“In the Thomistic synthesis, the good has an extraordinary importance. St. Thomas conceives it as the motive of creation and the end of the created” 1 .

The Aristotelian concept of the universe is one of order. Transferred into Thomistic thought, the resultant concept of the universe is one in which each part has some relation to each other part, inasmuch as all parts are ultimately linked with the Creator-God. It is thus that the purpose of the will emerges in light of its object.


It is in the first part of his Summa Theologica, in which St. Thomas treats of God and the divine attributes, that he first touches upon the idea of goodness. A superlative and causative goodness is imputed to God in the description of His essential perfection and being. Referring to Aristotle‟s Metaphysics, St. Thomas states that God is called universally perfect since He cannot lack any perfection that is found in any other genus. For by reason of His being effective cause, He possesses all that the effect possesses. Continuing, he expounds:

God is existence itself, of itself subsistent. Consequently, He must contain within Himself the whole perfection of being. (…)

Now all created perfections are included in the perfection of being, for things are perfect precisely so far as they have being after some fashion. It follows therefore that the perfection of no one thing is wanting to God. This line of argument, too, is implied by Dionysius (loc. cit.) when he says that “God exists not in any single mode, but embraces all being within Himself, absolutely, without limitation, uniformly”; and afterward he adds that He is the very existence to subsisting things 2 .

This excerpt not only demonstrates the relation between being and perfection but also shows that a relation exists between created things, in their particular degrees of being and perfection, and God. This relation, in addition to being that of cause and effect, is one of a certain similarity: “all created things, so far as they are beings, are like God as the first and universal principal of being” 3 . It follows, as a consequence, that: “Every being that is not God, is God’s creature. Now every creature of God is good (1Tim 4:4): and God is the greatest good. Therefore every being is good” 4 .

The infinite being and goodness of God is, therefore, represented in His work, His creation. However, creatures have but finite being and goodness; no one creature can adequately reflect the divine likeness. For this purpose, the existence of a multiplicity and variety of creatures are required 5 . It is important to note that the excellence of the divine agent is seen, therefore, in the totality of his work and not completely in any individual part. The resultant variety or distinction among creatures signifies unequal degrees of perfection, and where there are degrees of perfection there is necessarily a hierarchical order. In this order, plants are more perfect than minerals, animals above plants and man being the most perfect among animals 6 .

This scale of greater and lesser perfection among created entities is nothing other than a scale of greater or lesser participation of being. Living things have more being than things that merely exist without life. That which understands surpasses life without understanding 7 . By virtue of the concept of all being as good, the universe is likewise conceived as the ordination of distinct levels of goodness according to their participation in the good 8 . Yet even seen thus, the most profound root is that of being; to have goodness, above all, is to have being 9 .

The human person finds himself on the pinnacle of the material universe, ─ perfectissimum in tota natura (De Pot., I,29,3) ─ since he is endowed with the highest level of being which comprises intelligence and free will 10 . Among creatures, only an intelligent, personal being that is devoid of all material ─ angelic nature ─ can surpass human nature 11 . Yet in contrast with all created nature which has being in varying degrees, God is pure being, in such a way that He is His own being 12 . Being as a nature is present only in God 13 . In other words, this signifies that God is a necessary being, without need of cause, while all creatures are contingent beings in relation to God. Applying this principle to the goodness of God and creatures, God is His goodness while the goodness of creatures is a finite participation of the infinite goodness which is God 14-15 .

This decidedly Theo-centric view of the ontological goodness of the universe illustrates the fundamental metaphysical optimism which characterizes the philosophy of St. Thomas. Chesterton identifies the primary target of these arguments as being the Manichean philosophy in its various manifestations. One such school assigns the production of the material world to an evil spirit, rendering all nature and being within it essentially evil, while the good spirit resides in an entirely separate spiritual world. Other developments present a different shade of dualism: God is the sole creator, but he creates and wills both good and evil in the world in a sort of equal and parallel position, in which neither can claim primacy 16 .

In contrast, St. Thomas maintains that while God is the supreme and essential good that is the cause of all being and first principle of all good, there cannot be a supreme evil that is the first principle of all evil, since its very being would imply some good 17 . Evil, in the metaphysical sense, does not have positive existence, but can only be considered in a negative sense as the privation of good in the same way that darkness is but lack of light 18 . This concept will later be reconciled with the spectrum of moral good and evil, but for the present the ontological good is significant as we consider in its appetitive sense, as an object of the will.


We have thus far considered the good as being. This is, in effect, to consider good as a transcendental of being, thereby sharing ─ with oneness and truth ─ the same identity as being. But although the transcendentals are in reality the same as being, they are not identical in concept 19 . In what sense, then, is the notion of good distinct from that of mere being in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought?

Aristotle begins his Nichomachean Ethics with a definition of the good as that toward which all things tend: quod omnia appetunt. Thus, goodness refers to the relation between being and the appetite in the universal sense. In other words, goodness carries a nuance of meaning which the term being, alone, does not, namely, the aspect of appetibility 20 .
Accordingly, the very criterion of what is good is its appetibility. “Everything is good so far as it is desirable, and is a term of the movement of the appetite” 21 .

Given the metaphysical principle that every form elicits an inclination 22 , “appetition in general is a universal occurrence, existing in both inanimate and animate beings” 23 . Since the good exists in varying degrees in all levels of being, it stands to reason that this appetition is likewise of unequal degrees. “All things in their own way ─ says St. Thomas ─ are inclined by appetite towards good, but in different ways” 24 .

In following, St. Thomas traces the presence of appetite throughout the various levels of being. Minerals or inanimate things and plants are inclined to good naturally and without knowledge; this inclination is called natural appetite. The next level is that of irrational animals which although without knowledge of the good in itself, apprehend some particular good by means of the senses, and the inclination which follows is duly named sensitive appetite. The most perfect inclination to what is good occurs in beings that have knowledge of the reason of goodness, goodness in its universal sense; in them this inclination is called rational appetite or will 25 .

Appetites are aptly divided, then, into those of beings with knowledge and beings without. Clearly, appetition follows apprehension; therefore, a higher level of apprehension determines a superior type of appetition, as the following explanation illustrates:

As forms exist in those things that have knowledge in a higher manner and above the manner of natural forms; so must there be in them an inclination surpassing the natural inclination which is called the natural appetite. And this superior inclination belongs to the appetitive power of the soul, through which the animal is able to desire what it apprehends, and not only that to which it is inclined by its natural form 26 .

The irrational and hence inferior form of apprehension and inclination would hold little import for man if it were not for the fact that in the scale of being, each successively superior level possesses the potencies of the levels inferior to it, upon which something further has been added. Thus, sensitive nature includes natural or vegetative nature, and the human soul contains a spiritual nature in addition to all the preceding natures 27 . Considering that man´s position on the graduated scale of being is precisely at the intermediate point between the corporal and the spiritual world, between angels and brutes 28 , this accounts for an impressive diversity of natures at once present in the human being, rendering him the most complex of all beings, a composite of spiritual and corporal. St. Thomas 29 attests to this fact, stating that the human soul exists on the border of the spiritual and corporal worlds and for this reason, it possesses the potencies of both one and the other order.

As diverse as these various vegetative, sensitive and rational potencies are ─ the vegetative and sensitive being corporal and the rational being spiritual, they are all present within the human soul, united as it is to the body as its one substantial form 30 . The vegetative or nutritive nature present in man involves only corporal functions over which the intelligence and will have no direct dominion. Much more significant to our study, then, is the presence of sensitive life in man, since this, in addition to his spiritual nature implies two distinct faculties of knowledge, sense and intellect. These faculties, being endowed with distinct means of knowing, give rise to the correspondingly diverse sensitive appetite and the will 31 . In St. Thomas´ own words: “Since what is apprehended by the intellect and what is apprehended by sense are generically different; consequently, the intellectual appetite is distinct from the sensitive” 32 .

Endowed with these distinct potencies that reflect his composition of matter and form ─ in this case, soul and body ─, man is thus admirably equipped to live in a universe of which every part is made up of matter and form. For while the sensory perception is suited to capture the particular and individual aspect of things that present themselves in matter, the intellect is adapted to extract from this knowledge the universal, purely abstract* aspect which is reserved in the form of a given object 33 .

The will comes into play in response to an object that is represented to it by the intellect as good, just as the sensitive appetite desires only the good that one or other sense has captured. As a spiritual potency, the will is capable of desiring purely spiritual goods, such as knowledge and virtue. But the will would not be a human faculty and would be of little use to man in the material world if it were not also able to choose between things that exist as material singulars. But even so, it desires these according to some reason of the universal aspect of good (bonum in universali): either as an end (bonum honestum), or a means towards that end (bonum utile), and if successful, it rejoices in them as a good attained (bonum delectabile) 34 . Thus, the will´s essential disposition emerges, fixed in the desire for good and an absolute incapacity of desiring evil:

From this, the will cannot escape, and since all action is nothing more than a manifestation of nature, in all action which is fruit of the will can be seen the mark of the good and its influence. (…) To want evil, would be, truly, not to want, given that to want is, by definition, the seeking for the good, being the manifestation of an appetite of the good naturally executed. It could be said: The will does not want the good because it wants; it wants the good because it is: To want the good, for the will, is to be 35 .

1 FORMENT, Eudaldo. Id a Tomás : Principios fundamentales del pensamiento de Santo Tomás. p.29. [On line]. [Consulted: 12 Nov., 2008]. “En la síntesis tomista tiene una importancia extraordinaria el bien. Santo Tomás lo concibe como motivo de la creación y como fin de lo creado”.
2 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica I, q. 4., a. 2. “Deus est ipsum esse per se subsistens, ex quo oportet quod totam perfectionem essendi in se contineat.[…]. Omnium autem perfectiones pertinent ad perfectionem essendi, secundum hoc enim aliqua perfecta sunt, quod aliquo modo esse habent. Unde sequitur quod nullius rei perfectio Deo desit. Et hanc etiam rationem tangit Dionysius, cap. V de Div. Nom., dicens quod Deus non quodammodo est existens, sed simpliciter et incircumscripte totum in seipso uniformiter esse praeaccipit, et postea subdit quod ipse est esse subsistentibus”.
3 Ibid., I, q. 4, a. 3. “Et hoc modo illa quae sunt a Deo, assimilantur ei inquantum sunt entia, ut primo et universali principio totius esse”.
4 Ibid., I, q. 5, a. 3. “Omne ens quod non est Deus, est Dei creatura. Sed omnis creatura Dei est bona, ut diciter 1 Ti4,4: Deus vero est maxime bonus. Ergo omne ens est bonum”.
5 SANTO TOMÁS DE AQUINO. Suma contra los gentiles. L. II, c. 45.
6 GILSON, Étienne. El tomismo. 4a. ed. Pamplona: Universidad de Navarra, 2002. p. 205-206.
7 FORMENT, Op. Cit., p. 45.
8 Ibid., p. 30.
9 GILSON, Étienne. Elementos de una metafísica tomista del ser. [On line]. In: Espiritu, No. 41 (1992). [Consulted : 9 Feb., 2009].
10 RODRÍGUES, Victorino. Temas clave de humanismo cristiano. Madrid: Speiro, 1984. p. 19. Rodrigues outlines the key principles of the special dignity of human nature: “Hence the superior dignity of man above the other beings of this world: as much by reason of his quasi generic factor (to subsist in himself with, moreover, an ultra-temporal projection, due to the natural immortality of the human soul) as by reason of his quasi specific factor (rational and free). (“De ahí la superior dignidad del hombre sobre los demás seres de este mundo: tanto por parte de su factor cuasi genérico (subsistir por sí, con proyección, además, ultratemporal, debida a la inmortalidad natural del alma humana) como por parte de su factor cuasi específico (racional y libre).) p.261.
11 SANCHEZ DE LEON, Pilar. 30 Temas de iniciación filosófica. Bogotá: Universidad de la Sabana, 1990. p. 92.
12 GILSON, Étienne. Elementos de una metafísica tomista del ser, Op. Cit., p. 18.
13 OWENS, Op. Cit., p. 48.
14 GILSON, Étienne. A filosofia na idade média. 2a. ed. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2007. p. 659-663.
15 Ibid., p. 663. This is far from the pantheistic interpretation that creatures are part of God and are, therefore, God, as Gilson explains: “To participate in the pure act or in the perfection of God is to possess a perfection that pre-existed in God, and which, in fact is found in Him without having been either augmented or diminished by the appearance of the creature which reproduces it in a limited, finite manner. To participate is not to be part of that of which is participated, it is to owe one‟s being and receive it from another being, and the fact of receiving from another is exactly what proves that one is not the other”. (Personal translation)
16 CHESTERTON, G.K. St. Thomas Aquinas. [On line]. [Consulted: 12 Nov., 2008].
17 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica I, q. 49, a. 2.
18 Ibid., q. 48, a. 1.
19 GARDEIL, H.D. Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: Metaphysics. St. Louis: Herder Book, 1967. p. 126. Vol. 4.
20 Ibid., p. 142, 143.
21 St. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica I, q. 5, a. 6. Nam bonus est aliquid, inquantum esta appetibile, et terminus motus appetitus.
22 GARDEIL, H.D. Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: Psychology. St. Louis: Herder Book, 1956. p. 197. Vol. 3.
23 GARDEIL, H.D., Introduction to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: psychology, Op. Cit., p. 79.
24 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica I, q. 59, a. I. “Omnia suo modo per appetitum inclinantur in bonum, sed diversamode”.
25 Ibid.
26 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. I, q. 80, a. 1. “Sicut igitur formae altiori modo existunt in habentibus cognitionem supra modum formarum naturalium, ita oportet quod in eis sit inclinatio supra modum inclinationis naturalis, quae dicitur appetitus naturalis. Et haec superior inclinatio pertinet ad vim animae appetitivam, per quam animal appetere potest ea quae apprehendit, non solum ea ad quae inclinatur ex forma naturali”.
27 GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, Reginald. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought. St. Louis: Herder, 1950. p. 184.
28 SERTILLANGES, A. D. Foundations of Thomistic Philosophy. St Louis: Herder, 1931. p. 199.
29 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica I, q. 77, a. 2.
30 KRETZMANN, Norman. Philosophy of mind. In: The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas. Op. Cit., p. 131.This is an important factor in understanding the human soul as a “microcosm” in which all elements of the cosmos are represented. “In a theory that recognizes the soul of a plant as a merely nutritive first intrinsic principle of life, and the soul of a nonhuman animal as a nutritive + sensory principle of that sort, it comes as no surprise that the soul of a human
being is to be analyzed as nutritive + sensory + rational. Aquinas thinks of the human soul not as three nested, cooperating substantial form, however, but as the single form that gives a human being its specifically human mode of existence, including potentialities and functions, from its genetic makeup on to its most creative talents”.
31 GARDEIL, H.D. Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas : Psychology. Op. Cit., p. 198, 199.
32 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica I, q. 80, a. 2. “Quia igitur est alterius generis apprehensum per intellectum et apprehensum per sensum, consequens est quod appetitus intellectivus sit alia potentia a sensitivo”.
33 GILSON. A Filosofia na Idade Média. Op. Cit. p. 666 – 668.
* Ibid., p. 666-668. Since an in-depth description of the process of abstraction is outside of the scope of this study, see this passage for an overview of the respective functions of agent intellect and possible intellect in the process of rendering intelligible the sensible species.
34 GARDEIL, H.D. Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas : Psychology. Op. Cit., p. 199.
35 SERTILLANGES, A. D. Santo Tomas de Aquino II. Buenos Aires : Desclée de Brouwer. p. 213 – 214. (Personal translation). “A esto no puede la voluntad escapar, y como toda acción no es en el fondo más que una manifestación de la naturaleza, en toda acción fruto de la voluntad se podrá ver La marca del bien y su influencia. (…) Querer el mal, será, en verdad, no querer, puesto que querer es, por definición, La búsqueda del bien, al ser la manifestación de un apetito del bien realizado naturalmente. Se podrá decir: La voluntad no quiere el bien porque quiere; quiere el bien porque ella es: Querer el bien, para ella es ser”.
* This necessity is not equivalent to coercion, and is not incompatible with freedom. Davies explains that for St. Thomas, “it is not against will that one should be drawn to what one‟s nature needs for its fulfillment. This kind of necessity is, he thinks, essential to will, just as the being drawn of necessity to truth is needed for the intellect to be itself. (DAVIES, Op. Cit., p. 177.)


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