Aquinas and the Best of All Possible Worlds
It is understandable that many people with theistic convictions maintain that the present world and all its contents is the best or only possible world. Since we believe as a general principle that a person who does not choose the best choice available to himself when he is able is not as good as he could be. Applying this principle to God, it would be reasonable to suppose that God, being perfectly good, will choose the best option open to him. And since he is omnipotent, he has all options open to him. Therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that if God has created the world, and for those with theistic convictions it is readily granted that he has, then he must have chosen the best of all the options available to him. God, because he is both all good and all powerful, must have chosen to create the best of all possible worlds. This seemingly reasonable conclusion likewise gives rise to another seemingly reasonable conclusion, that whatever evils are present in this world of our experience must be necessary, since it previously believed that this world is the best possible. God could not have created this world without its present evils, given that he willed to create at all.
Many theists seem to have been led through this line of reasoning. For in reconciling divine goodness with the presence of evil in the world, such theists claim that it is a necessary feature of the world that acts of love often require pain. Insofar as pain is at least a physical evil, some evil is necessarily a part of creation which is a manifestation of the divine goodness. One explanation of this necessity appeals an analogy between the deliberation that accompanies prudence and God’s wisdom exercised in his act of creation. The greater that one has the virtue of prudence, the less one has need to hesitate in deliberation as to which is the best choice to follow. It is argued that, just as the prudent man, by the very fact of his prudence, would see most clearly which of the various choices before him was the best, so God who is perfectly wise and good, would know the best world to create and want to and be able to. As the prudent man is constrained to act in just one way, i.e. the best, so much more is God. And as the prudent man does not forfeit his freedom in being prudent, so neither does God.
In the analogy between a prudent man and God, what applies to the prudent man does not apply to God. For, the reason a prudent man acts with less deliberation is that he sees the right thing to do. The object of choice in each case is different. For God, creation is good because he has willed to create it, while for the prudent man, the choice is good before he chooses, and it is his prudence that allows him to see this fact. That is, the object of each agent’s choice is so different that there is no analogy between human prudence reducing deliberation and divine wisdom allowing none. Specifically, the analogy fails because in the case of the prudent man, there is some one best choice for him to see clearly. This feature of the analogy does not apply to God. “…That God does not will necessarily some of the things that he wills does not result from defect in the divine will, but from a defect belonging to the nature of the thing willed… and such defect accompanies all created good.”( Summa Theologiae Ia, 19, 3 ad 4)
Aquinas, in dealing with the issue God’s freedom in the Summa, grounds his assertion that this is not the best of all possible worlds in divine freedom, and indeed he explains divine freedom with a reference to this principle. “Since then God necessarily wills His own goodness, but other things not necessarily, as was shown above, He has free choice with respect to what he does not necessarily will.” ((S.T. Ia, 19, 10) The only thing that God must will is his own nature. However, no possible world is so good that God must choose it.
For the divine will has a necessary relation to the divine goodness, since that is its proper object. Hence God wills His own goodness, necessarily…. Hence, since the goodness of God is perfect, and can exist without other things since no perfection can accrue to Him from them, it follows that His willing things apart from Himself is not absolutely necessary.S.T. Ia 19, 4
This claim constitutes a defense of divine freedom that in no way implies God’s imperfection, but rather places the imperfection on the side of the object, i.e. the world.
In what remains of this paper, I want to attempt a defense of the conclusion that this is not the best of all possible worlds on the basis of divine omnipotence, or the limits thereof. In doing so, I will have to make a claim similar to one that Aquinas made about the nature of the divine will, namely that its freedom in creation is grounded in the imperfection of creation. That is, the reason that Aquinas, and any who claim to follow his teaching, cannot claim that this is the best of all possible worlds is grounded in the fact that any act of creation is insufficient to move the divine will with necessity.
For the sake of argument, let us suppose that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that the evil in it is necessary; that is, the evil could not have been avoided unless God had not created at all. Let us also suppose that God always acts for the best, i.e. he always chooses the best of the possibilities available to him. If this is the best possible world, then any other world would be worse. And if it is true that God always acts for the best, God could not make another, i.e. a worse, world than this one, for then he would make something worse than the best. Thus, I am claiming that, given our initial assumptions (namely, if this is the best of all possible worlds and God always produces the best possible) then it would follow that any other world would not be sufficiently good to be created by an all good God.
I hope to show the antecedent of the conditional is false by showing on Thomistic grounds that its consequent is false and invoking the logical rule of modus tollens. I hope to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds by showing that it is false that any other world is insufficiently good to be created by God. Additionally, I hope to show that, while this argument is not Aquinas’, it is Thomistic in being drawn from Thomistic principles.
For Aquinas, the only restriction on God’s omnipotence is what cannot be because it involves a contradiction. “…God is called omnipotent because he can do all things that are possible absolutely.” What is possible absolutely is what involves no contradiction, the absolutely impossible does involve a contradiction, and so what “implies being and non-being at the same time … cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing.” Aquinas gives as an example of the absolutely impossible that man is an donkey. For man is rational and an donkey is non-rational, and the same thing cannot be both. However, in saying that there is a class of things that God cannot bring about, vis. the absolutely impossible, is not a limit on His omnipotence, for such things are not things at all but descriptions of what cannot be. “Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.” (S.T. Ia, 25, 3)
To make apply his teaching about the limits of divine omnipotence to our case, the one who claims that a world so bad that God could not choose to create it, ought to say that such a world cannot be made. According to Aquinas, things other than God are willed to be in order to participate in the divine goodness (S.T. Ia 19, 2).But since we are inquiring as to whether a possible world may be created, we are in a sense speaking of it prior to its creation. As an effect preexisting in its cause, a world possible world is willed according as it is a possible participation in the divine goodness. That is, so long as all its elements are compossible, i.e. do not entail a contradiction, the possible world is a possible participation in divine goodness from the mere fact that it is conceived by the divine intellect. So the only possible world that is so bad that it cannot be willed by the divine will is one that cannot be conceived by the divine intellect. Thus, it is false that any possible world could be so bad that God could not choose it.
Divine freedom is such that no possible world needs to be chosen to exist, and none are so bad that they are not a participation of the divine goodness. The answer to the question of whether this is the best of all possible worlds is that there is no best, even though some are better than others.