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The Highest Good

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"We always act with a view to some good. The good is the object which all pursue, and for the sake of which they always act", says Plato (Republic, I, vi). His disciple Aristotle repeats the same idea in other words when he declares (Ethics, I, i) that the good is "that which all aim at". This definition is, as St. Thomas observes, a posteriori. Yet, if appetibility does not constitute goodness, still it is our only means of identifying it; in practice, the good is the desirable. But experience soon teaches that all desires cannot be satisfied, that they are conflicting, and that some goods must be foregone in order to secure others. Hence the necessity of weighing the relative value of goods, of classifying them, and of ascertaining which of them must be procured even at the loss of others. The result is the division of goods into two great classes, the physical and the moral, happiness and virtue. Within either class it is comparatively easy to determine the relation of particular good things to one another, but it has proved far more difficult to fix the relative excellence of the two classes of virtue and happiness. Still the question is of supreme importance, since in it the reason and final destiny of our life is involved. As Cicero says (De Finibus, v, 6), "Summum autem bonum si ignoratur, vivendi rationem ignorari necesse est." If happiness and virtue are mutually exclusive, we have to choose between the two, and this choice is a momentous one. But their incompatibility may be only on the surface. Indeed the hope is ever recurring that the sovereign good includes both, and that there is some way of reconciling them.

It has been the task of moralists to sift the conditions on which this may be done.

In the main, they can be classified under three heads, according as one or the other predominates, or both are made to blend: viz.:



Socrates (469-399 B.C.), the father of systematic Ethics, taught that happiness is the end of man; that it consists, not in external goods signs of the uncertain favours of fortune, or of the gods (eutychia) — but in a rational joy, which implies the renunciation of common delights (eupraxia). He did not, however, carry this doctrine of moderation to the degree of asceticism, but rather insisted on the cultivation of the mind as being of greater importance. Knowledge is the only virtue, ignorance the only vice. Yet, from the Dialogues of Xenophon, it is seen that he descends to the common morality of Utilitarianism.


This latter phase of Socratic teaching was adopted by Aristippus of Cyrene (435-356 B.C.), who as representative of the Hedonistic School among the ancients, and holding, on the one hand, with Socrates that knowledge is virtue, and, on the other, with Protagoras, that we can know only our sensations, and not that which causes them, concluded that that which produces in us the most pleasant feelings is the highest good. Culture and virtue are desirable only as a means to this end. As pleasure is conditioned by organic states, it can be produced only by motion, which, to be pleasant, must needs be gentle; hence according to the Cyrenaics, it is not the mere absence of pain, but a transient emotion which makes man happy and constitutes his highest good.


Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) admits with Socrates and the ancient philosophers generally, that the highest good is to be identified with the highest happiness; and, in determining in what this highest happiness consists, he agrees with the Cyrenaics that it is not mere passing enjoyment, but action (en to zen kai energein, Eth, Nic., IX, ix, 5). Still it is not any and every kind of activity that man may find agreeable which constitutes this supreme happiness, but that which is proper to him (okeion ergon — oikeia arete, Ibid., I, vii, 15). This cannot be merely the life which he shares with the plants and animals, or the sensibility, which he enjoys in common with the brutes, but thought, which is the distinctive characteristic of man. Moreover, as it is in the sphere of activity proper to each living being that its peculiar excellence is to be sought, it follows that man's rational activity (psyches energeia meta logou, Ibid., I, vii, 15) is at the same time honourable and virtuous (psyches energeia kat areten, loc. cit.). Since, however, there are several such activities, it must be the noblest and most perfect of these. This is none other than speculative thought, or that which has to do with the contemplation of "honourable and divine subjects" (kalon kai theion, Ibid., X, vii, 10), because this belongs to the noblest faculty and tends to the noblest object; because it is the most continuous, the most pleasant, the most self-sufficing (Ibid., I, x, 8).

In thus defining human happiness, Aristotle does not aim at determining which good is absolutely supreme, but only that which relatively is the highest for man in his present condition — the highest attainable in this life (to panton akrotaton ton prakton agathon, Ibid., I, iv, 16). Though Aristotle thus makes happiness and the highest good to consist in virtuous action, yet he does not exclude pleasure, but holds that pleasure in its keenest form springs from virtue. Pleasure completes an action, is added to it, as "to youth its bloom" (oion tois akmaiois he ora, Ibid., X, iv, 8). Since, therefore, Aristotle places man's highest good in his perfection, which is identical with his happiness and carries with it pleasure, he is rightly accounted a Eudæmonist, though of a nobler sort.


Epicurus (circa 340-270 B.C.), whilst accepting in substance the Hedonism of the Cyrenaics, does not admit with them that the highest good lies in the pleasure of motion (hedone en kinesei), but rather in the pleasure of rest (hedone kataskematike); not in the voluptas in motu but in the stabilitas voluptatis, says Cicero (De Finibus, II, v, 3) — that state of deep peace and perfect contentment in which we feel secure against all the storms of life (ataraxia). To attain this is the paramount problem of Epicurus's philosophy, to which his empirical logic (canonics) and his theory of nature (the materialism of Democritus) are merely preliminaries. Thus the whole of his philosophy is constructed with a view to his Ethics, for which it prepares the way and which completes it.

In holding that the pleasures of the mind are preferable to voluptuousness, inasmuch as they endure, while those of the senses pass with the moment that gives them birth, he is not consistent, seeing that his materialism reduces all the operations of the mind to mere sensations. Finally, as virtue is according to him the tact which impels the wise man to do whatever contributes to his welfare, and makes him avoid the contrary, it cannot be the highest good, but only a means of realizing it. By his materialism Epicurus paved the way for modern Utilitarianism, which has assumed two forms, viz.:


Individual Utilitarianism, which places man's highest good in his greatest personal welfare and pleasure. This is identical with the Greek Hedonism, and was revived in the eighteenth century by the Encyclopedists, De la Mettrie (1709-1751), Helvetius (1715-1771), Diderot (1713-1784), and De Volney (1757-1820). It was also advocated by the Sensists, Hartley (1704-1757), Priestley (1733-1804) and Hume (1711-1776); and in the nineteenth century by the German Materialists, Vogt (1817-1895), Moleschott (1822-1893), and Büchner (1824-1899);


Social Utilitarianism, which is mainly of English origin. In its earliest stage, with Richard Cumberland (1632-1718), and Anthony Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1718), it still retained a somewhat subjective character, and placed the highest good in the practice of social benevolence. With Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), it becomes wholly objective. The highest good, so they say, cannot be the happiness of the individuai, but the happiness of the many, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Stated in these terms, the proposition is merely a truism. That in general, the happiness of a community is superior to the happiness of one of its members, is obvious; but, when it comes to be a personal affair, the individuai is no longer a part of the whole, but one party pitted against others, and it is by no means evident, from the positivistic point of view, that his personal happiness is not for him the highest good.


This passage from self to non-self, from the individual to the community, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) attempted to derive from the evolutionary principle of "the survival of the fittest". Those individuals have evidently a better chance to survive who oppose their enemies as a body, and therefore who live in societies (flocks, herds, human associations); and therefore, again, the social instincts are destined to survive and grow stronger, while the individualistic ones cannot but disappear. The highest good here is not the happiness of the individual, not even the happiness of the present generation, but the sum total of the conditions which make possible the survival and the constant progress of mankind at large. Hence in a system of elaborate synthetic philosophy Spencer discusses at great length the laws of life and those conditions of psychologie and social existence from which, as from a prearranged premise, he gathers "The Data of Ethics", or Ethics emancipated from the notion of divine legislation.


Under this head may be classed systems which place the highest human good in the conformity of conduct with reason. It assumes an exaggerated or tempered form, according as it excludes or admits regard for human perfection and happiness as one of the elements of morality.


Plato, in common with Socrates and the minor Socratic schools, holds that happiness is the supreme and ultimate object of human endeavour, and that this happiness is identical with the highest good. But when he comes to determine in what this good or happiness consists, he does so in accordance with the presuppositions of his philosophical system. The soul in its true essence is declared to be an incorporeal spirit destined for the intuition of the Idea; hence its ultimate end and supreme good is to be attained by withdrawing from the life of sense and retiring into pure contemplation of the Idea, which is identical with God. Man must, therefore, rise to God and find his chief good in Him. This may be considered the highest good in the objective order, and is found inculcated in those passages of this philosopher's writings in which the solution of the supreme problem of life is sought in flight from sensuality (cf. Theæt., 176, A; Phædo, 64, E; Republic, VII, 519, C sqq., apud Zeller, pp. 435-444). But inasmuch as this is practically unattainable in this life, man is told that the highest good here is to be found in making himself like God, and that this is to be brought about by the knowledge and the enthusiastic love of God, as the Supreme Good. In the knowledge, therefore, and love of God as the Supreme Good consists man's highest good in the subjective order. This is brought out in those passages in which even sensuous beauty is described as worthy of love, and external activity, sensible pleasure, is included among the component elements of the highest good (cf. Republic, X, 603, E sqq.; Phil., 28,A sqq.; Tim., 59, C).


The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Cittium (350-258 B.C.). According to its followers, the highest purpose (good) of human life is not to be found in contemplation (theoria), as Plato would have it, but in action. To live according to nature (homologoumenos te physei zen) was their supreme rule of conduct. By this they did not mean that individual nature of man, but the eternal and divine law which manifests itself in nature as the measure to which all things in the universe should conform their action. For man to live according to nature, therefore, means to conform his will to the divine will, and in this consists virtue. Virtue alone is good in the highest sense of the word, and virtue alone is sufficient for happiness. As this law imposes itself through reason, the system is rightly called rational Deontologism.


Kant agrees with the Stoics in placing the essence of the highest good in virtue, and not in happiness. Yet he thinks our conception of it is incomplete unless it is made to include happiness as well. The highest good may mean either the Supreme (supremum) or the Complete (consummatum). The Supreme is a condition which is itself unconditioned, or is not subordinate to anything else (originarium). The Complete, again, is a whole which is not itself a part of a larger whole of the same kind (perfectissimum). Virtue, or that disposition to act in conformity with the moral law, is not dependent on happiness, but itself makes man worthy of happiness. It is, therefore, the highest good, the supreme condition of whatever can be regarded as desirable. But it is not the whole, nor the supreme good, which finite rational beings crave; the complete good includes happiness. Hence the highest conceivable good must consist in the union of virtue and happiness proportioned to morality.

This is what Kant means by the whole or complete good. Of its two elements, virtue, having no higher condition and being itself the condition of happiness, is the supreme good. Happiness, however, while it is agreeable to the person who possesses it, is not good in itself and in all respects; it is good only under the condition that a man's conduct is in conformity with the moral law. This is why Kant was wont to say that "nothing can be called good without qualification, but good will"; and since the best it can do in this life is to strive after holiness, the struggle between the desire to obey and the impulse to transgress must continue for ever, making the highest good in this life unattainable.

Rational eudæmonism or tempered deontologism

Christian philosophers, in dealing with the problem of the highest good, have necessarily kept in view the teachings of Faith; still they base their solution of it on motives of reason. Their system is neither strictly deontologico-rational, nor yet altogether eudemonistic, but a consistent blending of both. The ultimate end of man is to be placed in perfect rational activity, in ultimate perfection, and in happiness, not as in three different things, but as in one and the self-same, since the three conceptions are resolvable into one another, and each of them denotes a goal of human tendency, a limit beyond which no desire remains to be satisfied. Though they differ somewhat in their several ways of formulating it, at bottom they all agree:

It is St. Thomas Aquinas who best harmonized this system with revelation. His teaching may be summarized thus:


Man's highest happiness does not consist in pleasure, but in action, since, in the nature of things, action is not for pleasure, but pleasure for action. This activity, on which man's happiness rests, must, on the one hand, be the noblest and highest of which his nature is capable, and, on the other, it must be directed toward the noblest and the highest object.


This noblest and highest object of human activity is not that of the will, which merely follows upon and is conditioned by knowledge; it must rather be knowledge itself. Consequently, the highest happiness of man consists in the knowledge of the highest truth, which is God. With the knowledge of God must, of course, be joined the love of God; but this love is not the essential element of perfect happiness; it is merely a necessary complement of it (Summa Theol., I-II, Q. iii, a. 2, c; Con. Gen., III, xxv, xxvi).


Since the knowledge of God can be acquired in three ways — by demonstration, by faith, and by intuition — the further question arises: which of these three kinds of knowledge is the foundation of man's highest happiness? Not knowledge by demonstration, for happiness must be something universal and attainable by all men, whereas only a few can arrive at this knowledge by demonstration; neither can knowledge by faith be a basis for perfect happiness, seeing that this consists chiefly in the activity of the intellect, whilst in faith the will claims for itself the principal part, inasmuch as the will must here determine the intellect to give its assent. Consequently happiness can consist only in the intuitive knowledge of God; and since this is attainable only in the next life, it follows that the ultimate destiny of man — and hence his highest good — reaches beyond time into eternity. It must be everlasting, otherwise it would not be perfect (Con. Gent., III, xxxviii, sqq.).


This end is not merely a subjective one which the reason imposes upon itself. Just because it is an activity, it involves relation to some external object. The intellect essentially represents a truth distinct from itself, as the act of the will is an inclination towards some good not identical with itself, The truth to be represented, therefore, and the good to be attained or possessed, are objects to which happiness refers as to further ends, just as the image has reference to a model and motion to a goal. Truth, therefore, and good are objective ends to which formal happiness corresponds as a subjective end. The absolutely ultimate end, therefore, is in the objective order, beyond which nothing remains to be known and desired, and which, when it is known and possessed, gives rest to the rational faculties. This can be nothing else than the infinite truth and the infinite good, which is God, Hence the system is not a purely deontologico-rational one, constituting the reason a law to itself, the observance of which law would be the highest good.


Still less is it purely eudæmonistic, since the ultimate end and highest good does not coincide with subjective happiness as Hedonism teaches, but with the object of the highest acts of contemplation and love. This object is God, not merely as beatifying us, but as the Absolute Truth and Goodness, infinitely perfect in itself.


UEBERWEG, History of Philosophy (New York, 1872); TURNER, History of Philosophy (Boston, 1903); STOECKL-FINLAY, History of Philosophy (Dublin, 1903); KANT, Critique of Practical Reason, ed. ABBOTT (London, 1898); ZELLER, Aristotle and the Earlier Peripatetics, II (London, 1897); IDEM, Plato and the Older Academy (London, 1888); JANET AND SÉAILLES, History of the Problem of Philosophy, II (London, 1902), BYWATER, Aristotelis Ethica Nicomachea (Oxford, 1894); MING, Data of Modern Ethics Examined (New York, 1894); MEYER, Institutiones Juris Naturalis, I (Freiburg im Br., 1885); S. Thomæ Aquinatis Summa Theologica; Summa contra Gentiles; SUAREZ, De Ultimo Fine Hominis.

About this page

APA citation. Dinneen, M. (1909). The Highest Good. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Dinneen, Michael. "The Highest Good." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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