Disputed question on the key premise in the fourth way

Whether it is universally true that “more and less are attributed to diverse things insofar as they approach, in diverse ways,  to something which is most such (magis et minus dicuntur de diversis secundum quod appropinquant diversimode ad aliquid quod maxime est)

Objection 1: Greater or lesser is nothing other than a relation between two terms, and so it suffices to know the two terms to know their relation. It is superfluous, therefore, to relate any two terms to some third which is most such.

Objection 2: Greater or lesser is possible in instances where a maximal is impossible, as is clear in a numerical sequence. It is therefore impossible for the principle to be universally true.

Objection 3: What is most such can be taken in two ways: as merely possible, or as actually existing.  Now in no created thing does the possibility of X require the actuality of X. The principle therefore is not verified as true in the physical world, since there is no necessity that what is most such exist in this order; and so a fortiori it cannot be a universal principle of all things allowing for a metaphysical proof.

Objection 4: Contraries are in the same genus. But St. Thomas applies this principle to the good and true, and so in its universal application it must also apply to the contraries of these things, namely the evil and the false. The proof therefore proves an “Anti-God” – which is at least unfitting, and perhaps even negates the possibility of God.

Objection 5: The refutation of confirming evidence for something counts as evidence against that thing. But St. Thomas gives as confirming evidence for the principle that “what is more hot approaches what is most hot”, which was based on the false belief that fire was the hottest possible thing and all other hot things derived their heat by being mixed with fire. St. Thomas’s own words therefore count as evidence against the principle he cites.

Objection 6: What is most such is either known entirely in potency, or in some way actually. If the former, then what is most such is simply unknown, since the one who knows something only potentially is ignorant of it. If we know what is most such actually, however, then we know what is more perfect and knowable in itself prior to what is less perfect, which is utterly contrary to the principle that Aristotle and St. Thomas articulate everywhere: what is most knowable  in itself is least knowable to us.

Response: The oldest interpretation of this principle sees what is most such as an exemplar cause of what is more or less. The interpretation which stays closest to St. Thomas’s doctrine of exemplar causes is this: An exemplar cause is that form by which an efficient cause brings forth its effect. But St. Thomas has already proven an order of efficient causes, and it therefore follows that there is an order of exemplar causes. St. Thomas chooses those forms given in experience whose exemplars are “what all call God”, namely, “good, true, and the like”, even though he does not directly claim that God is the supreme good in this proof – most likely because “supreme good” is too ambiguous. Considered in isolation, “the supreme good” is more a subject of controversy than “what all call God”, since if when one asks what it is the answers tend to be various – some say pleasure, others wealth, others fame and reputation, etc. Nevertheless, in the context of a series of exemplars in agents, it is clear that “supreme good” requires the existence of some being deserving to be called divine, since any agent that dispensed the supreme good to others would tend to be called divine by them.

While this proof is sound it does not seem to be the intention of St. Thomas in the fourth way. First, there is no reference in the proof to any previous proof or to the order of agent causes. Second, while it is true that all of the five ways are given in more or less summary and perfunctory fashion, this does not extend so far as to let us assume that St. Thomas is omitting to mention the very basis he is arguing from. In fact, a summary more tends to restrict itself the very essential bases that one is arguing from. Again, a summary might leave out various objections or refinements, but it cannot leave out the whole basis of ones argument. The same arguments apply to those who claim that the fourth way proceeds from an implied doctrine of participation, though this is closer to the truth so far as we know that St. Thomas considers the text he cites from Aristotle in the fourth way as an example of participation. Still, like most accounts of the fourth way, the Participation” account does not explain the proof but replace it with one that is similar but not identical, nor faithful to the letter of the text.

The axiom in question is a statement about the more and less, and the more and less are taken from quantity. St. Thomas is clear that quantity is of two kinds: that of number/extension and of power. Since St. Thomas is trying to argue from creatures to God, he is clearly only interested in a “more and less” that corresponds to or arranges things in some sort of hierarchy, and so he is not interested in the first sort of quantity but the second.

The quantity of power is nothing other than act considered as having the power to actualize some other. This power can be taken in either the order of ends or of agents (since both agents and goods have the “power to move”), though St. Thomas here seems to be prescinding from this division and considering only virtual quantity or act as communicative to another. The intention of speaking of “more and less” is therefore to speak about what is more or less actual, and in the order of act the most actual is not only first in being, but even the first in our knowledge, so far as we can only know what is potential through what is somehow actual, which is why it is true even in the noetic order that the actual, as actual is known first, even if that which we know first absolutely is not what is most actual absolutely.

Response to 1: The potential is always known through the actual, and therefore the imperfect by the perfect. So far as any two members are considered as imperfect – even if this is to a greater or lesser degree – they are known in relation to something perfect.

Response to 2: This objection is taken from the greater or lesser of numerical or extensive quantity and not from the quantity of power or act.

Response to 3: Since existence is a perfection of every possible perfection, then so far as a created being can either exist or not exist it is imperfect and therefore both is and is known in relation to some more perfect being, who is by definition a creator. In the measure that we do not know the creator, so also we do not know the full extent to which the creature is undetermined to being or non being.

Response to 4: Evils are known by the negation, impeding, or destruction of something desirable, and so are greater or lesser in relation to what is a greater or lesser good, not a greater or lesser evil.

We concede objection 5.

Response to 6: Being is the first thing known by the intellect, but this can be taken in two ways. So far as our intellect moves from potency to act being is to be taken as what is most potential and imperfect. But being is also divided into potency and act, and act must be known before potency. It follows that the first thing the intellect knows is in one respect the most imperfect and in another sense the most perfect and formal, even though it is not necessary that we grasp being as actual in the fullest possible way since we do not understand the full extent to which the first concept of our mind is imperfect. Man’s failure to have an intuitive vision of pure actuality is also the reason why he cannot understand the full extent to which the first concept of his mind is imperfect. Nevertheless, our ability to grasp the imperfection of the created order is made in virtue of some intuition of that which is most actual and divine, even in our first grasp of being. This grasp is not by way of abstraction, nor can it be considered to be a properly human way of knowing, which is why St. Thomas did not include it in his formal account of human knowledge. We must nevertheless admit with Aristotle that there is something truly divine in man which most completely is man, that is, that there is a principle of his knowledge that is (as St. Thomas puts it) borrowed from God.

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