Aquinas states in the Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 1, Article 5 the following:

... just as in the process of reasoning, the principle is that which is naturally known, so in the process of the rational appetite, i.e. the will, the principle needs to be that which is naturally desired.

For Aquinas, the will must originate in a first cause that is not deliberately chosen, for the same reason that reason must originate in a first principle that is not demonstrated. Otherwise we have ourselves an infinite regress.

While this much is obvious, things become murky later on when Aquinas identifies this first principle of the will (ST 1, q. 60, a. 3):

... the angel and man naturally desire their own good and their own perfection. And this is to love oneself. Hence both the angel and man naturally love themselves insofar as each desires some good for himself by a natural appetite.

It remains unclear what Aquinas is specifically referring to as the first principle of the will. It seems that there are two options that Aquinas himself specifies elsewhere (ST I-II, q.26, a.4):

... the motion of love tends towards two things: namely, toward some good which one wills for someone, either for one's self or for another; and toward that for which one wills this good. Thus one loves the good that is willed for the other with love of concupiscence, and that for which the good is willed with a love of friendship.

The following simplified definitions are provided:

1.) Love of Friendship: Love of a thing for its own sake

2.) Love of Concupiscence: Love of a thing for the sake of another thing

So the question is, does Aquinas identify the sort of self-love he deems to be the first principle of all human action as a love of friendship or a love of concupiscence?

Put in another way, is the first principle of human action a love of ourselves or a love of that which is good for ourselves?

It seems to me that a paradox arises:

We only love that which is good for us if we love ourselves, but we only love ourselves if doing so is good for us to do.

How would Aquinas reply to all of this?

1 Answer 1


I can understand your difficulty but I wonder if the key to the mystery of Aquinas' meaning lies in the sense he attaches to 'self-love'. I think this means happiness or beatitude. There is no necessary implication of self-centred, selfish love. My happiness and your good are quite consistent : part of my happiness might consist in promoting your good.

Aquinas's language of concupiscence and friendship is hardly pellucid but there is no necessary opposition between the two. They can combine. If, for instance, my happiness includes friendship with you, this love (friendship-love, 'philia' as the Greeks called it) can prompt a desire to help you. You urgently need a bandage to protect an injured arm. Accordingly I urgently desire to procure a bandage and this desire is a form of concupiscence in Aquinas' wide understanding of the concept. I have a strong desire to get hold of a bandage and this is love (concupiscent-love, in language one would never use nowadays).

The self-love that Aquinas identifies as the primary basis of human action is only a desire for happiness or beatitude. It is a desire for (what I perceive as) my good. That good can include friendship; and within friendship there can be, with no tension or contradiction, both friendship-love and concupiscent-love. Indeed, when I rush to get a bandage for you the two loves are combined : I desire to get the bandage (concupiscence) because I love you as a friend. Concupiscence and friendship are two sides of the same coin of action.

Perhaps this will throw a little light on your textual problem.

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