by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.
The Properties of Being
What do we mean by the property of a thing? It is simply that which belongs to a thing by natural necessity because the thing is that specific nature. It’s important to realize that a property is not a part of a thing. It is a quality or a characteristic which is necessarily there because the being is that sort of being.
For example, we can say that the ability to laugh is a property of human beings. All of us will be able to laugh provided there is nothing present to prevent our normal ability to laugh such as an organic defect, a disease, or being unconscious. The ability to laugh is not a part of our nature, but is something consequent upon that nature when our nature is fully constituted.
The properties of being can be placed in one of two categories. One category is called transcendental, because these properties belong to being as being, and the second category is called general, because these properties belong to many, or even most, beings. There are three transcendental properties of being: unity or oneness, truth or trueness, and goodness. The general properties of being are beauty and perfection.
The Unity of Being
Every being has its distinctive nature. It is a unique being, constituted essentially in its own determined way. If its fundamental structure is modified, it becomes another kind of being. Unity means undividedness, and to say that a being has unity is to say it is undivided.
This does not mean, of course, that the accidental, nonessential properties of a being cannot change without changing the nature of the being itself. The nonessential properties can undergo modification and the being will remain essentially one. But if a being loses its fundamental unity, its being has been changed.
Unity, like being, is analogical. The undividedness of a being is proportionate to its metaphysical richness. In a stone, for example, we will find the undividedness of physical and chemical properties. In an animal, we will not only find the undividedness of physical and chemical properties, but also the undividedness of life and senscient properties. In human beings, we add to the above the undividedness of rationality. In short, a human being has more unity than a brute animal, a brute animal more unity than a plant, and a plant more unity than a mineral.
Unity is proportioned to the degree of being realized in any given subject and is hierarchical from the stone, to the plant, to the animal, to the human being, until it reaches God, who is undivided Being, the highest unity of all, wherein the distinction even between essence and existence disappears.
The Truth of Being
Every being, as a being, is knowable by an adequate mind. This relationship of being known is at the bottom of the various meanings we can assign to the term truth.
Truth is true knowledge and consists in true judgments if our judgments agree with reality as it is in itself. There is also truth in things. The definition of a thing is the norm to which things must conform in order to be true. We can say then, that truth in general is the conformity between intellect and thing.
There are three kinds of truth we can speak about.
Logical or mental truth is the agreement of the intellect with a thing. When our mind grasps reality as it is in itself, we have logical truth. Our mind has knowledge of a thing when it forms ideas of the being’s reality and unites them in a judgment about that reality. If I look at an object in my hand and I say, “This is a gold-plated ring,” the judgment will be true if, in fact, the object is a gold-plated ring. If the ring is sterling silver, however, then I am mistaken and the judgment is erroneous.
Ontological or objective truth is the agreement of a being with the intellect. Our mind possesses an idea of the thing which it takes as a norm or standard, and with this idea the thing must agree. When a secretary copies a letter, for example, and the copy agrees with the original, we then say it is a true copy. If the copy does not agree with the original, we say it is false or erroneous. This is an instance of truth in things.
Moral truth is the agreement of speech with thought. When our spoken words agree with what is in our minds, then we have moral truth. If our spoken words do not conform to what is in our minds, we have moral falsity, we are speaking falsely, and we are lying.
What concerns us here is ontological truth, truth of things, or truth of being. Ontological truth, like oneness, is a metaphysical and transcendental property of being. This is not so of logical and moral truth, which are not properties of being in general.
Truth always involves mind and a being is what it is. In this sense being is truth. Truth consists in being knowable as being by an adequate mind. Mind comes first, of course, because created being depends for its possibility upon the Mind of God. The knowledge of created being was in God’s Infinite Mind before its actual existence. God as Infinite Being is Infinite Truth itself and is the same, of course, as Infinite Mind.
The Goodness of Being
Goodness, like unity and truth, is a transcendental property of being. What do we mean by goodness? Modern readers tend to have a problem with the terms “good” and “goodness,” primarily because of their association with something considered bad or evil and the loose manner in which the words are used in ordinary conversation. Let’s for the moment forget how we may use these words in our common language and consider the ways we use them in philosophy and metaphysics.
The term good refers to what everyone desires. Something is good in so far as it is suitable to a natural tendency or appetite. Being as being is capable of having the character of the object of a natural tendency. Every being, therefore, is good.
Let’s look at this another way. All beings are capable of being known. All beings, as we have seen, are true. All beings are also capable of being loved. If they’re not loved by us, at least they’re capable of being loved by God. He wouldn’t have brought them into existence if He hadn’t loved them. All things, therefore, are worthy of being loved or desired for their own sake. This is so, at least in a metaphysical sense. What do we mean, in a metaphysical sense?
Just as we can distinguish ontological truth, logical truth, and moral truth, we can also distinguish ontological good, physical good, and moral good. Something is an ontological good, or is good in a metaphysical sense, when it is a good in its very reality. In this sense, to exist is good. This should not be confused, of course, with the concepts of physical good and moral good.
A being is a physical good when it satisfies the demand of the nature of a being. It consists in the fact that the nature of the being lacks nothing that should be found in it according to the aim, plan, or desire of its maker. A person’s health is good, by physical goodness, in so far as the person’s physical organs and functions are what they ought to be, and they lack nothing of what they ought to be. A house is a good house in so far as it has what houses should have and lacks none of these elements; the house is good if it fulfills the aim, plan, and desire of the architect or building contractor. We, of course, then refer to it as a good house.
A being is a moral good when it has everything demanded of it by the moral law. Human acts ought to agree with the standard or rule of what such acts ought to be. Agreement with the standard or rule is the aim, plan, and desire of God, who is the One and True Being who sets the ultimate standards or rules which constitute the moral law.
To further clarify these three categories of goodness, let’s consider a practical example. A policeman is patrolling his area and is attacked by a criminal with a high-powered weapon. During the incident, the policeman has to shoot and kill the attacker in self-defense. Now let’s suppose the same policeman is patrolling his area and confronts a known fugitive who is unarmed. Knowing that the fugitive is unarmed, the policeman shoots and kills him anyway, just to get another criminal off the street.
In both cases above, the action of the policeman results in the death of a human being. In so far as the action itself is an entity, a being, it is ontologically or metaphysically good. In so far as the policeman’s aim was true and physically successful for the purpose of killing, it is physically good. But there is a big difference in the moral good of the two incidents. In the first case, it is justifiable homicide and morally good since it is in accord with the moral law which permits self-defense. In the second case, it is murder and morally bad since the killing was unnecessary and unjustified and not in accord with the moral law.
It’s important not to confuse these three uses of the term “goodness.” A good is an ontological or metaphysical good simply because it exists and to exist is a good. This is quite different from saying something is a physical good or a moral good.
We have now considered the three transcendental properties of being: unity or oneness, truth or trueness, and goodness. The transcendental unity or oneness of being refers to the undividedness of a being. Transcendental truth is ontological or metaphysical truth, the truth of being. The transcendental good is the good of being itself, seen as desirable.
The transcendental properties of being are coextensive with being, that is, they are actually identified with being itself. We can say that Being is One, Being is Truth, and Being is Good, from the lowest finite being to the highest infinite Being of all, God.
We now turn our attention to the general properties of being: beauty and perfection. These properties are not transcendental properties of being because, while they are properties of most beings, they are not properties of all beings. They are not properties of being as being or being as such.
Beauty and Perfection of Being
Beauty is a most elusive property. The term beauty may come close to taking the prize as the most used and most abused term in any language. Beauty manifests itself in so many ways, and there is such diversity among people about its appropriate application, it’s tempting to ignore the whole matter of beauty and be done with it. Unfortunately, a study of metaphysics cannot do this. We must press on and try to shed some light on this complex topic.
At least in the beginning, we can supply a simple definition. Beauty is the property which makes a being pleasing to behold. We can, at least, be assured that beauty pleases us. We certainly don’t consider something to be beautiful which displeases us or annoys us. So we can say at the outset that beauty is that which pleases, gratifies, and gives enjoyment.
What else, if anything, is necessary?
Let’s consider an artist’s portrait for a moment. The artist is painting George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of our country. Halfway into the painting, the artist unfortunately passes away and the portrait is never completed. Would we consider the unfinished painting to be beautiful? Since the portrait is incomplete, we can certainly say it is not perfect, or it does not exhibit that quality we call perfection.
In a sense we could say the painting is not fully beautiful because it is not all that its nature calls for. In other words, it falls short of completeness. We could say, then, that its integrity or wholeness is lacking and, therefore, it is imperfect. There is something missing in its oneness or unity.
Beauty is closely related to the property of perfection and, in fact, perfection could be said to be one aspect of beauty itself in some cases. When we speak of the perfection of a being, we are actually noting the completeness or fullness of a created nature. Perfection is a reality at its best.
Beauty seems to encompass perfection but perfection is not identical with beauty. Here is the reason. We never speak of being as beautiful in a partial sense. It would be highly unusual, to say the least, for us to say of a painting that it was “partly or partially beautiful.” A painting, or a musical selection, or a sunset for that matter, is either beautiful or not beautiful. And a being seems to beautiful if, among other properties, it possesses perfection. We can, of course, speak of one being as possessing more or less beauty than another. But this is not the same thing as saying something is partially beautiful.
We can speak of perfection as being entire or partial. If you have perfect health, for example, this is an entire perfection. But if you have perfect eyesight, this is a partial perfection. Perfection may be pure or mixed, inasmuch as it is perfection simply or has imperfection mingled with it. Life, for instance, is a pure perfection but our power of reasoning is a mixed perfection.
There seem to be at least some objective elements of beauty we can distinguish. There are, of course, the general elements of unity, truth, and goodness, but they don’t completely coincide with beauty. Unity, truth, and goodness are identical with being. Beauty and perfection are not.
There are also some particular elements of beauty upon which we may agree. These would include the integrity or completeness spoken of above, proportion or balance, and clarity or splendor. In the last analysis, beauty is probably the blending of all these components &emdash; unity, truth, goodness, completeness, balance, and clarity of presentation &emdash; into an intellectually and sensuously stimulating form which produces a pleasing reaction in a human being. To put it simply: things are beautiful which, when we perceive them, please us or give us pleasure in an appropriate emotional manner.
Regardless of how we treat the properties of beauty and perfection in metaphysical discussion, this we do know for sure: the perfections of creatures, such as we are, are finite, temporal, contingent, and mutable, while on the contrary, the perfections of God are infinite, eternal, necessary, and changeless. And, furthermore, God is infinite, transcendent, and absolute Beauty.
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.