Dialogue: God as supreme good

A: I can’t see why St. Thomas’s account of good requires it to have some difference in meaning between God and creatures.

B: Why is that?

A: Because he is pretty clear that by “good” he simply means “that which all things desire”, and it is not with a different desire that we desire God and creatures.

B: But God is clearly the supreme among all these things desired?

A: Yes.

B: So are you visualizing things like this: there is a kind of vertical line, on which various degrees of goodness are marked off, and God is like a point on the top of the line?

A: Something like that.

B: But one deficiency in this image is that we can still imagine an extension being put on the line,  which would mean that God would not be that than which nothing greater could be thought, or supremely good by necessity. So could we correct this element of the image while still preserving the truth you are trying to express by it?

A: I suppose we could make an image of the divine goodness like this:  goodness is like a cone extending infinitely downwards, a cone where the degree of goodness is inversely proportional to the area of the circle made by a horizontal cut, and God is the apex of the cone. If we visualize it like this, then it is not possible for there to be a goodness greater than God.

B: But doesn’t this correction in the image help to show how goodness cannot be common to God and creatures? After all, God is not found by a cut, but by a tangent; and if “goodness” is like an area, then goodness certainly can’t be the same between God and creatures.

A: Still, God is a sort of limit on which finite goods converge, and so there seems to be some homogeneity in our idea of goodness.

B: Well, I wouldn’t agree that the limit and the series tending toward the limit are homogeneous – the straight can approach the curved without being curved.

A: This doesn’t strike me as right – but I don’t know how we would resolve this. The doctrine of limits is tricky, especially in the way we are trying to use the idea now – as a metaphysical idea that is only inspired by mathematics, though not identical with it. And at any rate, even if the straight and the curve are distinct, there is still some homogeneity of quantity between them. This element is what corresponds to “goodness” in the image I am using of things converging on a limit.

B: Let’s say you’re right that there is a kind of homogeneity between the series and the limit – there is a larger difficulty. Isn’t the whole point of these images for us to visualize what we mean when we say God is the supreme good?

A: Right.

B: But on all these images, God is not a supreme good! After all, by seeing all goods as on a measured line, or by an inverse width of a cone, we have in fact made the supreme good nothing other than the whole line or the whole cone!

A: That seems right – but I don’t see any way around it: God is different from the things in the world, and so the one who has God and the things of the world must have more than one who has only one.

B: But then you are saying that God isn’t the supreme good.

A: No – I’m articulating how God is the supreme good. How can we mean anything other than that he is the best? This is simply a consequence of God being different from creatures.

B: This doesn’t change anything. You are really arguing that it is unintelligible to say that God is the supreme good and that, in fact,  God and all actual creatures together are the highest possible good.

A: This might be what it comes to. I don’t like the conclusion but I don’t see the way out of it.

B: And so if goodness is homogeneous, or even if God’s goodness is the limit of an infinite series, then God is not the supreme good; and if God is the supreme good, then this goodness is not homogeneous, or a limit of an infinite and converging series?

A: That’s right: we either affirm the antecedent or deny the consequent – but I have reasons to do both.

B: And the basic problem is that the division of God from creatures means that to have both must mean to have a greater good than to have only one?

A: That’s right.

B: And what do you make of the idea that our love of all things is truly a desire for God – that all our love for creatures is simply like a reminder or participation in the love of God himself?

A: I don’t know what to make of this. This just looks like more division and multiplication. I certainly would rather have an actual person that I loved rather than just their picture, but this doesn’t mean that the person themselves can take the place of every possible value that the picture might have. Why would we even bother to invent pictures if they could?

B: So the sort of participation that things have in God would have to be different from this sort of relation in order for “participation” to make any sense of how God could be a supreme good.

A: Yes.

B: But we can at least sketch out what would be necessary for God to be the supreme good: his division from creatures could not be understood in such a way that he was rendered any way finite by the division; and creatures that take part in his goodness could not do so in such a way so as to increase the measure of goodness that there would have been without them. For God to be the supreme good requires that the goodness of God and creatures in no way constitute a whole.

A: That is exactly right.

B: And so St. Thomas, who saw God as the supreme good, was forced to admit that there was no sense of goodness that could form some common whole, even in thought, between God and creatures?

A: This seems right. Maybe so.

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2 Comments

  1. Brandon said,

    April 13, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    This is quite good; I am sure I will steal the basic idea of it many times.

  2. Jim Roche said,

    April 14, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    I think that Cantor’s basic theory of infinite sets provides a helpful analogy. Suppose that the “good qualities” of any (human) person are represented by a finite set of negative integers (i.e., numbers chosen from -1, -2, -3, …) and that his “degree of goodness” is the number of integers in his set (the size, or “cardinality,” of his set). Different people might share certain good qualities with each other, in which case their sets will overlap, but that won’t matter. Now let God’s good qualities be represented by the infinite set {0,1,2,3,…}, which has infinite cardinality. (In particular, this cardinality is called aleph-null, the “size” of the set of counting numbers; there’s a hierarchy of infinities, but we only need this particular infinity for our analogy.)
    It’s a simple, though surprising, result of set theory that the cardinality of God’s set by itself is exactly the same as the cardinality of God’s set combined with all the other (finite) sets, still the cardinality of the counting numbers. (E.g., see the Wikipedia article on “Hilbert’s paradox of the Grand Hotel” for the basic idea.) It sounds paradoxical at first, but it just illustrates the fact that infinite sets are qualitatively different from finite sets.
    The point can be made even more simply if each person “good qualities” are _positive_ integers (chosen from 1,2,3,…) like God’s; in this case, each person’s good qualities are simply a finite subset of God’s infinite number of good qualities. Then it’s clear that the “degree of goodness” (the cardinality of the corresponding set) of God is not increased at all by combining God’s set with any finite number of finite sets, since His set already contains all the elements from everyone else’s set.


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