Only 3 Goods

-by Peter Kreeft

BOLD = Aquinas, Summa Theologiae = ST

“How can I simplify my life? It’s not lacking in good things, it’s too full of them. How can I find space, and time, and simplicity?

The answer is: By realizing that the only things you need are good things, and that there are not as many good things as you think, because there are only three kinds of goods: Goodness is rightly divided into (1) the virtuous, (2) the useful, and (3) the pleasant. . . .

‘Goodness is not divided into these three as something univocal to be predicated equally of them all, but as something analogical to be predicated of them according to priority and posteriority. Hence it is predicated chiefly of the virtuous, then of the pleasant, and lastly of the useful’ (I,5,6).

What is “virtuous” is good in itself. The reason to be virtuous, to do right and not wrong, is simply because it’s right and not wrong. What is “pleasant” is simply what makes you happy. And what is “useful” is whatever is a means to either what is virtuous or what is pleasant.

These are three different kinds of goods. They are good analogically, good in different ways, different senses. They are not the same in rank. They are in a hierarchy. (1) The virtuous good is the “goodest” because it is good absolutely, in itself. (2) The pleasant is next because it is also an end in itself (we seek pleasure for no other reason than pleasure), but it is not absolute but relative (“different strokes for different folks”). Also, not all pleasures are virtuous, though all virtues are pleasant. And the deepest pleasure is an effect of virtue, not vice versa. (3) Finally, the useful is good only as a means to either virtue or pleasure.

Hedonists are fools who seek only pleasure. But these people are never really deeply happy, deeply pleased. Pleasure comes only as a by-product. Pleasure-addicts are like hypochondriacs. They destroy the very thing they seek by idolizing it.

Pragmatists and utilitarians are fools who seek only utility. But as Chesterton says, “man’s most pragmatic need is to be more than a pragmatist”, to have some end to justify all these means, some absolute that all these things are relative to, something all these useful things are useful for.

Most of us are semi-hedonists and semi-utilitarians because we fill up our lives and our thoughts with useful goods first of all, then pleasant goods, then virtue last of all, as a kind of last-minute check. We invert the hierarchy. Especially in modern America, where we idolize our feelings (pleasures) and treat everything else (even unborn babies) as utilitarian, disposable consumer goods.

How can we find more room and time in our lives and our thoughts for the higher goods? By simplifying and minimizing the lower goods, and above all by eliminating everything else that is not really good at all. St. Thomas’ classification gives us a road map for a wonderful simplification of our lives. Everyone needs that today. Everyone complains that their lives are too complex, that there is not enough time, not enough leisure—even though (or perhaps because) we have all these technological time-saving devices, our hundreds of mechanical slaves. We are slaves to our slaves. St. Thomas’ simple common sense can free us from this slavery.

For there are only three kinds of good. So if a thing is not virtuous, useful, or pleasant, it’s not really good. So fugghetaboutit! Simplify your life by throwing out all the things you have that you don’t need, all that’s not virtuous, useful, or pleasant. Don’t do anything for any other reason, e.g., because “everybody’s doing it” or “everybody has one” or just because it’s “expected”, or because you feel a spontaneous desire for it once you see a commercial for it. Do you really need to buy that expensive sneaker or super cell phone, or to read that book that’s on the best-seller list, or go to that dull meeting? Is it your moral duty? Does it give you happiness, or even pleasure? If the answer to all three questions is no, then dump it! A house without a garbage can becomes cluttered and smelly. The same is true of a life.”(1)

Love & truth,

(1)Kreeft, Peter (2014-11-28). Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (Kindle Locations 698-730). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

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