Summum bonum

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Summum bonum is a Latin expression meaning "the highest good", which was introduced by the Roman philosopher Cicero, [1] [2] to correspond to the Idea of the Good in ancient Greek philosophy. The summum bonum is generally thought of as being an end in itself, and at the same time containing all other goods.

Cicero 1st-century BC Roman philosopher and statesman

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher, who served as consul in the year 63 BC. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the Roman equestrian order, and is considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.

Plato describes the "Form of the Good", or more literally "the idea of the good", in his dialogue the Republic (508e2–3), speaking through the character of Socrates. Plato introduces several forms in his works, but identifies the Form of the Good as the superlative. This form is the one that allows a philosopher-in-training to advance to a philosopher-king. It cannot be clearly seen or explained, but once it is recognized, it is the form that allows one to realize all the other forms.

Ancient Greek philosophy

Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC and continued throughout the Hellenistic period and the period in which Ancient Greece was part of the Roman Empire. Philosophy was used to make sense out of the world in a non-religious way. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.


The term was used in medieval philosophy. In the Thomist synthesis of Aristotelianism and Christianity, the highest good is usually defined as the life of the righteous and/or the life led in communion with God and according to God's precepts. [2] In Kantianism, it was used to describe the ultimate importance, the singular and overriding end which human beings ought to pursue.

Medieval philosophy

Medieval philosophy is a term used to refer to the philosophy that existed through the Middle Ages, the period roughly extending from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Renaissance in the 15th century. Medieval philosophy, understood as a project of independent philosophical inquiry, began in Baghdad, in the middle of the 8th century, and in France, in the itinerant court of Charlemagne, in the last quarter of the 8th century. It is defined partly by the process of rediscovering the ancient culture developed in Greece and Rome during the Classical period, and partly by the need to address theological problems and to integrate sacred doctrine with secular learning.

Thomism philosophical school based on the work of Thomas Aquinas

Thomism is the philosophical school that arose as a legacy of the work and thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), philosopher, theologian, and Doctor of the Church. In philosophy, Aquinas' disputed questions and commentaries on Aristotle are perhaps his most well-known works. In theology, his Summa Theologica is one of the most influential documents in medieval theology and continues to be the central point of reference for the philosophy and theology of the Catholic Church. In the 1914 encyclical Doctoris Angelici Pope Pius X cautioned that the teachings of the Church cannot be understood without the basic philosophical underpinnings of Aquinas' major theses:

The capital theses in the philosophy of St. Thomas are not to be placed in the category of opinions capable of being debated one way or another, but are to be considered as the foundations upon which the whole science of natural and divine things is based; if such principles are once removed or in any way impaired, it must necessarily follow that students of the sacred sciences will ultimately fail to perceive so much as the meaning of the words in which the dogmas of divine revelation are proposed by the magistracy of the Church.

Aristotelianism tradition in philosophy

Aristotelianism is a tradition of philosophy that takes its defining inspiration from the work of Aristotle. This school of thought is in the modern sense of philosophy, covering existence, ethics, mind and related subjects. In Aristotle's time, philosophy included natural philosophy, which preceded the advent of modern science during the Scientific Revolution. The works of Aristotle were initially defended by the members of the Peripatetic school and later on by the Neoplatonists, who produced many commentaries on Aristotle's writings. In the Islamic Golden Age, Avicenna and Averroes translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic and under them, along with philosophers such as Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi, Aristotelianism became a major part of early Islamic philosophy.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato's The Republic argued that, "In the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is be the universal author of all things beautiful and right". [3] [4] Silent contemplation was the route to appreciation of the Idea of the Good. [5]

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece and the founder of the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He is widely considered the pivotal figure in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics accepted that the target of human activity, "Must be the 'Good', that is, the supreme good.", but challenged Plato's Idea of the Good with the pragmatic question: "Will one who has had a vision of the Idea itself become thereby a better doctor or general?". [6] However, arguably at least, Aristotle's concept of the unmoved mover owed much to Plato's Idea of the Good. [7]

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist born in the city of Stagira, Chalkidiki, Greece. Along with Plato, he is considered the "Father of Western Philosophy". Aristotle provided a complex and harmonious synthesis of the various existing philosophies prior to him, including those of Socrates and Plato, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its fundamental intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be central to the contemporary philosophical discussion.

<i>Nicomachean Ethics</i> literary work by Aristotle

The Nicomachean Ethics is the name normally given to Aristotle's best-known work on ethics. The work, which plays a pre-eminent role in defining Aristotelian ethics, consists of ten books, originally separate scrolls, and is understood to be based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum. The title is often assumed to refer to his son Nicomachus, to whom the work was dedicated or who may have edited it. Alternatively, the work may have been dedicated to his father, who was also called Nicomachus.

Pragmatism Philosophical movement

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870. Its origins are often attributed to the philosophers William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce later described it in his pragmatic maxim: "Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object."

Hellenic syncretism

Philo of Alexandria conflated the Old Testament God with the unmoved mover and the Idea of the Good. [8] Plotinus, the neoplatonic philosopher, built on Plato's Good for his concept of the supreme One, while Plutarch drew on Zoroastrianism to develop his eternal principle of good. [9]

Philo Hellenistic Jewish philosopher

Philo of Alexandria, also called Philo Judaeus, was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt.

Old Testament First part of Christian Bibles based on the Hebrew Bible

The Old Testament is the first part of Christian Bibles, based primarily upon the Hebrew Bible, a collection of ancient religious writings by the Israelites believed by most Christians and religious Jews to be the sacred Word of God. The second part of the Christian Bible is the New Testament.

Plotinus Neoplatonist philosopher

Plotinus was a major Greek-speaking philosopher of the ancient world. In his philosophy, described in the Enneads, there are three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas and he is of the Platonic tradition. Historians of the 19th century invented the term Neoplatonism and applied it to him and his philosophy which was influential in Late Antiquity. Much of the biographical information about Plotinus comes from Porphyry's preface to his edition of Plotinus' Enneads. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics.

Augustine of Hippo in his early writings offered the summum bonum as the highest human goal, but was later to identify it as a feature of the Christian God [10] in De natura boni (On the Nature of Good, c. 399). Augustine denies the positive existence of absolute evil, describing a world with God as the supreme good at the center, and defining different grades of evil as different stages of remoteness from that center[ citation needed ].

Augustine of Hippo early Christian theologian and philosopher

Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Roman African, early Christian theologian and philosopher from Numidia whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity and Western philosophy. He was the bishop of Hippo Regius in north Africa and is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers in Western Christianity for his writings in the Patristic Period. Among his most important works are The City of God, On Christian Doctrine and Confessions.

Evil profound immorality

Evil, in a general sense, is the opposite or absence of good. It can be an extremely broad concept, though in everyday usage is often used more narrowly to denote profound wickedness. It is generally seen as taking multiple possible forms, such as the form of personal moral evil commonly associated with the word, or impersonal natural evil, and in religious thought, the form of the demonic or supernatural/eternal.

God Divine entity, supreme being and principal object of faith

In monotheistic thought, God is conceived of as the supreme being, creator deity, and principal object of faith. The conceptions of God, as described by theologians, commonly include the attributes of omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (all-present), and as having an eternal and necessary existence. Depending on one's kind of theism, these attributes are used either in way of analogy, or in a literal sense as distinct properties. God is most often held to be incorporeal (immaterial). Incorporeality and corporeality of God are related to conceptions of transcendence and immanence of God, with positions of synthesis such as the "immanent transcendence". Psychoanalyst Carl Jung equated religious ideas of God with transcendental aspects of consciousness in his interpretation.

Later developments

The summum bonum has continued to be a focus of attention in Western philosophy, secular and religious. Hegel replaced Plato's dialectical ascent to the Good by his own dialectical ascent to the Real. [11]

G. E. Moore placed the highest good in personal relations and the contemplation of beauty – even if not all his followers in the Bloomsbury Group may have appreciated what Clive Bell called his "all-important distinction between 'Good on the whole' and 'Good as a whole'". [12]

Lacan considered that "the sovereign good, if this confusing term must be retained, can be found again only at the level of the law", [13] i.e. the symbolic order, offsetting Kant with De Sade to undercut nobler but one-dimensional notions of the Good. [14] Earlier he had regretted the way the psychoanalyst must know, "Not only doesn't he have that Sovereign Good that is asked of him, but he also knows there isn't any". [15]


Judgments on the highest good have generally fallen into four categories: [2]

See also


  1. De Finibus, Book II, 37ff
  2. 1 2 3 Dinneen 1909.
  3. B. Jowett trans, The Essential Plato (1999) p. 269
  4. 517b,c (Stephanus)
  5. A. Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1980) p. 108
  6. H, Tredennick revd, The Ethics of Aristotle (1976) p. 63 and p. 72
  7. Tredennick, p. 352
  8. J. Boardman ed., The Oxford History of the Classical World (1991) p. 703
  9. Boardman, p. 705-7
  10. J. McWilliam, Augustine (1992) p. 152-4
  11. Kojeve, p. 181-4
  12. Quoted in H. Lee, Virginia Woolf (1996) p. 253
  13. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 242
  14. Lacan, Concepts p. 276
  15. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1992) p. 300

Wikisource-logo.svg  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Dinneen, M.F. (1909). "The Highest Good"  . In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia . 6. New York: Robert Appleton.

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