Outlined Version of the Degrees of Perfection Argument

Here is an outlined version of Aquinas’s Argument from Degrees of Perfection for the existence of God, also known as the Fourth Way. This is just an outline. The full series of articles can be found here, here, here and here. Refer to those for the whole, in depth explanations and defenses of the various premises.

The argument itself:

  1. In each class of existing things, there is a possible hierarchy of degrees of perfection in terms of transcendental qualities such as being, goodness, and perfection.
  2. The entire set of all classes of all existing things likewise creates a hierarchy of all being in terms of those same transcendental qualities.
  3. Every being that has these transcendental qualities (being, goodness, perfection) has them as either intrinsic to/identical with their essence, or else derives them from some external source.
  4. The fact that there is such a hierarchy of being, with each level of qualitative existence containing a higher or lower gradation of degrees of perfection, makes it impossible that these beings could have the transcendental qualities as intrinsic to or identical with their essence.
  5. Thus, each finite being must have their transcendental qualities by participation, meaning that they derive them from some external source.
  6. Either the finite being will derive its transcendental qualities directly from a being which has these qualities essentially, or else it will derive them from a being which likewise has them only be participation
  7. To derive transcendental qualities from an external source constitutes an essentially ordered causal series.
  8. Hence, if a finite being derives its transcendental qualities externally from another being which has the qualities only by participation, there will be an essentially ordered causal series.
  9. Essentially ordered causal series cannot have an infinite or circular regress, and must terminate in some first cause.
  10. Therefore, there must be some first cause of all finite beings (beings which have their transcendental qualities only by participation), and this first cause must have the transcendental qualities essentially.
  11. A being which has the transcendental causes essentially will be identical to the transcendental qualities, i.e. will be Being Itself, Goodness Itself, Perfection Itself, etc.
  12. This Being will also be One, and will be Pure Act, thus making it immaterial, timeless, eternal, immutable, and personal (having intellect and will).
  13. This Being we can rightly call God.

4 thoughts on “Outlined Version of the Degrees of Perfection Argument

  1. (1)
    From Part 4:
    “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.”
    “… 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.”

    [In the first quote, you say that goodness is an intrinsic quality. In the second quote, you say that it’s impossible for it to be intrinsic. It appears that this might be a contradiction, or that you are using “intrinsic” in more than one sense.]

    From Part 4:
    “But being, goodness, and perfection, as such, do not have any intrinsic limitation;”
    “Aquinas’s argument is specifically that the degrees of gradation of transcendental qualities in beings must point to some maximum.”

    [ A “maximum” is an upper limit by definition, so it is a limitation.]

    From Part 4:
    “… could an atom possibly have more being, goodness, or perfection? Absolutely, since it could be, rather than an atom, a living cell.”

    [Is “being” something which can be quantified? How can you quantify a transcendental property or quality? You answered this question in another paragraph, from which I quote below.]

    From “Part 3”:
    “And within each class that admits to gradation of goodness, being, and the like, there would theoretically be a similar type of hierarchy pointing to some possible maximum thereof. But this presents us with a hierarchy emerging from the classes of things themselves–a hierarchy of being, reaching from the lowest, most basic, fundamental particles of matter in physical reality, up through the atoms, molecules, complex objects, leaping up from inanimate beings to single living cells, then complex living organisms, from plants, to animals, and finally, the summit of physical reality, human beings who are rational animals. Each “level” on this hierachy has more being, and therefore more goodness, since each level has a higher degree of perfection.”

    “… even reductive materialists admit that the “higher” beings, even though they essentially are just organized collections of the lower beings, are still more complex and have higher functions. On St. Thomas’s view, these beings are not just higher insofar as they have increased complexity in terms of interaction of lower beings; rather, they also have higher forms, with more intrinsic being and actuality. For the functions or “powers” that a certain being has flow from its form/nature, which is its actuality. A simple life form may have the actuality to be capable of growth, reproduction, etc., but higher life forms will have these same powers, as well as additional ones, such as locomotion, sense-perception, and, finally, rationality. Note here that “higher” does not just mean “quantitatively more”, for if that were the case, then massive stars or black holes would be the highest level of being capable in our universe, since these objects contain astronimcally more mass and energy then miniscule human beings do. A thing is “higher” in degree of being and goodness in terms of its intrinsic actualities and powers; its qualitative functions. Thus a star, which is certainly maginificent and impressive, is essentially an ongoing process of intense nuclear fusion, which is, at base, merely a form of chemical reaction. This is thus the highest qualitative power of a star. But even the most basic, simplest of living organisms exceeds this, since these likewise have the chemical powers, but in addition also have the powers unique to living things, as listed above. Hence living things, in terms of qualitative power/actually, exceed non-living things. And in the order of living things, plants exceed simple life forms, animals exceed plants, and humans exceed all. Furthermore, if anything like angels exist in any form, which are purely immaterial beings, they would exceed even humans.?

    [The distinction is still quantitative: “higher” beings have more “powers” than lower beings.]

    From Part 3:
    “Each ‘level’ on this hierachy has more being, and therefore more goodness, since each level has a higher degree of perfection.”

    From Part 4:
    “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.”

    [If an atom fulfills “all its inherent, natural perfective ends” why is it inferior to a life form that does not? If perfection is transcendental, shouldn’t that be considered “higher” than an imperfect something-else, which may have more “powers” but whose essence is less perfectly fulfilled?]

    [The arguments in all parts contain many such value judgments that I am not certain have been justified.]


  2. (1). Good point, I should’ve been more careful in my use of such possibly ambiguous terms. I am indeed using “intrinsic” in two different senses here. In the first quote, I just mean that “goodness” is NOT relative, in the sense that “short” and “tall” are. When you call someone short, you’re not really making an objective statement about what something is all on its own, you’re essentially comparing it with something else. So when I say that goodness is “intrinsic” in this sense, I mean that we can consider whether or not something is good just by observing the thing itself. It’s not subjective or relative. In the second quote, I mean that finite things don’t have these qualities as a part of, or as identical to, their nature. For Aquinas, all actual, whole finite beings are composites: composites of essence and existence, matter and form, act and potency. If we take the essence of a finite thing on its own, abstracting it from the actual, whole, real being, that essence on its own does not have being, goodness, etc. When it does exist as a real being, it does have those things, not because it is in its nature to have them, but because it’s been given them externally. But it does still “have” them, while it exists as a real being. They are “joined” to the essence in a sense, externally. So goodness is not intrinsic to the actual essence itself, but it can be “intrinsic” to the actual, real being as a whole.

    (2). Hmm, this is interesting. I agree that in a sense, a maximum is a limitation of sorts. I think that Aquinas (and other Thomistic philosophers) would say that God is qualitatively infinite in respect to these properties, but he is the “maximum” of them in the sense that no being could possibly have them more than he has them (because he has them fully and infinitely, unlimitedly). What I mean in the first quote here, that being, goodness, perfection as such don’t have any intrinsic limitation, is that on their own they cannot be fully limited to one type of finite being. So “existence” cannot be limited to just one instance of a finite being that exists. Many different types of finite beings “have existence”, so existence must be something that isn’t limited to each specific type of being, but rather can transcend them.

    (4). This is a bit tricky. It’s true that the “higher” beings have in a way quantitatively “more” powers, but the additional powers that they have, in themselves, are not “quantitative powers.” What I mean by this is that having more mass/matter/energy is “quantitatively more” than having less of those things. A star or a black whole has obviously way more mass and energy than a living cell. But the powers that a living cell has are “qualitatively higher” in the sense explained in the post. Going back to your question from (3), I think you’re right that “being” is not really something in itself that is really quantifiable. I’m using “more” here somewhat analogously. A star has more “being” than a cell if we consider being in terms of mass and energy. But if we consider being in terms of the form a thing has, then the form of a cell has “more” active power than a star.

    (5). Once again, I think you’re right, in a way. I think I mentioned that a human being, because it is has will and intellect, is capable of moral evil, which make its potential for “badness” much more than lower things which don’t have the potential for moral evil. But we might think of it like this (this is admittedly a very simplistic example): a very young child is given a picture book with very few, easy words to read, and soon, after going over it again and again, comes to “master” the book, which contains sentences such as “I read, I sleep, I speak,” etc. Now on the other hand, imagine a young high school student attempting to read something such as, say Dostoevsky, which is a difficult read for many very intelligent adults. This young student can ready very well and competently, but still struggles with the difficult text, misses lots of words, can’t understand some points, etc. This student has read his book “less perfectly” than the young child has, but I still think we’d say his experience of reading is much higher and superior. Which is, again, not at all to demean the work of the child, since for that child to read what it’s reading is entirely appropriate and good in its own right. It’s just not AS good as the student struggling through Dostoevsky. A lower being may more perfectly fulfill its own ends, but those ends in themselves are still not as high as the ends a “superior” being has. For example, humans are material beings composed of atoms, who are also living organisms which grow and reproduce (like plants) and move and have sense perception (like animals), but what is unique to them is that they reason. So when a human reasons poorly, they are not fulfilling completely all the perfective ends of human nature. But they are still doing just as much and more as all the lower beings, since they are still existing, living, growing, sensing, etc., while all the while having the potential for reasoning, even if they do it poorly.

    I also don’t think I have completely justified all parts of the argument. These latter ways are much more complex and difficult than the first and second ways. My goal in these posts now is just to roughly lay out and explain what Aquinas actually meant by his argument. Then, hopefully as I go more through some other series such as my Metaphysics one, I’ll be able to actually defend the premises more in depth.

    As always, thanks for commenting.


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