As human persons, we have two proper abilities that separate us from the other animals. These are cognition, especially through the intellect, and appetition, especially through the power of the will. It is through these abilities that we relate to being.
The proper act of the will is love. In his work Christian Ethics , Dietrich von Hildebrand defines act as “a conscious meaningful relationship to an object.” We cannot rationally perform any act without simultaneously willing its natural end, and the natural end of every act is the good. All persons possess in their nature a dynamism towards the good. This potentiality is actualized in a life of virtue.
We cannot love anything that is not good. In his De Caritate, Aquinas wrote that “a thing is lovable according as it is good.” Good is the fulfillment of a thing according to its nature. Therefore, a thing is good to the extent that it is. Good and being are convertible, and the will reaches being as good. All individual beings are also good and thus capable of being desired–that is, they can be objects of love.
It must be understood that evil does not possess real being, for it is only a privation in something that exists; the subject of evil is good in itself but lacks some fullness of being and perfection. Evil, then, has only the being that corresponds to the truth of predication. It is impossible to love evil, and no one consciously chooses what he thinks to be evil for himself. As Pascal wrote in his Pensees “All men seek happiness (i.e.–the good).. .The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man, including those who go and hang themselves.” To choose evil is to choose non-being, which is totally unintelligible and goes against one’s very nature.
In order to love, we must have knowledge of what is really good. In The Truth of All Things, Josef Pieper writes: “The good is essentially dependent upon and interiorly penetrated by knowledge.” Knowledge stems from the relationship of the intellect to the thing known. The natural tendency of the intellect is to come to the knowledge of truth. Not surprisingly, Aquinas tells us that “being is the first thing to fall into the intellect.” It follows, as stated in the Summa Theologiae, that “all things are knowable insofar as they have being.” Knowledge reaches being actually and properly, and according to the natural tendency of the intellect, being must therefore be true.
Being is true and being is good. “True” and “good” are called transcendental attributes of being. These attributes belong to being precisely because it is being, and they are convertible with being itself. If both truth and good are being, it follows that truth and good name the same reality. Each names this one reality under different aspects.
Wisdom, or the grasp of the ultimate principles of being, can be “divided” by a logical distinction into sophia and phronesis. Sophia is the speculative understanding exercised by the intellect. Phronesis is the practical wisdom that orders one’s life to its proper end. Sophia and phronesis are really united, and ultimately truth and good come together in wisdom.
A person’s relationship with being is based on truth, good, and wisdom. The relationship of the intellect to being, i.e. knowledge, seeks truth. The relationship of the will to being, i.e. love, seeks the good. As we have seen, truth and good are convertible with being and come together in wisdom. Therefore, love and knowledge must have a fundamental unity. Knowledge without love cannot act and love without knowledge cannot know what is really good, just as sophia and phronesis can only function properly when joined. It follows that the intellect and the will cannot be separate faculties. This corresponds to the transcendental attribute “one”, which denotes inner integrity or wholeness. This unity is dynamic and manifests itself in a wise, ordered life.
Ultimately, knowledge and love, sophia and phronesis, share the same Source and the same Destiny. Knowledge in its quest for truth will at last reach God as ultimate Truth. Love in its pursuit of good will finally arrive at God as infinite Good. God is the pure actualization of truth and good– that is, Being Himself. In The Meeting of Knowledge and Love, Rev. Martin D’Arcy describes God as “perfect being seen in all its superessential splendour.” From this conclusion, we can see that there must be a God; otherwise, there would be no ultimate end and life would be utterly meaningless.
Love and knowledge are thus inextricably bound together in man’s very nature and if we live according to our nature, they will lead us straight to our Source and Ultimate End. This union is achieved through a life lived in the cultivation of virtue on our part, and by God’s perfect love for us that constantly pulls us toward Him. If we do not follow this natural path of love and knowledge, we will only find emptiness and despair since our nature will never be fulfilled. As the poet Francis Thompson wrote in “The Hound of Heaven”
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”