Good, Better, Best

Have you ever given something up?

I had to chaperone a church trip earlier this summer, and as a result I couldn’t drink any beer for nine days. When I got home, my daughter said to me, "Why don’t you just not?" I thought about it for a while and said, "Sure." I haven’t had any beer since June. I had a little tequila when a friend visited from Mexico, but other than that I haven’t had any. I’m not opposed to it, I don’t care if you do it, I still love Vesper martinis, and might have one in the future, but for now, I’m refraining.

It’s part of a general simplification of life. I’ve been having monkish urges. Asceticism seems very attractive to me now. Get rid of stuff! Stop doing things! This is what I want. I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to watch sports. I have no interest in movies. Perhaps you feel the same thing? If so, I’d like to dig into that feeling a bit more. I want to make room for better stuff. But what does that mean?

Indulge me for a moment: Thomas Aquinas famously has five proofs for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae. My favorite is the fourth way. Here is an excerpt.

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; . . .

Never mind if there is a God or not. For me what is fascinating about this proof is the premise that there are things more or less good. There is an order in the universe. This is a fact of experience, isn’t it? But things can’t be more or less good unless there’s such a thing as the good. Take the notion of "progress": the concept is nonsense unless there’s something towards which we progress. Aquinas takes it to the ultimate conclusion that there must be a God. Leave that aside for now. But if you have the feeling that some things in your life need to go, that you need to make time for better things, realize what this implies: you also believe in the axiological nature of the universe. Some things are better than other things.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be good to figure out what are the best things? What are you getting rid of things for?

(You can join us at Online Great Books and think about this stuff with us.)

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