Potency and Ethics.

St. Thomas understands the good- whether moral or transcendental- as an act, which means it must be understood as the perfection of some potency. A failure to divide being into act and potency, therefore, will lead to a denial of the reality of goodness. For example, a failure to see the reality of potency requires positing an insurmountable distinction between “the is and the ought”, for ought is said first of potency. If nothing is potential, nothing is perfectible, and if nothing is perfectible, we lose our first notion of perfection. Moreover, without some idea of potency the transcendental good simply never comes up.

Even otherwise very profound thinkers say the stupidest or awkward things about goodness if they do not see the reality of potential being. Max Scheler, or example, said Aquinas thought all being was good because he was rich and had money, and Anscombe’s account of Aristotle’s ethics is often awkward because it totally overlooks Aristotle’s teaching on the reality of potency, which is the foundation of all goodness- moral or otherwise.

For Aristotle and St. Thomas, the question of moral goodness or “the ought” is a particular application of the universal distinction of potency and act. One must understand how being as such is good before understanding the foundation of how a human being or human action in particular is good. Ethics in St. Thomas and Aristotle is founded on the realization that all goodness is what perfects in the mode of an end, and so goodness must correspond to something that needs to be or ought to be perfected (a potency). In moral questions the potency in one sense is a man, in another more precise sense it is a man’s appetites. These appetites are perfected in one sense by their objects, an another sense by actions, in another sense by habits of choosing. There is a great deal that can be fleshed out here, but without seeing the reality of potency the whole project of virtue ethics (and even ethics as such) will never get off the ground.





  1. Peter said,

    May 29, 2008 at 9:56 am

    Perhaps you can clarify this series of thoughts I had recently.

    Acorn A falls to the ground and ends up in the right conditions so that it does what it does and grows into a tree.
    Acorn B falls to the ground, rolls into a puddle and rots.

    Now, if acorns could move themselves from place to place, it seems the purpose in moving would be to avoid detrimental things…like puddles. Acorn B would get out of the puddle and move to a suitable place; Acorn A, already being in a suitable place, wouldn’t move at all.

    Now in man, then, is the power of choosing and willing a negative kind of thing? Like an acorn that can do something to avoid the puddle?

    In a word: if things naturally do what perfects them (even without a will), then isn’t the will pretty much a power for *avoiding* bad things?

  2. Peter said,

    May 29, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    I thought you’d get a kick out of this.

    A couple posts ago you wrote a comment about Henri Grenier’s “Cursus Philosophicus” and its “fantastic English translation”. I would agree!
    And so I found it amusing when I happened upon this little remark by a disgruntled [ex?]priest in his book “Married to the Church”:


  3. Phil said,

    May 30, 2008 at 6:08 am

    Haha, I just got the little red books, the illicit pony itself.

    Permit me to comment on your question:

    The proper object of the will is the good; “avoiding bad things” is a derivation of seeking the good. If the acorn could move, it wouldn’t just avoid bad things, it would seek to be some place nice, ie it would seek the good. I guess you could cast that as avoiding evil, in a sense, but that wouldn’t be the proper object except insofar as it is a good.

    CF Thomas’ treatment of the passions (which we in a sense share with animals and make-believe acorns that can move): The fundamental passion (the blog had mentioned the sensible appetite as the seat of the virtues) is love, not hatred of evil (I-II, 25, a2).

    In a word: if things naturally do what perfects them (even without a will), then isn’t the will pretty much a power for *avoiding* bad things?

    Rather, the will is a power for things to naturally do. The integrity of each being means they are not made up of parts – ie a will is not added to a plant to make it an animal. That sounds incredibly condescending, and I don’t mean it to be, but the powers of a thing come from its integrity – “will” has in a sense an analogous meaning, in that an animal’s will is both like and not like a plant’s “desire” to grow toward the sunlight. So a human will is both like and not like an animal’s will.

    However, such a relation does obtain between the concupiscible passions and the irascible passions – anger is a defender of love, and anger is for negating bad things.

  4. Phil said,

    May 30, 2008 at 6:58 am

    Incidentally, this is part of what is so funny about movies that pit good guys, centered in love, against bad guys, centered in hate. It is impossible to have hate, and a fortiori anger, as the fundamental passion of a character. So the question in drama is unravelling that hatred to find out what the core love is – love of self unto hatred of God?

    Everything is based in love of something.

  5. Peter said,

    May 30, 2008 at 7:32 am


    Thanks for your excellent remarks.

    The reason I found the thought about the two make-believe acorns interesting was that I couldn’t think of any reason for the first one to have a further perfection of being able to move from place to place (granting that it is already in a nice place). I think I meant it as a vague analogy to the question: is there free will in heaven?

  6. Phil said,

    May 30, 2008 at 8:19 am

    So drawing an analogy from an acorn that can move but has no need (a power fusting in it unused, Hamlet 4,4) and a soul enjoying the beatific vision, where his ability to freely choose anything he wants is no longer needed?

    Examine your notion of freedom as a negative, in light of the act/potency distinctions above, and keep in mind the integrity of the thing – a free will is not just a will with reason pasted on, but a whole and entire thing. Therefore, if it is united to God, it must engaged in its proper act, its operatio. There is no more room for choosing anything else.

    Let me look up some relevant links in the Summa.

    Consider the fallen angels also.

  7. Phil said,

    May 30, 2008 at 9:54 am

    I 19 a10: Whether God has free-will? We have free-will with respect to what we will not of necessity, nor be natural instinct. For our will to be happy does not appertain to free-will, but to natural instinct. Hence other animals, that are moved to act by natural instinct, are not said to be moved by free-will. Since then God necessarily wills His own goodness, but other things not necessarily, as shown above (A[3]), He has free will with respect to what He does not necessarily will.

    III 18 a4: Whether there was free will in Christ?
    ad 1: Damascene excludes choice from Christ, in so far as he considers that doubt is implied in the word choice. Nevertheless doubt is not necessary to choice, since it belongs even to God Himself to choose, according to Eph. 1:4: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world,” although in God there is no doubt. Yet doubt is accidental to choice when it is in an ignorant nature.

  8. Peter said,

    May 30, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Thanks again; you’re pretty snappy in your responses!

    The reason I brought up the question related to the acorn situation was to see if any truth could be dug out of it. I am not using it as a basis for arguing against any of the points you have made. I know I didn’t make it clear, but I am aware of the things you are bringing up (though being reminded is good and necessary; how quickly we forget!).
    You see, I read something on ethics by H. Veatch several years ago, and he started his discussion with the point that the world isn’t static; I think he used the phrase that everything is “shot through with potentiality and actuality”…or something like that. He then talked about acorns growing into trees and purposiveness in general, which is what this post was all about. Potentiality/actuality being the source of “oughtness”. Somehow the question was brought up in relation to to what he had written: So, we’re like acorns that can do something about our situation?

    That is where the thought came from.

    I wouldn’t make too much out of it. I’m certainly not trying to refute St. Thomas by way of a laconic day-dream about acorns!

    Have a great weekend…and enjoy your “ineptly translated” books by a “deservedly obscure Jesuit!”

  9. Phil said,

    May 30, 2008 at 10:50 am

    I didn’t mean it as an argument nor take your comments as attempts at refutations, and not even as a definitive answer. Forgive me for sprawling all over what is a beautiful blog. I couldn’t help but explore the theme and not answer so much as explore the questions myself.

    Have a great weekend as well.

  10. berenike said,

    May 28, 2009 at 5:31 am

    Stone the crows. I’m a genius after all. Sat up all Monday night with an old essay on beatitude, ST I.5.1 and I-IIae.18, and this is what I thought too. Goodness. There’s hope for me yet 🙂

    Apropos bad guys – Lewis’s Screwtape Letters show very clearly that you can’t in fact have demons being the exact opposite of good.

    And on free will in heaven: fr Simon Gaine, OP, Will there be Free Will in Heaven?


%d bloggers like this: