Etymologically, perfect and perfection derive from the Latin per facere or per-factum, meaning made through or thoroughly; they imply a state of completion or totalization, as in that which is fulfilled or consummated. The perfect thing, then, suffers no lack or defect within the order of its perfectiveness. The concept is obviously a transcendental one, realizable on different levels of being (see transcendentals).
Kinds of Perfection. It is possible to discern at least two ontological significations of perfection, the first permitting a distinction between absolute and relative perfection, the second between substantial and accidental perfection.
Absolute vs. Relative. Absolute perfection, meaning that to which nothing whatsoever is lacking, embraces the total plenitude of being and is nowise compatible with defect. Such absolute perfection may be posited either as real, subsisting of itself outside the mind (thus identical with traditional concepts of god), or as ideal, having objective existence only within mind, as an idea.
By contrast something may be only relatively perfect, its perfection limited to a given order, inferior to the absolutely perfect, and bespeaking a greater or lesser removal from absolute perfection, with reference to which it is measured. The perfection of man, for instance, is at once greater than that of the irrational animal or the vegetable and less than that of intellectual substances, the angels of Christian tradition.
Substantial vs. Accidental. The second and wider sense of the word means that which lacks nothing due to its nature, possessing everything answering to its objective concept. Distinguishable here is substantial perfection, whereby a thing is constituted as an existent essence, and accidental perfection, bespeaking whatever completeness accrues to the thing in a consequential way. This latter in turn includes the indispensable properties and the common accidents added only contingently; operative perfection as well as entitative; and the final fulfillment of a thing, consisting in the attainment of its end or destiny.
Relationships. It is entirely accidental to perfection as such that it be realized as the term of a process; it is itself only completeness. The formality of perfection is ordinarily to be found, in the real order, resident in a being that is in other respects imperfect. The transcendentality of the concept lies in its conceptual proximity to being and the good. A thing is perfect to the extent that it is; its actuality formally determines its perfectness. The pure act of being is thus the sole instance of absolute perfection; to exist substantially is to have first perfection; to be in accidental ways is to achieve secondary perfection; to be actually in possession of the end is for any nature to reach the ultimate term of its relative perfection. The formal constitutive of perfection is this actuality. In turn, the actuality or perfection of a being, bespeaking its capacity to perfect another, gives rise to the relationship toward others of desirability. Goodness, or the good, is thus fundamentally (not formally) the perfection of a being.
A fuller understanding of the meaning and kinds of ontological perfection can be achieved by tracing the development of the notion in Greek, Thomistic, and modern thought.
Greek Thought. parmenides, founder of the Eleatic school, reacting strongly against the doctrine of heraclitus that all things are in a state of constant change, developed a doctrine of being in opposition to the becoming of Heraclitus. For Parmenides, the very fact of knowledge determined his position: to think means postulating something that is; what is not cannot be thought. Becoming and change are illusory; there is only being, which is homogeneous and unchangeable—indeed there is only One Being without any inner differentiation; even the plurality of individual things is not real. Nothing can be added to being, so it is complete, i.e., perfect; thus it is immovable, eternal, continuous, and immune to evil. True enough, Parmenides regarded this Perfect Being as finite, but in the sense of determined and definite, as avoiding the imperfection of indetermination and indefiniteness. Melissus (fl. 440 b.c.), a disciple of Parmenides, reversed this and granted infinity to being. The evidence favors seeing Melissus's position as a monistic materialism; being is there seen as limited, at least in space, for outside of it there is the "void." In short, the notion of perfection in this school is that of a totality that does not escape the restrictions of matter.
plato attempted to reconcile the many of Heraclitus and empedocles with the one of Parmenides, deriving his insight from the teaching of pythagoras that all things exist by participating in the numbers. Things are thus multiple, composed and imperfect; yet at the same time each is what it is by participating in the Ideas that exist separately as simple, unchangeable, infinite, and perfect. All perfection is thus in the Ideas, which are said to be real and subsistent and are ranged hierarchically among themselves, the Idea of the Good being supreme. Without an explicit concept of efficient causality, Plato explained the sensible world as coming to be through the Ideas "uniting" themselves to matter.
This Platonic concept of perfection is basically an essentialism; the ideal order is not distinguished from the real, and there is a failure to recognize the all importance of existence. The Ideas are thus reified and the perfection they embody is that of pure essence without reference to actual existence. From this it follows that the distinction in perfection between an Idea and the varied instances of participation in it is merely one of degree in possessing a univocal essence.
aristotle rejected the Ideas of Plato, which he called poetic metaphors (Meta. 991a 21), as abstract universals enjoying existence only in the mind. Perfection lies only in the real order, where it is to be distinguished from a principle of imperfection. Imperfection is potency capacity for being; perfection is ἐνέργεια, act, being itself. If ἐνέργεια means first of all a process whereby form is realized in matter, it comes to mean eventually the being or act so achieved. Potency and matter are infinite (τὸ ἄπειρον) and unknowable but in the traditional Greek sense of indefinite and undetermined—that outside of which there is always something. form and act, as the very opposite of this, mean that which is complete and whole (ὅλον), from which nothing is left out (Phys., 207a 1–10), that which is perfect (τέλειον). There is no unending process of development; each thing attains its maximum perfection when all the potentialities with which its nature is endowed are realized.
The transition from potency to act can be effected only by a being already actual. In the Metaphysics (1072a25), Aristotle reasons to an Unmoved First Mover whose perfection is such as to account for all becoming, at least in the order of final causality. Whether the logical structure of his thought should have allowed this or not, Aristotle does appear to give real existence to this all perfect Nous (1072b 5, 25).
Thomistic Analysis. Perfection in the thought of St. thomas aquinas is developed along two distinct lines—the theological and the philosophical. While the latter order remains intrinsically free of any illumination from faith, still there are Christian presuppositions that extrinsically give direction to the philosophical endeavor. Nonetheless, St. Thomas's concept of perfection is basically an explication of that of Aristotle (see In 5 meta. 18), with a new shift of emphasis on the primacy of existence over essence. "To the extent that something is in act, to that degree it is perfect" (Summa theologiae 1a, 5.1; 1a2ae, 3.2; C. gent. 1.39, 2.41, 3.22). And the supreme and ultimate act of all is existence, "… the actuality of all acts … the perfection of all perfections" (De pot. 7.2 ad 9). The primacy of the Ideas in Plato and of substance in Aristotle thus gives way in St. Thomas to the primacy of existence (esse ). Potency, as the principle of mutability and determinability, is the source of imperfection; it limits the act that accrues to it (see potency and act). Thus essence, as potential to esse, limits the infiniteness of being and in so doing explains finiteness and plurality.
Divine Perfection. This composition, or potency-act relationship, between essence and existence establishes the caused nature of finite things and leads the mind by a natural dialectic to posit the real existence of Pure Act, Unreceived Being. This subsistent act of being suffers no limitation; it is thus the sole absolutely perfect being, i.e., God. The procedure is a negative one, denying of God any composition and thus any imperfection. The human mind is incapable of any quiddative knowledge of Perfect Being (ST 1a, 3.4 ad 2); it acknowledges Him in an analogical way only by an inference from the finite being it does know.
None of the perfections of being can be lacking to God (ibid. 4.2 ad 3); thus the perfections of all things pre-exist in Him, but as really identified with Himself and distinguishable only by the human mind in a conceptual way. Perfections of the created order derive causally from God and, because of their state of limitation by potency, are finite participations of infinite perfection. Some of them are pure perfections in their own order, the objective concept being one that excludes all imperfection, even though the perfection may be extrinsically conjoined with an imperfect subject. Others are intrinsically of such limited perfectness as to bespeak imperfection of themselves. Life and intelligence are examples of the first kind; rationality, sensibility, and the virtues of faith and hope belong to the latter category. In scholastic terminology the prior are designated as perfections simpliciter simplex, the latter as perfections secundum quid.
The subject possessing any given perfection may be said to have it either formally, i.e., according to its proper concept as expressed in the definition (e.g., rationality in man); or virtually, i.e., in a causal way only, lacking the perfection in actual fact but having the power to achieve the effect of such perfection (e.g., rationality in an angel); or eminently, i.e., in terms not of the proper form but of a higher form expressive nonetheless of whatever perfection is in the lower (e.g., rationality in God).
Supernatural Perfection. Approached theologically, however, in the light of Christian faith, the Perfect One is discerned not only to be eminently whatever there is of perfection in the natural order, created or even creatable, but to be of an entirely other order of perfection—the supernatural. The Subsistent Being in His inner trinitarian life is perfection in a transcendental sense that will not admit of manifestation in the universe of nature. Intellectual creatures, however, can in a totally gratuitous way be elevated to another universe, that of grace, wherein they are enabled to know and love God as He is in Himself.
Modern Views. R. descartes, opening the era of modern philosophy, posited an absolutely perfect being, really existent and transcendent over the universe. His theism, however, is purely rationalistic, seeing an all perfect God in terms of function, i.e., as explaining the universe of things. The Infinite and Eternal is necessary to establish the universal laws for all things and to guarantee the validity of man's distinct and clear ideas. The direction of thought is a priori; the reality of the infinitely perfect Being is not demonstrated discursively; nor need it be acknowledged in faith, for this is the first intuitive truth from which all others derive. The human mind thus possesses a complete idea of the Perfect, which is no longer the incomprehensible Ipsum Esse of St. Thomas, but rather self-caused essence.
The rationalism of B. spinoza is pantheistic in nature, beginning with a "Being absolutely infinite and consummately perfect" that is no other than the totality of nature. This is God as the cause of things, in an immanent rather than transcendent sense, however, and thus ultimately identified with all things. Spinoza marks a return to the doctrine of Parmenides; there is only one substance and all things are modes of it, ways in which it exists and operates. As infinite, substance produces its own existence.
G. W. leibniz continued the rationalist approach with the same apriority in gratuitously positing God as supreme perfection. The finite world derives from this pure essence, yet in such fashion that both belong to the same order. An underlying univocity of being means that God and creature differ only in degree of perfection. The will of the Perfect Being is limited by His essence and by the objects of His intelligence; God is even constrained morally to the creative act, since He can do only what is best. The way is thus open for the finite god of contemporary panentheism; ontological perfection is qualified.
I. kant, influenced by empirical philosophy, reacted strongly against the apriority of the rationalists. All that can be known are the appearances of things, knowledge being what the senses furnish to certain structures of consciousness. The perfect being, then, while probably really existent, remains unknowable. The idea of God as the infinitely perfect Being has only logical validity; it enjoys only ideal existence. No analysis of that idea will reveal, a priori, the real existence of deity; nor may it be used to deduce the finite world. The supremely perfect is, then, for Kant, merely a form of thought.
G. W. F. hegel and the idealists (J. G. fichte, F. W. J. schelling, and others) carried the idealism of Kant to the point where every vestige of theism disappeared. Whereas Kant left God as unknowable in His transcendence, Hegel brought forth a metaphysics of the absolute to replace the idea of God. The Absolute is spirit, ultimately pure thought, yet totally immanent within human consciousness. It develops as the process of finite things, moving through nature and history in self enrichment. The real world represents transient determinations of the impersonal Absolute. The perfection of the Absolute, however, is not total, for it is itself the internal developing principle of historical process. It seems not to enjoy consciousness apart from the conscious striving of finite minds, and thus to stand in need of human rational effort.
Critique of Modern Thought. These modern doctrines concerning the supremely perfect Being represent radical departures from the traditional teaching of St. Thomas and Aristotle. This latter, for example, is opposed to the rationalism and essentialism of Descartes and Leibniz. It argues that there is no basis in man's experience for innate ideas (see innatism). Rather, man's conscious knowing life originates from the real material world through sense activity. Even were there such, moreover, the existence of the idea in the mind could not of itself establish the real existence of the object; the most that one could conclude would be the notion of actuality, not the real exercise thereof. Also, both Descartes and Leibniz saw essence as ultimate perfection, reducing existence to another merely formal perfection.
Much the same can be said for the pantheism of Spinoza. The contingency of finite things reveals their caused nature, and the principle of causality, rightly understood, demands a real distinction of effect and cause. The Uncaused Necessary Being transcends the world of contingents; these latter cannot be mere modes of the necessary Substance.
In criticism of Kant's idealistic agnosticism, to say that one cannot know (but only believe, as a postulate of practical reason) whether a reality corresponds to one's idea of a totally Perfect Being is to limit human knowledge to the order of sensible appearances. This is to fail to acknowledge the evidence that the very being of things presents, namely, that existents are not only sensible but also intelligible. Also, the movement from contingency to an Uncaused Necessary (and hence Perfect) Being is not a result merely of a synthesizing need on man's part; it lies in the very intelligibility of contingency as such. Nor does it follow, as Kant maintains, that the perfection of such a Being would then be relative, because His causal relation to the world is not in virtue of an action distinct from His very substance. The misunderstanding results from restricting analogy to a mere symbolic function, from failing to see its ontological fundament with the implied underlying causal connectives.
In the dialectical monism of Hegelian idealism there is an unresolved ambivalence. Either Absolute Consciousness is sufficiently actual in itself, and then the world is mere illusion, or else the Absolute is realized only in conscious human striving, and then there is no Absolute Spirit or Pure Thought. Also, the reason for change is enrichment of the changing subject, and this bespeaks an underlying imperfection. Whatever perfection lies in pure process, then, cannot be absolute.
See Also: god; infinity of god; beauty.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 4, Eng. Existence and Nature of God, ed. and tr. t. mcdermott (Summa Theologica 2; New York 1964); Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, 2 v., tr. j. rowan (Chicago 1961). g. di napoli, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:1282–90. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 1927–30) 3:427–4:29. r. garrigou-lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature, tr. b. rose, 2 v. (St. Louis 1934–36) v.2. É. h. gilson, God and Philosophy (New Haven 1941). j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959). c. hartshorne and w. l. reese, eds., Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago 1953).
[w. j. hill]
"Perfection, Ontological." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/perfection-ontological
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