Skip to content

Category: SAMT

A tour through Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles.

September 16, 2018 | 1 Comment

Summary Against Modern Thought: Ultimate Happiness Comes After Death

Previous post.

Something to look forward to, but with fear and trembling. Share this Chapter with those who believe paradise can be built.


1 If, then, ultimate human felicity does not consist in the knowledge of God, whereby He is known in general by all, or most, men, by a sort of confused appraisal, and again, if it does not consist in the knowledge of God which is known by way of demonstration in the speculative sciences, nor in the cognition of God whereby He is known through faith, as has been shown in the foregoing; and if it is not possible in this life to reach a higher knowledge of God so as to know Him through His essence, or even in such a way that, when the other separate substances are known, God might be known through the knowledge of them, as if from a closer vantage point, as we showed; and if it is necessary to identify ultimate felicity with some sort of knowledge of God, as we proved above; then it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to come in this life.

Notes Even if you’re rich.

2 Again, the ultimate end of man brings to a termination man’s natural appetite, in the sense that, once the end is acquired, nothing else will be sought. For, if he is still moved onward to something else, he does not yet have the end in which he may rest. Now, this termination cannot occur in this life. For, the more a person understands, the more is the desire to understand increased in him, and this is natural to man, unless, perchance, there be someone who understands all things. But in this life this does not happen to anyone who is a mere man, nor could it happen, since we are not able to know in this life the separate substances, and they are most intelligible, as has been shown. Therefore, it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to be in this life.

Notes The sin comes from thinking man knows best in all. Or a man.

3 Besides, everything that is moved toward an end naturally desires to be stationed at, and at rest in, that end; consequently, a body does not move away from the place to which it is moved naturally, unless by virtue of a violent movement which runs counter to its appetite. Now, felicity is the ultimate end which man naturally desires. So, there is a natural desire of man to be established in felicity. Therefore, unless along with felicity such an unmoving stability be attained, he is not yet happy, for his natural desire is not yet at rest.

And so, when a person attains felicity he likewise attains stability and rest, and that is why this is the notion of all men concerning felicity, that it requires stability as part of its essential character. For this reason, the Philosopher says, in Ethics I [10: 1100b 5], that “we do not regard the happy man as a sort of chameleon.” Now, in this life there is no certain stability, for to any man, no matter how happy he is reputed to be, illnesses and misfortunes may possibly come, and by them he may be hindered in that operation, whatever it may be, with which felicity is identified. Therefore, it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to be in this life.

4 Moreover, it appears inappropriate and irrational for the time of generation of a thing to be long, while the time of its maturity is short. For it would follow that a nature would be without its end, most of the time. Consequently, we see that animals which live but a short time also take but a short time to come to perfect maturity.

Now, if felicity consists in perfect operation, in accord with perfect virtue, whether intellectual or moral, it is impossible for it to come to man until a long time has elapsed, And this is especially evident in speculative pursuits, in which man’s ultimate felicity is placed, as is clear from what we have said. For man is barely able to reach perfection in scientific speculation in the last stage of his life. But then, in most cases, only a little part of human life remains. So, it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to be in this life.

5 Furthermore, all men admit that felicity is a perfect good; otherwise, it could not satisfy desire. Now, a perfect good is one which lacks any admixture of evil, just as a perfectly white thing is completely unmixed with black. Of course, it is not possible for man in the present state of life to be entirely free from evils, not only from corporeal ones, such as hunger, thirst, heat and cold, and other things of this kind, but also from evils of the soul. For we can find no one who is not disturbed at times by unruly passions, who does not at times overstep the mean in which virtue lies, either by excess or defect, who also is not mistaken in certain matters, or who at least is ignorant of things which he desires to know, or who also conceives with uncertain opinion things about which he would like to be certain. Therefore, no person is happy in this life.

6 Again, man naturally shrinks from death, and is sorrowful at its prospect, not only at the instant when he feels its threat and tries to avoid it, but even when he thinks back upon it. But freedom from death is something man cannot achieve in this life. Therefore, it is not possible for man in this life to be happy.

Notes Amen.

7 Besides, ultimate felicity does not consist in an habitual state, but in an operation, since habits are for the sake of acts. But it is impossible to perform any action continuously in this life. Therefore, it is impossible for man in this life to be entirely happy.

8 Furthermore, the more a thing is desired and loved, the more does its loss bring sorrow and sadness. Now, felicity is what is most desired and loved. Therefore, its loss holds the greatest prospect of sorrow. But, if ultimate felicity were possible in this life, it is certain that it would be lost, at least by death. And it is not certain whether it would last until death, since for any man in this life there is the possibility of sickness, by which he may be completely impeded from the work of virtue: such things as mental illness and the like, by which the use of reason is halted. So, such felicity always will have sorrow naturally associated with it. Therefore, it will not be perfect felicity.

9 However, someone may say that, since felicity is a good of intellectual nature, perfect and true felicity belongs to those beings in whom a perfect intellectual nature is found, that is, to separate substances, but that in man there is found an imperfect happiness, in the manner of some sort of participation. For, in regard to the full understanding of truth, men can attain it only through enquiry, and they are utterly deficient in regard to objects which are most intelligible in their nature, as is clear from what we have said.

And so, felicity in its perfect character cannot be present in men, but they may participate somewhat in it, even in this life. And this seems to have been Aristotle’s view on felicity. Hence, in Ethics I, where he asks whether misfortunes take away happiness, having shown that felicity consists in the works of virtue which seem to be most enduring in this life, he concludes that those men for whom such perfection in this life is possible are happy as men, as if they had not attained felicity absolutely, but merely in human fashion.

10 Now, we have to show that the foregoing reply does not invalidate the arguments which we have given above.

Indeed, though man is by nature inferior to separate substances, he is nonetheless superior to irrational creatures. So, he attains his ultimate end in a more perfect way than they do. They achieve their ultimate end with such perfection because they seek nothing else, for the heavy thing comes to rest when it has occupied its own place; and even in the case of animals, when they enjoy sensual pleasures their natural desire is at rest. So, it is much more necessary for man’s natural desire to come to rest when he has reached his ultimate end. But this cannot come about in this life. Therefore, man does not attain felicity, understood as his proper end, during this life, as we have shown. Therefore, he must attain it after this life.

11 Again, it is impossible for natural desire to be unfulfilled, since “nature does nothing in vain.” Now, natural desire would be in vain if it could never be fulfilled. Therefore, man’s natural desire is capable of fulfillment, but not in this life, as we have shown. So, it must be fulfilled after this life. Therefore, man’s ultimate felicity comes after this life.

12 Besides, as long as anything is in motion toward perfection, it is not yet at the ultimate end. But all men, while learning the truth, are always disposed as beings in motion, and as tending toward perfection, because men who come later make other discoveries, over and above those found out by earlier men, as is also stated in Metaphysics II [1: 993a 31]. So, men in the process of learning the truth are not situated as if they were at the ultimate end.

Thus, since man’s ultimate felicity in this life seems mainly to consist in speculation, whereby the knowledge of the truth is sought, as Aristotle himself proves in Ethics X [7: 1177a 18], it is impossible to say that man achieves his ultimate end in this life.

13 Moreover, everything that is in potency tends to proceed into act. So, as long as it is not made wholly actual, it is not at its ultimate end. Now, our intellect is in potency in regard to all the forms of things to be known, and it is reduced to act when it knows any one of them. So, it will not be wholly in act, nor at its ultimate end, until it knows all things, at least all these material things. But man cannot achieve this through the speculative sciences, through which he knows truth in this life. Therefore, it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to be in this life.

14 For these and like reasons, Alexander and Averroes claimed that man’s ultimate felicity does not consist in the human knowledge which comes through the speculative sciences, but through a connection with a separate substance, which they believed to be possible for man in this life. But, since Aristotle saw that there is no other knowledge for man in this life than through the speculative sciences, he maintained that man does not achieve perfect felicity, but only a limited kind.

15 On this point there is abundant evidence of how even the brilliant minds of these men suffered from the narrowness of their viewpoint. From which narrow attitudes we shall be freed if we grant in accord with the foregoing proofs that man can reach true felicity after this life, when man’s soul is existing immortally; in which state the soul will understand in the way that separate substances understand, as we showed in Book Two [81] of this work.

Notes This is the point at which all new knowledge will come by revelation. No more cramming!

16 And so, man’s ultimate felicity will lie in the knowledge of God that the human mind has after this life, according to the way in which separate substances know Him. For which reason our Lord promises us “a reward in heaven” and says that the saints “shall be as the angels… who always see God in heaven,” as it is said (Matt 5:12; 22:30; 18:10).

September 9, 2018 | 1 Comment

Summary Against Modern Thought: Knowledge Of God Is Limited

Previous post.

We can, however, know that man is not God.


1 Now, if we are not able to understand other separate substances in this life, because of the natural affinity of our intellect for phantasms, still less are we able in this life to see the divine essence which transcends all separate substances.

2 An indication of this may also be taken from the fact that the higher our mind is elevated to the contemplation of spiritual beings, the more is it withdrawn from sensible things. Now, the final limit to which contemplation can reach is the divine substance. Hence, the mind which sees the divine substance must be completely cut off from the bodily senses, either by death or by ecstasy. Thus, it is said by one who speaks for God: “Man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:20).

3 But that some men are spoken of in Sacred Scripture as having seen God must be understood either in reference to an imaginary vision, or even a corporeal one: according as the presence of divine power was manifested through some corporeal species, whether appearing externally, or formed internally in the imagination; or even according as some men have perceived some intelligible knowledge of God through His spiritual effects.

Notes If you are still an atheist (and nobody will be forever), be careful of over-literal interpretations.

4 However, certain words of Augustine do present a difficulty; for it appears from them that we can understand God Himself in this life. He says in Book IX of The Trinity that “we see with the vision of the mind, in the eternal truth, from which all temporal things have been made, the form in accord with which we exist, and in accord with which we perform any action by true and right reason, either within ourselves or in bodies, and as a result of this we have with us a conception and a true knowledge of things.”

He also says in Book VII of the Confessions: “Suppose both of us see that what you say is true, and both of us see that what I say is true: where, I ask, do we see it? Certainly, I do not see it in you, nor you in me, but both in that immutable truth which is above our minds.” Again, he says in the book On the True Religion that “we judge all things according to the divine truth.” And he says in the Soliloquies that “truth must be known first, and through it other things can be known.” And this seems to mean the divine truth. It appears, then, from his words, that we see God Himself, Who is His own truth, and thus we know other things through Him.

5 The same writer’s words seem to tend toward the same view, words which he puts in Book XII of The Trinity, saying the following: “It pertains to reason to judge concerning these bodily things in accord with the incorporeal and sempiternal reasons which, unless they were above the human mind, certainly would not be immutable.” Now, the immutable and sempiternal reasons cannot exist in any other location than in God, since only God, according to the teaching of our faith, is sempiternal. Therefore, it seems to follow that we are able to see God in this life, and because we see the reasons of things in Him we may judge concerning other things.

Notes sempiternal = eternal and unchanging.

6 However, we must not believe that Augustine held this view, in the texts which have been quoted: that we are able in this life to understand God through His essence. So, we have to make a study of how we may see this immutable truth, or these eternal reasons, in this life, and thus judge other things in accord with this vision.

7 As a matter of fact, Augustine himself admits that truth is in the soul, in the Soliloquies, and as a result he proves the immortality of the soul from the eternity of truth. But truth is not in the soul simply in the way that God is said to be in all things by His essence, nor as He is in all things by His likeness, in the sense that each thing is called true to the extent that it approaches the likeness of God; for it is not on this basis that the soul is set above other things.

Therefore, it is present in a special way in the soul, inasmuch as it knows truth. So, just as souls and other things are indeed said to be true in their own natures, because they have a likeness to the highest nature, which is Truth Itself, since it is its own actual being as understood—so also, what is known by the soul is true in so far as some likeness exists in it of that divine truth which God knows. Hence the Gloss on Psalm 11:2: “Truths are decayed from among the children of men,” says that: as from one face there may result many reflections in a mirror, so from one first truth there may result many truths in the minds of men.

Now, although different things are known and believed to be true by different people, certain things are true on which all men agree, such as the first principles of understanding, both speculative and practical, according as an image of divine truth is reflected universally in the minds of all men. So, in so far as any mind knows anything whatever with certitude, the object is intuited in these principles, by means of which judgment is made concerning all things, by resolving them back into these principles; and so the mind is said to see all things in the divine truth, or in the eternal reasons, and is said to judge all things in accord with them.

And this interpretation the words of Augustine confirm, in the Soliloquies, for he says that the principles of the sciences are seen in the divine truth as these visible objects are seen in the light of the sun. Yet it is obvious that they are not seen in the actual body of the sun, but through its light, which is a likeness in the air of solar brilliance, transmitted to suitable bodies.

Notes Recall the distinction between local or conditional and universal or necessary truth. A local truth is one derived from premises which themselves might be false or incomplete, whereas a necessary truth is true no matter what.

8 Therefore, we should not gather from these words of Augustine that God can be seen in His substance in this life, but only as in a mirror. And this is what the Apostle professes concerning the knowledge of this life, for he says: “We see now through a glass in a dark manner” (1 Cor. 13:l2).

Notes King James does this better: as through a glass darkly.

9 Although this mirror, which is the human mind, reflects the likeness of God in a closer way than lower creatures do, the knowledge of God which can be taken in by the human mind does not go beyond the type of knowledge that is derived from sensible things, since even the soul itself knows what it is itself as a result of understanding the natures of sensible things, as we have said. Hence, throughout this life God can be known in no higher way than that whereby a cause is known through its effect.

September 2, 2018 | 2 Comments

Summary Against Modern Thought: We Can’t Fully Know Ourselves

Previous post.

A man’s got to know his limitations.


1 Now, it seems that some objection may be offered against what we have said, on the basis of a text of Augustine which requires careful interpretation. In fact, he says in Book IX of The Trinity: “Just as the mind gathers knowledge of bodily things through the bodily senses, so does it obtain knowledge of incorporeal things through itself. And so, it knows itself through itself, since it is incorporeal.” Indeed, it does appear from these words that our mind understands itself, through itself, and by understanding itself it understands separate substances. And this is in opposition to what was shown above. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate how our soul understands itself through itself.

2 Now, it cannot be said that it understands what it is, through itself. For, a cognitive potency becomes an actual knower by the fact that there is present in it that whereby the knowing is accomplished. Of course, if it be present in a potential way in the potency, one knows potentially; but if it be there actually, one knows actually; and if it be there in an intermediate fashion, one knows habitually. But the soul is always actually present to itself, never merely potentially or habitually. So, if the soul knows itself through itself, in the sense of what it is, it will always actually understand what it is. And this is plainly false.

3 Again, if the soul understands what it is, through itself, and if every man has a soul, then every man knows what soul is. And this is plainly false.

Notes More than plainly, and really the only counter-argument our good saint needs.

4 Moreover, the knowledge which comes about through something naturally implanted in us is natural, as is the case with indemonstrable principles which are known through the light of the agent intellect.

If, then, we know concerning the soul what it is, through the soul itself, then this will be something naturally known. Now, in the case of things that are naturally known no one can err; for instance, in the knowing of indemonstrable principles no one makes an error. So, no one would be in error concerning what the soul is, if the soul knew this through itself. And this is clearly false, for many men have held the opinion that the soul is this or that body, and some have thought it a number or a harmony. Therefore, the soul does not, through itself, know concerning itself what it is.

Notes Universals (of logical, moral, and mathematical) and revelation fall under “indemonstrable principles which are known through the light of the agent intellect.”

5 Besides, in any order, “that which exists through itself is prior to, and is the principle of, that which is through another.” So, that which is known through itself is known before all things that are known through another, and it is the principle of the knowing of them. Thus, the first propositions are prior to the conclusions.

If, then, the soul knows through itself what it is in itself, this will be something known through itself, and, consequently, a first known thing and a principle for the knowing of other things. Now, this is clearly false. For, what the soul is no science takes as something known; rather, it is a topic proposed for investigation, starting from other items of knowledge. Therefore, the soul does not know concerning itself what it is, through itself.

6 Now, it appears that even Augustine himself did not intend that it does. For he says in Book X of The Trinity that “the soul, when seeking knowledge of itself, does not endeavor to see itself as something absent, but takes care to observe itself as present; not to learn about itself as if it were ignorant, but to distinguish itself from what it knows as another thing.”

Thus, he makes us understand that the soul, through itself, does know itself as present, but not as distinct from other things. Consequently, he says that some people have erred on this point because they have not distinguished the soul from those things which are different from it. Now, because a thing is known from the point of view of what it is, that thing is also known in distinction from others; consequently, the definition which signifies what a thing is distinguishes the thing defined from all else. Therefore, Augustine did not wish to say that, through itself, the soul knows concerning itself what it is.

7 But neither did Aristotle intend this. Indeed, he says in Book III of On the Soul [4: 430a 2] that “the possible intellect understands itself as it does other things.” For it understands itself through an intelligible species, by which it is made actual in the genus of intelligible objects. Considered in itself, it is merely in potency in regard to intelligible being; nothing is known according to what it is potentially, but only as it is actually.

Hence, separate substances, whose substances are like something actually existing in the genus of intelligible objects, do understand, concerning themselves, what they are, through their own substances; while our possible intellect does so, through an intelligible species, by which it is made an actual agent which understands. Hence, also, Aristotle, in Book III of On the Soul [4: 429a 2], demonstrates from the very act of understanding what is the nature of the possible intellect, namely, that it is “unmixed and incorruptible,” as is clear from what we have said earlier.

8 And so, according to Augustine’s meaning, our mind knows itself through itself, in so far as it knows concerning itself, that it is. Indeed, from the fact that it perceives that it acts it perceives that it is. Of course, it acts through itself, and so, through itself, it knows concerning itself that it is.

Notes Who knew Aristotle beat Descartes to the punch by a few score centuries?

9 So, also, in regard to separate substances, the soul by knowing itself knows that they are, but not what they are, for to do the latter is to understand their substances. Indeed, when we know this about separate substances, either through demonstration or through faith, that there are certain intellectual substances, we would not be able to get this knowledge on either basis unless our soul knew on its own part this point: what it is to be intellectual. Consequently, the knowledge concerning the soul/s understanding must be used as a starting point for all that we learn about separate substances.

10 Nor is it a necessary conclusion that, if we succeed in knowing what the soul is through the speculative sciences, we must then be able to reach a knowledge of what separate substances are, through these same sciences. As a matter of fact, our act of understanding, whereby we attain to the knowledge of what our soul is, is very remote from the intelligence of a separate substance. Nevertheless, it is possible through knowing what our soul is to reach a knowledge of a remote genus for separate substances, but this does not mean an understanding of these substances.

11 Just as we know, through itself, that the soul is, in so far as we perceive its act, and we seek to discover what it is, from a knowledge of its acts and objects, by means of the principles of the speculative sciences, so also do we know concerning the things that are within our soul, such as powers and habits, that they indeed are, by virtue of our perception of their acts; but we discover what they are, from the qualitative character of their acts.

August 26, 2018 | 3 Comments

Summary Against Modern Thought: A Limitation of Knowledge

Previous post.

A man’s got to know his limitations.


1 Hence, since separate substances cannot be known by us in this life in the preceding ways, the question remains whether we may understand these separate substances in any way during this life.

2 Themistius tries to show that it is possible, by an argument from a less important case. Separate substances are indeed more intelligible than material ones; the latter are intelligible, in so far as they are made to be actually understood by the agent intellect, but the former are intelligible in themselves. Therefore, if our intellect comprehends these material substances, it is naturally much more capable of understanding separate substances.

3 Now, this argument must be judged in different ways, depending on the various opinions concerning the possible intellect. For, if the possible intellect is not a power which depends on matter, and again if it is separate in being from body, as Averroes supposes, then it follows that it has no necessary relation to material things. Consequently, things that are more intelligible in themselves will be more intelligible to it. But then it seems to follow that, since we understand from the start by means of the possible intellect, we therefore understand separate substances from the start: which is clearly false.

4 But Averroes tried to avoid this difficulty by the explanation which has been mentioned above, in connection with his opinion. And this is plainly false, on the basis of what we have established.

5 However, if the possible intellect is not separated in being from body, then by virtue of such a union in being with body it has a necessary relation to material things, so that it could not reach a knowledge of other things except by means of these material things.

Hence, it does not follow that, if separate substances are more intelligible in themselves, they are for this reason more intelligible to our intellect. And the words of Aristotle in Metaphysics II [1: 993b 9] prove this. For he says there that “the difficulty of understanding these things comes from us not from them, for our intellect is to the most evident things, as the eye of the owl is to the light of the sun.” Hence, since separate substances cannot be understood through material things that are understood, as was shown above, it follows that our possible intellect can in no way understand separate substances.

Notes The first paragraph of 5 is, of course, the most important. As is the first part of 6.

6 This is also evident from the relation of the possible intellect to the agent intellect. A passive potency is only a potency in regard to those things that are within the power of its proper active principle; for, to every passive potency in nature there corresponds an active potency; otherwise, the passive potency would be useless, for it could not be reduced to act except through an active potency.

Hence we see that the visual power is only receptive of colors which are illuminated by light.

Now, the possible intellect, since it is a passive power in some sense, has its proper corresponding agent, namely, the agent intellect which is related to the possible intellect as light is to sight.

So, the possible intellect is only in potency to those intelligible objects which are made by the agent intellect. Hence, Aristotle, describing both intellects in Book III of On the Soul [5: 430a 14], says that the possible intellect is “the capacity to become all things,” while the agent intellect is “the capacity to make all things”; so, each potency is understood to be referred to the same thing, but one is active and the other passive, Thus, since separate substances are not made to be actually intelligible by the agent intellect, but only material substances are, the possible intellect only includes the latter within its scope. Therefore, we cannot understand separate substances through it.

7 For this point Aristotle made use of an appropriate example, for the eye of an owl can never see the light of the sun; though Averroes tries to ruin this example by saying that the similarity between our intellect in relation to separate substances and the eye of the owl in relation to the light of the sun does not extend to impossibility, but only to difficulty. He gives a proof for this, in the same place, using the following argument: If those things which are understood in themselves, namely, separate substances, were not possible for us to understand, they would be for no purpose, just as if there were a visible object which could not be seen by any visual power.

Notes Obviously, the state of an owl’s site is only incidental to this.

8 How frivolous this argument is, is quite apparent. For, though these substances might never be understood by us, they are nonetheless understood by themselves. Hence, they are not intelligible in a purposeless way, as the sun (to pursue Aristotle’s example) is visible, yet not in a purposeless way, simply because the owl cannot see it. For man and other animals can see it.

9 And thus, the possible intellect, if it be granted that it is united with the body in being, cannot understand separate substances. However, it makes a difference how one thinks about its substance. For, if it is supposed to be a material power, capable of generation and corruption, as some have claimed, then it follows that it is limited by its own substance to the understanding of material things. Consequently, that it could in no way understand separate substances is quite necessary, since it could not be separate in its own being.

On the other hand, if the possible intellect, though united with a body, is, however, incorruptible and not dependent on matter in its actual being, as we showed above, it follows that the limitation to the understanding of material things accrues to it as a result of its union with the body. Consequently, when the soul will have been separated from this body, the possible intellect will be able to understand things that are intelligible in themselves, through the light of the agent intellect, which is the likeness in the intellectual soul of the light which is present in separate substances.

10 And this is the view of our faith, concerning the understanding of separate substances by us after death, and not in this life.