Being and Good as Primary Notions in Aquinas and Lonergan

by Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB
 
 
In the order which one finds in Lonergan’s intentionality analysis, moral deliberation succeeds acts of reflective understanding which have concluded that certain things are true and other, false.  Good presents itself as a more comprehensive notion.  A person can begin with a desire to know the truth of things.  As persons begin to ask what and why questions about the data of their experience, they begin to move toward possible receptions of understanding which, later, are judged through acts of reflective understanding which bring knowing to a terminus.  In judgments about facts, something real is known.  A person begins to participate in a real world.  But, when persons begin to ask about how they should respond to a world whose being they have come to know, desires for good begin to supplant desires for being and one soon concludes that good is a more comprehensive notion.  Being loses its status and one might try to argue that being ceases to be a primary, basic motion.  On the basis of the succession which one finds in Lonergan’s thought, one can then try to argue that Lonergan’s analysis moves into a tradition of thought which breaks with a tradition as one can find this in the earlier work of Aquinas.  But, if one reads into Aquinas, one can wonder if one can so easily come to such a conclusion.
 
In turning to the work of Aquinas, with respect to the greater comprehensiveness of good as a basic notion, good can be said to transcend being in more than one way.  In the order of human cognition with respect to exercises of theoretical human reasoning, good precedes being because a basic desire for good orientates a person toward cognitional operations where the imminent object is an understanding which knows reality through judgements which grasp truths.  Cf. Aquinas, De Malo, q. 1, a. 2; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 5, a. 2; 1a2ae, q. 9, a. 1, ad 2.  In the arguments which Aquinas proposes, a natural inclination toward a knowledge of reality or being is reinforced and sublated when potential knowers decide as a good to give themselves to a life that is wholly given to an understanding and knowledge of truth.  Cf. De Veritate, q. 22, a. 12; Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 16, a. 1, ad 3; q. 57, a. 1; q. 58, a. 1, ad 2; 2a2ae, q. 166.  Persons seek to know being because they believe that it is good to know being.  As an inclination which functions as a first principle for operations which move one toward what one wants or desires (even if what one wants is something which exists outside oneself), “will wills the intellect to understand.”  Cf. Summa Theologiae, q. 16, a. 4, ad 1.  Or, in other words as Aquinas elsewhere notes: “I understand because I will to do so.”  Cf. De Malo, q. 6, a. 1.  Hence, while it can be properly argued that knowing moves willing (by indicating a good which is understood to exist as a good and which should be achieved precisely because, as a possible good, it can be brought into being as a good), in an even more fundamental way, one can try to argue that willing moves knowing for the good which can be achieved either purely in understanding and knowing, or by and through a knowing that leads to other operations and activities which transcend human acts which are purely or wholly cognitional in nature.
 
Within a context, however, that is determined by acts of practical human reasoning, good transcends being as a primary notion or first term.  Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 94, a. 2; 2a2ae, q. 10, a. 4, ad 2.  Good supplants being as an ultimate end or objective.  The goal-directedness of our human life then becomes a basis and a justification for any studies that would want to think about the nature and the structure of human intentionality.  Our intentionality is constitutive of our human subjectivity.  If good exists as a final or exemplary cause, it precedes and orders all subsequent causes in an ordering which creates a world.  It gives reasons to explain why anything acts in the way that it does.  
 
However, as one enters more deeply into Aquinas’s analysis (in a way that is perhaps less directly influenced by the order of Lonergan’s intentionality analysis as this order may simply present itself), one finds that being functions as a basic precondition for every kind of cause since the good, as a final or exemplary cause, cannot exercise its influence unless it happens to be or exist.  Cf. De Veritate, q. 1, a. 1; Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 13, a. 11, ad 2.  From such a standpoint in the context of Aquinas’s analysis and if one personally engages in this kind of analysis, one finds that being exists as a more primary and universal notion (see Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 65, a. 3) although, on the other hand, it should be noted that, for Aquinas, good and being can be seen and should be seen as convertible with each other.  Ens et bonum convertuntur; “being is convertible with good.”  Cf. Martin Rhonheimer, Natural Law and Practical Reason: A Thomist View of Moral Autonomy, p. 21.  Good can be understood in terms of being and being, in terms of good.  Being and truth are sought and desired as goods and good exists as a truth or reality through its intelligibility or its inherent reasonableness.  Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 79, a. 11, ad 2.  How one will understand the priority of being or good in Aquinas depends on Aquinas’s context of argument in a given text although, as one attends to these different contexts and as one attempts to compare them, one should find a mutual priority in the relations which exist between being and good.  For different reasons, each precedes the other or is of greater importance and value than the other.  Each conditions the other in a relation which probably best reveals what exists as a true state of affairs if one wants to understand the nature of moral human willing which only exists, in its full humanity, if one thinks about a union which should obtain between truth as a harmony or correspondence between being and understanding, and goodness as a harmony or correlation between being and desire within a human person.  Cf. Frederick Crowe, Three Thomist Studies, pp. 116-117.  An inclination or desire which exists within a person’s consciousness exists as a virtue to produce good deeds (it becomes a virtue) if it is informed by right understanding and judgment, or by what Aquinas more simply means when he speaks about a conformity to “right reason.”  Cf. Sententia libri Ethicorum, 2, 2, 257; Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 55, a. 4, ad 2; q. 58, a. 2; q. 59, a. 4; 2a2ae, q. 128, a. 3.  But, in every moral deliberation which occurs in the context of one’s human life, every person thinks about being as possible being: the kind of being which exists if one thinks about it where, from apprehensions of possible being, one can move toward choices about what possible being should be brought into full existence.
 
In conclusion then, on the basis of arguments which one can find in Aquinas, an understanding of the human person presents itself which clearly suggests that good exists as a more comprehensive notion.  Being or truth properly exists as the good or the perfection of a person’s thinking and understanding.  But, good exists as the goodness or virtue of one’s entire being.  Good perfects a person in one’s wholeness and entirety (which includes a person’s thinking and understanding) because of a union which emerges or which should emerge between two interacting components: being or reality (the being or reality of truth as this is known in judgment), and desires (or appetites) which exist within a person to incline one’s living toward actions that can realize commendable achievements and deeds.  Knowledge of being exists as only one species of achievement or deed.  Cf. De Veritate, q. 1, a. 1.  On the basis of what one finds in Aquinas, one finds a line of reasoning in Lonergan’s analysis which takes up the kind of arguments which Aquinas was making.  Good exists as a more comprehensive notion.  However, from a metaphysical perspective, as one attends to what Aquinas has to say about the primacy of being as a basic notion, one finds another line of reasoning which clearly suggests that, without being, one cannot speak about anything which is good.  In such context, it is an obvious truth to say that, outside of being, nothing exists.  Cf. Crowe, Three Thomist Studies, p. 125.  Being exists as a more comprehensive principle.  Within a world which already exists and which exists as a good, other things can be brought into being and these things also exist as goods.  In terms of a perfect equivalence between being and good, one perhaps should say that such a thing can only be found in God (who exists in a perfectly simple way as both an unrestricted act of understanding and willing).  In thinking then about the order of Lonergan’s intentionality analysis, if one takes it and if one tries to transpose it into metaphysical terms, one will probably find that being emerges as a more fundamental notion.  To resolve any questions that can arise about the priority of good or the priority of being, one best attends to how Aquinas speaks about a mutual priority which exists between being and good. 

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