JMC : Classification of Desires / by Henry Ignatius Smith, OP

Chapter II.

Objective Classification of Desires in St. Thomas.


In the mind of St. Thomas, desire is the motive force awakened when a good is perceived and sought. It is the power by which the will is brought into conjunction with objects which complete it and bring to it pleasure. Since desire takes on many forms it receives many names in the vocabulary of St. Thomas. Unbridled desire is called cupidity or concupiscence. Sometimes tbe word libido is applied to this form of ill-regulated desire, but ordinarily it relates to inordinate desire of the pleasures of touch, just as ambition and avarice signify inordinate desire of honor and wealth. Desire is strictly a movement of the sensile appetency. Craving for wisdom and other spiritual goods such as virtue or knowledge is called desire either by way of a figure of speech or because the craving in the higher part of the soul is so strong that it affects the sensile appetite (l-2ae, Q. 30, a. 1). Again, St. Thomas distinguishes desires into natural and artificial or acquired. Natural desires or concupiscences are common to men and animals and are called common desires. Desires that are not natural but artificial are found only in men who alone have the power to devise goods beyond those indicated by nature. Man alone can go beyond the fixity of nature in his desires. Tbe greatest possible diversity is introduced among these artificial desires since men reason and judge differently concerning objects which they seek. St. Thomas remarks that natural desires can be satisfied without end, successively, because the needs which awaken them are recurrent. Artificial or acquired desires can be multiplied indefinitely because it is practically impossible to exhaust the resources of reason (1-2ae, Q. 30, a. 4).

Going back from these specific to general aspects of desire, we find that our author relates, as has been already seen, all conation directly to the appetitive powers and indirectly to the apprehensive. Human action in its objective aspects relates always to objects which men consider good, that is, capable of perfecting their being and giving them pleasure while so doing. Thus it is that the objective classification of human desires brings us to the study of the ends of action.

The end of an action and the goodness of its corresponding object are really identical, although a theoretical distinction between them may be made (la, Q. 5, a. 4). Thomistic philosophy is essentially teleological. All actions are performed in pursuit of some purpose. All action taken collectively is in accordance with some ultimate end. St. Thomas makes a fundamental distinction between the order of intention and that of execution. In the order of intention, the desirability of an external object is held in mind, In the order of execution, the end of an action is identical with the desirability of the object completing the motion of the appetite. The possession of the object represented as good is, therefore, first in the order of intention and last in the order of execution. Thus we realize that the objective consideration of human action cannot be separated from the philosophy of purpose (Ethic., L. 1, lec. 2).

Any human action viewed teleologically is refracted prismatically into a dozen purposes. The analysis of human motives is notoriously difficult. It is practically impossible to explain our own actions to ourselves, let alone explaining those of others. Without a doubt, the average man will act in obedience to organic desires for health, wealth and companionship, but it is impossible to determine with accuracy why any particular person does a particular thing. There is all the difference in the world between the family meal taken in the privacy of the home and an elaborate banquet instituted to promote a candidate's prospects for office. Thus it is that a man's purpose in eating may be different from nature's purpose in giving him the desire for food. In the animal world and in the lower strata of human life, the purposes of nature and the purposes of the individual nearly coincide. The more nearly fundamental an instinct or function is in us, the less apt are we to be swayed by the purposes foreign to those of nature. St. Thomas clears up all of this confusion by his discussion of ends. Throughout the system of St. Thomas, an end is represented as that on account of which an action is performed (1-2ae, Q. 1, a. 1, ad. 1). Nature has her purposes in all things and man in addition may have his own particular ends in what he does. Bodily processes continue, whether or not we advert to them, because of the end that nature has in view. Neither reflection nor attention can interfere with them. The ends of nature are the aims of God. He is the Author of nature. There are two aspects to every human action, the interior and the exterior. The terminus or end of the external act is its object. The terminus or end of the internal act is the intention. The act of deciding the means to be used in seeking the end is called election. The application of the means chosen is called use and the peace or quiet obtained from the possession of the object is called enjoyment (12ae, QQ. 12-17). The act of intention is found in only rational beings. As regards animals, intention is found only in the mind of the Creator. In man we find capacity of choice among means, wherein consists freedom of the will and the power to distinguish between the end of an action and the end of an agent, between the finis opens and the finis operantis. St. Thomas does not fail to call attention to the fact that not all actions of man are rational (1-2ae, Q. 1, a. 1).

The following chart illustrates what has been said concerning ends in human action.

In itself End as a thing (finis cujus)
End as a person (finis cui)

End of the work (finis opens)
End of the agent (finis operantis)

End as an object (objectivus)
End as an action (formalis)
Relation in a series Proximate End
Remote End

End in the Intention
End in Execution
Its value Total End
Partial End

Principal End
Secondary End

The universe was created by God for a divine purpose. Man as a part of that universe must conform to the general plan of the Creator (la, Q. 44, a. 4). The last end or summum bonum of man is determined by the Author of Nature since He created the faculties and determined them toward Himself as the summum bonum or full complement of life (Con. Gen. L. 1, c. 1). All men find their unity in this final destiny. The last end is the complete perfection of the faculties of man (Con. Gen. L. 3, c. 16). All progress depends upon the extent to which men are enlightened about the nature of their ultimate perfection and are faithful in seeking it through action or conduct which is called virtuous. It is impossible to seek our last end unless we know it (1 Eth. lec. 2). Thus St. Thomas defines it as that which is desirable on account of itself and on account of which all other things are deslred. Irresistibly, all men desire to be happy. It is a matter of natural instinct and not of free will (la, Q. 19, a. 10; la, Q. 26, a. 1).

Men seek this summum bonum or ultimate perfection through contact with and the use of created things. Objects which appear good to the individual stir within him desires. These desires are particular manifestations of the all-governing desire to find ultimate perfection and happiness (1-2ae, Q. 1, a. 4). We are thus led to the consideration of the objects and relations which men desire during the process of seeking their ultimate happiness. The classification of such objects is made by St. Thomas in full consciousness of their relation to the summum bonum of man. His entire philosophy of life, of sin and virtue, and of progress can be understood only from this standpoint. In describing the objects which stir desire, he has two points of view in mind. First, he observes as a matter of fact the things which men actually desire. He then explains regulated and ill-regulated desire, or sin and virtue, in proportion as the process of actual desiring bears on the ultimate end of life.

St. Thomas is interested in individual objects of desire only in so far as they impede or help man in the acquisition of his perfect happiness. Hence we find the most exhaustive treatment of the objects of desire in those portions of his work in which he discusses the problems of happiness (1-2ae, Q. 2; Con. Gen. L. 3, cc. 25-40). In his mind, happiness is either perfect or imperfect. Perfect happiness is that which man could obtain only in a future life, in the possession of the summum bonum in which his capacity for life is ultimately and entirely filled. Imperfect happiness is the pleasurable experience possible to man in this world. When this experience of happiness serves his ultimate end, it is morally approved and it ministers to his real progress. When this pleasurable experience is not in line with his ultimate happiness, it interferes with his real progress and takes on the nature of sin. In describing this portion of the doctrine of St. Thomas, therefore, we confine the term "happiness" to human experience in this life. This imperfect happiness is found in the satisfaction of desires. The reasonable satisfaction of all forms of appetency brings to the individual, the happiness of which he is capable. The historian will describe men's desires as they are aroused and satisfied in fact. The moralist will describe them as they should be directed in line with the ultimate end of man.


It will be recalled that St. Thomas describes three kinds of appetency. Natural appetency is that inclination in all created things to obey the laws of their being. Sensitive appetency is the inclination of a sensile creature toward the good which it apprehends through sensation. Rational appetency is the inclination toward a good apprehended finally in the intellect. Man has natural appetency in common with all created things and sensile appetency in common with sensile beings. Rational appetency is confined to man alone in the visible world. The following classification of objects which stir desire, is substantially adhered to, throughout the writings of St. Thomas:

The goods of the body Bona corporis.
The goods of the soul Bona animae.
External goods Bona exteriora.

This classification is found in this form in the following places: 1-2ae, Q. 84, a. 4; 2-2ae, Q. 73, a. 3; ibid., Q. 85, a. 3, ad. 2; Q. 104, a. 3; Q. 118, a 5; Q. 152, aa. 2, 4; Q. 186, a. 7; 3 Sent. dist. 9, Q. 1, a. 3, q. 3; 4 Sent. dist. 15, Q. 1, a. 4, q. 3; Con. Gen. 3, c. 141; De Malo, Q. 8, a. 1; De Virtut., Q. 3, a. 1; Quol. 5, 6; In Rom., lec. 1, prin.; Ethic., lec. 12, princ. Elsewhere we find the division of all objects of desire into two classes, corporal and spiritual. This classification is found as follows: 2 Sent dist 36 a. 4; 3 Sent. dist. 29, a. 5; De Verit., Q. 14 a 2 a 3 De Virtut., Q. 1, a. 9, ad. 7. Again we find St Thomas calling the summum bonum absolute good and all created things which are the objects of human desire, relative goods. 1 -2ae. Q. 114, a. 10; 2-2ae, Q. 23, a. 7. Elsewhere we find him speaking of things to be believed; things to be desired; things to be done (Opus. 4). Again we find our author dividing the objects of human desires into five classes: happiness, virtue, disciplined mind, health, external goods (Con. Gen. 3, c. 141). Whatever the variations found throughout all of the writings of St. Thomas, the classification indicated above as definite seems to have established itself permanently in his thought.

1. GOODS OF THE BODY. -- By the goods of the body, St. Thomas means everything connected with the physical welfare and integrity of the organism. He means those goods which appeal to both the vegetative and the sensile appetites. They are of three classes. The first is the integrity of the body, which is impaired by killing or mutilation or injury. The second is the repose of the senses, that is sensile satisfaction, which is disturbed by anything which causes pain. The third is the pleasure of physical movement, that is the free use or movement of the limbs of the body, which is interfered with by bonds, prison or physical constraint of any other kind (2-2ae, Q. 65, a. 6). Elsewhere (Con. Gen. 3, c. 34), St. Thomas describes health, beauty and strength as the chief goods of the body. The faculties involved in the forms of pleasure here referred to are the external senses, the internal apprehensive senses, the nutritive, augmentative and generative faculties, the emotions of the irascible and the concupiscible appetites, the power of locomotion, The pleasure arising from the exercise of any one of these powers or from all of them is called by St. Thomas the bonum corporis.

The most intense pleasures of the senses are those resulting from the taking of food and the sex relations (Con. Gen. 3, c. 33); that is, pleasure resulting from the exercise of those faculties which relate to the preservation of the individual and the race; conservatio individui et speciei. St Thomas finds in the intense pleasure associated with these two forms of activity, nature's device to protect her purposes against too much interference on the part of the individual in making arbitrary choices. We see this in St. Thomas' doctrine of temperance, that virtue having for its mission the rational regulation of these two fundamental pleasures of man (Con. Gen. 3, c. 32).

2. GOODS OF THE MIND. -- St. Thomas remarks frequently that since the nutritive and augmentative powers are common to man and plants, the distinctive pleasure of man cannot be in the exercise of these powers. Furthermore, since the sensile appetites are found in animals as well as in man, the distinctive happiness of the latter cannot consist in their exercise. Superior to the vegetative and sensitive appetites we have the rational appetite which is the crowning glory of man, in whose exercise his distinctive happiness must be found (Ethic. c. 1, lec. 10). Man's distinctive faculties are those of intellect and will. The pleasures that follow upon the satisfaction of these rational appetitive and apprehensive powers are peculiar to man. The natural appetency of the intellect inclines it towards truth or knowledge and nothing else. The natural appetency of the will inclines it toward good. Thus it is that knowledge and virtue are the goods of the mind, the objects in seeking which, man finds distinctive human happiness (1-2ae, Q. 3, a. 7; Q. 32, a. 8).

a. KNOWLEDGE is either speculative, knowledge for its own sake, or practical, with a bearing on the conduct of life (la, Q. 83, a. 1). Every individual true to his nature loves the truth and desires it more intensely than the other things of life (Opus. 73, prol.). It is only occasionally that a man hates the truth (1-2ae, Q. 29, a. 5; 22ae, Q. 15, a. 1, ad. 3). Though all men desire knowledge, many do not obtain it on account of their inability to study (2 Sent. dist. 22, Q. 2, a. 1, ad. 5). This inability arises from mental indisposition, distracting occupations or laziness (2-2ae, Q. 2, a. 4). Knowledge is acquired through inborn genius and study (la, Q. 117, a. 1; Poster, lec. 1), through invention and instruction (De Verit. Q. 11, a. 1). The emotional character of youth often hinders these processes to a certain extent, while moral virtues, especially chastity, facilitate them (2-2ae, Q. 15, a. 3; 4 Sent. dist. 33, Q. 3, a. 3).

Knowledge is profitable when it is humble, retiring, certain, truthful, simple, charitable, useful, generous and effective (1 Cor. 8, lec. 1). It can be injurious when it hinders a man in performing his duty, makes him condemn divine things, inclines him to evil deeds (magic), when it goes to excess, or is useless (la, Q. 22, a. 3, ad. 3; 2-2ae, Q. 167, a. 1). The whole range of knowledge falls under three classes, things to be believed, things to be desired and things to be done (Opus. 4). The most important of the practical sciences is civil knowledge. Metaphysics takes first place among the speculative sciences (Eth. lec. 2).

The desire for knowledge may be re-enforced by intellectual habits or virtues -- wisdom, understanding, science, prudence and art (l-2ae, Q. 57, a. 2; 2-2ae, Q. 4, a. 8). Wisdom is the greatest of the intellectual habits (1-2ae, Q. 57, a. 2), directing all others (3 Sent. dist. 34, Q. 1, a. 4). Both wisdom and knowledge are perfections of the mind (1-2ae, Q. 62, a. 2) and the absolutely wise man is he who knows the absolute highest cause. All other wisdom is relative (ibid.).

b. VIRTUE. St. Thomas understands by natural virtues those moral habits by which the will is enabled to accomplish more easily the work of control over the other powers of the soul (l-2ae, Q. 55). Strictly speaking only the will or an appetitive power moved by the will can be the subject of a real habit (1-2ae, Q. 56, a. 3; 1-2ae, Q. 58, a. 1). Moral virtues are virtues strictly so-called and can be reduced (2-2ae, prol.) to the cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance (l-2ae, Q. 61, a. 2, a. 3) on which all moral life rests (3, Sent. dist. 33, Q. 2, a. 1, q. 1). These virtues help the will to regulate the passions (1-2ae, Q. 60, a. 5). In every virtue, because the will acts in view of the Final Good, one can perceive an intelligent agent, choice of good for God's sake and perseverance in good (1-2ae, Q. 100; 2-2ae, Q. 58, a. 1). For this reason also, virtuous acts are those over which the will can exercise sway and choice (1-2ae, Q. 94, a. 3).

Virtues are the greatest goods in life to the man striving to live rightly (1 Sent. dist. 1, Q. 50). Moral virtues while inferior to supernatural faith, hope and love (theological virtues) (1. Tim., lee. 2) are more necessary in human life than intellectual habits (1-2ae, Q. 66, a. 3, ad. 1). The rule by which the will is guided in its government is two-fold, reason and the eternal law of God (1-2ae, QQ. 18-20). Of the moral virtues, prudence is supreme (3, Sent. dist. 33, Q. 2, ad. 1): it perfects the acts of the reason and the will (1 Sent. dist. 1, Q. 1, a. 2, ad. 2) and completes the other moral virtues (2-2ae, Q. 166, a. 2, ad. 1). No other moral virtue can exist without prudence (1-2ae, Q. 51, a. 5). While it is said to be an intellectual habit also it is, strictly speaking, the guide of the will in all particular things (3, Sent. dist. 33, Q. 2, a. 1), whether in the monastery, family, among citizens, soldiers or rulers (1-2ae, Q. 56, 6; 2-2ae, Q. 48).

3. EXTERNAL GOODS. -- St. Thomas understands by exterior goods objects of desire which are separate from the individual. The goods of the body and goods of the mind are identified with the individual organically. The external goods of the body are persons or things. He understands by things the sum total of objects to which we give the name wealth. His term is riches. He distinguishes two kinds: natural riches, namely, meat, drink, clothing, houses, that is consumption goods; artificial riches, forms of money, or other media of exchange which are symbols of wealth. The latter are not desired normally by man except in as far as they give him access to the former. Theoretically, artificial riches are not sought except in as far as by means of them consumption goods, understood in modern economics by the term wealth, may be obtained (1-2ae, Q. 2, a. 1, ad. 3; Con. Gen. 3, c. 30).

There is much in the texts of St. Thomas in reference to persons as these are necessary to the happiness of the individual. He appears to look upon friends as valuable in associated life in enabling the individual to obtain the physical goods which he needs for his continued existence.

In addition he needs them that he may act well, that he may do good to them and that he may receive kindly services from them. The normal conduct of active life as well as the works of contemplative life, show forth the necesity of friendly relations in the integrity of life (1-2ae, Q. 4, a. 8; 2-2ae, QQ. 23-46; Opus. De Dilectione).

The second category of external goods is that of a higher order, relating to the mind. They are honors, fame, glory and power.

HONOR is the testimony or recognition of a person's excellence (3a, Q. 25, a. 1; 2-2, Q. 25, a. 1), and is shown by external signs of respect (2-2ae, Q. 103, a. 1, ad. 3; Eth. 18, prin.). It is a laudable object of desire (2-2ae, Q. 129, a. 1, ad. 3), since it is among the greatest of man's external goods (2-2ae, Q. 103, a. 1, ad. 2). It is deordinate only when not referred to God or when it is made the principal end in life (2-2ae, Q. 131, a. 1). Men are happy when they are honored (1-2ae, Q. 2 ad. 2). They desire to be honored preferably by men of wisdom and position (ibid. ad. 3).

FAME is also an object of universal desire and one of the greatest goods men can possess. It is reputation (1-2ae, Q. 2), a fickle thing easily ruined by gossip (ibid.). Fame or a reputation is necessary for us. It fits us for our daily duties and prompts us to acquire virtue. For our neighbors' welfare, it is also necessary for us to acquire reputation because otherwise they may be scandalized and led into sin (2-2ae, Q. 73, a. 2, a. 3). We have a right to our reputations and no one has the privilege of ruining them either by slander, exaggerating our deficiencies, revealing secret faults, questioning motives, minimizing our good influence or by malicious silence (2-2ae, Q. 73, a. 1, ad. 3). The desire for fame or reputation is sinful when it is made the end of existence (Quol. 10, 13).

GLORY is reputation accompanied by praise (2-2ae, Q. 103, a. 1, ad. 3). To desire to be well spoken of is laudable (1-2ae, Q. 2, a. 2), but it must be referred to the glory of God, utility of our neighbor or our own advancement. It may not be taken as the end of life (2-2ae, Q. 132, a. 1, ad. 1). Glory is vain when we desire to be praised for our insignificant or sinful actions; when it is sought from men alone and not from God (ibid.; De Malo, Q. 9, a. 2, ad. 1). This vain glory is dangerous because it makes one presumptious and self-confident and weakens virtue (2-2, Q. 132, a. 3, ad. 3).

The following table shows the relations of the various classes of goods described by St. Thomas as objects of human desire:

Goods of the Body Food Pleasure (Con. Gen. 8, c. 27)
Sex Pleasure (ibid.)
Health (Con. Gen. 3, c. 82)
Beauty (ibid.)
Strength (ibid.)
Activity (2-2ae, Q. 65, a. 3)
Integrity (ibid.)
Goods of the Mind Knowledge (1-2ae, Q.3, a. 7; ibid. Q. 32. a. 8)
Virtue (l-2ae, QQ. 58-67; 2-2ae. QQ. 23-171)
External Goods: Body Things
- Meat (1a, Q. 78, a. 2, ad. 4; Q. 97, a. 8, a. 4)
- Drink (ibid.)
- Clothing (2-2ae, Q. 169, a. 1)
- Money (l-2ae, Q. 2, a. 1; 2-2ae, Q. 118)
- Houses (Joan. c.4, lec. 1)

- Friends (2-2ae; QQ. 2346; 1-2ae. Q.4, a. 8)
External Goods: Mind Things
- Honor (1-2ae, Q. 2, a.2)
- Fame (1-2ae, q. 2, a. 2)
- Glory (Con. Gen. 8, c. 29)
- Power (Con. Gen. 8, c. 31)

- Friends (2-2ae, QQ. 28-46)
- God (ibid.; De Dilectione)

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