Summary Against Modern Thought: Ultimate Happiness Does Come In Knowing Separate Substances

Summary Against Modern Thought: Ultimate Happiness Does Come In Knowing Separate Substances

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We’re closing in on ultimate happiness! You didn’t think it would be easy, did you? A short chapter this week. But an important one. See paragraph 3 for a huge limitation of science!


1 Of course, it is not possible to identify human felicity with such knowledge of separate substances, as the aforementioned philosophers have maintained.

2 Indeed, a thing is futile which exists for an end which it cannot attain. So, since the end of man is felicity, to which his natural desire tends, it is not possible for the felicity of man to be placed in something that man cannot achieve. Otherwise, it would follow that man is a futile being, and his natural desire would be incapable of fulfillment, which is impossible. Now, it is clear from what has been said that man cannot understand separate substances on the basis of the foregoing opinions. So, man’s felicity is not located in such knowledge of separate substances.

Notes A nicer definition of futility you will not find.

3 Again, in order that the agent intellect be united to us as a form, so that we may understand separate substances through it, it is required that the generation of the habitual intellect be complete, according to Alexander; or that all objects of speculative understanding be made actual within us, according to Averroes.

And these two views reduce to the same thing, for in this explanation the habitual intellect is generated in us, in so far as the objects of speculative understanding are made actual within us. Now, all species from sensible things are potential objects of understanding. So, in order that the agent intellect be joined with any person, he must actually understand all the natures of sensible things, and all their powers, operations, and motions, through speculative understanding.

This is not possible for any man to know through the principles of the speculative sciences, by which principles we are moved to a connection with the agent intellect, as they say. For, one could not attain all these objects of knowledge from the things that come under the scope of our senses, and from which the principles of the speculative sciences are drawn. So, it is impossible for a man to achieve this connection, in the manner suggested by them. Therefore, it is not possible for man’s felicity to consist in such a connection.

Notes In other words, Science cannot and can never bring full understanding. The first paragraph of 4 is, though, outdated. Because now, of course, many men dare. Perhaps not for themselves, but for their progeny at (among other places) the “singularity.”

4 Besides, even granting that such a connection of man with the agent intellect were possible as they describe it, it is plain that such perfection comes to very few men; so much so that not even these men, nor any other men, however diligent and expert in speculative sciences, have dared to claim such perfection for themselves.

On the contrary, they all state that many things are unknown to them, Thus, Aristotle speaks of the squaring of the circle, and he can give only probable arguments for his principles for the ordering of celestial bodies, as he admits himself, in Book II of On the Heavens [5: 288a 2], and what is necessary in regard to these bodies and their movers he keeps for others to explain, in Metaphysics XI [8: 1073b 2]. Now, felicity is a definite common good, which many people can attain, “unless they are defective,” as Aristotle puts it, in Ethics I [9: 1099b 19]. And this is also true of every natural end in any species, that the members of this species do attain it, in most cases. Therefore, it is not possible for man’s ultimate felicity to consist in the aforesaid connection.

5 However, it is clear that Aristotle, whose view the aforementioned philosophers try to follow, did not think that man’s ultimate felicity is to be found in such a connection. For he proves, in Ethics I [13: 1102a 5], that man’s felicity is his operation according to perfect virtue. Hence, he had to develop his teaching on the virtues, which he divided into the moral and the intellectual virtues. Now, he shows in Book X [7: 1177a 18], that the ultimate felicity of man lies in speculation.

Hence, it clearly does not lie in the act of any moral virtue, nor of prudence or art, though these are intellectual virtues. It remains, then, that it is an operation in accord with wisdom, the chief of the three remaining intellectual virtues, which are wisdom, science, and understanding, as he points out in Ethics VI [6: 1141a 3].

Hence, in Ethics X [8: 1179a 32], he gives his judgment that the wise man is happy.

Now, wisdom, for him, is one of the speculative knowledges, “the head of the others,” as he says in Ethics VI [6]. And at the beginning of the Metaphysics [I, 1: 981b 26], he calls the science which he intends to treat in this work, wisdom. Therefore, it is clear that Aristotle’s opinion was that the ultimate felicity which man can acquire in this life is the kind of knowledge of divine things which can be gained through the speculative sciences. But that later way of knowing divine things, not by means of the speculative sciences but by a process of generation in the natural order, was made up by some of his commentators.


  1. Bryant Poythress

    It seems Aristotle was on to something, for what the senses continually report to us is that God’s “invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived…” (Romans 1:20).
    The rest (1 John :20) is available to us only through intentional, concentrated focusing in order to “receive my words and treasure my commands, ?turning your ear to wisdom, inclining your heart to understanding;? yes, if you call to intelligence, and to understanding raise your voice;? if you seek her like silver, and like hidden treasures search her out:? then will you understand the fear of the LORD; the knowledge of God you will find;? for the LORD gives wisdom, from his mouth come knowledge and understanding….” (Proverbs 2:1–6)

  2. Bryant Poythress

    Correction to rwfwrence: 1 John 5:20

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