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McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies

 Giornale di Metafisica 2/2005



Knowledge of the Good as Participation in God’s Love






Fulvio Di Blasi





Thomas Aquinas suggests often, not only that every creature naturally loves God above all things and more than itself, but also that our knowledge of the good essentially involves knowledge and love of God.  Let us read, for example, the following passages:


Because nothing is good except insofar as it is a likeness and participation of the highest good, the highest good itself is in some way desired in every particular good. [1]


Every movement of a will whereby powers are applied to operation is reduced to God, as a first object of appetite (primum appetibile) and a first agent of willing (primum volentem). [2]


To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.  For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him.  This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else. [3]


Now, these are difficult words that do not seem to fit common morality, in which apparently God does not play such an important role.  Broadly speaking, we face two possibilities: either Aquinas was so immersed in abstract metaphysical reflections that he lost sight of the most ordinary reality, or his metaphysics expresses in the most radical way the deepest meaning of ordinary ethical reality.  I pick the second.  And this is why I reported the third quotation, in which the idea emerges that for many—ordinary—people to know and to love God can just mean to vaguely sense or realize that “someone is approaching.”

In my opinion, the key concept to understand Aquinas’ view on this issue is the concept of participation, which I take in this paper as a purely philosophical concept.  The best approach, accordingly, is to focus first on Aquinas’ general thesis that every good of this world is not good “essentially” (per suam essentiam) but by participation.  This thesis entails that knowledge of created goods provides a mediate knowledge of God as the essential good.  The second step is to focus on our act of knowledge of the good.  The object of this act is the participated good and, through it, God as the essential good.  At the same time, our knowledge of the good is itself a very special kind of participated good; its goodness consisting in a formal participation in God’s knowledge of the good: that is, in His love of Himself and of creation in view of Himself.  In other words, our act of knowledge of the good has both an objective aspect and a subjective aspect.  Objectively, we know the good as participated—and thus as objectively revealing God as the essential good.  Subjectively, we are able to know the participated good due to our formal participation in God’s love.  The third step is to focus on the idea of “someone approaching,” which alone would deserve more than an essay, but that here cannot but be limited to a short concluding remark.

Scholars are very familiar today with both a wide revival of the concept of practical knowledge [4] and an intense debate on the concept of ultimate end in both Aristotle and Aquinas. [5]   I should say immediately that in the present paper I do not want to focus on “practical knowledge” as such but on “knowledge of the good” generally speaking.  The two concepts are often put together as if they were the same thing.  This is a mistake.  Practical knowledge, at least in Aquinas, is a secondary and specific instance of knowledge of the good that involves a means-end relationship in which the end, being actually wanted or desired, makes the means desirable (dilectio electiva) and becomes action.  Knowledge of the good, simply speaking, is not practical but speculative. [6]   Moreover, the current debate on the ultimate end appears too narrowly centered on the arguments from intentionality and from the natural desire given by Aquinas especially in ST, I-II, q. 1, a. 4 (Is there an Ultimate End for Human Life?) and q. 3, a. 8 (Does the Happiness of Man Consist in the Vision of the Divine Essence?).  The present paper does not focus on these arguments either.  There are deeper metaphysical principles at the root of Aquinas’ view on the ultimate end; these principles are, at the moment, my main concern.

In what follows, I will first offer a short introduction to the concepts of “good” and of “participation” (Section 1); these concepts will be then better elucidated as the paper goes by.  In Section 2, I will address Aquinas’ general thesis of the created good as participated.  Then, in section 3, I will move toward the analysis of our act of knowledge of the good.  Finally, in section 4, I will return briefly to the last passage quoted above on our necessary—but general and confused—knowledge of God.



  1. Introducing the Concepts of “Good” and “Participation”


“Good” (bonum) is, for Aquinas, a transcendental concept because it signifies exactly the same reality as “being” (ens).  Yet, the term “good” makes conceptually explicit something that in the use of “ens” remains implicit.  This is why Aquinas says that “good” adds something to the understanding of “ens” (super intellectum entis): something that is not in the things (in rerum natura) but only in reason (in ratione tantum).  Specifically, “good” adds to “ens” a conceptual reference to the fact that the ens esse [7] is an act, which gives existence and perfection to the ens, and which is therefore what the ens itself tends toward.  The concept of good, in other words, contains a conceptual reference to the actual—existing—ens being always an end and an object of an appetite: “et inde est quod omnes recte diffinientes bonum ponunt in ratione eius aliquid quod pertinet ad habitudinem finis.” [8]

This short but rather technical account reveals an important metaphysical view of reality.  For Aquinas, the existing being is dynamic: i.e., it is an action and a completion at the same time.  The existing being tends not only toward other things but also toward its own act; this is why it preserves itself and remains in existence instead of falling back into nothingness.  Consequently, when we know the existing being we know it also as good: namely, as an end and the object of an appetite.  Its being good, however, is nothing else than its esse; and to know the good is nothing else than to know the way in which things exist, or to know their act(s)—whether substantial or accidental.  This is why Aquinas writes that “to be in act […] constitutes the nature of the good (esse igitur actu boni rationem constituit),” or that “by nature, the good of each thing is its act and perfection (naturaliter enim bonum uniuscuiusque est actus et perfectio eius).” [9]   This is what we should keep in mind for the purposes of the present paper: that to look for “the nature of the good (boni rationem)” is to look for the “act” and “perfection” of things.


The concept of participation refers to a specific kind of causality: namely, the causality that is simultaneously required for the effect to exist.  An example is my hand holding the book: in this case, when my hand ceases to act as a cause the book falls down.  Another example is the light shining on the book: when the light ceases to act the book is invisible. [10]   Whenever something is acting in a way that cannot be caused by its own nature, we must logically refer its action to an external cause able to cause it by essence, and we say that the relevant object participates in that cause.  The suspended book participates in the power of my hand, and the visible book participates in the power of a luminous object.  Participation, thus, is something real in things, and it means a simultaneous and external causal dependence of their actions or properties.  This causal relation has two important characteristics: (1) that the action (whatever it is) of the participating object follows the actual direction given to it by the cause (the suspended book stays exactly where the hand holds it, and the visible book is visible according to the kind of light that is acting upon it); (2) that the action of the participating object makes it similar to the cause (the suspended book as suspended reveals something of the power of the hand, and the visible book as visible is similar to the light-source affecting it).  This can be summarized by saying that, in participation, the effect as effect is similar to the cause as cause and obeys its teleology.

As soon as we focus on the fact that, for Aquinas, the very esse of things is participated, we can see why the concept of participation is so important in his metaphysics.  For Aquinas, all things are actually dependent on God as their efficient, final, and exemplary cause—including rational agents’ act of knowledge of the good, which act is an accidental perfection of their being.  Hence, the thesis that our act of knowledge of the good is participated entails: [1] that God simultaneously causes it as knowledge of the good (participation in God as efficient cause); [2] that our act involves love of the same ultimate end that God loves in causing it (participation in God as final cause); and [3] that our knowledge of the good is similar to God’s own knowledge of the good (participation in God as exemplary cause). [11]



  1. Created Good as Participated


In De Veritate, q. 21, a. 5, Aquinas, following “Augustinum, Boetium et auctorem libri De Causis,” explains that the created good is said to be participated in a threefold way: as to the accidental good; as to the essential or substantial good; and as to the order to the first cause (secundum ordinem ad causam primam).  Aquinas puts the accidental good first because, for him, something is said to be good absolutely speaking due, not to its substantial being, but to its accidental being.  For my purposes, however, it is better to follow an ontological order and start with the essential or substantial good.


2.1. Substantial Good as Participated


The essential good of something is the act, or esse, that makes it existent according to its nature (man, tree, etc.).  The essential principles of each ens, explains Aquinas, are what make it perfect in order for it to exist—“In se ipso autem aliquid perficitur ut subsistat per essentialia principia.”  As I just mentioned, Aquinas adds that, as far as these principles are concerned, something is good only secundum quid because a creature, in order to be good absolutely speaking, must be good (or in act) according to both the essential and the accidental principles.  [An existing human being, for example, is certainly good according to the act of existence of his nature but can still be either morally good or morally evil.  When we say, “This is a good man!,” we refer, simply speaking, to his moral personality.]  This is not my focus, though.  My focus is on participation.  Why is the creature’s essential good participated?  The answer to this question is that, except in the case of God, the essence of things does not logically include their existence; otherwise their natures could give existence to themselves and they would never die or be corrupted.  It is logically possible to think of a man as not existent.  Thus, when a man exists, it means that his esse participates in what possesses esse by essence; and this can only be God. [12]   The esse of limited beings is like the visibility of the book; if God ceases to create the book disappears.  The esse of limited beings, as the result of God’s creative action, is both similar to God’s esse and ordered to the end for the sake of which God creates.


2.2. Accidental Good as Participated


More difficult appears the question of the accidental good, because accidents by definition exist, not in themselves, but in the substance’s act.  In point of fact, to say that the accidents’ good participates in the substance’s good—which is in turn participated—does not look very interesting; and Aquinas’ discussion in De Veritate, q. 21, a. 5 seems to be no more than a homage paid to a statement made by Augustine.  However, the same thesis is strongly restated in ST, I, q. 6, a. 3; and without any explicit reference to Augustine.  This fact calls for more attention to the relevant text in De Veritate, q. 21, a. 5; particularly where Aquinas writes, “Now it is by its essential principles that a thing is fully constituted (perficitur) in itself so that it subsists; but it is not so perfectly constituted as to stand as it should in relation to everything outside itself (ut debito modo se habeat ad omnia quae sunt extra ipsium) except by means of accidents added to the essence, because the operations by which one thing is in some sense joined to another proceed from the essence through powers distinct from it.  Consequently nothing achieves goodness absolutely unless it is complete in both its essential and its accidental principles.”

Aquinas sees the accidents as the metaphysical principles that relate the ens to the other things external to it (ad omnia quae sunt extra ipsum).  Movement, for example, is always an interaction.  But we might also think of color as the relation between the visible objects and the sense of sight; or of mass as the attractive relation of material bodies with each other; or even of our intelligence as the relation of our mind with every other reality (including ourselves as reflexively known to us).  Now, a principle connecting the existence of two or more things with each other—i.e., making them co-exist in the same universe—cannot come from one of them unless this one is the creator of the other(s).  So, the fact that limited things interact with each other due to their accidents calls for a transcendent cause in which they participate as interacting with each other: that is to say, according to their accidents.  If I understand Aquinas correctly on this point, the metaphysical principle grounding his idea of the accidental good as participated coincides with his key idea that there is an order in nature: namely, that things act naturally in a way that is at the same time intelligible and harmonious.  Aquinas always explains this point by referring to the notions of ‘part’ and ‘whole.’  His point is very refined because to say that there is an order means exactly to say that there is a whole in which things make sense as parts.  And this, in turn, means, not only that the good of the whole as such is the ultimate meaning of the good of the parts as parts, but also that every part must be inclined to the good of the whole before and more than to its own good as part.  After all, this is the reason for the existence of the specific movement of each part: to contribute to the existence of the whole.  If this were not so, the order itself (the whole) could not exist.

Whatever we might think of this argument, Aquinas takes it very seriously.  This is why he states that all creatures, including men and angels, love God before themselves and with a greater love.  “Not only man, so long as his nature remains unimpaired (in suae integritate naturae), loves God above all things and more than himself, but also every single creature, each in its own way, i.e. either by an intellectual, or by a rational, or by an animal, or at least by a natural love, as stones do, for instance, and other things bereft of knowledge, because each part naturally loves the common good of the whole more than its own particular good.  This is evidenced by its operation, since the principal inclination of each part is toward common action conducive to the good of the whole.  It may also be seen in civic virtues whereby sometimes the citizens suffer damage even to their own property and persons for the sake of the common good.” [13]   In ST, I, q. 60, a. 5, more or less with the same words, the same principle is specifically applied to the natural inclination, or natural love, of the will of both men and angels: “Consequently, since God is the universal good, and under this good both man and angel and all creatures are comprised, because every creature in regard to its entire being naturally belongs to God, it follows that from natural love angel and man alike love God before themselves and with a greater love.” [14]   It might be helpful to recall that the existence of a natural order is also the starting point of the fifth way to prove the existence of God—which, in turn, coincides with the philosophical proofs given by Aquinas for the existence of providence and of the eternal law. [15]


2.3. “Secundum Ordinem ad Causam Primam


“A still further difference is discovered between the divine goodness and that of creatures.  Goodness has the character of a final cause.  But God has this, since He is the ultimate end of all beings just as He is their first principle.  From this it follows that any other end has the status or character of an end only in relation to the first cause (secundum ordinem ad causam primam), because a secondary cause does not influence the effect unless the influence of the first cause is presupposed, as is made clear in The Causes.  Hence too, good, having the character of an end, cannot be said of a creature unless we presuppose the relation of Creator to creature (ordine creatoris ad creaturam).” [16]   The key words here are, “because a secondary cause does not influence the effect unless the influence of the first cause is presupposed.”  This principle is more explicit in CG, book 3, ch. 17, “Now, the supreme agent does the actions of all inferior agents by moving them all to their actions and, consequently, to their ends.  Hence, it follows that all the ends of secondary agents are ordered by the first agent to His own proper end.  Of course, the first agent of all things is God […]  There is no other end for His will than His goodness, which is Himself […]  Therefore, all things […] are ordered to God as to their end.”

In order to understand Aquinas on this point we must remember that the concept of good involves the appetite for an end.  Now, except in the case of God—in Whom there is no real distinction between His appetite and His being—, appetite implies movement; and every movement, in Aristotle and Aquinas’ metaphysics, requires participation in a first Unmoved Mover.  It goes without saying that when God moves something, He cannot but do it according to His end, which is Himself.  And it goes without saying that at stake here are not the extrinsic movements of things, but the intrinsic movements of their beings: that is to say, their natural inclinations. [17]   This same argument is specifically applied by Aquinas also to the human will, which under this respect is not different from any other participated appetite—for “to give natural inclinations is the sole prerogative of Him Who has established the nature.  So also, to incline the will to anything is the sole prerogative of Him Who is the cause of the intellectual nature.” [18]   Therefore, if it is true that our moving world requires an Unmoved Mover, it necessarily follows that every nature—or natural inclination—and every appetite depends on God as “a first agent of willing (primum volentem)” (efficient cause) and tend to God “as a first object of appetite (primum appetibile) (final cause).” [19]



  1. Our Knowledge of the Good as Participated


Let us shift our focus now to our act of knowledge of the good.  On the basis of what was explained above, we should already be able to conclude that, as an accidental perfection of our being, this act is a participation in the order God gave to creation.  As such, it tends chiefly to God as to the end of the whole of creation: that is to say, through this act we love God before ourselves and with a greater love.  Moreover, as our knowledge of the good involves the movement of an appetite, it requires the creative action of God as Unmoved Mover.  Thus, it participates in God as “a first agent of willing” and tends to God “as a first object of appetite.”

So far so good. However, as correct as these conclusions might be theoretically, they do not look very satisfactory when what is at stake is an act as complex as our act of knowledge of the good.  Unquestionably, we need a more specific approach to the nature of this act and to the supposed need for it to be participated.  And, first of all, we need to focus on what exactly “knowledge of the good” means compared with the concept of good in general.


3.1. “Good” and “Knowledge of the Good”

“Good,” as we recalled above, means that the ens is always an end and an object of an appetite—without appetite for an end, properly speaking, there is no good.  “Knowledge,” on the other hand, means, for both Aristotle and Aquinas, “intentional possession of a form.”  “Knowledge of the good,” accordingly—whether sentient or intellectual—, must mean “intentional possession of the form of something as object of an appetite.”  But, in turn, being “knowledge of the good” an act—and therefore a good—of the knower, it cannot but happen by way of appetite.  “Knowledge of the good,” therefore, means to tend toward the ens by means of a form [of something as object of an appetite] intentionally possessed by the agent.  In the knowledge of the good, the possessed form and the inclination of the appetite coincide. [20]

In the case of rational beings, “knowledge of the good” means at the same time: (a) to have an intellectual knowledge of the ens as object of an appetite; and (b) to tend toward it as intellectually known, or to love it by way of what we call ‘rational appetite.’  The intellectual knowledge of the good is nothing else than a sort of inclined knowledge: that is, an appetite for the ens understood as an end.  This is why Aquinas seems to suggest that to know the good and to will the good are the same thing: “For, since the understood good (bonum intellectum) is the proper object of the will, the understood good is, as such, willed.  Now, that which is understood is by reference to one who understands (intellectum autem dicitur ad intelligentem).  Hence, he who grasps the good by his intellect (intelligens bonum) is, as such, endowed with will (volens).” [21]

For my purposes, it is important to notice that it is our very act of (intellectual) knowledge of the good—this accidental perfection of our being—that needs to be participated.  As the luminous object participates as luminous in what possesses the light by essence, and as every created good participates as appetite for ens in what is essentially good, so our intellectual knowledge of the good should formally participate as intellectual knowledge of the good—that is, as a (rational) appetite for the ens known as an end—in God’s knowledge as the cause of every good.  This means, in turn, that our participation must formally happen—at the intellectual level—by way of inclination to God known as the “first agent of willing” and as the ultimate end (primum appetibile) of both ourselves and the whole universe; and also as the exemplary cause of everything.  But, does Aquinas offer any specific argument in support of these things?  The answer is “Yes, the doctrine of the active intellect!”


3.2. The Need for the Active Intellect


For both Aristotle and Aquinas, knowledge, whether sentient or intellectual, is an actualization of a receiver (or passive) knowing faculty caused by the act of the known object as knowable.  For instance, the visible object as visible (in act) causes the act of seeing it in the visual faculty.  There are two important principles at stake here: one is that the object known must be in act in order to be known; and the other is that to know is an act of the knowing faculty.  We can think of a file (known object) saved on a floppy disk (knowing faculty).  What we call “file” should exist (be in act) before—and while—being saved; and the saved file is no more than the floppy disk configured (actualized) in a particular way.  Now, the reason we need the active intellect to know the truth (whether theoretical or practical) is that the universals that our (passive) intellect receives when it knows things through the senses do not exist as such—as universals—in the (particular) things known.  In other words, the intelligible objects do not exist as intelligible except in the intellect that knows them; thus, our intellect must be able to abstract them (i.e., to turn them from potentiality into actuality) before receiving them—as if the floppy-disk had to make the file a file before receiving it into itself as a file.  The key point is that our intellect, in order to make the intelligible species an intelligible species, must be already in act as intellect before possessing any actual knowledge at all.  I say “as intellect” because this first act of the intellect as a knower must be similar to the known object as known: that is, as intelligible.  Knowledge is always a question of similarity.  Strictly speaking, we can say that the passive intellect does not exist without any knowledge making it actual, but that the active intellect is subsistent.

This point should be clearer if we focus better on the relevant difference between sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge.  In the case of sense knowledge, the knowing faculty is actualized by the act of the material thing as perceptible. [22]   In the case of intellectual knowledge, there is no act of the material thing as intelligible.  If the material individual thing were in act intelligible it would not be individual and it would not be material.  Therefore, unlike sense knowledge, in the case of intellectual knowledge the act of the intelligible object is caused by the knowing faculty itself.  The intellect, in other words, moves itself by causing the act of the intelligible object as intelligible in order to receive it as an intelligible species. [23]


3.3. The Participation of the Active Intellect


The reason why our active intellect requires God’s causality is that it is a moved mover of what is intelligible.  The active intellect causes the acts of the intelligible objects as intelligible but does not create their intelligibility.  This is why our intellect is still a receiver of knowledge and does not know everything already; rather, “it reaches to the understanding of truth by arguing, with a certain amount of reasoning and movement.  Again it has an imperfect understanding; both because it does not understand everything and because, in those things which it does understand, it passes from potentiality to act”—Human intellect is “mobile” and “imperfect.” [24]   As a moved mover of what is intelligible that knows according to degrees of knowledge, the active intellect fits the rationale of both the first and the fourth ways to prove the existence of God given in ST, I, q. 2, a. 3.  That is to say, the existence of the active intellect requires: (1) the existence of a first intellect that moves every act of understanding without being moved; and (2) of an intellect that possesses what is intelligible at the highest degree, and in which every lower degree of intellectual knowledge participates.  This train of reasoning is clear in ST, I, q. 79, a. 4; and it is ultimately the reason that Aquinas thinks the active intellect receives its “intellectual light” (its first act) directly from God’s intellect—the active intellect makes us able partially to see things as they are in God’s mind. [25]

For Aquinas, “ens” is the first notion of intellectual knowledge, and “ens in universali,” or “ens universale” (universal being), is the common object of this knowledge. [26]   The concept of “ens” and the concept of “intelligibility” go together.  To know something intellectually and to know it as ens (being) are the same thing; everything is intelligible insofar as it is (a table, a dog, red, tall, pleasant, Sicilian, etc.).  The analogical notion of ens—analogical because no specific difference can add something to it as if this something were not ens—precedes, therefore, every particular intellectual knowledge and constitutes, so to speak, the glasses through which we see reality as intelligible.  Hence, to say that our intellect tends to know the truth is equivalent to say that our intellect tends to know the ens as ens (i.e., the is of being).

As we saw already, our knowledge of each particular ens reveals a real distinction between its being (esse) and its being something (essence)—“this is a pencil,” but “is” is not only of the pencil.  We have already focused on the need for the creatures’ esse to participate in an efficient and final cause that is by essence.  Now we should focus on the need for the creature’s esse to be an imitation of this cause.

Esse is common to everything and indeterminate: i.e., it can exist according to every possible essence.  Essence, on the other hand, in a sense limits the being to a specific way of being.  Every particular knowledge of the ens reveals, therefore, a limitation of the infinite possibilities of esse; but it reveals also a real imitation of what possesses esse by essence.  This corresponds exactly, from the side of our knowledge, to the way in which, for Aquinas, God knows everything through the knowledge of Himself: “the divine essence comprehends within itself the nobilities of all beings […] according to the mode of perfection.  Now, every form, both proper and common […] is a certain perfection […]  The intellect of God therefore, can comprehend in His essence that which is proper to each thing by understanding wherein the divine essence is being imitated and wherein each thing falls short of its perfection.  Thus, by understanding His essence as imitable in the mode of life and not of knowledge, God has the proper form of a plant; and if He knows His essence as imitable in the mode of knowledge and not of intellect, God has the proper form of animal, and so forth.  Thus, it is clear that, being absolutely perfect, the divine essence can be taken as the proper exemplar of singulars.  Through it, therefore, God can have a proper knowledge of all things.” [27]

In short: our knowledge of (limited) entia reveals their being causally dependent on what has esse as its own essence.  On the one hand, the existence is not logically required by the essence of what is not its own esse—the actual existence of limited beings (their esse) requires a creative action by what exists by essence.  On the other hand, the plurality and gradation of the (common) esse in the existing things requires a single subsistent, exemplar, cause that has the esse at the highest degree. [28]   This is how Aquinas proves the necessity of creation: “all beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation.  Therefore it must be that all things which are diversified by the diverse participation of being, so as to be more or less perfect, are caused by one First Being, Who possesses being most perfectly.” [29]

Our intellectual knowledge is always in tension between the immediate knowledge of limited ways of being and the mediate knowledge of the Being that has in itself the fullness of being, and that is at the same time (a) the efficient cause, (b) the exemplary cause, and (c) the final cause of them.  Intellectual curiosity is our tendency to go always beyond a specific essence toward a fuller understanding of universal being: our constantly fleeing the (limiting) essence. [30]   If this is true, Aquinas should have defined intellectual knowledge with reference to God as its ultimate object: namely, as the final cause of the knowledge of truth, or as the end toward which the knowledge of truth ultimately tends.  In point of fact, this is exactly what he did.  He did it in the treatise on law at the exact moment of indicating the inclination specifically distinguishing man from lower natures, “Thirdly, there is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society. [31]   At first glance, this passage might appear strangely reductive with respect to our inclination to know the truth.  However, it is fairly accurate as it refers our inclination to the truth to its ultimate object and to our openness to the ens in universali.


3.4. Ens Universale and Bonum Universale


“For the will must be commensurate with its object.  But the object of the will is a good grasped by the intellect (bonum intellectum), as stated above.  Therefore, it is of the nature of will to reach out to whatever the intellect can propose to it under the aspect of goodness (sub ratione boni).” [32]   If our intellect knows everything in the light of universal being, and so reaches the knowledge of a first efficient, final and exemplary cause, Aquinas can legitimately attribute the same scope to our rational appetite.  Thus, to the ens universale corresponds, on the will’s side, the bonum universale, which determines the nature and ultimate end of our desire.  The passage we quoted at the beginning—“Because nothing is good except insofar as it is a likeness and participation of the highest good, the highest good itself is in some way desired in every particular good”—should now make more sense: since we know the goods of this earth in the light of the universal good, it is impossible for us to know them without, at the same time, knowing and desiring through them their first cause, “the highest good itself.”



  1. “Someone is Approaching”


It is time now to go back to the last passage quoted at the beginning:


To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.  For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him.  This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.


It is important to go back to what this passage means because otherwise Aquinas’ ethical foundation would be, maybe consistent, but a bit odd.  It is obvious that not many people think of God when they act morally; and everybody has experience of good people who even do not believe in God.  What does it mean, therefore, that the very knowledge of the good is knowledge and love of God?  As we can see in the passage above, what Aquinas means is much more nuanced than it might appear at a first and superficial glance.  What we necessarily need when we know the good is to see that “Someone [the highest good] is approaching.”  This is a necessary (mediate) knowledge that can be “general and confused,” and that does not mean “to know God absolutely speaking.”  It does mean, however, that knowledge of the good has an absolute and transcendental character.  This thesis corresponds to what Aquinas says in ST, I-II, q. 5, a. 8; namely, that “every man necessarily desires happiness” “according to the general notion of happiness” (secundum communem rationem beatitudinis); but with regard to the content of the ultimate end (secundum specialem rationem quantum ad id in quo beatitudo consistit), “not all desire happiness.”  For Aquinas, in order to know and to love God “absolutely” we cannot do without “reasoning” and without morally good behavior.

Now, the idea that we know the good only when we know that “the highest good is approaching” is not only extremely interesting, but also very beautiful.  After all, what does it mean to act morally—i.e., according to conscience—if not to act on the assumption that what is good transcends both you and me, and so ought to be done?  From this viewpoint, the person who tries sincerely to act morally without believing in God, even without realizing it, is on his or her way toward knowing God “absolutely.”  Whereas the immoral person damages and distorts his or her own intellectual nature by overlapping the vision of the “highest good” that is approaching with the selfishness of his or her concupiscence; or, in a sense, by putting or forcing down the transcendental character of the good. 

Let me conclude by saying that there are many features of moral experience that reveal its transcendental character.  After all, moral experience is the paradox of fulfilling oneself by forgetting or sacrificing oneself.  It is the desire for absolute moral truths, and of an absolute happiness and justice that are not possible in this world.  Many people make strong moral decisions only when they get to thinking of God.  The so-called “good atheist” ought eventually to find his way to God.  Otherwise he cannot be entirely good, he will embrace some kind of idolatry, and he will finally frustrate his nature and the natures of people around him.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by C. I. Litzinger, O.P. (Notre Dame, Ind.: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), lect. 1, no. 11.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (hereafter CG), III, ch. 67. Translations of the Summa Contra Gentiles are by Anton C. Pegis for book 1, by James F. Anderson for book 2, and by Vernon J. Bourke for book 3 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [hereafter ST], I, q. 2, a. 1 ad 1.  Translations are by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger, 1947).  See also CG, I, 10-11; ST, I, q. 12; I-II, q. 3, a. 8.

[4] The widespread contemporary debate on practical knowledge is closely connected to the strong rediscovery of Aristotle’s thought that was started in the second part of the last century by authors like Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Hannah Arendt.  For a bibliographical survey of this phenomenon, see Franco Volpi, “The Rehabilitation of Practical Philosophy and Neo-Aristotelianism,” in Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (eds.), Action and Contemplation (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 3-25.  In the anglosaxon analytic world, the renewed attention to practical knowledge is related to the discussion of the “reasons for action” intended as a way to overcome the gaps created by the value-free approach to human action in moral, political, and legal philosophy.  A pioneer work, in this direction, has certainly been done by Herbert Hart in his The Concept of Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).

[5] The Aristotelian debate on the ultimate end flared up after W. F. R. Hardie [“The Final Good in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Philosophy 40 (1965), pp. 277-95] suggested the distinction between dominant end and inclusive end.  It is worth noticing the critical approach to this issue offered by J. L. Ackrill, “Aristotle on Eudaimonia” [1974], in N. Sherman (ed.), Aristotle’s Ethics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp. 57-77.  Among Thomists, the question is presently highly debated due to the claim that there are, not one but, many incommensurable ultimate ends of human life made by the so-called “new natural law theorists.”  The “new natural law theory” is strongly related to the “rehabilitation” of practical knowledge, and was initiated by a well known article written by Germain Grisez in 1965 [“The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa theologiae, 1-2, Question 94, Article 2,” Natural Law Forum, 10 (1965)].

[6] See, for example, ST, I-II, q. 3, a. 5, where Aquinas explains that “happiness (beatitude) consists in activity of the speculative intellect rather than the practical.”

[7] I use the Latin “ens” and “esse” to avoid ambiguity, as in English they are both translated with “being.”

[8] For all the quotations in this paragraph see Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 21, a. 1.

[9] CG, I, ch 37.  See also, De Veritate, q. 21, a. 2 c.: “Existence itself, therefore, has the essential note of goodness.  Just as it is impossible, then, for anything to be a being which does not have existence, so too it is necessary that every being be good by the very fact of its having existence (Ipsum igitur esse habet rationem boni.  Unde sicut impossibile est quod sit aliquid ens quod non habeat esse, necesse est ut omne ens sit bonum ex hoc ipso quod esse habet).”  Translations of the Quaestiones Disputatae De Veritate (hereafter De Veritate) are from St. Thomas Aquinas, Truth (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1952) Volume I, questions i-ix, trans. Robert W. Mulligan, S.J., and Volume III, questions xxi-xxix, trans. Robert W. Schmidt, S.J.

[10] See the famous passage in Aquinas on the “per se” series of efficient causes: “In efficient causes it is impossible to proceed to infinity ‘per se’—thus, there cannot be an infinite number of causes that are ‘per se’ required for a certain effect; for instance, that a stone be moved by a stick, the stick by the hand, and so on to infinity.  But it is not impossible to proceed to infinity ‘accidentally’ as regards efficient causes; for instance, if all the causes thus infinitely multiplied should have the order of only one cause, their multiplication being accidental, as an artificer acts by means of many hammers accidentally, because one after the other may be broken.  It is accidental, therefore, that one particular hammer acts after the action of another; and likewise it is accidental to this particular man as generator to be generated by another man; for he generates as a man, and not as the son of another man.  For all men generating hold one grade in efficient causes—viz. the grade of a particular generator.  Hence it is not impossible for a man to be generated by man to infinity; but such a thing would be impossible if the generation of this man depended upon this man, and on an elementary body, and on the sun, and so on to infinity” (ST, I, q. 46, a. 2 ad 7).

[11] See, ST, I, q. 6, a. 4: “each thing is called ‘good’ by the divine goodness, as by the first exemplar, efficient, and final principle of goodness in its entirety.”

[12] See, ST, I, q. 44, a. 1.

[13] ST, II-II, q. 26, a. 3 c.

[14] This is the whole relevant passage: “Now, in natural things, everything which, as such, naturally belongs to another, is principally, and more strongly inclined to that other to which it belongs, than toward itself.  Such a natural tendency is evidenced from things which are moved according to nature: because ‘according as a thing is moved naturally, it has an inborn aptitude to be thus moved,’ as stated in Phys. ii, text. 78.  For we observe that the part naturally exposes itself in order to safeguard the whole; as, for instance, the hand is without deliberation exposed to the blow for the whole body’s safety.  And since reason copies nature, we find the same inclination among the social virtues; for it behooves the virtuous citizen to expose himself to the danger of death for the public weal of the state; and if man were a natural part of the city, then such inclination would be natural to him.  Consequently, since God is the universal good, and under this good both man and angel and all creatures are comprised, because every creature in regard to its entire being naturally belongs to God, it follows that from natural love angel and man alike love God before themselves and with a greater love (naturali dilectione etiam Angelus et homo plus et principalius diligat Deum quam seipsum).  Otherwise, if either of them loved self more than God, it would follow that natural love would be perverse, and that it would not be perfected but destroyed by charity.”

[15] See, e.g., CG, III, ch. 64: “Moreover, that natural bodies are moved and made to operate for an end, even though they do not know their end, was proved by the fact that what happens to them is always, or often, for the best; and, if their workings resulted from art, they would not be done differently. But it is impossible for things that do not know their end to work for that end, and to reach that end in an orderly way, unless they are moved by someone possessing knowledge of the end, as in the case of the arrow directed to the target by the archer. So, the whole working of nature must be ordered by some sort of knowledge. And this, in fact, must lead back to God, either mediately or immediately, since every lower art and type of knowledge must get its principles from a higher one, as we also see in the speculative and operative sciences. Therefore, God governs the world by His providence. - Furthermore, things that are different in their natures do not come together into one order unless they are gathered into a unit by one ordering agent. But in the whole of reality things are distinct and possessed of contrary natures; yet all come together in one order, and while some things make use of the actions of others, some are helped or commanded by others. Therefore, there must be one orderer and governor of the whole of things.”

[16] De Veritate, q. 21, a. 5 c.

[17] See De Veritate, q. 22, a. 1 c.: “What is directed or inclined to something by another is inclined to that which is intended by the one inclining or directing it.  The arrow, for example, is directed to the same target at which the archer aims.  Consequently, since all natural things have been inclined by a certain natural inclination toward their ends by the prime mover, God, that to which everything is naturally inclined must be what is willed or intended by God.”

[18] CG, III, ch. 88.

[19] CG, III, ch. 67.  Here it might be helpful to recall also CG, II, ch. 23, in which Aquinas argues that the first unmoved mover must be a voluntary agent.  This theses complements the first way by qualifying the unmoved mover as a rational agent.  Let us read, for example, the following passages from chapter 23: “that which acts by itself is prior to that which acts by another (quod per se agit, prius est eo quod per aliud agit), for whatever is by another [per aliud] must be referred to that which is by itself (per se); otherwise, we fall into an infinite regress.  A thing that is not master of its own action, however, does not act by itself; it acts as directed by something else (ab alio actus), not as directing itself (seipsum agens).  Hence, the first agent mast act as master of His own action.  But it is only by will that one is master of his own action.  It follows, therefore, that God, who is the first agent, acts by His will (per voluntatem agere), not by necessity of His nature (non per naturae necessitatem)”; “To the first agent belongs the first action, even as the first motion pertains to the first thing movable.  But the will’s action is naturally prior to that of nature.  For that which is more perfect is prior in nature, though in one and the same particular thing it be temporally posterior.”

[20] This does not mean that the “known good” is necessarily “practical,” but only that it cannot be known as good without the inclination of the appetite.  This is why animals know as good only the things toward which their sentient appetite tend; whereas we know as good every ens insofar as it fits the inclination to the (intelligible) truth that we call will.  To know a beautiful panorama means to love it, even if there is nothing we can do with it (i.e., even if it is not a practical object of our knowledge).  God loves even non-created worlds because He knows them as something He does not want to create: that is to say, He loves these worlds insofar as they are known to Him, but He does not love them according to His practical knowledge.

[21] CG, I, ch. 72.

[22] As is well known, for both Aristotle and Aquinas, the act of the sentient faculty and the act of the thing perceived are one and the same act.  See, Aristotle, On the Soul, III, 425b26-426a27; Aquinas, in de Anima, III, 2, 425b22-426a26 [Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, trans. K. Foster, O.P. and S. Humphries, O.P. (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1994), pp. 184-85, n. 592-6].

[23] “Since […] forms existing in matter are not actually intelligible; it follows that the natures of forms of the sensible things which we understand are not actually intelligible.  Now nothing is reduced from potentiality to act except by something in act; as the senses are made actual by what is actually sensible.  We must therefore assign on the part of the intellect some power to make things actually intelligible, by abstraction of the species from material conditions. And such is the necessity for an active intellect” (ST, I, q. 79, a. 3 c).

[24] ST, I, q. 79, a. 4 c.

[25] On the participation of the active intellect in God’s intellect, besides ST, I, q. 79, a. 4, see also q. 84, a. 5, where Aquinas specifies that we receive from God the “intellectual light” but not “the intelligible species, which are derived from things.”

[26] See De Veritate, q. 1, a. 1; and ST, I, q. 78, a. 1.

[27] CG, I, ch. 54.

[28] On this type of causality see also Aquinas, Quaestio disputata De Potentia, q. 3, a. 5.

[29] ST, I, q. 44, a. 1 c.

[30] See, on this tension in our knowledge, Cornelio Fabro, Dall’essere all’esistente (Brescia: Morcelliana, 1965), pp. 60-9.

[31] ST, I-II, q. 94, a. 2 c.  On the reason why this inclination refers only to the intellect and not to the will, see Lawrence Dewan, “St. Thomas, John Finnis, and the Political Good,” The Thomist 64/2000.

[32] CG, II, ch. 27.