The Knowledge of the First Principles in Saint Thomas Aquinas

by Mary Christine Ugobi-Onyemere (Author)
©2015 Thesis XXIV, 384 Pages


This monograph is a fundamental theme in Thomism. It deals with the basic ontological principles. From the Thomistic perspective and based on Aristotle, it studies the nature and roles of the essential principles on which reality itself is constructed.
The work starts with a brief historical survey of first principles from the classical period through the modern/post-modern philosophical schools.
The monograph proceeds to study Thomas Aquinas’ understanding and use of the principles along with the possibility of the knowledge of these first principles especially through their habits. It underlines the central position of the habits of the first principles in realistic philosophy.
To determine their proper character, the volume juxtaposes the first ontological principles with some transcendental notions followed by the most basic practical ethical principles. Since there are no demonstrations for the first principles, the work further investigates the evidence and indirect demonstration of these first realistic crucial principles and ends with an accent on transition from principles to a wise vision that culminates in man’s relationship to reality and especially to God

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • A Note on the Texts and Citations
  • Abbreviations
  • Works of St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Other Works and General Abbreviations
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Historical Background
  • A. Sophists. Plato. Aristotle
  • A.1 Global View of Sophists on the First Principles
  • A.2 Plato (427–347 BCE)
  • A.2.1 A Synopsis of Plato’s Philosophical Enterprise
  • A.2.2 An Overview of Plato on First Principles
  • A.3 Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
  • A.3.1 A Global View of the First Principles in Aristotle’s Works
  • A.3.2 Aristotelian Presentation of the First Principles in the Sciences, particularly in the Analytics
  • a. On Axioms
  • b. Intrinsic Quality of the First Principles
  • c. Natural Priority and Independence of the Principles
  • d. Status of Principles of Science
  • e. Justification for the First Principles of Sciences
  • f. The Scientific Principles’ Autonomy
  • A.3.3 Aristotle’s Notion of the First Principles in Physics
  • A.3.4 The Centrality of the First Principles in Metaphysics
  • A.3.5 The Aristotelian First Principles in Protological and Theological Discourse and Relation of First Principles to Final Ends
  • A.3.6 The Possibility of the Knowledge and Elusiveness of the First Principles in Aristotle
  • A.3.7 The Principle of Non-Contradiction as Case Study
  • A.3.8 The Unresolved Problem of the First Principles in Aristotelian Works
  • B. Augustine
  • B.1 The Knowledge of the First Principles in Saint Augustine
  • B.2 The Possibility of the Principles in Augustine’s Epistemology
  • B.3 Augustine’s Theology of God
  • C. Modern Approach to the First Principles
  • C.1 Nominalism and Empiricism
  • C.2 Rationalism
  • C.3 Idealism and Kant
  • C.4 Modern Axiomatism
  • C.5 Popper and the Problem of Induction
  • D. Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 The First Principles in the Works of Saint Thomas Aquinas
  • A. St. Thomas Aquinas
  • A.1 The Aristotelian Import on Thomas Aquinas’ Works (First Principles)
  • A.2 A Cursory Glance at the Theory of the First Principles in Aquinas
  • B. An Overview of the First Principles in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Works
  • B.1 Thomistic Principles: Identification and Structural Précis
  • B.2 Recurrent Principles in the Works of Thomas Aquinas
  • B.2.1 Ontological Principles: Being
  • a. First Principles of Being as Such
  • b. The First Principles in Substances and Accidents
  • c. Operations, Actions
  • B.2.2 Ontological Principles: Causality
  • a. Potency, Act
  • b. Matter, Form
  • c. Efficiency
  • d. Final Cause
  • B.2.3 First Principles Involving Participation
  • B.2.4 God as the Prime Principle of Being
  • B.2.5 Moral Principles
  • a. Some Principles on the Good
  • b. On the Moral Principles of Reason
  • c. Principles Pertaining to the End
  • d. Natural Principles and Virtue
  • C. The Role of the Principles in Thomistic Philosophy
  • C.1 General Notion of the Use of the Principles
  • C.2 The Role of the Principles in Being
  • D. Conclusion
  • Chapter 3 The Knowledge of the First Principles
  • A. Conceptual Apprehension and Primitive Judgment
  • A.1 The Starting Point of Knowledge
  • A.1.1 Sensation and Experience
  • A.1.2 Sensory Knowledge and Truth
  • A.2 Simplex Apprehensio: Intellectus (Nous) vs Ratio (Logos)
  • A.2.1 An Epigrammatic on the Thomistic Analysis concerning the two Intellective Powers
  • A.2.2 Nous considered as Judgment in Aquinas
  • A.2.3 The Thomistic Intellectual Operations and the First Cognitive Act
  • A.2.4 The Complementarity between Simplex apprehensio and Compositio/Divisio
  • A.3 Abstractive Intuition
  • A.3.1 The Comprehensive Nature of Second Intellectual Act
  • A.3.2 A Concise Appraisal of the Problem of Abstractive Intuition of the First Intellectual Concepts
  • A.3.3. A Brief Look at the Thomistic Notion of Separatio
  • A.4 Précis on a few Thomists’ Views on the Grasp of Being in Act
  • A.4.1 Maritain on the Intuition of Being
  • A.4.2 A Quick Glance at the Existential Judgment of Gilson
  • A.4.3 Fabro’s View on Ontological Unity between Abstraction and Intuition
  • A.4.4 An Evaluative Résumé on the Primum Cognitum
  • B. Transcendental Notions
  • B.1 Transcendental Foundations
  • B.2 Derivation of the Transcendentals
  • B.2.1 A Note on Multitudo as a Transcendental
  • B.2.2 A Synopsis on Verum and Bonum as Transcendentals
  • a. Aquinas’ Transcendental Notion of Verum
  • b. The Transcendental Bonum
  • B.3 The Primacy of Ens
  • B.4 Relationship between the First Principles and Transcendentals
  • C. Conclusion
  • Chapter 4 Habits of The First Principles
  • A. An Overview of the Habits in the Realistic Context
  • A.1 What are the Habits?
  • A.1.1 Briefs on Hexis, the Aristotelian Perspective
  • A.1.2 Aquinas’ General View on Habitus
  • a. Habitus as Quality
  • b. Habitus as Disposition
  • c. Habitus considered from Entitative and Operative Dimensions
  • d. The Natural Position of Habitus amid Faculty and Operations
  • e. Habitus as Second Nature
  • f. Habitus and Dynamism
  • A.2. General Categorisation of Habits
  • A.2.1 The Intellectual and Moral Habits (Virtues)
  • A.2.2 A Glance at the Classification of the Intellectual and Moral Virtues
  • B. Habits of the First Principles
  • B.1 A Brief Survey on the Nature of Habitus Primorum Principiorum
  • B.1.1 Intellectus Principiorum and its Interactive Character
  • B.1.2. The Object of Intellectus Principiorum and its Operational Modality
  • B.1.3 The Scientific Totality of Intellectus Principiorum
  • B.2 PNC an Expression of Intellectus Principiorum
  • B.2.1 Structure of the PNC in Thomistic Perspective
  • a. Formulation of the PNC: Paradigm of Realistic Judgment
  • b. Kant’s Hypotheses and Formulation of the PNC
  • B.2.2 Analytical Aspects of the PNC
  • a. PNC and the Principle of Identity
  • b. Unity and Division
  • c. Non-Ens and Plurality
  • B.2.3 An Appraisal of the PNC
  • B.3 Synderesis the Scintilla Rationis
  • B.3.1 Synderesis as Practical Habitus Principiorum
  • B.3.2 Contents of Synderesis
  • B.3.3 The Practical Mode of Operation of Synderesis
  • B.3.4 An Evaluative Synopsis on the Thomistic Notion of Synderesis
  • C. Aquinas and the Problem of Innatism
  • C.1 The Origin of Habitus Principiorum: the Inception of the Problem of Innatism
  • C.2 Aquinas’ Notion of Innateness
  • a. Illumination and Participation
  • b. Non-Existence of Innate Species
  • c. Human Intellect’s Original State of Tabula Rasa
  • d. Brief Assessment
  • D. Conclusion
  • Chapter 5 Evidence and Indirect Demonstration of the First Principles
  • A. Indirect Demonstration of the First Principles
  • A.1.1 Sample Thomistic Texts on Indirect Demonstration
  • A.1.2 Some Interpretations on the Indirect Proof of the First Principles
  • a. Berti’s Dialectical Method
  • b. Livi’s Interpretation with the PNC
  • c. Briefs on Sanguineti’s Illustration on diverse Philosophical Positions
  • d. The Place of Dialectic in the Demonstration of the Principles
  • B. Aquinas and the Per se and Per se notum
  • B.1.1 A Glance at the Thomistic Notion of the Per se
  • B.1.2 The Per se notum Principle
  • B.1.3 The Different Domains of the Per se nota Principles
  • a. A Brief Survey of the Speculative Principles as Per se nota
  • b. A Synopsis of the Practical Precepts in Relation to the Per se nota
  • c. A Concise Assessment of the Connaturality Debate
  • d. A Glance at God as the Principle Per se notum secundum se
  • e. Précis on the Principle of Love as Per se nota quoad nos
  • f. An Evaluative Résumé
  • C. Truth, the Self-Evident and Rational Judgment
  • C.1.1 Truth, Intelligibility and the Self-Evident
  • C.1.2 A Quick Look at Necessity and Intelligibility
  • C.1.3 A View on the Mind’s Resolutio
  • a. Précis on Resolutio ad sensum in Natural Sciences
  • b. A Brief Appraisal on Intellectus-Ratio concerning Resolutio
  • D. From Intellectus towards Wisdom
  • D.1.1 Rationality and Resolutio in Knowledge towards Wisdom
  • D.1.2 An Overview on the Real Principles ad Sapientiam
  • D.1.3 The Bipartite Resolutio-Compositio Intellectual Climax in Sapientia
  • D.1.4 Towards Practical Sapientia
  • E. Conclusion
  • General Conclusion
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index Locorum
  • A. Index Thomisticum (Aquinas’ Works)
  • B. Aristotle and other Ancient/Classical Works
  • Index Nominum
  • General Index

A Note on the Texts and Citations

There is no single completely adequate edition of Thomas Aquinas’ works in Latin. Some Latin texts, supposedly applauded as superb editions, might be incomplete. For this reason, we have utilised most officially certified texts, like the Leonine and Marietti versions, in most of our citations.

We tried as much as possible to keep to the formally approved translations. However, we made changes where we noticed an obvious change from the original Latin text. In such cases, we indicated that the official translation is altered to represent the sense in the Latin version we quoted. Regarding other texts that lack official English translations, we tried to be meticulous and to remain faithful to the Latin texts we used. For such, we did not generally indicate that translations are ours, because we assumed the obvious fact.

In some of our citations where we considered the arguments in question essential, we repeated the Latin texts in footnotes for concurrence. Generally we used single inverted commas to highlight English words and double inverted commas for proper quotes. This is to enable us to differentiate between Latin and other foreign words in the body of the thesis that are always in italics and to facilitate the work for our readers. In general, except where necessary, we did not indicate the editions of works in our citations; we just cited the publishers.

For the Latin texts of the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, we followed the online resource of the Corpus Thomisticum of E. Alarcón in our bibliographical arrangement instead of the chronological order of their publications.

On works of Aristotle, for the purpose of this inquiry, we mainly used Barnes and Ross’ English translations. For other classical works, we indicated the translations we used in the footnotes and the bibliography. ← xix | xx →


← xx | xxi →


Works of St. Thomas Aquinas

Comp. Th. Compendium Theologiae
De Malo   Quaestiones disputatae De malo
De Pot   Quaestiones disputatae De potentia
De Ver   Quaestiones disputatae De veritate
De Virtutibus   Quaestiones disputatae De virtutibus
In APst   In libros Posteriorum Analyticorum
In DC   In libros De caelo et mundo
In De Anima   Sententia libri De anima
In De Trin   Super Boethium De Trinitate
In Ethica   Sententia libri Ethicorum
In Metaph   In XII libros Metaphysicorum Aristoteles
In Phys   Expositio in libros Physicorum
In Sent   In quattuor libros Sententiarum
Q. D. De Anima  Quaestiones disputatae De anima
SCG   Summa contra gentiles
ST   Summa theologiae
Super ad Coloss   Super ad Colossenses
Super Epist. I ad Tim   Super ad Timotheum I ← xxi | xxii →


Other Works and General Abbreviations

APr   Prior Analytics (Analytica Priora)
APst   Posterior Analytics (Analytica Posteriora)
Comm   Commentary
CPR   Critique of Pure Reason
EE   Eudemian Ethics (Ethica Eudemeia)
EN   Nicomachean Ethics (Ethica Nicomachea)
Gen   General
Intro  Introduction
LSD   Logic of Scientific Discovery
Met   Metaphysics (Metaphysica)
Phys  Physics (Physica)
PNC   Principle of Non–Contradiction
Rhet   Rhetorics (Rhetorica)
Top   Topics (Topica)
Trans   Translation ← xxii | xxiii →


I am pleased to present this work written by Mary Christine Ugobi-Onyemere on the theme of the first principles in Thomas Aquinas. Judging from the little available bibliography, I would observe that such an investigation was never carried out in a systematic way regarding Aquinas, as instead it was in the valuable volume of Irwin on the first principles in Aristotle.

I think this work is important primarily because of the fundamental role of the principles in philosophy, particularly in the context of a metaphysics that is meant to be realistic and rational. In most of his works, Aquinas continuously refers to the first speculative principles pointing to Aristotle, and to the first ethical principles exemplified in the so-called ‘synderesis’. The habitual knowledge of the fundamental principles (habit of intellectus) is in Thomas Aquinas the ‘first science’, or rather the pre-science existing as the basis of the whole intellectual enterprise of the human person, both in science and in moral practice, while the climax of this loosening of the rational capacity of man is the intellectual habit (also voluntary) called the virtue of ‘wisdom’.

In such a way, the natural course which every human person is invited to follow in his/her life, as far as he/she tends to happiness, or just to find a sense for his/her existence, is the passage to the personal logos (reason) from voús, the initial moment, almost ‘innate’ in every man and woman, though depending upon experience, until the arrival at the virtue of sofía, which for a Christian means also wisdom as a gift of the Holy Spirit enriching the knowledge of faith.

In this topic about the first principles, we find in Aquinas sufficient elements that enable us to present a balanced dynamism between mind and will, since the principles refer to being (ens), as such, which is both true and good (transcendentals of being), as well as an adequate relationship between faith and reason. Indeed, human wisdom is dynamically open to divine wisdom, since the human person should not stay locked up in his rational capacities. These capacities are weakened because of our existential condition, characterised as a personal struggle between good and evil, a point clearly contained in the Thomistic account of human rationality, especially if we consider the theological truth of sin as a fundamental deviation of our intellect and will (original sin).

This book carries out a thorough investigation of these outstanding themes. It seems important for me that first principles are not treated in this study, as they are not in Aquinas, within a purely logical interest typical of the tendency to the “axiomatic foundations of science”. The issue of the metaphysical principles is not parallel to the questions about the logical foundation of geometry or ← xxiii | xxiv → mathematics, as was the case in Euclid or in contemporary thought in Bertrand Russell or David Hilbert. The theme of the first principles is not necessarily linked to rationalism. The principles are a “way of an underlying lively thought,” rarely explicit, except for the study performed by philosophers. In this sense, first principles are to be considered, and this is the case of this work, in reference to the initial cognitive grasp of the intellect in regards to ens and to the mentioned transcendentals verum and bonum.

The Thomistic reductio ad ens is nothing but the ‘reduction’ of human knowledge to the principles. This is a point that ensures the soundness of any rational methodology and remains open, in accordance with the innate need of wisdom, to the ‘last reduction’, which is satisfied in the knowledge and love of God as an infinite Being and source of every form of created being.

I hope that reading this book will become illuminating for further research on this topic. The disclosure of its various elements is far from being exhaustive. Indeed, the study could be widened with questions, such as, the principle of causality, the principle of finality and many others, or with the analysis of “secondary principles”, not for that reason unimportant, which are used by Aquinas in the course of his philosophical and theological developments.

Ultimately, any philosophy is to be assessed especially in its grounding principles. For this reason, the theme presented in this book is certainly nuclear. It is worthwhile to study it with clarity, order, and amplitude. No doubt Mary Christine Ugobi-Onyemere goes in this direction.

Prof. Juan José Sanguineti
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross,
← xxiv | xxv →


The theme of first principles is fundamental in the whole of reality and is simultaneously a vast area. This notion occupies a principal place in Aquinas’ philosophy because the Angelic Doctor realises its indispensability in any realistic endeavour and dedicates much attention to it. As a result of its profundity and enormity, this theme is not so easy to grapple with. This could explain why for several centuries of philosophy, there are few or no investigations particularly on the first speculative principles. Beginning from the metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and all the other natural scientific enterprises, the first principles form the nucleus of any realistic knowledge. The grounding is that for the human mind to know involves knowledge with and through the first ontological principles. For this reason, no one can think without presupposing the first principles in any of their modes, implicitly or explicitly. Even with their unconscious usage, the first principles play a substantial judgmental role and remain evident in themselves. As such, they belong, as it were, to a prior noetic scientific modality, the nous (intellectus).

In the most fundamental aspect of philosophy, the very primum cognitum is an existential judgment that is ascertainable as the most basic ontological principle of the actually known reality. In the same vein, the transcendental attributes of the primum cognitum could express the most primary principles. The implication is that the first principles cover the entire notion of the transcendentals by their support and ontological regulation. This is to say that to know the first principles is a lead to and implies the knowledge of the existent and transcendental reality. Thus, despite their difficult and challenging nature, the first ontological principles form part of the most interesting and fundamental research of the realistic philosopher. Subsequently, our endeavour to investigate mainly the first Thomistic speculative principles is to understand and appreciate better their indispensable nature and to underscore their significance in any philosophical venture.

To study the first realistic principles in the Thomistic context calls for a historical accent especially on classical philosophy. This is because the question of first principles originally is classically Aristotelian. Therefore, it is also obviously a huge theme in Aquinas because of his discovery of its central character. Consequently, the Thomistic notion of the first ontological principles largely has an Aristotelian flair. In effect, most of Thomistic philosophical thought is permeated with ontological principles, some of which belong to Aristotle. Aquinas uses the first principles copiously in his metaphysics; he also employs them mostly for definite themes needing substantial definitions. Aristotle discusses the first principles mainly in the Posterior Analytics and Metaphysics. In the Posterior ← 1 | 2 → Analytics he considers the first principles of scientific proof, while relating them back to real, immediate, and indemonstrable first premises. In the Metaphysics, he addresses the context of the controversy against the Sophists’ relativistic apparent denial of the identity of ‘being’. To combat them, Aristotle employs the maximum principles of ‘being’ understood in all their universality, as the principle of non-contradiction. Through this, Aristotle shows that the first principles are irrefutable and cannot be evaded. They are a form of incontrovertible prior natural knowledge to all other knowledge, not sequentially, but as the very condition of any intelligibility in reality.

This obvious truth of the first principles does not assert itself, and it is always caught in a human manner, in other words, in an imperfect manner. For this reason, a humble frame of mind is also necessary for any philosopher who wishes to know or search into the depths of this truth. However, all peoples, in their thinking, still use correctly the fundamental metaphysical principles. But how can one grasp these first principles in reality? That is a task of the philosopher in his speculation to lead the light of reason to the knowledge of the first principles. In view of the foregoing, it is obvious that part of the task of the first philosophy is to conduct the human mind to the knowledge of the first ontological principles on which the entire reality is understood.

When we speak of knowledge of the first ontological principles, it is necessary to remember that they could be extrinsic (such are efficient and final causes), or intrinsic as essential constituents of things as in matter and form, substance and accident or ‘being’ itself. In Aquinas’ understanding, as we already know, the object of metaphysics, is ‘being’. Since the first principles of metaphysics are the principles that concern immediately and directly ‘being’ intensively conceived, they constitute the basis of the search for wisdom. They are also simultaneously (the first practical principles) the primary sources of all perfection and the ultimate end of every action. Although aligned with ‘being’, the study of the first Thomistic ontological principles presents another challenge of methodology. The Angelic Doctor does not systematically discuss the first principles that correspond to the basic postulates of ‘being’ or nature. Even the Thomistic employment of the first principles in other philosophical fields is not so easy to handle because of their vastness and unorganised system.

Confronted with this dilemma and determined on a holistic discourse, we came up with five main chapters. As we mentioned earlier, the notion of the first Thomistic principles are retraceable to the classical thought, namely Aristotelian. In order to establish this fact and to authenticate the Thomistic sources of the knowledge about these fundamental postulates, we saw a necessity of the background setting. Thus the First Chapter is on historical background. This is meant to accord one a better appreciation of the theme because as a fundamental argument there is need for an understanding of the diverse historical nuances. ← 2 | 3 →

The preceding investigation leads to the Second Chapter, which is the actual investigation of the nature and role of the first principles in the Thomistic context. This chapter centres on the significance of the Thomistic notion of the first principles stemming from the Aristotelian origin. In it we discover and locate the said first principles in the different works of the Angelic Doctor. The chapter concludes with an emphasis on the profundity and fundamental functions of the first ontological principles.

Thus situated, this chapter paves the way for our considerations in the Third Chapter, which treats of the knowledge of the first principles. This section examines the conception of the first principles through intellectus and ratio. In addition, to facilitate a better grasp of the argument, we survey a few Thomists’ analyses on Aquinas’ understanding of the primum cognitum. This serves as a lead to further investigations through the research.

The Fourth Chapter addresses mainly the habits of the first Thomistic principles as the nucleus of the functional gnoseological modality of the principles. Among others, we discover the significance of habitus principiorum primorum in its dual facets, intellectus principiorum and ‘synderesis’. We investigate intellectus principiorum as the noetic habit whence all knowledge flows. This leads to our consideration of the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) as the primordial expression of intellectus principiorum. We further determine the difficulty associated in the idioms employed by the Angelic Doctor in the entire discourse, especially on the agent intellect. Unlike the usual Thomistic language, the intricacy stems from an idiomatic mix (especially concerning illumination and participation), as some Platonic flair is evident through Aquinas’ suppositions. Thereon, the chapter concludes with our investigation of a crucial contention about Aquinas on innatism through the hypothesis on intellectus agens and its first gnoseological activity.

Finally, in Chapter Five, we try to rigorously fine-tune the entire research by the analyses of indirect proof and evidence of the first principles. Since there is no proof for the first principles as fundamental ‘firsts’, we discover the Aristotelian dialectical method as a way to authenticate the first principles. This entails the use of the denier premise in demonstrating the principles ad absurdum through the PNC. We also consider the significance of the self-evident nature of the first principles. Through it, we study the meaning of per se notum secundum se and per se notum quoad nos in two dimensions, namely, omnibus per se nota and per se notae solis sapientibus. We further inquire into the nature and functionality of the mind’s resolutio in its two features. In this, we address also the sciences as arising from rational analysis and synthesis. We ascertain that real knowledge, as such, is in the rational bi-directional movement (synthesis-analysis) through the intellect. In particular, we establish the necessity of going from intellectus to sapientia. We find that the intellect’s primacy is completed in the judgmental habit ← 3 | 4 → of sapientia. With this, we underline the role of metaphysics in the discovery of such an ultimate principle as the mind’s complete resolutio.

In view of the foregoing, the scope of the thesis is to determine the significance and the role of first Thomistic principles in the knowledge of reality. It is to demonstrate the indispensable character of the first principles from the most basic through an actual principle of wisdom, God. Subsequently, it is meant to direct progressively to the transcendental nature of reality and to underscore the human mind’s crucial position in Aquinas’ metaphysical epistemology. It is, therefore, geared towards a meaningful and realistic search into a true/positive growth of the human person towards God, the ‘last’ fundamental principle (gnoseologically), though the first in absoluteness (ontologically). Consequently, in line with Thomistic texts, we try in this research to set forth systematically and in philosophical order Aquinas’ first ontological principles, with the approach he might have used were he to write specifically on ontological principia prima.

In an introduction of this kind, a mention about the supportive bibliographic sources would be appropriate. We are thankful to various Thomists and Aristotelian experts whose works helped our analyses. In no small measure, we recognise the resourcefulness of eminent authors like W. D. Ross, J. Barnes, E. Berti, T. H. Irwin, W. Wieland, and prominent Thomists like É. Gilson, J. Maritain, R. Garrigou-Lagrange, C. Fabro, L. Elders, R. McInerny, A. Livi, B. Mondin, L. Clavell, J. F. Wippel, J. Owens, J. J. Sanguineti among others whose works enhanced our investigation. The rigours involved in this work also were facilitated with the aid of the online resource of the Corpus Thomisticum of E. Alarcón. ← 4 | 5 →

Chapter 1
Historical Background

A. Sophists. Plato. Aristotle

A.1 Global View of Sophists on the First Principles

Ancient philosophy is traditionally chiefly divided into four periods: the pre-Socratic philosophers rank first, followed by Plato, Aristotle, and the post-Aristotelian philosophers.1 Recently, there is another addition with Christian and Neo-Platonic philosophy. Despite a considerable shift in interest during the past three decades, Plato and Aristotle remain the pillars of ancient philosophy for students and specialists of philosophy alike. This is largely because of the recognition, on the inquirers’ part, of the superior quality of the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle and the accessibility of their surviving works for critical assessment. Plato and Aristotle have a common tendency to retrospective and prospective investigation in their philosophical approach. Plato has an impressionistic style, while Aristotle moves with historical accuracy and more precision. Looking backwards helps in superseding mythical insights of previous philosophers. By so doing, Plato and Aristotle concretise and metamorphose their philosophy into something enduring with greater vitality.

The above stated relevance of the antecedent and the subsequent philosophers brings the Sophists into play in our treatise. The word ‘sophist’ from the Greek word sophia ‘wisdom’, is a positive term used to classify the ‘wise’ and the learned.2 Nonetheless, a fifth century BCE movement of Greek intellectual revolutionists marred the use of the word so that instead of the positive connotation, it designated a group of propagators of false doctrines about reality and human society. The Sophists had a tendency of sophistication because of their concentrated attention on the problems of knowledge, politics, and ← 5 | 6 → justice.3 They were philosophers from various parts of the Grecian world,4 thought to possess encyclopaedic knowledge because they trained (taught) at a high price and thought it was their responsibility to educate the sons of the Athenian citizens.5 These Sophists were attracted to Athens due to the favourable attitude of Pericles towards intellectuals; Pericles, on the other hand, was a staunch rationalist whom the Sophists trained in music and political affairs. The major role players among the Sophists were Protagoras of Abdera (c.485–411 BCE) and Gorgias of Leontini (c.485-c.380 BCE), known for their great oratory. They aimed at teaching the youth persuasive methodology on the art of governance, the proper use of words (Eristic method) or their misuse (Sophistic method). ‘Sophist’, the name, which has remained their identity till this day, came from Plato, an implacable opponent of theirs.6 And for Aristotle, a Sophist is one who made money by sham wisdom. At their best, the Sophists posed a challenge to the fifth century conventional values.7 Their desire was that freedom should overcome the standardised values, as a way of leading people to a better comprehension of the universe, the gods, and man. Sophists, then, are parallel to 18th century philosophies of ‘Enlightenment’.8

Nonetheless, sophistic thought has the significant novelty of the inauguration for the shift from cosmological concepts to a new conception of man. From theoretical natural science, the Sophists turned to rational assessment of human endeavours in order to bring about practical improvement of human life. That upheaval resulted in undermining divine causation which was the only explanation previously given to natural phenomena. This intellectual revolution affected their religious inclination also. On a general note, Sophists were agnostics or ← 6 | 7 → atheists because they mostly saw the world as operating on the principle of natural causation.9 In fact, the Sophists spearheaded an indifferent attitude to the problem of the material world with emphasis of interest transferred to man. Even so, the sophist inquiry had its terminus at the level of sense impressions and experiential (empirical) data. Knowledge for the Sophists implied only the immediate and was non-rational.10 Thus, they saw and judged every reality from the empirical perspective. Most Sophists claimed they taught aretê (‘excellence’) in public management as well as individual affairs.11 Though there were differences in specific materials each Sophist tended to teach, their predominant characteristics were scepticism and relativism of absolute truth and independent reality. Since truth is what it appears to be to the individual who assesses it, there is nothing with an inherent truth-value like the first principles. The first principles would be something likened to an obsolete and mythological view the Sophists tried to supersede. Hence, Aristotle says the Sophists often turn towards the accidents, which implies turning back to something close to ‘non-being’.12 From this stems the fact that Sophists negate objective reality. Since ‘being qua being’ of Aristotle addresses reality as it is, which is discernible from the objective ‘truth’ seen also through the first principles of being, Sophists deny the first principles. As relativists, Sophists reject universal or absolute truth; they abandon science, philosophy, mathematics, and ethics and lend credibility only to the subtle art of persuasion.13

It was Socrates and his adherents who later introduced the rational aspect of knowledge for a balanced inquiry. Logically, the Sophist movement resulted in relativism of knowledge and scepticism14 and remained unsatisfactory; on the other ← 7 | 8 → hand, however, it culminated in the lofty conjectures of Plato and Aristotle. And so, we move on succinctly to Plato, one of the champions of classical Greek philosophy.

A.2 Plato (427–347 BCE)15

We begin our main treatise with Plato because he is the first monumental ancient Greek philosopher who leaves us with a set of writings that covers a wide range of arguments still discussed today by modern scholars in the area of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, language, mathematics, religion, etc. There is need here to stress that Socrates, one of the first prominent ancient Greek philosophers, has no written memoirs. All we eventually know about Socrates comes from Xenophon (430–354 BCE) and Plato. Though Xenophon has four brief portraits of Socrates, Plato exposes the principal thoughts of Socrates. This explains why we have chosen to begin our discourse with Plato who is also one of the most famous Greek philosophers after Socrates.

Plato, the disciple or student and mouthpiece of Socrates, was twenty-eight when his master (Socrates) was put to death. In 387 BCE Plato (then, at forty) began the Athenian Academy for youths. Since Plato uses Socrates as the speaker for most of his many dialogues, our knowledge of Plato’s hypotheses, therefore, mirrors Socrates’ own. Hence, it is difficult to draw a line on what is Plato’s personal opinion and that of his master. This is because, as many authors (e.g. N. Smith et al.) certify, one cannot easily determine when the real opinion of Plato is represented.16 And so, in an attempt to interpret Plato, some problems normally surface. Such difficulties when expressed in questions could be: Is Socrates the historical predecessor of Plato? Is Plato just representing this Socrates’ views in some of his (Plato’s) works? Does Socrates only articulate Plato’s mindset or his own also? Is the Socrates of the Plato’s dialogues an imaginary being? etc. Given the preceding uncertainties, we establish that our examination of Plato’s proposals here necessarily includes Socrates’ even when not mentioned. Nonetheless, for ← 8 | 9 → Aristotle it is obvious that the Republic, one of Plato’s wide-ranging dialogues, is a representation of Plato’s philosophy more than that of Socrates. Hence, Aristotle makes a distinction between the historical Socrates and the Socrates who is Plato’s interlocutor.17 However, it is not part of our main concern in this inquiry to decipher what originally belongs to Socrates and Plato’s addendum, since for us, both discourses are under one theme. In view of this background and précis, let us have a rundown of Plato’s philosophical outlook to enable us to give a global consideration to his principle-like propositions.

A.2.1 A Synopsis of Plato’s Philosophical Enterprise

A proper and adequate consideration of Platonic propositions necessitates also a mention of his style. Plato utilises the Socratic dialogic and dialectical style that involves question and answer all through his works. To arrive at a conclusive response, Plato argues the two sides of a question and with the answer he contends further for another hypothesis. The reason is seemingly that since Plato holds that ‘knowledge’ for man is ‘recollection,’ that is, that “man is born with knowledge in the mind,” the dialogic questions are meant to pull out truths, wisdom, and answers already pre-existent in man’s mind. Consequently, man, by implication, studies, observes, and learns nothing new.

Further, Plato habitually employs metaphorical maxims in his philosophical dialogues to convey his ideas. Without a consciousness of this fact, one can easily be overtaken by the conversation and let go of the actual information. Plato loads the allegorical style with much stimulating philosophical fantasy. Unlike other philosophers of his day and most renowned philosophers, therefore, Plato presents his philosophy under a creative cloak.18 ← 9 | 10 →


XXIV, 384
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
Medieval philosophy Reality Transcendentalism Ontology
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 384 pp.

Biographical notes

Mary Christine Ugobi-Onyemere (Author)

Mary Christine Ugobi-Onyemere, IHM, has an enquiring mind and loves to share wisdom . She graduated excellently with a licentiate degree in Metaphysics and Science from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. From this school, she concluded her doctorate with excellence in Thomistic Metaphysics in June 2012. At present, she is a lecturer in Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome.


Title: The Knowledge of the First Principles in Saint Thomas Aquinas