Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Whether Creatures are Essentially Good


1.  Having established that God can be called “the highest good,” Thomas next asks whether God alone is good by his own essence (per essentiam suam).  He offers three objections.

2.  The first objection is from the convertibility of the transcendentals.  The transcendentals are the terms that are totally co-extensive with being (ens): every being is one, true, good, a thing, and something (unum, verum, bonum, res, aliquid).  Thus wherever “being” occurs we should be able to substitute the others, since to be a being is to be, to be one, to be true, to be good, to have a determinate nature, and to be an individual.

3.  The objection is that, since “being” and “good” are convertible terms, it follows that every being, by that very fact, must be good, and therefore ought to be said to be good through its own essence.

4.  The second objection is from the definition of goodness as what all things desire.  Everything desires being itself, and the being of a thing must be its good, but things are what they are by their essences, so that everything is good by its own essence.

5.  The third objection is from a kind of infinite regress.  If a thing is not good by its essence, then we must say that its goodness does not belong to its essence, but to something else.  But then this other thing must have its own goodness, which would then have to belong to a third thing, etc. so that ultimately something must simply be good by its own essence, and therefore we might as well place goodness in the essence of every particular thing, and say that everything is good by its own essence.

6.  His Sed Contra is taken from Boethius, who says that everything other than God is good only by participation.

7.  In the Corpus of the article, Thomas distinguishes three degrees of goodness in creatures: existence (or being constituted in esse), accidental perfections, and the attainment of the end.  None of these perfections belong to creatures by their very essence, since no creature exists by its essence (or it would not be created), accidental perfections are by definition added to the goodness found in a thing by its essence, and the attainment of the end is what all creatures, being mobile and changeable, strive towards.  Rather than being good by their essences, perfection is added to creatures to the extent that they have being.  God, on the other hand, exists by his own essence, has no accidental perfections, and is utterly immobile.  Thus it belongs to God alone to be good by his own essence.

8.  Thomas’s answer to the first objection is somewhat difficult.  He says that the term “one” does not indicate perfection, but a lack of division.  Every being is united in itself.  But he notes that every being is united in its own act, but composite when both act and potency are taken into consideration.  This is to say that beings, as beings, do not include in themselves all the possible perfections of their essences, but only the perfections present in their actuality at a given time.  But beyond the actual perfections of a thing, its essence specifies possible accidental and final perfections which it will achieve or fail to achieve, depending on the perfection of its act.  Thus only that being in which there is no potency but only act would be simply and utterly good, and good by its own essence, which is identical with its act, namely God.

9.  We should pause for a moment here and discuss the notion that things are composed of act and potency.  What does this mean?  Each thing is whatever it is by its own form or essence.  But in most things the essence determines not only what a thing presently is, but also the sorts of things it can become.  The sampling is potentially a full grown tree, the closed book is potentially open, etcc.  The sapling is not potentially a microprocessor.  The book is not potentially a baby.  The real features of things determine not only what they are, but what they can be, and hwo they can become whatever they are in potency to becoming.  Because this determination as to a thing’s possible becoming is clearly and really in things themselves, we call this fact about them “the real composition of act and potency.”

10.  Thomas’s reply to the second objection gives us occasion to discuss another sort of “real composition” in things.  He answers the objection by pointing out that each thing is good insofar as it has being (esse), but the essence of created things are not simply the same as their existence, or it would be necessary to say that each thing is the source of and reason for its own being, and is thus uncreated, which is absurd.  Rather, a thing’s goodness flows from its existence or being (esse) and is determined or limited by its essence.  Thus creatures are really composed not only of act and potency (what they are and what they can become in their essences), but also of essence and existence (what they are, and the extent to which they are at all).  In God, of course, there is neither composition, as was established abundantly in Q.3.

11.  Finally, Thomas resolves the third objection by explaining in what way the goodness of a thing can be distinct from its essence without thereby being a different thing altogether.  The objection bears some similarity to the paradox of the “third man” raised against Plato’s theory of forms: if each man is human not by his own humanity but by the form of man, then by what form does the form of man possess its humanity? And by what form does that form possess its humanity, etc. ad infinitum.  Thomas answers that although the goodness of each thing is not the same as its essence, that does not mean that this goodness is a distinct thing altogether: the goodness of a thing is either its existence, or its accidental perfections ,or its end, all of which are in the thing to the extent that it has being (esse), but none of which are possessed by it merely on account of its essence.


- It is implied by the convertibility of the transcendentals.
- Being itself is good, and things are what they are by their essences.
- Otherwise we seem to fall into the third man paradox.

- Goodness in creatures is on account of existence, accidental perfections, and the attainment of the end.
- None of these things belong to creatures simply by their essence.

- Things are one in their act but not as regards their potency.
- Things are to the extent that they have esse, not by their essences.
- Goodness in creatures is existence, accidents, end, none of which are merely the essence, but none of which are distinct subsistent beings either.

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