Aquinas’s Argument from Degrees of Perfection Part 4: Conclusion

This is the fourth and final post in our series examining Aquinas’s Fourth Way, or the Argument from Degrees of Perfection for the existence of God. In the previous part, we looked at a common Platonic misinterpretation of the argument; then we delved into the argument itself. Here we shall more fully explain what was presented before, as well as conclude the argument and answer a few lingering questions.

To begin, I think it will be useful to examine certain objections that might arise, since doing so will prepare us to grasp a fuller understanding of the argument itself. Surprisingly, despite its relative obscurity and philosophical technicality, the argument is treated in Richard Dawkins’s infamous The God Delusion. By “treated”, I mean that it receives one entire paragraph. First Dawkins presents his “interpretation” of the argument:

“The Argument from Degree. We notice that things in the world differ. There are degrees of, say, goodness or perfection. But we judge these degrees only by comparison with a maximum. Humans can be both good and bad, so the maximum goodness cannot rest in us. Therefore there must be some other maximum to set the standard for perfection, and we call that maximum God” [1].

In all honesty, I’m not really sure from where Dawkins contrived this bastardization of the Fourth Way, but it certainly wasn’t from St. Thomas himself, or any serious commenter/defender that I’m aware of. What’s much worse, however, is his attempt to “answer” the admittedly horrendous caricature:

“That’s an argument? You might as well say, people vary in smelliness but we can make the comparison only by reference to a perfect maximum of conceivable smelliness. Therefore there must exist a pre-eminently peerless stinker, and we call him God. Or substitute any dimension of comparison you like, and derive an equivalently fatuous conclusion” [2].

This smug rejoinder, while certainly humorous and to the point, amounts to little more than an abysmal intellectual travesty. There may very well be serious, rigorous objections to the Fourth Way; this is not one. The main mistake is in thinking that Aquinas is saying anything about judging “these degrees . . . by comparison with a maximum”. In fact, Dawkins’s version has things exactly backwards. His would be something like this: We can only know that things are “more” or “less” insofar as they are susceptible of comparison to some maximum. But that is blatantly false. (Ironically, he doesn’t even note this in his response. In fact, his response isn’t even an actual objection to his own version at all, unless it’s meant as a reductio ad absurdum. At most, his response, if true, commits the defender of his version of the argument–if there even are any such defenders thereof, which I seriously doubt–to holding that God is a “pre-eminently peerless stinker”, not that the argument actually fails in establishing God’s existence. Which it does, but not for the reason Dawkins insists). In order to compare two things, we presumably only need to observe those two things. “Short” and “tall” are relative descriptions; so in order to conclude that one person is taller than another, I really only need to be able to judge between those two people themselves. There’s no need for some “maximum tallness” by which I measure each person individually, concluding that one is “x-feet” shorter than maximum tallness and the other is “x+1.5” feet shorter, such that the latter must be one and a half feet shorter than the former. That is all unnecessary and ridiculous; not to mention the fact that “maximum tallness” might just be nonsensical in itself anyways. So Dawkins’s version, that varying degrees between things can only be measured by way of comparison with some maximum, is the exact opposite of Aquinas’s intention: that things which we already compare must point to some maximum, not in order to compare them, but in order to explain why the intrinsic variation, by which we compare them, exists in the first place. In other words, the argument has nothing to do with “measuring” in relation to some maximum.

Now, to be fair, there is a sense in which Dawkins’s version strikes at something similar to Aquinas’s. In the example we used, “tall” and “short” are purely relative descriptive features of reality; you cannot make sense of one except in conceptual relation to the other. You can say that a man six feet in height is tall, only because you have some general idea of average human heights, which six feet exceeds. But to a seven foot tall man, the six foot tall man is obviously short. And if the average human height were, say, eight feet, then the six foot tall man would be quite short indeed. Our judgement here has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the actual, objective height of the man. Either way, he is six feet tall. Our judgement depends entirely on the relation to other heights. But some qualities may not be like this. After all, we can say that something “smells bad” in itself without having to compare it to other smells. “Smelling bad” can, presumably, be an inherent, objective feature of a thing that is not predicated thereof merely by virtue of some relation. We can compare smells, and say that some smells are better or worse than others, but we don’t require such a comparison in order to judge any particular smell by itself. But in the case of varying levels of “smelling bad”, does this gradation of smells in itself point to some maximum “bad smell”? It definitely is not obviously so. We could, then, tweak Dawkins’s version of the argument such that it does not mistake Aquinas’s original point, and tweak his response accordingly such that it asserts that not all degrees of gradations of qualities points to some maximum, with the conclusion that Aquinas’s premise to that effect is false.

But even this does not work, since Aquinas’s argument is not that “all degrees of gradations of qualities points to some maximum”. Or, at least, as was mentioned in the previous post, even if Aquinas does think this to be the case, it certainly has no bearing on his argument as a whole. Consider that Aquinas uses the example of fire, which he archaically believes to be the “maximum” and “cause” of all heat. Aquinas does use fire as an example to illustrate a general principle he believes can be found in nature, but he does not think that such a maximum points to the existence of God; since, obviously, Aquinas hardly thinks that “fire” or “heat” are divine attributes.

Rather, Aquinas’s argument is specifically that the degrees of gradation of transcendental qualities in beings must point to some maximum (for post in explanation of the Transcendentals, see here). For Aquinas, the transcendental qualities of goodness, being, and perfection are all identical in reality, and are just conceptually distinct ways of referring to different aspects of what is really the same. Goodness, as we’ve seen, is the fulfillment of the natural ends of an essence. To the extent that something has fulfilled its ends, it is “good” or has goodness. But the fulfillment of ends is action, the actualization of inherent, perfective powers, and action/actuality is equivalent to existence. So the more something “has goodness”, the more it has real being. And the more something has real being, the more its ideal essence is perfected in actuality.

So for any class of things that admits to degrees of goodness, being, and perfection, there is some theoretically possible “maximum” of these qualities in an individual. For example, a human, as a rational animal with intellect and will, is capable of moral choice; and moral goodness is thus a part of the perfective ends of the human essence. A human cannot be fully, truly human without likewise being morally good. And the more moral goodness a human has, the more fully human he is. The ideal “maximum” human, then, while not really existent in reality, is one who has wholly fulfilled all the perfective ends of human nature. To return to the discussion on Dawkins’s objection, it is not the case that we say a human is “more” or “less” good merely by comparison to other people. These transcendental properties, for Aquinas, are not purely relative descriptions. If there were only one human being in existence, Aquinas would insist, we could still assert whether he is a “more” or “less” good person, not insofar as he is good or bad in relation to other humans, but only insofar as his goodness approaches the ideal maximum of the human essence. It is an entirely intrinsic, objective quality; not a mere conceptual association, as “short” and “tall” are. A human has more or less goodness, being, and perfection precisely to the degree of extent that they fulfill the human essence, and so precisely to the extent that they approach or fall short of the maximum.

But this is not true of just humans or moral creatures; it is true of all existing things. Each class of existing things has within it a hierarchy of being, goodness, and perfection that points to some possible, ideal “maximum” within that class which fully realizes the ideal essence of the thing. But, as we noted, this is not just true of individual classes in themselves, it is true of all classes together; all classes of existing things constitute a hierarchy of being, goodness, and perfection, from basic particles of matter, to living organisms such as plants and animals, and climaxing at human beings, such that this hierarchy points to some possible, ideal Maximum of all being, all goodness, and all perfection. Remember that we are not just referring to a hierarchy of being in terms of quantitative complexity; rather, we are referring to a hierarchy of being in terms of inherent qualitative power, perfection, and actuality. A single living cell exists on a higher level of qualitative power than the most massive star in our universe. And plants are higher in qualitative power than simple celled organisms; and animals are higher than plants; and humans are higher than animals, existing on the highest summit of physical existence we are aware of in the entire cosmos. So just as one individual human being might have “more” goodness to the extent that he more fully realizes/approaches the ideal maximum, since goodness, being, and perfection transcend all classes and aspects of beings, so too there is a hierarchy of classes itself which stretches from subatomic particles to human beings, wherein each successive level of qualitative power includes and supersedes the goodness, being, perfection, and actuality of the lower level.

Let’s draw this hierarchy out a bit further. Let’s suppose, for the sake of illustration, that fire really is the maximum of all heat. (It isn’t, but just think of it in terms of a combustion point: as something grows hotter and hotter, it eventually reaches it’s combustion point, and catches fire). Then in the class of things which are able to have heat, fire (we’re imagining) is the maximum thereof, within that specific class itself. In the class of rational beings, being fully rational is the ideal maximum thereof, within that specific class itself. “Being rational” could hardly be the ideal maximum perfection of a frog or a flower. Nor could “undergoing nuclear fusion” as stars do possibly be a maximum perfection of a human or a giraffe. But stars and giraffes both have a possible, ideal maximum of goodness, being, and perfection. As do frogs and flowers and atoms and galaxies, and all existing things. And the goodness, being, and perfections of some things are higher than others, and lower than others. The maximum of perfection for an atom is much less in terms of qualitative actuality/power/perfection than the maximum of a single cell, and the maximum of a cell is much less in terms of qualitative actuality/power/perfection than that of a rose, and that much less than that of a lion, and that of a man, and that of an angel.Because whereas “heat”, “rationality”, and “potential for growth” are all possible perfections of specific beings within specific classes, goodness, being, and actuality as such are all possible perfections of everything, according to varying levels/degrees of gradation. So one type of existing thing has more or less goodness to the extent that the natural capacities of its essence approach some transcendent maximum of all being, all goodness, and all perfection.

But, as we’ve admitted, the fact that such a hierarchy points to this Being of Maximum Perfection does not tell us whether or not the Being actually exists in reality. There needs to be, and is, more to the argument. But before we proceed, let’s look at a few possible objections to what we’ve said so far:

  1. Objection: If there is such a hierarchy of being, does that imply that lower beings are “worse” than higher beings? Answer: No. It is true that lower beings have “less” overall goodness than higher beings, due to their more limited, restricted natures, but that does not make them inherently bad or worse in themselves. Lower beings are good in themselves, and are fully good to the extent that they fulfill the natural perfective ends of their essences. Something is only “bad” when it fails to realize its own potential for goodness and being. So an atom may not have as much potential for goodness as humans do, but it can fully realize the level of goodness it is able to. The corollary is that atoms also do not have as much potential for evil as humans do; indeed, lacking intellect and will, lower beings are incapable of any sort of moral badness period.
  2. Objection: It seems that other qualities besides goodness, being, and perfection are able to “transcend” classes of beings. To return to Dawkins yet again, many different types of things can smell bad; so does that mean “smelliness” as such likewise transcends all classes and aspects of being, and should be attributed to the Being of Maximum Perfection? Answer: No. A few qualities of things may transcend some classes, but not all. For example, many things are just in principle not susceptible of having any smell. A single atom, for example, is not going to be registered by human olfactory nerves. The reason multiple types of things can have “smelliness” is not insofar as they are different, but insofar as they are similar. For only physical things which give off smell are capable of having “smelliness”. For other qualities we might make similar points. Lots of different types of things can be “large”, but these are all only physical, spatial things that have extension. Furthermore, only substances can have “largeness”. Accidents such as “white” or “musical” cannot have largeness, and yet they do actually exists and so do have being.
  3. Objection: Isn’t this “ideal maximum” of different types of beings Platonic? Answer: No, it is not Platonic. It is not a form that exists eternally and independently of all instantiations thereof. In fact, it very well might not actually exist at all. The ideal maximum of a specific type of being is just the completely fulfillment of all its inherent, natural perfective ends. In other words, each type of thing has an essence, and each essence has certain natural capacities (such as “rationality” for humans). The ideal maximum of any essence is just the maximum degree to which a being with that essence can realize its natural capacities, fulfilling its perfective ends.

Having now labored to make these things clear, we can turn to determine whether or not such a Being of Maximum Perfection actually exists.

Here we must notice something. Everything that exists, we’ve said, has these transcendental properties of goodness, being, and perfection. Nothing that exists lacks these, at least to some degree. But that leaves us with two options: either everything has these qualities as intrinsic to their essence, or else everything merely participates in them, without containing them as part of their essence. In other words, either every essence is just identical to its goodness, being, and perfection, or else every essence derives its being, goodness, and perfection from some external source.

At first glance, we might be inclined to say that everything has these qualities as intrinsic to (and thus identical with) their nature. For everything that actually exists, just by virtue of existing, has being, goodness, and perfection. But then we are immediately presented with a problem: how to account for the “hierarchy” of being we’ve just spent so much time exploring. How do we explain the fact that so many different types of existing things all have being, goodness, and perfection; and, more significantly, that they all have various different degrees thereof?!

To see why this is a problem, consider again the case of human beings. I earlier stated that a human being can only be fully human by realizing the perfective ends of the human essence. This needs qualification. Some human beings exist that, for some reason or other, do not fulfill the perfective ends of human nature. They do not reason well, or have healthy relationships, or are morally evil, etc. In these cases, the person in question is not fully human, because he/she is not perfectly realizing his/her natural capacities as a human being (just as a bird with the ability to fly which chooses not to fly is not fully exercising its bird nature). But, with that being said, every human, insofar as they are human, has the human essence. Some humans may more wholly fulfill the human essence, but all humans, by virtue of being human, possess human nature as their essence. While some people can be more or less “fully” human, no person could possibly be more or less human. They are human precisely insofar as they posses the human essence, and they possess the human nature precisely insofar as they exist as human. No human person could somehow possess “less” human nature; that would just be absurd. But, if goodness, being, and perfection are all identical to the human essence, how would it make sense for some humans to have more and less of these things? Would not all humans, insofar as they share an identical essence, likewise share in identical goodness, being, and perfection? But this is obviously not the case, as we have seen.

Furthermore, the very hierarchy of beings precludes the possibility of different beings on that hierarchy containing the transcendental properties as intrinsic to/identical with their essence. For remember that each level on the hierarchy has a certain ideal “maximum” of these qualities which its essence can admit to; and that maximum is a limit of those qualities in that essence. In other words, a particular essence limits the amount of being, goodness, and perfection that a thing can have. An atom cannot have the being, goodness, and perfection that comes with having a rational intellect, since the very essence of an atom is such as to limit it from being able to have rational intellect. But an atom can have goodness, being, perfection, and qualitative power in its own right, to its own degree, based upon its essence. So we see here that on the hierarchy of being, the different levels all have different degrees of qualitative power, and thus each level has a limit of qualitative power, which is precisely its maximum.

But being, goodness, and perfection, as such, do not have any intrinsic limitation; otherwise, they would not be able to apply to multiple different levels of qualitative power and actuality, and thus would not be able to be “transcendental” properties of being at all. As we said, a human being, possessing the essence of human being, could not somehow be “less” human. In other words, any human person could not be a “limited” human, or have humanity in a “limited” way. You either are human, or you are not. So if there is any essence that has goodness, being, and perfection as intrinsic to it, then it could not possibly have any of these things in a limited way; for it could not have its own essence limitedly.

In other words, any qualities that are identical to a particular essence, cannot exist in that essence in a limited way. But that gradation of degrees of perfection in beings of our experience reveals to us that they do all have being, goodness, and perfection in a limited way; as such, they simply cannot have being, goodness, and perfection as intrinsic to or identical with their essence. As Aquinas writes: “For if each one [thing] were of itself competent to have it [the positive property], there would be no reason why one should have it more than another” [3]. The very fact that our universe consists of various diverse, finite, limited modes of these qualitative perfections indicates that they do not possess such perfections by virtue of their own intrinsic essence [4]. Their essence is by definition a limitation of transcending goodness, being, and perfection–these things transcend the specific limitations.

So, since all these different beings do not contain the transcendental perfections as intrinsic to/identical with their essences, the transcendental perfections must be distinct from their essences, and hence these essences must only participate in goodness, being, and perfection as such. For Aquinas, to “participate in” something means to be derived from it as an external source. As Feser notes, “something ‘participates’ in a certain perfection when it has that perfection only in a partial or limited way” [5]. A tree could not possibly have the essence of “treeness” in a partial way; but it most definitely does only have goodness, being, and perfection in a partial way, for the reasons we’ve explained. There could be some maximum “whaleness” which some perfected whale achieves by fulfilling completely the natural ends of the whale essence. But it would be absurd to say that a human person could achieve this maximum “whaleness”, since whaleness is intrinsically related to the essence of whales. So each essence has its own particular “maximum” of perfection and goodness. But perfection and goodness as such entirely transcend those specific essences. In this sense, a whale can have goodness to a more perfect degree than an atom. And a human can have goodness to a more perfect degree than a whale. And an angel than a human. But all these different things, precisely because they only have these perfections to a certain degree, only possess the perfection in a limited way.

Think of it this way: a being with unlimited being, goodness, and perfection, by definition, could not possibly have any more being, goodness, or perfection; for if it could have more, then it would not already possess it in a qualitatively unlimited way. So now consider the beings on our hierarchy: could an atom possibly have more being, goodness, or perfection? Absolutely, since it could be, rather than an atom, a living cell. Could a living cell have more qualitative perfection? Absolutely, since it could be a plant. Could a plant? Absolutely, since it could be an animal. Could an animal? Absolutely, since it could be a human. Could a human? Here we reach the bounds of our experience. Nothing that we are aware of exceeds humans in terms of qualitative powers. But it seems definite that something could possibly exceed humans. If angels existed, for instance, they would exceed humans by being purely immaterial rational intellects, not being limited by matter or body. Hence, since it is just theoretically possible for humans to be exceeded in qualitative perfection, then humans cannot possess qualitative perfections unlimitedly, and thus cannot posses them as identical to their nature.

But, as was said, it must then be the case that everything which possesses goodness, being, and perfection in a limited way, only participates in these things, derives them from an external source. What could this external source be? Aquinas writes:

“For whatever is found in anything by participation, must be caused in it by that to which it belongs essentially” [6].


“For what is such by participation, and what is mobile, and what is imperfect always requires the pre-existence of something essentially such, immovable and perfect” [7].

In other words, the limited, finite beings which contain goodness, being, and perfection only partially, must derive their goodness, being, and perfection from what has these things essentially, or intrinsic to and identical with its very essence. (Some readers may notice that this is, in a sense, very similar to an argument presented alongside the Second Way.)

There are several reasons why this must be the case. The first is that, since in these finite beings their essence and their qualitative perfections are distinct, in order to exist together they must be continuously joined together and sustained together. As Feser notes, since they are fundamentally distinct, they “must be kept together at every point at which the thing exists” [8]. But since this is continuous, then at every moment the essence must be actively caused to have the qualitative perfections, and this causation will either be direct, or, if in a series, it will be an essentially ordered causal series (see posts on First or Second Ways for more on this). Hence, it must terminate at a first cause of the series that contains the qualitative perfections as intrinsic to its very essence.

It might not even be necessary to appeal to an essentially ordered causal series here, since Aquinas argues that, in fact, the only thing that can produce goodness, being, and perfection is that which contains these things essentially anyways. But since this point would take considerably more space to argue in full, it will be left to a future post.

The second reason likewise cannot be drawn out fully here, but will be done so elsewhere. For now, we will just quote from philosopher George Hayward Joyce, S. J.:

“When the same attribute is found in a plurality of individuals, it is impossible that it can belong to each of them in its own right and in virtue of its being the particular thing which it is . . . even if there be but two such entities, either the one must have recieved the perfection from the other, or both must owe it to a cause belonging to a higher order . . . the explanation of the manifold must necessarily be sought in the One” [9].

And this One must contain the qualities essentially, in order to distribute it to the multiplicity. This, again, will be more fully explained elsewhere.

Nevertheless, we arrive finally at the existence of the Being of Maximum Perfection, that which possess Being, Goodness, and Perfection as intrinsic to and identical with its essence; and hence that which just is Being Itself, Goodness Itself, and Perfection Itself. It’s essence is identical to Being, Goodness, and Perfection. All other beings, which have these transcendental properties in a limited or partial way, necessarily participate in the Infinite, Unlimited Fullness of all Being, Goodness, and Perfection in this Being of Maximum Perfection.

Now, there are in fact more transcendental properties than just those we’ve focused on: namely, truth and unity are central ones as well. But since we have not relied on these throughout the series, we shall not utilize them here either.

Now we must ask the question: why think that this Being of Maximum Perfection, this Being Itself, Goodness Itself, Perfection Itself (and, if we were to take the time to extrapolate further, Unity Itself and Truth Itself), why think this Being is “God”?

First, it should be noted that since this Maximum Being is Being Itself, it must be identical to the “Subsistent Being Itself” discovered in the Second Way. But, as we argued there, Being Itself must also be identical to Pure Act, since being and actuality are equivalent. So the Maximum Being will be, by extension, a Being of Pure Act. And we have already established somewhat extensively that the Being of Pure Act is God (see the above links).

Here we might add a few more points in addition. One, there could only possibly be one such Being of Maximum Perfection. For one thing, since, as we’ve already shown, the transcendental properties are all identical, then Being Itself, Goodness Itself, Perfection Itself are all one and the same Being. In addition to this, consider again our entire hierarchy of being, which points to and culminates in God as its Infinite Maximum. On this whole hierarchy, all the beings are distinct and diverse precisely because they are only limited in qualitative perfection. A tiger does not have the same limited mode of perfection, or the same degree, as other animals, or as plants, or stars, etc. Precisely because they are different, and exist in degrees of gradation, we know they are limited. But the Being of Maximum Perfection, by definition, is unlimited in perfection, and hence there could not be a “class” of such Beings which are distinct from each other.

Consider likewise why this Being must be said to have intellect and will (and thus to be “personal”). Possessing rational intellect and will is a qualitative power; in fact, it is the highest qualitative power we are aware of. Now, a cause which gives some perfection, must contain that perfection itself, either eminently or formally (see again posts on First and Second Ways). Material “perfective” qualities could not be said to be contained formally (or actually) in Being Itself, which is necessarily immaterial. But intellect and will are immaterial, so these perfections can be contained in the Being of Maximum Perfection in itself. So we can affirm that this Being of Maximum Perfection is indeed personal.

This, then, is the conclusion of the Fourth Way, which argues that the gradation of degrees of perfection in all the beings of our experience, which together form a hierarchy of being, must culminate in, and indeed find their very source of existence in, Being Itself, Goodness Itself, Perfection Itself, Pure Actuality Itself, Unity Itself, Truth Itself. And this Being we can rightly call God.



[1]. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2008. Print, 102.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Aquinas, Thomas. Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei: On the Power of God. Translated by the English Dominican Fathers. Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1952, reprint of 1932. Html edition by Joseph Kenny, O.P. <;. Q. 3, Art. 5.

[4]. For more on this, see Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Print, 220.

[5]. Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 108.

[6]. Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Benziger Bros. edition, 1947. Accessed online: <;. I, Q. 44, Art. 1.

[7]. Ibid. I, Q. 79, Art. 4.

[8]. Feser, Edward. Aquinas. London: Oneworld Publications, 2009. Print, 85.

[9]. Joyce SJ, George Hayward. Principles of Natural Theology. Edited by Paul A. Böer, Sr. Veritatis Splendor Publications. eBook, 95.


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