Saturday, June 7, 2014

Being is Logically Prior to Goodness


1.  Having established that goodness and being are not really distinct, but only logically distinct, Thomas asks which is logically prior.  Another way of asking this is: which notion is more fundamental: to exist, or to be good?  Against the claim that Being is logically prior to Goodness, St. Thomas proposes four objections.

2.  The first objection is based on the fact that Dionysius places “good” first in the names of God, assigning it primacy.  The second is also from Dionysius, specifically from the fact that the notion of goodness is broader in application (applying to non-existing things, as well as existing things), and what applies more extensive is more fundamental.  The third is from the fact that sometimes non-existent things are desirable (he quotes Christ speaking of Judas), and amounts to the same argument as the second.  The fourth is from the distinct desirability of things over and above mere existence: since goodness applies to more different kind of things than mere existence, it must be prior.

3.  In the Corpus he explains briefly that the meaning of a word is based primarily on what is primarily grasped by the mind in its contemplation of the object being referenced.  But what the intellect grasps first in things is being, since everything is knowable only to the extent that it presents itself to the mind, which is to the extent that it is actual (he cites Book IX of Aristotle’s Metaphysics).  Thus being is prior secundum rationem to goodness.

4.  In response to the first objection, Thomas makes some insightful notes on the order of the four causes.  An agent never acts except on account of some end or goal (agens non agit nisi propter finem).  Thus the final cause is the source and rule of the action of agents.  But a material cause only receives a given form when that form is imposed on it by some agent.  So all of the other causes (material, efficient, formal) fall under the governance of the final cause, which is thus called the “cause of causes.”  Since the final cause is a thing’s perfection, it corresponds to goodness, and thus goodness governs all the other causes.  In this way goodness is prior to being.  

5.  He remarks further, in response to the second objection, that Dionysius attributes broader universality to goodness on account of an idea taken from the Platonists.  Plato sees materiality as a lack of formality (the forms of things, for Plato, are immaterial and separate, and give all reality).  So to the extent that material things can still said to be good, even though they lack being, the thought is that goodness has further scope than being.  

6.  Additionally, since “being” applies only to what is actual, and “goodness” applies also to what is potential, insofar as it can be raised into actuality, there is an appearance of greater universality on the part of goodness.  However, good things are only actually good to the extent that they are actual.  A possible good which is presently absent is not sufficient to make a thing good.  This suffices for the third objection.

7.  To the fourth, Thomas points out that life, wisdom, etc. are all good insofar as they are actual, and when they are actual, they are actualizations or perfections of the being of a thing, and belong to being.  The fourth objection is a good example of a subtle equivocation: the objector borrows the distinction between existence, life, and wisdom from the consideration of the different orders of perfection, and then applies that distinction as if it were a division of genera.  But wisdom belongs to life as a perfection of it, just as life belongs to existence as a possible perfection of it.  Thus the perfection of wisdom is a perfection of being, and the goodness of wisdom is the goodness of being, not a separate goodness.


– Dionysius puts “goodness” first among the divine attributes.
– Goodness applies to non-existing things.
– Non-existing things are desirable.
– Life, wisdom, etc. are good, and not just existence.

– The meaning of a term comes from the notion under which the object signified is primarily grasped by the mind.
– Being precedes goodness in the order of knowledge.
– Therefore logical primacy belongs to being.

– Goodness is first as the governing cause, but not logically first.
– Goodness and Desirability belong to non-existing things only relative to their possible actuality.
– Life, wisdom, etc. are perfections of being, not separate kinds.

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