"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Question 5: Of Goodness in general

THE attribute of goodness follows perfection, for as will be said immediately, everything is good in so far as it is perfect. Therefore St. Thomas treats of God's goodness before treating of His truth and unity, although unity and truth are predicated before goodness of being and the divine nature. St. Thomas inserts here the question of the divine goodness as being a part of the divine perfection. And he treats first of goodness in general.

The question is concerned with transcendental good, which is a property of being, and is viewed as perfect and appetible. It is called transcendental, because it transcends all the categories of being, and is common to all of them, such as good substance, good quantity, good quality. However, in this question, goodness is also divided into the pleasant, the useful, and the virtuous, and from this division we get the idea of moral goodness, which is discussed by St. Thomas in the moral part of his theology, where he shows that moral goodness is virtuous goodness in so far as it is governed by the rules of moral actions and especially by the eternal law. Moral goodness is conformity of the object and the action with the rules of moral actions. But we are at present concerned with transcendental good.

There are three points of investigation in this fifth question: (I) The relation of goodness to being (a. 1-3); (2) of goodness in itself, considered under the aspect of end and order in goodness (a. 2-5); (3) the way goodness is divided (a. 6). The explanation of these articles must be brief, for they pertain rather to metaphysics.



Conclusion. Goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea. The first part is proved as follows: That which is included in the idea of being is not really distinct from being; but goodness is included in the idea of being, for it is being considered as perfect and desirable; therefore goodness is not really distinct from being.

The major is certain. Just as humanity, which contains in its connotation animality as genus, is not really distinct from animality, so that which in its connotation contains the idea of being is not really distinct from being. On the contrary, created essence, which in its connotation does not contain the idea of existence, is really distinct from it. Where we have two concepts irreducible to each other and to a third concept, there we have irreducibility of realities, in virtue of the objective validity of our intellect. But if two concepts are reduced to one concept, as animality and rationality are reduced to humanity, then there is no real distinction between them. Animality is included in the idea of humanity, although the latter includes something else, namely, rationality.

The minor. The idea of being is included in the idea of goodness. For goodness is that which is desirable; but it is desirable in so far as it is at least somehow perfect and perfective; therefore the idea of being is included in the idea of goodness, although it explicitly denotes something else.

Thus a fruit is good in so far as it is desirable. But for this it is necessary that the fruit be ripe, that in its species it be perfect and perfective, as a food that is preservative of life. And it would not be so unless it were actual being. Thus we speak proportionately of a good stone for the construction of a building, of a good horse for drawing a carriage, of a good sculptor or of a good painter. Hence it is clear that good is predicated of things by analogy of proportion, and is not really distinct from being.

The second part of the conclusion, namely, that goodness and being differ in idea, is easily proved; for "goodness presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present". In other words, being, contains the notion of goodness actually and implicitly, but not actually and explicitly. Something explicitly is declared in the notion of goodness, which is only implicitly declared in the notion of being. Thus there is no addition of any extrinsic difference to being, but of an explicitly signified mode of being.

It must be remembered with Cajetan, however, that desirableness does not constitute the idea of goodness but presupposes it, as a property its essence. However, if the desirable is viewed not formally but fundamentally, then goodness is intrinsically desirable in so far as it is the foundation for desirableness. Hence many Thomists say: The formal notion of goodness consists in perfection as being the foundation for desirableness. And this foundation is not really distinct from the desirableness, because it is a relation, not indeed real but logical as regards the appetite. On the contrary, there is a real relation of the appetite to the appetible on which it depends. Thus there is a real relation of knowledge to the thing knowable, but not of this latter to knowledge.

Hence for goodness to be fundamentally desirable, it must be perfect and perfective and therefore actual being. As John of St. Thomas says against Durandus and Vasquez: If goodness were to consist formally in desirableness, it would not be anything real, but a logical relation.

The reply to the first objection confirms this: Although goodness and being are not really distinct, for what is simply being (which a thing has through substantial being) is not simply goodness (which a thing has through some superadded perfection). Thus a barren tree is simply a being in so far as it has substantial being, but it is not something simply good in its species, because it is barren. The same applies to an unripe or overripe fruit, as also to a young or old carriage horse.

Hence what is simply being is good relatively, for example, a young horse not yet fully grown is, however, truly a horse and not a mule. Thus it has relative goodness of its species, although it has not as yet attained its due perfection. The same may be said of wine that has not much body to it, which, however, is truly wine and not vinegar.

Conversely, that by reason of which something is good simply, is being relatively, since it is an accidental perfection superadded to substance, as ripeness in fruit.

It must be observed that according to Scotus(2) the properties of being, such as goodness, are distinct from being by a distinction that is formal and actual on the part of the thing. In reply to this we say that such distinction posits an impossible intermediary between the real distinction and the logical distinction that has its foundation in the object; for a distinction exists either before or not before the mind's consideration; if before, it is real; if not, it is logical. In the present case, however, there can be no real distinction, because then goodness would be outside being; it would not be being, and thus would be nothing. Being is included in all its modes, which are still being.

Consequently there is only a virtual distinction between being and goodness; in fact, a virtual minor distinction, since being includes goodness actually and implicitly, but not explicitly. In other words, the mode of goodness is not an extrinsic difference with reference to being, as rationability is with reference to animality.


St. State of the question. The Platonists taught that goodness is prior tobeing. 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 difflusive 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 Bannez 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 thc 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. Iit 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.


Index Top


1. Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.18.

2. I Sent., d. 3, q. 3.

3. 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."

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

5. 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.

6. 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.

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

8. I Sent., d.8, q. 1i, a.3.

9. 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.

10. 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.

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

12. 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.

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

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



"The essence of perfection is to embrace the will of God in all things, prosperous or adverse. In prosperity, even sinners find it easy to unite themselves to the divine will; but it takes saints to unite themselves to God's will when things go wrong and are painful to self-love. Our conduct in such instances is the measure of our love of God."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"God has no need of men."

St Philip Neri

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"When the devil has failed in making a man fall, he puts forward all his energies to create distrust between the penitent and the confessor, and so by little and little he gains his end at last."

St Philip Neri

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