The Natural Desire to See God

Having set the stage of the universe’s dramatic return to God, Aquinas discusses in ScG, III.25 in incipient terms the height of creation’s likeness to God.

  1. a summary of ScG, III.25;
  2. a deeper consideration of the notion of “natural desire”;
  3. a brief review of alternative positions and objections to Aquinas;
  4. some concluding thoughts and questions on the natural desire;
  5. elimination of alternative options (ScG, III.26–36)

10.1. Establishing the Natural Desire to Understand God

Let us consider the various arguments for the desire to understand God. We will note things about the concluding paragraphs of ScG, III.25 below (see 10.8).

Paraphrase of Arguments in ScG, III.25Comments
1: All things intend union with God as far as possible, to His substance, which comes about more closely by knowledge than by likeness.This follows the being → action intensification in prior chapters: “the via assimilationis” versus “an infinitely superior via cognitionis.”†
2: The most perfect end of intellectual substances is the most perfect understanding, viz., to understand God.Compare to Aristotle, Nic. Ethics, X.7, and Aquinas, Sent. Ethicorum, ad loc., n. 2087.
Obj.: There is not one highest object for all intellects, but a highest for each; the greatest created intellect might see God, but we are the lowest, and so do not.Note the Aristotle quote (sicut oculus noctuae ad solem); compare to later discussions in III.42–44.
3: Rep.: Even though we are the lowest of the intellectual substances, we are still among them; and the end generically of such creatures is to understand God.St. Thomas treats us as one among the quasi-genus of angels; cf. Sent. Ethicorum, n. 2109: “Man is especially his intellect.”
4: What non-intellectual ones do by likeness, intellectual creatures do by knowledge; but the former are likened to God, albeit most imperfectly. So too for the latter.The lower do not become like the very next highest being, but the highest simply; this also works as a reply to the objection above.
5: Everything most of all desires its ultimate end, and for intellectual creatures this is love of divine things.Perhaps an allusion by Aquinas to Aristotle’s image of noble objects of knowledge.*
6: The intellectual creature’s end is likeness to God qua intellectual, and this is greatest when both actual and about God himself.
7: There is an architectonic order of desire among the arts and sciences of their own nature; this order leads to the knowledge of God [Dei cognitionem].
8: The end of all human actions is the end of the intellect (for it is the highest power), and its end is the highest and first truth, God.
9: Man naturally desires to know causes; this desire is not satisfied until they know the first cause, viz., God.
10: Man naturally desires to know the cause of being as such; nothing short of God suffices for man’s felicitas.
11: A vehemently exercised natural desire for knowledge must have a natural terminus; which must be God.

† See Hütter, “Aquinas on the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 559.

* Parts of Animals, I.4, 644b32–645a1: “The scanty conceptions to which we can attain of celestial things give us, from their excellence, more pleasure than all our knowledge of the world in which we live; just as a half glimpse of persons that we love is more delightful than an accurate view of other things, whatever their number and dimensions.”

10.2. What Is a “Natural Desire”?

As some commentators note, St. Thomas is mixing both Platonic and Aristotelian strategies for arguing for the end of intellectual substances. (See Lawrence Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters, 2nd ed. (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2010), 6–9, and Hütter, “Aquinas on the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 545.) The (Neo-)Platonic strategy argues through the ascent of the mind from lower to higher substances to the highest Good, an intensification in likeness unto God (via the exemplar cause)—the ultimate perfection of a being is to return to its principle. The Aristotelian strategy focuses upon the natural teleology of the human soul and its powers, especially intellect and the wondering desire to know the causes of things. Of course, the “restless heart” of St. Augustine is also in the background. (See Hütter, “Aquinas and the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 571–73.) Our hearts desire God innately, it would seem—how can the image of God not be naturally ordered back to God?

We will follow Feingold’s exposition of the idea of natural desire according to Aquinas.

There is a threefold division of appetite in creatures, which St. Thomas refers to as natural appetite, sensitive appetite, and rational appetite. Rational appetite or will is aroused on the basis of intellectual knowledge; sensitive appetite is excited by sense knowledge; and “natural appetite” always flows from a given form without any knowledge whatsoever in the subject of the inclination. . . . For this reason, natural appetite is often spoken of as a kind of natural attraction (pondus naturae), inclining the thing to its natural end when it is not yet attained, and resting in it after it is achieved.

Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God, 12.

For human beings, the will itself has a natural appetite, an innate or natural desire, prior to any knowledge and thus prior to our awareness of them. (Such natural desires form the basis for natural law inclinations to knowledge and friendship, for example.) By contrast, the will (and sense appetites) have elicited desires: “An elicited . . . refers to a passage or movement from potency to act in the appetitive faculty itself. It is a conscious act of a man or animal.” (Ibid., 15) The human will can also love or desire certain objects naturally and others freely. The former arise prior to any deliberation on our part, while the latter are only posterior to our deliberation.

The above pair of distinctions (innate vs. elicited, natural vs. free) can be (partly) crossed: That is, (1) innate and natural, (2) elicited but natural, (3) elicited and free; the remaining option is not possible by definition (innate and thus prior to knowledge but also free and so after deliberation: deliberation requires knowledge).

It is very important to note that the term “natural” has a broader sense than the term “innate” in this discussion. The word “natural” applies both to the innate inclination of the will . . . and to elicited acts of the will which spontaneously (naturally) arise before deliberation: “natural desire.” Every innate inclination is said to be a natural appetite, but an elicited natural desire is not said to be innate. Much confusion with regard to the interpretation of the natural desire to see God comes from not understanding this critical distinction, thinking that natural desire must always refer to innate inclination and forgetting that there are such things as elicited acts of natural desire. Thus the desire to see God can be truly natural without being innate.

Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God, 19.

This is option (2); of course, the other options are (1) innately-natural desire or (3) elicited and free.

Feingold reads the 9th, 10th, and 11th arguments (see the table above) as Aquinas defending option (2). For example, regarding the 9th argument, “St. Thomas is speaking of a desire aroused specifically by knowledge of effects whose cause is not yet known.” (Ibid., 36) Thus, option (1) is eliminated. At the same time, “a natural desire can be present which remains inefficacious or conditional” because of circumstances; thus, given the chance, efficacious will, or lack of indisposition, we spontaneously love such knowledge (ibid.). Again, Feingold notes that the 10th argument must be speaking of a natural elicited desire because it is “caused by specific knowledge of an effect: universal being”; similarly for the 11th argument: “The growth of a desire is only possible on the basis of greater knowledge.” (Ibid., 37. See also comments in Hütter, “Aquinas and the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 561.)

However, the exact modality of such knowledge is still unclear. The 4th argument ends with the result: “Therefore, man’s last end is to understand God in some way or other [quoquo modo].”

We must note the decisive qualification “quoquo modo”at the end of the above quotation, for the argument itself delivers nothing regarding the question of the mode of this operation. The conclusion at this point is that the final end of the human is the knowledge of God, attained in whatever mode, even the most imperfect. We need to return to the qualification “quoquo modo”when we consider again the natural desire in detail.

Hütter, “Aquinas and the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 562.

Indeed, as the 7th argument shows, this knowledge of God is found in metaphysics or first philosophy. As Hütter points out, this is stressed in the conclusion of the 10th argument: “Therefore, this very knowledge of God [ipsa Dei cognitio] is man’s last end.” Hütter comments:

Note however that ipsa Dei cognitio, the knowledge itself of God, is not to be confused with the knowledge of God himself, cognitio Dei ipsius, the latter being nothing but the beatific vision, the eternal participation of the blessed in the life of the Holy Trinity. The ipsa Dei cognitio, on the contrary, is the proper ultimate end of every created intellectus, the very knowledge of the essence of the first cause.

Ibid., 566.

Here, one might think of Aristotle in the Metaphysics:

Hence the possession of it might be justly regarded as beyond human power; for in many ways human nature is in bondage, so that according to Simonides “God alone can have this privilege”, and it is unfitting that man should not be content to seek the knowledge that is suited to him. If, then, there is something in what the poets say, and jealousy is natural to the divine power, it would probably occur in this case above all, and all who excelled in this knowledge would be unfortunate. But the divine power cannot be jealous (indeed, according to the proverb, “bards tell many a lie”), nor should any science be thought more honorable than one of this sort. For the most divine science is also most honorable; and this science alone is, in two ways, most divine. For the science which it would be most meet for God to have is a divine science, and so is  any science that deals with divine objects; and this science alone has both these qualities; for God is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle, and such a science either God alone can have, or God above all others.

Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.2, 982b27–983a9.

10.3. Objections, Distinctions, and Counterproposals

The history of the reception of St. Thomas’s arguments is long and detailed, and it is not our present purpose to wade into the depths of the commentatorial tradition here. A summary must suffice for now. The main lines are between “maximizing” and “minimizing” interpreters of St. Thomas, all of them reacting to the criticisms of John Duns Scotus.

Since the days of the principal sixteenth-century commentators on Aquinas’s thought on the natural desire for the vision of God, one can usefully distinguish between a tradition of minimizing and a tradition of maximizing interpreters. These two tendencies of interpretation draw in differing ways upon two series of texts in the vast corpus of the angelic doctor. In the first series of texts, Aquinas understands the desire to know the essence of the First Cause as a natural desire; in the second series he holds that the desire to know the divine essence is supernatural. Both series of texts run from the early through the later works and Aquinas sees no need anywhere to reconcile them. . . .

The tradition of “minimizing” interpretations has its roots in the commentatorial work of the Italian Dominican theologian Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1469–1534) and of the Spanish Dominican theologian Dominicus Banez (1528–1604), while the tradition of “maximizing” interpretations emerges from the commentaries of the Italian Dominican theologian Sylvester of Ferrara (1474-1528) and the Spanish Dominican theologian Dominicus Soto (1494-1560). Cajetan and Banez strongly privilege the first series of texts and prefer to interpret the natural desire in terms of an “obediential potency,” a nonrepugnance or even a suitability in the created spiritual nature for the vision of God as he is in himself. Sylvester of Ferrara and Soto, on the other hand, read Aquinas as teaching a genuine natural desire for the vision of God, although with the significant difference that Soto understands this desire primarily as a “pondus naturae,” a profound, innate natural impulse toward the vision of God as true human beatitude, while Sylvester of Ferrara takes the genuine desire to be not an innate, but an elicited desire that follows upon cognition.

All four interpreters of Aquinas react to the profound impact Duns Scotus had on this debate with his strict Augustinian insistence that God in his divine substance is the natural end of the human being. All human volitions, Scotus argues, are ordained to the divine substance as to their ultimate end. Scotus’s doctrine had such discursive weight that it inevitably impacted the subsequent interpretations of Aquinas’s thought, especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when Scotism had become a veritable philosophical and theological school in its own right.

Hütter, “Aquinas and the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 523–25.

This is not a merely medieval debate, however. Thanks to the work of various 20th-century theologians and philosophers (only two of whom are quoted here), the discussion is alive and well.

10.4. How to Clarify and Extend ScG, III.25

Some closing points:

  • We have not finished our discussion of this topic; while St. Thomas spends a significant number of chapters clarifying the felicity or beatitude of the human mind, the natural desire to see God is a topic of ScG, III.50–51.
  • Indeed, if we look carefully at the last few paragraphs of the chapter, St. Thomas is using two distinct terms for “happiness”: beatitudo and felicitas: “While the proper term for the end which Matthew and John have in view is beatitude, Aquinas nevertheless uses ‘felicitas’ in order to correlate Aristotle, at least in a preliminary way, to the two Evangelists.” (Hütter, ibid., 567) This comports with the philosophy-for-the-sake-of-theology modality of the Summa contra Gentiles as well as its goal, the participation in true beatitude via Christian wisdom.
  • A central theme going forward is intellectus, the operative receiver of the understanding of God as presented by this chapter. We should keep in mind here that “what we really mean to say is that the person desires to know, with and through his mind.” (Feingold, The Natural Desire to See God, 40) This is more familiar, in various ways. However, “On the other end stands Aquinas’s insight, rather difficult for us to grasp, that in a certain respect intellectus pertains to and encompasses everything that is.” (Hütter, “Aquinas and the Natural Desire for the Vision of God,” 551)

11. What the Happiness of Intellectual Creatures Is Not

In ScG, III.26–36, St. Thomas considers and rejects various candidates of human happiness. What do these chapters add? Why include them, given the conclusion of ScG, III.25? These chapters form a long via negativa about happiness; by the end, “Thomas has yet to specify the kind of knowledge involved in the contemplation of God.” (Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas, 105) The tour of various earthly or material or temporal goods which are parts of temporal felicitas focuses the mind upon a higher order of things.

11.1. Clarifying the Ultimate Human Good

Let us briefly consider the via negativa felicitatis vel beatitudinis and then return to ScG, III.26. In his consideration of chapters 27–36, St. Thomas “wishes to exclude false opinions about happiness by considering goods in ascending order.” (Ferrariensis, In SCG, III.27 (Leon.14.83).)

Selected Central Arguments in ScG, III.27–36Comments
III.27: Arguments against bodily pleasures rely upon the teleological ordering among the powers of the soul; e.g., the argument from moderation (higher rules lower).The last argument does resolve to III.25, noting that bodily pleasures are a great hindrance to contemplation of higher things, including God.
III.28: Honor is due to other’s actions and due to other goods, so it cannot be ultimate.How are honor and glory different? How are they the same? Some of these arguments are drawn from Aristotle, others from Boethius; all are ancient arguments. Why the review?
III.29: Glory (described as celebritate famae) is due to others’s actions and due to other goods; it’s not ultimate.
III.30: Wealth’s use lies in spending it (losing it), and it is better to give it away generously, so it’s not ultimate.Note how, by ch. 31, Aquinas has argued against all the (principal) external goods, goods of fortune, in similar ways (what are they?* is this list complete?). 
III.31: Power is neutral, open to good and evil; ∴ etc.
III.32: Bodily goods are subject to the good of the soul.What is required in order to invert this argument?
III.33: Sensation is for the sake of the body or the intellect, so its act cannot be the ultimate good.Note how this argument fits with a common strategy, if an act is for the same of something else, …
III.34: Moral virtues are not the highest end because their acts can be ordered to higher goods (examples?).The final arguments in chs. 34 and 35 give interesting examples of animals “participation” in virtue.
III.35: Acts of prudence are not the highest happiness, because its regulation is for the sake of other goods.Here, the highest of the virtues, barring the contemplative virtues, are eliminated. What if we were the noblest beings that existed?
III.36: Art/technology is for our sake, not vice versa.

* The principal common arguments that a given good is not the ultimate good (see beginning of chs. 31 and 32): the good  is unstable, not subject to the will, had by both good and evil people, it is for the sake of something else, and it is not the proper act or proper operation of human beings.

Let’s consider the chapter we skipped, ScG, III.26. It considers at length the question of whether the ultimate happiness consists in an act of the will. If chapters 27–36 consider goods in ascending order, then this chapter seems out of place. Perhaps the idea is to consider the will in relation to the intellect in closer textual proximity: “In this chapter St. Thomas wishes to remove a certain doubts by which is might seem to someone that beatitude consists rather in an act of the will.” (Ibid., (Leon.14.73).) Indeed, Ferrariensis’s commentary on the chapter is nearly 10 pages of double-column Latin text, with extended consideration of Scotus. Indeed, isn’t it better to love God than to know God? Here, of course, one thinks of the view of St. Bonaventure. (Also, see Daniel P. Shields, “On Ultimate Ends: Aquinas’s Thesis That Loving God Is Better than Knowing Him,” The Thomist 78 (2014): 581–607, at 584: “[O]ne who loves God cannot be happy, cannot be fully at rest, unless he is united to the God whom he loves, and this can only take place insofar as he attains God by knowing him. Thus happiness—which is a human being’s ultimate end in the restricted sense of bringing to rest his love of desire— consists in knowing God. Yet God himself is a greater good than the human person’s knowledge of him (even if this knowledge be that of the beatific vision), and so the act of loving God, which directs one away from his finite act of knowing God and towards the infinite good of God himself, is better than the act of knowledge that it informs. But this does not make loving God a human being’s end, in either sense of end; God is the end, and love is the human being’s best act simply because it puts him in the proper relation to this end.” We plan to discuss such ideas later.)

The chapter first presents arguments for the idea that some act of will is constitutive of man’s highest end, happiness; then, St. Thomas argues that this is impossible; finally, he replies to the initial arguments to the contrary. We should read closely the fourth and fifth arguments Aquinas gives for his case, and perhaps also the eighth. How might such arguments anticipate views of happiness found in nihilism or existentialism?

11.2. What Does This Tell Us? St. Thomas and the Technology of Happiness

It is especially in the last two chapters that St. Thomas reaches a topic that Descartes makes paramount: that the end of properly human activity is the mastery and possession of nature through practical philosophy (science and technology; see Discourse, Part VI). St. Thomas anticipates this view:

Further, happiness is a good of man himself. But the speculative intellect is more concerned with things outside man; whereas the practical intellect is concerned with things belonging to man himself, viz., his operations and passions. Therefore man’s happiness consists in an operation of the practical intellect rather than of the speculative.

ST, Ia-IIae, q. 3, a. 5, obj. 3

His reply:

This argument would hold, if man himself were his own last end; for then the consideration and direction of his actions and passions would be his happiness. But since man’s last end is something outside of him, to wit, God, to Whom we reach out by an operation of the speculative intellect; therefore, man’s happiness consists in an operation of the speculative intellect rather than of the practical intellect.

This primacy of techno-calculative reason (for it cannot truly be called prudence) is a pressing problem of our time, and it shows that St. Thomas’s brevity in these chapters belongs in certain ways to another time in history. But need his reasons really change?

We can consider the modern context more sharply via Rémi Brague:

In 1929, the physicist J. D. Bernal, imagining the radiant future of science, acknowledges that “with time, the acceptance, the appreciation and even the comprehension of nature will be less and less necessary. In their place will come the need to determine the desirable form of the universe controlled by man, which belongs totally to art.”

A close tie connects the positive renunciation of the search for causes [and thus the speculative order of happiness] and the privilege that pragmatism accords to action. That tie pertains to the social legitimation of research. A science that renounces the idea of causality [and thus something given prior to human knowledge and desire] can no longer clarify the world for society; it therefore has no other way of verifying its relevance than by the power it confers.

Rémi Brague, The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project, trans. by P. Seaton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 111.

Or consider these thoughts on Christopher Dawson:

The modern religions of progress, including liberalism, were religiously heterodox expressions of the older Christian and humanistic culture. Liberalism could be understood in older, more familiar categories. Technologism, however, is something brand new. In the face of the technological society, the culture forming mission of Christianity will have to begin from scratch—but begin at a much lower level than did the missionaries of the dark ages, who brought the vestiges of high Roman culture to the barbarian peoples of northern Europe. The Venerable Bede and St. Boniface, however, did not have to teach those Celtic and Gothic peoples the rudiments of culture itself. It was a dark age, but it was dark, Dawson said, “with the honest night of barbarism.” The terrifying thing about modern barbarism is that it is not only more culturally primitive than barbarians of old, but it is immeasurably more powerful, prosperous, and ruthless. . . . By the end of his career, Dawson seemed to understand that the new culture is something for which there is no history, for it has no precedent. . . . [T]raditional cultures have folded under the technological order. I cannot think of a single success story of a society preserving its humanistic culture against technology. Even the Catholic Church, which has longer experience than any institution in dealing with bad governments, with human frailty, with heretics and ideologues of every stripe, nevertheless seems deeply perplexed at how to deal with a people who are convinced that their everyday well-being depends upon the technological order—on what the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor calls the “all intrusive culture.”

F. Russell Hittinger, “Christopher Dawson on Technology and the Demise of Liberalism,” in Christianity and Western Civilization—Christopher Dawson’s Insight: Can a Culture Survive the Loss of Its Religious Roots? Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 7 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

Pope Francis calls it “the dominant technocratic paradigm” of our age (“Laudato Si’,” n. 101 and Chapter 3). The technocratic paradigm is the desire and subsequent attempt “to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” (Ibid., n. 11, and see n. 106. See Pope Benedict XVI, “Spe Salvi,” in particular nn. 16ff) This paradigm attempts to divide and conquer, to master and possess for the sake of the desires of the world, in that sense of “world” opposed to the divine intentionality instilled within creation. The view of St. Thomas stands in stark contrast to that of our age.

Following the ancients, Thomas underscores the erotic foundation of the life of wisdom. The end is an object of affection and longing. The desire to know is more consuming than any other desire; the more one knows, the more one desires to grasp the ultimate causes. As Josef Piper puts it, “Only the presence of what is loved makes us happy, and that presence is actualized by the power of cognition.” The life of contemplation is rooted in a desire for union with the beloved; it involves submission to the beautiful. Thomas’s view of contemplation as fostering reverence for the source of beauty and order accords well with Pieper’s position. The alignment of contemplation with a desire for control and power is utterly alien to the ancients. Such a reading unjustifiably imports into ancient texts a modern conception of knowing as tied to making.

Hibbs, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas, 106.

It is utterly foreign because, as Aristotle states, “it would be strange to think that the art of politics, or practical wisdom, is the best knowledge, since man is not the best thing in the world.” (Nic. Ethics, VI.7, 1141a19–20) Even less so would technical skill and its products be placed higher among human goods.

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