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In his article on goodness in general, Summa Theologica I q. 5 a. 2, Aquinas considers the question of whether goodness is prior in idea to being. He is responding to the following objection (arg. 1):

It seems that goodness is prior in idea to being. For names are arranged according to the arrangement of the things signified by the names. But Dionysius assigned the first place, amongst the other names of God, to His goodness rather than to His being. Therefore in idea goodness is prior to being.

Here's his reply (ad 1):

Dionysius discusses the Divine Names as implying some causal relation in God; for we name God, as he says, from creatures, as a cause from its effects. But goodness, since it has the aspect of desirable, implies the idea of a final cause, the causality of which is first among causes, since an agent does not act except for some end; and by an agent matter is moved to its form. Hence the end is called the cause of causes. Thus goodness, as a cause, is prior to being, as is the end to the form. Therefore among the names signifying the divine causality, goodness procedes being. Again, according to the Platonists, who, through not distinguishing primary matter from privation, said that matter was non-being, goodness is more extensively participated than being; for primary matter participates in goodness as tending to it, for all seek their like; but it does not participate in being, since it is presumed to be non-being. Therefore Dionysius says that "goodness extends to non-existence."

I'm a little confused by his argument here. In particular, in the passage in bold, is he saying that things that don't exist can still be good because they could, in principle, be brought into existence (or into the form specified in the idea) by some agent? Or am I missing the point entirely?

  • 2
    Obviously, the context is Aristotle's theory of the Four Causes : "final cause enters in the explanation of the formation of the parts of an organism like an animal as something that is good either for the existence or the flourishing of the animal. This helps us to understand why in introducing the concept of end (telos) that is relevant to the study of natural processes Aristotle insists on its goodness: “not everything that is last claims to be an end (telos), but only that which is best” (Phys. 194 a 32–33)." – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 24 at 10:41
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    Thus for A, in general, goodness is linked to "end (telos)" and the final cause is the key to the explanation of natural phenomena. In Medieval theology, the pattern of reasoning due to A is extended also to the "science of God" : theology. In this sense, we may expect that God's goodness is the overarching final cause: "the cause of causes". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 24 at 10:43
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Here's how Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. commentates on Summa Theologica I q. 5 a. 2 in The One God ch. 5 "On Goodness in General":

SECOND ARTICLE WHETHER GOODNESS IS PRIOR IN IDEA TO BEING

The State of the question. The Platonists taught that goodness is prior to being. For Plato the supreme reality is the separate Idea of Good.3 Likewise, Plotinus held that the supreme hypostasis is the One Good, the super-Intelligence.4 According to this tendency some, such as Scotus, said that the will, which is specified by good, is simply superior to the intellect, which is specified by being .

St. Thomas, by way of a difficulty he puts to himself in the beginning of the article, refers to the opinion of the Platonists in the words of Dionysius who, among other names, assigned the first place to good rather than to being. Likewise, in the counterargument the Neoplatonist Proclus is quoted, the author of the book De causis.

Plato and Plotinus placed good above being and essence, because every essence is intelligible, and the intelligible is the correlative of intellect, and is distinct from it. Hence above the duality of intellect and intelligible, there must be a higher and ineffable, a most perfect unity, from which all things proceed, namely, the One Good.5 But the divine causality is explained by the Platonists independently of the divine liberty, in that good is essentially diffusive of itself. We already find this principle admitted by Plato, who does not sufficiently distinguish between final causality and efficient causality. It is also admitted by Plotinus, who held that the Supreme Good is essentially, or by a necessity of nature, diffusive of itself, and not because of a most free creative act.

Contrary to this, St. Thomas, following Aristotle, correctly distinguishes between the final cause and the efficient cause, and he maintains that good is diffusive of itself as the end which attracts the agent to act.6 St. Thomas adds that in accordance with the dogma of creation the supreme agent is absolutely free since He already contains within Himself infinite goodness, and is not in need of created goods, which cannot increase His perfection and happiness.7 The conclusion of St. Thomas is: In idea being is prior to goodness.

This had been already proved by him,8 in that the idea of being is included, as presupposed, in the idea of goodness, which is perfect and desirable being. In this article, however, the same argument is proposed as follows: That is prior in idea which is first conceived by the intellect; but the first thing conceived by the intellect is being; therefore in idea being is prior to goodness.

The major is not concerned with the order of time and investigation, according to which we first have a knowledge of sensible things; it concerns, however, the order of nature and of formal concepts or notions. But the notion of being is the first of all notions. Why is this? It is because everything is intelligible inasmuch as it is actual. Thus the proper object of the intellect, as such, and not as it is human, is intelligible being,9 just as color is the first thing visible, and sound the first thing audible. Hence every formal concept or notion, for it to be intelligible, presupposes the concept or notion of being.10

As Bañez remarks, St. Thomas is speaking of goodness in general. From this it follows that, both in God and in created beings, being is prior in idea to goodness. Being is included implicitly in goodness, and it implicitly includes goodness, as its transcendent mode.

St. Thomas deduces from this the following corollary: "If therefore the intellect and will are considered with regard to themselves, then the intellect is the higher power. And this is clear if we compare their respective objects. For the object of the intellect (namely, intelligible being) is simpler and more absolute than the object of the will (which is goodness). Now the simpler and the more abstract (and more universal) a thing is, the nobler and higher it is in itself (at least as an object). ... Thus the intellect is absolutely higher and nobler than the will." 11 Therefore it directs the will, knowing the very concept of good in the good willed.

Second conclusion. We discover this in the reply to the first objection, which states that goodness is relatively prior to being, that is, as a cause, as the end is prior to the form. This is goodness considered not in itself, but with respect to something else.

To the Platonists and Neoplatonists, and particularly to Dionysius, St Thomas makes the concession that, "among the names signifying the divine causality, goodness precedes being." The reason is that, in the order of causality, goodness conveys the idea of end; but the end is the first in the order of causes, since it attracts the agent to act, and by the agent the matter is prepared to receive the form. Thus in this order of causality God is called the supreme Good, or the good God.

Yet, absolutely speaking, it is still true to say that in idea being is prior to goodness. By simpliciter is meant, if the essence of the thing in question is discussed; but by secundum quid is meant, if something secondary in this thing is considered. Thus a wise man simpliciter better than unwise Hercules; but as regards physical strength, Hercules is better secundum quid. Simpliciter loquendo means about the same as "absolutely speaking" or "in its primary aspect" whereas secundum quid means "in some secondary aspect."

Thus being, "relatively" considered with respect to the four causes, and not in itself, corresponds to the formal cause; for being is predicated of a thing in so far as it is in actuality by reason of its form, as in stone, wood, animal, or man. But the form, in the order of causes, is posterior to the end and the agent, because it is produced by the agent operating in view of the end. Thus it must be conceded to the Platonists that the supreme Good is prior to created being which is produced in manifestation of divine goodness. Likewise the supreme Good is prior to finite intelligence, the object of which is finite good, in which God is known as in a mirror.

It may be asked whether St. Thomas gives us a correct statement of Plato's doctrine. It must be said that Plato, in calling God (or the supreme reality) the supreme Good, considered God with reference to inferior realities, which He produces by a diffusion of Himself, to be the sun from which emanate light and heat. Hence Plato said: Since God is good, He produced the world. Yet Plato and Plotinus seem to hold also that good is absolutely prior to being.12

If such is the case, then St. Thomas on this point separates from them. Hence we conclude that in idea being is prior to goodness absolutely, but posterior to it relatively, namely, in causation.

Corollary to the second conclusion. The will is relatively prior to the intellect (namely, in moving to the exercise of the act). Thus the intellect in the exercise of its act, or attention to its object, is moved by the will. Thus at the end of deliberation it is the will that causes the final judgment to be final. Likewise, as stated by St. Thomas,13 in this life "the love of God is better than the knowledge of God," because, whereas the intellect draws God to itself, to its imperfect conception of Him, the will is drawn to God, since goodness is in things and not in the mind. So also, though seeing is absolutely nobler than hearing, yet the hearing of a beautiful symphony is nobler than the seeing of something mediocre.

It must be observed that St. Thomas, at the end of the reply to the first objection, gives us a good explanation why the Platonists held that goodness applies to more things than being does. The reason is that in their opinion being does not apply to matter, which they thought to be a privation and non-being. Yet they said: Matter manifests its appetency for good.

On the contrary, St. Thomas and Aristotle, distinguishing matter from privation or non-being, declare it to be, indeed, a real potency or a real capacity for receiving a form, and thus matter is being in potentiality, for example, it is in potentiality to receive the form of either air, wood, or animal. Hence being is just as extensive in application as goodness; in fact, it is more universal than goodness, for not every being is perfect and appetible.14

The following objection may be raised against the first conclusion: Goodness is absolutely more perfect than being because it includes being and its perfection.

Reply. It is true to say this of the suppositum or subject, about which good is predicated; but it is not true to say this of the formal concept of goodness. This means that the suppositum, which is said to be absolutely good, such as wine of the best vintage, is more perfect than the suppositum which is only being, such as wine not of the best vintage. But the formal concept of goodness is by nature posterior to the formal concept of being, which is simpler, more abstract and more universal, and thus more perfect as an object.

But I insist. Although animality is simpler than humanity, yet it is more imperfect.

Reply. It is simpler logically, since it is the genus of humanity; but it is not so really, because it is derived from matter, which has not the unity, simplicity, and perfection of a form, especially of man's form, which is the intellectual soul.

This article, however, is concerned with being and goodness, not only in their logical aspect, but as they are realities.It must be conceded that only the concrete suppositum which is good, is a more perfect suppositum than if it were not good. But St. Thomas is not speaking in this article of the good as suppositum, but of the idea of goodness, which is viewed, however, ontologically and not merely logically. Being, which is prior to goodness, derives its name from existence, namely, from its ultimate actuality. This must be our reply to the Neoplatonists and also to Scotus.

Thus the intellect truly is absolutely nobler than the will, because it is specified by being (that is, the faculty is specified by the object and not by the suppositum), so that the will is specified by this object that is good, viewed as such, but it is not specified by the good as suppositum.


  1. See Plato's Republic, Bk. VII, 517, D; "In the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and when seen is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and good, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual world."

  2. Cf.. Enneades, Bk. III, ii, 12; V, i, 6; ii: i; VI, viii, 9, 11.

  3. The Neoplatonists speak of the One-Good, which transcends being, somewhat as subsequently Catholic theologians say that the Deity in some way transcends all absolutely simple perfections, which are contained in it eminently. But for the theologians, the Deity contains formally being, the one, the good; whereas, contrary to this, the One of the Platonists virtually contained the inferior notes, which necessarily proceeded from it.

  4. Summa Theol., Ia, q.5, a.4; Ia IIae, q. 1, a.4 ad 1; IIIa, q. 1, a. 1; Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 11.

  5. Summa theol., Ia, q.19, a.3.

  6. I Sent., d.8, q. 11, a.3.

  7. The proper object of the human intellect as such is the nature of sensible things, or intelligible being of sensible things in the mirror of sensible things.

  8. Thus the notion of being is not in generation and time prior to that of goodness, but it is prior simply, in the order of nature, just as essence is prior to its properties. The reason for this priority is the principle already admitted by Plato and Plotinus, that "the simpler and the more abstract a thing is, the nobler and higher it is in itself" (Summa theol., Ia, q.82, a.3).

    Thus the idea of being, while it is included in the idea of goodness, is somehow already limited and contracted, because it can be found also in the ideas of truth and unity.

  9. Summa theol., Ia, q.82, a.3.

  10. Plato and Plotinus seem to admit that the One is indivisible, whereas being is divided; and they identify the one with the Good. Thus they solve the arguments of Parmenides by positing "the One-Good" above being, and explaining causality, which Parmenides denied, in that good is essentially diffusive of itself.

    On the contrary, St. Thomas and Aristotle solve the arguments of Parmenides against multiplicity in being and motion by distinguishing between potentiality and actuality. They also hold that unity, by the very fact that it is convertible with being, is divided, like being, into potentiality and actuality.

  11. Summa theol., Ia, q.82, a.3.

  12. Ibid., q.5, a.2 ad 2um et 3um.

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The answer to the objection can be paraphrased as follows: " Goodness can be considered in two ways: absolutely, in itself, and relatively, as a cause. True, when Gooodness is considered as a cause, Goodness is prior ( since, as desirable, object of "appetite", it is an end, and the final cause is the first cause). But the main question is not about Goodness taken relatively, or as a cause, but on Goodness considered in itself. So the objection does not refute the answer of Aquinas, according to which, Goodness is not prior ( in itself) to Being".

The answer Aquinas gives to the objection rests on a distinction: that's the key point if you have to comment this text from the Summa.

  • So, he's saying that goodness can be a cause of being, but that's not really the same thing as saying that goodness proceeds being? – EJoshuaS Mar 27 at 21:24
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    Here Goodness is understood as God's Goodness or, more correctly, God as Goodness . So, what he means is that God's Goodness ( or God as Goodness) precedes Being, as the cause of Being, at least as the cause of creatures' being (Aquinas would not say that God causes his own being.) But in itself Goodness ( as a "transcendental", an abstract ontological principle) comes after Being: the reason is that reason is that Being can be defined without any reference to anything else. ( Goodness and Truth are defined via a reference to sth. else: appetite or intelligence). See previous Q° in Summa. – Ray LittleRock Mar 27 at 21:46

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