Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Difference between Being and Being Good


1.  In preparation for his discussion of the Goodness of God, Thomas pauses to discuss six points on the nature of Goodness in general.  The first article discusses the distinction between being and goodness: whether it is a real difference present in things (secundum rem) or a difference only according to the idea or definition of each (secundum rationem).

2.  In favor of the claim that goodness and being really differ in things, he proposes three arguments.  First he quotes Boethius, who distinguishes between being and goodness.  Second, he quotes a comment on the De Causis, to the effect that goodness is informed by being, and concludes that goodness must be a consequence of being, and therefore distinct from it.  Third, he notes the difference between goodness and being: a thing either exists or does not exist, and there are no possible intermediaries.  Goodness, on the other hand, admits of more and less.  Thus the two must be different.

3.  The Sed Contra is taken from Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana.

4.  Thomas’s argument in the Corpus is very clean and simple:  A thing is called “good” insofar as it is in some way desirable (he cites the opening line of the Nichomachean Ethics).  A thing is desirable insofar as it is perfect, since all things desire their own perfection.  A thing is perfect insofar as it is in act (as was discussed abundantly in the previous question).  And a thing’s act simply is in the same as its being.  Thus goodness is directly proportionate to being, but is simply a thing’s being considered under the aspect of desirability or perfection.

5.  Before moving on to the replies, we should discuss briefly the distinction between distinctions “secundum rem” and distinctions “secundum rationem”.  If two things differ “secundum rem”, then we call the distinction between them a “real distinction”, because, even if in some cases the two things cannot exist apart from each other (e.g. matter and form in a substance), still what is predicated of one need not also be predicated of the other, because they are different things.  

6.  By contrast, if two things differ “secundum rationem”, but not also secundum rem, then we say that they are “logically distinct”, because although the two are identical, and what is predicated of one is always predicated of the other, still they differ by the aspect under which the single subject of both is known.  The queen of England and the old woman taking a bath may not differ secundum rem, if the same person is referenced.  However, when I speak of the queen, I speak of this person under the aspect of being Sovereign of the United Kingdom, and when I speak of the old woman bathing, I have in mind merely the age of the person and her present activity.  Thus the notion under which the subject is considered differs, and the two are distinct secundum rationem.

7.  In his reply to the first objection, Thomas clarifies the distinction between being and goodness by pointing out the difference between what is designated by goodness simpliciter and being simpliciter.  When we think of being, or act, we think of it by contrast to potency.  To be is to have actuality.  Hence what is called “being” simply speaking is substance, i.e. something that has its own actuality, apart from others, and does not exist in anything else.  (This is what Aristotle calls “primary substance.”)  Every superadded act of being (accidental features, dispositions, knowledge, habits, etc.) is only called “being” secundum quid, because it lacks the primacy of substance, but only exists in another.  

8.  The notion of goodness, on the other hand, isn’t correlated to potency.  Something is good insofar as it is perfect or desirable.  Thus what is good simpliciter is perfect or desirable in itself, without reference to another.    Thus what is called “good” simply speaking is the ultimate desirable, which has every possible perfection, but what has goodness only to the limited extent of its present acutality is called good only secundum quid.

9.  Thomas draws a neat contrast here:  a thing is called being simply speaking in virtue of its substantial form, whether or not that form has any perfections added to it.  But a thing is called good simply speaking in virtue of its ultimate perfection, being raised to act in every way possible for its kind.  When we think of a thing as existing, we think of a sort of basic act which is in potency to perfection.  When we think of a thing as good, we think of the fullness of its act, elevated to its final perfection.

10.  To the second objection, he replies that goodness is informed by being in the sense that the good of a thing simply speaking is the fullness of its actuality, i.e. is the form of the thing’s perfection.

11.  To the third he replies that goodness is more or less relative to superadded perfections, as explained in the reply to the first objection.


– Boethius says that goodness and being are different.
– Goodness is said to be the result of the “information” of being.
– Goodness has degrees, but being is binary.

– Goodness signifies desirability.
– Desirability is proportionate to perfection in act.
– Perfection is the same as fullness of act.
– Actuality is being.

– Being, simply speaking, signifies the substance of a thing.  Goodness, simply speaking, signifies its ultimate perfection.
– Goodness is the quality of being ultimately informed.
– Goodness is more or less to the extent of a thing’s accidental perfections.

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