The Heavenly Vision of Love Itself

We now reflect briefly upon ScG, III.37–63. We consider:

  1. the lay of the land, an outline of topics;
  2. the principal arguments in these chapters, a higher via negativa regarding human felicity;
  3. some concluding reflections on the result of this argumentation.
  4. consider the nature of the beatific vision;
  5. the relationship of nature and grace to man’s last end; 
  6. on the knowledge and love of God.

12.1. An Outline of ScG, III.37–50

Below is how this portion of ScG, Book III, might be outlined:

12.2. A Higher Via Negativa to Find True Happiness

Chapter 37 completes the “lower” via negativa to finding happiness. As Ferrariensis states, “First, [St. Thomas] excludes false opinions [in chs. 27–36]; second, he concludes to the truth by induction in Chapter 37.” (Ferrariensis, In SCG, III.27 [Leon.14.83].) Here, then, is a summary of the inductive argument:

  1. Ultimate happiness [felicitas] must be proper to man, sought for its own sake, unite man by likeness to higher things, allow man to know higher things, be most self-sufficing, and ordered to no further action.
  2. But the goods of fortune, bodily goods, goods of the sensate soul, moral goods, and the practical actions of man do not meet those requirements.
  3. Therefore, such goods are not man’s ultimate happiness.
  4. Nor is contemplation of true principles (since they are imperfect, being only the beginnings of truth) or of the truths about the lowest things [or same-level, human things] enough (since they are not the highest things known to exist).
  5. Therefore, all that remains is the contemplation of the ultimate truths about divine things: “It is therefore evident by way of induction that man’s ultimate happiness consists solely in the contemplation of God, which conclusion was proved above by arguments.”

We have confirmed by contrast, therefore, the conclusion defended in ScG, III.25, that “to know God is the end of every intelligent substance.” However, as we noted concerning that chapter, it was not clear exactly how the attainment of this end is meant.

This requires a higher via negativa. So, in the chapters after III.37, Aquinas begins to clarify exactly what sort of contemplation he means. While he had disagreed with St. Bonaventure’s view in III.26 (that ultimate happiness consists in an act of the will), St. Thomas is himself engaged upon an “ascent” or journey of the mind into God, with no created remainder. We should consider some of those central arguments:

Selected Central Arguments in ScG, III.38–46Comments
III.38: The sort of knowledge that is commonly reached about God by the everyman’s design argument is not sufficient, because it is full of error and most imperfect.Yet this natural aptitude to theism is important to note; this type of argument is “the most efficacious way” to a knowledge of God (In Iohan., pr., n. 3).
III.39: The philosopher’s knowledge of God, better than the above, cannot be the “common” human end, as many fail to achieve this, much less achieve it perfectly. What is natural is achieved always or for the most part, so this cannot be the ultimate human happiness.Is this a denial of Aristotelian eudaimonism? However,* (1) Aristotle thinks it is rare; (2) the human end as such can fail in the concrete; (3) what is moved to its end can succeed often, what moves freely to its end is susceptible of failure, impediment.
III.40: While faith’s knowledge of God is superior to philosophy’s, it cannot be human felicity because of its imperfection; nor does it satisfy our desire to know God.Note the 4th arg. in this chapter, as well as the 5th arg. in the previous chapter, both of which make use of our elicited desire to know God better.
III.41: Nor is knowledge of separate substances enough. It is imperfect, if had, because we know empirically.How do these chapters advance the argument?  They show the importance of true anthropology, for our ultimate end corresponds to our nature. They also avoid a kind of Aristotelian gnosticism invented [confictus] by the commentators, that our end is union/formation by a higher creature. Thus, we avoid the conclusion of a ‘secular’ or cosmologically immanent telos of mankind It’s a dialectical squeeze: felicity is not God in some lower way, and not in some lower form of union.
III.42: Alexander’s view is “irrational” and “frivolous”.
III.43: Averroes’s view beset by prior difficulties (see II).
III.44: Central reason: Both end-goal and its means, viz., knowing all sensible substances to “unite” us to higher substance, are impossible; and few, if any, could do this, granting it be possible; yet happiness is “ut in pluribus.
III.45: Nor is there some other way to defend this idea.
III.46: On St. Augustine and the soul’s self-knowledge …See below …

* Here, I follow the suggestions of Ferrariensis, In SCG, III.39 (Leon.14.97).

12.3. Into the Divine Darkness: True Happiness Lies Beyond Life

In what follows, I offer some brief reflections about these chapters, in anticipation of more systematic remarks when we can bring ScG, III.51–63 into consideration:

  • Perhaps, in order to understand the argument in III.41–45, we might think of other forms of modern “gnosis,” that ultimate human felicity is gained through some form of knowledge accessible only to an elite few. This Arabic “eudaimonism” achieved by scaling the heights of intellectual achievement to become one with a separate substance might be compared to claiming that knowledge is essentially found in naturalistic physical science, which itself is coded within esoteric symbolic forms.
  • Note carefully the argument in III.45 concerning the proportion of the natural receptivity of the human mind to the agency required to realize it:
    • “For a passive power is in potency to those things only which are included in the range of its proper active principle, for every passive power has a corresponding active power in nature: otherwise passive power would be useless, since it cannot be brought to act except by an active principle. . . . Consequently, the possible intellect is in potency to those intelligible objects only which have been made so by the active intellect. . . . Since, then, separate substances are not made actually intelligible by the active intellect, and only material things are so made, it follows that the possible intellect extends to these alone.”
  • The argument of III.46 is essentially to avoid misunderstanding what St. Augustine says about the way in which we understand our own souls. It is not through some sort of intuitive self-introspection, but rather in a rather Aristotelian, empirical, effect-to-cause way. Have other philosophers claimed to have an intuitive, introspective knowledge of what the soul is?
  • Again, the argument in III.47 must avoid the appearance of contradicting St. Augustine, who contends that the human soul knows truth in God’s Eternal Truth. However, what St. Augustine means is that what we have in our intellects when we know the truth is a similitude of the divine eternal truths; so, it’s not an experiential, interior vision of Truth itself, but a participatory mode of our knowledge.
    • “Therefore, from these words of Augustine, we cannot conclude that God is seen in his essence in this life, but only as in a mirror [in speculo]. To this the Apostle witnesses as regards the knowledge of this life: Now we see in a mirror [per speculum] dimly (1 Cor 13:12).”
    • One might recall St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium and its steps compared to a speculum.
    • Compare this to: “They, then, who see their own mind, in whatever way that is possible, and in it that Trinity of which I have treated as I could in many ways, and yet do not believe or understand it to be an image of God, see indeed a glass [mirror], but do not so far see through the glass Him who is now to be seen through the glass, that they do not even know the glass itself which they see to be a glass, i.e. an image.” (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book XV, ch. 24)
  • The first argument in III.48 completes the dialectical squeeze begun in III.38. Note the liberation of the philosophers from their plight at the end of the chapter.Is this the end even of Aristotle’s  version of happiness?
  • In III.49, we continue the dialectical squeeze post mortem … into the divine darkness, which is  how St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium ends. Here, even the angels fall short.
  • In III.50, note that in the separate substances, based upon the natural knowledge it has of God, “its desire still leads it on to the substance of God.” Can we apply this analogously to our own case?

Hence wisdom rightly says: I dwelt in high places, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud (Sir 24:4): and it is said that wisdom by her maids invites to the tower (Prov 9:3). They should be ashamed, therefore, who seek man’s happiness in the lowest things, whereas it is placed on such a height.

ScG, III.50, end

12.5. “Things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived …”

We begin with ScG, III.51: Since a natural desire cannot be in vain, “we must conclude that it is possible for the divine substance to be seen by means of the intellect, both by separate intellectual substances and by our souls.” The mode is not via a created species, but God Himself, “so that in that vision the divine essence is both the object and the medium of vision.” 

Objection: Divine simplicity seems to render this impossible. Reply: God can inform our minds, because He is pure subsisting truth itself; this cannot be the case with other forms, which would make an entitative union, not one of knowing. This is the “face to face” vision promised in Sacred Scripture; this is to share in God’s very joy, His own beatitude.

On to ScG, III.52: We cannot attain to this vision naturally because a higher operation requires a higher agency. Essentially, there is room for nature being elevated by grace here: “Whatever exceeds the limits of a nature cannot be acquired by that nature except through the agency of another: thus water does not flow upwards unless it be moved by something else.”

This elevation is a sort of form in the beatified intellect; ScG, III.53. The form of another is shared only by participation; so, such participation in God needed for the vision. A higher form requires a disposition on the part of the receiver; so too with knowing God’s Form or receiving It intellectually. To strengthen something, either (a) mere intensification of same sort of power, or (b) augmentation by new form; this must be a case of (b) since nature does not suffice. This new strength is likened to physical conditions, and called lux gloriae or (more frequently) lumen gloriae.

Various objections are considered in ScG, III.54; these objections against the possibility of the beatific vision “would destroy the rational creature’s true happiness, which can consist in nothing but the vision of the divine substance, as we have proved.”

Objections in ScG, III.54Replies to the Objections
1: No added light can make the eyes see something other than color.1: God is the first intelligible, so the comparison fails (Aristotle: owl eyes).
2: The lumen gloriae is itself a creature, so cannot help achieve this vision.2: God gives the lumen gloriae this power of union in knowing, not being.
3: If a divine likeness is all that is needed, the intellect’s own nature would suffice.3: The likeness provided is beyond nature, disposition to knowing God’s very being.
4: The created lumen gloriae could just as well be connatural, but this is against III.52.4: Since the object cannot be naturally known, the lumen gloriae must be supernatural.
5: The infinite cannot be known.5: God’s infinity is not material infinity, but formal infinity, and supremely intelligible.
6: There is no proportion here between knower and known, even with lumen gloriae.6: The proportion needed is not of measure but aptitude, relationship.

The characteristics of the beatific object, God, are considered in ScG, III.55–56: In the vision, the created intellect does not comprehend God and thus does not know all there is to know in God. The lumen gloriae is not sufficient to allow perfect vision of God insofar as God is perfectly knowable. A finite, created power cannot comprehend an infinite object such as God. Since we cannot comprehend God, we cannot know all His effects or all His power can accomplish. Note the comparison in III.55:

It is not seen as perfectly by the created intellect as it is visible, even as one who holds a demonstrated conclusion as an opinion is said to know it but not to comprehend it, because he does not know it perfectly—that is, scientifically—although there be no part of it that he knows not.

Why do the arguments about imperfect happiness not reappear here? Because the end of all intellectual creatures has been achieved in the beatific vision in its substance. The characteristics here do not alter that central good.

The characteristics of the act of the vision are then considered in ScG, III.57–60: All intellects can receive the vision, and do so to varying degrees, and thereby see all things all at once. Since the lumen gloriae is supernatural, the natural variation of intellects is not a hindrance. The distances between created intellectual substances is finite, so their differences are no hindrance. Besides, any intellect as such has a natural desire to know the essence of God, and this desire cannot be in vain.

But not every beatified intellect achieves the vision to the same degree. The lumen gloriae can be participated to various degrees and provide a diversity of dispositive likenesses. Not all intellectual substances are as equally prepared in virtue for the beatific vision, due to diverse grades of charity, as St. Thomas states elsewhere:

The faculty of seeing God, however, does not belong to the created intellect naturally, but is given to it by the light of glory, which establishes the intellect in a kind of deiformity, as appears from what is said above, in the preceding article. Hence the intellect which has more of the light of glory will see God the more perfectly; and he will have a fuller participation of the light of glory who has more charity; because where there is the greater charity, there is the more desire; and desire in a certain degree makes the one desiring apt and prepared to receive the object desired. Hence he who possesses the more charity, will see God the more perfectly, and will be the more beatified.

ST, Ia, q. 12 a. 6, c. (

But even with this variety in each beatified intellect’s sharing in the vision of God, those intellects do know all things. For God is the source of the intelligibility of everything. And, this is a natural desire of the intellectual nature. The intellect is naturally apt to know all things in the universe; “Therefore, God makes known to the intellect which sees him all the things that he has made for the perfection of the universe.” The saints know all things as pertains to the perfection of universe of intelligible being; not all things as God knows them. This vision of all things is also simultaneous or all at once, since it is like God’s understanding, which does not pass from one thing to another; sharing in this we share in its intuitive character.

Lastly, in ScG, III.61–63, St. Thomas adds that the beatific vision is a participation in eternal life, is perpetual (unable to be lost, indefectible), and satisfies every desire. For to see God is to see eternity; “Therefore, the aforesaid vision consists in a participation of eternity.” (III.61) Again, the object and medium are eternal: “Therefore, this vision is according to a participation of eternity, as altogether transcending time.”

Since it is participated eternity, it cannot be lost. Besides, we naturally desire the perpetuity of happiness, and knowing that the vision would cease would cause sadness, and thus it would not be true felicity. Nor can it be violently taken away, as God gives it to satisfy a natural desire. Again:

Now the created intellect always looks with wonder on the divine substance, since no created intellect can comprehend it. Therefore, the intellectual substance cannot possibly become weary of that vision: consequently, it cannot of its own choice desist from it.

ScG, III.62

The vision fulfills every desire: for knowing the truth, for living in perfect virtue, for honor, glory, riches and material sufficiency, pleasure, and a long life (III.63). The philosophers could only partly see the fulness of this beatitude beyond this life: “In this life there is nothing so like this ultimate and perfect happiness as the life of those who contemplate the truth, as far as possible here below. Hence the philosophers who were unable to obtain full knowledge of that final beatitude placed man’s ultimate happiness in that contemplation which is possible during this life.”

12.6. To Know, Love, and Serve God in this Life …

Earlier, when discussing ScG, III.25 (see 10B), we distinguished between various senses of appetite as used by St. Thomas:

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.

There is also a division between a natural appetite that is innate, meaning prior to any knowledge and thus prior to our awareness of such intentionalities. These are the innate inclinations underlying the natural law, for example, and are desires arising from human nature. 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. Thus, focusing on the will:

Rational AppetiteNatural (without deliberation)Free (with deliberation)
Innate (prior to knowledge)Innate desire for human goodsNot possible
Elicited (after knowledge)Elicited desire for human goodsAny conscious, free desire

However, and of crucial importance, is that the intellect also has a natural inclinatio or appetitus towards the truth and, ultimately, to God. This is in fact what ScG, III.24–25 establish in general about every creature and specifically about every intellectual creature. Therefore, while elicited and free desires for the vision of God are possible, one must also ask about the original intellectual origin of such desire as an “ontological orientation” towards God.

The core of St. Thomas’s position, according to the consensus view of Thomistic commentators, is that the desire to know the essence of God is an elicited desire to which the human person, the imago Dei, has an obediential potency:

Inasmuch as creatures have different passive potencies in relation to different active agencies, a purely passive obediential potency for acts achievable only with divine aid is intelligible. As St. Thomas writes, “accordingly we say that the whole creation is in a certain potency of obedience, according as the whole creation obeys God to be able to receive in itself whatever God wills.”

Steven A. Long, “Creation Ad Imaginem Dei: The Obediential Potency of the Human Person to Grace and Glory,” Nova et Vetera 14, no. 4 (2016): 1175–92, at 1185, quoting Quaestiones Disputatae de Virtutibus, q. 1, a. 10, ad 13.

This obediential potency is present in an analogous way in natural things. For instance, recall the example in ScG, III.52: “Whatever exceeds the limits of a nature cannot be acquired by that nature except through the agency of another: thus water does not flow upwards unless it be moved by something else.Obediential potency does undergird the metaphysical possibility of miracles, but also of other, non-miraculous effects of grace.

Contrary to Etienne Gilson . . . and historically many others (e.g., the Franciscan school), obediential potency is not merely the susceptibility of the creature to miraculous transformation—not merely the capacity of water, under divine agency, to become wine—although this is the lowest type of obediential potency. Were the lowest type of obediential potency the only type, obediential potency could not pertain to the relation of nature to grace. However, specific obediential potency is different from mere susceptibility to miraculous transformation because it refers to a specific range of actuation that the active agency of God can bring forth from a nature. . . .

[O]bedience properly speaking is not a voluntarist posit, and so it would be strange were “obediential potency” to be reducible to the lowest instance of obedience wherein things are miraculously transformed to other things (a use of “obedience” seemingly by extrinsic attribution) rather than interiorly elevated through their passive potency to activation by a nobler principle.

God can raise up sons of Abraham from the very stones, but were he to do so, they would no longer be stones, but human beings. By contrast, owing to the possession of essentially spiritual powers of intellect and will—by reason of the possession of human nature—the human person is able to be elevated in grace to friendship with God. Man does not cease to be human—as the stone would cease to be a stone—by being elevated to the divine friendship. The stone as such cannot be elevated by grace to be a friend of God—even though, in some analogical sense, all creatures desire and love God in their natural motion—because the stone lacks a rational soul. To become a friend of God, it must cease being a stone. Human persons do not lose their humanity by being elevated in grace to the divine friendship.

Long, “Creation Ad Imaginem Dei,” 1186, 1188.

However, grace that actuates the obediential potency specific to intellectual natures is not something that can be philosophically established. Indeed, the impossibility of demonstrating a revealed truth and the specific contents of the gifts of grace inspires many a theological controversy. Here are two extremes:

While one side condemns the tradition of Aristotelian-inspired anthropology for its excess of ambition regarding natural knowledge and love of God, the other side condemns it for its inherent deficit or lack, since the natural inclination is seen to be ordered only to a naturally proportionate end and not to supernatural beatitude as such. One side argues, then, that the Thomistic tradition cannot account sufficiently for the extrinsic transcendence of grace to nature while the other side claims that it does not account sufficiently for the intrinsic directedness of nature to grace. What these two specifically opposed extremes share by way of a common genus of presupposition is a conviction that the classical Thomistic tradition fails to safeguard a balanced sense of grace-nature extrinsicism and nature-grace intrinsicism.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “Imperfect Happiness and the Final End of Man: Thomas Aquinas and the Paradigm of Nature-Grace Orthodoxy,” The Thomist 78, no. 2 (2014): 247–89, at 249–50.

This theological debate has profound philosophical implications and ramifications, however:

This notion of person as a purely relational reality is not unconnected with the related but distinct view that nature as such is so thoroughly related to grace as to be a mere limit concept or dialectical notion providing no normative content for theology distinguishable from grace. Thus, the idea of a natural preamble to faith—the praeambula fidei—is often transformed to a knowledge that is intrinsically postfactum (“after the fact”) of revelation and grace. We move from the natural order as bearing the impress of the divine wisdom in the eternal law—primordial revelation—to a view of nature as if it were something purely conceptual, designating a possible “space” to be filled with grace but lacking normative content, what elsewhere I have called elsewhere a “vacuole for grace.”

Long, “Creation Ad Imaginem Dei,” 1182.

That is, unless one is careful, one might render human nature unintelligible philosophically, if we were to say that our ultimate end is intelligible only in virtue of grace, as Fr. White puts it (a view with which he disagrees):“The nature of the human being is in this respect an unintelligible paradox decrypted only by revelation in Christ.” Indeed, such a result would be most unfitting: “[Aquinas] states that human beings ought to love God above all things naturally, and that this distinctly natural order toward God is distinct from, but also the structural (not temporal) presupposition for, the gift of charity. Were this not the case, then the mystery of charity as a grace given to human beings that they might love God above all things would be unnatural, alien and violent to human nature.

How, then, are we to understand the grand sweep of St. Thomas’s argumentation from ScG III.25–63 insofar as it attempts to bring to bear what philosophy can know and what theology can contemplate in faith? In sorting out this question, we can also take the opportunity to review.

A first point: This argumentation uses Aristotelian argumentation to go beyond Aristotle. 

In arguing that the natural final end of man is the happiness attained through the virtue of wisdom, that is to say, through the contemplation of God by way of natural knowledge of God, Aquinas is arguing philosophically as a medieval Aristotelian, or in light of what he takes to be the truth that stems from perennially valid Aristotelian philosophical principles.

This is all said with respect to the relative perfection of natural happiness. What about its relative imperfection? Aquinas will argue for the insufficiency of the happiness procured by natural knowledge for human beings in chapters 39 and 48 of book III. Here in particular, Aquinas’s genuine creativity as a medieval philosophical developer of Aristotelian thought begins to shine through in acute ways. He self-consciously employs arguments or observations of Aristotle from the Metaphysics and the Ethics regarding the inherent instability and limitations of the felicity procured by natural knowledge of God in such a way as to move beyond the explicit arguments employed by Aristotle himself. In other words, Aquinas is seeking to analyze in Aristotelian terms the limits of the natural happiness of any created intellect so as to make room philosophically, so to speak, for the perfection of happiness that is granted by the beatific vision alone, which he will treat in chapters 51–63.

White, “Imperfect Happiness and the Final End of Man,” 262.

That is, one the one hand, St. Thomas uses Aristotelian thinking to defend the idea that the contemplation of God is our ultimate end and felicity, while, on the other hand, he uses Aristotelian thinking to show that such contemplation is imperfect in this life. Aquinas “employs Aristotelian arguments in view of trans-Aristotelian ends.” (Ibid., 265) We have seen this above, in §12.2, where Aquinas argues against Aristotelian eudaimonism.

For instance, one argument in ScG, III.50 that applies to intellectual substances generally is that, since by nature they desire to know the essences and natures of things, upon knowing that God exists, intellectual creatures naturally desire to know what God is. This relies upon the inner logic of philosophical wonder and desire to know causes explained in Aristotle (e.g., the Metaphysics and the Posterior Analytics). In such arguments,

the Augustinian theme of the inherent restlessness of the natural desire of the created intellect is given an Aristotelian philosophical articulation. The inherent (we might say intrinsic) inclination of the intellect for the immediate knowledge of God is rooted in the natural desire to know the cause, not only through the mediation of the effects of the cause, but also in itself. This inclination is manifested through an express desire of human nature, one that springs naturally from the knowledge of God that is proper to angelic and human natures. The imperfect character of our natural knowledge of God, then, is not only a certain kind of beatitude that truly does perfect human nature. It is also precisely because of its relative perfection, and therefore corresponding imperfection as an end, the necessary occasion for the rendering explicit of a desire for a yet higher perfection of knowledge. This higher end is indeed one that nature cannot procure for itself. Therefore, the natural desire for the immediate knowledge of God is inscribed in us by nature insofar as we are innately ordered toward the search for the truth about causes and are capable of indirect, mediated knowledge of the first cause. For this same reason we are capable of an inefficacious desire for a knowledge of God that is immediate, one that surpasses our human powers and that our native capacities cannot procure. That is to say, we are naturally capable of the desire to see God.

Ibid., 268–69.

However, such a conclusion cannot deduce the specifically supernatural character of such an end-goal. Thus, on the one hand, there is a philosophical demonstration of the elicited natural desire to see the essence of God “if this were somehow possible,” (ibid., 273n58) while, on the other hand, such arguments show the possibility and rational fittingness of what the Faith reveals.

One should note that if this is the case, then the arguments in chapter 50 of book III of the Summa contra Gentiles and question 12, article 1 of the Prima pars, though identical in structure philosophically speaking, can be interpreted in two very different ways. In the former text, philosophy is being employed to show a natural desire to know God immediately, not a natural desire for the object of supernatural faith as such. The argument is to be considered rigorously demonstrative. This would especially make sense if Aquinas is writing against the philosophical claims of Averroism, in order to defend the potential harmony of the truths of faith and natural reason. In the latter text, the same demonstrative argument is being used not as a way of demonstrating the existence of the revealed supernatural end of man, but as an argument of fittingness showing that this end revealed in Christ is not something alien or contrary to, but rather in harmony with the natural aspirations of the human person, albeit on a higher plane made possible only by grace.

Ibid., 274.

The compatibility of these argumentative modes should be highlighted, because the achievement of the vision of God is beyond our natural powers:

After all, the human being has a natural desire to see God immediately. Is this not a natural desire for the supernatural? We should note that two affirmations are being under- scored by Aquinas that are in no way incompatible: (1) The human soul has a natural desire to see God immediately, one that is even philosophically demonstrable; and (2) the human soul is in no way naturally inclined to the supernatural object of faith as such, an object of knowledge that orients the soul toward the supernatural vision of the Holy Trinity.

Ibid., 282.

At this point, we can return to the distinctions about types of desire with which we began:

We should note in this regard that Aquinas speaks differently of “inclinations” and “desires.” Our inclinations remain proportionate to our human nature. However, our desires, which stem from our natural inclinations, can attain to those realities that we cannot procure by our own power. It is in this sense that we can understand Aquinas’s clear affirmation that there is inscribed in the human intellect an innate desire to see God.70 The desire to see God is an expression of our deepest human inclination to know the truth about the first cause, and at the same time, this desire clearly reaches out beyond that which it is in our proportionate power to accomplish or achieve. It is not a desire for the formal object of supernatural beatitude as such, which can only be obtained by grace.

Later Thomistic Scholastics like Sylvester of Ferrara and Domingo Báñez would refer to this desire as “an elicited desire to see God.” . . . It is for this reason that such commentators also speak of the natural desire to see God as conditional. It is true that the human spirit remains fundamentally unfulfilled as regards its own final end if the human intellect does not come to see God. Consequently, it would be most good to know who or what God is in some immediate way, if that were possible. An absolute, resolute hope of seeing God face to face is only possible, however, supernaturally, by grace, once we come to know by faith in divine revelation that such a possibility has really been accorded to us.

Ibid., 282–83.

In such a way, St. Thomas uses Aristotelian philosophy about human nature to clarify the deep meaning behind St. Augustine’s “restless heart”: “Aristotelian philosophy thus vindicates Augustinian theology. An Aristotelian sense of the imperfection of natural happiness disposes us to see the ways that the restless heart of man in the economy of God’s grace can be elevated to find its most perfect rest only in the supernatural life of God. . . . An Aristotelian philosophical realism regarding the imperfection of human natural capacities for happiness redounds to a deepened Augustinian sense of the sheer gratuity of grace and supernatural beatitude, a life beyond what any human eye has seen, ear has heard, or heart imagined.” (Ibid., 288–89)

12.7. … and to Be Happy with Him in the Next

We conclude with a reflection from Daniel Shields, with a helpful precision, following various details from St. Thomas. 

Since God himself is more a person’s ultimate end than the person’s own happiness is, it follows that loving God is better than knowing him. If God is a greater good in himself than is a human being’s perfection in knowing him, then being directed towards God as he is in himself through love is a better thing than simply knowing him. But when one loves God as he is in himself, he inevitably, and appropriately, desires to be with God. One comes to be in God’s presence through the beatific vision of his essence, and so a human being’s desire cannot be fully satisfied unless he is united to God by the intellect’s act of knowing him. Thus happiness, which is a human being’s ultimate end in a restricted sense, consists in the knowledge of God, and not in the love of God only, for one can love God without also being actually united to him. 

Yet the intellectual act of knowing God would not be the state in which one attains his ultimate end, God, if it were not informed by the act of love for God, which directs the knower away from his own immanent, finite perfection—consisting in his act of knowing God (visio)—and towards the infinite good of the God whom he is knowing. It is the will’s act of love, causing one to adhere to God now seen and to rest in him, that makes beatitude God-centered and not man-centered. A human being can only attain God, his ultimate end, through an act of the intellect, but even when that ultimate end has been attained, the act of love for God is higher than the act of knowledge which it informs, as Aquinas indicates in the case of the Seraphim and Cherubim. 

This is not to say that the act of loving God is a human being’s ultimate end, nor that it is better than knowing God considered as an accidental perfection inhering in the human being. Loving God is better than knowing God precisely because nothing that a human being can be or do is his ultimate end. A human being’s ultimate end is outside him, and so the best thing for him to do is to love that end above all things. 

For Aquinas, in this life a human being can choose either to make himself his own ultimate end, or to take God as his ultimate end. In the former case, he will desire to know God so as to be the most perfect being he can be; his whole life will be ordered towards his own immanent perfection, and he will suffer from the sin of pride. In the latter case, however, he will desire to know God because he loves God dearly, even more than himself, and thus naturally wants to be united to him. It is the latter disposition, and not the former, that satisfies the demands of the natural law according to Aquinas.

Daniel P. Shields, “On Ultimate Ends: Aquinas’s Thesis That Loving God Is Better than Knowing Him.” The Thomist 78 (2014): 581–607, at 606–607.

Such “demands of the natural law,” however—they are able to be fulfilled efficaciously only by grace.

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