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“The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, 1-2, Question 94, Article 2” 

 By Germain Grisez

[Grisez, Germain. “The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, 1-2, Question 94, Article 2.” Natural Law Forum 10, no. 1 (1965): 168–201. Reproduced with permission of The American Journal of Jurisprudence (formerly Natural Law Forum).]

Many proponents and critics of Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law have understood it roughly as follows. The first principle of practical reason is a command: Do good and avoid evil. Man discovers this imperative in his conscience; it is like an inscription written there by the hand of God. Having become aware of this basic commandment, man consults his nature to see what is good and what is evil. He examines an action in comparison with his essence to see whether the action fits human nature or does not fit it. If the action fits, it is seen to be good; if it does not fit, it is seen to be bad. Once we know that a certain kind of action—for instance, stealing—is bad, we have two premises, “Avoid evil” and “Stealing is evil,” from whose conjunction is deduced: “Avoid stealing.” All specific commandments of natural law are derived in this way.[1]

I propose to show how far this interpretation misses Aquinas’s real position. My main purpose is not to contribute to the history of natural law, but to clarify Aquinas’s idea of it for current thinking. Instead of undertaking a general review of Aquinas’s entire natural law theory, I shall focus on the first principle of practical reason, which also is the first precept of natural law. This principle, as Aquinas states it, is: Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.[2] Although verbally this formula is only slightly different from that of the command, Do good and avoid evil, I shall try to show that the two formulae differ considerably in meaning and that they belong in different theoretical contexts.

This paper has five parts. 1) Since I propose to show that the common interpretation is unsound, it will be necessary to explicate the text in which Aquinas states the first principle. 2) Since the mistaken interpretation restricts the meaning of “good” and “evil” in the first principle to the value of moral actions, the meaning of these key terms must be clarified in the light of Aquinas’s theory of final causality. 3) Since the mistaken interpretation tends to oppose the commandments of natural law to positive action, it will help to notice the broad scope Aquinas attributes to the first principle, for he considers it to be a source, rather than a limit, of action. 4) Since according to the mistaken inter­pretation natural law is a set of imperatives, it is important to see why the first principle is not primarily an imperative, although it is a genuine precept. 5) Since the mistaken interpretation regards all specific precepts of natural law as conclusions drawn from the first principle, the significance of Aquinas’s actual view—that there are many self-evident principles of natural law—must be considered.



Aquinas’s statement of the first principle of practical reason occurs in Summa theologiae, 1-2, question 94, article 2. Question 90 is concerned with what law is, question 91 with the distinction among the various modes of law, and question 92 with the effects of law. Aquinas begins treating each mode of law in particu­lar in question 93; in that question he treats eternal law. Thus he comes to the study of natural law in question 94. Questions 95 to 97 are concerned with man-made law. Questions 98 to 108 examine the divine law, Old and New.

Question 94 is divided into six articles, each of which presents a position on a single issue concerning the law of nature. The first article raises the issue: “Whether natural law is a habit.” Aquinas holds that natural law consists of precepts of reason, which are analogous to propositions of theoretical knowledge. Hence he denies that it is a habit, although he grants that it can be possessed habitually, for one has these principles even when he is not thinking of them.

The second issue raised in question 94 logically follows. It is: “Does natural law contain many precepts, or only one?” Unlike the issue of the first article, which was a question considered by many previous authors, this second point was not a standard issue.[3] For this reason the arguments, which Aquinas sets out at the beginning of the article in order to construct the issue he wants to resolve, do not refer to authorities, as the opening arguments of his articles usually do. Three arguments are set out for the position that natural law contains only one precept, and a single opposing argument is given to show that it contains many precepts.

The first argument concludes that natural law must contain only a single precept on the grounds that law itself is a precept[4] and that natural law has unity. The second argument reaches the same conclusion by reasoning that since natural law is based upon human nature, it could have many precepts only if the many parts of human nature were represented in it; but in this case even the demands of man’s lower nature would have to be reflected in natural law. The third argument for the position that natural law has only one precept is drawn from the premises that human reason is one and that law belongs to reason.[5] The single argument Aquinas offers for the opposite conclusion is based on an analogy between the precepts of natural law and the axioms of demonstrations: as there is a multiplicity of indemonstrable principles of demon­strations, so there is a multiplicity of precepts of natural law. These four initial arguments serve only to clarify the issue to be resolved in the response which follows. Of themselves, they settle nothing. After the response Aquinas comments briefly on each of the first three arguments in the light of his resolution of the issue. The argument that there are many precepts of natural law Aquinas will not comment upon, since he takes this position himself. Aquinas’s response to the question is as follows:

1)  As I said previously, the precepts of natural law are related to practical reason in the same way the basic principles of demonstrations are related to theoretical reason, since both are sets of self-evident principles.

2)  But something is called “self-evident” in two senses: in one way, objec­tively; in the other way, relative to us. Any proposition may be called “objectively self-evident” if its predicate belongs to the intelligibility of its subject. Yet to someone who does not know the intelligibility of the sub­ject, such a proposition will not be self-evident. For example, the propo­sition, Man is rational, taken just in itself, is self-evident, for to say man is to say rational; yet to someone who did not know what man is, this proposition would not be self-evident. Consequently, as Boethius says in his De hebdomadibus,[6] there are certain axioms or propositions which are generally self-evident to everyone. In this class are propositions whose terms everyone understands—for example: Every whole is greater than its parts, and: Two things equal to a third are equal to one another. But there are other propositions which are self-evident only to the educated, who understand what the terms of such propositions mean. For example, to one who understands that angels are incorporeal, it is self-evident that they are not in a place by filling it up, but this is not evident to the uneducated, who do not comprehend this point.

3) Now among those things which fall within the grasp of everyone there is a certain order of precedence. For that which primarily falls within one’s grasp is being, and the understanding of being is included in absolutely every­thing that anyone grasps. Hence the primary indemonstrable principle is: To affirm and simultaneously to deny is excluded. This principle is based on the intelligibility of being (and nonbeing), and all other principles are based on this one, as Aristotle says in the Metaphysics.[7] 

4) But just as being is the first thing to fall within the unrestricted grasp of the mind, so good is the first thing to fall within the grasp of practical reason—that is, reason directed to a work—for every active principle acts on account of an end, and end includes the intelligibility of good.

5) It follows that the first principle of practical reason, is one founded on the intelligibility of good—that is: Good is what each thing tends toward. Therefore this is the primary precept of law: Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the law of nature are based on this one, in this way that under precepts of the law of nature come all those things-to-be-done or things-to-be-avoided which practical reason naturally grasps as human goods or their opposites.

6) Because good has the intelligibility of end, and evil has the intelligibility of contrary to end, it follows that reason naturally grasps as goods—in consequence, as things-to-be-pursued by work, and their opposites as evils and thing-to-be-avoided—all the objects of man’s natural inclinations. Hence the order of the precepts of the law of nature is according to the order of the natural inclinations.

7) First, there is in man an inclination based on the aspect of his nature which he has in common with all substances—that is, that everything tends according to its own nature to preserve its own being. In accordance with this inclination, those things by which human life is preserved and by which threats to life are met fall under natural law. Second, there is in man an inclination to certain more restricted goods based on the aspect of his nature which he has in common with other animals. In accordance with this inclination, those things are said to be of natural law “which nature teaches all animals,” among which are the union of male and female, the raising of children, and the like. Third, there is in man an inclination to the good based on the rational aspect of his nature, which is peculiar to himself. For example, man has a natural inclination to this, that he might know the truth concerning God, and to this, that he might live in society. In accordance with this inclination, those things relating to an inclination of this sort fall under natural law. For instance, that man should avoid ignorance, that he should not offend those among whom he must live, and other points relevant to this inclination.[8]

Aquinas’s solution to the question is that there are many precepts of the natural law, but that this multitude is not a disorganized aggregation but an orderly whole. The precepts are many because the different inclinations’ objects, viewed by reason as ends for rationally guided efforts, lead to distinct norms of action. The natural law, nevertheless, is one because each object of inclination obtains its role in practical reason’s legislation only insofar as it is subject to practical reason’s way of determining action—by prescribing how ends are to be attained.[9]

Now we must examine this response more carefully.

In the first paragraph Aquinas restates the analogy between precepts of natural law and first principles of theoretical reason. The latter are principles of demon­stration in systematic sciences such as geometry. From the outset, Aquinas speaks of “precepts” in the plural. The first paragraph implies that only self-evident principles of practical reason belong to natural law; Aquinas is using “natural law” here in its least extensive sense.[10] It is clear already at this point that Aquinas counts many self-evident principles among the precepts of the law of nature, and that there is a mistake in any interpretation of his theory which reduces all but one of the precepts to the status of conclusions.[11] 

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In the second paragraph of the response Aquinas clarifies the meaning of “self-evident.” His purpose is not to postulate a peculiar meaning for “self-evident” in terms of which the basic precepts of natural law might be self-evident although no one in fact knew them.[12] That Aquinas did not have this in mind appears at the beginning of the third paragraph, where he begins to determine the priorities among those things “which fall within the grasp of everyone.” No doubt there are some precepts not everyone knows although they are objec­tively self-evident—for instance, precepts concerning the relation of man to God: God should be loved above all, and: God should be obeyed before all. Man can be ignorant of these precepts because God does not fall within our grasp so that the grounds of his lovability and authority are evident to every­body.[13] However, basic principles of natural law on the whole, and particularly the precepts mentioned in this response, are self-evident to all men.

Why, then, has Aquinas introduced the distinction between objective self-evidence and self-evidence to us? I think he does so simply to clarify the mean­ing of “self-evident,” for he wishes to deal with practical principles that are self-evident in the latter, and fuller, of the two possible senses.

Self-evidence in fact has two aspects. On the one hand, a principle is not Self-evident if it can be derived from some prior principle, which provides a foundation for it. On the other hand, a principle is not useful as a starting point of inquiry and as a limit of proof unless its underivability is known. The objective aspect of self-evidence, underivability, depends upon the lack of a middle term which might connect the subject and predicate of the principle and supply the cause of its truth. In other words, the reason for the truth of the self-evident principle is what is directly signified by it, not any extrinsic cause. The subjective aspect of self-evidence, recognition of underivability, requires that one have such an adequate understanding of what is signified by the principle that no mistaken effort will be made to provide a derivation for it.

Aquinas expresses the objective aspect of self-evidence by saying that the predicate of a self-evident principle belongs to the intelligibility of the subject, and he expresses the subjective aspect of self-evidence in the requirement that this intelligibility not be unknown. These remarks may have misleading connotations for us, for we have been conditioned by several centuries of philosophy in which analytic truths (truths of reason) are opposed to synthetic truths (truths of fact). Only truths of reason are supposed to be necessary, but their necessity is attributed to meaning which is thought of as a quality inherent in ideas in the mind. Only truths of fact are supposed to have any reference to real things, but all truths of fact are thought to be contingent, because it is assumed that all necessity is rational in character. Thus the modern reader is likely to wonder: “Are Aquinas’s self-evident principles analytic or synthetic?” Of course, there is no answer to this question in Aquinas’s terms. He does not accept the dichotomy between mind and material reality that is implicit in the analytic-synthetic distinction. Nor does he merely insert another bin between the two, as Kant did when he invented the synthetic a priori. Rather, Aquinas proceeds on the supposition that meanings derive from things known and that experienced things themselves contain a certain degree of intelligible necessity.[14]

Thus, “the predicate belongs to the intelligibility of the subject” does not mean that one element of a complex meaning is to be found among others within the complex. But does not Aquinas imagine the subject as if it were a container full of units of meaning, each unit a predicate? No, he thinks of the subject and the predicate as complementary aspects of a unified knowledge of a single objective dimension of the reality known. An object of consideration ordinarily belongs to the world of experience, and all the aspects of our knowl­edge of that object are grounded in that experience. For example, both subject and predicate of the proposition, Rust is an oxide, are based on experience. We do not discover the truth of the principle by analyzing the meaning of “rust”; rather we discover that oxide belongs to the intelligibility of rust by coming to see that this proposition is a self-evident (underivable) truth.

But in this discussion I have been using the word “intelligibility” (ratio) which Aquinas uses both in this paragraph and later in the response. Here he says that in a self-evident principle the predicate belongs to the intelligibility of the subject; later he says that good belongs to the intelligibility of end and that end belongs to the intelligibility of good. I have just said that oxide belongs to the intelligibility of rust. Now what is an intelligibility?

It is not merely the meaning with which a word is used, for someone may use a word, such as “rust,” and use it correctly, without understanding all that is included in its intelligibility. On the other hand, the intelligibility does not include all that belongs to things denoted by the word, since it belongs to one bit of rust to be on my car’s left rear fender, but this is not included in the intelligibility of rust. One might translate ratio as “essence”; yet every word expresses some intelligibility, while not every word signifies essence. Thus “good” does not signify an essence, much less does “nonbeing,” but both express intelligibilities.[15]

An intelligibility is all that would be included in the meaning of a word that is used correctly if the things referred to in that use were fully known in all ways relevant to the aspect then signified by the word in question. Thus the intelligibility includes the meaning with which a word is used, but it also includes whatever increment of meaning the same word would have in the same use if what is denoted by the word were more perfectly known. An in­telligibility need not correspond to any part or principle of the object of knowl­edge, yet an intelligibility is an aspect of the partly known and still further knowable object. We may imagine an intelligibility as an intellect-sized bite of reality, a bite not necessarily completely digested by the mind. An intelligi­bility includes the meaning and potential meaning of a word uttered by intelli­gence about a world whose reality, although naturally suited to our minds, is not in itself cut into pieces—intelligibilities. These we distinguish and join in the processes of analysis and synthesis which constitute our rational knowing.

Hence part of an intelligibility may escape us without our missing all of it The child who knows that rust is on metal has grasped one self-evident truth about rust, for metal does belong to the intelligibility of rust. The same child may not know that rust is an oxide, although oxide also belongs to the intelli­gibility of rust.

The important point to grasp from all this is that when Aquinas speaks of self-evident principles of natural law, he does not mean tautologies derived by mere conceptual analysis—for example: Stealing is wrong, where “stealing” means the unjust taking of another’s property. Rather, he means the principles of practical inquiry which also are the limits of practical argument—a set of underivable principles for practical reason. To function as principles, their status as underivables must be recognized, and this recognition depends upon a sufficient understanding of their terms, i.e., of the intelligibilities signified by those terms.

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In the third paragraph Aquinas begins to apply the analogy between the precepts of the natural law and the first principles of demonstrations. Being is the basic intelligibility; it represents our first discovery about anything we are to know—that it is something to be known. The first principle, expressed here in the formula, “To affirm and simultaneously to deny is excluded,” is the one sometimes called “the principle of contradiction” and sometimes called “the principle of noncontradiction”: The same cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. In this more familiar formulation it is clearer that the principle is based upon being and nonbeing, for it is obvious that what the principle excludes is the identification of being with nonbeing. The objective dimension of the reality of beings that we know in knowing this principle is simply the definiteness that is involved in their very objectivity, a definiteness that makes a demand on the intellect knowing them, the very least demand—to think consistently of them.[16]

To say that all other principles are based on this principle does not mean that all other principles are derived from it by deduction. In fact the principle of contradiction does not directly enter into arguments as a premise except in the case of arguments ad absurdum.[17] Rather, this principle is basic in that it is given to us by our most primitive understanding. All other knowledge of any­thing adds to this elementary appreciation of the definiteness involved in its very objectivity, for any further knowledge is a step toward giving some intelligible character to this definiteness, i.e., toward defining things and knowing them in their wholeness and their concrete interrelations. But the first principle all the while exercises its unobtrusive control, for it drives the mind on toward judgment, never permitting it to settle into inconsistent muddle.

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In the fourth paragraph Aquinas states that good is the primary intelligibility to fall under practical reason, and he explains why this is so. On the analogy he is developing, he clearly means that nothing can be understood by practical reason without the intelligibility of good being included in it.

Now what is practical reason? Is it simply knowledge sought for practical purposes? No, Aquinas considers practical reason to be the mind playing a certain role, or functioning in a certain capacity, the capacity in which it is “directed to a work.” Direction to work is intrinsic to the mind in this capacity; direction qualifies the very functioning of the mind. Practical reason is the mind working as a principle of action, not simply as a recipient of objective reality. It is the mind charting what is to be, not merely recording what already is.

It is easy to imagine that to know is to picture an object in one’s mind, but this conception of knowledge is false. Even for purely theoretical knowledge, to know is a fulfillment reached by a development through which one comes to share in a spiritual way the characteristics and reality of the world which is known. Knowledge is a unity between man knowing and what he knows. In the case of theoretical knowledge, the known has the reality which is shared before the knower comes to share in it—in theory the mind must conform to facts and the world calls the turn. In practical knowledge, on the other hand, the knower arrives at the destination first; and what is known will be altered as a result of having been thought about, since the known must conform to the mind of the knower. The mind uses the power of the knower to see that the known will conform to it; the mind calls the turn.

Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that practical knowledge, because it is prior to its object, is independent of experience. Even in theoretical knowledge, actual understanding and truth are not discovered in experience and extracted from it by a simple process of separation. Experience can be understood and truth can be known about the things of experience, but understanding and truth attain a dimension of reality that is not actually contained within experience, although experience touches the surface of the same reality. In theoretical knowledge, the dimension of reality that is attained by understanding and truth is realized already in the object of thought, apart from our thought of it. Our minds use the data of experience as a bridge to cross into reality in order to grasp the more-than-given truth of things.

Practical knowledge also depends on experience, and of course the intelligi­bility of good and the truth attained by practical knowledge are not given in experience. But the practical mind is unlike the theoretical mind in this way, that the intelligibility and truth of practical knowledge do not attain a dimen­sion of reality already lying beyond the data of experience ready to be grasped through them. No, practical knowledge refers to a quite different dimension of reality, one which is indeed a possibility through the given, but a possibility which must be realized, if it is to be actual at all, through the mind’s own direc­tion. The theoretical mind crosses the bridge of the given to raid the realm of being; there the mind can grasp everything, actual or possible, whose reality is not conditioned upon the thought and action of man. The practical mind also crosses the bridge of the given, but it bears gifts into the realm of being, for practical knowledge contributes that whose possibility, being opportunity, requires human action for its realization.

When I think that there should be more work done on the foundations of specific theories of natural law, such a judgment is practical knowledge, for the mind requires that the situation it is considering change to fit its demands rather than the other way about. Practical reason does not have its truth by conform­ing to what it knows, for what practical reason knows does not have the being and the definiteness it would need to be a standard for intelligence. Only after practical reason thinks does the object of its thought begin to be a reality. Practical reason has its truth by anticipating the point at which something that is possible through human action will come into conformity with reason, and by directing effort toward that point.[18]

Now if practical reason is the mind functioning as a principle of action, it is subject to all the conditions necessary for every active principle. One of these is that every active principle acts on account of an end. An active principle is going to bring about something or other, or else it would not be an active principle at all. It is necessary for the active principle to be oriented toward that something or other, whatever it is, if it is going to be brought about. This orientation means that at the very beginning an action must have definite direction and that it must imply a definite limit.[19]

There are two ways of misunderstanding this principle that make nonsense of it. One is to suppose that it means anthropomorphism, a view at home both in the primitive mind and in idealistic metaphysics. If every active principle acts on account of an end, so the anthropomorphic argument goes, then it must act for the sake of a goal, just as men do when they act with a purpose in view. But the generalization is illicit, for acting with a purpose in view is only one way, the specifically human way, in which an active principle can have the orientation it needs in order to begin to act. The other misunderstanding is common to mathematically minded rationalists, who project the timelessness and changelessness of formal system onto reality, and to empiricists, who react to rationalism without criticizing its fundamental assumptions. The rationalist, convinced that reality is unchangeable, imagines that the orientation present in an active principle must not refer to real change, and so he reduces this necessary condition of change to the status of something which stably is at a static moment in time. What is at a single moment, the rationalist thinks, is stopped in its flight, so he tries to treat every relationship of existing beings to their futures as comparisons of one state of affairs to another. It is the rationalistic assumptions in the back of his mind that make the empiricist try to reduce dispositional properties to predictions about future states.

Let us imagine a teaspoonful of sugar held over a cup of hot coffee. It is nonsense to claim that the solubility of the sugar merely means that it will dissolve. Solubility is true of the sugar now, and yet this property is unlike those which characterize the sugar as to what it actually is already, for solubility char­acterizes it with reference to a process in which it is suited to be involved. The orientation of an active principle toward an end is like that—it is a real aspect of dynamic reality. In the case of practical reason, acting on account of an end is acting for the sake of a goal, for practical reason is an active principle that is conscious and self-determining. Purpose in view, then, is a real aspect of the dynamic reality of practical reason, and a necessary condition of reason’s being practical.

But must every end involve good? In some senses of the word “good” it need not. Not all outcomes are ones we want or enjoy. But if “good” means that toward which each thing tends by its own intrinsic principle of orientation, then for each active principle the end on account of which it acts also is a good for it, since nothing can act with definite orientation except on account of something toward which, for its part, it tends. And, in fact, tendency toward is more basic than action on account of, for every active principle tends toward what its action will bring about, but not every tending ability goes into action on account of the object of its tendency.

Practical reason, therefore, presupposes good. In its role as active principle the mind must think in terms of what can be an object of tendency. In other terms the mind can think, but then it will not set out to cause what it thinks. If the mind is to work toward unity with what it knows by conforming the known to itself rather than by conforming itself to the known, then the mind must think the known under the intelligibility of the good, for it is only as an object of tendency and as a possible object of action that what is to be through practical reason has any reality at all. Thus it is that good first falls within the grasp of practical reason just as being first falls within the unrestricted grasp of the mind.

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In the fifth paragraph Aquinas enunciates the first principle of practical reason and indicates the way in which other evident precepts of the law of nature are founded on it.

He points out, to begin with, that the first principle of practical reason must be based on the intelligibility of good, by analogy with the primary the­oretical principle which is based on the intelligibility of being. The intelligibility of good is: what each thing tends toward. This formula is a classic expression of what the word “good” means.[20] Of course, we often mean more than this by “good,” but any other meaning at least includes this notion. “Good is what each thing tends toward” is not the formula of the first principle of practical reason, then, but merely a formula expressing the intelligibility of good.[21] “First principle of practical reason” and “first precept of the law” here are practically synonyms; their denotation is the same, but the former connotes derived practical knowledge while the latter connotes rationally guided action.

Until the object of practical reason is realized, it exists only in reason and in the action toward it that reason directs. Now since any object of practical reason first must be understood as an object of tendency, practical reason’s first step in effecting conformity with itself is to direct the doing of works in pursuit of an end. Just as the principle of contradiction expresses the definiteness which is the first condition of the objectivity of things and the consistency which is the first condition of theoretical reason’s conformity to reality, so the first prin­ciple of practical reason expresses the imposition of tendency, which is the first condition of reason’s objectification of itself, and directedness or intentionality, which is the first condition for conformity to mind on the part of works and ends. A sign that intentionality or directedness is the first condition for conformity to practical reason is the expression of imputation: “He acted on purpose, inten­tionally.”

In forming this first precept practical reason performs its most basic task, for it simply determines that whatever it shall think about must at least be set on the way to something—as it must be if reason is to be able to think of it practically. Any other precept will add to this first one; other precepts determine precisely what die direction is and what the starting point must be if that direction is to be followed out. The first principle of practical reason thus gives us a way of interpreting experience; it provides an outlook in terms of which subsequent precepts will be formed, for it lays down the requirement that every precept must prescribe, just as the first principle of theoretical reason is an awareness that every assent posits. Awareness of the principle of contradiction demands con­sistency henceforth; one must posit in assenting, and thought cannot avoid the position assenting puts it in. Similarly, the establishment of the first precept of practical reason determines that there shall be direction henceforth. In pre­scribing we must direct, and we cannot reasonably avoid carrying out in reality the intelligibility which reason has conceived. 

Practical reason, equipped with the primary principle it has formed, does not spin the whole of natural law out of itself. It is true that if “natural law” refers to all the general practical judgments reason can form, much of natural law can be derived by reasoning. But reason needs starting points. And it is with these starting points that Aquinas is concerned at the end of the fifth paragraph. The primary precepts of practical reason, he says, concern the things-to-be-done that practical reason naturally grasps as human goods, and the things-to-be-avoided that are opposed to those goods. 

Of course, we can be conditioned to enjoy perverse forms of indulgence, but we could not be conditioned if we did not have, not only at the beginning but also as an underlying constant throughout the entire learning process, an inclination toward pleasure. We can be taught the joys of geometry, but that would be impossible if we did riot have natural curiosity that makes us appreciate the point of asking a question and getting an answer. Our personalities are largely shaped by acculturation in our particular society, but society would never affect us if we had no basic aptitude for living with others. The infant learns to feel guilty when mother frowns, because he wants to please. 

Practical reason’s task is to direct its object toward the point at which it will attain the fullness of realization that is conceived by the mind before it is delivered into the world. But in directing its object, practical reason presides over a development, and so it must use available material. Hence the basic precepts of practical reason accept the possibilities suggested by experience and direct the objects of reason’s consideration toward the fulfillments taking shape in the mind.

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 In the sixth paragraph Aquinas explains how practical reason forms the basic principles of its direction. The primary precept provides a point of view from which experience is considered. Within experience we have tendencies which make themselves felt; they point their way toward appropriate objects. These inclinations are part of ourselves, and so their objects are human goods. Before intelligence enters, man acts by sense spontaneity and learns by sense experience. Thus in experience we have a basis upon which reason can form patterns of action that will further or frustrate the inclinations we feel.

We can reflect upon and interpret our experience in a purely theoretical frame of mind. In that case we simply observe that we have certain tendencies that are more or less satisfied by what we do. However, when the question concerns what we shall do, the first principle of practical reason assumes control and immediately puts us in a nontheoretical frame of mind. This principle provides us with an instrument for making another kind of sense of our experience. The object of a tendency becomes an objective which is to be imposed by the mind as we try to make the best of what faces us by bringing it into con­formity with practical truth. Practical reason is mind directed to direct and it directs as it can. But it can direct only toward that for which man can be brought to act, and that is either toward the objects of his natural inclinations or toward objectives that derive from these. If practical reason ignored what is given in experience, it would have no power to direct, for what-is-to-be cannot come from nothing. The direction of practical reason presupposes possibilities on which reason can get leverage, and such possibilities arise only in reflection upon experience. The leverage reason gets on these possibilities is expressed in the basic substantive principles of natural law.

At the beginning of paragraph six Aquinas seems to have come full circle, for the opening phrase here, “good has the intelligibility of end,” simply reverses the last phrase of paragraph four: “end includes the intelligibility of good.” There is a circle here, but it is not vicious; Aquinas is clarifying, not demon­strating. In the fourth paragraph he is pointing out that the need for practical reason, as an active principle, to think in terms of end implies that its first grasp on its objects will be of them as good, since any objective of action must first be an object of tendency. Now in the sixth paragraph he is indicating the basis on which reason primarily prescribes as our natural inclinations suggest. Is reason merely an instrument in the service of nature, accepting what nature indicates as good by moving us toward it? No, the derivation is not direct, and the position of reason in relation to inclination is not merely passive. Using the primary principle, reason reflects on experience in which the natural inclinations are found pointing to goods appropriate to themselves. But why does reason take these goods as its own? Not because they are given, but because reason’s good, which is intelligible, contains the aspect of end, and the goods to which the inclinations point are prospective ends. Reason prescribes according to the order of natural inclinations because reason directs to possible actions, and the possible patterns of human action are determined by the natural inclinations, for man cannot act on account of that toward which he has no basis for affinity in his inclinations.

 *          *          *

 The seventh and last paragraph of Aquinas’s response is very rich and interest­ing, but the details of its content are outside the scope of this paper. Here Aquinas indicates how the complexity of human nature gives rise to a multiplicity of inclinations, and these to a multiplicity of precepts. It is noteworthy that in each of the three ranks he distinguishes among an aspect of nature, the inclination based upon it, and the precepts that are in accordance with it. Nature is not natural law; nature is the given from which man develops and from which arise tendencies of ranks corresponding to its distinct strata. These tendencies are not natural law; the tendencies indicate possible actions, and hence they provide reason with the point of departure it requires in order to propose ends. The precepts of reason which clothe the objects of inclinations in the intelligibility of ends-to-be-pursued-by-work—these precepts are the natural law. Thus natural law has many precepts which are unified in this, that all of these precepts are ordered to practical reason’s achievement of its own end, the direction of action toward end.



There is one obvious difference between the two formulae, “Do good and avoid evil,” and “Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” That difference is the omission of pursuit from the one, the inclusion of it in the other. The mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of natural law overlooks the place of final causality in his position and restricts the meaning of “good” and “evil” in the first principle to the quality of moral actions. In this section I wish to clarify this point, and the lack of “prosequendum” in the non-Thomistic formula is directly relevant.

We have seen how important the conception of end, or final causality, is to Aquinas’s understanding of natural law. Practical reason understands its objects in terms of good because, as an active principle, it necessarily acts on account of an end. Practical reason prescribes precisely in view of ends. The first precept is that all subsequent direction must be in terms of intelligible goods, i.e., ends toward which reason can direct.

Nevertheless, a theory of natural law, such as I sketched at the beginning of this paper, which omits even to mention final causality, sometimes has been attributed to Aquinas. Thus to insure this fundamental point, it will be useful to examine the rest of the treatise on law in which the present issue arises.

In defining law, Aquinas first asks whether law is something belonging to reason. His response, justly famous for showing that his approach to law is intellectualistic rather than voluntaristic, may be summarized as follows. The end is the first principle in matters of action; reason orders to the end; there­fore, reason is the principle of action. The principle in action is the rule of action; therefore, reason is the rule of action. The rule of action binds; there­fore, reason binds. But binding is characteristic of law; therefore, law pertains to reason.[22] From this argument we see that the notion of end is fundamental to Aquinas’s conception of law, and the priority of end among principles of action is the most basic reason why law belongs to reason.

In the next article, Aquinas adds another element to his definition by asking whether law always is ordained to the common good. His response is that law, as a rule and measure of human acts, belongs to their principle, reason. But in reason itself there is a basic principle, and the first principle of practical rea­son is the ultimate end. Since the ultimate end is a common good, law must be ordained to the common good.[23] What is noteworthy here is Aquinas’s assumption that the first principle of practical reason is the last end. The good of which practical reason prescribes the pursuit and performance, then, primarily is the last end, for practical reason cannot direct the possible actions which are its objects without directing them to an end.

Thus we see that final causality underlies Aquinas’s conception of what law is. But it is central throughout the whole treatise. In the treatise on the Old Law, for example, Aquinas takes up the question whether this law contains only a single precept. His response is that since precepts oblige, they are concerned with duties, and duties derive from the requirements of an end. Hence it belongs to the very intelligibility of precept that it direct to an end. Since the Old Law directs to a single end, it is one in this respect; but since many things are necessary or useful to this end, precepts are multiplied by the distinction of matters that require direction.[24] Again, what is to be noticed in this response is that Aquinas’s whole understanding of law clearly depends on final causality. Obligation is a strictly derivative concept, with its origin in ends and the require­ments set by ends.[25] If natural law imposes obligations that good acts are to be done, it is only because it primarily imposes with rational necessity that an end must be pursued.

In his youthful commentary on Lombard’s Books of Sentences, Aquinas goes so far as to consider the principles of practical reason—which he already com­pares to the principles of demonstrations—to be so many innate natural ends.[26] He remarks that the habit of these ends is synderesis, which is the habit of the principles of the natural law.[27] Hence in this early work he is saying that the natural law is precisely the ends to which man is naturally inclined insofar as these ends are present in reason as principles for the rational direction of action.

Later in the same work Aquinas explicitly formulates the notion of the law of nature for the first time in his writings. Why are the principles of practical reason called “natural law”? Precisely because man knows the intelligibility of end and the proportion of his work to end. Suitability of action is not to a static nature, but to the ends toward which nature inclines. Evil is not explained ultimately by opposition to law, but opposition to law by unsuitability of action to end. This early treatment of natural law is saturated with the notion of end.[28]

So far as I have been able to discover, Aquinas was the first to formulate the primary precept of natural law as he did. Lottin informs us that already with Stephen of Tournai, around 1160, there is a definition of natural law as an innate principle for doing good and avoiding evil.[29] While this is a definition rather than a formulation of the first principle, it is still interesting to notice that it does not include pursuit. In fact, several authors to whom Lottin refers seem to think of natural law as a principle of choice; and if the good and evil referred to in their definitions are properly objects of choice, then it is clear that their understanding of natural law is limited to its bearing upon moral good and evil—the value immanent in action—and that they simply have no idea of the relevance of good as end—a principle of action that transcends action.[30] Wil­liam of Auxerre’s position is particularly interesting. He not only omits any mention of end, but he excludes experience from the formation of natural law, so that the precepts of natural law seem to be for William pure intuitions of right and wrong.[31]

Thus it is clear that Aquinas emphasizes end as a principle of natural law. But it is also clear that the end in question cannot be identified with moral goodness itself.

To begin with, Aquinas specifically denies that the ultimate end of man could consist in morally good action. Moral action, and that upon which it immediately bears, can be directed to ulterior goods, and for this very reason moral action cannot be the absolutely ultimate end.[32] Moreover, Aquinas ex­pressly identifies the principles of practical reason with the ends of the virtues preexisting in reason. Prudence is concerned with moral actions which are in fact means to ends, and prudence directs the work of all the moral virtues.[33] Hence the principles of natural law, in their expression of ends, transcend moral good and evil as the end transcends means and obstacles.

This transcendence of the goodness of the end over the goodness of moral action has its ultimate metaphysical foundation in this, that the end of each creature’s action can be an end for it only by being a participation in divine goodness. The goodness of God is the absolutely ultimate final cause, just as the power of God is the absolutely ultimate efficient cause.[34] This end, of course, does not depend for realization on human action, much less can it be identified with human action. But moral good and evil are precisely the inner perfection or privation of human action. Hence the end transcends morality and provides an extrinsic foundation for it. This point is of the greatest importance in Aquinas’s treatise on the end of man. Aristotle identifies the end of man with virtuous activity,[35] but Aquinas, despite his debt to Aristotle, sees the end of man as the attainment of a good. The good in question is God, who altogether transcends human activity. Hence an end for Aquinas has two inseparable aspects—what is attained and the attainment of it. But if these must be distinguished, the end is rather in what is attained than in its attainment. [36]

Nor should it be supposed that the end’s transcendence over moral virtue is a peculiarity of the supernatural end. Natural law does not direct man to his supernatural end; in fact, it is precisely because it is inadequate to do so that divine law is needed as a supplement.[37] Or, to put the same thing in another way, not everything contained in the Law and the Gospel pertains to natural law, because many of these points concern matters supernatural.[38] And yet, as we have seen, the principles of natural law are given the status of ends of the moral virtues.

An attentive reading of the last two paragraphs of the response examined above would be by itself sufficient for our present point. The goods in question are objects of man’s natural inclinations. These goods are not primarily works that are to be done. Rather, the works are means to ulterior ends: reason grasps the objects of the natural inclinations as goods and so as things-to-be-pursued by work. The works obviously are means to the goods. And what are the objects of the natural inclinations? Not merely morally good acts, but such substantive goods as self-preservation, the life and education of children, and knowl­edge.

Some interpreters mistakenly ask whether the word “good” in the first prin­ciple has a transcendental or an ethical sense.[39] The issue is a false one, for there is no question of extending the meaning of “good” to the amplitude of the transcendentals convertible with “being.” The very text clearly indicates that Aquinas is concerned with good as the object of practical reason; hence the goods signified by the “good” of the first principle will be human goods. It must be so, since the good pursued by practical reason is an objective of human action. But to grant this point is not at all to identify the good in question with moral value, for this particular category of value by no means exhausts human goods. The preservation of human life is certainly a human good. The act which preserves life is not the life preserved; in fact, they are so distinct that it is possible for the act that preserves life to be morally bad while the life preserved remains a human good.

The failure to keep this distinction in mind can lead to chaos in normative ethics. But more important for our present purpose is that this distinction indi­cates that the good which is to be done and pursued should not be thought of as exclusively the good of moral action. The pursuit of the good which is the end is primary; the doing of the good which is the means is subordinate. The good which is the end is the principle of moral value, and at least in some respects this principle transcends its consequence, just as being in a certain respect is a principle (of beings) that transcends even the most fundamental category of beings.[40]

Aquinas, of course, never takes a utilitarian view of the value of moral action. But his alternative is not the deontologism that assigns to moral value and the perfection of intention the status of absolutes. Utilitarianism is an inadequate ethical theory partly because it overly restricts natural inclination, for it assumes that man’s sole determinate inclination is in regard to pleasure and pain. Aquinas recognizes a variety of natural inclinations, including one to act in a rational way.[41] Among the ends toward which the precepts of the natural law direct, then, moral value has a place. Hence good human action has intrinsic worth, not merely instrumental value as utilitarianism supposes. Moreover, because the end proposed by the utilitarians is only a psychic state and because utilitarians also hold a mechanistic theory of causality, utilitarianism denies that any kind of action is intrinsically good or bad. Thus actions are considered good or bad only by virtue of extrinsic consequences. Aquinas, on the contrary, understands human action not merely as a piece of behavior but as an object of choice. He considers a whole range of nonpsychic realities to be human goods. His theory of causality does not preclude an intrinsic relationship between acts and ends. Hence he holds that some species of acts are bad in themselves, so that they cannot become good under any circumstances.[42]

In sum, the mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of natural law sup­poses that the word “good” in the primary precept refers solely to moral good. In fact, it refers primarily to the end which is not limited to moral value. The mistaken interpretation inevitably falls into circularity; Aquinas’s real position shows where moral reasoning can begin, for it works from transmoral principles of moral action. The mistaken interpretation offers as a principle: Do good. It subsumes actions under this imperative, which limits the meaning of “good” to the good of action. Aquinas suggests as a principle: Work in pursuit of the end. This principle enables the good that is an end not only to illuminate but also to enrich with value the action by which it is attained.



The mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory suggests that law is essentially a curb upon action. Law is imagined as a command set over against even those actions performed in obedience to it. And of course it is much more opposed to wrong actions. In this section, I propose three respects in which the primary principle of practical reason as Aquinas understands it is broader in scope than this false interpretation suggests. A clearer understanding of the scope of natural law will further unfold the implications of the point treated in the last section; at the same time, it will be a basis for the fourth section.

The mistaken interpretation suggests that natural law is a set of imperatives whose form leaves no room to discriminate among degrees of force to be attached to various precepts. All precepts seem equally absolute; violation of any one of them is equally a violation of the law.

For Aquinas, however, natural law includes counsels as well as precepts. In other words, the first principle refers not only to the good which must be done, but also to the nonobligatory good it would be well to do.

In the article next after the one commented upon above, Aquinas asks whether the acts of all the virtues are of the law of nature. In his response he does not exclude virtuous acts which are beyond the call of duty. He does make a dis­tinction: all virtuous acts as such belong to the law of nature, but particular virtuous acts may not, for they may depend upon human inquiry.[43]

Later, in treating the Old Law, Aquinas maintains that all the moral pre­cepts of the Old Law belong to the law of nature, and then he proceeds to distinguish those moral precepts which carry the obligation of strict precept from those which convey only the warning of counsel.[44] Indeed, in treating natural law in his commentary on the Sentences, Aquinas carefully distinguishes between actions fully prohibited because they totally obstruct the attainment of an end and actions restricted because they are obstacles to its attainment. Lottin notices this point. Today, he says, we restrict the notion of law to strict obliga­tions. But Aquinas took a broader view of it, for he understood law as a principle of order which embraces the whole range of objects to which man has a natural inclination. Consequently, when Aquinas wishes to indicate strict obligation he often uses a special mode of expression to make this idea explicit.[45] Suarez refers to the passages where Aquinas discusses the scope of the natural law. Although aware that Aquinas includes counsels as well as precepts in natural law, Suarez prefers to limit his concern to matters of strict obligation: “But we properly inquire concerning precepts.”[46] It never occurs to Suarez to wonder why he himself narrows the scope Aquinas attributed to law.

The difference between the two points of view is no mystery. Aquinas thinks in terms of the end, and obligation is merely one result of the influence of an intelligible end on reasonable action. “Good” in the first principle, since it refers primarily to the end, includes within its scope not only what is absolutely necessary but also what is helpful, and the opposed evil includes more than the perfect contrary of the good. Like most later interpreters, Suarez thinks that what is morally good or bad depends simply upon the agreement or disagreement of action with nature, and he holds that the obligation to do the one and to avoid the other arises from an imposition of the will of God.[47] Hence “evil” in the first principle of natural law denotes only the actions which definitely disagree with nature, the doing of which is forbidden, and “good” denotes only the actions whose omission definitely disagrees with nature, the doing of which is commanded. An act which falls in neither of these categories is simply of no interest to a legalistic moralist who does not see that moral value and obligation have their source in the end.

Perhaps even more surprising is another respect in which the first practical principle as Aquinas sees it has a broader scope than is usually realized. “Every judgment of practical reason proceeds from naturally known principles.”[48] The derivative is from the underived, the underivable principles. In practical reason it is self-evident precepts that are underivable, natural law. Not only virtuous and self-restrained men, but also vicious men and backsliders make practical judgments. Indeed, if evildoers lacked practical judgment they could not engage in human action at all.[49] It follows that practical judgments made in evil action nevertheless fall under the scope of the first principle of the natural law, and the word “good” in this principle must refer somehow to deceptive and inadequate human goods as well as to adequate and genuine ones.

It is important, however, to see the precise manner in which the principle, Good is to be done and pursued, still rules practical reason when it goes astray. “Good” is not merely a generic expression for whatever anyone may happen to want,[50] for if this were the case there would not be a single first principle but as many first principles as there are basic commitments, and each first principle would provide the major premise for a different system of rules. Still, if “good” denoted only moral goods, either wrong practical judgments could in no way issue from practical reason or the formula we are examining would not in reality express the first principle of practical reason.

Aquinas mentions this point in at least two places. In one he explains that for practical reason, as for theoretical reason, it is true that false judgments occur. Yet even though such judgments originate in first principles, their falsity is not due to the principles so much as to the bad use of the principles.[51] Similarly he explains in another place that the power of first principles is present in prac­tical misjudgment, yet the defect of the judgment arises not from the principles but; from the reasoning through which the judgment is formed.[52]

Just as the principle of contradiction is operative even in false judgments, so the first principle of practical reason is operative in wrong evaluations and decisions. First principles do not sanction error, but of themselves they set only limited requirements. As a disregard of the principle of contradiction makes discourse disintegrate into nonsense, so a disregard of the first principle of practical reason would make action dissolve into chaotic behavior. The insane some­times commit violations of both principles within otherwise rational contexts, but erroneous judgment and wrong decision need not always conflict with first principles. Hence first principles must be supplemented by other principles and by a sound reasoning process if correct conclusions are to be reached. The first practical principle, as we have seen, requires only that what it directs have intentionality toward an intelligible purpose. The possible underived ends are indicated by the fundamental inclinations which ground appropriate precepts. “Good” in the first principle refers with priority to these underived ends, yet by itself the first principle cannot exclude ends presented in other practical judg­ments even if their derivation is unsound.

Assumption of a group of principles inadequate to a problem, failure to observe the facts, or error in reasoning can lead to results within the scope of first principles but not sanctioned by them. The first precept directs us to direct our action toward ends within human power, and even immoral action in part fulfills this precept, for even vicious men act for a human good while accepting the violation of more adequate human good. The good which is the object of pursuit can be the principle of the rational aspects of defective and inadequate efforts, but the good which characterizes morally right acts completely excludes wrong ones.

After observing these two respects in which the mistaken interpretation unduly restricts the scope of the first principle of practical reason, we may note also that this principle as Aquinas understands it is not merely a principle of impera­tive judgments. Rather, it is primarily a principle of actions. Aquinas thinks of law as a set of principles of practical reason related to actions themselves just as the principles of theoretical reason are related to conclusions.[53] Law is not a constraint upon actions which originate elsewhere and which would flourish better if they were not confined by reason. Law, rather, is a source of actions. Law makes human life possible. Animals behave without law, for they live by instinct without thought and without freedom. Man cannot begin to act as man without law.

The first precept does not say what we ought to do in contradistinction to what we will do. Opposition between the direction of reason and the response of will can arise only subsequent to the orientation toward end expressed in the first principle. One whose practical premise is, “Pleasure is to be pursued,” might reach the conclusion, “Adultery ought to be avoided,” without this pro­hibition becoming a principle of his action. But the first principle of practical reason cannot be set aside in this manner, as we have seen, and so it cannot represent an imposition contrary to the judgment that actually informs our choice.[54] The first principles of practical reason are a source not only for judgments of conscience but even for judgments of prudence; while the former can remain merely speculative and ineffectual, the latter are the very structure of virtuous action.[55]

Throughout history man has been tempted to suppose that wrong action is wholly outside the field of rational control, that it has no principle in practical reason. Naturalism frequently has explained away evildoing, just as some psy­chological and sociological theories based on determinism now do. No less sub­versive of human responsibility, which is based on purposive—and, therefore, rational—agency, is the existentialist notion that morally good and morally bad action are equally reasonable, and that a choice of one or the other is equally a matter of arational arbitrariness. Aquinas’s understanding of the first principle of practical reason avoids the dilemma of these contrary positions. The first principle of morally good action is the principle of all human action, but bad action fulfills the requirement of the first principle less perfectly than good action does. If the first principle of practical reason were Do morally good acts, then morally bad acts would fall outside the order of practical reason; if Do morally good acts nevertheless were the first precept of natural law, and morally bad acts fell within the order of practical reason, then there would be a domain of reason outside natural law. However, since the first principle is Good is to be done and pursued, morally bad acts fall within the order of prac­tical reason, yet the principles of practical reason remain identically the principles of natural law. More than correct principles are required, however, if reason is to reach its appropriate conclusion in action toward the good.

The mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of natural law, with its restrictive understanding of the scope of the first practical principle, suggests that before reason comes upon the scene, that whole broad field of action lies open before man, offering no obstacles to his enjoyment of an endlessly rich and satisfying life, but that cold reason with its abstract precepts successively marks section after section of the field out of bounds, progressively enclosing the submissive subject in an ever-shrinking pen, while those who act at the promptings of uninhibited spontaneity range freely over all the possibilities of life. The true understanding of the first principle of practical reason suggests on the contrary that the alternative to moral goodness is an arbitrary restriction upon the human goods which can be attained by reasonable direction of life. The first principle of practical reason directs toward ends which make human action possible; by virtue of the first principle are formed precepts that represent every aspect of human nature. Together these principles open to man all the fields in which he can act; rational direction insures that action will be fruitful and that life will be as productive and satisfying as possible. Whatever man may achieve, his action requires at least a remote basis in the tendencies that arise from human nature. Similarly, actual being does not eliminate unrealized possi­bilities by demanding that they be not only self-consistent but also consistent with what already is; rather, it is partly by this demand that actual being grounds possibility.



The mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of natural law considers natural law precepts to be a set of imperatives. In this section I wish to show both that the first principle does not have primarily imperative force and that it is really prescriptive. The distinction between these two modes of practical discourse often is ignored, and so it may seem that to deny imperative force to the primary precept is to remove it from practical discourse altogether and to transform it into a merely theoretical principle. Hence I shall begin by emphasizing the practical character of the principle, and then I shall proceed to clarify its lack of imperative force.[56]

The good which is the subject matter of practical reason is an objective possibility, and it could be contemplated. But in that case the principle that will govern the consideration will be that agents necessarily act for ends, not that good is to be done and pursued. For Aquinas, practical reason not only has a peculiar subject matter, but it is related to its subject matter in a peculiar way, for practical reason introduces the order it knows, while theoretical reason adopts the order it finds.[57] The object of the practical intellect is not merely the actions men perform, but the good which can be directed to realization, precisely insofar as that is a mode of truth.[58] Practical reason is related to the movement of action as a principle, not as a consequence.[59]

Laws are formed by practical reason as principles of the actions it guides just as definitions and premises are formed by theoretical reason as principles of the conclusions it reaches.[60] A law is an expression of reason just as truly as a statement is, but a statement is an expression of reason asserting, whereas a law is an expression of reason prescribing.[61] The primary principle of practical reason, as we have seen, eminently fulfills these characterizations of law. The principle is formed because the intellect, assuming the office of active principle, accepts the requirements of that role, and demands of itself that in directing action it must really direct. The precept that good is to be sought is genuinely a principle of action, not merely a point of departure for speculation about human life.

The principles of practical reason belong to a logical category quite different from that of theoretical statements: precepts do not inform us of requirements; they express requirements as directions for action. The point of saying that good is to be pursued is not that good is the sort of thing that has or is this peculiar property, obligatoriness—a subtle mistake with which G. E. Moore launched contemporary Anglo-American ethical theory. The point rather is to issue the fundamental directive of practical reason. “Is to be” is the copula of the first practical principle, not its predicate; the gerundive is the mode rather than the matter of law. To know the first principle of practical reason is not to reflect upon the way in which goodness affects action, but to know a good in such a way that in virtue of that very knowledge the known good is ordained toward realization.

But if it is significant that the first principle of practical reason is really a precept and not merely a theoretical statement, it is less clear but equally impor­tant that this principle is not an imperative, as the mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory considers it to be.

Of course, so far as grammar alone is concerned, the gerundive form can be employed to express an imperative. However, Aquinas explicitly distinguishes between an imperative and a precept expressed in gerundive form. The imperative not only provides rational direction for action, but it also contains motive force derived from an antecedent act of the will bearing upon the object of the action. The prescription expressed in gerundive form, on the contrary, merely offers rational direction without promoting the execution of the work to which reason directs.[62]

To recognize this distinction is not to deny that law can be expressed in imperative form. At the beginning of his treatise on law, Aquinas refers to his previous discussion of the imperative.[63] Human and divine law are in fact not merely prescriptive but also imperative, and when precepts of the law of nature were incorporated into the divine law they became imperatives whose violation is contrary to the divine will as well as to right reason.

Nevertheless, the first principle of practical reason hardly can be understood in the first instance as an imperative. As we have seen, it is a self-evident prin­ciple in which reason prescribes the first condition of its own practical office. On the one hand, the causality of God is not a principle evident to us. On the other hand, the operation of our own will is not a condition for the prescription of practical reason; the opposite rather is the case.

Aquinas’s theological approach to natural law primarily presents it as a participation in the eternal law. This fact has helped to mislead many into supposing that natural law must be understood as a divine imperative. Of course, Aquinas holds that God’s will is prior to the natural law, since the natural law is an aspect of human existence and man is a free creation of God. But Aquinas does not describe natural law as eternal law passively received in man; he describes it rather as a participation in the eternal law. This participation is necessary precisely insofar as man shares the grand office of providence in directing his own life and that of his fellows.[64] Every participation is really distinct from that in which it participates—a principle evidently applicable in this case, for the eternal law is God while the law of nature is a set of precepts.

From man’s point of view, the principles of natural law are neither received from without nor posited by his own choice; they are naturally and necessarily known, and a knowledge of God is by no means a condition for forming self-evident principles, unless those principles happen to be ones that especially concern God.[65] Moreover, Aquinas simply does not understand the eternal law itself as if it were an imposition of the divine will upon creation;[66] and even if he did understand it in this way, no such imposition would count for human judgment except in virtue of a practical principle to the effect that the divine will deserves to be followed. Without such a foundation God might compel behavior but he could never direct human action.

Nor is any operation of our own will presupposed by the first principles of practical reason. Of course we do make judgments concerning means in accordance with the orientation of our intention toward the end. But our willing of ends requires knowledge of them, and the directive knowledge prior to the natural movements of our will is precisely the basic principles of practical reason. At any rate this is Aquinas’s theory. He maintains that there is no willing with­out prior apprehension. [67] Moreover, the basic principle of desire, natural inclination in the appetitive part of the soul, is consequent upon prior apprehen­sion, natural knowledge.[68] For the will, this natural knowledge is nothing else than the first principles of practical reason.[69] The precepts of natural law, at least the first principle of practical reason, must be antecedent to all acts of our will. There is nothing surprising about this conclusion so long as we understand law as intelligence ordering (directing) human action toward an end rather than as a superior ordering (commanding) a subject’s performance.

The theory of law is permanently in danger of falling into the illusion that practical knowledge is merely theoretical knowledge plus force of will. This is exactly the mistake Suarez makes when he explains natural law as the natural goodness or badness of actions plus preceptive divine law.[70]

The way to avoid these difficulties is to understand that practical reason really does not know in the same way that theoretical reason knows.  For practical reason, to know is to prescribe. This is why I insisted so strongly that the first practical principle is not a theoretical truth. Once its real character as a precept is seen, there is less temptation to bolster the practical principle with will, and so to transform it into an imperative, in order to make it relevant to practice. Indeed, the addition of will to theoretical knowledge cannot make it practical. This point is precisely what Hume saw when he denied the possibility of deriving ought from is.

In an interesting passage in an article attacking what he mistakenly considered to be Aquinas’s theory of natural law, Kai Nielsen discussed this point at some length.[71] He begins by arguing that normative statements cannot be derived from statements of fact, not even from a set of factual statements which comprise a true metaphysical theory of reality. He points out that from “God wills x,” one cannot derive “x is obligatory,” without assuming the non-factual statement: “What God wills is obligatory.” He proceeds to criticize what he takes to be a confusion in Thomism between fact and value, a merging of disparate categories which Nielsen considers unintelligible. But over and above this objection, he insists that normative discourse, insofar as it is practical, simply cannot be derived from a mere consideration of facts. In this part of the argument, Nielsen clearly recognizes the distinction between theoretical and practical reason on which I have been insisting. He concludes his argument by maintaining that the factor which differentiates practical discourse is the pres­ence of decision within it.

To such criticism it is no answer to argue that empiricism makes an unnatural cleavage between facts and values.[72] I have tried above to explain how Aquinas understands tendency toward good and orientation toward end as a dimension of all action. If every active principle acts on account of an end, then at a certain time in spring from the weather and our knowledge of nature we can conclude that the roses ought to be blooming soon. Similarly, from the truth of the premises and the validity of the reasoning we can say that the conclu­sion ought to be true. And from the unique properties of the material and the peculiar engineering requirements we can deduce that titanium ought to be useful in the construction of supersonic aircraft. But to get moral principles from metaphysics, it is not from the is of nature to the ought of nature that one must go. This illation is intelligible to anyone except a positivist, but it is of no help in explaining the origin of moral judgments. Moreover, it is no solution to argue that one can derive the “ought” of moral judgment from the “is” of ethical evaluation: “This act is virtuous; therefore, it ought to be done.” Not even Hume could object to such a deduction. Precisely the point at issue is this, that from the agreement of actions with human nature or with a decree of the divine will, one cannot derive the prescriptive sentence: “They ought to be done.”

Aquinas knew this, and his theory of natural law takes it for granted. Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided, together with the other self-evident principles of natural law, are not derived from any statements of fact. They are principles. They are not derived from any statements at all. They are not derived from prior principles. They are underivable.

The intellect is not theoretical by nature and practical only by education. To be practical is natural to human reason. Reason is doing its own work when it prescribes just as when it affirms or denies. The basic precepts of natural law are no less part of the mind’s original equipment than are the evident prin­ciples of theoretical knowledge. Ought requires no special act legitimatizing it; ought rules its own domain by its own authority, an authority legitimate as that of any is. Of course, one cannot form these principles if he has no grasp upon what is involved in them, and such understanding presupposes experience. How­ever, one does not derive these principles from experience or from any previous understanding. Aquinas’s position is not: we conclude that certain kinds of acts should be done because they would satisfy our inclinations or fulfill divine commands. His position is: we are capable of thinking for ourselves in the practical domain because we naturally form a set of principles that make possible all of our actions. Practical principles do not become practical, although they do become more significant for us, if we believe that God wills them. Nonprescriptive statements believed to express the divine will also gain added meaning for the believer but do not thereby become practical. For instance, that the universe is huge is given added meaning for one who believes in creation, but it does not on that account become a matter of obligation for him, since it remains a theoretical truth.

Of course, I must disagree with Nielsen’s position that decision makes dis­course practical. This view implies that human action ultimately is irrational, and it is at odds with the distinction between theoretical and practical reason. If practical reason were simply a conditional theoretical judgment together with verification of the antecedent by an act of appetite, then this position could be defended, but the first act of appetite would lack any rational principle.[73] However, the primary principle of practical reason is by no means hypothetical. It directs that good is to be done and pursued, and it allows no alternative within the field of action.[74] In fact, the practical acceptance of the antecedent of any conditional formulation directing toward action is itself an action that pre­supposes the direction of practical reason toward the good and the end. The prescription “Happiness should be pursued” is presupposed by the acceptance of the antecedent “If you wish to be happy,” when this motive is proposed as a rational ground of moral action.

But while I disagree with Nielsen’s positive position on this point, I think that his essential criticism is altogether effective against the position he is attacking. If one supposes that principles of natural law are formed by examining kinds of action in comparison with human nature and noting their agreement or disagreement, then one must respond to the objection that it is impossible to derive normative judgments from metaphysical speculations. The invocation of a metaphysics of divine causality and providence at this point is no help, since such a metaphysics also consists exclusively of theoretical truths from which reason can derive no practical consequences. Of course, if man can know that God will punish him if he does not act in approved ways, then it does follow that an effective threat can be deduced from the facts. But no such threat, whether coming from God or society or nature, is prescriptive unless one applies to it the precept that horrible consequences should be avoided. I do not deny that the naked threat might become effective on behavior without reference to any practical principle. A threat can be effective by circumventing choice and moving to nonrational impulse. Such a derivation, however, is not at all concerned with the “ought”; it moves from beginning to end within the realm of “is.”



The mistaken interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of natural law considers the first principle to be a major premise from which all the particular precepts of practical reason are deduced. “Do good,” together with “Such an action is good,” leads deductively to “Do that action.” If the first principle actually did function in this manner, all other precepts would be conclusions derived from it. As we have seen, however, Aquinas maintains that there are many self-evident principles included in natural law.

It would be easy to miss the significance of the nonderivability of the many basic precepts by denying altogether the place of deduction in the development of natural law. Aquinas holds that reason can derive more definite prescriptions from the basic general precepts.[75]

Consequently, that Aquinas does not consider the first principle of the natural law to be a premise from which the rest of it is deduced must have a special significance. Why, exactly, does Aquinas treat this principle as a basis for the law and yet maintain that there are many self-evident principles corresponding to the various aspects of man’s complex nature? What difference would it make if these principles were viewed as so many conclusions derived from the conjunction of the premises “The human good is to be sought” and “Such and such an action will promote the human good”—premises not objectionable on the ground that they lead to the derivation of imperatives that was criticized above?

Lottin proposed a theory of the relationship between the primary principle and the self-evident principles founded on it. The basic principle is not related to the others as a premise, an efficient cause, but as a form which differentiates itself in its application to the different matters directed by practical reason. Reason transforms itself into this first principle, so that the first principle must be understood simply as the imposition of rational direction upon action.[76] Lottin’s way of stating the matter is attractive, and he has been followed by others. Sertillanges, for example, apparently was influenced by Lottin when he remarked that the good in the formulations of the first principle is “a pure form, as Kant would say.”[77] Stevens also seems to have come under the influence, as when he states, “The first judgment, it may be noted, is first not as a first, explicit psychologically perceived judgment, but as the basic form of all prac­tical judgments.”[78]

I think it would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the first principle is formal in a way that would separate it from and contrast it with the content of knowledge. Aquinas assumes no a priori forms of practical reason. The first principle of practical reason is itself formed through reflexive judgment; this precept is an object of the intellect’s act. To hold otherwise is to deny the analogy Aquinas maintains between this principle and the first principle of theoretical reason, for the latter is clearly a content of knowledge.

It is difficult to think about principles. We tend to substitute the more familiar application for the less familiar principle in itself. Usually we do not need to think principles by themselves; we call them to mind only to put them to work. Principles that serve as premises are formed with some self-consciousness. Be­cause such principles are not equally applicable to all contents of experience, even though they can be falsified by none, we can at least imagine them not to be true. Practical principles, other than the first one, always can be rejected in practice, although it is unreasonable to do so. We easily form the mistaken generalization that all explicit judgments actually formed by us must meet such conditions. Hence it is understandable that the denial of the status of premise to the first practical principle should lead to the supposition that it is a pure form—a denial to it of any status as an object of self-conscious knowledge. However, to deny the one status is not to suppose the other, for premises and a priori forms do not exhaust the modes of principles of rational knowledge. The first principle may not be known with genetic priority, as a premise, but it is still first known. It enters our practical knowledge explicitly if not distinctly, and it has the status of a self-evident principle of reason just as truly as do the precepts enjoining self-preservation and other natural goods. The fact that the mind cannot but form the primary precept and cannot think practically except in accordance with it does not mean that the precept exercises its control covertly. But it requires something extraordinary, such as philosophic reflection, to make us bring into the focus of distinct attention the principles of which we are con­scious whenever we think.

It also is a mistake to suppose that the primary principle is equivalent to the precept, Reason should be followed, as Lottin seems to suggest. For Aquinas, right reason is reason judging in accordance with the whole of the natural law. Reason does not regulate action by itself, as if the mere ability to reason were a norm. Rather, it regulates action precisely by applying the principles of natural law.[79] Only one among the natural inclinations of man is that based on his rational nature to act according to rational direction. Like other inclinations, this one is represented by a specific self-evident precept of the natural law, a kind of methodological norm of human action.[80] As a particular norm, the injunction to follow reason has specific consequences for right action. One of these is that differences between practical judgments must have an intelligible basis—the requirement that provides the principle for the generalization argu­ment and for Kantian ethics. However, the direction of action by reason, which this principle enjoins, is not the sole human good. It is not equivalent, for example, to self-preservation, and it is as much a mistake to identify one par­ticular precept as another with the first principle of practical reason. In order to equate the requirement of rationality with the first principle of practical rea­son one would have to equate the value of moral action with human good abso­lutely. That is what Kant does, and he is only being consistent when he reduces the status of end in his system to a motive extrinsic to morality except insofar as it is identical with the motivation of duty or respect for the law.

As I explained above, the primary principle is imposed by reason simply because as an active principle reason must direct according to the essential condition for any active principle—it must direct toward an end. In issuing this basic prescription, reason assumes its practical function; and by this assump­tion reason gains a point of view for dealing with experience, a point of view that leads all its further acts in the same line to be preceptive rather than merely speculative. The first practical principle is like a basic tool which is inseparable from the job in which the tool is used; it is the implement for making all the other tools to be used on the job, but none of them is equivalent to it, and so the basic tool permeates all the work done in that job.[81]

Because Aquinas explicitly compares the primary principle of practical reason with the principle of contradiction, it should help us to understand the significance of the relationship between the first principle and other evident principles in practical reason if we ask what importance attaches to the fact that theoretical knowledge is not deduced from the principle of contradiction, which is only the first among many self-evident principles of theoretical knowledge.

The principle of contradiction could serve as a common premise of theoretical knowledge only if being were the basic essential characteristic of beings, if being were what beings are—that is, if being were a definite kind of thing. Otherwise (and in truth), to know that something is a being, and so subsumable under being, presupposes the knowledge which that subsumption applies to it.[82] The principle of contradiction expresses the definiteness of things, but to be definite is not to be anything. To be definite is a condition of being anything, and this condition is fulfilled by whatever a thing happens to be. The principle of contradiction does not exclude from our thoughts interesting and otherwise intelligible things; it grounds the possibility of thinking in reference to anything at all. But the principle of contradiction can have its liberalizing effect on thought only if we do not mistakenly identify being with a certain kind of being—the move which would establish the first principle as a deductive premise.

Something similar holds with regard to the first practical principle. Of course, “good” in the primary precept is not a transcendental expression denoting all things. Nevertheless, it is like a transcendental in its reference to all human goods, for the pursuit of no one of them is the unique condition for human operation, just as no particular essence is the unique condition for being. The first practical principle does not limit the possibilities of human action; by determining that action will be for an end this principle makes it possible.

None of the inclinations which ground specific precepts of the natural law, not even the precept that action should be reasonable, is a necessary condition for all human action. If the “good” of the first principle denoted precisely the object of any single inclination, then the object of another inclination either would not be a human good at all or it would qualify as a human good only insofar as it was subordinate to the object of the one favored inclination. Philos­ophers have constructed their systems of ethics weighted in favor of one or another good precisely for this reason. Yet the first principle of practical reason does provide a basic requirement for action merely by prescribing that it be intentional, and it is in the light of this requirement that the objects of all the inclinations are understood as human goods and established as objectives for rational pursuit.

The gap between the first principle of practical reason and the other basic principles, indicated by the fact that they too are self-evident, also has significant consequences for the acts of the will which follow the basic principles of practical reason. The will necessarily tends to a single ultimate end, but it does not neces­sarily tend to any definite good as an ultimate end. We may say that the will naturally desires happiness, but this is simply to say that man cannot but desire the attainment of that good, whatever it may be, for which he is acting as an ultimate end.[83] The desire for happiness is amply the first principle of practical reason directing human action from within the will informed by reason.

Because the specific last end is not determined for him by nature, man is able to make the basic Commitment which orients his entire life. The human will naturally is nondetermined precisely to the extent that the precept that good be pursued transcends reason’s direction to any of the particular goods that are possible objectives of human action.[84] Yet man’s ability to choose the ultimate concrete end for which he shall act does not arise from any absurdity in human nature and its situation. This ability has its immediate basis in the multiplicity of ends among various syntheses of which man can choose, together with the ability of human reason to think in terms of end as such. The latter ability is evidenced in the first principle of practical reason, and it is the same ability which grounds the ability to choose. Man’s ability to choose his ultimate end has its metaphysical ground in the spiritual nature of man himself, on the one hand, and in the transcendent aspect that every end, as a participation in divine goodness, necessarily includes, on the other.

Hence the good of the primary principle has a certain transcendence, or at least the possibility of transcendence, in relation to the objects of all the inclina­tions, which are the goods whose pursuit is prescribed by the other self-evident principles. Only by virtue of this transcendence is it possible that the end pro­posed by Christian faith, heavenly beatitude, which is supernatural to man, should become an objective of genuine human action—that is, of action under the guidance of practical reason. If the first principle of practical reason restricted human good to the goods proportionate to nature, then a supernatural end for human action would be excluded. The relation of man to such an end could be established only by a leap into the transrational where human action would be impossible and where faith would replace natural law rather than supple­ment it. A first principle of practical reason that prescribes only the basic con­dition necessary for human action establishes an order of such flexibility that it can include not only the goods to which man is disposed by nature but even the good to which human nature is capable of being raised only by the aid of divine grace.

Thus the status Aquinas attributes to the first principle of practical reason is not without significance. This principle is not an imperative demanding morally good action, and imperatives—or even definite prescriptions—cannot be derived from it by deduction. Precisely because the first principle does not specify the direction of human action, it is not a premise in practical reasoning; other principles are required to determine direction.  At the same time, the transcendence of the primary precept over all definite goods allows the con­junction of reason with freedom. On this open ground man can accept faith without surrendering his rationality. This situation reveals the lowliness and the grandeur of human nature. Man’s lowliness is shown by the very weakness of reason’s first principle; by itself this precept cannot guide action, and the instiga­tion of natural inclination and the inspiration of faith are needed to develop an adequate law for human life. Man’s grandeur is shown by the transcendence of this same principle; it evokes man’s possibilities without restricting them, thus permitting man to determine by his own choice whether he shall live for the good itself or for some particular good.

Germain G. Grisez

[1] This summary is not intended to reflect the position of any particular author. How­ever, a full and accessible presentation along these general lines may be found in Thomas J. Higgins, S.J., Man as Man: the Science and Art of Ethics (rev. ed., Milwaukee, 1958), 4969, 88100, 120­126.

[2] “Bonum est faciendum et prosequendum, et malum vitandum.” Summa theologiae (Leonine ed., Rome, 18821948), 1-2, q. 94, a. 2, c. (Summa theologiae will hereafter be referred to as S.T.)

[3] Paul-M. van Overbeke, O.P., “La loi naturelle et le droit naturel selon S. Thomas,” Revue Thomiste 65 (1957): 73–75 puts q. 94, a. 1 into its proper perspective. Odon Lottin, O.S.B., Le droit naturel chez Saint Thomas d’Aquin et ses prédécesseurs (2nd ed., Bruges, 1931), 79 mentions that the issue of the second article had been posed by Albert the Great (cf. p. 118), but the question was not a commonplace. Obviously no one could ask it who did not hold that natural law consists of precepts, and even those who took this position would not ask about the unity or multiplicity of precepts unless they saw some significance in responding one way or the other.

[4] A position Aquinas develops in q. 92, a. 2, and applies in rejecting the position that natural law is a habit in q. 94, a. 1.

[5] That law pertains to reason is a matter of definition for Aquinas; law is an ordinance of reason, according to the famous definition of q. 90, a. 4.

[6] Patrologia Latina (ed. J. Migne, Paris, 18441865), vol. 64, col. 1311.

[7] Metaphysica, bk. iii, 1005b29.

[8] S.T. 1-2, q. 94, a. 2, c. The translation is my own; the paragraphing is added. The two fullest commentaries on this article that I have found are J. B. Schuster, S.J., “Von den ethischen Prinzipien: Eine Thomasstudie zu S. Th., I-II, q. 94, a. 2,” Zeitschrift für Katholische Theologie 57 (1933): 4465 and Michael V. Murray, S.J., Problems in Ethics (New York, 1960), 220235. See also Van Overbeke, op. cit. supra note 3, at 45058; Gregory Stevens, O.S.B., “The Relations of Law and Obligation,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 29 (1955): 195205. Many useful points have been derived from each of these sources for the interpretation developed below.

[9] After giving this response to the issue, Aquinas answers briefly each of the three intro­ductory arguments. All of them tended to show that natural law has but one precept. To the first argument, based on the premises that law itself is a precept and that natural law is one, Aquinas answers that the many precepts of the natural law are unified in relation to the primary principle. To the second argument, that man’s lower nature must be represented if the precepts of the law of nature are diversified by the parts of human nature, Aquinas unhesitatingly answers that all parts of human nature are represented in natural law, for the inclination of each part of man belongs to natural law insofar as it falls under a precept of reason; in this respect all the inclinations also fall under the one first principle. To the third argument, that law belongs to reason and that reason is one, Aquinas responds that reason indeed is one in itself, and yet that natural law contains many precepts because reason directs everything which concerns man, who is complex. Each of these three answers merely reiterates the response to the main question.

[10] In other texts he considers conclusions drawn from these principles also to be precepts of natural law—e.g., S.T. 1-2, q. 94, a. 4, ad 1. This point is merely lexicographical, yet it has caused some confusion—for instance, concerning the relationship between natural law and the law of nations, for sometimes Aquinas contradistinguishes the two while sometimes he includes the law of nations in natural law. See Lottin, op. cit. supra note 3, at 6173.

[11] A careful reading of this paragraph also excludes another interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of natural law—that proposed by Jacques Maritain. Man and the State (Chicago, 1951), 84–94, is the most complete expression in English of Maritain’s recent view. His position has undergone some development in its various presentations. Maritain sug­gests that natural law does not itself fall within the category of knowledge; he tries to give it a status independent of knowledge so that it can be the object of gradual discovery. He also claims that man’s knowledge of natural law is not conceptual and rational, but instead is by inclination, connaturality, or congeniality. However, Aquinas does not present natural law as if it were an object known or to be known; rather, he considers the precepts of practical reason themselves to be natural law. Thus the principles of the law of nature cannot be potential objects of knowledge, unknown but waiting in hiding, fully formed and ready for discovery. Moreover, the fact that the precepts of natural law are viewed as self-evident principles of practical reason excludes Maritain’s account of our knowledge of them. For Aquinas, there is no nonconceptual intellectual knowledge: De veritate, q. 4, a. 2, ad 5. How misleading Maritain’s account of the knowledge of natural law is, so far as Aquinas’s position is concerned, can be seen by examining some studies based on Maritain: Kai Nielsen, “An Examination of the Thomistic Theory of Natural Moral Law,” Natural Law Forum 4 (1959): 47–50; Paul Ramsey, Nine Modern Moralists (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962), 215­–223. Nielsen was not aware, as Ramsey was, that Maritain’s theory of knowledge of natural law should not be ascribed to Aquinas.

[12] Nielsen, op. cit. supra note 11, at 50–52, apparently misled by Maritain, follows this interpretation. At any rate Nielsen’s implicit supposition that the natural law for Aquinas must be formally identical with the eternal law is in conflict with Aquinas’s notion of participation according to which the participation is never formally identical with that in which it participates.

[13] Thus Aquinas remarks (S.T. 1-2, q. 100, a. 3, ad 1) that the precept of charity is “self-evident to human reason, either by nature or by faith,” since a knowledge of God sufficient to form the natural law precept of charity can come from either natural knowl­edge or divine revelation.

[14] A useful guide to Aquinas’s theory of principles is Peter Hoenen, S.J., Reality and Judgment according to St. Thomas (Chicago, 1952).

[15] On “ratio” see Andre Haven, S.J., L’Intentionnel selon Saint Thomas (2nd ed., Bruges, Bruxelles, Paris, 1954), 175194.

[16] In libros Metaphysicorum Aristotelis, lib. 4, lect. 6

[17] In libros Posteriorum analyticorum Aristotelis, lib. 1, lect. 20.

[18] S.T. 1, q. 79, a. 11; 1-2, q. 57, aa. 4–5; 3, q. 78, a. 5, c.; In libros Ethicorum Aristotelis, lib. 1, lect. 1. See John E. Naus, S.J., The Nature of the Practical Intellect according to Saint Thomas Aquinas (Roma, 1959).

[19] S.T. 1-2, q. 1, a. 2; Summa contra gentiles, 3, c. 2.

[20] Ethica Nicomachea, bk. 1, 1094b3.

[21] D. O’Donoghue, “The Thomist Conception of Natural Law,” Irish Theological Quarterly 22, no. 101 (1955) (also, p. 107, n. 3), holds that Aquinas means that “Good is what all things tend toward” is the first principle of practical reason, and so Fr. O’Donoghue wishes to distinguish this from the first precept of natural law. However, Aquinas actually says: “Et ideo primum principium in ratione practica est quod fundatur supra rationem boni, quae est, Bonum est quod omnia appetuntS.T., 1-2, q. 94, a. 2, c. Fr. O’Donoghue must read “quae” as if it refers to “primum principium,” whereas it can only refer to “rationem boni.” The primum principium is identical with the first precept mentioned in the next line of text, while the ratio boni is not a principle of practical reason but a quasi definition of “good,” and as such a principle of understanding. The principle of contradic­tion is likewise founded on the ratio of being, but no formula of this ratio is given here.

[22] S.T. 1-2, q. 90, a. 1, c.

[23] S.T. 1-2, q. 90, a. 2, c.

[24] Ibid. at q. 99, a. 1, c.

[25] See Stevens, op. cit. supra note 8, at 202–205.

[26] Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi (ed. Mardonnet-Moos, Paris, 1929–1947), bk. 3, d. 33, q. 2, a. 4, q’la. 4, c.

[27] See Lottin, op. cit. supra note 3, at 68–73.

[28] Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi in St. Thomas, Opera, ed. Purma (18521873), 7: bk. 4, d. 33, q. 1, a. 1, c.

[29] Lottin, op. cit. supra note 3, at 16, n. 1.

[30] Ibid. at 1718; cf. p. 108, lines 1727.

[31] Ibid. at 35, n. 2.

[32] Summa contra gentiles, eds. C. Pera, P. Mure, P. Garamello (Turin, 1961), 3: ch. 34.

[33] S.T. 2-2, q. 47, a. 6, c.

[34] Summa contra gentiles 3: chs. 1819.

[35] Ethica Nicomachea, bk. 1, 1098a17.

[36] S.T. 1-2, qq. 1–5, esp. q. 2, a. 7.

[37] S.T. 1-2, q. 91, a. 4.

[38] Ibid. at q. 94, a. 4, ad 1.

[39] E.g., Schuster, op. cit. supra note 8, at 5455.

[40] Although too long a task to be undertaken here, a full comparison of Aquinas’s posi­tion to that of Suarez would help to clarify the present point. See Walter Farrell, O.P., The Natural Moral Law according to St. Thomas and Suarez (Ditchling, 1930), 103–155. We at least can indicate a few significant passages. Suarez offers a number of formulations of the first principle of the natural law. He manages to treat the issue of the unity or multiplicity of precepts without actually stating the primary precept. De legibus, II.8.2. Previously, however, he had given the principle in the formulation: “Good is to be done and evil avoided.” Ibid. at II.7.2. But there and in a later passage, where he actually mentions pursuit, he seems to be repeating received formulae. The formula (Ibid. at II.15.2) referring to pursuit subordinates it to the avoidance of evil: Evil is to be avoided and good is to be pursued.” Perhaps Suarez’s most personal and most characteristic formulation of the primary precept is given where he discusses the scope of natural law. There his formulation of the principle is specifically moralistic: The upright is to be done and the wrong avoided. (Ibid. at II.7.5: Honestum est faciendum, pravum vitandum.”) Here too Suarez suggests that this principle is just one among many first principles; he juxtaposes it with Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As to the end, Suarez completely separates the notion of it from the notion of law. He considers the goodness and badness with which natural law is concerned to be the moral value of acts in comparison with human nature, and he thinks of the natural law itself as a divine precept that makes it possible for acts to have an additional value of conformity with the law. Ibid. at II.6. In neither aspect is the end fundamental. For this reason, too, the natural inclinations are not emphasized by Suarez as they are by Aquinas. Although Suarez mentions the inclinations, he does so while referring to Aquinas. Ibid. at II.5.1–2. Before the end of the very same passage Suarez reveals what he really thinks to be the foundation of the precepts of natural law. It is not the inclinations but the quality of actions, a quality grounded on their own “intrinsic character and immutable essence, which in no way depend upon any extrinsic cause or will, any more than does the essence of other things which in themselves involve no contradiction.” (We see at the beginning of paragraph 5 that Suarez accepts this position as to its doctrine of “the intrinsic goodness or turpitude of actions,” and so as an account of the foundation of the natural law precepts, although he does not accept it as an account of natural law, which he considers to require an act of the divine will.) Later Suarez interprets the place of the inclinations in Aquinas’s theory. As Suarez sees it, the inclinations are not principles in accordance with which reason forms the principles of natural law; they are only the matter with which the natural law is concerned. Ibid. at II.8.4. In other words, in Suarez’s mind Aquinas only meant to say of the inclinations that they are subject to natural law. This interpretation simply ignores the important role we have seen Aquinas assign the inclinations in the formation of natural law.

[41] S.T. 1-2, q. 94, a. 3, c.

[42] Ibid. at q. 18, aa. 67; Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, bk. 2, d. 40, q. 1, aa. 12.

[43] S.T. 1-2, q. 94, a. 3, c.

[44] Ibid. at q. 100, aa. 12.

[45] Lottin, op. cit. supra note 3, at 75, points out that Aquinas will add to the expression “law of nature” a further word—e.g., “precept”—to express strict obligation.

[46] De legibus, II.7.11.

[47] Ibid. at II.7.

[48] S.T. 1-2, q. 100, a. 1, c.

[49] See De malo, q. 3, a. 9, ad 7.

[50] A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., La philosophie morale de Saint Thomas d’Aquin (Paris, 1946), 109, seems to fall into this mistaken interpretation.

[51] De veritate, q. 16, a. 2, ad 6.

[52] Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, bk. 2, d. 39, q. 3, a, 1, ad 1.

[53] S.T. 1-2, q. 90, a. 1, ad 2.

[54] For the notion of judgment forming choice see ibid. at q. 13, a. 3.

[55] De veritate, q. 17, a. 2; S.T. 2-2, q. 47, a. 6. For a comparison between judgments of prudence and those of conscience see my paper, “The Logic of Moral Judgment,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 26 (1962): 67–76, esp. p. 70, n. 7.

[56] Even those interpreters who usually can be trusted tend to fall into the mistake of considering the first principle of practical reason as if it were fundamentally theoretical. Lottin, for instance, suggests that the first assent to the primary principle is an act of theoretical reason. At first it appears, he says, simply as a truth, a translation into moral language of the principle of identity. A formula of the first judgment of practical reason might be “That which is good, is good—i.e., desirable,” or “The good is that which is to be done, the evil is that which is to be avoided.” Odon Lottin, O.S.B., Principes de morale (Louvain, 1946), 1: 22, 122.

Significant in these formulations are the “that which (ce qui)” and the double “is,” for these expressions mark the removal of gerundive force from the principal verb of the sentence. Thus Lottin makes the precept appear as much as possible like a theoretical statement expressing a peculiar aspect of the good—namely, that it is the sort of thing that demands doing. Sertillanges also tries to understand the principle as if it were a theoretical truth equivalent to an identity statement. Among his formulations are: “That which is to be done is to be done,” and: “The good is an end worth pursuing.” Sertil­langes, op. cit. supra note 50, at 102, 109.

Many other authors could be cited: e.g., Stevens, op. cit. supra note 8, at 199. They wish to show that the first principle really is a truth, that it really is self-evident. This desire leads them to forget that they are dealing with a precept, and so they try to treat the first principle of practical reason as if it were theoretical. They ignore the peculiar character of practical truth and they employ an inadequate notion of self-evidence. There is a constant tendency to reduce practical truth to the more familiar theoretical truth and to think of underivability as if it were simply a matter of conceptual identity. These same difficulties underlie Maritain’s effort to treat the primary precept as a truth necessary by virtue of the predicate’s inclusion of the intelligibility of the subject rather than the reverse. Neuf leçons sur les notions premières de la philosophie morale (Paris, 1951), 158–­160.

Maritain recognizes that “is to be” cannot be derived from the meaning of “good” by analysis.  Thinking that the practical principle must be equivalent to a theoretical truth, he suggests that the opposite relationship obtains. The theoretical character of the principle for Maritain is emphasized by his first formulation of it as a metaphysical prin­ciple applicable to all good and all action. Only secondarily does he consider it a moral principle applicable to human good and free action. The difference between the two formulations is only in” the content considered, not at all in the mode of discourse.

[57] In libros ethicorum ad Nichomachum, lib. 1, lect. 1.

[58] S.T. 1, q. 79, a. 11, ad 2: “Objectum intellectus practici est bonum ordinabile ad opus, sub ratione veri.

[59] Ibid. at ad 1.

[60] S.T. 1-2, q. 90, a. 1, ad 2.

[61] Ibid. at q. 92, a. 2, c.

[62] Ibid. at q. 17, a. 1.

[63] Ibid. at q. 90, a. 1, sed contra, ad 3; q. 91, a. 2, ad 2. But these references should not be given too much weight, since they refer to the article previously cited in which the distinction is made explicitly. Although arguments based on what the text does not say are dangerous, it is worth noticing that Aquinas does not define law as an imperative for the common good, as he easily could have done if that were his notion, but as an ordinance of reason for the common good etc. Id. at q. 90, a. 4, c.

[64] O’Donoghue (op. cit. supra note 21) tries to clarify this point, and does in fact help considerably toward the removal of misinterpretations. Still, his work is marked by a misunderstanding of practical reason, so that precept is equated with imperative (p. 95) and will is introduced in the explanation of the transition from theory to practice, (p. 101) Farrell (op. cit. supra note 40), by a full and careful comparison of Aquinas’s and Suarez’s theories of natural law, clarifies the essential point very well, without suggesting that natural law is human legislation, as O’Donoghue seems to think.

[65] The point has been much debated despite the clarity of Aquinas’s position that natural law principles are self-evident; Stevens, op. cit. supra note 8, at 201, n. 23, provides some bibliography.

[66] Eternal law is “the exemplar of divine wisdom, as directing all actions and movements” of created things in their progress toward their end. S.T. 1-2, q. 93, a. 1, c. Those who misunderstand Aquinas’s theory often seem to assume, as if it were obvious, that law is a transient action of an efficient cause physically moving passive objects; for Aquinas, law always belongs to reason, is never considered an efficient cause, and cannot possibly terminate in motion. By their motion and rest, moved objects participate in the perfection of agents, but a caused order participates in the exemplar of its perfection by form and the consequences of form—consequences such as inclination, reason, and the precepts of practical reason. See Farrell, op. cit. supra note 40, at ch. 4, esp. pp. 98–103.

[67] S.T. 1, q. 82, a. 4, ad 3.

[68] Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, bk. 4, d. 33, q. 1, a. 1, ad 9.

[69] Ibid. at bk. 2, d. 39, q. 2, a. 2, ad 2.

[70] De legibus, II.7; Farrell, op. cit. supra note 40, at 147155. Even excellent recent interpreters of Aquinas tend to compensate for the speculative character they attribute to the first principle of practical reason by introducing an act of our will as a factor in our assent to it. Lottin, for example, balances his notion that we first assent to the primary principle as to a theoretical truth with the notion that we finally assent to it with a consent of the will. Only free acceptance makes the precept fully operative. (Op. cit. supra note 56, at 24.) Even so accurate a commentator as Stevens introduces the inclination of the will as a ground for the prescriptive force of the first principle. (Op. cit. supra note 8, at 202203: “The intellect manifests this truth formally, and commands it as true, for its own goodness is seen to consist in a conformity to the natural object and inclination of the will.”)

[71] Op. cit. supra note 11, at 6368.

[72] Vernon Bourke, “Natural Law, Thomism—and Professor Nielsen,” Natural Law Forum 5 (1960): 118–119, in part has recourse to this kind of argument in his response to Nielsen. Although Bourke is right in noticing that Nielsen’s difficulties partly arise from his positivism, I think Bourke is mistaken in supposing that a more adequate metaphysics could bridge the gap between theory and practice.

[73] Bourke does not call Nielsen to task on this point, and in fact (ibid. at 117) even seems to concur in considering practical reason hypothetical apart from an act of will, but Bourke places the will act in God rather than in our own decision as Nielsen does.

[74] The mere fact of decision, or the mere fact of feeling one of the sentiments invoked by Hume, is no more a basis for “ought” than is any other “is.” Hume misses his own point—that “ought” cannot be derived—and Nielsen follows his master. If some practical principle is hypothetical because there is an alternative to it, only a practical principle (and ultimately a nonhypothetical practical principle) can foreclose the rational alternative.

[75] S.T. 1-2, q. 91, a. 3, c; q. 94, a. 4, c. However, a horror of deduction and a tendency to confuse the process of rational derivation with the whole method of geometry has led some Thomists—notably, Maritain—to deny that in the natural law there are rationally deduced conclusions. Man and the State, 91. Maritain points out that Aquinas uses the word “quasi” in referring to the prescriptive conclusions derived from common practical principles. He does not notice that Aquinas uses “quasi” in referring to the principles themselves; they are “in ratione naturali quasi per se nota.” (S.T., 1-2, q. 100, a. 3, c. “Quasi” need not carry the connotation of fiction which it has in our usage; it is appropriate in the theory of natural law where a vocabulary primarily developed for the discussion of theoretical knowledge is being adapted to the knowledge of practical reason.) Maritain attributes our knowledge of definite prescriptions of natural law to a nonconceptual, nonrational knowledge by inclination or connaturality. (Op. cit. at 90–92. Naus, op. cit. supra note 18, at 142–150, provides a compact and accurate treatment of the true sense of “knowledge by connaturality” in Aquinas; however, he unfortunately concludes his discussion by suggesting that the alternative to such knowledge is theo­retical.) In fact, Aquinas does not mention inclinations in connection with the derived precepts, which are the ones Maritain wants to explain.  Rather, Aquinas relates the basic precepts to the inclinations and, as we have seen, he does this in a way which does not confuse inclination and knowledge or detract from the conceptual status or intelligible objectivity of the self-evident principles of practical reason.

[76] Lottin, op. cit. supra note 3, at 79.

[77] Sertillanges, op. cit. supra note 50, at 109.

[78] Stevens, op. cit. supra note 8, at 200.

[79] S.T. 1-2, q. 91, a. 3, ad 2; q. 95, a. 2, c; Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, bk. 2, d. 42, q. 2, a. 5.

[80] S.T. 1-2, q. 94, a. 4, c.

[81] See Quaestio disputata de anima, a. 5, for the notion of first principles as instru­ments which the agent intellect employs in making what follows actually intelligible.

[82] Gerard Smith, S.J., & Lottie H. Kendzierski, The Philosophy of Beino: Meta­physics (New York, 1961), 1: 28, make the most of such dialectic in order to show the transcendence of being over essence.

[83] That the basic precepts of practical reason lead to the natural acts of the will is clear: Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi, bk. 2, d. 39, q. 2, a. 2, ad 2. See also Van Overbeke, loc. cit. supra note 3. Joseph Buckley, S.M., Man’s Last End (St. Louis and London, 1950), 164210, shows that there is no natural determinate last end for man.

[84] G. P. Klubertanz, S.J., “The Root of Freedom in St. Thomas’s Later Works,” Gregorianum 42 (1961): 709716, examines how Aquinas relates reason and freedom. It is this “later” resolution that I am supposing here.

“Public Good: The Specifically Political Common Good in Aquinas” 

by John Finnis 


[Finnis, John. Robert George, ed. “Public Good: The Specifically Political Common Good in Aquinas.” In Natural Law and Moral Inquiry: Ethics, Metaphysics, and Politics in the Thought of Germain Grisez. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. 1998. 174–209. Posted with permission of Georgetown University Press.] 

As Grisez has recently argued, in his philosophical theology of politics: 

Even though a political society cannot flourish without virtuous citizens, it plainly cannot be government’s proper end directly to promote virtue in general, since not all justice and neighborliness are included in political society’s common good. Moreover, both the limits of political society’s common good and its instrumentality in relation to the good of citizens as individuals and as members of nonpolitical communities set analogous limits on the extent to which government can rightly concern itself with other aspects of morality, especially insofar as they concern the interior acts and affections of hearts rather than the outward behavior which directly affects other people.

In a footnote to this text, following a reference to Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (II-II. q.104 a.5) and De Regno (15), Grisez adds, however, that both Aristotle and Thomas 

. . . hold that the general promotion of virtue and suppression of vice should be the main component of the common good of political society; in this, they overlook limits on the competence of the state which have been clari­fied by recent Church teaching regarding the instrumental character of political society’s common good, the principle of subsidiarity ... and reli­gious liberty.[1]

But Aquinas, as I will argue, not only gives substantial support to the positions asserted in Grisez’s text, but rejects the position attributed in the text’s footnote to Aristotle’s Ethics (10.9.1179a–1180b28) and Aquinas’s own De Regno (15 or 2.4).[2] 



Grisez’s powerful treatment of patriotism, politics, and citizenship dis­tinguishes nation from state or political society/community, state from government (the political community’s apparatus for making and imple­menting decisions),[3] and government from regime (the particular set of people holding governmental office).[4] Aquinas, though aware of these distinctions, is not generally concerned to differentiate between nation and state, or between the state’s structure of governing offices and the particular rulers or regime of office-holders.[5] Still, Grisez’s terminology corresponds with Aquinas’s in its central usage: civitas and synonymously communitas politica[6] or communitas civilis,[7] in Aquinas, can usually be trans­lated by “a state,” “states,” or “the state,” though never in Maritain’s sense (“the State” as government, organs of government, or subject of public law), but as signifying the whole large society which is organized politically by the sorts of institutions, arrangements, and practices com­monly and reasonably called “government” and “law.”[8] 

Aquinas’s treatise on law (S.T. I-II, qq. 90–108) is the context for his most important treatment of political matters. It is shaped by a method­ological decision and a theoretical thesis. The thesis is that law exists, locally or centrally, only in complete communities, perfectae communitates. The methodological decision is to set aside all questions about which sorts of multifamily community are “complete,” and to consider a type, usually named civitas, whose completeness is simply posited. 

The decision has important consequences. Aquinas is well aware that in his own world, though there are some city-states (civitates), there are also many cities which do not pretend to be complete communities but exist (perhaps established rather like castles to adorn a kingdom) as parts of a realm;[9] and civitates, kingdoms, and realms may be politically organized in sets,[10] perhaps as “provinces” (of which he often speaks) or empires (about which he discretely remains almost wholly silent). He is well aware of the idea, and the reality, of peoples (gentes; populi) and nations (nationes)[11] and regions (regiones). His methodological decision allows him to abstract from all this.’[12] It also allows him to abstract from a number of deep and puzzling questions: how—and indeed by what right—any particular civitas comes into being (and passes away); how far the civitas should coincide with unities of origin or culture; and whether and what intermediate constitutional forms there are, such as federations or international organizations. Liberated from such questions, Aquinas will consider the civitas rather as if it were, and were to be, the only political community in the world and its people the only people.[13] All issues of extension—of origins, membership, and boundaries, or amalgam­ations and dissolutions—are thereby set aside.[14] The issues will all be, so to speak, intensional: the proper functions and modes and limits of government, authorititative direction, and obligatory compliance in a community whose “completeness” is presupposed. 

Can a state’s common good, being the good of a complete commu­nity, be anything less than the complete good, the fulfillment—beatitudo imperfecta if not perfecta[15]—of its citizens? That is the question with which this essay is concerned; it will be answered with a distinction: yes, and no. At the outset, however, it is sufficient to note that the question seems equivalent to another: What type of direction can properly be given by governments and law? The questions seem to be equivalent, in Aquinas, because he has stipulated that a state is a complete community,[16] and has given complete community a purely formal description:[17] a community so organized that its government and law give all the direction that properly can be given by human government and coercive law to promote and protect the common good, that is, the good of the community and thus[18] of all its members and other proper elements.



It is easy to read Aquinas as holding that the state’s common good is the fulfillment (and thus the complete virtue) of each of its citizens, and that government and law should therefore promote that fulfillment. Of course, Aquinas teaches the unwisdom of legislating against every act of vice,[19] and the need to proceed gradually in inculcating virtue by law,[20] not attempting the impossible.[21] But it is easy to read him as holding that such legislation, though unwise, is not ultra vires—does not reach beyond the state’s common good or the purpose, functions, and jurisdiction of state government and law. 

This reading could begin with Aristotle’s critique of the Sophists social-contract or mutual-insurance theory of the state. The law “should be such as will make the citizens good and just,”[22] since “a polis is a community (partnership, communicatio, koinonia) of (clans and) neighbor­hoods in living well, with the object of a complete and self-sufficient (autarkous) life ..., it must therefore be for the sake of truly good (kalon actions, not of merely living together.”[23] Surely, one may ask, Aquinas didn’t dissent from Aristotle here? Doesn’t the Summa Theologiae reaffirm Aristotle’s teaching that our need for state law is primarily to ensure effective promotion of virtue, by way of laws enforced with penal sanctions, where parental capacity runs out?[24] For surely parents rightly to educate their children into complete, all-round virtue and fulfillment? Doubtless, parents will exceed their authority if they try to reinforce their education with coercive measures of the kind the state can use.[25] But in all other respects, surely state law holds the same place in the state as parental precepts hold in the family,[26] precisely because it has the same purpose and jurisdiction of promoting fulfillment and therefore inculcating virtue, without restrictions of goal? 

Plausible as it is, as a first reading of many passages, this interpretation of Aquinas must be rejected. No passage requires to be read in way, and it is inconsistent with a number of clear passages in mature texts. 

Clearest, perhaps, are the passages in which Aquinas argues “the purpose (finis) of human law and the purpose of divine law are different.”[27] 

For human law’s purpose is the temporal tranquility of the state (temporalis tranquillitas civitatis), a purpose which the law attains by coercively prohibiting external acts (cohibendo exteriores actus) to the extent that those are evils which can disturb the state’s peaceful condition (quantum ad illa mala quae possunt perturbare pacificum statum civitatis).[28] 

In other words, divine and civil government, in Aquinas’s view, differ in method—the latter’s prohibitions, unlike the former’s, being restricted to external acts—because they differ in purpose. This double difference is insisted upon repeatedly: 

The form of community (modus communitatis) to which human law is directed (ordinatur) is different from the form of community to which divine law is directed. For human law is directed to civil community, which is a matter of people relating to one another (quae est hominum ad invicem).[29] But people are related to one another (ordinantur ad invicem) by the external acts in which people communicate and deal (communicant) with each other. But this sort of communicating/dealing (communicatio) is a matter of justice (pertinet ad rationem iustitiae), which is properly directive in and of human community (directiva communitatis humanae). So human law does not put forward precepts about anything other than acts of justice [and injustice] (non proponit praecepta nisi de actibus iustitiae);[30] if it prescribes acts of other virtues, this is only because and insofar as they take on the character of justice (assumunt rationem iustitiae).[31] 

Aquinas’s point in the last sentence is: derelictions of duty by soldiers, police, and emergency service personnel can readily be caused by want of courage; the injustices of adultery, child abuse, or other sexual assaults typically arise from lack of sexual self-control; and so forth; so the law can rightly require choices characteristic of other virtues besides justice. But the law of the state cannot rightly regulate the full range of choices required by practical reasonableness.[32] 

Types of virtue are distinguished by their objects, and each virtue’s object can be related either to someone’s private good or to the common good of the group. Take courage, for example: one can act out of courage either to save the state or to preserve the rights (ius) of one’s friend. But law is for the common good. So, although there is no [type of] virtue the acts of which cannot be prescribed by law, human law does not make prescriptions about all the acts of all the virtues, but only about those acts which are relatable (ordinabiles) to the common good, whether immediately (as when things are done directly for the common good) or mediately (as when things are regulated [ordinantur] by the legislator as being relevant to the good education [pertinentia ad bonam disciplinam] by which citizens are brought up to preserve the common good of justice and peace).[33] 

In this passage Aquinas clearly affirms that within a state there are “private goods” (of individuals and small groups, e.g., of friends) whose good (e.g., whose right) is not part of the common good specific to the state— is not, I shall say, part of the specifically political common good. 

That is only one of the ways in which Aquinas makes plain his view that, notwithstanding the “completeness” of political communities, their specific common good is limited. Another important limitation can be indicated without taking up the question of religious liberty. The specifi­cally political common good does not include the common good of another community in which the state’s members will do well to participate, the community—also perfecta[34]—of the Church. Moreover, the common good of the political community does not, as such, include certain important human goods which essentially pertain to individuals in themselves, such as the good of religious faith and worship; the fact that such individual goods are goods for many people, or for everyone, does not convert them into the good of community: 

In human affairs there is a certain [type of] common good, the good of the civitas or people (gentis). ... There is also a [type of] human good which— [though it] benefits not merely one person alone but many people does not consist in community but pertains to one [as an individual] in oneself (humanum bonum quod non in communitate consistit sed ad unum aliquem pertinet secundum seipsum), e.g., the things which everyone ought to believe and practice, such as matters of faith and divine worship, and other things of that sort.[35] 

Aquinas’s clearest name for this limited common good, specific to the political community, is public good (bonum publicum). It is distinct from the private good of individuals and the private common good of families and households, even though the political community (in Aquinas’s most usual account) is comprised precisely of individuals and families. As the public good, the elements of the specifically political common good are not all-round virtue but goods (and virtues) which are intrinsically inter­personal, other-directed (ad alterum),[36] person to person (hominum ad adinvicem):[37] justice and peace.[38] 

“Peace,” of course, should not be understood thinly. In its fullest sense, peace (pax), involves not only concord (absence of dissension, especially on fundamentals) and willing agreement between one person or group and another, but also harmony (unio) among each individual’s own desires.[39] And Aquinas will make related observations: “the principal intention of human law is to secure friendship between people (ut faciat amicitiam hominum ad invicem),”[40] and efforts to maintain peace by laying down precepts of justice will be insufficient without foundations in mutual friendship or love (dilectio).[41] But in the context of the passages about public good, it is clear that “peace” refers directly only to (1) absence of words and deeds immorally opposed to peace, such as disorderly contentiousness,[42] quarrelsome fighting,[43] sedition,[44] or war;[45] (2) concord, that is, the “tranquillity of order”[46] between persons and groups which is made possible by love of neighbor as oneself,[47] along with the avoidance of collisions (e.g., in road traffic) and dissensions such as can occur without personal fault; and perhaps also (3) a sufficiency of at least the necessities of life.[48] In short, it is the peaceful condition needed to get the benefit(s) (utilitas) of social life and avoid the burdens of contention.[49] It is a peace that falls short of the complete justice which true virtue requires of each of us; so legislatures can reasonably, in the interests of peace, provide that adverse possession for a length of time gives a good title even to squatters who took possession in bad faith—but a squatter who acted in bad faith never becomes morally entitled, in good conscience, to rely on this title.[50] 

Even when all that is taken into account, Aquinas’s position remains firmly outlined: vices of disposition and conduct that have no real relationship, direct or indirect, to justice and peace are not the concern of state government or law.[51] The position is not readily distinguishable from the “grand simple principle” (itself open to interpretation and diverse applications) of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. 



But can this reading of Aquinas be reconciled with his treatment of the question in De Regno,[52] or with his frequent assertion that inculcating virtue is a primary and proper rationale of law and state, with the “com­pleteness” of the political community, and with the primacy of politica among the parts of moralis philosophia? 

The De Regno, an openly theological little treatise written in a style unlike Aquinas’s academic works in philosophy and theology,[53] but very probably authentic,[54] includes some main elements of Aristotle’s position that states are appropriately organized, and legally regulated, with a view to making their citizens truly good. Early in the De Regno’s exposition of the common good, or ultimate end, for which a king is responsible, we hear unmistakable echoes of Politics III.5 on the object of the polis, echoes inflected by the Christian understanding of history’s point. Civil society (congregatio civilis) is gathered together not simply to live but to live well (ad bene vivendum) and in virtue (vivere secundum virtutem); its ultimate end and good—beatitudo perfecta, as Aquinas elsewhere calls it[55]— is beyond the reach of human virtue but attainable by divine power (virtus). Since reaching this most ultimate end is the subject matter of a set of governing arrangements (regimen) not human but divine,[56] kings must regard themselves as subjects to that divine regimen—a regimen administered by priests[57] concerned with spiritual (spiritualia) not earthly or temporal matters (terrena; temporalia bona).[58] That being said, “it be­longs to the authority and responsibility (officium) of a king to promote (procurare) the good life of the group in such a way that it is in line with the pursuit of heavenly fulfillment (congruit ad celestem beatitudinem consequendam); so the king may prescribe (praecipiat) whatever things lead to such fulfillment and forbid, as far as possible, the contraries of those things.”[59] And Aquinas’s advice on this question concludes: 

Therefore a threefold responsibility (cura) lies on the king, [i] First, in relation to the replacement of those who hold various offices: just as divine rule preserves the integrity of the universe by arranging that corruptible, tran­sient things are replaced by new ones generated to take their place, so the king should be concerned to preserve the good of the group subject to him (subiectae multitudinis) by conscientiously arranging how new officials are to succeed those who fail or drop out. [ii] Second, by his laws and decrees punishments and rewards, the king is to restrain his subjects from immorality and lead them to virtuous action (ab iniquitate coerceat, et ad opera virtuosa inducat), thereby following the example of God, who gave us law and who requites with reward those who follow and with punishments those who violate it. [iii] Third, the king is responsible for keeping the group subject to him safe against enemies; there would be no point in avoiding internal dangers, if the group were defenseless against external dangers.[60] 


Don’t the statements here italicized clearly propose an ambitious purpose for state rule, and acknowledge no limit on the inherent scope of that purpose? 

No. The immediate context of each of the passages quoted shows that Aquinas has several restrictions in mind. Take first the passage about the king’s triple responsibilities, (i) supervising succession of offices, (ii) restraining immorality and leading subjects to virtue, and (iii) defense. As its opening “therefore” signals, it is the conclusion of a wider argument. That argument develops a careful parallel between what is needed for an individual’s good life and what is needed for a community’s. What an individual’s good life (bona unius hominis vita) requires, above all, is virtue-in-action (operatio secundum virtutem); secondary and quasi-instrumental requirements are the bodily goods necessary for action. So too, a group’s good life requires that the group act well. But there is precondition for acting well: the unity of the acting being’s parts. In individual human beings, this precondition is secured by nature. But in communities the needed unity of life, the unity called “peace” (pax), has be procured by government (per regentis industriam). So the community counterparts to individual virtue-in-action as primary element in an individual’s good life are (i) the constituting of the community in the unity of peace, and (ii) the directing of the peacefully united group toward well-doing (ad bene agendum). The king’s next (consequens) problem is to maintain and preserve these two primary elements of the group’s good life. 

At precisely this point, Aquinas shifts from group “good life” (bona vita in multitudine constituta) to “public good” (bonum publicum), treating them as synonymous. The De Regno’s treatment of our questions will be misunderstood unless one notices the effortlessness of this shift, and the synonymity and equivalence thus signalled. 

There are, Aquinas is saying, three things incompatible with lasting public good, with that group good life whose primary elements are peace and acting well (tria quibus bonum publicum permanere non sinitur). And the triple responsibility (cura) whose second element—”restraining subjects from immorality and leading them to virtuous action”—is our present concern, is simply the appropriate response to these three “things incompatible with lasting public good.” The first thing is unsuitable public officials; the third is the incursions of enemies. The second, which, like the first, is “an internal impediment to preserving the public good, is perversity of people’s wills—their laziness in doing what the public weal requires (ad ea peragenda quae requirit res publica), or again their harmfulness to the group’s peace, their disturbance of others’ peace by their violations of jus­tice.”[61] So the second concern or responsibility (cura) of rulers, a responsi­bility proposed by Aquinas precisely as the appropriate response to these just-mentioned “things incompatible with lasting public good,” is not: to lead people to the fullness of virtue by coercively restraining them from every immorality. It is no more than: to lead people to those virtuous actions which are required if the public weal is not to be neglected, and to uphold peace against unjust violations. 

What about the passage stating that rulers have the duty to promote heavenly fulfillment? This, too, should be taken to assert much less than appears on a first, noncontextual glance. For it too rests on the distinction between individual and group “good life.” Promoting the group’s good life is the king’s concern. But Aquinas never supposes that such groups can attain perfect, that is, heavenly fulfillment. What he says here is this: the group’s—the political community’s—good life is to be in line with (congruit) the “pursuing of heavenly fulfillment (coelestem beatitudinem)”; by promoting group good life in that way, rulers are like sword-smiths or house builders, whose role is to make an instrument suitable for others to put to their own good purposes. Thus the good life for which rulers are responsible is a public good, the justice and peace (rooted in citizens’ characters rather than merely in fear of royal troops and judges) that in turn facilitate the domestically and ecclesially fostered individual virtue which is the human contribution to perfect beatitudo. The statement that rulers are to “prescribe those things that lead to [perfect] fulfillment (and “to forbid their contraries so far as is possible”) must be read as asserting a responsibility and authority no wider than the responsibility and authority for which Aquinas argues in the complex and carefully thought-out paragraphs by which the statement is flanked. And those paragraphs, as is now clear, deny rather than assert that a ruler should impose on individuals a legal duty to pursue their ultimate happiness or to abstain from choices which block that ultimate happiness without violating peace and justice. That denial will, as we have seen, be made much firmer and more explicit by the Summa Theologiae’s repeated differentiation of scope between divine governance and human governments’ limited responsibility for their subjects’ virtue. 



Still, how should one understand those many texts throughout Aquinas’s work[62] which flatly say that law and state have among their essential purposes and characteristics the inculcation of virtue by coercively requiring (within the limits of practicability) abstention from acts of vice? 

The answer seems to be this. Human law must inculcate virtues because it will only work well as a guarantor of justice and peace if its subjects internalize its norms and requirements and—more important— adopt its purpose of promoting and preserving justice. The public good cannot be well preserved if people are untrustworthy, vengeful, willing to evade their taxes and other civic duties, biased in jury service, and so forth. So the preservation of public good needs people to have the virtue, the inner dispositions, of justice.

This objective of inculcating virtue for the sake of peace and just conduct is coherent with Aquinas’s constant teaching[63] that government or law, while rightly demanding of subjects that they do what is just and abstain from doing what is unjust, cannot rightly demand of them that they do so with a just mind and will, cannot require that they be just in the central, character-related sense of “be a just person.” For just acts and forbearances are distinctly less likely to be chosen in the absence of a just character (habitus). So it is a legitimate hope and important aim (finis) of government and law that citizens will come to have the virtue of justice and act out of that particular excellence of character.[64]

And if that is a legitimate purpose, then it must be at least a legitimate interest of government that citizens have other virtues too. For there is no doubt that practical reasonableness is essentially all of a piece;[65] those who violate or neglect its directiveness in “private” choices are thereby weakened in their rational motives for following its directiveness in “pub­lic,” other-affecting choices. Moreover, it seems clear that government and law—though Aquinas scarcely affirms this directly and clearly[66]— can rightly, for reasons ultimately of justice and peace, require and enforce a public morality going wider than issues of justice and peace. For parents have a primary educative responsibility to their children, and this respon­sibility—which, unlike public authority, includes a responsibility not only for peace and justice[67] but also for seeing to the all-round character of the children[68]—may well be frustrated unless it is given some assistance and support by state government if only so that the educative responsibility of families to their children will not be frustrated. Those who corrupt children (e.g., drugs, sex, lying, greed, or sloth) do them a great injustice. So does anyone who neglects the child’s nutrition, nurture, and education; making provision for such matters therefore falls within the responsibility of government (ad eum qui regit rempublicam).[69] But even in seeking to promote justice-related virtues by requiring patterns of conduct which should habituate its subjects to the acts of these virtues,[70] the law cannot rightly require that people acquire, or be motivated by, these virtuous states of character or disposition. As Aquinas reiterates, the law’s require­ments (though not its legitimate objectives) are exhausted by “external” compliance.[71] 

Aquinas’s thesis that state law is in these ways restricted in legitimate jurisdiction helps explain the disconcertingly formal character of his treat­ment of two questions to which he gives some prominence: whether law seeks to make its subjects good,[72] and whether a good citizen must be a good person.[73] One expects something richer than Aquinas’s answers, which are (i) even wicked laws and rulers seek to make their subjects good (so that they be not merely obedient but readily obedient [bene obedientes] and thus good as subjects[74] and relative to the purposes of that regime);[75] and (ii) in bad states a good citizen need not be a good person (though in all states a ruler, to be a good ruler, should be a good person). These answers make reasonable sense if Aquinas is taking the usual question about law and virtue to be one about the conditions for securing justice and peace by sufficient coordination of social life through law. The nonformal, substantive question, whether the point of such coordination is to make people really good persons all-round, is simply not the issue in these passages.



One may still wonder how far all this can be reconciled with the Aristotelean critique of social-contract and mutual-insurance conceptions of the state, a critique which the De Regno puts thus:

The ultimate purpose (ultimus finis) of a community (multitudo) gathered together (congregatae) is to live in accordance with virtue; for people gather together (congregantur) to live well, which someone living alone cannot attain; but good life is life in accordance with virtue, and so virtuous life is the purpose of human gathering-together (congregationis). ... The only people who counted as a community are those who, under the same laws and same governing arrangements (regimen), are directed toward living well (diriguntur ad bene vivendum).[76]

Are such statements about the purpose of political community (statements often parallelled in Aquinas’s other works)[77] really consistent with idea that governments’ or law-makers’ responsibility to promote virtue does not authorize them to require more than the actions and forbearances necessary, directly or indirectly, for maintaining public and interpersonal good? I shall argue that they are, and that Aquinas’s differentiation of three diverse kinds of practical reasonableness (prudentia), individual, domestic, and political, helps make clear his whole, complex thought about the state’s virtue-promoting responsibility and authority.

If one is a reasonable individual, one wants to “gather together” into political community, and is willing to direct oneself by laws, for the sake of the help this community, this congregatio can give one in one’s  own unrestricted purposes: beatitudo at least imperfecta, involving “general justice” and love of God and neighbor as oneself. If one is a reasonable parent, one wants one’s family to participate in the political community so that the family may flourish in every practicable way and its members cooperate with a view to that same beatitudo. If one is a reasonable citizen voter or other participant in state government, one wants the law and the government to fulfill—that is, to act in a way that advances and do not fall short of—these purposes of individuals and families. Thus there is an important sense in which the common good of the political community is all-inclusive, nothing short of the beatitudo of its members and the fulfillment of their families. This all-inclusive common good of the state includes the all-round virtue of every member of the state.

But it simply does not follow that lawmakers and other participants in state government are responsible for directing and commanding all the choices that need to be made if this all-inclusive good is to be attained. It may well be that their responsibility is more limited, leaving families and individuals with a range of responsibilities that they must carry out within the requirements of justice and peace, but without the direction of government and law. If so, the goods that define the range of lawmakers’ and other rulers’ responsibility—say, the goods of peace and justice--can be called the common good of, specific to, the political community or state. This is the common good of, or specific to, a type of community which includes individuals and families, but whose successful organiza­tion, while assisting individuals and families to attain fulfillment, does not supersede their responsibility to make good choices and actions on the basis of their own deliberation and judgments. These choices and actions are “private”; the political community does not make, perform, or even stipulate them; they can be constitutive of beatitudo imperfecta more directly and immediately than any action by or on behalf of the political community can be (precisely as public, political action). There is, then, a specifically political common good whose content is understood in knowing what exactly the political community, organization, govern­ment, and law can properly contribute toward the beatitudo of the state’s members.

Accordingly, the reasonable pursuit of the “all-inclusive” common good is stratified into three distinct specializations of responsibility. Indi­vidual practical reasonableness (prudentia, without trace of selfishness), domestic practical reasonableness, and political practical reasonableness are three irreducibly distinct (diversi) species of prudentia,[78] three distinct “parts” of moral practical reasonableness.[79] Each of these species of pru­dentia, unlike military prudence,[80] is concerned not with some special project which can be finished off but with “the whole of life (tota vita).”[81] The specifically political prudentia which is paradigmatically and princi­pally, though not exclusively, the viewpoint of legislators[82] neither absorbs the other two nor includes, directly, the whole of their content. Although rulers are in many respects in charge of their subjects, their direct concern as rulers is only, as we have seen, the promotion of public good. Public good is a part or aspect of the all-inclusive common good, the part that provides an indispensable context and support for, and thus supplements, subserves, and supervises, those parts or aspects of the common good which are private (especially individual and familial good). And here we may add Aquinas’s partial anticipation of the principle of subsidiarity: “it is contrary to the proper character of the state’s government (contra rationem gubernationis [civitatis]) to impede people from acting according to their responsibilities (officia)—except in emergencies.”[83]

Still, the justice and peace which rulers must maintain are for the sake of individual and familial well-being and cannot be identified and pursued without a sound conception of individual and domestic responsi­bilities.[84] The politica which is the highest (principalior, principalissia) practical knowledge[85] must be politica in the sense that it includes, along with the specifically political, the considerations called by Aquinas oecnomica and monostica—the last being the Ethics which precedes the Politics.[86] Because the prudentia of rulers must comprehend, though without replacing, the prudentia of individuals and families, it is the most complete (perfectissima),[87] and though people who are not good persons can be good citizens (qua subjects), they cannot be good rulers.[88] The immediate and direct measure of individual and parental responsibility remains the practical reasonableness of individuals and parents, respectively.

In sum: The common good attainable in political community is thus a complex good attainable only if the state’s rulers, its families, and its individual citizens all perform their proper, specialized and stratific roles and responsibilities. This common good, which is in a sense the common good of the political community, is unlimited (the common good of the whole of human life). But there is also a common good which is “political” in the more specific sense that it is (i) the good of using government and law to assist individuals and families do well what they should be doing, together with (ii) the good(s) that sound action by and on behalf of the political community can add to the good attainable by individual and families as such (including the good of repelling and overcoming harms and deficiencies that individuals, families and other “private groupings cannot adequately handle). This, and only this, specifically political common good is what the state’s rulers are responsible for securing and should, by legislation and lawful judicial and administrative actions, require their subjects to respect and support. This specifically political common good is limited and in a sense instrumental.[89] It is what Aquinas, as we have seen, calls public good.



Aquinas’s treatment can thus be understood as coherent. But there remains the challenge of principle. Are there good grounds for judging the the states specific common good is this limited, public good of justice and peace? If a government or legislature should, as Aquinas certainly thinks, ascertain and adhere to the truth about human fulfillment and morality, why shouldn’t it use its public powers, and law’s coercive pedagogy, to require of all citizens the acts and forbearances which will advance their fulfillment and complete virtue? Aren’t rulers obliged to do so by moralis philosophia’s master principle, general justice or love of neighbor as oneself? Of course, if bad side-effects are too serious—if blowing one’s nose too hard draws blood[90]—the effort should doubtless be made more gradual and perhaps indirect. But why judge the effort wrong in principle, an abuse of public power, ultra vires because it is directed to an end which state government and law do not truly have?

Aquinas’s answers to such demands for justification are not as clear as we may wish. (When Kant and Mill announced positions similar to Aquinas’s, their attempted justifications were at bottom, at least as sketchy.) Responding to the question whether there are limits (of subject matter) to what can be required of subjects by their rulers, Aquinas denies that human law and government can have some obligation-imposing authority over “matters which concern the inner life of the will (in his quae pertinent ad interiorem motum voluntatis).”[91] In such matters we are subject only to God.[92] Ground for this denial perhaps emerges in the next sentences, where Aquinas further denies that one can be morally obliged to obey human rulers in relation to certain matters of actual bodily behavior, namely those which pertain to the nature of one’s body (ea quae pertinent ad naturam corporis).[93] In such matters, too, we are subject only to God—and this time a reason is assigned, the fundamental equality of human persons: “for we are all, by [or: in our] nature, on a par (quia omnes homines natura sunt pares).”[94] The matters thus outside state power include those (e.g., whether and whom to marry) which elsewhere he says are beyond the power of even the highest authority in a perfecta communita[95] because in them “one is so much a free and independent person (ita liber sui).”[96] And Aquinas mentions other such matters.[97]

 Sometimes Aquinas identifies them compendiously as “matters that concern one’s person—one’s bodily self (ea quae pertinent ad suam perso­nam).”[98] It is no coincidence that the status of freedom, self-possession, and equality—the metaphysical reality and normative entitlement which he is appealing to—is the status of persons.[99] This is the status which Aquinas seems to be taking for granted when he puts forward the argu­ments to which we now turn, arguments that concern the competence of government.

The first argument points to the inability of state rulers to succeed in supervising movements of the human spirit that are quite beyond their knowledge.[100] We can often reasonably judge the proximate intention with which someone is acting, but can rarely know the further and deeper intentions and dispositions with which that proximate intention was formed;[101] the lack of competence (capacity) is ground for denial of compe­tence (jurisdiction, authority, right): God, not any human ruler, is the judge of secrets.[102] The rulers or directors of human communities, for example, a religious congregation or state, have absolutely[103] no right or authority to require anyone to disclose a secret sin which does not affect that community’s public well-being. Only the effect on public well-being is the concern of human judges. A secret immorality may have this effect either intrinsically (e.g., plotting to betray the state to its enemies)[104] or extrinsically, as when it has become a matter of public notoriety (infamia) or of formal and responsible accusations.[105] Only in cases thus stamped with a public character may a judge or other ruler override the legitimate privacy of wrongdoers or those who know their secrets, and require disclosure.

 This line of thought assumes that judges and lawmakers appropriately have only limited responsibility and authority. This assumption is elaborated in a second argument, which develops more broadly the positions sketched in the preceding section, about the different viewpoint responsibilities, and strata of the common good. Fully developed, the argument would go well beyond this essay to consider Aquinas’s theory of moral limits (exceptionless moral norms, absolute human rights) and of property. But this argument can be suggested in outline, as it is in the remaining portion of this essay. It asks the questioner to go behind the proposition that states are complete communities, and to consider the grounds for that assertion, on the tacit assumption that the institutions which give this community its completeness—law and government-need justification in the face of the natural equality and freedom of persons, and need to show just why and when their authority overrides the responsibility of parents and the self-possession[106] of free persons above the age of puberty.[107]

The state is not an organism, but an order of cooperative action for some purpose.[108] But what is that purpose, and why does it differ in kind from the purposes of other groups which might be constituted for far reaching economic, educational, or defensive purposes? What makes the political community “complete,” rather than merely higher on a scale of increasingly inclusive membership and extensive objectives?


Prior to or independent of any politically organized community there can exist individuals and families and indeed groups of neighboring families. Any such groups of families are contingent in their size, interactions, and common purposes and activities, if any. Families, in their central form, are not in that way contingent.

No doubt families are contingent in the sense that each is formed by free choices—in the central case, by the free choice of a man and woman to enter upon that sort of reproductive and educative partnership which is also the “closest form of friendship.”[109] But families are noncontingent in the sense that they directly instantiate a basic human good[110]—the good probably best described as marriage itself.”[111] And, for a lengthy period in the life of all human infants, families are the direct and practically indispensable means of instantiating the basic good of life and health and, almost as directly and indispensably, the goods of knowledge, friendship (societas), and practical reasonableness, at least in their beginnings. No one is born without a mother and a father; the nurture without which no one survives cannot be more perceptively, lovingly, and fittingly provided than by a virtuous and capable mother and father, this mother and this father.[112] Love of neighbor as oneself has its perhaps most immediate and far-reaching demands right here, in the nurture of children to the point where they become what the parents were when they made by free choice the commitment of marriage: truly self-standing, each a liber or libera sui, a dominus or domina sui actus. 

“Human beings are by nature more conjugal than political.”[113] The family, essentially husband, wife, and children, is antecedent to, and more necessary than political society (because oriented around [ordinatur ad] acts of procreation and nurture necessary for life itself).[114] The complemen­tarity of man and woman in domestic life is the basis for an exclusive and fully committed friendship which (with good fortune) is not only useful and sexually enjoyable but also delightful simply as a friendship of virtue, a sharing of life and human goods (communicatio) which, Aquinas indicates, makes good sense even if children fail to be born or do not survive.[115] The life of the family and its household (domus) has such a far-reaching sufficiency of independent ends and such stability in patterns of effective means that it is the subject of a distinct discipline or practical science, oeconomica.

Aquinas knows that one can detach resource management from the household in order to make it simply the art of accumulating wealth on a scale as wide as the civitas, or wider.[116] He knows of economists who do this, “thinking that their function is the same as that of money-dealers (who seek cash [denarios] for its own sake), conserving and multiplying cash in infinitum.”[117] But in a reasonable conception of economics, accumu­lated money-wealth is merely instrumental to the good of persons— primarily and directly, of households,[118] the good of the totum bene vivere in shared domestic life (secundum domesticam conversationem).[119] (The wealth of a household is properly held and administered for the common good of the household and thus for the benefit of the family members,[120] primarily and directly for spouse, children, and other members of the family, secondarily and indirectly for the benefit also of the person respon­sible for this administration and distribution.)[121] Even if, unlike Aquinas, one envisages economics as an understanding of capital formation, production, and consumption on a scale as wide as the political community, if not of regional and worldwide markets, Aquinas’s household-oriented conception of the basic human purpose of economic activity can reasonably be sustained.

So Aquinas reaches the concept of “complete community” only by attending to the deficiencies of such a community’s elements or “parts”―fundamentally, individuals and families. These parts are prior to complete community not historically but in a more important way: their immediate and irreplaceable instantiation of basic human goods. The need which individuals have for the political community is not that it instantiates an otherwise unavailable basic good. By contrast, the lives of individuals and families directly instantiate basic goods, and can even provide means and context for instantiating all the other basic goods, for example, education, friends, marriage, and virtue. As for the nonbasic goods needed to support life and other basic goods—notably the inst mental goods of produce and exchange—Aquinas regards them as goods which, at least primarily and directly, are appropriately within the control of private persons and groups (potestati privatarum personarum subduntur res possessae),[122] dealing sometimes “in public”[123] and sometimes in private. Their instrumentality is essentially in the service of households. As we shall see, a state’s government and law can protect and greatly enhance the utility of these instrumental goods. Law and government thereby serve basic human goods which in other ways they serve more directly and immediately. The justice they can restore by “private law” reparatio or restitutio and “public law” retributio is doubtless an aspect of the basic good of societas, and in that respect one can say that the specifically political common good is more than merely instrumental. In other respects, however, the specifically political common good which is interdefined with the responsibilities of state government and law seems indeed to be an instrumental good or set of goods, albeit of preeminent complexity, scope, and dignity among instruments.



Contrary to what is often supposed, Aquinas’s many statements that we are “naturally political animals” have nothing particularly to do with political community.[124] So they cannot be pressed into service as implying that the state or its common good is the object of a natural inclination or an intrinsic and basic good. Strikingly, they do no more than assert our social not solitary nature,[125] our need to have interpersonal relationships for acquiring necessities such as food and clothing,[126] for speech,[127] and in general for getting along together (convivere);[128] or the need for various social but not peculiarly political virtues, such as good faith in promising and testifying, and so forth.[129] On the other hand, Aquinas accepts Aristot­le’s opinion that we are “naturally civil animals” because we are naturally parts of a civitas,[130] which stands to other natural communities[131] as an end.[132]

 In human affairs that are matters of deliberation and choice, what is natural is settled by asking what is intelligent and reasonable.[133] That in turn is settled by looking to the first principles of practical reason, to the basic human goods.[134] So the civitas could be called “natural” if participation in it (a) instantiates in itself a basic human good, or (b) is a rationally required component in, or indispensable means to instantiating, one or more basic human goods. Aquinas’s opinion, rather clearly, is that it is the latter. At the relevant point in his lists of basic human goods he mentions nothing more specific than living in fellowship (in societate vivere)[135]—something that is done with parents and children and spouse and friends and other people in various more or less temporary and specialized groups (of pilgrims, of students, of sailors, of merchants, and so forth).[136] The thought that we cannot live reasonably and well apart from a civitas[137] is consistent with the proposition that the common good specific to the civitas as such—the public good—is not basic but, rather, instrumental to securing human goods which are basic (including other forms of community or association, especially domestic and religious associations) and none of which is in itself political. If that proposition needs qualification, the qualification concerns the restoration of justice by the irreparable modes of punishment reserved to state government.

Consider both the proposition and the possible qualification. What is it that solitary individuals, families, and groups of families inevitably cannot do well? In what way are they inevitably “incomplete”? In their inability (i) to secure themselves well against violence (including invasion), theft, and fraud,[138] and (ii) to maintain a fair and stable system of distribut­ing, exploiting, and exchanging the natural resources which, Aquinas thinks,[139] are in reason and fairness—”naturally” (not merely “initially”) things common to all. That is to say, individuals and families cannot well secure and maintain the elements that make up the public good of justice and peace—a good which, with good fortune, also includes prosperity.[140] And so their realization of basic goods is less secure and full than if public justice and peace are maintained by law and other specifically political institutions and activities, in a way no individual or private group can appropriately undertake or match. The need which individuals and groups have for political community is that need, and the political commu­nity’s specific common good[141] is, accordingly, that public good.

Suppose nobody was badly disposed, unjust, recalcitrant. Would there be need for states with their governments and laws? Aquinas is clear that in such a paradise there would still be need for “government and direction of free people,” since social life requires some unity of social action and, where there are many intelligent and good people, there are many competing ideas about what actions should be done for the sake of the common good.[142] But he does not say that in such a state of affairs there would be need for specifically political, state government or law, and his discussion, important and clarifying as it is in some respects, does not really carry further the question why we need states, political government, and state law.

Consider that question in the context of, say, violence within the household. Why can’t this be dealt with by paternal power? Is it merely that the son may grow stronger than his parents, or outrun them? That is perhaps a relevant consideration.[143] But why does Aquinas say that neither the father nor any other nonpublic person can rightly threaten or impose penalties that are fully coercive?[144] Why can there be no law, in the focal sense,[145] within families or neighborhood groups of families?

Aquinas here does not explain as much as we may wish. He is insistent about distinguishing public from private. He does so in many contexts: self-defense, war, resistance to tyranny, intrafamilial discipline, ecclesiastical order, forms of justice, correction of wrongdoers, and so on. But he treats it rather as if axiomatic.[146] Still, if we bear in mind the content or force of the distinction, we may discern its purpose just below the surface of his texts.

What is matter for public authority is matter for law: the sword and the balance. It is matter for judgments, with often irreparable finality of outcome, given by impartial judges representing the princeps[147] before whom all who seek justice are equal.[148] None of us can rightly be simultane­ously prosecutor, judge, and witness.[149] Private persons and bodies are not equipped for judgment, especially judgment according to publicly established law,[150] and so cannot rightly impose the irreparable measures which may be needed to restore justice and peace. So they are incomplete, imperfecta, and in need of completion by the order of public justice. When a society not only has individuals flourishing in families and other private associations and dealings but also is equipped for public justice, it is in principle complete, perfecta.

The irreparability of various measures often needed to restore justice plays a large part in the argument. The family or household (including domestic servants) is an imperfecta communitas and within it there is an imperfecta potestas coercendi, a limited authority or right (not in any way delegated by the state) of imposing relatively light penalties, “penalties, such as a beating, which do no irreparable harm.”[151] But irreparable penalt­ies are different. The point is made vivid by Aquinas’s discussion of the law which in certain states in his day (as in various countries today) allowed a husband who found his wife committing adultery to kill her then and there, “on account of the unsurpassable provocation.” Aquinas denies that this legal provision can justify or even excuse the grave wicked­ness (reatus poenae aeternae [[“liable to eternal punishment”]]) of such a killing. He notes the law’s inequity between the sexes: husband and wife are properly judged on the same basis (vir et uxor ad paria judicantur).[152] But what concerns him more is that “no man is his wife’s judge.[153] As family head he could chastise the wife with a view to reforming her.[154] But no penalty going beyond such a limited measure of reformative correction can rightly be imposed, under any circumstances, by any private person (even as head of a family). For such persons are not judges. They lack the detachment which becomes possible in principle when the persona publico is differentiated from the persona privata.

That differentiation of personae, of roles, impressed Aquinas very greatly. It is the basis, for example, of his rigorous teaching (rejected by distinguished colleagues) that judges, because they act as personae publicae, must in all cases proceed only on evidence legally admissible before them, and never on their private knowledge, even when that is certain and would entitle someone accused of a capital offense to be acquitted.[155] And the differentiation is also, for Aquinas, a principal component in the “rule of law which is not the rule of men.”[156] Not that Aquinas thinks the rule of law is ultimately a matter of institutional arrangements; rather, it is a matter of doing what can be done to see that the state is ruled by “reason, i.e. by law which is a prescription of reason (dictamen rationis), or by somebody who acts according to reason” (rather than by “men, i.e. accord­ing to whim and passion”).[157] Still, there must be judges, people appointed to adjudicate, especially when the facts disputed and /or the dispute about them are issues of justice affecting the peace of the community. But Aqui­nas’s principal appeal to the Aristotelian “rule (governance) of law’ is for the purpose of arguing that as far as possible there should be laws to determine in advance what the judges are to decide; the fewest possible matters (paucissima) should be left to judicial discretion.[158]

Indeed, one can say that for Aquinas the whole construction of a strictly “public” realm is by law and for law. Both when working in the Platonic/Aristotelian paradigm of the civitas, as the civil and “complete community,”[159] and when shifting to the Jewish and perhaps Roman equivalent, the populus, Aquinas forcefully affirms the centrality of law in the political: “it belongs to the very notion of a people (ad rationem populi) that people’s [the members’] dealings with each other be regulated by just precepts of law.”[160]

And as we have seen, law—the central case of coercive law made and enforced by persons with public responsibility—appropriately requires of its subjects, not that they be or become persons of all-round virtue, but that they respect and uphold justice and peace. The justice and peace which the state’s law rightly seeks to secure are, of course, often violated in private, within families or between the parties to private dealings. The public good of justice is not restricted to “public spaces” or the transaction of public business. It can be desirable to get the rule of law into some private relationships which otherwise will become the occasion of injus­tice, of wrong done by one person to another.

“Public good prevails over private good,”[161] and private good should be “related (ordinari) to public good as if (sicut) to an end.”[162] Such statements about the relationship between private and public or common good are frequent in Aquinas’s work.[163] But they must be understood with precision, and read as compatible with what we have seen him clearly asserting: that there are private goods that prevail over public or other common good; the state’s rulers cannot intervene in private relationships and transactions to secure purposes other than justice and peace; the individual good, the common good of a family, and the common good of the state are irreducibly diverse; and private persons need not regard their lives as lived for the sake of the state and its purposes.[164] 

The human common good—now understanding that phrase without restriction to the state’s or political community’s good—is promoted, and love of neighbor is intelligently put into practice, when the common good that specifies the jurisdiction of state government and law is acknowledged to be neither all-inclusive nor (with one qualification) basic, but united and (except perhaps for restorative justice) instrumental. We should not deny that this is made clearer by the Church’s teaching during this century, teaching expounded with fresh clarity by Grisez in Living a Christian Life. But we may add, as a historical footnote, that amid very different, obfuscating circumstances and concerns, St. Thomas had reached the same sententia.

[1] Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2: Living a Christian Life (Quincy, Illinois: Franciscan Press, 1993), 850.

[2] As to “religious liberty,” however, I shall in this essay leave aside altogether both “recent Church teaching” and Aquinas’s position. Each is quite complex.

[3] Ibid., 836.

[4] Thus Grisez uses “government” where Leo Strauss would say “re­gime,” and vice versa.

[5] So civitas in the treatise on law is treated as synonymous with gens (e.g., ST. I-II q.105 a.1c) and populus (q.96 a.1c with q.98 a.6 ad 2).

[6] S.T. I-II q. 21 a.4 ad 3; In Eth. V.2 n.4 [903]; In Pol. I.1 n.3 [11]; III.6 n.5 [395]; likewise societas politica: Contra Impug. II c. 2c.

[7] S.T. I-II q.100 a.2c; In Pol. I.1 n.33 [41]; II.8 n.6 [259]. Likewise communi­tas civilis: In Eth. VIII.12 n.19 [1720].

[8] What Grisez calls the state and Aquinas the civitas or societas/communitas civilis/politica is called by Maritain the body politic; what Grisez calls government and Aquinas princeps/principatus, praelatus/praelatio, etc. Maritain calls the State, that part of the body politic which specializes in the interests of the whole, a set of institutions entitled to use coercion, and so forth: Jacques Maritain, Man and the State ([1951] London: Hollis & Carter, 1954), 8–11; Oeuvres Completes vol. IX (Fribourg & Paris, 1990), 490–95. Much the same distinctions are being drawn by the three writers, but, precisely in terms of those distinctions, the word “state” is used in opposing senses (each rooted in common speech) by Grisez and Maritain. I here follow Grisez’s usage (as also in ignoring Maritain’s distinction between “individual” and “person”).

[9] Aquinas calls these, too, civitates; only the context shows that in such cases he does not mean a “complete community.”

[10] He speaks, for example, of quasi-federal arrangements whereby a single king rules over a number of different civitates each of which is ruled by different laws and ministers: ST. I q.108 a.1c.

[11] De Reg. II c.5 [123, 126]; In Pol. II.4 n.1; In Meta. II.5 n.3.

[12] So in the treatise on law civitas is treated as synonymous with gens (e.g., S.T. I-II q.105 a.1c) and populus (q.96 a.1c with q.98 a.6 ad 2).

[13] Though treating the state very much as if it were the only politically organized people in the world, Aquinas’s account also holds that the statewide common good which the state’s laws are to promote and protect is but part of a wider common good. For this community is but part of a wider whole (see In Eth. I.2 n.12 [30]) and ultimately of the whole community of the universe (I communitas universi) (S.T. I-II q.91 Law makers’ prudentia, justice, and fully reasonable directiveness towards the common good of their own communitas perfecta must be informed by, and consistent with, the law of a universal community—a law which as understood and shared in by us is called the natural (lex naturalis; lex naturae; ius naturale). What the organization of that universal community really is remains, philosophically speaking, to be determined. But it must extend at least as wide as the whole of humanity, present and future. That is not to say that Aquinas is articulating a duty to future generations, or envisaging an international law, or an actually worldwide government; nor that any or of these would exhaust the significance of the open-endedness of the common good even of a community stipulated to be “complete.”

[14] Aquinas’s methodological decision is not, of course, a decision to regard the civitas as internally static or as free from external enemies. Revolutions and wars, flourishing, corruption, and decay, are firmly on the agenda, but not the question which people are or are entitled to be a civitas.

[15] See S.T. I-II q.5 a.5c: ‘the imperfect beatitudo attainable in this life can be acquired with natural human capacities, in the way that people can acquire virtue, in whose working out in action it [imperfect beatitudo] consists [virtus, cuius operatione consistit]; likewise q.4 a.6c, a.7c & a.8c; In Eth. I.13 nn.4–7 [157–160].

[16] See S.T. I-II q.90 a.2c: “perfecta communitas civitas est”; q.90 a.3 3; II-II q.65 a.2 ad 2; De Reg. I.2 [14]; In Pol. I.1 n.23 [31]: “civitas est communi perfecta”; see also S.T. II-II q.50 a.1c: “communita[s] perfecta[] civitatis vel regni.”

[17] Aquinas’s implicit procedure hereabouts is similar to his explicit procedure in relation to beatitudo (see S.T. I-II q.3 a.2 ad 2; q.5 a.3c & 8c; see also Sent. d.38 q.l a.2 ad 2; IV Sent. d.49 q.l a.3c; SCG IV c.95 n.7): give first a merely formal description, a communis ratio, a general or formal idea; then find the appropriate specialis ratio, the critically defensible, morally substantive account attainable by attending to the human goods at stake and their directiveness.

[18] See S.T. II-II q.58 a.5c.

[19] I-II q.91 a.4c.

[20] I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2.

[21] I-II q.93 a.3 ad 3.

[22] Politics III.5:11–14 (Aquinas’s commentary stops at 1280a6, but see In Pol. prol. n.4; I.1 n.23 [31] and, more clearly, De Reg. II c.3 [I,14] [106] (at n.76)). See also VIl.12:1332a28–b12; Nicomachean Ethics X.9:1179b32–1180a5; Fred. D. Miller, Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995), 225, 360; Robert P. George, Making Men Moral (Oxford University Press, 1993), 21–28.

[23] Politics III.5:1280b3335, 1281a1–4.

[24] S.T. I-II q.90 a.3 ad 2. See Nic. Eth. X.9:1179b31–1180a22; In Eth. X. 14 nn.13–l8 [2149–2154]. Other passages affirming that the point of law is to use its coerciveness in the promotion of virtue: In Eth. I.14 n.10 [174]; II.1 n.7 [251]. Passages making the same sort of point without special reference to the coercive power of law: In Eth. I.19 n.2 [225]; V.2 n.5 [904]; V.3 nn.1213 [9245].

[25] In Eth. X.14 n.17 [2153].

[26] In Eth. X.15 n.4 [2158] & n. 5 [2159]: “this is the only difference, that a parental precept {sermo} does not have the full coercive authority of a royal [or other public] precept {sermo}.”

[27] S.T. I-II q.98 a.1c. This important thesis was elaborately and clearly set out by Aquinas in his first version of SCG III c.121, one of about nine whole chapters which he later decided to eliminate from his draft treatment of divine law and government in SCG III. Among the material suppressed was a triplet of chapters contrasting divine law with the rule of tyrants, with the rule of just kings, and (less sharply) with the rule of human fathers. The chapter stating the disanalogy with just “kings” (i.e., with the very idea of state government) ran as follows (the emphases here as elsewhere in this essay are mine):


Gods law does not require merely that one behave well in relation to other people (sit bene ordinatus ad alias), as the laws of just kings do.

It is not merely that divine rule is dissimilar to the rule of tyrants who for their own advantage exploit those subject to them. Rather, divine rule also greatly differs from the rule of kings who intend their subjects’ advantage. For kings are constituted to preserve interpersonal social life (ad socialem vitam inter homines conservandam); that is why they are called “public persons,

as if to say promoters or guardians of public good. And for that reason, the laws they make direct people in their relationships with other people (secundum quod ad alios ordinantur). Those things, therefore, which neither advance nor damage the common good are neither prohibited nor commanded by human laws.

God, however, is concerned not only with ruling the human multitude, but also with what is in itself good for each person individually. For he is the creator and governor of nature, and the good of nature is realized not simply in the multitude but also in persons in themselves―each one. And so God commands and prohibits not only those things by which one human being is related (ordinatur) to another, but also those things according to which human persons are, in themselves (secundum se), disposed well or badly. Here what St Paul says is relevant: “The will of God is that you be made holy {sanctificatio}.”

In this way we exclude the error of those who say that only what harms or corrupts one’s neighbor {quibus proximus aut offenditur aut scandalizatur} is sinful. (Opera Omnia [Leonine ed.], vol. 14, 46* col. 1).

The passage clearly affirmed that just state law does not prescribe or prohibit thoughts, dispositions, intentions, choices, or actions which affect only the person whose will or deed they are. State law does not properly have as its responsibility the preservation or promotion of the all-round virtue, let alone the sanctification, of the individual subject, precisely as such. Its role is only to preserve and promote the common good, understood not as every true good in which human beings can share, but as the public good―a matter of interpersonal dealings, of specifically social life.

Although Aquinas eventually excised the (carefully revised) chapters which include this text, every part of the striking political thesis it articulates appears in the Summa Theologiae, if not always as clearly. The complex story of the composition of this part of SCG III is recounted in Opera Omnia (Leonine) vol. 14, Preface pp. viii-xxi, and Appendix pp. 3*, 42*–44*. The critical editor who analyzed the intricate series of changes judges that Aquinass motive was concern for the internal logic of this Summa as a whole: see esp. pp. xi–xii. (The revision’s goal was a treatment more economical and more tightly aligned with the general themes of the work as a whole. Divine law would now be explained, not by comparing and contrasting it with human law and government―which are nowhere discussed in SCG―but by appeal to other theological themes.) The shift in strategy affects material now mostly (but not entirely) found distributed from c.110 to c.139.

[28] S.T. I-II q.98 a.1c; the passage continues: “The purpose of divine law is to lead one to the end (finis) of eternal fulfillment (felicitas), an end which is blocked by any sin, and not merely by external acts but also by interior ones. And so what suffices for the perfection of human law, viz., that it prohibit wrongdoing (peccata) and impose punishments, does not suffice for the perfection of divine law; what that needs is that one be made completely ready for participation in eternal fulfilment.” SCG III c.121 n.3 argues that divine law can rightly regulate our internal dispositions (interiores affectiones) as well as our external acts and dealings: “Any law rightly made induces to virtue. But virtue consists in the rational regulation not only of external acts but also of internal dispositions. Therefore, . . .” Since the Summa contra Gentiles as a whole steers well clear of political questions, one need not take this argument as seriously offering a proposition―“any and every just law seeks to regulate the internal disposition of its subjects”―which in relation to human law is unambiguously and repeatedly rejected by the Summa Theologiae: see I-II q.91 a.4c; q.98 (just quoted), and q.100 aa.2c & 9c. Rather, SCG III c.121 n.3 is employing a rapid theological argument: law is always in some way directed to virtue; but real, complete virtue―the sort that God wills people to have―involves internal dispositions; therefore. . . .

[29] As the deleted SCG passage (see note 27) put it: “kings are constituted to preserve interpersonal social life (ad socialem vitam inter homines conservandam). . . .  For that reason the laws they make direct people [only, unlike divine government] in their relationships with other people (secundum quod ad alios ordinantur).”

[30] So it is unlike divine government, which, as the deleted SCG passage stated, “commands and prohibits not only those things by which one human being is related (homo ad alium ordinatur) to another, but also those things according to which human persons are each, in themselves, disposed well or badly “ (see fn. 27 above).

[31] S.T. I-II q.100 a.2c. Aquinas here appeals to Nic. Eth. V, perhaps (as the Leonine editors suggest) V.1:1129b1425, but more likely V.2:1130b25 (and see In Eth. V.2 n.5 [904]; V.3 nn.1213 [9245]), though nowhere does Aristotle make with any clarity the points which Aquinas is here concerned to assert about law’s restricted purpose and content. At any event, the point was equally clear to Aquinas in his early writings: see e.g., III Sent. d.37 q.1 a.2 sol.2c: “civil laws precepts direct people in communications and dealings (communicationibus) which are other-directed (ad alterum), in accord with the character of political life which can only be of one human person to another (secundum vitam politicam, quae quidem non potest esse nisi hominis ad hominem)[i.e., which cannot reach into our societas with God]. See likewise S.T. I-II q.99 a.5 ad 1; q.104 a.1 ad 1 & ad 3.

[32] “Practical reasonableness”: the virtue of prudentia, the instantiating of the good of reason(ableness), the bonum rationis: see e.g. III Sent. d.33 q.1 a.1 sol.1c & sol.2 ad 1; S.T. I-II q.94 a.3c.

[33] S.T. I-II q.96 a.3c. Disciplina, moral education, is at least principally a matter of the young (minores): II-II q.16 a.2 ad 2. What sort Aquinas has in mind is indicated, for example, in I-II q.105 a.2 ad 1: law should seek to accustom people to getting along together easily (assuefacere ut facile sibi invicem sua communicarent), which involves give and take (not being too concerned if someone passing through one’s vineyard eats some of the grapes); people who are well brought up, disciplinati, are not disturbed by this sort of thing; indeed their amicitia with their fellow-citizens is strengthened by it, and getting along together easily (facilis communicatio) is thereby confirmed and encouraged. It goes without saying that the disciplina includes many negative elements, such as the vigorous discouragement of acts such as homicide, theft, and so forth, which prejudice the maintenance of any decent societas humana (I-II q.96 a.2c) unless both prohibited and discouraged.

[34] Aquinas treats ecclesia and respublica in parallel: S.T. II-II q.31 a.3 ad 3; q.43 a.8c; Contra Impug. II c.2 ad 10 [67]; III Sent. d.9 q.2 a.3 ad 3. The Church resembles the political rather than the domestic (oeconomica) community (ecclesia similatur congegationi politicae): IV Sent. d.20 q.1 a.4 sol.1c.

[35] SCG III c.80 nn.14, 15: “in rebus humanis est aliquod bonum commune, quod quidem est bonum civitatis vel gentis. . . . Est etiam aliquod bonum quod non in communitate consistit, sed ad unumquemque pertinet secundum seipsum; non tamen uni soli est utile, sed multis; sicut quae sunt ab omnibus et singulis credenda et servanda, sicut ea quae sunt fidei et cultus divinus et alia huiusmodi.” And see S.T. q. 99 a.3c.

[36] III Sent. d.37 q.1 a.2 sol.2c (fn. 31 above).

[37] S.T. I-II q.100 a.2c (text at fn. 31 above).

[38] On the senses in which justice is and is not for the sake of peace, see SCG III c.34 n.2; c.128 n.6; S.T. II-II q.29 a.3 ad 3.

[39] S.T. II-II q.29 a.1c & ad 1; a.2 ad 2.

[40] I-II q.99 a.2c.

[41] Opera vol. 14 Appendix p. 43*.

[42] S.T. II-II q.38 a.1c; a serious form of immoral contentio is deliberately attacking truth and justice (veritatem iustitiae) in court: ad 3.

[43] II-II q.41 a.1c & ad 3.

[44] II-II q.42 a.1.

[45] II-II q.40 a.1.

[46] II-II q.29 a.1 ad 1; q.45 a.6c.

[47] II-II q.29 a.3c: for “this [neighbor love] involves being willing to do ones neighbor’s will even as one’s own.”

[48] The state’s rulers (politici) have a responsibility for providing their civitas with these economic necessities, though the provision itself will normally be by traders (negotiatores) who act not because they have a duty but for profit (propter lucrum quaerendum): S.T. II-II q.77 a.4c.

[49] De Reg. I c.2 [17]. It is a peace which is compatible with even tyranny: De Reg. I c.6 [44].

[50] Quodlibet XI q.15 a.2: intendit civilis legislator . . . pacem servare et stare inter cives . . . ; a.3 ad 1: although wrongfully dispossessed owners have no action at civil law, they do have according to divine law “whose purpose is the salvation of souls.”

[51] S.T. I-II q.96 a.3c (fn. 33 above); see also q.99 a.5 ad 1; In Eth. V.3 n.13 [925].

[52] See George, Making Men Moral, 28–31; Grisez, note 1; Finnis, “Liberalism and Natural Law Theory,Mercer Law Rev. 45 (1994): 687 at 695.

[53] See De Reg. prol. [1]; this dedication to the King of Cyprus states that the exposition will be “according to the authority of the holy scriptures and the teachings of philosophers, as well as the practice of worthy princesand will rely throughout on the help of God who is King of Kings, etc.

[54] “Inachevé, peut-être accidenté, . . . cet opuscule se présente dans des conditions un peu difficiles; elles imposent prudence et discrétion dans le recours à son texte comme expression de la pensée de l’auteur” [[“Unfinished, [and] perhaps damaged, . . . this minor work presents itself in rather difficult conditions; these require prudence and discretion when making recourse to its text as an expression of the author’s thought.” –Site Editor]]: Dondaine in Aquinas, Opera Omnia vol. 42 (1979), 424. See also Eschmann in Aquinas, On Kingship (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, 1949), p. xxx (dating the work to 1260–1265); pp. xxii–xxvi (holding that De Regno is a posthumously edited collection of unrevised and somewhat jumbled pages). Eschmann himself later rejected Aquinas’s authorship of the work, though perhaps rather equivocally; see Eschmann “St. Thomas Aquinas on the Two Powers,” Mediaeval Studies 20 (1958), 195–6; Weisheipl, Friar Thomas DAquino, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, DC, (1983), 434 n. 6; Dondaine (op. cit.), 423. The later Leonine editor (Dondaine, 421–424) plausibly concludes that it is substantially by Aquinas, and favors a later date before 1268.

[55] For example, IV Sent. d.49 q.1 a.2 sol.2 ad 4; I-II q.3 a.2 ad 4 & a.3.

[56] De Reg. II c.3 [I, 14] [106–109].

[57] Ibid. [110 (primacy of the Pope in administering this regimen); 111]; II c.4 [I, 15] c.16 [15] [114].

[58] De Reg. II c.3 [I, 14] [110, 111].

[59] De Reg. II c.4 [I, 15] [115].

[60] Ibid. [120].

[61] De Reg. II c.4 [I, 15] [119].

[62] S.T. I-II q.95 a.1c; SCG III c.121 n.3 (note 28); In Eth. II.1 n.7 [251]; V.3 n.12 [924].

[63] IV Sent. d.15 q.3 a.4 sol.1 ad 3; S.T. I-II q.96 a.3 ad 2; q.100 a.9 ad 1.

[64] S.T. I-II q.96 a.3 ad 2; q.100 a.9 ad 2; II Sent. 28 q.1 a.3c & ad 3; IV Sent. 15 q.3 a.4 sol.4 ad 3; Eth. II.1 n.7 [251].

[65] On the unity or connectedness (interdependence) of the virtues, see especially S.T. I-II q.65 a.1; De Virt. q.5 a.2; III Sent. d.36 q.1 a.1c.

[66] A clear statement, though directly concerned with ecclesiastical jurisdiction, is In I Tim. c.5.3 ad v.20 [221]: “The role of judges is public (iudex gerit personam publicam), and so they ought to have as their goal the common good (intendere bonum commune), which is harmed by public wrongdoing―because many people are corrupted (scandalizantur) by the example this gives. And so ecclesiastical judges ought to impose public punishments of a kind that will instruct and encourage others (ut alii aedificentur).Aquinass constant references to conduct which is corruptive of character (scandalizes” in the theologian’s sense of that word), not least the reference at the end of the excised SCG text quoted at note 27, now the final sentence of SCG III c.121, suggest this, though falling short of proving it.

[67] State law can rightly prohibit conduct which is an occasion of evils: see IV Sent. d.15 q.3 a.1 sol.4c.

[68] See, for example, the chapter on paternal authority in the deleted section of SCG II: Opera vol. 14, Appendix pp. 46*–48*. Here Aquinas argued that, unlike the rule of just kings, paternal rule over and responsibility for children extends “not only to matters in which the child relates to other people but also to matters which pertain to the child as such (pater curam habet de filio non solum quantum ad ea in quibus ordinatur ad alios, sicut rex, sed etiam quantum ad ea quae pertinent ad ipsum secundum se)” (pp. 46*–47*). Parental rule is still restricted (unlike divine rule) to what is externally apparent, since hearts remain hidden from human beings, even parents, though some aspects of the childs dispositions will doubtless be externally expressed and parents can be concerned with these (quatenus per exteriores actus interior dispositio explicatur).

[69] Contra Impug. II c.2 ad 10 [68); In Eth. X.14 n.13 [2149]; IV Sent. d.15 q.3 a.1 sol.4c.

[70] S.T. I-II q.95 a.1c.

[71] I-II q.96 a.3 ad 3; q.100 a.9; IV Sent. d.15 q.3 a.4 sol.1 ad 3.

[72] For example, S.T. I-II q.92 a.1; In Eth. I.19 n.2 [225].

[73] For example, In Eth. V.  n.14 [926]; In Pol. III.3.

[74] S.T. I-II q.92 a.1c: inducere subiectos ad propriam ipsorum virtutem.

[75] ibid.: non bonos . . . simpliciter, sed secundum quid, scilicet in ordine ad tale regimen.

[76] De Reg. II c.3 (I, 14) [106]. The next paragraph [107] looks beyond the imperfect beatitude of living virtuously and concludes that the ultimate end of the community, which is the same as the ultimate end of an individual, is to attain the fruition of perfect beatitude (per virtuosam vitam pervenire ad fruitionem divinam).

[77] E.g., S.T. I-II q.107 a.2c: the purpose of any law is that people become just and people of virtue (iusti et virtuosi)”; II Sent. d.44 q.1 ad 3c: “a [third] purpose of government (praelatio) is the rectification of conduct (corrigendum mores), as when bad people are punished and coercively brought to acts of virtue” (the first two functions of governance being to give people direction in their activities, and to make up for weaknesses [as when peoples are defended by kings]).

[78] Cf. the similar use of diversi in respect of the irreducibly distinct types of ordo and scientia discussed in In Eth. I.1 n.1 [1–2]: “secundum hos diversos ordines . . . sunt diversae scientiae” [2]. Diversa may differ in their very nature (essentia) (I q.31 a.2c & ad 1) and/or in their way of originating (Cred. 4).

[79] S.T. II-II q.48 a.1c; q.47 a.11 (“the good of individuals, the good of families, and the good of civitas or realm are different ends (diversi fines); so there are necessarily different species of prudentia corresponding to this difference in their respective ends: (i) prudentia without qualification (simpliciter dicta), which is directed (ordinat[ur]) toward one’s own good; (ii) domestic prudence directed toward the common good of household or family, and (iii) political prudence directed toward the common good of state or realm”); q.50 (the form of political prudence which is proper to state rulers is the most perfect form of prudence because it extends to more things and attains a further end than the other species of prudence).

[80] S.T. II-II q.48 a.1c; q.50 a.4. If military prudence deserves its place as a fourth species of prudentia, it is because it shares in the open-endedness of political prudence―is, so to speak, the extension of political prudence into the external hazard of war in which the whole life of the civitas and its elements is at stake: see II-II q.50 a.4 ad 1 & ad 2.

[81] II-II q.48 a.1c; “tota vita” is short for “the common end of the whole of human life” (communis finis totius humanae vitae) and “the good of the whole of life” (bonum totius vitae): q.47 a.13c & ad 3.

[82] II-II q.50 a.2 (note that in the preamble to this quaestio, the prudence of rulers (regnativa) is called the prudence involved in law-making [legispositiva]).

[83] SCG III c.71 n.4. What are these responsibilities? Marriage is one natural responsibility (officium naturae humanae) with which human law is rightly concerned (IV Sent. d.27 q.1 a.3 sol.1 ad 1; d.31 q.1 a.2c & a.3 sed contra 2; d.39 q.1 a.2 ad 3) and is a community responsibility (in officium communitatis) (d.34 q.1 a.1 ad 4).

[84] In leaving unprohibited the acts of certain vices (e.g., selling at unfair prices; or sex between unmarried adults), government does not approve them: S.T. I-II q.93 a.3 ad 3; II-II q.77 a.1 ad 1.

[85] In Eth. I.2 n.12–13 [30–31]; In Pol. prol. n.7 [7].

[86] See IV Sent. d.2 q.1 a.3 ad 3.

[87] S.T. II-II q.50 a.2 ad 1; see also In Eth. VI.7 n.7 [1201].

[88] S.T. I-II q.92 a.1 ad 3.

[89] In other contexts, too, Aquinas will use the term “common good” to refer to some good which falls short of, and is instrumental to, a more ultimate common good. Thus he will say that “the army’s leader intends the common good, that is to say [not peace and the state’s common weal, nor even victory, but rather] the whole army’s order (intendit bonum commune, scilicet ordinem totius exercitus)”: S.T. I-II q.9 a.1c.

[90] S.T. I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2, citing Proverbs 30:33, and arguing that human law is to bring people to virtue gradually, lest, being pushed too hard, they break out into worse wrongdoing.

[91] S.T. II-II q.104 a.5.

[92] He appeals, ibid. to Seneca’s teaching that even the servitude of the Roman slave does not rightly include the better part (melior pars) of the human being; one’s mind (mens), which is in charge of and responsible for itself (sui iuris).

[93] S.T. II-II q.104 a.5c; he mentions the preservation (sustenantatio) of one’s body, and propagation. See also IV Sent. d.36 q.1 a.2c: servants/serfs (servi) are not subject to their masters in any way that would restrict their freedom to eat, sleep and “do other things like that, pertaining to the body’s needs”―or their freedom to marry.

[94] Ibid. For this proposition see also S.T. I q.113 a.2 ad 3; II Sent. d.44 q.1 a.3 ad 1 (natura omnes homines aequales in libertate fecit); and likewise De Ver. 11 a.3c; In Rom. 9.3 ad v. 14 [766].

[95] Among the matters in which one’s freedom can rightfully prevail over all human commands are the decision not to marry someone: ibid. Of course, marriage necessarily concerns justice, not least because it is likely to result in children; so state laws can regulate the general conditions of marriage (De Malo q.15 a.2 ad 12; IV Sent. d.39 q.1 a.2 ad 3)―minimal age, incest bounds, and so forth―if they do so with fairness and humanity and in ways genuinely related to the true political good(SCG IV c.78 n.2). But even if doing so would advance some public policy or the well-being of a family or church or state, neither the state’s officials nor any domestic or religious authorities can rightly compel anyone to marry, or to marry this person, or forbid the marriage of two consenting adults who are not within the classes of persons reasonably disqualified or forbidden to marry (S.T. II-II q.104 a.5c; IV Sent. d.29 q.1 a.4; d.36 q.1 a.2).

[96] IV Sent. d.38 q.1 a.4 sol.1c.

[97] Another matter outside the rightful power of state government and law is the decision to take religious vows, for example, of virginity; here “private good” is more weighty (potius) than, preferable (excellentior) to, public or common good, because it belongs (Aquinas judges) to a different, higher genus than the common good of continued bodily propagation of the human species (S.T. II-II q.152 a.4 ad 3).

[98] S.T. II-II q.88 a.8 ad 2; IV Sent. q.1 sol.3 ad 2.

[99] Those who can freely dispose of their own persons (libere de sua persona disponere)” (S.T. II-II q.189 a.6 ad 2); a daughter is not her fathers maidservant (ancilla), and he has no power over her body (and so from the age of puberty [II-II q.88 a.8 ad 2], she can make her own decisions, for example, enter religious life without parental consent) “because she is a free person” (IV Sent. d.28 q.1 a.3 ad 1).

[100] For example, I-II q.100 a.9c: “it does not belong to human beings to judge any save external acts, for ‘human beings see [only] those things which show’ (1 Kings 16:7).” So even parental rule, which resembles divine government more closely than state rule does (because unlike state rule it can rightly concern itself with its subjects not merely as citizens but as what they are [secundum quod in sua natura subsist(unt)]), is restricted to “those things which are externally evidenced about someone (illa . . . quae in homine apparent exterius)” (Opera vol. 14 p. 47*, excised from SCG III after c.121).

[101] See e.g. De Malo q.16 a.5c.

[102] S.T. II-II q.33 a.7 ad 5; De Secreto 2 [1217].

[103] See De Secreto 1–3 [1216].

[104] S.T. II-II q.33 a.7c: “those secret sins which are physically or spiritually harmful to one’s neighbors. . . .” De Secreto 6 [1222] instances theft or arson in a [communal] house. Aquinas’s six colleagues on the 1269 Dominican consultative commission were less willing than him to regard the public interest as overriding the entitlement to keep secrets private. See also S.T. II-II q.68 a.1 ad 3.

[105] S.T. II-II q.33 a.7 ad 5; Quodl. IV q.8; De Secreto 4 & 5 [1219, 1221].

[106] S.T. II-II q.88 a.8 ad 2 (suae potestatis); q. 189 a.5c (propriae potestatis); a.6 ad 2.

[107] Puberty (usually about age 14 in males, 12 in females) is significant for these purposes as being the age by which most people can make proper use of reason in deliberation (debitum usum rationis): II-II q.189 a.5c.

[108] In Eth. 1 n.2 [5]; S.T. I-II q.17 a.4c; III q.8 a.1 ad 2; in De Malo q.4 note the quasi.

[109] SCG III c.123 n.6 [2964]: between husband and wife there is evidently the greatest friendship (maxima amicitia).

[110] That is, one of the human goods (bona humana) directed to by the first principles of human action (prima principia operum humanorum): S.T. I-II q.94 a.1 ad 2; a.2c; also II-II q.47 a.6c; q.56 a.1c; De Ver. q.5 a.1c.

[111] As in IV Sent. d.26 q.1 a.1c; also in S.T. I-II q.94 a.2c read with (i) its reference to Justinian’s Digest I.1.1 as read in IV Sent. d.26 q.1 a.1 sed contra and implicitly in In Eth. V.12 n.4 [1019], and (ii) In Matt. c.19 ad vv.4, 5; SCG III c.123 n.7 [2965]. Also IV Sent. d.26 q.1 a.3 ad 4.

[112] Critique of alternatives to marriage and family: In Pol II.1 n.7 [175]–.5 n.2 [208].

[113] In Eth. VIII.12 n.19 [1720]; also n.18 [1719]; Nic. Eth. VIII.12: 1162a17–18.

[114] In Eth. VIII.12 n. 19 [1720].

[115] Ibid. nn.22–25 [1721–24]; IV Sent. d.34 q.1 a.2 ad 3.

[116] De Reg. II c.3 [I,14] [106]: “if the ultimate end [of the human multitude) were abundance of wealth (divitiarum affluentia), the economist (economus) would be king.”

[117] In Pol. I.8 n.4 [125].

[118] S.T. II-II q.50 a.3 ad 2; In Eth. I.1 n.15 (15]; In I Tim. c.3.2 ad v.5 [104]: “wealth is not the end of economics but an instrument.”

[119] S.T. II-II q.50 a.3 ad 2.

[120] So the other and more basic meaning of economist (oeconomus) is a family’s procurator and dispensator, the person who nurtures and distributes the family’s goods: In Pol. I.1 n.5 [13]. The one in charge of a family (gubernator) is called a dispensator as being the one who with due weight and in due measure distributes to each member of the family the tasks and necessities of [their common] life: S.T. I-II q.97 a.4c.

[121] In Pol. III.5 n.5 [388].

[122] S.T. I-II q.105 a.2c: “. . . and so private persons can have voluntary dealings with each other in relation to these possessions, for example, buying, selling, making gifts, and other things of that sort.” The article proceeds to explain the need for state law to remedy the difficulties that arise in connexion with such dealings. Thus, as q. 104 a.1 ad 1 says, “rulers (princ[ipes]) have authority not only to regulate (ordinare) matters in dispute but also the voluntary contracts which people make, and indeed everything which pertains to a people’s communita[s] et regimen.

[123] Thus a large trade fair or market is a public association (albeit temporary) of traders: Contra Impug. II c.2 [57] note 146.

[124] The only seeming exceptions to this are texts in which his commentary tracks Aristotle’s argument that we are more naturally conjugal than political. Here “political” does refer to the political whole of which marital communities are parts: In Eth. VIII.12 nn.18–19 [1719–20].

[125] S.T. I-II q.72 a.4c; IV Sent. d.26 q.1

[126] SCG III c.85 n.11.

[127] In Periherm. I.2 n.2.

[128] In Eth. IX. 10 n.7 [1891]; see also De Reg. I c.1 [4–8].

[129] S.T. I-II q.61 a.5c (and see ad4); In Trin. II q.3 a.1 sed contra 3.

[130] Outside the commentary on the Politics, the notion that individuals and/or households are (naturally) parts of the civitas is stated at S.T. I-II q.90 a.2c; a.3 ad 3; q.92 a.1 ad 3; II-II q.47 a.11 ad 2; q.50 a.3c; q.59 a.3 ad 2; Contra Impug. II c.2 ad 3. The subjunctive conditional in S.T. I-II q.60 a.5c casts doubt on the appropriateness of calling people naturally parts of a particular civitas.

[131] At the relevant point in In Pol. I.1 n.20 [28], the neighborhood community is judged natural, alongside (or between) the family and the civitas.

[132] “Animal naturaliter civile” translates the same Greek phrase as “animal naturaliter politicum.” It is used only in In Eth. I.9 n.10 [112]; In Pol. I.1 nn.24,26,28,29 [32,34,36,37]. The naturalness of the civitas is stated in In Pol. I.1 nn.23,24,29,32 (which also states that we have within us a natural impetus to political community [communitas civitatis] as we have to the virtues).

[133] See e.g. S.T. I-II q.71 a.2c; q.94 a.3 ad 2.

[134] See note 110.

[135] S.T. I-II q.94 a.2c. See also Contra Impug. II c.2c: “societas nihil aliud esse videatur quam adunatio hominum ad unum aliquid communiter agendum . . . . adunatio hominum ad aliquid unum perficiendum . . . divers[ae] communicationes . . . nihil aliud sunt quam societates quaedam . . . [or] amiciti[ae].” [[“Society would seem to be nothing else than a union of men for doing some one thing in common. . . . a union of men for carrying out some one thing . . . diverse communications . . . are nothing else than certain societies . . . [or] friendships.” –Site Editor]]

[136] In Eth. I.9 n.10 [112].

[137] So the whole complex of human goods can be called our “civil and natural good (bonum civile at naturale hominis),” to which our will (i.e., our response to understood goods) has a natural, premoral inclination: III Sent. d.33 q.2 a.4 sol.3c. Now civilis in this sense is a common thirteenth[[-century]] theological term for “secular”, referring to this world as distinct from our heavenly patria. Still, as q.1 a.4c makes clear, Aquinas welcomes the “political” connotation of civilis even in this sort of context; for in one’s spiritual life one is civis civitatis Dei, citizen in a realm which, unlike our earthly civilitas, will not be left behind (evacuabitur) but rather perfected.

[138] The paternal power (authority) of admonition is inadequate in the face of rebels and contumacious offenders: S.T. I-II q.105 a.4 ad 5.

[139] S.T. II-II q.66 aa.2 & 3.

[140] See De Reg. I c.2 [20]: the fruits of good government are peace, justice, and affluentia rerum; and note 48. For the sake of economic benefits (commoditates), government and law can rightly permit (though never promote) certain economic injuries (e.g., unjust transactions such as usurious loans): Mal. q.13 a.4 ad 6; S.T. II-II q.78 a.1 ad 3.

[141] Sometimes called the civil good (bonum civile); see, for example, De Virt. q.5 a.4 ad 4: the purpose of legislation (and of the military art) is the preservation of the civil good (conservatio boni civilis est finis et terminus militaris et legis positivae).

[142] S.T. I q.96 a.4; cf. II Sent. d.44 q.1 ad 5 (omitting this reason for dominium and praelatio in paradise).

[143] See In Eth. I.1 n.2 [4].

[144] In Eth. X.14 n.17 [2153]; S.T. I-II q.67 a.1c; q.90 a.3 ad 2 (persona privata non . . . habet vim coactivam; quam debet habere lex) [[“A private person does not . . . have coercive force; which [force] the law ought to have” –Site Editor]]. Note that a leader of the domestic community (an imperfecta communitas) has the “incomplete” coercive power of imposing rather light penalties, penalties which do no irreparable harm (beating): I-II q.87 a.8 ad 3; II-II q.65 a.2 ad 2; IV Sent. d.37 q.2 a.l ad 4. But fundamentally, paternal discipline is by admonition (monitiones; potestas admonendi): S.T. I-II q.95 a.1c; q.100 a.11 ad 3; q.105 a.4 ad 5; see also In I Tim. c.1.3 ad v.9 [23].

[145] In a secondary sense of “law,” the household or family is governed by the order imposed by its leader’s “law and precept (ordo per legem et praeceptum)” (Meta. XII.12 n.8), “precepts or standing orders (praecepta vel statuta)” which [because not fully coercive] do not strictly speaking (proprie) have the character (ratio) of law (I-II q.90 a.3 ad 2 & ad 3).

[146] Since “public” and “private” are analogous rather than univocal terms, the line between them can be drawn in other ways in other contexts. So, for example, in Impug. II c.2, where the context is the admission of monks and friars to universities hitherto composed of other sorts of clerics, Aquinas undertakes a sketch of the difference between public and private: public societies (societates; communicationes) include the civitas or regnum (perpetual), traders foregathering at large trade fairs or markets (temporary), and the university (studium generale); private societies include families (perpetual), two friends or associates in a hostel (temporary), and colleges within the university. But his definitions of “public” and “private,” in terms of the type of matters with which they are respectively concerned (respublica versus negotium privatum) are unhelpfully circular. So the issue in the texts in question is not to be settled by attending to the words “public” and “private,” taken out of their context in the questions about coercion and adjudication.

[147] The custodia iustitiae, as a response to wrongdoing, is a commune bonum which is committed to a ruler (praelatus) as persona publica: IV Sent. d.19 q.2 a.1 ad 6.

[148] II Sent. d.44 q.2 a.1c.

[149] S.T. II-II q.67 a.3 ad 3: homo non potest esse simul accusator, iudex,et testis.

[150] See II-II q.60 a.6c & ad 1.

[151] S.T. II-II q.65 a.2 ad 2; in the household the father has, not full governmental authority (perfecta potestas regiminis), but a rulership analogous to (similitudo) the government of a realm (regii principatus): q. 50 a.3 ad 3.

[152] IV Sent. d.37 q.2 a.1 sed contra. Aquinas uses exactly the same phrase to state that husband and wife are equals in their right to marital intercourse (In Cor. VII.1 ad v.3 [321]) and in their right to marital separation (IV Sent. d.35 q.1 a.4c).

[153] IV Sent. d. 37q.2 a.1 ad 1. The point is dramatized by Aquinas’s view that the husband in such a case can rightly lay a charge against the adulterous wife in the state’s courts, and that he can even seek her execution, if such is the legal penalty and he does so “only out of concern for justice and without being moved by any vindictive ill-will or by hatred” (d.37 q.2 a.1c).

[154] IV Sent. d.37 q.2 a.1 ad 4.

[155] S.T. II-II q.67 a.2; q.64 a.6 ad 3: the judge in such a case should make exceptional efforts to obtain admissible evidence entitling the accused to be acquitted.

[156] On “the rule of law and not of men,” see In Eth. V.11 n.10 [1009].

[157] Ibid. Dictamen in Aquinas signifies the content of rational (even if mistaken) practical judgment (sententia vel dictamen rationis) (e.g. II Sent. 24 q.2 a.4c), and is thus frequently used by him to refer (i) to the content of one’s conscience (e.g. “conscience is a dictamen of reason”: II Sent. 24 q.2 a.4c; likewise I-II q.19 a.5c; “the judgment (iudicium) or dictamen of reason, the judgment which is conscience”: II Sent. 39 q.3 a.3c), and (ii) to the requirements of natural moral law and of “natural reason” (naturalis ratio): “moral precepts are in accord with human nature because they are the requirements/prescriptions (de dictamine) of natural reason”: IV Sent. 2 q.1 a.4 sol.1 ad 2; likewise I-II q.99 a.4c; q.100 a.11c; q.104 a.1c.

[158] S.T. I-II q.95 a.1 ad 2: for it is easier to find the relatively few people of practical reasonableness (sapientes) needed to enact decent laws (rectae leges) than the many people needed to reach sound judgments (ad recte iudicandum) in court; legislation can be long-mediated, but many judgments have to be given in circumstances of some urgency (subito); and legislative judgments, being concerned with matters both general and future, are less likely to be corrupted by affection, ill-will, or some other desire arising in relation to present and pressing litigants and circumstances. Few people left to assess the justice of a case without close direction by law can be trusted to give a just judgment (iustitia animate iudicis non invenitur in multis).

[159] To earlier references, add S.T. II-II q.161 a.1 ad 5: “civil life (vita civilis), in which the subjection of one person to another is determined according to the legal order (secundum legis ordinem).”

[160] I-II q. 105 a.2c: “ ... ut communicatio hominum ad invicem iustis praeceptis legis ordinetur.” Similarly II-II q.42 a.2c: the unity [of a people, whether state or kingdom] attacked by desertion is a unity of law and common welfare (iuris et communis utilitatis). When commenting on Aristotle’s characterization of the “complete community” (koinonia telei[[a]]) as one arranged to secure sufficiency in the necessities of life and, beyond that, in such a way that people live in a morally good way, Aquinas adds a restrictive qualification: “insofar as people’s lives are directed toward virtues through state laws (inquantum per leges civitatis ordinatur vita hominum ad virtutes)”: In Pol. I.1 n.23 [31].

[161] S.T. II-II q.117 a.6c.

[162] IV Sent. d.19 q.2 a.1 ad 6.

[163] See, for example, III Sent. d.30 q.1 a.1 ad 4; IV Sent. d.38 q.1 a.4 sol.1 ad 3.

[164] Even when one recognizes that one’s spouse or child has been sentenced by law justly and for the common good, one has no duty to stop wanting the punishment not to be imposed; one is fully entitled to hope that one’s family’s private common good will prevail in this way. In this precise sense, one can rightly prefer the private good of spouse, child, self, and family to the public and political common good: S.T. I-II q.19 a.10c; III q.18 a.6c: the preference does not contradict the public common good, and should not extend to willing to impede the public good. (It is not the sort of preference one shows in choosing one option rather than another available option which one also regards as acceptable; still less is it the sort of preference one shows in ranking two commensurables.)

Copyright 1998 by Georgetown University Press.

“Natural Law, God, Religion, and Human Fulfillment” 

by Germain Grisez

 [Grisez, Germain. “Natural Law, God, Religion, and Human Fulfillment.” The American Journal of Jurisprudence 46, no. 1 (2001): 3–36. Reproduced with permission of The American Journal of Jurisprudence.]


This paper deals with matters that deserve book-length treatment. Since I do not expect to write that book, the paper is only a sketch for a work I hope others will undertake.[1] 

Part one deals with the basic precepts of natural law, which are the primary principles of practical reason.[2] Part two explains how those principles manifest God and give rise to religion. Part three treats the relationship between religion and moral life. Part four considers relevant aspects of the biblical worldview, and criticizes St. Thomas Aquinas’s account of ultimate human fulfillment.


I. The Basic Precepts of Natural Law

In thinking we can act or not, or do this or that, it seems to be up to us which option we shall choose: I must opt for one of the available possibilities, but only my choice will determine which. In choosing, we have the experience of doing so freely.

Determinists regard this experience as misleading or illusory, but since it is not obviously so, the burden rests on them to show that we should accept their view. In trying to do that, they must do more than call our attention to facts and present us with purely logical analyses, for neither facts nor logical analyses by themselves, nor both together, can establish the truth of determin­ism. Thus, determinists regularly try to show that their view offers the most reasonable account of all the relevant facts and therefore should be accepted. That should appeals to our reasonableness and challenges us to pursue truth disinterestedly. But since we can rise to the challenge or not, it prescribes one of two alternatives really open to us. They are open to us, however, only because we understand the good of knowing truth and can choose for its sake or not. Inevitably, therefore, attempts by determinists to show that we should accept their view are self-defeating.[3]

Even animals and small children act, in the sense that they engage in goal-directed behavior. Such actions depend on patterning by instinct and/or experience, as well as on the prerational motivating factors commonly called “emotions.” Those motivating factors follow from an animal’s or a person’s perceptions, including memories and imagination, of inner and/or outer conditions, and they constantly trigger behavior that usually is an appropriate response to those conditions. Emotions usually remain subconscious; they are experienced only when unusually intense and/or when the behavior they tend to trigger is impeded.[4]

Little children’s actions manifest intelligence. Before the age of three, most children regularly use language to pursue goals, mainly by expressing their emotions verbally. Soon they are creatively solving practical problems. Intelligence plays only a subordinate role at first, for the child’s behavior is directed toward goals that are merely imaginable states of affairs and is determined by the emotions that happen to prevail. Under those conditions, the only intelligible goods in play are instrumental. Reason serves the emotions; freedom remains quiescent.

Many intelligible goods are only instrumental: One diets to reduce cholesterol, looks both ways to avoid getting hit, brushes one’s teeth to remove plaque. Lowering cholesterol, not getting hit, and removing plaque are indeed reasons for acting, but are intelligibly good only because they contribute to staying alive, intact, and healthy. Thus, free choices to diet, look both ways, and brush presuppose insight into the truth that life, including bodily integrity and health, is a good to be protected and promoted. That truth is a principle of practical reason, and the human good to which it directs action is basic. In other words, the prospect of benefits in respect to survival, bodily integrity, or health can be one’s ultimate reason for choosing. Of course, one also can regard basic goods as means to other goods. For example, people may wish to stay alive and healthy so as to care for their loved ones and fulfill other commitments.

Children do not deliberate until they begin to understand such intelligible, basic goods. That is because prospective instances of those goods (and of evils opposed to them) ground the reasons for (or against) choosing each alternative that is considered in deliberation. In comparing those reasons, it often becomes clear that the prospective benefits and disadvantages, considered by them­selves and precisely as such, are not intelligibly commensurable.[5] In such cases, there is both room and need for choice. Freedom awakens, and children begin choosing.

Some critics have argued that persons, rather than basic human goods, are the real principles of practical reasoning. The argument is unsound. True, both persons and the practical truths that direct action toward basic human goods are principles. But they are so in different ways: Persons are principles insofar as every choice is made for the benefit, real or apparent, of some person or group of persons; but basic human goods are principles insofar as they provide the ultimate reasons for choosing a certain action with a certain prospective benefit for a certain person or group.[6]

Someone might object that general principles cannot direct action to benefit particular persons. I grant that the primary principles of practical reason direct action toward goods whose beneficiaries are specified only as human. But every individual’s capacities to act are potentialities for self-realization, which includes sincere self-giving in unselfish love of others. Moreover, basic human goods are not the only necessary motives for specifically human action. Emotional motives also are necessary as a condition for possibilities to emerge as options for deliberation and choice. And those motives naturally focus on the prospective effects of action on oneself, one’s loved ones, and other individuals and groups. So, practical reason always presupposes particular persons to be benefited and for that very reason focuses on the human goods to be protected or promoted.[7]

How can reflection identify the basic human goods? The most direct way is by asking about actions that would, or do, carry out free choices: “Why should we do that?”, “Why did you do that?”, and the like. Persisting with such questions eventually uncovers a small group of ultimate reasons for choosing. These reasons instantiate the basic human goods, toward each of which a primary principle of practical reason directs action.

As we have seen, such inquiry makes it clear that life, including bodily integrity and health, is one sort of basic human good. Knowledge of truth and esthetic experience are another sort, skilled performance in work and play still another. The preceding sorts of basic goods I call “substantive.” While they provide reasons for choosing, their instantiations do not themselves include choices. For example, a patient’s health provides a reason for a physician’s choices, but nobody’s health includes those choices.

People also can strive, without any ulterior reason, to avoid or overcome various forms of personal and interpersonal conflict—or, to put the matter positively, to foster various forms of harmony within themselves and between themselves and others. So, among the basic goods are certain forms of harmony, whose instantiations necessarily include the choices by which one participates in them. I call such goods “reflexive.”

Most obvious among the reflexive goods are various forms of harmony between and among individuals and groups of persons: living at peace with others, neighborliness, friendship.[8] But similar goods—forms of inner peace—also can be realized within individuals and their personal lives. Emotions can be at odds with one’s judgments and choices: the harmony to which such disturbance is opposed is inner equilibrium or composure. One’s choices can conflict with one’s judgments, and one’s behavior can fail to express one’s inner self: the corresponding good is inner consistency. Most people also experience tension with, or even alienation from, what they recognize as a more-than-human source of meaning and value: so, another reflexive good is the harmony with a more-than-human reality that people seek by religious activities.[9]

Finally, marriage is a basic human good. People can freely choose to marry, seeking precisely the benefits of marital communion itself and the parenthood that typically fulfills it. Since marriage involves both an indissoluble covenant and the fulfillment of the sexual capacity, it is unique among basic goods by being simultaneously reflexive and substantive.[10]

Some hold that the principles of practical reason must somehow be derived from theoretical knowledge about human nature.[11] That view confuses priority in reality with priority in knowledge.[12] Human nature is prior in reality to the basic human goods that fulfill it.[13] However, because nothing is known except insofar as it is in act, we can come to know human nature only by knowing the whole set of human capacities, and those capacities are manifested only by their functions and the proper objects of those functions.[14] So, relevant aspects of human nature can become known only by reflecting upon the principles of practical reason and the basic goods to which the principles direct human action, and those principles and goods can be known reflectively only by considering human acts.

Still, with human acts as data, people know the basic goods in two ways.

One is theoretical reflection, such as the present discussion. Though the primary principles of practical reason cannot be derived from antecedent knowledge, they can be identified, as I have explained, by asking questions about the aims of specifically human acts. The basic goods also can be defended dialectically, not least by refuting unsound accounts of human nature. For example, the theoretical argument showing that determinism is self-defeating undermines many unsound accounts of the reflexive goods, to which free choices are essential.[15]

The other way of knowing the basic human goods is how everyone first comes to know them: by insights that grasp the self-evident truth of the practical principles directing specifically human actions to them.[16] Those insights are neither groundless intuitions nor the product of analyzing the meanings of words. They are insights into data. Of course, like theoretical insights, these insights transcend their data by universalizing. But they also do that in another way. Unlike a theoretical insight that transcends its data by grasping what is (that is, a reality that does not depend on the insight), a practical insight transcends its data by projecting what is to be (that is, the prospective realization of a human possibility through choice and action shaped by the insight itself).

In some cases, the data for these practical insights are actions that occur without free choice, together with the fulfillment that comes about in and through them. An agent exercising a capacity in that way, without engaging in theoretical reflection concomitantly knows not only the action but the capacity, its inherent inclination toward its fulfillment, and that fulfillment. For instance, a child’s spontaneous questioning and resultant knowledge are data. As children engage in such action, they become aware of what they are doing, of being able to do that sort of thing, of being inclined to do it, and of the sort of thing they achieve in doing it. Such immediate intellectual awareness can lead to theoretical reflection. But it also provides the intelligible elements for the practical insight: Knowledge of truth is a good to be pursued.[17]

Reflexive goods, however, essentially include free choices. So, only actions that carry out free choices can be data for an insight by which one comes to know a reflexive good. Actions carrying out choices for substantive goods can provide the necessary data; but those data are, I think, initially actions in which harmony is lacking—for example, when one’s choice to pursue some substantive good conflicts with someone else’s choice regarding it. I recall how, as a small child, I first came to understand one of the reflexive goods. My father, whom I loved dearly, caught me playing, contrary to his instructions, with samples of a product he was selling. A quiet and patient man, he gently reclaimed them without scolding me. But I realized he was saddened. At that moment, I also understood that harmony with others—and especially with him—was to be safeguarded, and that my disobedience was at odds with that good.


II. God and Religion

A sound argument for the existence of God begins by noticing that the existence of anything else we know or can imagine is contingent on the fulfillment of conditions outside the thing itself. The fact that a contingent thing exists is not included in what it is. Finding oneself in a universe of things that do not exist of themselves and seeking to account for these contingent things, one posits an ultimate cause that, being ultimate, depends on nothing else. It exists of itself: what it is includes that it is. But nothing can possibly lack anything included in what it is. So, the ultimate cause of contingent things necessarily is.

Reflecting on such an argument can make it clear that God, considered as the creator, is utterly mysterious.

The argument shows that the creator’s actual existence is included in what the creator is. By contrast, the actual existence of a creature neither is included in nor flows from what it is or from any characteristic it has. It follows that what the creator is cannot be anything any creature is. And whatever any creature is, the creator is not. So, whenever one uses a word in the same sense one uses it to say something true about a creature, what one says about the creature must be denied of God as creator.

Thus, God is not a body, matter, or energy; is not spatial or temporal; does not evolve or change in any way. But God’s changelessness does not imply fixity, inertia, or rigidity, for those also are intelligible characteristics of creatures. If God is not a body, neither is God a mind or conscious subject—using mind and conscious subject in the same sense we use them about ourselves. By experiencing ourselves and one another, we learn what it is to know, to choose, to be a person. But using words with exactly the same sense they have when we talk about ourselves, we must say: God does not know, does not choose, is not a person. Indeed, using words in exactly the same sense they have when we talk about creatures, we must say that God neither is a substance nor has a nature.[18]

Can we even say God causes? Not in any of the senses in which we say a creature causes. However, while we cannot know what God is, we can know something about him by considering how creatures are related to him. As Aquinas said: “We cannot grasp what God is, but what he is not, and how other things are related to him.”[19]

The question about contingent realities that initiates the argument leading to the existence of the creator poses a problem unlike any other: Why do such things exist? That why leads to a unique because—to the creator as the ultimate source of the being of everything else.

Now, various sorts of things within our experience are called “causes” in diverse senses. For instance, the fact that words are on a printed page is caused in diverse ways by the author’s choice of those words, the typesetter’s work, and the physical-chemical properties of paper and ink. Though accounting in diverse ways for the words’ being on the page, all those causes are called “causes” because they answer why questions. So, when we ask, “Why do contingent things exist?” whatever answers that why question also is called their cause, but using cause in a unique sense.

Where did that unique sense of cause come from? It developed in the argument and emerged from it, along with a unique sense of is, when one concluded that there is a cause of contingent things. That emergence of fresh meaning is like others that occurred when people asked other why questions and answered them by discovering other sorts of causes.

In sum, our knowledge about the relationship of created things to the creator enables us to say, with a definite sense, that the creator causes. So, without understanding what God is, we know that God has what it takes to account for the actual being of the universe.[20]

The heavens declare the glory of God and, in general, creation manifests the creator’s power and divinity, but not all creatures clearly manifest God’s providence and benevolence. They are best manifested by the law of the Lord—by revealed law fully and unmistakably, but, even without revelation, by the law written on every human heart.

Like much else pertaining to human nature, deliberation, using the principles of practical reason, begins only at a certain stage of a person’s development. Still, those self-evident principles direct all human choices, and in that sense, among others, are precepts of natural law.

Natural law manifests providence and benevolence because nothing else can account for its guidance toward the intelligible goods of every individual and community. Even if we evolved from lower forms, subhuman nature cannot account for practical principles that guide us toward intelligible goods; even though we experience and understand many naturally given goods, experience and theoretical knowledge cannot account for principles that direct us toward goods still to be realized; and even though many moral requirements follow from our previous actions and the actions of others, no human action can account for principles that guide every human action.

So, as people become aware of being guided toward intelligible goods by the principles of practical reason, they also become at least dimly aware of the more-than-human source of that guidance—a source about which the guidance itself provides indications. A guide toward intelligible goods must be thought of as intelligent; a guiding intelligence must be thought of as provident, that is, as acting on a plan; and an intelligence guiding all human beings and communities toward their good must be thought of as benevolent.[21]

One who follows others’ guidance cooperates with them. So, awareness that the prescriptivity—which is signified by is to beof the principles of practical reason is guidance by a more-than-human source tends to give anyone acting in accord with that guidance a sense of cooperating with that source. By the same token, following emotion against reason means failing to cooperate and disobeying the guidance received. And so, whenever one thinks that a norm depends upon the principles of practical reason, one implicitly knows not only practical reason’s is to be but obligation—that is, that one is bound by that prescriptivity’s source.[22]

Because one reasonably posits only as many causes as necessary to account for the facts and because the natural law comes with being human, it is reasonable to identify the more-than-human source of natural law with the creator. For people who draw that conclusion, identifying the two illuminates both.

On the one hand, aware that the source of natural law’s guidance is a necessary being and the source of the very existence of everything else, we realize that the guidance’s source is mysterious. Since it must have what it takes to direct us to our own goods, we must think of it as intelligent and benevolent. Still, knowing and willing like ours cannot be attributed to the necessary being. So, even though the more-than-human source of guidance is quasi-personal, it is both utterly incomprehensible and beyond human control.

On the other hand, necessarily thinking of the creator as intelligent, benevolent, and provident, we recognize our own reality and the reality of everything on which we depend as a gift. We also realize that the natural law’s source guides us to act within and upon a world whose very reality depends on that source itself.

Thus, by identifying the source of contingent things’ existence with the source of the natural law’s guidance, one better understands how human beings are related to the more-than-human source of meaning and value. One is aware of depending both for existence itself and for guidance and help in securing well-being and human flourishing not only upon one’s community but with it upon that unseen, quasi-personal other. In this way, awareness of our complex relationship to God enhances understanding of the terms of the principle of practical reason that directs us toward the good of religion: Harmony with God is to be preserved and promoted.[23] 


III. Religion and the Moral Life

There is a hierarchy of values: Every basic human good is superior to any instrumental good and to anything considered good precisely as the object of emotional desire. Yet, considered precisely as the ultimate reasons for acting, the whole set of basic goods does not constitute a hierarchy.[24] Rather, as ultimate reasons for acting, they are incommensurable: neither equally good nor more or less good than one another. For, as reasons for which there are no further reasons, the basic human goods are irreducible; and as pertaining to diverse categories, they are good in diverse ways.[25]

Does it follow that, in making commitments involving diverse sorts of basic goods, one is morally free to set whatever priorities one likes? No. One’s moral obligations sometimes limit the priorities one sets in making commitments involving diverse sorts of basic goods. One may judge that even though an option promises genuine benefit in terms of some basic good, it ought to be excluded on moral grounds; in that case, one plainly should choose a morally acceptable alternative.[26]

Still, that priority by itself does not provide a basis for organizing a person’s entire life. If there is no hierarchy among the basic goods of diverse categories, is such an integration even possible? The answer is yes.

The incommensurability of the basic goods of diverse categories does imply that one cannot organize one’s entire life in view of some prospective realization of a substantive good, such as life or knowledge of truth. No commitment to such a purpose can be relevant to every other choice one might make.[27] Moreover, no upright person supposes that any instantiation or set of instantiations of any substantive good deserves to be given the priority required to organize the whole of life. On the contrary, just as an upright person will freely give up his or her life rather than violate conscience, so such a person will forgo any other instance of a substantive good whenever promoting or protecting it would require an immoral action.

Of course, morally upright people always can find a way to avoid immorality while carrying out a general commitment involving one of the reflexive goods. Whenever a reflexive good to which they are committed is at stake, they always can do something morally acceptable to further that good. But harmony with other people is not at stake in every choice one makes, and harmony within oneself is at stake only when one or more appealing options is morally unacceptable; so, only the good of religion could be at stake in every choice. Therefore, only some prospective realization of that good could provide an overarching purpose to unify one’s entire life.

What might that overarching purpose be? To maintain and promote harmony with God in an ongoing cooperative relationship. For that purpose, one might commit oneself to act always in accord with all the guidance God provides.

But why make that commitment? First, because harmony with God is self-evidently good, and always following his guidance in an ongoing cooperative relationship will maintain and promote that harmony. Second, because God guides human individuals and communities toward their own good. So, consistently following his guidance is likely to safeguard and promote not only harmony with him but every other aspect of one’s well-being and flourishing. In choosing, it is not entirely within one’s power to achieve the benefits one intends; other conditions must concur, and the reality both of those conditions and of one’s own power depends on God. So, one depends on him for everything and always must hope for his cooperation. Mutuality requires that one consistently cooperate with him.

Of course, like an upright commitment to maintain harmony within oneself, the commitment to act always in accord with all God’s guidance would exclude choosing any option one judges morally unacceptable—that is, any option one judges to be at odds with the integral guidance of the principles of practical reason, the law God has written on human hearts. But God not only guides all human beings by the principles of practical reason. He also guides each person by his or her unique gifts and situation. One’s gifts and situation indicate which morally acceptable options to choose.

Each person has unique abilities, which make certain morally acceptable options more and less practicable. And, because people in particular situations have diverse concrete needs and possibilities of flourishing, diverse morally acceptable options offer them more or fewer prospective benefits. Those facts, having their reality from the creator, are reasonably accepted as providential signs. If one chooses to follow them, one often discerns which morally acceptable option best answers to one’s unique capacities and one’s own and others’ actual needs and possibilities of flourishing. And one is inclined to take that option, hoping that carrying it out will achieve the purpose one must suppose God intended one to act for in providing these unique capacities and placing one in this unique situation.

A person’s life would be an integrated whole if he or she consistently acted in accord with all the guidance God provides. Harmony with God would be the single ultimate end intended in every choice such a person made. Because God guides everyone toward fulfillment in human goods, that ultimate end would lead everyone committed to it to authentic self-fulfillment, including good interpersonal relationships. And because God guides different individuals to use their diverse gifts in diverse ways to meet their own and others’ diverse needs, that single ultimate end would lead different persons to organize their lives in somewhat different ways. Major elements in the structure of most people’s lives would be settled by their commitments to participate in certain enduring relationships and communities, and to make a living in a particular way. Those major commitments, in turn, would serve as the criterion for discerning among the remaining morally acceptable options in respect to the less central elements of one’s life.[28] If an entire community made and carried out such an overarching religious commitment, its members would thank God for the diverse gifts each person had received and would cooperate in using their diverse gifts to protect and promote the common good.

Not many people seem to have made and lived by such an overarching religious commitment. Although most have manifested some awareness of depending upon a more-than-human power, few seem to have known everything necessary in order to consider making an overarching commitment to cooperate consistently with that power.

Rationalization impedes many people’s grasp of relevant truths. Dimly aware of being guided by an unseen power and yet unwilling to cooperate consistently with it, one tries to overcome guilt feelings. There is some consolation in supposing that the unseen power’s guidance is self-interested; and, thinking God self-interested, people try to manipulate him, as they do one another. God’s incomprehensibility blocks that effort, but anthropomorphizing seemingly overcomes the obstacle. In this way, rationalization eventually leads to polytheism, human sacrifice, and much else at odds with metaphysical truth, sound morality, or both. Wanting to know what to do, people practice divination rather than attending to available, God-given guidance. With groups of sinful people divided from and conflicting with one another, each group tends to fashion its own god, elaborate its own religion, and develop its own moral code.

Even apart from rationalization, theoretical mistakes prevent many people from grasping relevant truths. It is easy to arrive at some knowledge about God, but it is very difficult to achieve clear and certain knowledge of all the truths presupposed by a sound religious commitment.

One view involving theoretical mistakes that distort both religion and the moral life is that ultimate reality is an absolute One, while human selves are fragments whose salvation lies in merging back into that One. Because that view misses the truth about the creator, creatures, and their possible coopera­tion, it has no place for harmony with God and precludes authentic religion. Offering nothing to hope for except eventual absorption into the One, it also negates personal dignity and devalues fulfillment in human goods. So far as personal identity, community, and flourishing in human goods are concerned, merging into the One is annihilation.

Key aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy are equally disastrous for religion and moral life. Aristotle never so much as mentions the good of harmony with God, the guidance he provides for us, the possibility of promoting and maintaining that harmony by consistently following that guidance, or the need to reflect upon one’s gifts and situation in order to discern which morally acceptable options to choose.

It is easy to see why those things did not attract Aristotle’s attention.

According to his view, there are many self-existent substances. The supreme substance, Aristotle’s highest god, is self-thinking thought. Being fully actual and changeless, it need not and cannot do or make anything. Some other substances, not fully actual, can try to become like this god by acting to realize themselves. Human beings are among those substances—although with them, as with other sublunary things, individuals come to be and pass away, so that only the concrete species is self-existent. Human beings naturally tend to actualize themselves and can do so fully only in an ordered set of functions culminating in the exercise of reason, which itself culminates in contemplating higher realities.

This view simply has no place for God, the creator and more-than-human guide to human fulfillment.[29] Aristotle’s highest god is not utterly mysterious; we can understand it well enough to know that we can have no personal relationship with it. It provides no guidance; we cannot cooperate with it. The very idea of harmony with it is meaningless.

Aristotle’s views of human nature and its fulfillment also are incompatible with someone’s making an overarching religious commitment for the sake of ongoing cooperation with God, and carrying out that commitment by organizing his or her unique life in accord with all the guidance God gives.

For Aristotle, human goods are intelligibly commensurable and ordered hierarchically. With one’s priorities determined by nature, nurture, and good fortune, one cannot organize one’s life by free commitments. Indeed, Aristotle does not recognize freedom of choice.[30] Paradigmatically, reason determines human beings’ actions.[31] On that view, human goodness is not personal but species-specific, though its more or less adequate realizations in particular instances exhibit the same wonderful variety found in the qualities of more or less perfect individuals of other natural kinds: snowflakes, oak trees, horses.

According to Aristotle, the paradigmatic functioning of practical reason presupposes moral virtue, but his so-called virtues are mere dispositions of a human individual’s natural capacities to function well. Thus, Aristotle has no conception of genuine moral virtues: aspects of a person whose feelings, spontaneous mental functions, thoughts, and skills are integrated with a set of freely chosen and faithfully fulfilled upright commitments that organize his or her life.[32]

On Aristotle’s view, not every person possesses dignity. Only the fortunate can benefit from philosophical reflection and practice, gradually perfect their capacities, come to follow reason consistently, and so realize their specifically human potential. Heredity and environment make many people poor specimens, unable to function well as human beings. Such people are natural slaves.


IV. The Biblical Worldview and Ultimate Human Fulfillment

The writers of the books that Jews and Christians alike accept as biblical affirm and develop what can be known by rational inquiry about God and humankind. God is both the incomprehensible creator, beyond human manipulation, and the provident Lord, guiding people toward what is good for them. He creates freely, makes human beings in his own image and likeness, and invites them to cooperate by tending subhuman creation and populating the earth. Disregard of God’s guidance and failure to maintain harmony with him cause people to lose harmony with one another and within themselves. Life itself is forfeited. Pain and frustration accompany procreative and life-sustaining labor.

Yet God begins redeeming humankind by calling together a people to be his own, making a covenant with them, and including in its stipulations norms protecting every member of the covenantal community. Not only does the covenant order every aspect of life, but God provides supplemental guidance, as needed, to individuals. He promises his chosen people that, if they live up to their commitment, they will find fulfillment in a homeland blessed with freedom, wise laws, justice, peace, and prosperity. Their nation will be a beacon for all others.

That worldview makes clear both the primacy of harmony with God and the intrinsic and irreducible goodness of other basic human goods. Persons possess equal dignity. Their choices are free and self-determining, and fundamental among them is the choice to accept or reject the covenant. Those who make that commitment and faithfully keep it truly love God. That love is all important. Wisdom, a divine gift rather than a human achievement, both fosters that love and is sustained by it.

The errors and manipulative practices of religions corrupted by self-deception are strictly excluded. Instead of sacrifices and oblations, God wants contrite and obedient hearts. He asks his people simply “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”[33] Virtue, as philosophers understood it, is hardly mentioned.[34] Human well-being and flourishing depend far more on God’s help and his people’s fidelity than on any perfection of their capacities for nonreligious activities.

That monotheistic worldview is further developed in the Gospels and other books of the Christian New Testament. Jesus is the divine Word become man, sent by the Father to gather together his chosen people. He invites that people to become the nucleus of a new and universal human community, united in friendship with God by a new and unbreakable covenant. Harmony with God and neighbor are to be instantiated by fulfilling the new covenant’s primary stipulations: to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.[35]

All are called to be incorporated into Christ in a way that not only preserves but perfects their individuality. Following Jesus, all of his members without exception are to fulfill themselves by using their gifts in serving others and building up this one body. The perfection of human capacities by rational reflection and practice is hardly mentioned.[36] The focus is on love and the Holy Spirit’s other gifts, gifts that enable each and every Christian to live the life of good deeds that God providentially prepared for him or her. Taking up one’s cross and following Jesus by living one’s unique personal vocation involves inevitable sacrifice and suffering. But those who come to know Jesus and make the commitment of faith are promised a share in the kingdom, provided they accept their vocation and faithfully fulfill it.

That kingdom is not of this world. It will come when God renews creation as a whole. Jesus compares the heavenly kingdom to a wedding feast. Everyone who shares in it will be fulfilled, yet some will be greater and others less. Each participant’s fulfillment will be appropriate to him or her, not species-specific. No longer will there be want or sorrow, death or sin in the kingdom; human well-being and flourishing will be fully realized and secured. Thus, one is to pray and work unceasingly for the kingdom’s coming and one’s entry into it. Indeed, the kingdom is to be sought first, for it is the principal object of Christian hope.[37]

Many New Testament passages make it clear that the blessed will see and intimately know God and/or Christ.[38] Plainly, that seeing and knowing will be a great blessing for those who enter into the kingdom. Yet the New Testament does not focus exclusively on it. Indeed, bodily resurrection is so often stressed that it might seem the chief blessing. More important, the vision of God is not described as the fulfillment of human nature.

Seeing God presupposes likeness to him, for that seeing is God’s own “knowing,” shared by his children.[39] Thus, the beatific vision will be a sharing in the intimacy that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit naturally enjoy with one another. Sharing in that intimacy will fulfill human persons insofar as, having become “participants in the divine nature,”[40] they are truly divine. That share in the divine nature is really distinct from their human nature; through God’s grace, Jesus’ followers really “become children of God,” “born from above” “of water and Spirit.”[41]

Now, if the New Testament’s teaching about sharing in the divine nature and seeing God is literally true, that seeing can no more be a human act that fulfills human persons precisely insofar as they are human than Jesus’ human acts and sufferings can pertain to the Word of God precisely insofar as he is divine. But despite the New Testament’s consistency and clarity, its teaching that Christians become children of God and share in his intimate life is of course not usually taken so literally.

Christian theologians agree that the child of God, born of water and the Spirit, enjoys the gift of the Spirit. That gift is called “uncreated grace” by Catholic theologians. But the indwelling Spirit is distinct from those in whom he dwells. So, something must transform those who become God’s children: Grace and charity, poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, inheres in them, as the Council of Trent definitively teaches.[42] Following a line of thought already clearly articulated by Aquinas, Catholic theologians since Trent have assumed that the transforming and inhering grace and charity, being distinct from the three divine persons, must be a created quality or qualities inhering in the soul.[43] However, I do not see how having a created quality or qualities in one’s soul can constitute sharing in the divine nature. Therefore, it seems to me that the transforming and inhering principle by which a human person shares in the divine nature is neither anything created nor the very creator himself, but is a reality other than both.[44]

I realize this position sounds self-contradictory, but so did the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to those to whom they were first proposed: Jesus is not the heavenly Father, yet is really God, as is the Holy Spirit (Trinity); Jesus is not a human person, yet is true man (Incarnation). I am suggesting that, similarly, the transforming grace and charity that inheres in those reborn as God’s children is neither the creator (the Trinity) nor a creature (something other than the divine nature). It is uncreated (a true sharing in divinity) and yet is really given by the Trinity’s free choice to persons who, as human, remain creatures (and so is a sharing by divine adoption, not a transformation of human nature that fulfills it).[45]

Moreover, rational reflection supports the thesis that the blessed can enjoy the beatific vision only insofar as they share in divine nature and that the beatific vision cannot per se fulfill them insofar as they are human. A created thing’s nature is the potency fulfilled by its complete actualization, and the divine nature is its own complete actuality. The enjoyment of divine goodness naturally pertains to divine persons as divine. But beings that share the same complete reality must be of the same nature, and beings different in nature cannot share the same complete reality. Thus, human persons can enjoy divine goodness only by sharing in the divine nature and the intimate life proper to that nature; and that sharing cannot be a human act fulfilling a person as human. Therefore, the blessed are not fulfilled in divine goodness and do not enjoy the beatific vision insofar as they are human.[46]

If the beatific vision is not a human act that fulfills human nature, how can grace build upon nature?[47] The possibility of its doing so is grounded in the Incarnation. In Christ, God comes to us as a fellow human. By God’s grace, Jesus’ faithful disciples will be humanly fulfilled by their cooperation and intimacy with him. As Jesus explains, by virtue of the intimacy with him that the gift of faith gives, even in this life his disciples see and know the Father through their human acts of seeing Jesus and knowing him to be who he really is: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”[48] That seeing and knowing plainly is not the beatific vision but a human act, which, though possible only because of God’s grace, fulfills Jesus’ disciples as human. Their human relationship with him also includes the intimacy of eucharistic communion, which is to be perfected by their sharing forever in his glorified humanity. Then too, human persons, risen and living gloriously in Christ, will be forever immune from both sin and death.

But how can we even be interested in the beatific vision? The answer lies in the fact that Jesus not only shares his own human fulfillment with believers by uniting their humanity with his, but also gives them “power to become children of God.”[49] He offers them a share in his divine nature and holds out to them the prospect of sharing the intimacy he enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Though that gift itself cannot fulfill human nature, human persons committed to cooperating with God in all things have good reason to accept it, since they not only receive the offer from Jesus, their human Lord, but can recognize it as a gift God wishes them to accept. If someone committed to cooperating with God in all things believes Jesus’ offer of divine filiation and his promise of intimacy with the Father, he or she has reason to welcome that gift, thank God for it, and cherish it.

In sum, though the beatific vision cannot per se fulfill the blessed as human, they are so fulfilled by their friendship with God, and that friendship, perfected by their union with Jesus, involves all the gifts God gives through Jesus. Among them are the blessed’s share in God’s very nature and their joy as his children in seeing him as he is. Thus, though the blessed per se enjoy the beatific vision only insofar as they are divine, they are as human indirectly fulfilled by it. Therefore, hoping to join the blessed, one can perform human acts bearing upon the beatific vision, such as praying for it.

Even so, since no human act can attain divine goodness in itself, divine goodness attained in the beatific vision cannot be a reason for making any choice. What, then, can be a reason for making a choice bearing on the beatific vision? Jesus explicitly taught that everyone should seek the kingdom, and that entering it would mean ultimate joy while missing out on it would be ultimate loss. So, enjoying one’s share in the kingdom and helping others attain it can be the ultimate end for doing everything a Christian does. The kingdom can be one’s overarching reason for choices because, as Jesus described it, the kingdom clearly includes human fulfillment: harmony with God unmarred by even the slightest sin, resurrection life, intimate friendship with Jesus, and the joy of living together in a perfect human community.

But I disagree with Aquinas. He held that human persons, precisely as human, can be fulfilled in divine goodness. He maintained that the blessed attain divine goodness in the beatific vision, which he regarded as a human intellectual act of knowing what God is.[50] He argued that the created intellect can see God, because a natural desire cannot be vain and “every intellect naturally desires vision of the divine substance.”[51] Of course, Aquinas did not suppose any creature to have an innate or naturally developed ability to arrive at or engage in the beatific vision. Rather, he held that vision to be an act of a kind entirely different from the intellectual acts attainable by a creature’s native capacities and their development. Aquinas explained that a created intellect needs to be enabled by God to transcend its natural limits and receive the beatific vision as his gift. In that sense, the act is not natural but supernatu­ral, a divine gift rather than a creaturely attainment.[52] But while regarding the beatific vision as supernatural in that respect, Aquinas held that the natural tendencies of the human mind and heart are fulfilled by that human act of knowing God and can find ultimate fulfillment in nothing else.[53]

I have argued that the New Testament and rational reflection support the view that the beatific vision cannot fulfill human persons insofar as they are human. But Aquinas’s view no doubt seemed to him a neat synthesis of the best philosophy and the theological tradition, especially of the views of Aristotle and St. Augustine. To explain and defend his synthetic view, Aquinas, as usual, articulated plausible arguments, which nevertheless seem to me vulnerable in several respects. But I shall criticize one proposition, which appears repeatedly, namely, that an ultimate end must be so absolutely fulfilling that it entirely satisfies desire and leaves nothing to be desired. (Hereafter, I refer to that proposition by using a shorter expression: the proposition that the ultimate end must be absolutely fulfilling.)

Aquinas invokes that proposition as a crucial premise in settling two central issues. In arguing that the human person’s happiness (beatitudo; ultimate and perfect fulfillment) is to be found in God’s goodness alone, he asserts: “For happiness is perfect good, which quiets desire (appetitum) entirely: it would not be the ultimate end if something still remained to be desired.”[54] And in arguing that the human person attains divine goodness and finds happiness only in the vision of the divine essence, Aquinas asserts: “The human person is not perfectly happy as long as something remains for him or her to desire and seek.”[55]

The proposition that an ultimate end must absolutely fulfill the human person seems to me false. On my view, human persons as human do have a natural “desire” for rich fulfillment: As I explained in part I, above, their capacities are naturally inclined toward the basic human goods—friendship with God, knowledge of truth and aesthetic experience, and so on. But no single instantiation of any of those goods—not even friendship with God—can utterly fulfill anyone. Everyone has far more desires and wishes than he or she can ever satisfy. Thus, everyone must choose among morally acceptable possibilities—for example, marrying or committing oneself to a state of life that precludes marriage, studying this or that, cultivating various gifts and pursuing various interests rather than others, and so forth. The richest possible fulfillment for a human person therefore is not something definite; it is open ended and indeterminate. But while natural desire never can be fully satisfied, still it is not vain, since it leads to whatever genuine fulfillment a person enjoys.

To defend my position that the beatific vision cannot fulfill human persons insofar as they are human, I must refute the proposition that the ultimate end must be absolutely fulfilling. I shall try to do so by showing the falsity of a thesis that Aquinas tries to establish by using that proposition as a premise.

The thesis at issue is more basic than those already discussed. Aquinas begins his treatise on beatitude by laying out his general understanding of the ultimate end. He shows first that every agent, including every acting human being, always acts for an end—meaning by end some definite good which is the action’s “cause,” in the sense that it is that for the sake of which the agent acts.[56] Then he shows that, since a causal series cannot go on forever, there must be some ultimate end of human life.[57] He next tries to prove the thesis I will try to refute, namely, that at any given time a person’s will cannot be directed to more than one thing as an ultimate end.

Aquinas begins by using as a premise the proposition that the ultimate end must be absolutely fulfilling: “Since everything desires its own perfection, one desires as an ultimate end that which one desires as a good that is perfect and will fulfill one.” From that he infers: “It is therefore necessary that the ultimate end so fulfill the human person’s desire that nothing apart from it is left to be desired.” With that as a premise, Aquinas easily concludes that having one ultimate end precludes having another: A person can have only one at a time.[58]

Three things in the same article show beyond doubt that the single ultimate end Aquinas has in mind is some definite good in which an individual expects to find complete satisfaction.

First, in the sed contra of the article, Aquinas quotes St. Paul concerning those whose god is their belly, and explains that gluttons put their ultimate end in its pleasures. So, that definite apparent good is one instance of the sort of ultimate end the article is concerned with. Second, to the first objection, based on Augustine’s report that some put the ultimate end in four things (pleasure, repose, the gifts of nature, and virtue), Aquinas says that those who put the ultimate end in those many things considered them together as one perfect good. So, that definite set of goods is another instance of the relevant sort of ultimate end. Third, in the final sentences of the article’s body, Aquinas’s argument shows that the question is not about the common ultimate end of human beings in general, but about the particular ultimate end of this or that particular human being: “Just as the ultimate end of the human person as such is to the whole human race, so the ultimate end of this person is to this person. It necessarily follows that, just as there naturally is one ultimate end of all human beings, so the will of this person is fixed upon one ultimate end.” Clearly, then, Aquinas is trying to prove in this article that at any given time one cannot intend more than one definite good (or set of goods) as ultimate end. And, in the next article, he goes on to try to show that one must desire whatever one desires for the sake of that single ultimate end.[59]

In fact, however, people’s wills can simultaneously have two or more ultimate ends, since sometimes they do. That becomes clear when one considers together four kinds of cases.[60]

First, most Christians have some interests unintegrated with their faith and their hope for heaven. Consider Joe, an eleven-year-old who lives in God’s love and hopes to go to heaven. He also plays baseball with his friends simply “for fun,” as he puts it, though when he chooses to play baseball rather than watch television, he grasps a good that he cannot articulate in the former that is absent from the latter, even though watching television also can be fun. If Joe were catechized about personal vocation, he would have some idea about how to relate the good involved in playing baseball to the good of heaven. But never having thought about the two ends together, he never has chosen to play baseball with the ultimate intention of friendship with God and living forever in his kingdom. Since he has never done that, heaven, though habitually intended by Joe, is in no way that for whose sake he chooses to play ball. So, when he is at play, Joe has at least two ultimate ends: heaven habitually and play actually.[61]

Second, many wicked people have multiple ends that they have not integrated with one another. Consider a politician who cares in the end about nothing but the pleasure of lechery and the power of high office. Realizing that he is risking power when he pursues pleasure, he tries to conceal his adulterous affairs. Still, when his secret is exposed, he reluctantly sacrifices illicit pleasure to remain in power. Up to then, pleasure and power plainly were two ends that the man willed, each for its own sake.

Third, Christians plainly have two ultimate ends when they commit themselves by a single choice to obduracy in mortal sin and to holding fast to their faith with the hope of eventual repentance. Consider Susan, a devout young woman who falls in love with a man and agrees to marry him before she finds out he is not free to marry. She realizes that adultery is a mortal sin and that living with him would mean regularly committing sins of adultery and not repenting them. She initially considers giving up the man or abandoning the practice of her faith and trying to forget it. But then Susan thinks of a third possibility: marry the man civilly and cling to her faith, hoping for eventual repentance and salvation. Rejecting the first two possibilities, she chooses the third: by a single choice she commits herself to both living in adultery and practicing her faith as fully as her honestly acknowledged state of mortal sin allows.[62]

Fourth, faithful Christians sometimes commit deliberate venial sins. Aquinas holds that God can remain such a venial sinner’s habitual ultimate end. He seems to suppose such a person simply does not think beyond the proximate end so as to direct it to some ultimate end other than God.[63] But that will not do. An ultimate end causes only by providing a reason for choosing to act for a proximate end, and God cannot provide any reason for choosing to act sinfully for any end. So, in sinning, deliberate venial sinners either have some ultimate end other than God or no ultimate end at all. But nobody can will anything except on account of some ultimate end.[64] Thus, deliberate venial sinners have some ultimate end other than God, and those in grace who commit deliberate venial sins simultaneously have at least two ultimate ends.

In sum, it is not true that at any one time a person’s will must have a single ultimate end in willing whatever it wills. Yet that thesis does follow from Aquinas’s premise that only what one regards as a perfect good, leaving nothing to be desired, can be taken as one’s ultimate end. And that, in turn, follows from the proposition that the ultimate end must be absolutely fulfilling. So that proposition also is false, and its falsity, in turn, renders unsound the two central arguments in which Aquinas uses it as a premise. Therefore, those two arguments do not show that the true ultimate end and fulfillment of human persons is in divine goodness attained in the human intellectual act of knowing what God is.[65] And, unsupported by such arguments, that theological position loses its plausibility as an interpretation of the New Testament’s teaching about human fulfillment.

Someone might object that I must be misinterpreting Aquinas’s thesis: How could he have overlooked such obvious data falsifying what he was trying to prove? That objection deserves a careful reply. There are at least four reasons why Aquinas overlooked the obvious.

First, Aquinas held that, on reaching the use of reason, every child in his or her very first morally significant act either turns toward God as ultimate end or commits a mortal sin.[66] Surely he would not have said that unless he thought it true, and he would not have thought it true had it been at odds with his own experience. Now, before Thomas was six years old, he was placed as an oblate at Monte Cassino Abbey. No doubt he was thoroughly catechized, and very likely he was confronted with Augustine’s stark alternatives: love of God to contempt of self or love of self to contempt of God. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that, unlike Joe of my example, Aquinas tightly organized his life from his earliest choices. And, mistakenly generalizing from his own unusual experience, he overlooked the obvious disarray of most people’s lives.

Second, the culture in which Aquinas lived and worked was far more homogeneous than ours, so that the options for organizing one’s life very likely seemed much sharper and clearer to him than they do to us. Moreover, he brought up no children and probably did little or no pastoral work, such as hearing confessions and preparing young people for the sacraments. Instead, his life of prayer, study, teaching, writing, consulting, and participating in deliberation about the affairs of his order almost entirely cut him off from experiences that would have forced him to pay attention to the lack of complete integration in most people’s lives.

Third, anyone developing an argument under extreme pressure, especially a new argument for a position long assumed to be true, easily overlooks obvious data that would falsify that position.[67] Aquinas wrote the treatise containing the thesis I am challenging late in his life, and his production during those last years was immense, so that it is hardly likely he had time to review and polish what he wrote. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that he failed to advert to the relevant data while dictating the article and never again had occasion to focus on it.

Finally, Aquinas was carrying out a large project of synthesis between Aristotle’s thought and previous Christian theology, especially that of St. Augustine. The points on which the two more or less agreed led Aquinas to a view of beatitude that he felt certain was right: beatitude was the true ultimate good to be intended by a human agent in every choice (Aristotle) which would completely satisfy the human person’s restless heart (Augustine). On that view of the true ultimate end, nobody simultaneously could intend both it and some other ultimate end. Aquinas was certain about the conclusion his argument needed to reach, and such certainty can distract even the best mind from obvious data that would falsify it.

Aquinas’s Christian ethics is seriously impaired in at least two ways by his view that the beatific vision fulfills the blessed precisely as human.

First, that view downgrades most of the specifically human goods for which Christians hope.[68] According to Aquinas’s view, the true ultimate end is an instantiation after death of one substantive good, namely, the human good of knowledge. But if that were so, Christians could not rightly make the commitment of faith and organize their entire lives by it in hope of heavenly fulfillment not only with respect to knowing God but also with respect to other human goods.[69] Of course, Aquinas never drew that conclusion; but his view of the beatific vision as a human good impoverished his account of the heavenly kingdom with respect to other human goods, leading him to hold, for example, that bodily resurrection and friends are not essential to heavenly beatitude but only contribute to its well-being.[70]

Moreover, in allowing even that subordinate value to bodily resurrection and friends, Aquinas implicitly contradicts his position that the true ultimate end will so completely fulfill human nature that it will leave the blessed nothing else to desire. If those who enjoy the beatific vision had nothing else to desire, their intellects and wills could tend to nothing else. And if their human capacities could tend to nothing else, the blessed as human could do nothing else. Even though they might, perhaps, in a sublimated way know and love one another in knowing and loving God, they would be wrapt in isolated ecstasy and would be forever unable to engage in any direct interaction, such as communication with one another (any such action distinct from the beatific vision would be something else toward which the blessed tended). This inconsistency is avoided if one accepts my view that salvation (participation in the heavenly kingdom) includes both the mature life of the blessed as divine (the beatific vision) and their fulfillment as human (rich participation in all the human goods, including human friendship with God, human communion with Jesus and his saints, resurrection life, human knowledge, and so on).[71]

Second, thinking that the beatific vision fulfills the blessed as human, Aquinas supposed that Christians living in God’s love cannot simultaneously intend other human goods as ultimate ends. As a result, he failed to see that even Christians in grace must deliberately organize their lives so that every other choice will implement their fundamental commitment of faith. Failing to see that, he failed to provide an adequate practical treatment of the require­ments of Christian life: to know Jesus well, to undertake to follow him, and to organize one’s entire life as cooperation with him and thereby with God.[72]

St. Thomas plainly understood and fulfilled those requirements in his personal life. But Aquinas the theologian never focused upon them. Instead, influenced by Aristotle, he focused on the virtues. Of course, having and exercising virtues is important in Christian life. But for Christian ethics, theoretical reflection on the virtues is far less helpful than practical reflection about how sinners, cooperating with grace, can find God’s plan for their lives, accept that plan, live according to it, and thus become the unique saints God wishes them to be.

While I think my arguments show that Aquinas was mistaken about the ultimate end, I also believe his Christian ethics was enriched by numerous truths—those he drew from divine revelation, those he personally discovered, and those he gathered from Aristotle and other sources. Authentic renewal of Christian ethics must build on those truths while setting aside Aquinas’s errors. Only that way of proceeding, not following him uncritically, truly is ad mentem divi Thomae. For St. Thomas valued truth more than his own opinion. And he was interested in serving God and the people of God, not in the empty honor of having his opinions regarded as tantamount to the truths of faith.[73]

[1] Some of the matters on which I offer new thoughts in this paper are treated more fully in other respects in Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 32 (1987): 99. Except for the treatment at the beginning of III, below (ending at note 28), clarifying the overarching religious commitment that can organize one’s entire life, nothing in the present paper is meant to amend that previous treatment.

[2] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 2. [[Hereafter, Summa Theologiae shall be abbreviated as S.T. Site Editor.]] For brevity’s sake, I do not deal here with the first principle of practical reason—“Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided”—though one must understand that principle to understand fully the prescriptivity of the practical principles I do deal with here. On the first principle, see Germain Grisez, “The First Principle of Practical Reason: A Commentary on the Summa Theologiae, 1-2, Question 94, Article 2,” Natural Law Forum 10 (1965): 168. Except for its final two paragraphs, which are corrected by intervening works and the present paper, that article still seems to me sound.

[3] For a full articulation of this line of argument against determinism, including answers to many objections likely to be provoked by my summary, see Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976).

[4] Thomistic authors call prerational motivating factors “passions of the soul” or “acts of the sensory appetites.” I think emotions is the most apt English word, provided one does not limit it, as people often do, to the instances of which one is conscious. Emotional motivations can be divided into four general sorts: (1) to engage positively with something perceived; (2) to engage destructively with something perceived; (3) to avoid engagement with something perceived; and (4) to avoid stimulation in general. As experienced, these tendencies are: (1) desire, enjoyment; (2) hatred, anger; (3) disgust, fear; and (4) languor, quiescence. The fourth sort of tendency generally is overlooked because it leads to withdrawal from situations that might arouse the other tendencies; yet the behavior involved in letting down and preparing to rest or sleep is a distinctive sort of purposeful movement requiring motivation no less than its alternatives.

[5] Prospective benefits and disadvantages that are not intelligibly commensurable when considered by themselves and precisely as such become commensurable when compared with moral norms, one’s emotions, or other standards that one nevertheless can set aside, reasonably or not, in making one’s choice. If, having begun to deliberate, one identifies some possible course of action that seems to offer all that any other (including doing nothing) offers and more, one loses interest in the other or others. As a result, choice is unnecessary, and one acts, without choosing, to realize that uniquely promising possibility. But when no possibility under consideration is found to offer unqualifiedly more or most good (or unqualifiedly less or least evil)—that is, none is found to offer all that any other offers and then some—the incommensurability of prospective benefits and disadvantages, considered by themselves and precisely as such, becomes obvious. This incommensurability both falsifies psychological determinism and makes clear the unworkability of alleged methods—utilitarian, consequentialist, proportionalist—of making a moral judgment by identifying the alternative that offers the greater (or greatest) net good, or lesser (or least) net harm. See Germain Grisez, “Against Consequentialism,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 23 (1978): 21; John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 24967. Note that the incommensurability of prospective benefits and disadvantages at issue here obtains among various instances of each basic good as well as among instances of diverse basic goods; so, the incommensurability at issue here is different from the incommensurability of the basic goods of diverse categories, which will be discussed at the beginning of part III, below, and the two should not be confused.

[6] Some who focus on persons wish to replace moral absolutes with a method (proportionalist, consequentialist, utilitarian) of specifying what is supposedly a “greater good” or “lesser evil” than an instance of a basic human good. For example, proponents of so-called abortion rights focus on pregnant women (“real persons” or “concrete persons”) in an effort to make killing unborn babies seem a lesser evil than various disadvantages women would suffer if denied abortions. Others who focus on persons seem to have been influenced by Kant; see, e.g., Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 63­66. Such a view is criticized by Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., “Aquinas, Kant, and Donagan on Moral Principles,” The New Scholasticism 58 (1984): 391, esp. at 4034. Though neither an opponent of moral absolutes nor a Kantian, Russell Hittinger, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), thinks (29) the “Grisez-Finnis position” shifts the “focus from persons to goods” and says (77) there is something “curiously, if not ironically, Platonic in this focus upon a general form of a good rather than the concrete good of the person in question.” Hittinger could have found my answer in many places in my works, for example: Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 121: “These goods are aspects of persons, not realities apart from persons.” The point is explained more fully on a page (which Hittinger elsewhere cites) of Contraception and the Natural Law (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1964), 78, concerning the relationship between the good of procreation and the person of the child: “The good which is an object of the parent’s effort is strictly speaking only what the parent can attain—not the child in his totality as a person but rather the child only insofar as his being and perfection depend upon the action of his parents. We easily become confused about this point because we assume that the relevant value is what is loved, and obviously the child as a whole is loved. However, persons are not among human goods as if they were values to be desired. Instead, they actualize and receive the human goods into personal existence.” In an appended note (104, n. 5), I explain that the distinction I make is the same one Aquinas makes between love of “concupiscence” and love of “friendship”; goods are loved with the former and persons with the latter, and both are involved in every act of love.

[7] Of course, one may be unreasonable in presupposing that certain persons rather than others are to benefit. Such bias cannot be corrected solely by appealing to the principles of practical reason. One must rectify one’s emotions by the moral exercise mandated by the Golden Rule. Having done that, one’s emotions play their proper part by picking out the appropriate beneficiaries of prospective actions. On the Golden Rule, see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 3, Difficult Moral Questions (Quincy, III.: Franciscan Press, 1997), 86367.

[8] Labeling the reflexive goods is not easy. Morally neutral expressions are needed, but most words that refer to them connote moral goodness. That is understandable. The reflexive goods do pertain to the moral order—that is, to the realm whose fundamental categories are moral good and evil. Moreover, when instantiations of the reflexive goods involve only morally good choices, the harmonies realized are moral goods, such as true friendship, authentic virtue, and real peace with God. Therefore, upright people tend to overlook the distinction between the reflexive goods considered as principles of practical reason and their morally good instantiations. However, even wicked people grasp the value of the various forms of harmony and try to protect and promote them. For example, seeking peace of conscience, sinners often rationalize and deceive themselves. Similarly, seeking the harmony of “a more perfect union” and “domestic tranquillity,” people institute political structures that embody injustices such as slavery.

[9] People sometimes choose to do what is morally good even when they are aware of no reason for so choosing other than that it is morally good. So, someone might argue that moral goodness is another category of basic human good, with the corresponding primary principle of practical reason that moral good is to be done and moral evil to be avoided. However, people in general do not manifest any inclination to choose moral goodness for its own sake; only virtuous people manifest that inclination. And it is easy to see why this is so. Everyone understands the goods of inner composure and inner consistency and is naturally inclined to them; but virtuous people overlook the distinction between those goods considered as principles and their morally good instantiations, which pertain to moral virtues; so, they always are inclined to choose what is morally good, even when unaware of any ulterior reason for their choice. If, however, there were a self-evident principle of practical reason directing that moral good be done and moral evil be avoided, that principle would presuppose a natural inclination of some human capacity toward moral goodness; and, since an inclination toward moral goodness would not be toward the object of any single human capacity, it would have to be in the person as a whole. If there is an inclination toward moral goodness in a person as a whole, however, that person is virtuous. Thus, if people had a natural inclination toward moral goodness, they would be virtuous by nature. But in fact they are not; they become virtuous only by consistently making and perseveringly carrying out morally good free choices.

[10] For that reason, a marriage is fully constituted only by free choices—the couple’s mutual consent—followed by marital intercourse in which they become one flesh; see Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan Press, 1993), 56768, 57374, 58587.

[11] See, e.g., Hittinger, op. cit., passim; Ralph Mclnerny, “The Principles of Natural Law,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 25 (1980). Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 3562. For a reply to the criticisms in Mclnerny’s article, see John Finnis and Germain Grisez, “The Basic Principles of Natural Law: A Reply to Ralph Mclnerny,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 26 (1981): 21; Mclnerny’s book fails to take that reply into account. For a more general reply to criticisms offered by Hittinger, Mclnerny, and others holding similar views, see Robert P. George, In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5975, 8391.

[12] It also overlooks the metaphysical irreducibility of (1) the existential order of human acts, which make up personal and interpersonal life, to (2) the natural order, including human beings. That metaphysical irreducibility grounds the logical irreducibility of the practical (including moral) truths that shape (1), when and insofar as people freely conform to those truths, to any set of theoretical truths that conform to (2). And that logical irreducibility explains the epistemic priority—that is, the priority in knowledge—of practical principles with which the sentence to which this note is attached is mainly concerned. The metaphysical irreducibility of (1) to (2) and the logical irreducibility of practical truths to theoretical truths may seem puzzling and mysterious. But they are no more so than the metaphysical irreducibility of the logical order to the natural order and of logical truths to theoretical truths about extralogical entities. On such irreducibilities, see chap. 14, “Limits of Reductionism,” in Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 23040.

[13] Although I have not called attention to this point, neither I nor any of my collaborators has ever denied it, and John Finnis has asserted it repeatedly and forcefully; see, e.g.: Fundamentals of Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1983), 2023; “Natural Inclinations and Natural Rights: Deriving ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’ According to Aquinas,” in L. J. Elders and K. Hedwig, eds., Lex et Libertas: Freedom and Law According to St. Thomas Aquinas, Studi Tomistici, 30 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1987), 4355; Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 9094.

[14] Aristotle articulated this truth about the order of knowing, and Aquinas often restated it; see, e.g., S.T., 1, q. 87, a. 3, c.; In De anima, lib. 2, lect. 6; also see Finnis, Aquinas, 2931.

[15] Similarly, a theoretical argument showing dualism false undermines theories that try to justify contralife acts and nonmarital sexual acts by treating the goods they destroy, damage, or impede as merely instrumental. See Germain Grisez, “Dualism and the New Morality,” Atti del Congresso Internationale Tommaso d’Aquino nel suo Settimo Centenario, vol. 5, L’Agire Morale (Naples: Edizioni Domenicane Italiane, 1977), 32330; for a refutation of dualism, see Patrick Lee, “Human Beings Are Animals,” in Robert P. George, ed., Natural Law and Moral Inquiry: Ethics, Metaphysics, and Politics in the Work of Germain Grisez (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998), 13551.

[16] Moral norms and sound moral judgments presuppose much more than knowledge of the principles of practical reason. So, insight into self-evident practical principles by no means precludes the need for grace, the help of other people, and one’s own persistent effort if one is to become prudent. See Grisez, Living a Christian Life, 245304, esp. 24649.

[17] Unlike theoretical principles, which generally function without being known by us and come to be known only when we investigate their consequences, practical principles function only by being known by us and giving us reasons for adopting proposals to pursue benefits by instantiating basic goods. Therefore, although children exercise their capacities to play and seek knowledge before they understand the relevant basic goods, until they understand those goods as reasons for acting, they cannot deliberate about diverse possible ways of instantiating such goods, choose to pursue some of those possibilities, and carry out those choices. No doubt, both children’s practical insights into basic goods and their ability to articulate such insights develop through their personal experience, socialization, and formal education. Still, at each stage of that development human acts are shaped, and thus limited, by the goods as then understood.

[18] Created natures are such that each individual has one and cannot have more than one. So, if God had a nature in the same sense that creatures do, nobody could be both human and divine.

[19] Summa contra Gentiles, I, 30.

[20] The matters dealt with in the present part up to this point are treated more fully in Grisez, Beyond the New Theism, 3691 and 23072.

[21] Proceeding theologically, Aquinas explains (S.T., 1-2, q. 91, a. 2) that all creatures are subject to God’s providence, but rational creatures are subject to it in a special way: by sharing in it in providing for themselves and others. He concludes: “Thus rational creatures share in the very eternal plan by which they have a natural inclination to their appropriate action and end, and that participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called ‘natural law.’”

[22] Thus, one first knows prescriptivity, then becomes aware of its source, and only then realizes that one is bound by that source. So, the prescriptivity of practical reason cannot be reduced to a combination of theoretical truth about goods that will fulfill human nature and a divine command to act for such goods.

[23] Even without awareness of the creator, awareness of the natural law no doubt leads to the insight that harmony with the source of its directiveness is a good to be realized and safeguarded. Grasping that principle, even initially, presupposes data that become available only by reflection both upon actions directed by other principles of the natural law and upon those principles’ prescriptivity. But given the necessary data, the principle about harmony with God, like other principles of practical reason, is self-evident. Like them, too, it is part of the data necessary for a sound theory of human nature, not a conclusion drawn from such a theory. Still, as i have explained, identifying the source of the natural law’s directiveness with the creator develops insight into the good of religion. Development of insight is not peculiar to the good of religion; see Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, 182; “A Critique of Russell Hittinger’s Book, A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory,” The New Scholasticism 62 (1988): 45658.

[24] Moral truth rather than nature establishes the right priorities among the basic goods. As will be explained, while that right order is in one respect the same for every person, it is not so in other respects. Thus, some people rightly forgo marriage and parenthood, and others rightly dedicate themselves so completely to their spouses and children that they must forgo most opportunities to pursue theoretical knowledge, appreciation of beauty, and play, and may find it reasonable to sacrifice their health and even life itself.

[25] Note that this incommensurability among the basic goods of diverse categories is one thing; an entirely different thing is the incommensurability, already mentioned in part I, among the prospective benefits and disadvantages of choosing and carrying out the different options about which one deliberates. Only the latter incommensurability, not that of the basic goods of diverse categories, is a necessary condition for free choice and incompatible with utilitarianism, consequentialism, and proportionalism. The distinction between the two incommensurabilities has been overlooked by some critics—e.g., Hittinger, op. cit., 6579, though he cites (74, n. 59) a page (Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, 156) on which the distinction is stated. Hittinger’s overlooking the distinction, his assuming (op. cit., 13946) that no moral norms order one’s plan of life unless there is a hierarchy among the basic human goods, and other mistakes vitiate his attempt to criticize what he calls “the new natural law theory.”

[26] Though basic goods of diverse categories are incommensurable, truths that distinguish moral good from moral evil follow from and specify the integral directiveness of the primary principles of practical reason: see Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” 12131.

[27] Some will object that one’s ultimate end is relevant to every other choice one makes, and that every human being’s true ultimate end is the prospective supernatural realization of the substantive good of knowing the first truth: the beatific vision of God. That objection will be dealt with in part IV, below.

[28] This explanation of personal divine guidance—by the concrete signs of one’s unique capacities and one’s own and others’ needs and possibilities of flourishing—amends and complements the account provided in Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” 14146. But see that earlier account for a richer sketch of the interplay between sin and distorted religious practices and views of God.

[29] Richard Sorabji, “Infinite Power Impressed: The Transformation of Aristotle’s Physics and Theology,” in Richard Sorabji, ed., Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 18198, explains how medieval Christian theologians, including Aquinas, were led—partly by works mistakenly attributed to Aristotle and partly by a line of commentary going back to the Neoplatonist Ammonius—to suppose that Aristotle’s god creates and sustains the universe. Rendered docile to Aristotle by that supposition, Aquinas and other Christian theologians appropriated his thought for their theology, remedying only those defects in it that were clear to them in light of their faith. I would argue that those theologians, overlooking obstacles to a personal relationship with Aristotle’s god, were led by his thought to develop an ambitious theology of God’s attributes vulnerable to many of the objections of process theology—objections to which Christian faith’s teachings about God are not themselves vulnerable. Of course, the god fashioned by process theologians has its own fatal flaws.

[30] Aristotle talks about choice but not free choice. Significantly, Aquinas, who regularly uses liberum arbitrium to refer to free choice (the expression appears about 1900 times in his works), in all of his commentaries on Aristotle uses that expression only once (see In Phys., lib. 2, lect. 10), and then to interpret the Latin translation Aquinas was using. Still, it might seem that Aristotle does recognize free choice: He holds that not everything happens necessarily in the sublunar world (and thus maintains indeterminism in nature generally), recognizes the role even animals have in the genesis of their own behavior, and insists upon the deliberation characteristic of voluntary human action. Thus, Richard Sorabji, Necessity, Cause, and Blame: Perspectives on Aristotle’s Theory (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980), viii, defines determinism as “the view that whatever happens has all along been necessary, that is, fixed or inevitable,” and cogently argues (23356) that Aristotle denies determinism thus defined. But Sorabji argues with equal cogency (22733) that Aristotle holds people’s deliberations and actions to be caused by an unbroken chain of antecedents. In explaining and defending that complex view, however, Sorabji never even considers choice, and thus overlooks the fact that an unbroken causal chain is incompatible with the self-determination of choice required for its freedom (see Boyle, Grisez, and Tollefsen, op. cit., 825). Thus, if Sorabji’s interpretation is sound, Aristotle not only fails to recognize free choice but implicitly rejects it. Also see the authors Sorabji cites (243, n. 1) who interpret Aristotle’s account of actions as deterministic. Because Aristotle overlooks free choice, his ethics has no place for radical conversion; becoming good is possible only if its necessary preconditions are given; see M. F. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to Be Good,” in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1980), 6992.

[31] Of course, other factors quite often determine human actions, just as the species-specific instincts of animals paradigmatically determine their behavior, even though other factors sometimes determine the behavior of defective or diseased animals, and regularly determine that of domesticated ones. Aristotle’s view so exalts the exercise of reason that other aspects of human well-being and flourishing might seem to be, not intrinsic goods, but only conditions for reason’s exercise or material for it to shape. However, Aristotle argues that the supreme good for human beings is eudaimonia (happiness), and many scholars maintain that diverse intrinsic goods contribute to eudaimonia; for one carefully argued articulation of this view with references to others’ similar views, see Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Aristotle’s Theory of Moral Insight (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 3121.

[32] On this understanding of virtues, see Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, 5059; Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” 12931.

[33] Mi 6.8. On this verse, see Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Micah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible, 24E (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 50239, esp. 52730.

[34] See H.-G. Link and A. Ringwald, “Virtue,” in Colin Brown, ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1978), 926.

[35] In receiving God’s commandments, the Israelites were exhorted to be faithful to the Lord: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6.45). Jesus endorses the primacy of this commandment’s call to faithful love (see Mt 22.3638, Mk 12.2830, Lk 10.2528) and further specifies what constitutes perfect love. Christians are to abide in the divine love with which God loves Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15.9). That charity is not itself a human act, but human acts are related to it: see Grisez, Living a Christian Life, 13233. The specifically Christian overarching religious commitment is the act of faith in Jesus and his teaching. Though faith is a divine gift, in no way merited by human persons, the commitment of faith is a free choice by which one shares in a covenantal relationship with God mediated by Jesus’ humanity (see ibid., 38). Hope is the intending of the kingdom for whose sake one makes the commitment of faith and every choice implementing that commitment (see ibid., 7887).

[36] The Stoic philosophers, who shaped the more noble secular moral standards of the culture in which St. Paul preached, had articulated a moral ideal in terms of the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. By contrast, Paul presents God’s grace and Jesus’ redemptive death and resurrection, which struck the “wise” as foolish, as the principles of the kingdom’s far superior culture. Thus, rather than instructing Christians about the wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude they might strive for, Paul tells them that God “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1.30).

[37] In accord with God’s promise, Christians “wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pt 3.13). This new world is God’s kingdom; it already exists insofar as God’s saving work in Jesus reconciles fallen humankind (see Mt 12.28; Lk 11.20, 17.2021; Rom 6.5-14; Eph 2.47; Col 2.1213, 3.14). However, one looks forward to the completion of God’s plan and to the full experience of one’s own share in his kingdom (see Mt 25.3134, Rom 8.1225). This will come about when Jesus returns. So, Christian hope focuses on this future event: Jesus’ coming in glory (see Mt 24.2931, Mk 13.2427, Lk 21.2728, 1 Thes 4.1317). On that day, he will radically transform the world by excluding all sin and all other evil, and by establishing unbreakable communion with God (see 1 Cor 15.2327, 2 Pt 3.1012, Rv 21.14). One hopes for the resurrection of the dead (see 1 Cor 15.1224), because only those who share in the life of the risen Jesus will share fully in his kingdom. All who die in Christ will live again in the kingdom by sharing in the life that Jesus himself has enjoyed since God raised him from the dead (see 1 Cor 15.1923,1 Thes 4.1314). Hope also extends to what is necessary to enter into the kingdom. One hopes for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who enables one to fulfill one’s covenantal responsibilities and guarantees one’s share in the kingdom (see Jn 14.1517, 16.714; Rom 8.117; Gal 5.2225). One hopes for the pardon of one’s sins (see 1 Jn 1.9), because unforgiven grave sin renders a person incapable of entering the heavenly kingdom (see 1 Cor 6.911; Gal 5.1921; Eph 2.16; Rv 21.8, 22.15).

[38] One now lives “in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Tit 1.2); “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17.3). One looks forward to knowing God and Jesus so intimately that one will become a mature member of God’s family (see 1 Cor 13.11-12, l Jn 3.2), and so by the gift of the Holy Spirit share, like Jesus, in divine glory (see 2 Cor 3.18; cf. Rom 5.2).

[39] “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3.2; cf. 1 Cor 13.1112). Some exegetes take “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” to mean that our seeing God will make us like him, but others take it (as I do) to mean that the expectation of seeing God as he is makes it clear that God’s little children will become like him. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible, 30 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982), treats this verse (39297), and reports (396) that Schnackenburg takes the passage to mean: “we shall still be like Him at the revelation; and therefore we shall be able to see Him as He is” (italics added), and Brown himself remarks of that reading: “Grammatically this is quite defensible,” but personally does not take a firm position. In my judgment, the reading I prefer is required inasmuch as a being’s nature (what it is) simply is the real ground of its capacities and functions, so that nothing any being does can make it be what it is. Moreover, the logic of the verse as a whole supports that reading: the first sentence raises a question about what we will be, not a question about how we will come to be that; therefore, the second sentence must be answering that question by telling us what we will be (and giving us a reason for accepting what it tells us), not telling how we will be transformed so as to become like God.

[40] 2 Pt l.4.

[41] Jn 1.12, 3.38; cf. 1 Jn 2.293.10.

[42] Sec Decree on Justification, canon 11 (DS 1561).

[43] In treating grace, Aquinas deals with the participation in the divine nature mentioned in 2 Pt 1.4. He holds that grace of the relevant sort is a created quality (see S.T., 1-2, q. 110, a. 2) that quasi-formally brings about in human beings a participation in the divine nature (a. 3) according to a certain likeness, by inhering in the essence of the soul (a. 4). The significance of “according to a certain likeness” becomes clear if one considers the following: If anyone said that the Word of God did not assume human nature itself but only participated in it according to a certain likeness, that person would be denying the Incarnation.

[44] Some theologians of the Eastern Church see the problem much as I do and take a somewhat similar position. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: Hames Clarke, 1957), 172, articulates the notion of uncreated grace distinct from the Holy Spirit: “In the theology of the Eastern Church, as we have already remarked, the Person of the Holy Spirit, the giver of grace, is always distinguished from the uncreated grace which He confers. It is the energy or procession of the one nature: the divinity . . . in so far as it is ineffably distinct from the essence and communicates itself to created beings, deifying them.” On the uncreated energies, see 6790. Also, see John Meyendorff, A Study of Gregory Palamas, trans. George Lawrence (London: Faith Press, 1964), 21718. For a compact statement of this Eastern view, together with many indications that might be followed up by historical research: M. Edmund Hussey, “The Persons-Energy Structure in the Theology of St. Gregory Palamas,” St. Vladamir’s Theological Quarterly 18 (1974): 22, esp. the summary, 26. For helpful indications of the consistency of this Eastern theology with Catholic faith: Louis Bouyer, Le Consolateur: Esprit-Saint et vie de Grâce (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1980), 42149.

[45] For a fuller statement and defense of this position, see Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, 58090 and 59294.1 think that my view articulates an understanding of truths of faith rooted in Scripture and compatible with the Catholic Church’s teachings. But I could be mistaken and stand ready to accept the Church’s judgment.

[46] Aquinas replies (see S.T., 1-2, q. 3, a. 8, ad 2) to a somewhat similar argument by distinguishing between what is desired as the ultimate end and how it is attained. On the one hand, what constitutes the perfection of God, created persons, and, indeed, all beings is the same, namely, divine goodness. For, as he has explained earlier, all things tend somehow toward divine goodness, even if only by tending toward their own limited goodness, since the goodness of creatures is a participation in divine goodness. On the other hand, God and created persons differ in how they attain divine goodness. God’s happiness is in comprehending his essence, while the happiness of created persons is in seeing God’s essence without comprehending it. But this reply of Aquinas misses the point, at least of my objection. This concerns neither the sameness of all creatures in tending toward divine goodness nor the difference between God and the blessed in how they know the divine essence. Rather, it concerns Aquinas’s claim that created persons, by an act (albeit a supernatural act) of a capacity pertaining to their own created nature, can attain to divine goodness itself and thereby be absolutely fulfilled by it.

[47] As will become clear, I do not entirely agree with what Aquinas means by “grace presupposes nature.” His accounts of both human nature and the beatific vision include and/or presuppose propositions, drawn from Aristotle and other non-Christian philosophers, that I believe to be false. Still, just as human nature allows for the Incarnation of the Word, it also must allow for human persons to play their part, precisely as human, in receiving God’s gifts, including both a share in his nature and their fulfillment as his children in the intimate life proper to that nature. In this respect, human nature does have what has been called an “obediential potency,” and grace does perfect nature inasmuch as God enables human persons as human to be and to do that for which they have no active potentiality without grace.

[48] Jn 14.910.

[49] Jn 1.12.

[50] See S.T., 1-2, q. 3, aa. 4 and 8.

[51] Summa contra Gentiles, III, 57; cf. 5056; S.T., 1, q. 12, a. 1, c; Compendium theologiae, I, 104. For a careful and thorough study of relevant texts, see Jorge Laporta, La Destinée de la Nature Humaine selon Thomas d’Aquin (Paris: J. Vrin, 1965), 2372. For Aquinas, Laporta shows, natural “desire” of created intellects for the beatific vision is simply the inclination of their nature to its fulfillment, not a conscious desire. Still, a conscious desire to know what God is naturally arises in the mind of anyone who knows that he exists, and Aquinas thinks the beatific vision alone will satisfy that conscious desire.

[52] In S.T., 1, q. 12, a. 5, Aquinas, having argued that the beatific vision is an act of the created intellect, posits a special, God-given, created light (lumen gloriae) which, he says, makes the intellect like God (deiform), and thus enables it to be actuated by the divine essence itself. The claim that a created light can enable a creature to attain divine goodness in itself (and not just a created participation in that goodness) seems to me problematic in the same way as the claim that created qualities in the soul can give a creature a real share in the divine nature.

[53] It is clear from Aquinas’s arguments that he thinks the blessed are fulfilled insofar as they are human. In S.T., 1-2, q. 2, a. 8, he argues that human happiness can be found only in God, and uses as a premise: “The object of the will, which is the human appetite, is the good universally, just as the object of the intellect is the true universally.” In ibid., q. 3, a. 8, he argues that the blessed attain God’s goodness, which constitutes their human happiness, by seeing the divine essence, and uses as a premise: “The object of the intellect is what a thing is, that is, the essence of a thing.” Thus, Aquinas’s arguments attempt to show that the beatific vision and it alone can perfectly fulfill the human heart and mind—fulfill human persons as human.

[54] Ibid., q. 2, a. 8, c.

[55] Ibid., q. 3, a. 8, c.

[56] See ibid., q. 1, aa. 12.

[57] See ibid., a. 4.

[58] See ibid., a. 5, c.

[59] See ibid., a. 6.

[60] For a much fuller treatment of these four kinds of cases, see Peter F. Ryan, S.J., “Must the Acting Person Have a Single Ultimate End?” Gregorianum 82 (2001): 327.

[61] In trying to prove the thesis that one desires whatever one desires for the sake of one’s single ultimate end (S.T., 1-2, q. 1, a. 6), Aquinas answers the objections that playful acts are done for their own sake rather than ordered to any ulterior end, and that speculative sciences are pursued for their own sake though each of them cannot be the ultimate end. His reply to the first is that playful actions are ordered, not to some extrinsic end, but to the good (pleasure or recreation) of the one who engages in them, whose consummate good is his or her ultimate end. He similarly answers the second by saying that speculative science is desired as a particular good of the person speculating, which is embraced under the complete and perfect good—i.e., the ultimate end. Those answers might be satisfactory if Aquinas held, as Aristotle perhaps did, that human beings’ true ultimate end is comprised of many goods realized in the whole of a well-organized life; in that case, the goods of playful acts and speculative sciences could be related to the ultimate end as parts of the composite whole. However, Aquinas holds that the true ultimate end for human beings is attaining divine goodness and that a child described as I have described Joe is oriented habitually to that true ultimate end (see ibid., q. 89, a. 6). So, his answer to the objection is unsatisfactory: it does not show how the causality of the ultimate end (which consists in its being a reason for choice that proposes the benefit that is intended in choosing) can affect Joe’s choice to play; for Joe never has thought about how the good for whose sake he chooses to play baseball rather than watch television is related to his hope for heaven. Nor will it help to interpret Aquinas as meaning that Joe plays and does other things simply for himself as end but habitually orders himself to God, and thereby orders everything he does (except his sins) to God as his ultimate end. For Joe has no end in view in acting unless he regards something as a good that can fulfill him (either in doing that action or by means of it); but Joe does not regard himself as a good that can fulfill him; so he cannot be the end for whose sake he plays or does anything else.

[62] Susan plans to implement her hope by following the guidance offered to people living in illicit unions by John Paul II: Familiaris consortio, 84, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 74 (1982): 185, L’Osservatore Romano (Eng. ed.), 2128 Dec. 1981, 17. The Pope teaches that such people should not consider themselves separated from the Church, but should listen to the word of God, persevere in prayer, attend Mass, contribute to works of charity, help in efforts to promote justice, and do penitential works. However, they must not participate fully in the Eucharist by receiving Holy Communion, for “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”

[63] See S.T., 1-2, q. 88, a. 1.

[64] See ibid., q. 1, a. 4.

[65] That view of the true ultimate end for human persons also is inconsistent with other positions Aquinas holds: that human beings have a natural ultimate end (see, e.g., S.T., 1, q. 62, a. 1) and that infants who die unbaptized enjoy without sadness—which implies without any frustration of unsatisfied desire—goods proportionate to natural human abilities even though they do not attain divine goodness by the beatific vision (see De malo, q. 5, a. 3). Various problems about the relationship between nature and grace in Aquinas’s teachings about human persons’ last end have been debated from the time of Aquinas’s first commentators until today. See Germain Grisez, “Man, Natural End of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 9:13435. When I wrote that article, I thought the controversies generated by Aquinas’s views on human persons’ natural and supernatural ends were due solely to the complexity and incompleteness of his synthesis. I now also think that in some respects his attempts to express his views on these matters are logically inconsistent.

[66] See S.T., 1-2, q. 89, a. 6.

[67] Aquinas often assumed that nobody can have two ultimate ends at once; see, e.g., In Sent., 2, d. 24, q. 3, a. 6, c.; De veritate, q. 28, a. 5, obj. 5; De malo, q. 14, a. 2, c. But I find no attempt before S.T., 1-2, q. 1, a. 5, to prove the proposition that at any given time a person’s will must have a single ultimate end in willing whatever it wills. In later questions, Aquinas sometimes refers back to that article; see, e.g., ibid., q. 12, a. 3, obj. 1 and ad 1 (where Aquinas also mentions St. Augustine); and ibid., 2-2, q. 55, a. 2, c. But in those places, he neither restates nor adds anything to the argument.

[68] Vatican Council II has taught that in heaven the blessed will find all the human goods: “For after we have promoted on earth, in the Spirit of the Lord and in accord with his command, the goods of human dignity, familial communion, and freedom—that is to say, all the good fruits of our nature and effort—then we shall find them once more, but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed, when Christ gives back to the Father an eternal and universal kingdom: ‘a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace’” (Gaudium et spes, 39; the internal quotation is from the Roman Missal, Preface of the Feast of Christ the King). By contrast, even though Aquinas teaches (Summa contra Gentiles, III, 53) that the beatific vision satisfies the desire for all the human goods insofar as they are included, in sublimated form, in the enjoyment of divine goodness, he also makes it clear, as I shall show, that none of them in itself (except the human act of seeing God) is essential to human fulfillment.

[69] In part III, above, I explained how one could organize one’s entire life by committing oneself to act always in accord with all the guidance God provides in order to maintain and promote harmony with him in an ongoing cooperative relationship. If someone who has made such a commitment subsequently makes the commitment of Christian faith, the latter commitment does not displace the former but subsumes it by further specifying it. Still, people can make a genuine act of faith without considering—and so without committing themselves to—acting always in accord with all the guidance God provides. For, though the act of faith presupposes repentance and includes renunciation of sin, it does not of itself require one to discern and follow the guidance God gives each person by his or her unique gifts and situation. So, discerning, accepting, and committing oneself to one’s personal vocation is a duty within Christian life rather than a necessary condition for becoming a Christian.

[70] See S.T., 1-2, q. 4, a. 5 (bodily resurrection) and a. 8 (friends). Aquinas does not explain how something of itself absolutely fulfilling can receive well-being from anything not essential to it.

[71] Aquinas himself (Super I ad Corinthios, xv, lect. 2, on v. 19) seems to regard bodily resurrection as essential to one’s salvation: “A person naturally desires the salvation of himself or herself; but, since the soul is part of the human body, it is not the entire human being, and my soul is not I; so, even if the [disembodied] soul reached salvation in another life, neither I nor any human being would thereby do so”; also see De potentia Dei, q. 5, a. 10, c; Compendium theologiae, I, 151; Quod. VII, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3. However, the Church teaches definitively that, even before those who have died in Christ are raised from the dead, their souls, having been purified if necessary, enjoy the beatific vision, and are “truly blessed and have eternal life and rest” (Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus [29 Jan. 1336], DS 1000). That solemn teaching shows that either Aquinas’ position on the beatific vision or his position on the necessity of resurrection for salvation is mistaken. I think he is right about bodily resurrection and mistaken in holding that the beatific vision fulfills the human person as human. I agree with him that, as human, a disembodied human soul is only a spiritual remnant of the person, not a person. So, I conclude that the disembodied soul that is truly blessed by enjoying the beatific vision must be doing so, not as human, but solely in virtue of its share in the divine nature. Since Aquinas’s view cannot account for Benedict XII’s teaching while mine can, that teaching tends to support my view.

[72] Knowing Jesus well includes knowing the truth he taught and other truths about him. But that is not all: It also includes becoming acquainted with him by knowing his friends and hearing and/or reading his story (the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and especially the Gospels). For those who cooperate with Jesus, that acquaintance, once begun, grows into a human friendship with him. That cooperation takes many forms: seeking and enjoying Jesus’ help in overcoming all deliberate sin, participating in his actions in the liturgy, and playing one’s part in the Church’s apostolate, which continues to carry out his mission. One’s part in the apostolate is not limited to specifically religious practices. Secular activities—that is, all those done to instantiate basic human goods other than religion—must be integrated with living faith and hope. That integration is not brought about by one’s commitment to the true ultimate end. It depends on discerning, accepting, and faithfully fulfilling one’s personal vocation, while shaping all of one’s activities by conscious and active participation in the sacraments. See Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, 459830. Vatican II mentioned personal vocation in many places and explicitly taught (in Presbyterorum ordinis, 6) that priests are to see to it that each of the faithful is led by the Spirit to work out his or her proper vocation in accord with the Gospel; the Council’s teaching on that subject has been richly developed by John Paul II. For references to the Pope’s teachings and a treatment of the various responsibilities pertaining to one’s personal vocation, see Grisez, Living a Christian Life, 11329.

[73] In their Editorial Introduction, the Editors have explained the circumstances in which the eight commentaries on my article were prepared, and which I regret prevented Dr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., from revising for publication his valuable draft commentary on the first version of the article. I thank all the participants in the Symposium, including Jenkins, for their stimulating contributions, which helped me develop and refine my arguments for publication here.

“The True Ultimate End of Human Beings: The Kingdom, Not God Alone” 

Germain Grisez 

[Grisez, Germain. “The True Ultimate End of Human Beings: The Kingdom, Not God Alone.” Theological Studies, no. 69 (2008): 3861. Reprinted with permission of Germain Grisez.]


The author argues against the view that the true ultimate end of human beings is only in God, attained by the beatific vision. The alternative proposed is that human beings’ true ultimate end is ful­fillment in God’s kingdom, a communion of divine Persons and created persons, in which human members will be fulfilled with respect to all the goods proper to their nature. On this view, beati­tude has various degrees, and the fulfillment of the blessed will continue increasing forever. 

Thomas Aquinas held that the true ultimate end of human beings is God alone, attained by the beatific vision (a thesis I will call “TUEGABV”). In this article, I first set out his case for that thesis. Next, I describe an earlier attempt of mine to refute it and deal with three critics’ responses to that attempt. I then offer five arguments to show either that Thomas’s case for TUEGABV is unsound or that the thesis itself is un­tenable. Finally, I sketch out my views on what can be known naturally about the ultimate end toward which human beings should direct their lives and what divine revelation adds.



The following six paragraphs summarize those elements of Thomas’s treatise on beatitude in the Summa theologiae that are essential to under­stand his defense of TUEGABV and the arguments I propose against it.

(1) Thomas argues that human beings always act for an end, and that, while proximate ends often are sought for the sake of ulterior ends, human beings must always act for some ultimate end.[1]

(2) In proposing the first of three arguments to show that individuals cannot will more than one ultimate end at the same time, Thomas argues that it is necessary that human beings’ ultimate end so fulfill their whole desire (appetitum) that nothing more remains to be desired.[2]

(3) Thomas says that the expression ultimate end refers to both the idea (ratio) of the ultimate end and to the reality in which that idea is found (id in quo finis ultimi ratio invenitur). He explains that, “as to the idea of the ultimate end, all agree in their desire of the ultimate end, since all desire their own perfection to be fulfilled—which is the idea of the ultimate end, as I have said. But as to that in which their perfection will be found, not all agree, for some desire riches as the consummate good, others pleasure, and still others something else.”[3]

(4) Again, Thomas distinguishes between two senses of end: the reality in which the idea of good is found (res in qua ratio boni invenitur) and the use or attainment of that reality; for instance, we say “an avaricious per­son’s end is either money (as the reality) or having money (as the use).” Thomas holds that God is the ultimate end of all creatures in the sense that all of them are directed toward divine goodness, but not all in the same way. Only rational creatures, including human beings, attain their ultimate end by knowing and loving God.[4]

(5) Thomas argues that the good that ultimately fulfills human beings—the good whose attainment he calls “beatitude”—is in God alone:

The beatitude of human beings cannot possibly be in any created good. For beatitude is the perfect good, which completely satisfies desire; it would not be the ultimate end if it left something more to be desired. But the object of the will, which is the human appetite, is the good universally; just as the object of the intellect is the true universally. Plainly, then, nothing can satisfy the human will except the good universally. And that is not found in anything created, but only in God, since every creature has participated goodness. So, only God can satisfy the human will. Therefore, the beatitude of human beings is found in God alone.[5] 

(6)  Thomas argues that, for their beatitude, human beings must attain God by an intellectual vision of the divine essence. One premise of that argument is, again, that “a human being cannot be happy as long as there is something more for him or her to desire and seek.” The other premise is that the human intellect, made aware by created realities that God exists, would remain unsatisfied if it did not understand what God is in himself.[6]



In a 2001 symposium, I sketched out an account of natural law and dealt with, among other things, TUEGABV.[7] Toward the end of that paper, I focused on Thomas’s claim that people necessarily tend toward fulfillment in a good they expect will satisfy them so completely that they will be unable to desire anything more. That proposition is a premise in Thomas’s arguments both for (2) in the summary above—his first argument that people cannot will more than one ultimate end at the same tie—and for (5) and (6), which he thinks establish TUEGABV.

The premises of Thomas’s first argument that people cannot will more than one ultimate end at the same time are: “Since everything tends to its own perfection, what human beings tend toward as their ultimate end must be something that they tend toward as a good that is perfect and utterly fulfills them. So, it is necessary that the ultimate end fulfill the human person’s entire appetite in such a way that nothing more is left to be desired—which is impossible if something more is required for the person’s perfection.” The conclusion is: “Consequently it is not possible for one’s appetite to tend to two things as though each were one’s perfect good”— that is, one’s ultimate end.[8]

I tried to refute that conclusion by offering four examples of people who seem to will more than one ultimate end at the same time. The examples were (1) a Christian boy who is interested in many things for their own sakes without relating them to his faith and hope; (2) a politician who lives for both power and sexual pleasure; (3) a devout Christian woman who commits herself by a single choice to live in an adulterous relationship and to strive to hold fast to her faith and hope; and (4) people living in God’s love who commit venial sins.[9]

In criticizing my paper, Scott MacDonald suggests that Thomas’s thesis that the ultimate end is so absolutely fulfilling that it leaves nothing more to be desired necessarily follows from the idea of ultimate end Thomas is using; MacDonald asserts: “The single ultimate end that any person desires at any given time, on Aquinas’s view, is something general and abstract: happiness, or a life that is complete in goodness, or living well.” MacDonald regards my four counterexamples as irrelevant because they concern people who intend different concrete ends, whereas Thomas’s conclusion, MacDonald thinks, concerns the “formal character of the ultimate end.”[10] In support, he quotes Thomas’s distinction between the ratio of the ulti­mate end and that in which the ratio is realized: “We can speak about the ultimate end in two ways: [i] in accordance with the formal character (rationem) of the ultimate end and [ii] in accordance with that in which the formal character is realized (invenitur)(ST 2-2, q. 1, a. 7).” MacDonald points out that Thomas says that in respect to (i) all agree in their desire of the ultimate end, since all desire their own perfection to be fulfilled, but not all agree in their desire in respect to (ii); he concludes that “it’s true to say that all human agents (and not merely a particular agent at a given time) desire a single ultimate end.”[11]

However, when Thomas states his conclusion—that people cannot will more than one ultimate end at the same time—by saying that “it is not possible for one’s appetite to tend to two things as though each were one’s perfect good,”[12] the words “two things” refer to two realities in which the ratio of the ultimate end (signified by “its perfect good”) might be found. So, Thomas thinks, the one thing toward which appetite must tend cannot be the ratio of the ultimate end but must be something in which one expects to find perfect good.

Two other elements of the same article confirm that Thomas is not merely explaining that people have one and the same idea of the ultimate end, but that they can will only one concrete ultimate end at a time. In the sed contra, Thomas quotes St. Paul concerning people whose god is their belly, and explains that gluttons put their ultimate end in its pleasures. The first objection is based on Augustine’s report that some people put their ultimate end in four things: pleasure, repose, the gifts of nature, and virtue. Thomas replies that those who put their ultimate end in those four things consider them to constitute one perfect good. Both that sed contra and that objection and reply would be irrelevant if Thomas were only trying to prove, as MacDonald thinks, that the single ultimate end that any person desires at any given time “is something general and abstract: happiness, or a life that is complete in goodness, or living well.” Consequently, Thomas plainly thinks he is proving that people can will only one concrete ultimate end at a time, and MacDonald’s interpretation is unsound.

Still, I agree with MacDonald that Thomas’s conclusion that a human agent’s ultimate end must be (or be thought to be) completely fulfilling follows from Thomas’s notion of ultimate end. But I think that notion is faulty in assuming that human fulfillment can be perfect.

Another critic, W. H. Marshner, argues that Thomas uses ultimate end analogously, and that his thesis that the ultimate end is so absolutely ful­filling that it leaves nothing more to be desired is true of it in one sense but not in another. “In the first sense, an ‘ultimate purpose’ is that which is thought to verify the predicate ‘is complete good’ formaliter (as an animal verifies ‘is healthy’ formaliter). Call this a UPF. In the second sense, an ‘ultimate purpose’ is that which is thought to cause or deliver complete good (as a diet verifies ‘is healthy’ causaliter). Call this a UPM.” A UPF, Marshner says, “is a set of goods—a package of goods or benefits that human beings can find complete. So a UPF is a union of goods willed as an ideal.” But a UPM “is an achievable arrangement (getting drunk, getting rich, getting to heaven)...inwhich one thinks to find the goods in one’s UPF.”[13] According to Marshner, Thomas held that people can have only one UPF at a time, while my examples show only that they can intend more than one UPM at a time.[14]

Is the distinction Marshner makes between UPF and UPM Thomas’s distinction? Marshner thinks it is; he cites Thomas’s distinction between the ratio of the ultimate end and that in which the ratio is found[15]—the same text MacDonald quotes to support his view that the single ultimate end one must will is, for Thomas, merely general and abstract. Marshner, however, claims that the distinction drawn in that text is “not between the mere ratio and what is intended under it (God, money, whatever),” but between “two different senses of ‘ultimate end’, both fully capable of being objects intended.”[16] However, MacDonald accurately quotes the text, and it verifies his statement that the first member of the distinction is the ratio of the ultimate end. Marshner also claims that one can find his UPF/UPM distinction in Cajetan’s commentary on the preceding article.[17] But Cajetan says nothing about a UPF that is a set of goods capable of being an object intended; rather, he speaks of the formal ratio of being self-perfective under which, he says, one wills whatever one wills.[18] So, while MacDonald’s argument from the text that both he and Marshner cite is unsound, MacDonald’s interpretation of it is sound, while Marshner’s is mistaken.

In fact, rather than being like Thomas’s distinction between the ratio of the ultimate end and that in which the ratio is found, Marshner’s UPF/UPM distinction is like Thomas’s distinction—step (4) in my sum­mary above—between two senses of end: the thing in which the idea of good is found (res in qua ratio boni invenitur) and the use or attainment of that reality.[19] Since Thomas says that people can think that they will find their fulfillment in a set of goods, Marshner’s UPF corresponds to Thomas’s thing in which goodness is found (for example, money, God, or a set of goods such as pleasure, repose, the gifts of nature, and virtue) and Marshner’s UPM—“an achievable arrangement” (getting drunk, getting rich, getting to heaven)—corresponds to Thomas’s use or attainment of that reality (getting rich, seeing God). However, unlike Marshner’s UPF/ UPM, the ends in Thomas’s two senses of end—the reality in which good­ness is found and the use or attainment of that reality—are intended in the same act. For example, in making choices to achieve their ultimate end, those who are avaricious, in intending to have money, intend both the money and their possession of it, and, according to Thomas, upright people intend both God alone and the beatific vision. Thus, the referents of those two senses of end cannot be the objects of two different ultimate intentions. Consequently, Marshner’s UPF/UPM distinction is not among the distinc­tions Thomas makes.

A third critic, Fulvio Di Blasi, like MacDonald, claims that Thomas “is referring to the common (formal) notion of ultimate end” when he answers the question, “Can a man have several ultimate ends?” But while Di Blasi appeals for support to the same passage in Thomas to which MacDonald and Marshner appeal, Di Blasi, rather than arguing for his interpretation, simply asserts it.[20] He does discuss my four examples. About venial sin, he says:

I think all “faithful Christians” will agree with me that when we commit a venial sin, we do not think even for a second that God is not our ultimate end. Simply, the search for our happiness becomes disordered. We refuse to think that we are really going against God. And with this secret, unexpressed idea, we break a little the harmony between the formality of the ultimate end and our habitual understanding of it. Nevertheless, our love of concupiscence is still not so strong as to change our basic habitual attitude of loving God more than ourselves.[21]

Di Blasi thus asserts Thomas’s assumption (which my argument did not challenge) that those living in God’s love who commit venial sins do not thereby cease regarding him as their ultimate end, but Di Blasi begs the question by assuming, as if evident, the falsity of what I tried to prove, namely, that people can choose to commit a venial sin only if they also intend some ultimate end other than God.

I will not respond to Di Blasi’s comments on my first three examples because other symposium participants’ arguments convinced me that Thomas could deal with them. He could say that (1) Christian children who live in God’s love can take as their ultimate end a set of goods including both God and other objects of innocent interests, because they mistakenly but blamelessly suppose that God alone will not completely satisfy them; (2) sinful people who live for power, sexual pleasure, and perhaps any number of other things take that whole set of things as their ultimate end; and (3) the devout woman who commits herself by a single choice both to live in an adulterous relationship and to strive to hold fast to her faith and hope wrongly takes as her ultimate end a set of goods including that rela­tionship and God. However, Thomas could not similarly explain how people who live in God’s love and commit venial sins can intend only a single ultimate end, for Thomas holds that the true ultimate end is God alone, and so Thomas cannot say that the ultimate end intended by those living in God’s love who commit deliberate venial sins is a set of goods made up of God and whatever they ultimately intend in sinning.



Since the critics failed to refute my argument about those living in God’s love who commit venial sins, I now restate and develop it as my first argument that Thomas’s case for TUEGABV is unsound. My argument is meant to show that Thomas is mistaken in concluding that at any one time a person’s will must be directed to a single ultimate end in willing whatever it wills. But that conclusion does follow from Thomas’s premise that only something one regards as a perfect good, leaving nothing to be desired, can be taken as one’s ultimate end. And that, in turn, follows from the basic assumption that an ultimate end must be absolutely fulfilling. So, that basic assumption is false if venial sinners can will two ultimate ends at once. But if that basic assumption is false, the arguments for TUEGABV in which Thomas uses the assumption as a premise are unsound. Therefore, if the following argument shows that someone living in God’s love who chooses to commit a venial sin must also intend an ultimate end other than God, it thereby shows that Thomas’s arguments for TUEGABV are unsound.

Thomas holds that, when people who have taken God as their ultimate end commit a mortal sin, they thereby take something else as their ultimate end, while those who commit only venial sins, even deliberate ones, still intend God as their ultimate end. That position raises a question that Thomas never directly addresses: What ultimate end do those living in grace intend in choosing to commit deliberate venial sins?[22] He cannot say that someone choosing to commit a deliberate venial sin need not intend any ultimate end at all, for he has shown that to be impossible.[23] But in trying to explain how people who commit venial sins can remain in God’s love, Thomas says: “Those who sin venially involve themselves with a temporal good not as enjoying it, since they do not take it as their end, but as using it, while referring it to God not actually but habitually.”[24] Again, he says that “what is loved in a venial sin is loved habitually for God’s sake, even if not actually.”[25]

Those remarks do not tell us what ultimate end people in grace intend in committing venial sins unless they mean that even in those sinful choices such people intend God as their ultimate end. But that will not do. Some­thing loved habitually can function as a human agent’s end only if, although not brought to mind, it is the real reason why that agent chooses to act for a proximate end. But since even a venial sin, insofar as it is a sin, is evil, divine goodness cannot in any way be promoted or attained by deliberately committing a venial sin; so God cannot be the real reason for pursuing any proximate end by choosing to commit a venial sin. In technical language, if one has a single ultimate end, it must be the per se final cause of every­thing one does. God loved habitually cannot be the per se final cause of sinning—cannot be one’s real reason for choosing to do anything sinful.[26]

The point can be clarified by an example showing how a Christian living in God’s love can habitually, even if not actually, make all her good choices for a single ultimate end, and how she has another ultimate end in choosing to sin venially.

While preparing for confirmation at age 17, Miriam had a conversion experience and decided to live for God’s kingdom by striving always to discern and do the Father’s will. Eventually she discerned the call to marry and have children. Most of her time and energy are devoted to fulfilling the responsibilities pertaining to her state of life. So, usually she is not thinking about God and the kingdom. The ends she intends in making most of her choices are to meet various needs of her husband, her children, and herself. So, when she sets out for the grocery store, she actually intends to get the groceries she needs, in order to make some modest but healthful meals, in order to nourish the family and build up familial communion. But she intends that series of ends because they pertain to her role as wife and mother, and she chose to be a wife and mother for the sake of God’s kingdom. So, when she sets out for the grocery store, she habitually intends to reach the kingdom.

Suppose that Miriam’s twin sister, Aarona, single but inconveniently pregnant, has a botched abortion and emergency hysterectomy, repents and confesses to the hospital chaplain, and confides the truth to Miriam but tells their mother the surgery was necessitated by unaccountable hemorrhaging. Their mother—suspicious and confident that Miriam will know the truth—asks her by e-mail. Not having committed a deliberate sin in years, Miriam does not want to lie. She delays but her mother presses, and Miriam reluctantly replies: “I’m worried about Aarona, too, but I don’t know what’s going on with her these days. She hasn’t been talking with me as she used to.”

Miriam’s reply is almost true, but she sends it after thinking: “Mother will be upset if I tell her the truth; she’ll talk with Aarona, and she’ll be really angry with me for snitching on her. God won’t be pleased with my lying, but it’s only a venial sin.” Many people would tell Miriam that her lying is not a sin. But it certainly is a sin to do something, as she does, that one thinks is a sin.

What ultimate end does Miriam intend in choosing to lie? She intends to prevent her mother from being upset, in order to prevent her from talking with Aarona, in order to prevent Aarona’s being upset, in order to protect their good relationship as sisters. That relationship is good in itself, but, in lying, Miriam intends solidarity with Aarona as good not only in itself but by itself—as a good to be promoted by a choice that she believes will not please God. Thus, in choosing to lie, Miriam, rather than intending her relationship with Aarona for the kingdom’s sake, intends it as a distinct ultimate end.[27]

My second argument against TUEGABV will show that Christians are mistaken if they expect the beatific vision to satisfy all their desires.

One can ask for things one does not really desire. For example, people sometimes ask for something solely to test another’s willingness to give it. But one cannot sincerely ask for anything without desiring it. When we pray to God for something, we ask God for it. So, we desire whatever we sincerely pray for.

In praying to Mary and other saints, we ask them to pray on our behalf. We want them to take an interest in us, desire for us what we need, and ask God for it. And they do intercede for us.[28] Therefore, although Mary and the other saints already enjoy the beatific vision, they desire something more: the benefits they desire God to give us. Not only do Mary and the other saints intercede for us; so does our Lord in glory: “He is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).[29] In sum, the saints and Jesus himself, while seeing God, continue to have desires. Therefore, Thomas is mistaken in holding that those who attain God by the beatific vision have nothing more to desire.

Some will admit that intercession by Jesus and the blessed shows they have unsatisfied desires but say: “They currently desire benefits for others. But the beatific vision completely fulfills them. So, even now they desire nothing else for themselves, and after the last judgment they will desire nothing more at all.” But unless those making that argument deny that Jesus and the blessed currently enjoy the beatific vision, they must admit that the fact that Jesus and the blessed currently desire benefits for others falsifies Thomas’s position that attaining God by the beatific vision leaves nothing to be desired.[30]

The third argument against TUEGABV begins from what Thomas says about unbaptized children who die without ever having personally sinned.[31] He holds that they have the knowledge appropriate to a sepa­rated soul according to its nature, including the knowledge that it was created for beatitude and that beatitude consists in the attainment of per­fect good. But they lack supernatural knowledge: they do not know that beatitude consists in the beatific vision. Therefore, lacking it does not make them sad.[32] Rather, they rejoice because they participate greatly in divine goodness and natural perfections.[33]

Now, Thomas holds that those separated souls know that God exists. He also holds that anyone who knows that God exists naturally desires to know what God is.[34] However, not having the beatific vision, those souls have a desire to know what God is that remains unfulfilled. What, then, must they think about their own situation? They must think that they are attaining the true ultimate end available to them as human beings. Other­wise, they would be sad. But they know that they have a desire—to know what God is—that remains unfulfilled. So, they must not think that their true ultimate end as human beings is complete fulfillment, leaving nothing to be desired. Rather, they must think that, despite their unfulfilled desire, they should be satisfied with what they have: fulfillment in goods naturally available to them as human beings, including knowing the Creator as they do and being at peace with him. But if Thomas were right about beatitude, they would necessarily desire complete fulfillment that would leave noth­ing more to be desired, and they would be sad. So, if limbo as Thomas conceives it is even possible, his view of beatitude must be mistaken.

A fourth argument begins from what Thomas says about children who make their first choice without having been baptized. He says that all such children, on reaching the use of reason, must deliberate about themselves. If they turn toward God and direct their lives toward their true end, they receive pardon for original sin; if they fail to do that, they commit a mortal sin.[35]

Thomas knows from Scripture that there are many false gods, and he hardly means that people should order their lives to any of them. He has in mind the true God, to whom the Scriptures bear witness. But a great many people have not known the true God. Many great philosophers and leaders of religious movements had views of the source and destiny of human beings very different from those of Jews and Christians. Plainly, the knowledge of the true God needed to direct one’s life to God as one’s ultimate end was not available to those philosophers and religious leaders. Yet some of them seem to have tried to find and live by the truth.

If what Thomas says about unbaptized children is true of those philoso­phers and religious leaders, and of their followers, all of them lived and died in mortal sin. However, Vatican II teaches that people who lack express awareness of God through no fault of their own receive the saving help of the Holy Spirit so that they can be saved.[36] Thus, for children in that situation, it is salvific, not sinful, to start out by taking as their ultimate end a life shaped by what they sincerely believe to be the truth about what is good for human persons and communities.

Someone might say that, by resolving to follow their God-given con­sciences, such people implicitly believe in and take God as their ultimate end. I grant that such a commitment is an implicit act of faith. But I deny that people who lack express knowledge of God can implicitly take God as their ultimate end.[37] Because hunters must guide their aim by what they see or think they see, only what is or seems to be visible can be a target. Similarly, because one can intend only something one intellectually knows or thinks one knows to be an attainable good, any end intended by some­one making a choice must be understood, thought to be good in some definite way, and intended on the basis of that judgment. Therefore, noth­ing can be taken as an ultimate end without being explicitly known. When people lacking express knowledge of God through no fault of their own uprightly take something as their ultimate end, it cannot be God but must be a good or set of goods they understand.

The fifth argument against TUEGABV begins from Thomas’s claim that the bodies and the friends of the blessed are not essential to their beatitude.

Thomas’s argument that the body is not essential to beatitude begins by showing that a soul can enjoy the beatific vision without the body. He then argues: “Since the perfect beatitude of human beings consists in the vision of the divine essence, their perfect beatitude does not depend on the body. So, the soul can be blessed without the body.”[38]

Similar is Thomas’s argument that the company of friends is not essen­tial. The happiness of the present life described by Aristotle includes hav­ing friends. “But if we talk about the perfect beatitude that will exist in heaven, the company of friends is not necessarily required for beatitude, since human beings have the whole plenitude of their perfection in God.”[39]

In both cases, Thomas goes on at once to indicate the relationship be­tween the beatific vision and the human good which he maintains is not essential to beatitude. The explanation in the case of the body is this:

One must consider that something can belong to an entity’s perfection in two ways. In one way, by constituting the thing’s essence, as the soul is required for the perfection of a human being. In another way, what is required for an entity’s perfection belongs to its well-being [bene esse], as bodily beauty and quick-wittedness belong to a person’s perfection. Therefore, although the body does not belong to the perfection of human beatitude in the first way, it does belong to it in the second way. For since a thing’s operation depends on its nature, when the soul will be more perfect in its own nature, it will more perfectly have its proper op­eration, in which felicity consists. Thus, when Augustine asks “whether the highest happiness can be ascribed to the disembodied spirits of the dead,” he answers that “ they cannot see the Immutable Substance as the holy angels see it; either dueto some more hidden reason or because there is in them a certain natural desire for managing the body.”[40]

Thomas employs the same distinction—between the two ways in which something belongs to a thing’s perfection—in the case of friends: “The companionship of friends makes for the well-being of beatitude.”[41]

This use by Thomas of the distinction between the two ways in which something belongs to a thing’s perfection is fallacious. What contributes to anything’s well-being tends toward making its fulfillment perfect. If some­thing contributes to the well-being of perfect fulfillment, it further perfects fulfillment that already is perfect. But fulfillment that already is perfect cannot be further perfected. Therefore, since Thomas defines beatitude as perfect fulfillment, he cannot coherently claim that anything can be added to make for its well-being.

Still, Thomas says that the separated soul’s vision of God cannot match that of the restored, bodily person; and he quotes with approval Augus­tine’s suggestion that separated souls may well naturally desire that resto­ration. So, Thomas rightly holds that resurrection will make for the well-being of the beatitude of souls that enjoy the beatific vision. But to hold that truth coherently, he would have had to admit that the beatific vision leaves something more to be desired, which would have required a com­plete reconstruction of his treatise on beatitude.[42]

Although one can desire something one can easily get without hoping for it, one cannot hope for anything without desiring it. The Nicene Creed ends with “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” and here “look for” clearly means hope for. The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats resurrection and everlasting life in two separate articles and teaches, in accord with the whole New Testament, that bodily resurrection is an object of Christian hope: “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives forever, so after death the righteous will live forever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.”[43]

In his argument that the body is not essential to beatitude, Thomas affirmed what Pope Benedict XII later solemnly defined: that the souls of those who die in God’s grace and are perfectly purified enjoy the beatific vision even before the resurrection of the dead. Benedict also solemnly defined that the souls of the damned will rise.[44] So, neither resurrection nor everlasting life includes the other, and the two objects of hope are distinct. Since neither object of hope is a means to the other, the true ultimate end of Christian life must include not only attaining God by the beatific vision but having permanent bodily life; and the human body, raised in glory, remains a created reality.

In his argument that the company of friends is not necessarily required for the perfect beatitude of heaven, Thomas entertains the objection that charity is perfected in heavenly beatitude so that it extends to both God and neighbor. He answers that the perfection of charity is essential for beatitude only with respect to the love of God. “So, if there were only one soul enjoying God it would be blessed, without having a neighbor to love. But, given a neighbor, love of that neighbor follows from perfect love of God. Consequently, friendship is related to perfect beatitude as accompa­nying it.”[45] That argument overlooks the fact that heaven is communion not only with God but also with the company of the blessed. The beatitude for which faithful Christians hope always includes being with at least one man and one woman: Jesus and Mary.

The Catechism’s treatment of life everlasting begins: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ.”[46] It then quotes Benedict XII’s solemn teaching that those who die in God’s grace and are perfectly purified enjoy the beatific vision. Even before they “take up their bodies again and before the general judgment,” those souls “have been, are, and will be in heaven, in the heavenly King­dom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined in the company of the holy angels.” Since Jesus passion and death, such souls “see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature.”[47]

After quoting that definitive teaching, the Catechism at once goes on: “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”[48]

That paragraph s first sentence makes it clear that perfect life with the Holy Trinity essentially includes communion of life and love not only with the Trinity but with Mary, the angels, and all the blessed. That communion among created persons instantiates the good of harmony among them, and that created good, even if it results from their sharing in the beatific vision, is not identical with it. So, that first sentence is incompatible with TUEGABV.

Still, by characterizing heaven as “supreme, definitive happiness,” the paragraph’s second sentence seems to support Thomas’s view of beatitude as perfection that leaves nothing to be desired. However, essentially in­cluding communion among created persons, which instantiates the created good of harmony among them, the Catechism’s supreme, definitive happi­ness cannot be an instantaneous event but must be an ongoing process, in which fulfillment will increase as more created persons enter into the com­munion of the blessed and as separated souls already sharing in that com­munion “take up their bodies again.” So, unlike Thomas’s beatitude, the Catechism’s supreme, definitive happiness is not static. Although there is nothing beyond it to be desired, it includes desires and their satisfaction.[49] Hence, with respect to created goods, the fulfillment of those who have already begun enjoying “supreme, definitive happiness” will increase.

In sum, while God is attained by the beatific vision, Jesus’, Mary’s, and others’ enjoyment of bodily life and of their human company with one another cannot be reduced to an aspect of their vision of the divine essence. It follows that, with respect to the reality in which the good is found, the true ultimate end of Christians must at least include the company of the blessed and the bodily life of human members of that company. Therefore, it is a mistake to hold, as Thomas does, that the true ultimate end of human beings “is not found in anything created, but only in God” and that human beings’ “ultimate and perfect beatitude can only be in the vision of the divine essence.”[50]



Although I hold that Thomas’s arguments for TUEGABV are unsound and that the thesis itself is untenable, I agree with him that a human agent must always act for some ultimate end. Moreover, while I have argued that people sometimes intend more than one ultimate end at the same time, I also agree with Thomas that there is something that all human beings should take as their sole ultimate end. So, to complete this article I will sketch out my views with regard to what can be known naturally about that ultimate end and what divine revelation adds to our understanding of what the true ultimate end is and how it can be realized.

Only God is absolutely perfect. As creatures, we can never hope for unlimited fulfillment. But the object of our will is any and every good, and the object of our practical thinking is any and every good that we think we might be able to do something about, help others do something about, or get others to do something about. So, unlike any subpersonal creature that tends toward some fulfillment fixed by its nature and environment, we develop new ways in which we can be fulfilled. Therefore, we never need to be satisfied with the fulfillment we already have, and we can intend something as our ultimate end without supposing that it ever will be real­ized in a way that will leave nothing more to be desired.

In making and carrying out choices, we intend to protect or promote some element of the well-being or flourishing of those for whose sake we act. No possible action appeals to us unless it offers some benefit for ourselves. So, our ultimate end must include our own well-being or flour­ishing. However, since we are social by nature, we need others, and our own fulfillment requires us not to use them but to cooperate with them—to intend with them a common good that includes their good for their own sake, not just for ours. For example, spouses can flourish as spouses and enjoy a happy marriage only if each wants the marriage to be good for the other’s sake as well as for his or her own sake. Thus, self-giving is essential to authentic communion with others, which is necessary for one’s own well-being and flourishing.[51] Therefore, in thinking about our ultimate end, we should consider all those whose good we ought always to take into account in making choices.

We also need to consider all the elements of people’s well-being or flourishing on which anything we could do might bear. Those elements include the fundamental goods of human beings: life, including health and bodily integrity; skillful work and play; knowledge and esthetic experience; harmony with God; harmony among human beings; harmony among a person’s own judgments, choices, feelings, and behavior; and marriage, including parenthood. Everyone naturally knows these goods by the self-evident principles of practical reasoning that direct actions toward them. Those principles do not say that the goods are to be realized in certain individuals or groups—for example, the principle that harmony with God is to be protected and promoted does not say it is to be protected and promoted in me or in church members. So, these first principles direct us indiscriminately toward the well-being and flourishing of ourselves and everyone else.[52]

Finding ourselves contingently existing and naturally directed toward human well-being and flourishing, we can and should come to know God as Creator and provident Lord, and recognize the principles of practical reasoning as divine guidance.[53] But both as individuals and as community members, we also can and should recognize God as the source both of our unique sets of gifts—that is, of the particular sets of abilities and resources we have and can use to protect and promote goods—and of all our opportunities to use those gifts.[54]

Even without revelation, in intending the human good of harmony with God, we can intend divine goodness in at least two ways. First, we can intend to give God his due by acknowledging, praising, and thanking him for creating us, guiding us, and giving us everything we accomplish and have. Second, we can examine the courses of action that are compatible with God’s general guidance in the light of our unique gifts and opportu­nities, strive to discern which of those courses of action pertain to God’s unique plan for each of us, choose those courses of action, and carry them out. If we do that, our entire lives will be marked by cooperation with God, and in cooperating with God we will intend a common good that includes whatever divine good God intends in providing guidance.

Suppose we eventually encounter extraterrestrials—rational creatures who are not human but with whom we humans nevertheless can commu­nicate and cooperate or, at least, whom we can somehow benefit or harm in some or all the ways human persons can be benefited or harmed. If the extraterrestrials were bodily beings whom we could kill or injure, it seems obvious that we could not reasonably apply in dealing with them different moral norms bearing on life than those we think rightly apply in dealing with fellow humans. How to explain and defend that view is not yet clear to me. However, if it is correct, our thinking about the ultimate end must leave room for the goods of nonhuman, created persons.[55]

Since the self-evident principles of practical reasoning direct us indis­criminately toward the well-being and flourishing of ourselves and every­one else, we reasonably take as our ultimate end an inclusive community of human persons along with other intelligent creatures and God—insofar as we know other intelligent creatures and God and can somehow cooperate with them and/or act for their good.

Each of the fundamental human goods is only one element of human well-being and flourishing, and each realization of any of those elements in or by a freely chosen human action is only one part of an individual’s or community’s overall fulfillment. Since a whole is greater than its parts, the persons and communities for whom we act are always greater than any good for which we act in trying to benefit them. We love both. But we love persons and communities for themselves, while we love only as contributions to their good the benefits we seek. Therefore, our ultimate end should include all the benefits that can be realized by protecting and promoting all the fundamental goods of persons in every way compat­ible with loving all of them and all aspects of their well-being and flour­ishing.

Obviously, no possible course of action that any human person or human group can choose and carry out will promote and protect in every possible way all the fundamental goods in every person. How, then, can human beings include in their ultimate end all the persons with whom they can cooperate and/or whom their actions can benefit or harm, and all the benefits they might realize in protecting and promoting any of the funda­mental goods?

Under harsh conditions, when family members heavily depend on one another for their very survival, the reality of a common good such as the ongoing survival of the whole family can be rightly intended by family members as an ulterior, although not ultimate, end whenever they choose to do something to protect or promote their own and one another’s health, safety, or bodily integrity. Still, they cannot expect their particular acts to bring about and protect that common good as a whole but only to contrib­ute to it in more or less limited ways.

Similarly, people can intend a more inclusive common good as an ultimate end. For instance, although it is impossible for idealistic young people with diverse gifts to undertake a career that will promote and protect all the fundamental goods in every human being, they can intend that reality as an ultimate end by committing themselves to some sort of service in order to make a difference in the world for the better.[56] Again, some people promote altruism, for example, by saying: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”[57] Just as those who promote the eradication of an infectious disease can intend to contribute to the health of everyone in the world, those who sincerely promote altruism can intend as an end all its good fruit—any and every fundamental good in any and every person who can be affected by others’ actions—and can intend either that end or something ulterior to it as their ultimate end.

In sum: whenever one has a choice to make, one always has one or more options, among those available, that one can choose for the ultimate end that I will call “integral communal fulfillment”—divine good together with the well-being and flourishing of created persons in respect to all of their fundamental goods—and every choice should be made with the intention of that ultimate end. In other words, persons and groups making choices can and should always play their part in the vast community of persons by making their contribution to integral communal well-being and flourishing, and they always can and should avoid intentionally impeding or detracting from integral communal fulfillment.[58]

Divine revelation corrects mistakes human agents make about matters they could naturally know. It also provides information they could not otherwise obtain, thus opening up otherwise unavailable possibilities for human choice and action. The revelation of the Fall and of diabolical activity explains distressing aspects of the human condition. God not only gives people guidance on how to live uprightly in the fallen world but gives them Jesus himself, as the way to do so, as well as the Holy Spirit, who enables those who believe in Jesus to cooperate with him by discerning and carrying out God’s plan for their lives.

In teaching about the new earth and new heaven, Vatican II takes into account elements of New Testament eschatology previously hardly consid­ered in the church’s teachings and explains how promoting and protecting any fundamental human good is relevant to the kingdom.[59] Those who rightly serve human persons in any way “make ready the material of the celestial realm.”[60] Resurrection will be communal and cosmic. Those who die in Christ will rise in him, and subhuman creation, which God created for humankind’s sake, will be renewed. With respect to human goods, the council explains:

While we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself,[61] the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age.

Hence, while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God.[62]

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and uni­versal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.”[63] On this earth the kingdom is present in mystery even now; with the Lord’s coming, however, it will be consummated.[64]

Vatican II thus teaches that not only bodily life and the company of the blessed but “all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise”—every hu­man good—will be found in the kingdom, and all those goods will somehow contribute to the fulfillment of those who find them there again.[65]

Strictly speaking, God alone is not the ultimate end toward which we should direct our lives. That end is integral communal fulfillment in God’s kingdom, which will be a marvelous communion of divine Persons, human persons, and other created persons. Every human member of the kingdom will be richly fulfilled not only in attaining God by the beatific vision but in respect to all the fundamental human goods.

That ultimate end is the same for every Christian, yet each can attain it only by participating in it in his or her unique way. The good fruits that the blessed will find again in the kingdom will include those realized in their unique selves, and those blessed selves will forever live diverse lives within the one communion among divine and created persons. Integral communal fulfillment—the ultimate end for all created persons—will therefore be realized in the kingdom as a whole. The ultimate proper good for each created member of the kingdom will be his or her unique partici­pation in it.

If those who are ignorant of divine revelation understand integral com­munal fulfillment, take it as their only ultimate end, and use their gifts in unselfish service, they, without knowing it, prepare material for the king­dom. If they hear the gospel credibly preached, they welcome it and gladly take the kingdom as their ultimate end, for it is not alien to integral com­munal fulfillment but is an unimaginably wonderful specification of it. Because human nature is indeterminate, we have no natural tendency toward that specification of integral communal fulfillment. Yet our nature leaves us open to being fulfilled in that way.

What about the beatific vision? It is neither an act a human person can choose to do, nor a good that human persons can bring about. It is entirely a gift of the Father, Son, and Spirit—a sharing, somehow, in their own joy.[66] Nevertheless, the beatific vision will fulfill human persons. Integral communal fulfillment includes human persons’ harmony with God, a fun­damental good of human persons that can be realized less and more. People of good will give God his due and follow his guidance. With divine revelation, that cooperation and good relationship develop into covenantal communion; participants love God by fulfilling their covenantal responsi­bilities. With the consummation of revelation in Jesus Christ, covenantal communion becomes personal friendship; love is more intimate, and Jesus’ friends are born again or adopted by the Father. Children of God are told about the divine family’s intimacy and promised a share in it. By their faith and hope, which fulfill them with respect to harmony with God, they accept that gift and anticipate enjoying it.

What about beatitude? Unlike perfection that leaves nothing more to be desired, human beatitude has various degrees; it is less and more.

Even living in the fallen world without Christian revelation, people can accept the Holy Spirit’s grace and live uprightly. Those who do so attain harmony with God and within themselves, as much harmony with others as others will cooperate in realizing, and whatever other goods God gives them. While such people suffer greatly in diverse ways and do not under­stand the meaning of their sufferings, they are far happier than less upright people. People who receive and accept God’s revelation understand more, begin to understand the meaning of their sufferings, and achieve more: “Happy are the people for whom things are thus; happy the people whose God is the Lord” (Ps 144:15).

Jesus teaches those who believe in him to follow him in selfless service, and says: “‘If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it’” (Jn 3:17). Although grounded in what is to come, that true beatitude is available here and now: “‘blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven’” (Mt 5:11–12). Yet at present, salvation must be worked out “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Even if they must still undergo some purification, then “blessed are the dead who die in the Lord Let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them” (Rev 14:13).

Still more blessed are they when, purified, they see God: even before resurrection, they “are truly blessed and have everlasting life and rest.”[67] Human beings whose souls are already enjoying the beatific vision surely will be still more blessed when they are again complete persons in the new earth and new heaven; along with their glorified bodies, as Vatican II teaches, they will find again all the good fruits of their nature and effort that they promoted on earth.

What about after Jesus has handed over his kingdom to the Father? Even then, I do not think it will be true that the blessed have nothing more to desire. Rather, I think they will continue to desire, act, and be increas­ingly fulfilled, so that the heavenly wedding feast will never end and will always grow still more joyful.

If the true ultimate end of human beings is the kingdom rather than God alone, it does not follow that human beatitude is to be found in something apart from God. Even now, it is in God that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God’s plan for the fullness of time is to unite all things in Christ,[68] and “when everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Therefore, while the created goods that pertain to fulfillment in the kingdom are and always will remain distinct from their Creator, those goods will not be things apart from God, and it seems to me reasonable to suppose that blessed creatures’ joy in created goods will somehow be within, although distinct from, their joyful intimacy with the divine Persons.[69]


[1] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (hereafter, ST) 1-2, q. 1, aa. 1, 4, 6.

[2] See ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 5, c.

[3] ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 7, c. Translations of this and other quotations from Latin-language sources, other than Vatican II, are my own.

[4] See ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 8, c.

[5] ST 1-2, q. 2, a. 8, c. Beatitudo may be translated “happiness,” provided happi­ness is understood not as a subjective mood, but as an objective fulfillment that perfects or completes human beings by realizing their potential: see ST 1-2, q. 3, a. 2, c.; and 1, q. 62, a. 1.

[6] See ST 1-2, q. 3, a. 8.

[7] Germain Grisez, “Natural Law, God, Religion, and Human Fulfillment,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 46 (2001): 336.

[8] ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 5, c.

[9] Grisez, “Natural Law,” 2832.

[10] Scott MacDonald, “Aquinas’s Ultimate Ends: A Reply to Grisez,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 46 (2001): 3749, at 45.

[11] Ibid., 4546.

[12] ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 5, c.

[13] W. H. Marshner, “Implausible Diagnosis: A Response to Germain Grisez,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 46 (2001): 91112, at 11011.

[14] Ibid., 11112.

[15] Ibid., 111 n. 33; the reference is to ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 7.

[16] Ibid., 110.

[17] Ibid., 11011.

[18] For Cajetan’s commentary on ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 6, see Thomas Aquinas, Opera omnia, Leonine edition, vol. 6 (Rome: n.p., 1691), 15.

[19] See ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 8, c.

[20] Fulvio Di Blasi, “Ultimate End, Human Freedom, and Beatitude: A Critique of Germain Grisez,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 46 (2001): 11335, at 115.

[21] Ibid., 121.

[22] See ST 1-2, q. 88, aa. 12. For references to some attempts to deal with this problem and a fuller treatment of the context of Thomas’s view about the ultimate end of venial sins committed by persons living in grace, see Germain Grisez, Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1, Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1983), 39093; 407 nn. 3135.

[23] See ST 1-2, q. 1, a. 4.

[24] ST 1-2, q. 88, a. 1, ad 3.

[25] ST 2-2, q. 24, a. 10, ad 2.

[26] Peter F. Ryan, S.J., carefully articulates this analytic point and uses it in re­futing the most plausible efforts to solve the problem of the ultimate end intended in choosing to commit venial sins: “Must the Acting Person Have a Single Ultimate End?” Gregorianum 82 (2001): 32556, at 34954.

[27] A critic might argue: “But there’s really no separate good for Miriam to intend, for her relationship with Aarona can neither exist nor have any real value apart from God and his will for them. Of course, Miriam isn’t perfect. Yet she still has only one ultimate end.” The premises are true, but rather than leading to the conclusion, they explain how Miriam, while genuinely committed to seeking the kingdom by discerning and doing God’s will, at the same time intends a second, partly illusory ultimate end.

[28] Although not solemnly defined, the fact that Mary and the other saints intercede for those still living on earth seems to me to be a truth of faith. It is pre-supposed by many of the church’s liturgical prayers and the virtually universal devotional practices of the faithful.

[29] Hebrews 7:25. This quotation and others from the Bible are from The Catholic Study Bible, New American Bible including the Revised New Testament, ed. Donald Senior et al. (New York: Oxford University, 1990).

[30] Responding to the argument that the angels rejoice over a repentant sinner (see Lk 15:10), Thomas explains that such “joy pertains to their accidental reward, which can be increased until judgment day” (ST 1, q. 62, a. 9, ad 3), but fails to explain how the desire presupposed by that “accidental reward” is compatible with angels’ perfect fulfillment by the vision of God.

[31] Of course, many now think that all those who die without baptism but before committing any sin reach heaven. But few deny the possibility of limbo, and its possibility is enough to falsify TUEGABV.

[32] See Thomas Aquinas, De malo, q. 5, a. 3, c. and ad 1.

[33] See Thomas Aquinas, In II Sent., d. 33, q. 2, a. 2, c. and ad 5.

[34] See ST 1-2, q. 3, a. 8, c.

[35] See ST 1-2, q. 89, a. 6, c. and ad 3.

[36] See Lumen gentium, no. 16; Gaudium et spes, no. 22.

[37] Habitually acting for something as one’s ultimate end is not implicitly taking something as one’s ultimate end. Habitually acting for anything as one’s ultimate end, as Miriam generally does, presupposes an earlier choice, like her commitment, in which one consciously took that as one’s ultimate end.

[38] ST 1-2, q. 4, a. 5, c.

[39] ST 1-2, q. 4, a. 8, c.

[40] ST 1-2, q. 4, a. 5, c.; the Augustine quotation is from his Super Genesim ad litteram [[sic—the correct title is De Genesi ad litteram]], 12.35.

[41] ST 1-2, q. 4, a. 8, c.

[42] Moreover, ST 1-2, q. 4, a. 5, obj. 3 is: “Beatitude is a human being’s perfection; but the soul without the body is not the human being; so, beatitude cannot be in the soul without the body.” Thomas replies: “A human being’s [hominis] beatitude is in respect to intellect; and, therefore, given intellect, beatitude can be present in him or her [ei]; just as an Ethiopian’s teeth, in respect to which he or she is said to be white, can be white even after they are extracted” (ibid. ad 3). By assuming that the separated soul is a human being, that reply misses the objection’s point, which is clear from Thomas’s cogent argument elsewhere that, because the human person is a composite of soul and body, the ongoing, postdeath existence of one’s soul with­out one’s body is not the survival of oneself, but only of, as it were, a spiritual remnant of oneself: see Super primam epistolam ad Corinthios lectura xv, lect. 2, ad v. 19; see Quodlibetum 7, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3; ST 1, q. 75, a. 4, c. Indeed, Thomas himself argues that the beatific vision does not satiate human desire without the resurrec­tion of the body: see Compendium theologiae 1, cap. 151.

[43] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1996), no. 989. Article 11 (nos. 9881019) concerns resurrection; article 12 (nos. 102060) concerns everlasting life.

[44] See Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus, in Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum, et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. Henricus Denzinger and Adolfus Schönmetzer, 33rd ed. (New York: Herder, 1965) (hereafter DS) nos. 10002.

[45] ST 1-2, q. 4, a. 8, ad 3. Someone might argue that Thomas’s use here of a counterfactual assumption shows that he thinks that attaining God by the beatific vision is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition of the beatitude of members of the blessed community after the resurrection. However, because Thomas uses the counterfactual assumption to defend his position that friends are not necessarily required for beatitude as such but only for its bene esse, he is clearly trying to prove that attaining God by the beatific vision is the sufficient condition of everyone’s beatitude—defined as fulfillment that leaves nothing more to be desired.

[46] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1023.

[47] Benedictus Deus, DS 1000. While Benedict XII teaches definitively that disembodied souls can have the beatific vision and that they “are truly blessed and have everlasting life and rest” (ibid.), he does not affirm or deny either (1) that their beatitude leaves nothing more to be desired or (2) that they continue hoping for, and so desiring, resurrection. Hence, Benedictus Deus leaves it open for those who agree with Thomas to assert (1) and for me to assert (2).

[48] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1024.

[49] Not only do the separated souls of the blessed hope for, and thus desire to, “take up their bodies again,” but, as my second argument above showed, Jesus, Mary, and other members of the company of the blessed currently desire benefits for people who seek their intercession.

[50] ST 1-2, q. 2, a. 8, c; q. 3, a. 8, c.

[51] Gaudium et spes, no. 24: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” I am using the translation found on the Vatican Web site, (accessed December 7, 2007).

[52] For a fuller summary of the natural law theory briefly sketched here, see Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 32 (1987): 99151.

[53] I sketched out an argument for this claim in Grisez, “Natural Law,” 1114, which is criticized in Marshner, “Implausible Diagnosis,” 93103; he cogently shows (98102) that the fact that the principles of practical reason naturally direct human agents toward their good does not by itself establish the reality of a free and intelligent Creator and provident Lord. He then asserts that I am using the direc tiveness of the principles of practical reason to establish that reality “in a context where one is devoid of any independent reason to think of D [the Creator whose existence I tried to demonstrate] as intelligent at all, much less free” (102). How­ever, in my article, I refer (12 n. 20) to an earlier work in which I gave reasons for judging it reasonable to hold as a hypothesis that the Creator is in some sense free and intelligent: Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1975), 23072.

[54] This point and some others in what follows are treated more fully in Grisez, “Natural Law,” 1420.

[55] Thus, our ultimate end, even as we can know it naturally, enables us to coop­erate with angels and act for their good insofar as our action can bear upon their well-being and flourishing.

[56] Because we can have at once more than one ultimate end, we can intend in some of our choices less noble ultimate ends while at the same time idealistically undertaking a career for the sake of an ultimate end that includes all the funda­mental goods of everyone with whom we could cooperate or whom we might benefit in any way whatsoever.

[57] This statement is attributed to Stephen Grellet (17731855), born Etienne de Grellet du Mabillier, who was a Quaker missionary. See Elizabeth Knowles, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Oxford University, 2004), s.v. Grellet.

[58] In “Natural Law...and Human Fulfillment,” 17, I argued that the true ultimate end should be harmony with God. In that and earlier works, I did not regard integral human fulfillment (IHF) as a concrete ultimate end but as an ideal that rectifies the will; see Christian Moral Principles, 18489. In Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis, “Practical Principles, Moral Truth, and Ultimate Ends,” 131, we define IHF thus: “The ideal of integral human fulfillment is that of the realization, so far as possible, of all the basic goods in all persons, living together in complete harmony.” I now propose that human persons and groups can and should take integral communal fulfillment (ICF) as their concrete ultimate end. IHF and ICF differ in several ways. (1) In IHF, “all persons” referred to all human beings, past, present, and future; in ICF, “every person” includes God and created persons who are not human, but excludes created persons whom we can neither cooperate with nor affect by our actions. (2) By wishing for IHF (not intending it), morally good will was specified by it; by intending ICF, morally good will is specified by it. (3) Ideally, the fruit of morally good will would be IHF; the fruit of taking ICF as their ultimate end by all the persons who do so is whatever well-being and flourishing their actions bring about in their community and in each of them. (4) With their wills specified by wishing for IHF, morally good persons settled for the happiness they had in benefiting themselves and others as they lived their good lives; with their wills specified by intending ICF, morally good persons hope for the happiness of increasing well-being and flourishing in themselves and others.

[59] The basileia Jesus proclaimed is not only God’s reign but his kingdom; see Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist, 1984), 5152.

[60] Gaudium et spes, no. 38.

[61] Ibid., no. 39 n. 22: “Cf. Luke 9:25.”

[62] Ibid. n. 23: “Cf. Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 23 (1931), 207.”

[63] Ibid., n. 24: “Preface of the Feast of Christ the King.”

[64] Ibid., no. 39.

[65] Some are likely to cite Luke 20:2736 and argue that the good of marriage will not be found again in the kingdom. For my reply, see Germain Grisez, Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, Ill.: Franciscan, 1993), 6079.

[66] Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 172122: “Beatitude makes us ‘partak­ers of the divine nature’ and of eternal life [n. 21: “2Pt 1:4; cf. Jn 17:3”]. With beatitude, man enters into the glory of Christ [n. 22: “Cf. Rom 8:18”] and into the joy of the Trinitarian life. Such beatitude surpasses the understanding and powers of man. It comes from an entirely free gift of God: whence it is called supernatural, as is the grace that disposes man to enter into the divine joy.” Previously, I pro­posed, as theological hypotheses, that the beatific vision is not a human act but a gift that human persons receive only insofar as they share in the divine nature, and that created persons’ sharing in the divine nature is neither something created nor the Creator himself (Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, 58090, 59294). I do not restate those hypotheses in this article because they are not necessary for its limited thesis, which I assert rather than propose as a hypothesis. However, I did summa­rize those hypotheses in Grisez, “Natural Law,” 2328, and they were criticized by MacDonald, “Aquinas’s Ultimate Ends,” 4749; Marshner, “Implausible Diagno­sis,” 1038; and Di Blasi, “Ultimate End, Human Freedom, and Beatitude,” 12228. While I do not respond to those criticisms, I concede neither their cogency nor that of other criticisms of that paper which are irrelevant to the alternative I here offer to TUEGABV.

[67] Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus, DS 1000.

[68] See Eph 1:10.

[69] Thomas maintains that it is contrary to faith to hold that human beings’ be­atitude is to be found in something other than God (see ST 1, q. 12, a. 1, c.). I distinguish. It is contrary to faith to exclude God from human beings’ ultimate end or to hold that created goods apart from God can contribute to authentic human fulfillment. But I hold it to be a truth of faith that human beings’ true ultimate end is the kingdom of God, not God alone.