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God, the Supreme Being
and Supreme Truth
The proof for the existence of a first mover of corporeal and spiritual beings, and of a supreme intelligence, the author of the harmony prevailing in the universe, will prepare the way for a better understanding of three other traditional proofs for the existence of God. They are those of (1) God, the supreme being and supreme truth, (2) the sovereign good who is the source of all happiness, and (3) the ultimate foundation of our obligations. These we must touch upon if we would have a right idea of providence.
Following in the steps of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine, St. Thomas develops the first of these proofs, called the proof from the degrees of perfection, in the Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 2, a. 3, 4a via. Its point of departure lies in the more or less of perfection to be found in the beings that compose the universe, a perfection always limited, from which our minds are led on to affirm the existence of a supreme perfection, a supreme truth, a supreme beauty.
Let us closely examine the starting-point of the proof, the fact upon which the proof is based, and then the principle by which the proof rises from the fact to the existence of God.
The fact: the degrees of perfection The proof starts with the fact that there are in the universe beings more or less good, more or less true, more or less noble. In other words, in the universe of corporeal and spiritual beings, goodness, truth, nobility exist in varying degrees, from the lowest mineral such as iron with its strength and resistance up to the higher degrees of the intellectual and moral life apparent in the great geniuses and the great Saints.
Of these degrees of goodness in things we have daily experience. We say that a stone is good when it has solidity and does not crumble away; a fruit is good if it provides nourishment and refreshment; a horse is good if with it we can go on a long journey. In a higher way a teacher is good if he has knowledge and knows how to impart it; the virtuous man is good because he wills and does what is good; far more so is the Saint, in whom the desire for good has become an ardent passion. And yet, however great a Saint may be, he has his limitations; no matter how much good he has accomplished, like the Curé of Ars he will experience hours of intense sadness coupled with a sense of his own helplessness at the thought of all the good that remains to be done. Indeed, the Saints realize most of all their own nothingness.
It is an established fact, then, that goodness is realized in varying degrees. It is the same with nobility: the vegetable is nobler than the mineral, the animal is nobler than the vegetable, man is nobler than the animal. One man is nobler in mind and heart than a certain other; yet he too has his limitations, his temptations, his weaknesses, his very imperfections. Nobility has its degrees, but even the most exalted in our experience are still very imperfect.
Similarly, truth has degrees, for that which is richer in being, as a reality, is richer also in truth. True gold is superior to spurious gold alloyed with copper, the true diamond is superior to the artificial, the upright mind is superior to the false. Surpassing the mind that possesses a knowledge of but one science, physics for example, is the mind that ascends to the sciences of the spiritual world, to psychology and the moral and political sciences. Yet how very limited is the truth of even these higher sciences!
The more we know, say the great thinkers, the more we realize all that still remains to be known, and how little we do know. So, too, with the great Saints: the more good they do, the more keenly they realize the amount of good that still remains to be done.
What, then, is the explanation of these various degrees of goodness, nobility, and truth, or of beauty? Does this ascending gradation remain stunted, incomplete, without a culminating point, a summit? Must the progressive ascent of our minds toward the true halt at a limited and impoverished truth, as in the case of our psychology and our moral and political sciences? Must the progressive ascent of our will to the good halt at one that is imperfect, mingled always with some defect, some impotence? Must our enthusiasm at the sight of the ideal be forever followed by a certain disillusionment and, if there is no summit, by a disillusionment for which there is no remedy?
The principle: the more and the less perfect presuppose perfection itself
Following in the steps of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine, St. Thomas explains the fact of the various degrees of the good and the true by means of the following principle: "Different beings are said to be more or less perfect in the measure of their approach to that being which is perfection itself."
By this sovereign perfection does St. Thomas mean ideal sovereign perfection, one existing solely in the mind, or one that is real? He means a real perfection, for that alone can be the cause of the various degrees of perfection which, as we have seen, do exist and which demand a cause.
The meaning of the principle invoked by St. Thomas is that, when a perfection (such as goodness, truth, or beauty), the conception of which does not imply any imperfection, is found in various degrees in different beings, none of those which possess it imperfectly contains a sufficient explanation for it, and hence its cause must be sought in a being of a higher order, which is this very perfection.
For a clearer understanding of this principle let us pause to consider its terms. When an absolute perfection is found in various degrees in different beings, none of those possessing it as yet imperfectly contains a sufficient explanation for it. Here we must consider (1) the multiple and (2) the imperfect.
1) The multiple presupposes the one. In fact, as Plato says in the Phaedo, his disciple Phaedo is handsome; yet beauty is not peculiar to Phaedo, for Phaedrus, too, is handsome. "The beauty found in some finite being is sister to the beauty found in similar beings. None of them is beauty; each merely participates, has a part in or is a reflection of beauty." (Cf. Phaedo, 101, A.)
It is not in Phaedo, then, any more than in Phaedrus, that we are to find the raison d' être of the principle of their beauty. If neither can account for the limited beauty that is his, he must have received it from some higher principle, namely, from Beauty itself. In a word, every multiplicity of beings more or less alike presupposes a higher unity. The multiple presupposes the one.
2) The imperfect presupposes the perfect. The principle we are explaining is brought home to us even more forcibly when we consider that the perfection of the beings we see around us is always mingled with its contrary, imperfection. A man's nobility and goodness cannot be said to be unlimited, mingled as it is with so much infirmity, with its trouble and errors. So also ignorance and even error constitute a great part of human knowledge; this merely participates in truth, has no more than a part and that a humble part in it. And if it is not truth, that is because it has received truth from some higher source.
Briefly, an imperfect being is a compound, and every compound requires a cause uniting its constituent elements. The diverse presupposes the identical, the compound presupposes the simple. (Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 3, a. 7.)
The truth of our principle will impress itself more forcibly upon us if we observe that a perfection such as goodness, truth, or beauty, which of itself implies no imperfection, is not in fact limited except by the restricted capacity of its recipient. Thus knowledge in us is limited by our restricted capacity for it, goodness by our restricted capacity for doing good.
Hence it is clear that, when a perfection of this kind, that as yet is in an imperfect state, is found in some being, such a being merely participates or has a part in it, and has therefore received it from a higher cause, which must be the unlimited perfection itself, being itself, truth itself, goodness itself, if this cause is to be capable of imparting to others a certain reflection of that truth and goodness.
Among the philosophers of antiquity Plato has emphasized this truth in one of the finest pages to be found in the writings of the Greek thinkers. (Cf. Symposium, 211, C.) We must learn, he says in substance, to love beautiful colors, the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, of the mountains, seas, and skies, the beauty of a noble countenance. But we must rise above mere material beauty to beauty of soul as displayed in its actions; thence from the beauty of these actions to the principles that govern them --- to the beauty of the sciences, and from science to science ascending even to wisdom, the most exalted of them all: the science of being, of the true and the beautiful. Afterward there will arise in us the desire to have knowledge of the beautiful itself and as it is in itself --- the desire to contemplate, says Plato, that beauty which grows not nor decays; is not fair in one part, uncomely in another; fair at one time, uncomely at another; fair in one place and not in another; fair to some, uncomely to others ... a beauty residing in no being other than itself, in an animal, in the earth or skies or elsewhere, but existing eternally and absolutely, of itself and in itself; in which all other beauties participate, without inducing in it by their birth or destruction the least diminution or increase, or any change whatsoever.
The disillusionments that we meet with here on earth are permitted precisely in order to direct our thoughts more and more to this supreme beauty and impel us to love it.
What Plato says of beauty applies equally to truth. Transcending particular, contingent truths, which possibly might not be so (as that my body exists at this moment, to die perhaps tomorrow), there are the universal, necessary truths (as that man is by nature a rational being, with the capacity to reason, without which he would be undistinguishable from the brute beast); or again the truth, that it is impossible for something at once to exist and not exist. These truths never began to be true and will continue to be true always.
Where have these eternal, necessary truths their foundation? Not in perishable realities, for the latter are governed by these truths as by absolute laws, from which nothing can escape. Nor is their foundation in our finite intellects, for. these eternal, necessary truths govern and regulate our intellect as higher principles. Where, then, are we to look for the foundation of these eternal, necessary truths, governing all finite reality and every finite intellect? Where is that foundation if not in the supreme being, the supreme truth always known by the first intellect, which, far from having received truth, is the truth, pure truth, without any admixture of error or ignorance, without any limitation or imperfection whatever?
In a word, the truths which govern all perishable reality and every finite intellect, like necessary and eternal laws, must have their foundation in a supreme truth which is being and wisdom itself. But it is God who is being itself, truth itself, wisdom itself.
Such is this further proof for the existence of God proposed by Plato, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas.
We now see more clearly the significance and scope of the principle on which this proof is based: "Different beings are said to be more or less perfect according to the measure of their approach to that being which is perfection itself." In other words, when a perfection such as goodness, truth, or beauty, the concept of which implies no imperfection, is found in varying degrees in different beings, this cannot be accounted for by any of those beings in which it is found in as yet an imperfect degree; the being merely participates in it, and has received it according to the measure of its capacity --- has received it, too --- from a higher being who is this very perfection.
What practical conclusion are we to draw from this ascent? It is expressed in that saying of our Lord: "None is good but God alone" --- good, that is, with goodness unalloyed. God alone is true, with a truth and wisdom untrammeled by ignorance; God alone is beautiful with that infinite beauty which we are called upon to contemplate some day face to face, that beauty which even here on earth the human intellect of Jesus contemplated as He conversed with His disciples. "God alone is great": that was St. Michael's answer to Satan's pride. The thought of this makes us humble.
Ours is but a borrowed existence, freely given us by God, and He keeps us in existence because indeed He wills it so. Ours is but a goodness in which there is so much infirmity and even degradation; there is so much error in our knowledge. This thought, while serving to make us humble, brings home to us by contrast the infinite majesty of God.
And then if it is a question of others and no longer of ourselves, if we have suffered disillusionment about our neighbor whom we had believed to be better and wiser, let us remember that he too has suffered disillusionment about us; let us remember that he too is perhaps better than we are, and that whatever is our own as coming from ourselves --- our deficiencies and failings --- is inferior to everything our neighbor has from God. This is the foundation of humility in our relations with others.
Lastly, we must admit that the disillusionments we ourselves experience, or which others experience through us, in view of the radical imperfection of the creature, are permitted that we may aspire more ardently to a knowledge and love of Him who is the truth and the life, whom we shall some day see as He sees Himself. We shall then understand the meaning of those words of St. Catherine of Siena: "The living, practical knowledge of our own wretchedness and the knowledge of God's majesty are inseparable in their increase. They are like the lowest and highest points on a circle that is ever expanding." And the more we realize our own imperfections and limitations, the more we realize, too, that God has a right to be loved above all things by reason of His infinite wisdom and His infinite goodness.
Our final observation is this: the supreme truth has Himself spoken to us: He has revealed Himself to us, as yet in an obscure manner, but it is the foundation of our Christian faith. It is in the name of this supreme truth that Jesus speaks, when He says: "In truth, in truth, I say to you." He is Himself the truth and the life, and by His help from day to day we must gradually live a better life. This far surpasses Plato's ideal; no longer is it an abstract, philosophic ascent to the supreme truth, but the supreme truth which condescends to reach down to us in order to raise us up to Himself.