Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Goodness of God in Comparison to Creatures


1.  Having established that it is fitting to call God “good”, St. Thomas asks whether he is the highest good.  This article and the ones following are especially fruitful for reflection, since knowledge of God’s supreme goodness is necessary for a proper understanding of the value of created things and for a proper relationship with God himself.

2.  Against the claim that God is the highest good, Thomas proposes three objections.  The first is from the fact that when we call God the highest good, we seem to be marking out an accidental characteristic of his goodness within the genus of good things: just as the tallest man is tallest by virtue of having more added to his height than is present in other men, so it would seem the highest good must have something added to it to make it the greatest of its kind.  But we have already established at length that there are no accidental perfections in God, nor any sort of composition, and therefore it seems he ought not to be called the highest good.

3.  The second objection is from the definition of the good given by Aristotle, which we have already discussed at length (quod omnia appetunt).  Since, it is observed, nothing is really universally desired except God, it seems that actually nothing is good other than God.  Thomas cites Christ’s line to the rich young man in Matthew 19:17 “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”  But if only God is good, it is incorrect to say that he is the highest good, since this phrase implies a comparison among many.

4.  The third objection is from the fact that by calling something the “highest” or “greatest” we place it in a genus with other things to which it is compared.  But God is not in any genus, as was established in Q.3 A.5.  So God must not be the highest good.

5.  His Sed Contra is taken from Augustine’s De Trinitate, Book I.

6.  In the Corpus, Thomas explains the supremacy of God’s goodness by giving a more thorough analysis of equivocal causation.  First, he clarifies that to call God the highest good does not place him in a genus or order with creatures.  God is called Good because all desired perfections flow from him as first cause.  However, they do not flow from him as from a univocal cause, but as from an equivocal cause.  We have discussed this distinction above, but should repeat it here.

7.  A univocal cause transmits the form it possesses to another under the same ratio as it possess the form itself.  Thus one warm thing may warm another, so that what is heated shares the same form (heat) as what caused the form in it (a hot thing), even if to a lesser extent.  But an equivocal cause communicates its own form to another under a different ratio, as for example the sun and other stars that preceded it (under the current cosmology) communicate life to everything on earth, first by producing the matter (heavy elements), then by drawing them into their sphere, and finally by radiating them in such a way that they become alive.  The sun itself is not alive, and yet there is a kind of superiority to the stellar act by which it seems to produce and ultimately animate everything herebelow.  Note, however, that living things do not receive the stellar form under the same ratio—were that form to be imposed on them, they would be totally destroyed (recall the story of Zeus and Semele)—and yet it is difficult to deny (assuming the current cosmology is correct) that every form received by ordinary vegetable and animal life short of rationality is caused by the movement of the stars.  

8.  Thomas says merely that the form of fire, while made possible by the sun and in some way imitating it, is distinct from the sun’s act.  This remains true under current astronomical theories: the sun is hot by nuclear fusion, whereas normal fire is hot by the heat of combustion.  The two acts are formally very different, and yet the latter must be said to be caused by the former, because without solar fusion there would not be combustible matter, either remotely (since the existence of the heavy elements is caused by the sun) or proximately (since most combustion is the release of energy stored in things by the reception of solar energy).

9.  To say that God is the highest good is like saying that the sun is the greatest fire.  It is true, both in that the form which characterizes fire under our ordinary conception of it (namely the production of heat) is present pre-eminently in the sun, and in that the Sun is the ultimate efficient cause from which the form of every fire is received.  God is pre-eminently good, as that which is supremely desirable, and he is also the cause of the goodness of everything that exists.

10.  In response to the first objection, Thomas clarifies that the phrase “highest good” (summum bonum) does not signify any addition to goodness, but only a logical addition in our notion of goodness, relative to the goodness of creatures .  The comparative relation between God’s goodness and that of creatures does not exist in God, but in creatures, and especially in the mind of man comparing the two.  To return to our earlier example of the tallest man, there is something really added to the height of the tall man, such that he has the height of everyone else, and more, just as if we found the most perfect sphere, it would have the spherical form possessed by all other spheres, with the additional accidental perfections that make its sphericity superior.  But God is good simpliciter, not by any accidental perfection but simply in himself, and thus his superiority as the highest good is not by virtue of any addition, but is only judged to be "highest" with reference to the inferiority of creatures which lack what he has, by an infinite inferiority.  

11.  Thomas will return to this difficulty later on, in QQ. 12 and 13, but the important things to retain here are: first, that goodness in God is not an accidental perfection but is identical with his essence in its utter simplicity; second, that in comparing God to creatures the real basis of the comparison is not a real relation in God to creatures, but a real relation in creatures to God.  God is not good because he has more of the same goodness that creatures possess; he is good in and of himself, and the goodness of creatures is real by virtue of its participation in the divine goodness.  Both of these points will be further elaborated in the two following articles.

12.  He answers the second objection with two points: first, that the definition of goodness means that whatever is desired has the ratio of goodness (quidquid appetitur rationem boni habet), not that every good is desired by every thing.  Second, that the line in Matthew means that God alone is good by his essence (which is the subject of the following article).

13.  He answers the third objection by distinguishing normal modes of comparison with the comparison intended in the phrase “highest good”.  Where in a normal comparison there must be some common genus which includes both of the things compared, when we compare God to creatures we compare him per excessum, by excess, as one who transcends every genus, and is thus in goodness superior to every kind and species.


– “Highest” indicates an addition or accidental perfection, but these are not present in God.
– No one is good but God, therefore he is the only good, not the highest.
– To be the highest belongs to something in a genus with other comparable things, but God is not in any genus.

– God is the highest good: by pre-eminence, and because he is the equivocal cause of every perfection in creatures, though his goodness differs from the goodness of creatures inasmuch as it transcends every kind of created goodness, and thus cannot enter into ordinary comparisons with them.

– The reference point for God’s goodness is the inferiority of creatures, which lack the fullness and simplicity of his perfection.  God is not good by being raised up from among creatures.
– God alone is good as his own goodness.

– God is the highest not by a direct comparison within a shared kind, but by excess, transcending every kind.

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