Good beyond being: Neoplatonism, Thomism, and the Liberal tradition

The Platonic tradition places good as above being. Proclus and Dionysius do this through the idea of causality: we are very often moved by goods that don’t yet exist. Though Thomas always sees good and being as co-extensive, that he believes something comparable to this follows from three points:

a.) The Neoplatonists tended to see “being” as equivalent to “true”, that is, “being” for them just was the intelligible as intelligible.

b.) St. Thomas taught that what is true for us is mutable and non-eternal.

c.) STA also taught that what is good for us – God and the blessed life – is immutable and eternal.

The reason for the difference between (b) and (c) is that things are true so far as they are in us, and they are in us according to our temporal and created existence but things are good in virtue of what they are in themselves. Thus, if the Neoplatonist term “being” targeted what St. Thomas meant by truth, then agreement between these two would consist in St. Thomas placing the good somehow over the true. Though he does not do this simply, he does do it in a very significant way when he argues that it is better in this life to love God than to know him. He even goes so far as to say that the appetite attains to God directly and immediately and loves all other things through this love while the intellect can attain to him only as mediated and veiled by creatures.

Truth for us, at least so far as we are talking about the truth we have apart from the beatific vision, is a temporal and contingent thing. It is unthinkable except as a combination or opposition of subject and predicate, placed in time by way of a verb that must signify with time, along with a universal concept that must be forged and drawn out of things. More to the point, truth is what being is to our mind, and our minds have not always been. Good does not share in these sorts of limitations, even given that it takes things known as a point of departure. The order of goods is not some system of propositions, universals, and things known to us, but just the things we tend to in themselves.

One consistent idea of the Liberal tradition following from Kant is the attempt to deny speculative metaphysics (i.e. the true/being) while opening up a metaphysics of freedom and moral action (i.e. the good), and this seems to admit of some dialogue with the Thomist idea of the immediacy of charity and the superiority of loving God to knowing him. Both ideas might also be able to dialogue with the Neoplatonist idea that being as such is a limited, intelligible sphere transcended by the Good.

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