Man: His Good
In discussing the nature of human acts, those deliberate acts which a man performs in the quest of an end which is known and desired by him, we have used the word good in speaking of a particular good and of the universal good. It appears to be desirable (and therefore good!) at this point to discuss the precise meaning of the word good when it is used in speaking of human activity.
All Things Seek Good
To explain, simply but adequately, the meaning of good in the philosophical sense, we must consider once more the whole of nature and natural inclinations. St. Thomas tells us: “The good is that which all things seek.” Now everything in the universe has its specific nature and with it the natural tendencies or yearnings of that particular nature. A tree, for example, is different from a rock and the tendencies of a tree are not the tendencies of a rock. A tree is not fully a tree if it merely exists. To be wholly a tree, it must nourish itself, grow, and produce new trees. By nature, a rock does not tend to nourish itself, to grow, or to produce new rocks. To exist is the only capacity of a rock. It fulfills its purpose by merely existing. Animals have some tendencies that are different, and in their way, higher than those in plants and non-living beings. Animals have the capacity for seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, moving about freely, as well as for deriving pleasure from doing these things. A cow, to be fully a cow, must do more than merely exist.
Nature itself directs each of the various creatures. They can do nothing but submit to nature’s promptings. When a dog, for instance, is hungry, he must seek food. Nature’s promptings are insistent. Nature has this way of seeing to it that every particular thing in the universe fulfills its purpose; otherwise the whole of nature, the universe itself, could not attain its final end. Of course, it is not necessary—is it?—to say that nature is not equipped with a reason to know and a will to seek the final goal of the universe. Nature is not intellectual. The intellect and will which direct nature in this pursuit of its end are the intellect and the will of God, the Author of nature.
Now that is good toward which each thing tends by its nature. It is good for a tree to seek water, to produce roots, to feed, to grow, and to reproduce new trees. It is good for a dog to eat, to sleep, to walk, to hear, to see, and so forth. It is good for a rock merely to exist. That is what St. Thomas means when he says that all nature tends to God as to its final good; that is, irrational beings by existing, by living, and by knowing on the sense level, but rational beings, like men and angels, by knowing and loving, which is a higher level. That last point merely means that man seeks his last end through knowledge of the end to be attained and choice of the means to it.
It is this precise point which is the distinctive mark between man and non-human beings. Plants and minerals seek their end, prompted by natural tendencies, without knowledge of any kind. Nature and the God of nature see to that. Animals seek their end, prompted by natural tendencies, with nothing higher than sense knowledge. They have no intellectual knowledge of the final end nor of the means to the final end of their existence. They have no choice of the end nor of the means to the end. A dog cannot choose not to get hungry, neither can he choose not to eat when nature inclines him to eat. Moreover, animals have no knowledge of the relation which exists between end and means. A dog does not know, for instance, that food is the means to self-preservation. It takes more than sense knowledge to understand such a relationship. And more than sense knowledge an animal does not have.
Man Differs from Lower Creatures
Man, on the other hand, has intellectual knowledge, and thus he can know (1) the nature of an end, (2) the nature of the means to it, and (3) the relationship which exists between the end and the means. Man can choose to take his own life! Man can choose to acquire an education or to remain in ignorance. Man can choose to follow the natural inclinations of his being or he can interfere with the attainment of his end. God has given man free will. Only in one thing is man not free: namely, his rational nature imposes upon him, without his will, the capacity and the desire for happiness. No matter how hard man may try to escape it (but who really does want to escape happiness?), he cannot free himself from his natural craving for happiness. It is as much a part of his makeup as are his eyes, his heart, his power of speech, his intellect, and his will. Without these, a man would be less than man. So, too, would he be less than man without the natural desire for happiness. On this point St. Thomas writes: “Happiness may be considered as the final and perfect good, which is the general notion of happiness: and thus the will naturally and of necessity tends thereto.”
A man can hinder the attainment of that goal of happiness, to be sure. He can put obstacles in the way of its attainment. He might never achieve perfect happiness because he might never seek the complete good of his entire nature. He might refuse to respond to the cravings of his intellect for truth and of his will for the supreme good; he might attempt to satisfy his natural inclinations by means of wealth, of health, of fame, of any partial, particular physical or mental good. A man may interfere with the attainment of his final purpose, but he can neither deny nor obliterate his desire for happiness, for adequate happiness, for complete satisfaction. It stands to reason that man, having a higher nature, is urged to and requires, by his very nature, a higher end than other creatures. That end must be in accord with man’s nature. Man’s rational nature requires the rational good to perfect and satisfy it. Man can never be wholly satisfied with good things of the body alone; nor with good things of the soul alone, such as virtue; for the highest desires of man must be satisfied if man is to be perfectly happy. These highest desires of man are for all truth and all goodness: infinite truth and infinite goodness, and they can be found in none other than God. Some creatures there are, therefore, in nature, whose perfection consists in existence; others, whose perfection consists in existing and living; other natures are higher: they perfect themselves only through existing, living, and possessing sense knowledge, as of sights, sounds, odors, pain, pleasure, fear, and the like. But existing, living, and sense knowledge is not perfect enough for man. His inclinations tend toward a higher kind of knowing and toward freedom of choice: they are perfected in knowledge and in love. These are the natural appetites or desires of the specific natures in whom they are found. They urge the several natures to each one’s appropriate end or goal. It is the attainment or the satisfaction of these appetites or desires which is good for each nature.
The Good Satisfies
Good in the philosophical sense, therefore, is that which satisfies the appetites or that which leads to the satisfaction of the appetites. What wholly satisfies the desires or inclinations of a nature is the best possible good for that nature. What leads to the satisfaction of the inclinations of any given nature is a partial good for that nature.
Thus, man’s greatest appetite or desire is happiness. This desire is implanted in man’s very nature by God. It is, therefore, a natural appetite and its fulfillment constitutes a good for the nature of man. Perfect happiness, therefore, constitutes the perfect good for man. St. Thomas says: “A fitting good, if indeed it be the perfect good, is precisely man’s happiness: and if it is imperfect, it is a share of happiness, either proximate, or remote, or at least apparent.”
Now let us go back once more to the principle that all things desire their good. It is important to note that everything that a man desires, he desires under the appearance of good. It might be truly good or only apparently good, but it is seen to be good to the one desiring it.
A thing is good for man only if it be in conformity with the end of man; only if it be in accord with his natural tendencies; only if it helps man to fulfill his purpose in life. A ball, for instance, is good if it aids in recreation and creates exercise and fun, but not if it is used to break windows or heads. A thing is good if it fulfills its purpose. Thus a fruit tree is good if it produces good fruit, but not good if it produces bad fruit or no fruit. A man might like a steak, in which case it brings temporary satisfaction to a natural desire, and so it constitutes a good for that man. If, however, he is ill and has been forbidden the use of meat, then it would not be good ultimately for him to eat it. What would be good only for the palate, would not be good for his general health, and the good of one’s health is a good superior to the good of the palate. Therefore the farther-off good demands precedence over the proximate and immediate good. This must be so inasmuch as the nearer or more immediate good is merely a means to a farther and more ultimate good; otherwise it would lead away from, rather than toward, the final good of man, which is perfect happiness.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.