The Argument from Perfection

The simple, short argument from perfection I just alluded to is, I think, the most effective and important of Aquinas's several sorts of arguments for

intellect in God,

18 For present purposes I'm including his arguments for knowledge in God among his arguments for intellect in God.

and certainly the most natural one to use at this stage in the development of his theory of God's nature, so soon after the introduction of universal perfection and its associated relational method. In chapter 44 the argument from perfection is the shortest of the seven arguments to show that God must be intellective. Even so, it's the fullest version of this argument I've found anywhere in Aquinas, and the one I will focus on here, after glancing at two even shorter, simpler versions of it.

In his early commentary on the Sentences the following argument is introduced as a sed contra following a series of objections to the thesis that knowledge is correctly ascribed to God: 'No perfection is absent from that which is most perfect. But knowledge is the noblest (nobilissima) perfection. Therefore, knowledge cannot be absent from God, in whom the perfections of all natural kinds (generum) are united (as is said in Metaphysics V [16, 1021b30-2])' (In Sent., sc 2). This version of the argument from perfection draws dialectical strength from the fact that it requires predicating of God not just any perfection that may be predicable of him but only what is called the 'noblest' one, thereby making it at least psychologically easier to carry out an appropriate extension of the term 'knowledge', which implies intellect. No support is offered here for this superlative ranking of that perfection, but it may well be based on the familiar Porphyrian-Augustinian hierarchy, which gives the first (noblest) rank to things that are intellective as well as living and existent, above things that live without mind or exist

without life.

19 Aquinas often alludes to the hierarchy in this connection. See e.g. QDV 2.1c; In Sent., obj. 2 and ad 2. See also In DA II: L6.301: 'In mortal beings possessed of intellect, however, it is necessary that all the other [faculties] exist before it, as instruments of and pre-conditions for intellect, which is the ultimate perfection aimed at in the operation of nature.'

Ordinarily, I would translate nobilissima as 'most end p.181

excellent', but I've left it as 'noblest' here because I wonder whether it isn't meant to allude to the fact that 'knowledge', unlike almost all other creaturely perfections, is free from the usual creaturely impediments to divine attribution. That sort of nobility, as we've seen, would make a substantive contribution to the argument.

On the other hand, the extensive aspect of universal perfection, which Aquinas has already elaborately argued for when he infers on this basis in SCG that God must be intellective, is supported in this early version of the argument from perfection simply on Aristotle's authority. It's not at all clear to me that universal perfection is what Aristotle has in mind in the cited 20


20 Translated from the medieval Latin text the passage reads this way: 'Things called perfect in themselves, then, are of course said to be so in all these ways (fof/'es): some, indeed, because they lack nothing in respect of their goodness (secundum bene), they have no higher degree [of goodness], and they do not acquire anything extraneously; others universally (omnino), in that they have no higher degree in any natural kind (unoquoque genere), and they have nothing extraneous to them.'

but Aquinas in his commentary on the Metaphysics interprets the passage in a way that does make it at least a prefiguring of his own notion of universal


21 In Met. V: L18.1040: '[In this passage Aristotle] shows how some things are variously related to the kinds of perfection that have been discussed. And he says that certain things are called perfect in themselves, in two ways. Some are indeed universally perfect in that nothing at all is lacking to them absolutely, nor do they have any higher degree—i.e. further excellence—because by nothing are they intrinsically (penitus) excelled in goodness, nor do they acquire anything extraneously, because they need no extraneous goodness. And this is the condition of the first principle—viz. of God, in whom is the most perfect goodness, to whom is lacking none of all the perfections found in the various natural kinds (singulis generibus).'

However, when he argues for universal perfection in SCG 1.28 (between writing his commentaries on the Sentences and on the Metaphysics), he

doesn't cite Aristotle at all.

22 The same is true of CT 1.21, where he argues specifically for the extensive aspect of universal perfection.

A little later, in his Compendium theologiae, Aquinas offers the following, slightly more forthcoming version of the argument from perfection as the first of three arguments intended to show that God must be intellective: 'It has been shown [1.21] that all perfections of any beings whatever are antecedently in him superabundantly. But among all perfections of beings the one that evidently ranks first is being intellective (ipsum intelligere praecellere videtur), since intellective things have more power (sunt potiores) than all others. Therefore, God must be intellective' (CT 1.27.56).

end p.182


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23 Here are the other two of the three arguments in CT 1.27: '57. Again, it was shown above [1.10] that God is pure actuality, without any admixture of potentiality. Matter, however, is being in potentiality. Therefore, God must be altogether free (immunem) from matter. Now freedom from matter is the cause of intellectivity. The fact that material forms are made actually intelligible by being abstracted from matter and material conditions is a sign of this. Therefore, God is intellective.

'58. Again, it has been shown [1.3] that God is the first mover. Now that is evidently a proprium of intellect, for intellect evidently uses all other things as instruments with which to bring about movement. Thus even a human being by its intellect uses animals, plants, and inanimate things as instruments. Therefore, God, who is the first mover, must be intellective.'

For the sort of argument in sect. 57 see also e.g. In Sent., ST la.14.1c, and SCG 1.44.376. Various arguments based, like the one in sect. 58, on aspects of God's status as first mover may be found in e.g. SCG 1.44.373-5 and 378. The first and longest of these is developed in two stages in 44.373-4, and is based on argument G2 in SCG 1.13 (see Ch. Two); the one in 44.378 is of the same sort as another in In Sent.

Notice that this time the thesis of the extensive aspect of universal perfection is formulated in a way that implicitly associates it with divine causation: 'all perfections of any beings whatever are antecedently in him'. But the most significant difference between the earlier version of the argument from perfection and this CT version is the fact that this one does offer support for the premiss that being intellective ranks first among specific perfections: 'intellective things have more power than all others'. I intend my translation 'have more power' to be broad enough to convey both 'are more powerful' and 'are richer in potentiality'. 'Richer in potentiality' enhances the plausibility of supposing that this version, too, ultimately relies on the Porphyrian-Augustinian hierarchy. Since the hierarchy's ranking principle is purely additive, things in its first rank have the generic potentialities that things in the lower two ranks have, and then some. On the other hand, it might not be so readily granted that an intellective being is simply more

powerful than a hurricane, say, or a horse.

24 But see CT 1.27.58 (quoted in n. 23), which can be read as offering a basis on which to rank an intellective being as generally more powerful than 'animals, plants, and inanimate things': it can use any of them as instruments, but none of them can use it.

In fact, it seems clear that the only basis on which an intellective being can rightly be said to have more power than any and every sort of non-intellective being is its possession of an immeasurably wider range of powers or potentialities, reflected in the nature of human intellective causation. It's that aspect of intellect on which this version of the argument seems to depend.

end p.183


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