Draft of “Perseity and the Fourth Way”

St. Thomas’s Fourth Way is given in a shorthand that omits all the formal accounts of the concepts being used:

In some things are more and less good, true, noble, and other such things. But more and less are said about diverse things so far as they approach in diverse ways something which is most, as what is more hot more approaches what is maximally hot. Therefore something is most true, best, and noblest, and as a consequence, maximally existing (ens).

The first difficulty is that the author gives no indication what formal characteristic he has in mind that ties together the good, true, or noble though he clearly speaks of “other such things”. Just what sort of things are we to include? Richard Dawkins has leapt on this ambiguity and parodies the argument as something that would be just as effective at proving the existence of something maximally stinky.  A second difficulty is in identifying in what sense things are more and less to the extent that they approach some maximum. Anyone reading the argument, for example, can easily see that the claim is nonsense when applied to in the clearest sense of more and less, sc. in spatial magnitude, number, temporal duration, etc.. Even in the cases where physical science has been able to confirm certain maximum limits of more and less in physical quantities, these limits do not seem to followfrom an axiom about the nature of the more and less but simply from experimental confirmation that finds a maximum when it is there to find. The absolute velocity of light is not a deduction from the nature of velocity, nor is absolute zero from the mere phenomenological experience of things that were more and less warm, still less is either of them a deduction from a general axiom of the sort that St. Thomas appears to be appealing to.


The success of St. Thomas’s proof rests more on the clarification of the second difficulty than the first. Even if we cannot isolate what formal characteristic unifies goodness, truth, and dignity, we can readily admit that they admit of degrees. This leaves us only to articulate a coherent account of the supposed axiom that the more and less are always such with respect to some maximum. Our claim here is that the maximum is that which is per seand primo in the sense that Aristotle articulates in Posterior Analytics I c. 4-6. There are two grades underneath this which constitute the more and less that fall under the maximum. The first is that which is per se but not primo, and last what is neither per se nor primo.


Other Accounts of the More, Less, and Maximum


There are three different accounts of the more and less (1.) that the more and less are combinations of act and potency and the maximum is non-composed act (2.) That the more and less are participated being and the maximum is the essential, and (3.) The more and less are things exemplified by an exterior formal cause, and the maximum is the first exemplar cause.


(1) For the Thomists of the Leonine revival, there was a clear account of the more and less in terms of a the relation between potency and act. Thus Grenier gives as one account of the “principle of causality” that “the cause of any being composed of potency and act is a being which is not composed of potency and act.”. O’Brien[1] argues that the more and less are the limited while the maximum is the unlimited, and “limitation” is understood to mean simply act’s composition with potency. Though hardly a Leonine Thomist, Owens appears to concede this an act-potency foundation to the more and less.[2] Edward Feser preserves this tradition by seeing the fundamental account of the principle of causality as being that composite acts are caused by pure or non-composite acts. All of these interpretations are in line with the first of the twenty four Thomistic theses sc. that being is entirely divided into pure act on the one hand and a composition of act and potency on the other, with the first being the cause of the second.

While it is entirely possible to demonstratively prove pure actuality from the nature of composite actuality, appealing to this axiom to ground the Fourth Way leads to an incoherence in Thomas’s own text since, for him, whatever account we give of this principle must include the more and less hot as one of its concrete instances. All commentators agree that purely material substances are act-potency composites and there is no doubt that heat either is such a substance or is the effect of one. Attempts to wave off St. Thomas’s example are difficult to swallow[3] and even when interpreters of the proof do not seek to minimize the relevance of the example of heat, their interpretations frequently read as though they would have been happier if St. Thomas had not tried to give this concrete example of the principle he was working from.

(2) Interpreting the more an less as degrees of participated being relating to something essential can appeal to a number of very suggestive and powerful Thomistic texts, many of which are laid out by Gerrigou-Legrange[4] in his characteristically thorough devotion to the littera. Consider first De potentia 3.5:


If anything is to be found participated in various degrees by several objects, it must be that, starting with the one in which it is found in the highest degree, it is attributed to all the others in which it is found imperfectly. For those things that are predicated according to more and less, this they have by reason of their greater or less approximation to one of some kind; for if any one of these were to possess this perfection in its own right, then there is no reason why it should be found in a higher degree in the one rather than the other.


Here we have a doctrine of more and less clearly tied to a notion of participation. The very possibility of hierarchy is grounded on the idea that only the maximally such can possess the formal element of the hierarchy essentially. The basis for using the word “essentially” is from ST. q. 3. 4: “whatever is found in anything by participation must be caused in it by that to which it belong essentially, as iron is ignited by fire”. Thus this  interpretation avoids the interpretive pitfall we saw in (1) by giving an account of how fire is a concrete example of the principle in question.

Use of “participation” language has often been taken as a proof of the Neoplatonic character of the Fourth Way[5] and St. Thomas himself can be quoted in support of this: “all things that are diversified by participation in the more and less perfect are caused by one first being that possesses being most perfectly. Hence Plato said that unity must come before multitude.”[6] There are, however, two difficulties in this. First, using Plato as a supporting authority is not the same thing as making him the basis of one’s opinion, and St. Thomas, both here and elsewhere, seems only to be using Plato as a supporting authority. Secondly, the Fourth Way not only is the only proof that directly quotes Aristotle, but it also seems to go out of its way to establish its bona fides as empirical science. Thomas gives the empirical example of heat not once but twice during the proof, and he directly quotes from a passage in Aristotle that is attempting to prove that the sun is somehow the cause of all being. Such a robust interest in empirical science is hard to square with an account of the proof as “Platonic”, since anything deserving the name of Platonic natural science would not arise until the eighteenth century. Indeed, the impossibility of natural science seems to be the raison d’être of the doctrine of participation, which accounted for any intelligibility of the world not in terms of any immanent feature of the world but in terms of a separate world of forms. Thus, interpreting the proof as Platonic would run into the same problem we saw in (1), sc. it could not account for fire being an example of the principle St. Thomas was appealing to.

A more general problem in the participation account is that it leaves the proof itself as either false or uncertain. Applying the distinction to the proof gives us the following major premises: whatever has X by participation is being caused by what has X essentially. But whatever has X in a merely greater or less degree[7] has it by participation. The difficulty is that multiple beings can have one and the same thing essentially without being the cause of the participated reality. Thus, even if a participated being reduces to something essential, the essential itself is a multitude which turn is explained by a participation in the essential, and so on ad infinitum. St. Thomas’s example is a case in point: fire is essentially hot, but it is not the reason why all other hot things are so. The blood of a living animal (at least under normal circumstances) is essentially hot, along with exothermic reactions and the sun, but not because of any presence of fire within them. And so St. Thomas’s principle is either false, or we need to find some more subtle account of the essential which allows for an order of causality among things that have something essentially.

(3) Appeals to exemplar causality are some of the most ancient accounts of the Fourth Way. Banez gives the briefest explanation by first raising the objection that, if all things that were more an less were caused by some maximum then white would be the cause of all other colors and a man would be the cause of all other animals. Banez responds that white is the cause of other colors as a exemplar cause, because it surpasses others with respect to light, which is the formally the essence of color (formale quid respectu coloris) and because it has more light than the rest of the colors it is the measure of all of them.[8] He also claims that “the same must be said about man with respect to the rest of the animals”, but provides no further account of the matter.[9]

On of the most elegant and forceful accounts of the exemplar causality in the Fourth Way is given by Rebecca Loop in her thesis Exemplary Causality in the First Being.[10]  Her argument is as follows:


1.)    The more and less exist with respect to a standard from which they really fall short of.

2.)    It is only possible to really fall short of a standard if that standard is really possible.

3.)    In order for a standard to be really possible, and not just logically possible, it must either exist or be in the power of some agent to bring about.

4.)    Thus there is a real standard of goodness, which is not just more or less (i.e. relatively) good, which either exists or is in the power of an agent to make.

5.)    Thus, there either is a being that is absolutely good, or who can bring forth absolute goodness from its own power.

6.)    Such a being all call God.


On this account, God is a “maximal being” in the sense of being a standard by which all other things are judged, and so is the exemplar of all things that are, by definition, more or less good, true, and noble in relation to it.



[1] O’Brien, Thomas C, Metaphysics and the Existence of God. The Thomist Press. Washington D.C. 1960.

[2] Owens, Joseph St. Thomas on the Existence of God.ed. John R. Catan. St. University of New York Press. Albany 1980 P. 136. originally published in Monist, v. 58, 1974. p. 203-215.

[3] Thus Gilson: “Thomas’s example of the more and less hot should cause no illusions. It is simply a comparison, a manuducio, to help us understand the principal thesis. Certainly the “supremely hot” is only a relative supreme degree”. Gilson Etienne, Thomism: The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. A translation of Le thomisme sixth edition. by Shook, L.K. and Maurer, A. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, 2002. p 136. cf. also Elders who claims that the example “is only a comparison and not an instance” or “only an example”  Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas, p. 123 and 113. The claims are obscure and even baffling: certainly the point in making a comparison is to identify commonality between things compared. A thing might be only an example, but it still must exemplify the principle. Pace Gilson, to say that the supremely hot is only ‘relative’ is to undercut precisely what would allow it to be similar to the summum bonum. This is supposing that “relative supreme degree” has any coherent sense, to say nothing of having a sense that could be included in an axiom at the basis of Thomas’s proof. How, for example, would something “relatively supreme” be any different from something that was simply “more and less”?  In fairness to Elders, he does attempt to integrate the nature of fire into his account of the fourth way by pointing out its active character, which “stresses the active character of efficient causality” (p. 116 ibid). This might, however, create more problems than it solves: for what seems to be a simple proof based on the more and less in a formal characteristic is now seeing as being exemplified by an aspect of efficient causality.

[4] See The One God. Trans. Dom Bede Rose. B Herder Book Company, St. Louis. 1946. pp. 145-148 .

[5] Cf. Copleston “[T]his argument puts one in mind at once of Plato’s Symposium and Republic…Aquinas was not immediately acquainted with either work, but the Platonic line of thought was familiar to him from other writers Thomas Aquinas Harper and Rowe, USA, 1976. pp125-6 also Gilson, ibid p 72 “No doubt this inquiry [into the Fourth Way] would be fruitless if we do not introduce the Platonic and Augustinian idea of participation”.

[6] Ibid.

[7] We use “more and less” as divided from “the maximum”, and so modify the former by “merely”. Certainly, there is another sense in which the maximum is “more”.

[8] While Cajetan adds some precisions and to some extent disagrees with Banez, he nevertheless concludes his commentary on the Fourth Way saying “All colors, in the measure that they approach white, have something more of light, and consequently have the nature (ratio) of color more perfectly.” Opera Omnia Iussu Impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. Edita. Volume IV, p. 51.

[9] Banez, Scholastica Commentaria in primam partem summa theologicae. P. I Q. 2 a. 3 reprinted by Brown, Debuque. 1934. Translation is my own.

[10] In The Aquinas Review, Volume V, no. 1 1998.

1 Comment

  1. March 24, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    This is really interesting. I have two thoughts, for what they’re worth. On further reflection, I think they are more to clarify that I follow you than to really add anything:

    1) I am not sure that your refutation of Dawkins is clear enough to me. I can’t help but wonder still, why couldn’t more and less be purely subjective, and thus relative to the perceiver rather than an existent maximum?

    2) Perhaps Thomas’s reference to the sun is Platonic, though not, perhaps, in the sense of participation. The sun is the figure representing, by analogy, the one, true, and beautiful in the allegory of the cave. I would expect that still in Thomas’s day it would be thought to be the instantiation of the maximally hot or, more accurately, the most hot, empirically speaking. This makes for an analogy to immaterial realities, such as good, true, and noble, which find their maximum instantiation in God per (3) in your text above. Ironically, then, Dawkins would be wrong because he presumes that the maximally stinky does not exist. Empirically — at least through the methods of science — we could find that which is known to be most fragrant to us (even if not most fragrant per se), simply by virtue of the fact that some things are more or less fragrant and fragrance (presumably) may be empirically measured. If we found it to be the rose, for example, then the rose would be a figure, just as fitting as the sun, of how God is the most good, true, and noble as well. Thus, this would bolster the exemplar cause reading in a way that addresses both Dawkins’s objection and even allows for a more substantial dependency on Plato, further addressing the concerns of (2) in your text above.

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