To consider a simplistic example: to my brother, I am a brother. To my cousin, I am a cousin. Calling me a “brother” or a “cousin” does not in reality change anything about me, or designate some real difference in me; I am not somehow a different person to my brother than I am to my cousin. I am me, but in relation to different people, I can be considered under different conceptual terms. This is thus how we ought to think about “goodness” and “being”. Goodness just is being, but it is considered in relation to the final cause or end/purpose of a being, as we’ve discussed above. Something is good by virtue of being a perfecting end. A husband is a “good” husband by virtue of fulfilling the proper role of husband in a sufficient manner. But what does this mean except that the person is (exists, has being) in a way that perfects his status as husband?

Or, as Ed Feser puts it, everything that exists has some essence, and it is the end of the thing to perfectly fulfill/instantiate the “ideal” of the essence. The example he gives is of a triangle: we all know that the essence of a triangle is to have three edges, vertices, and angles. A triangle rendered by a powerful, precise, computer program is a much more “good” triangle then one hastily scribbled on a piece of paper by a toddler, since the former better fulfills the very essence of what it is to be a triangle. So “goodness” is being considered in relation to the perfected essence of a thing. And, in order to be a “perfected” essence, the essence must first actually exist. Aquinas summarizes:

“Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea . . . The essence of goodness consists in this, that it is in some way desirable [referring to final causation] . . . Now it is clear that a thing is desirable only in so far as it is perfect; for all desire their own perfection. But everything is perfect so far as it is actual. Therefore it is clear that a thing is perfect so far as it exists; for it is existence that makes all things actual . . . Hence it is clear that goodness and being are the same really. But goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present” [24].

In conclusion, goodness is a real, objective feature of reality, not merely a subjective evaluation thereof. For goodness just is being considered in relation to the perfecting ends of a being; and goodness and being are interchangeable with each other, for both completely transcend all categories and aspects of individual things.

This all was necessary to establish in order to fully comprehend the Fourth Way. In the next post, we will begin to unfold the argument itself.



[1]. Plato. “Republic,” in Plato: Complete Works. Edited and translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. 1129.

[2]. Ibid. 1125-1126.

[3]. Ibid. 1126.

[4]. Ibid. 1130.

[5]. Ibid. 1135.

[6]. Plato. “Symposium,” in Plato: Complete Works. Edited and translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. 489.

[7]. Ibid. 493.

[8]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print, 248.

[9]. Ibid., 249-251.

[10]. Ibid., 935.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Ibid., 942.

[13]. Ibid., 943.

[14]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 5, Art. 1.

[15]. Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 35.

[16]. Ibid., 178.

[17]. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 2, Art. 3.

[18]. Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 34.

[19]. Ibid., 32.

[20]. Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Print, 26.

[21]. Aquinas, Thomas. Quaestiones Disputate de Veritate: Truth. Translated by Robert W. Mulligan, James V. McGlynn, and Robert W. Schmidt. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954. Html edition by Joseph Kenny, O.P. <;. 1.1.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. quinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I, Q. 5, Art. 1.


4 thoughts on “Aquinas’s Argument from Degrees of Perfection Part 2: Goodness and Being

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