Perfection

Imperfection, predicate S, is the last to be ruled out in an application of the eliminative method. Chapter 28, in which imperfection's elimination is argued for, also marks the beginning of a new stage of Aquinas's project, as we'll see. His arguments in the chapter approach their conclusion via the eliminative method, using previous eliminations as bases on which to rule out as impossible any kind of imperfection in Alpha. But throughout chapter

28, beginning with its title, 'On Divine Perfection',

20 SCG is one of very few of Aquinas's works to survive in a manuscript written in his own hand, and ch. 28 is one of only a few chapters of SCG I for which Aquinas himself supplied titles.

Aquinas emphasizes the affirmative version of the conclusion over the denial of imperfection. I'll follow his lead in focusing directly on perfection.

As might be expected, the familiar use of'perfect'to express the highest possible evaluation is at the centre of Aquinas's concern in the chapter. But in addition to its evaluative aspect, perfection has a metaphysical aspect that is crucial to his account of it, a metaphysical aspect that no writer of Latin could fail to recognize. Aquinas knows that his word perfectum is just an adjectival use of the perfect passive participle of a Latin verb meaning to do thoroughly—to fulfil, finish, achieve, complete, accomplish. The fact that the word's fundamental sense has to do with the culmination of a process leads him to warn that 'perfection (perfectio) cannot appropriately be attributed to God if one pays attention to the signification of the noun from the standpoint of its derivation, for what is not done (factum) [at all] cannot be called thoroughly done (per-fectum). But everything that gets done (fit) is brought from potentiality to actuality, and from not-being to being, when it has been done (factum est); and so it is correctly said to be perfectum—as if to say "totally done" (totaiiter factum)—when the potentiality has been totally brought down to actuality so that it retains no not-being but has complete being' (28.268). So immutability and pure actuality in God make the attribution of perfection to him misleading etymologically. But, as Aquinas observes, 'through a kind of extension of the [adjectival] name, not only that which achieves complete actuality through getting done (fiendo) but also that which is in complete actuality without any doing or end p.131

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© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved bringing about (factione) is called per-fectum. And it is in this way that we say that God is perfect' (ibid.).

Focusing on this metaphysical sense of'perfect' makes it easy for Aquinas to argue for perfection by the eliminative method based on earlier eliminations, and he does provide arguments of that sort. For instance, 'anything is perfect in so far as it is actualized [and] imperfect in so far as it is in a state of potentiality, lacking actuality. Therefore, that which is in no way in a state of potentiality but is pure actuality must be most perfect. But that is what

God is. Therefore, he is most perfect' (28.264).

21 See also nn. 24 and 25 below.

The abstractness of such considerations may make the metaphysical aspect of perfection seem remote from its familiar evaluative aspect, but everything Aquinas says about the metaphysical aspect—being fully actualized, in no respect incomplete—helps to show how it provides the basis for the ordinary use of'perfect' as the term of highest praise. A thing is perfect of its kind in the laudatory sense to the extent to which it is a whole, complete specimen, free from relevant defect, to the extent to which it is fully realized or developed, to the extent to which the potentialities definitive of its kind—its specifying potentialities—are actualized. And so, as Aquinas puts it elsewhere, a thing is perfect and hence desirable (good of its kind) to the

extent to which it is in being.

22 ST la. 5.1. For a fuller discussion of the connection between metaphysical and evaluative considerations in Aquinas's thought, see Stump and Kretzmann 1988.

The degree of excellence in a particular daisy is the same as the degree to which that flower has actualized the potentialities that specify a daisy; the degree of excellence in a child's memorization of a poem is the same as the degree to which the child has actualized the potentialities that specify a memorization of that poem.

These considerations clarify the conception of perfection in a certain respect— perfect daisy, perfect memorization. But the results of the eliminative method so far have shown that Alpha (or God) can't be specified, and so if perfection can be attributed to it, it can't be merely perfection in some respect or other. Aquinas is, of course, fully aware that nothing less than absolute perfection will do, and in most of chapter 28 he argues that God must be 'most perfect (perfectissimus)', as in the short, purely metaphysical argument I quoted just above. But in his first, main argument in the end p.132

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© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved chapter he gives an account of absolute perfection that makes the argument worth a closer look: he argues that God must be 'universally perfect', and explains 'universally perfect' in terms that commit him to arguing for

perfection in the evaluative sense,

23 Eliminating predicate S in this way, then, marks the first systematic introduction of an evaluation into the emergent series of affirmative counterparts to the eliminated predicates, although Aquinas does seem to have anticipated it at least twice, in 20.159 ('Therefore, a body is not that than which nothing is more excellent [nobilius]; but that is what God is') and 27.254 ('Therefore, since God is the most basing his argument directly on chapter 22's identification of God's essential

nature as his being.

24 In presenting this argument I'm omitting Aquinas's introductory allusion to the Porphyrian-Augustinian hierarchy: being life understanding—viz. 'Now even though things that both are and live are more perfect than those that only are, God, who is not other than his being . . . ' (28.259). The allusion plays no part in the body of the argument, which is all that concerns me here, but it does set the stage for an appendix to the argument (28.262).

The Perfection Argument

God, who is not other than his being (esse), is the universally perfect being (ens). I call that universally perfect which does not lack the excellence (nobilitas) belonging to any genus. For every excellence of any thing whatever belongs to it in keeping with its being. For no excellence would belong to a human being from his wisdom if it were not the case that through it he is wise—and so on as regards other [excellences and kinds]. Therefore, a thing's mode of excellence is in keeping with the mode in which it has being; for a thing is said to be more or less excellent in so far as its being conforms to (contrahitur ad) some greater or lesser specific mode of excellence. Therefore, if there is anything to which the whole capacity (virtus) of being pertains (competit), it can lack no [specific] excellence that is associated with any thing. But being in keeping with the whole capacity of being (esse secundum totam essendi potestatem) pertains to the thing that is its own being. (Similarly, if there were a separated whiteness, it could not lack any of the capacity (virtus) of whiteness; for any white thing lacks some of the capacity (virtus) of whiteness because of a defect in whiteness's recipient, which receives it in keeping with its own mode [of being] and probably not in keeping with the whole capacity (posse) of whiteness.) Therefore, God, who is his own being (as was proved above), has being in keeping with the whole capacity of being. Therefore, end p.133

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© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved he cannot lack any excellence that is associated with any thing. (28.259-60) 25

25 Aquinas doesn't end this perfection argument at this point, but extends it with a more purely metaphysical segment that strikes me as important in its own right but inessential to the main argument: 'But Just as every excellence and perfection is in a thing in so far as it is, so every defect is in it in so far as it is not. Now Just as God has being wholly, so is non-being wholly absent from him; for in the way any thing has being it lacks non-being. Therefore, every defect is absent from God. Therefore, he is universally perfect' (28.261).

In lines 1-3 Aquinas provides a preliminary version of the conclusion along with an explanation of universal perfection. The machinery of the eliminative method is still plainly at work here in the denials that God is other than his being or lacks the excellence of any genus, although denials of a distinction and a lack are perhaps more naturally construed as affirmations of identity and possession. Merely introducing God as not other than his being doesn't yet show that the argument depends on that identification, but it does suggest the importance of the identification here, and the argument bears out the suggestion (in lines 13-15 and 20-1). The combination of the strictly metaphysical identification of God with the plainly evaluative sense given to 'universally perfect' provides a special challenge for this perfection argument, because, as we've seen, Aquinas does have purely metaphysical arguments for perfection, and presumably could more easily have used one of those here. What makes the explanation of'universally perfect' plainly evaluative, of course, is the word 'excellence', the unmistakably evaluative force of which is fully warranted here by Aquinas's Latin word nobilitas. But what's meant by 'the excellence belonging to any genus' (lines 2-3)?

One intended effect of associating excellence with genus in this way is to show that the focus here is not on intra-specific, individual excellences, such as great speed in one horse as compared with others. Also, 'genus' here is pretty clearly not being used in the technical sense in which it is distinguished from 'species', but means, instead, something like natural kind. A natural kind is picked out by specifying potentialities—for example, rationality or the capacity for thought and deliberated action in the natural kind human being. The excellence belonging to any natural kind will be the fullest possible realization of the potentialities that specify that kind—for example, wisdom for the natural kind human being.

end p. 134

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Aquinas's explanation of the relevant sense of'perfect' in terms of not lacking the excellence belonging to any genus makes the designation 'universally perfect' perfectly apt. But how, exactly, is God (or Alpha) supposed not to lack any such excellence?

The argument begins its development of an answer to that question by pointing out a special connection between a thing's excellence and its being, taking as its paradigm wisdom, the excellence specific to rationality (lines 4-7). I don't think Aquinas means to suggest that someone might have wisdom but not be wise (as someone might have a fine library without being well-read). A person can't really have that excellence without really being excellent in the relevant respect. This distinction must be purely conceptual. None the less, it is wisdom's being truly predicable of the person that marks the excellence's belonging to him, and wisdom (or any other excellence) is predicable of its subject by means of the verb 'to be'. And so the predication 'Socrates is wise' is in theory more fundamentally revealing than the apparently equivalent 'Socrates has wisdom', because the 'is wise' formulation tells us something about the kind of being Socrates has. I've been told, more than once, that it is a mere accident of certain languages that they use the same verb to express being and to effect predication. If that's so, it's a happy accident. The point Aquinas wants to make here is that for a thing really to have a certain excellence is for it to be excellent in that certain way, which is for it to be in a certain way; and that seems unproblematic. The point is a good one, illustrated by, but not dependent on, the way predication is carried out in Latin and in English (for instance).

Aquinas continues the argument by introducing a ranking principle (lines 8-10). Again, the ranking of things here can't be intraspecific, as is shown by the explicit reference to modes of excellence that are associated with species. Instead, this ranking of things is solely in terms of the natural kinds they represent—for example, the ranking of a human being qua human relative to a cat qua feline.

The ranking of natural kinds has acquired a bad name—'speciesism'—and, considering the evils people have tried to justify on grounds of human supremacy among natural kinds, this sort of ranking deserves at least a cautious scrutiny. Aquinas's metaphysics provides a systematic basis on which to rank natural kinds, a basis that is summarized handily in the Porphyrian Tree, a standard end p.135

Kretzmann, Norman , (deceased) formerly Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cornell University, New York

The Metaphysics of Theism

Print ISBN 9780199246533, 2001 pp. [136]-[140]

device of medieval metaphysics inherited from late Greek philosophy. (It doesn't have to be accepted as universally applicable or utterly trustworthy in order to assess Aquinas's use of it as a basis for ranking kinds, but I wouldn't introduce it now if I thought it had only antiquarian interest.) A Porphyrian Tree begins with an Aristotelian category—substance is the standard example and the one that suits this discussion—and moves via a series of dichotomies from that most general genus through at least some of its species. The dichotomies produce progressively more specific species by the application of a pair of complementary characteristics (differentiae) to a less specific species (a genus) that is already in the tree. In this way, for example, substance is made to branch into corporeal substance and incorporeal substance to begin the tree. Corporeal substances can in turn be divided into those with and those without capacities for growth, reproduction, and other biological processes; and corporeal substances with capacities for biological processes can be divided into those that have and those that lack a capacity for perception—animals and plants, roughly speaking. Finally, those with a capacity for perception can be divided into those with and those without the capacity for rational processes—human beings and other animals. And so one of the two species (or genera) encountered in any pair after the first is picked out by a type of capacity that is over and above the capacities of its counterpart. In a clear, uncontroversial sense, then, a specific excellence that is constituted by the full actualization of more types of capacities than specify another species is for just that reason and in just that sense 'greater' than the excellence 26

specific to the other one.

26 For further development of this material see Stump and Kretzmann 1988.

The being of a cat conforms to the feline essential nature: what it is to exist as a cat, the mode in which a cat has being, the mode in keeping with which there is a specific mode of excellence (feline). And that is a lesser mode of excellence than one constituted by the full realization of a larger set of types of capacities. Individual things can be ranked in this way as more or less excellent considered only as representatives of different species, not as individuals within a single species.

The perfection argument next spells out the way in which something might count as universally perfect, and picks out 'the thing that is its own being' as filling that bill (lines 10-15). We are to end p.136

consider the possibility of something 'to which the whole capacity of being pertains'. The notion of the whole capacity of being (tota virtus essendi) enters the argument for the first time at this point, but we're offered two kinds of help in understanding it. In the first place, the sentence in lines 10-13 is presented as following from what has gone before it, and so the course of the argument so far should show us how to read it.

Here's my attempt to weave the claims in lines 10-15 into the argument, drawing on my discussion of its development up to this point. The greatness of a thing's specific mode of excellence is determined by how many types of capacities are included within its essential nature, since the excellence specific to a thing consists in the realizing of the capacities essential to it. Relative greatness among specific modes of excellence will be determined, then, by the relative range of the capacities whose realization constitutes excellence. For instance, the human mode of excellence will be greater than the feline mode of excellence in this respect. And so if there is anything the essential nature of which includes the whole range of such capacities, whether or not they are instantiated in nature, its excellence will include all specific modes of excellence. The only thing whose essential nature includes this whole capacity of being is the thing whose essential nature is uniquely necessary, ultimately explanatory being itself.

Aquinas's analogy based on an imaginary Platonic Form (lines 15-20) provides a second kind of help in understanding the notion of the whole capacity of being. The relevance of the analogy can be clarified by recasting it in this form. The whiteness of china cups is different from the whiteness of linen table-cloths because of differences between the natures of glazed clay and of woven threads, and neither of those whitenesses is all there is to whiteness. Analogously, the being of cats is different from the being of people because of differences between the natures of cats and of people, and neither of those kinds of being is all there is to being. Any ordinary white thing lacks some of the capacities intrinsic to whiteness just because of limitations in its nature (apart from whiteness), which determines its receptivity to whiteness. Analogously, any ordinary existent thing lacks some of the capacities intrinsic to being just because of limitations in its nature, which determines its receptivity to being. But if there were any thing that could be identified as whiteness, in the sense of a single entity that would end p.137

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© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved have to figure in the ultimate, metaphysical explanation of any white thing's having whiteness, then that entity couldn't lack any of the capacities intrinsic to whiteness. It would have to be identified as the full reality corresponding to, and explanatory of, all those capacities, as perfect whiteness. Analogously, if there is any thing that can be identified as being itself, in the sense of a single entity that must figure in the ultimate, metaphysical explanation of any existent thing's having being, it can't lack any of the capacities intrinsic to being; it has to be identified as the full reality corresponding to, and explanatory of, all those capacities, as universally perfect being. And, as was shown in chapter 22, there is such a thing. So, it seems to me, the entity whose essential nature has been shown to be identical with its uniquely necessary, ultimately explanatory being has also been shown to be universally perfect.

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