A: Ancient Period
While intimations of the transcendental concepts existed prior to Athens' Golden Age, it was Plato who raised their importance as philosophical issues requiring further development through comments made in several of the dialogues. In Lysis, for instance, Plato asserts that ‘the good … is beautiful’26 and writes much in the same vein in the Symposium27 and the Greater Hippias.28 In Phaedrus29 a close affinity is made between being and truth. A common thread that runs through the dialogues is the attempt to explain more fully what Socrates avers is one of his (and Plato's) fundamental philosophical assumptions ‘the existence of absolute beauty and goodness and magnitude and all the rest’30 and whether they are capable or ‘incapable of any blending or participation in one another.’31 Plato is, in these sections, certainly attempting to identify notions that Aristotle would later say are proper to what he named first philosophy (metaphysics) and which the Stagirite characterized as ‘concerned with the universal characteristics which belong to the system of knowable reality as such, and the principles of its organization in their full universality.’32 (emphasis added) Granted, neither thinker ever employed the term transcendentals to refer to such notions and the concepts denoted by that word become more developed in the Middle Ages, ‘based on hints in Aristotle.’33 It is on this highest level of abstraction that the mind treats of things such as being, truth, goodness, beauty, unity, etc., in an absolute sense ‘ideas unperceived by sense, and apprehended only by the mind’ and that of the highest of the three kinds of beings/natures which Plato distinguishes in the Timaeus as those that are ‘uncreated and indestructible.’34
Plato was very sensitive to both the value as well as the dangers lurking in any concept formation and no one after him could ignore his cautions and still do philosophy (and the same would apply to theology) in a responsible manner. As to the dangers, he notes in a conversation with Theatetus that giving birth to new ideas is more painful than childbirth but that ‘my art has power to bring on these pangs or to allay them.’35 The aroused pangs are the result of the human mind venturing into a realm of thought that it is not by nature first and foremost made to deal with. Aristotle tells us that humanity's natural area of knowledge is with the essences or natures of material things. Understanding why this is the case is easy enough. ‘(T)he human intellect is at the lowest level in the scale of spirits.’36 The history of thought clearly shows the myriad wrong turns taken by theories that are the result of the trial and error process with which humans are saddled. Were the natural world as source of immediate need fulfillments for maintaining life not humanity's first focus, the human race would likely not have survived. But as Maritain notes,
It is fitting that for an intelligence that makes use of senses there corresponds, as naturally proportionate, object-essences immersed in the sensible. That is why the scholastics said that the essences of corporeal things are the connatural object of our power of intellection.37
Even after survival has been adequately secured and a developing culture takes root, to push forward into mathematics and metaphysics is to strain the natural tendencies imposed on a mind that requires perceptions from the physical world as the sine-qua-non of all knowledge and finds it difficult to think in abstract ideas without an accompanying sensory image, no matter how inadequate a representation it might be of the concept. But the thrust of any intellect, even one limited as is the human, is not bound to knowledge of material being alone, but open to being-as-such and when concepts are intuited or discerned these, as Plato put it, allay the pangs by offering a means to more deeply and fully understand the issue under consideration and to resolve the wonder which initiated the investigation.
B. High Medieval Period: Aquinas
One of the prepossessing questions of the middle ages focused on arguments concerning the existence and nature of God. Since God is defined as the supreme or ultimate being, such investigations served as an impetus for a fuller development of understanding about being and whatever properties that could be immediately associated with it. These can be considered in two sets, first as more immediately appropriable to each person in the Trinity and second as reflecting the immanency of the relations of the persons to each other. The first set is being, truth, and goodness. It is upon this set that this paper is focused. The second which comprises among others unity, and beauty will not be considered as a result of the constraints of this paper, although a more thorough examination of their relation to the Trinity would be needed to complete more fully the study.
A comparison of the indices in two of St. Thomas' major works (Summa Theologica and De Veritate) with the Hamilton edition of The Complete Dialogues of Plato indicates a marked difference in the references listed under the term being. In Plato they constitute less than half a column; beautiful and beauty contain more references than being and existence. Good/goodness is two and a quarter columns long and true/truth almost a full one. Only unity has fewer entries than does being. In the Summa theologica and Truth there is less disproportion among the entries under being and its qualities as the focus intelligibilis of Thomistic thought is oriented towards esse not essentiae. Maritain notes, ‘What distinguishes authentic Thomism … is precisely the primacy which (it) accords to existence and to the intuition of existential being.’38
For Aquinas, being (esse) is the most basic of all intuitions. It is the mind's reflection on reality at its most abstract and irreducible. Reichman quotes Aquinas on the matter:
‘Hence it is clear that when I speak of esse, what I refer to is the actuality of all acts, and consequently the perfection of all perfection’ [Reichman adds] Thus for Thomas esse, while wholly internal to the existing singular thing, is the actuality of everything within the being without at the same time contributing in any way to the manner in which that being exists.39
The notion is not itself capable of being assimilated into any higher genus concept. Being comprises all that is or can be, all that is actual or possible.40 This is evident in the fact that Aquinas suggests that the concept of being inspires the pre-eminent name of God. In the Summa Theologica, when the question is posed as to God's most proper name, Thomas contends that ‘He who is'—that is, Being itself—'is most properly applied to God, for three reasons.’
First, because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other (3, 4), it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form. Secondly, on account of its universality. For all other names are either less universal, or, if convertible with it, add something above it at least in idea; hence in a certain way they inform and determine it … Thirdly, from its consignification, for it signifies present existence; and this above all properly applies to God, whose existence knows not past or future, as Augustine says (De Trini. V).41
For Aquinas, being and any of its transcendental qualities are predicated analogically to anything that did, does, will or could exist (even though it may never come to exist in actuality), but the degree of predication is not identical or equal in all cases. Being when predicated of actual or possible existences is done in varying degrees of proper proportionality,42 whereas Plato seemed to employ them either as metaphors or according to the analogy of attribution. Predication according to proper proportionality signifies that the perfection (being or its qualities) is formally and intrinsically realized in each analogate according to a proportion of similarity (e.g. life as found in plants, brutes and men).
Another difference between Plato's and Aquinas' understanding of how the terms relate to each other also requires treatment. In the dialogue bearing his name, Parmenides holds ‘the one always has being, and being always has unity’ but then comes to a conclusion that ‘hence, any part always proves to be two and can never be one’ (i.e. a unity). Parmenides is employing the terms as one would red, tall, strong, and so on, that is, as qualities which can co-exist or not within a single subject. Aquinas does not agree with this any more so than would his primary philosophic mentor Aristotle:
A property is a predicate which does not indicate the essence of a thing, but yet belongs to that thing alone, and is predicated convertibly to it. Thus, it is a property of man to be capable of learning grammar, for if A be a man, then he is capable of learning grammar, and if he is capable of learning grammar, he is a man.43
Natural properties have the following characteristics: (a) they express an attribute not expressed by the original concept of the being or essence; (b) the attribute is something real and not simply imagined; (c) the attribute flows from the essence of the reality; and (4) this property/attribute is somehow distinct from what was first known or encountered. Awareness of this property enriches the understanding of that which was originally known because we understand more fully the range of activities of the thing than was inferable from the original. Now when properties are predicated of natural objects, it is understood that they are not equated with the nature of the thing as they may or may not be actually present but only potentially present, yet this does not diminish the essence of the thing. A transcendental property on the other hand, would have to express something whose extensions are equal to the other properties associated with it. To say otherwise would put one into the same intellectual quandary that Parmenides found himself and to which Plato was not able to find a solution. They did not understand that notions such as truth, goodness, unity, being, or beauty were predicates that necessarily and immediately flow from being-qua-being and are, in the human mind, only logically distinct from it. For Aquinas, they are concepts which are co-extensive with being and that while they add something to our fuller understanding of being they add nothing to being itself. In De Veritate Aquinas writes:
… some things are said to be added over and above being in so far as they express a mode of being which the term being does not itself express. This occurs in two ways … the second way so that the mode expressed is a mode consequent to every being in general.44
The transcendental relation between being and truth can serve as an example. Reflection shows that the structural nature of truth necessarily implies two factors; intellect (the knower) and being (the knowable). This relationship can be looked upon either from the relationship of the knower to the known or vice-versa. The first relationship is called logical or formal truth and it is a property of the intellectual power. The second constitutes a relationship of conformity of the known (being) to the intellect (knower). The knowability of a thing is an ontological property in so far as by virtue of its existing, it is capable of being known.
For Aquinas truth resides in the intellect because the term of cognition is found in the knower. ‘Cognition is according as the thing known is in the knower … and thus … the terminus of cognition, which is the true, is in the intellect itself.’45 The intellect is said to possess truth only in so far as it is aware of its conformity with the object
(W)hen it judges that a thing corresponds to the form which it apprehends about the thing. … Therefore, properly speaking, truth is found in the intellect composing and dividing (judgment act) and not in the sense, nor in the intellect knowing what a thing is (i.e., in an act of simple apprehension).46
Truth, then, is the knowability of being, or put another way, being appropriable to the intellect. In Aquinas' words, ‘True expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge.’47 As a hierarchy of being exists as is evident from the different sorts of realities found in the cosmos, the more perfect the being, the higher will be its knowability as well as its other transcendental qualities as Aquinas notes that the Philosopher himself had observed.48 It is relatively easy to go from an appreciation of how being and truth correlate to understanding how the same relationship exists between being and goodness, which can be defined as the desirability of being or being as it appeals to the appetites, whether sensory or intellectual. The human soul has both knowing and appetite powers. ‘Good expresses the correspondence of being to the appetitive power, for, and as we note in the Ethics, the good is that which all desire.’49
Since truth as well as goodness follow on the being of a thing, corresponding to it in some way or other, either according to intellectual assimilation or appetitive inclination, it seems to follow that, taken in some absolute or ideal sense they enjoy, that they are co-terminus to one another, being neither greater nor less in comparison to each other when they are taken or understood as concepts on the ultimate level of abstraction.50 In a relative sense however, the observation of Aristotle that goodness or truth may be absent in certain situations, but never being, (for even evil or untruth must be found in something that is) holds.51 For this reason Aristotle makes being the primary one among all these notions. To this must be appended, however, Augustine and Aquinas' insight that the vicious forms of the transcendentals result from an absence or privation of the degree of being that should properly be there, given the nature of the thing or action. Yet Aristotle and Aquinas seem of one mind as to the primacy of being with respect to the other transcendentals.