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Summum Bonum

Summum Bonum

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will explain the concept of Summum bonum.

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Hello. Welcome. In the study of religions, you often come across references to language and language use. Well, this is very helpful, because it can add a lot of depth to our understanding of the concepts. However, while many religions might share certain language roots, different historical periods reveal the traits of that culture and time, and often one language or another is specific to a time and the thought of its culture.

So when a concept is in a foreign language, we better start with a definition. Summum bonum is a Latin term used extensively in philosophy and theology. It was used a lot during the Middle Ages in Europe. It means the highest good, and in this case refers to the Christian and Jewish ideals of virtue and action.

Righteousness is often the term that is translated from the Old and the New Testaments into Latin. In is the idea of the human good in some kind of a relationship with the highest good, in accordance with the scriptures, you might hear. And both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have hundreds of examples and references to the good in both realms, the human and the divine.

OK, but what is that? What is good? And what is righteous? Well, a lot of words and synonyms-- and that's why you'll also find references to ethics and actions, works and deeds are some common translations that you'll find. So the term summum bonum was used in Europe in the Middle Ages as a way of integrating theology with ancient Greek philosophy.

And a bit later, also during the Renaissance, there was a return to ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. Ancient Greece was guided by the ideal of the highest good. It had to do with human flourishing, an ethical life, and the welfare of society, the city, which is the product of individual and collective alignment with this highest good. Plato writes in his Dialogues that one must find one's root toward action and speech in the world, such that it is a proper expression of this highest good. And for Plato, the highest good was contemplation of the idea and the form of the good from which come all things that are just and true, all things that are beautiful and good.

In a certain sense, summum bonum was thought to exist eternally in the realm of the transcendent. Any approach to the good life had to be accompanied by the discipline of contemplation and reasoning, leading to some kind of intuition and insight into the form of the good. Action in the world was a conscious striving for the good, toward the good.

In the Middle Ages, and a bit later in the Renaissance, this was understood as the contemplation of God, informing action and ethical life in the world. This transcendent realm was-- or is-- the sacred, beyond the ordinary world experience with the senses. And contemplation often meant prayer, but it also involved many intellectual challenges and commitments, like the rational problem of faith, for example. In both ancient Greece and medieval European Christendom, communion with the realm of the transcendent was an expression of summum bonum.

This was the orientation of medieval Jewish philosophy, as well, offering a clear example of how sommum bonum was used as a tool to unify many elements of Aristotelian thought or ancient Greek thought with the Judaic tradition. This is expressed in the writings of the Maimonides. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he combines many elements of Aristotelian thought with an understanding of the Talmud and the Torah. "The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man, the possession of the highest intellectual faculties, the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection, man has obtained his final object. It gives him true human perfection. It remains to him alone. It gives him immortality. And on its account, he is called man."

During the Middle Ages, there was a lot of creative exchange, conflict, and debate, but productive religious exchange, in this case, among the monotheistic traditions. Many Jewish philosophers were influenced by certain strands of Islamic thought, for example, the relationship between Averroes and Maimonides, and their mutual references to Aristotle.

Those are very, very enlightening and interesting. They both believed that the summum bonum of life, the summum bonum, was the protection of the intellect as a means of understanding god, and especially a study of philosophy and the sciences. All must be supported by the work of an ethical pious life. And both Averroes and Maimonides referred to the central grounding importance of duty and law for piety and moral striving to be effective.

So now we can review and summarize. So summum bonum is a Latin term that means the highest good. And we started out by saying that while certain religions might share common language roots, if we look at it in a particular context in time, we'll see how the thought of that culture is expressed.

So looking at the term summum bonum in Latin, we found that the Middle Ages was a time of great religious excitement and exchange, and conflict and debate, between the monotheistic religions. And we looked at Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and how they all had some notion of the highest good. And these ideas were expressed and shared among philosophers and among theologians in the Middle Ages.

But it goes back-- the idea of the highest good goes back much farther. And we noted ancient Greece, particularly the thought of Aristotle and Plato, and how that also was integrated into the monotheistic religions, again, with the example of the Middle Ages being the most-- perhaps one of the most productive times of clearly expressing that relationship of the highest good, in terms of ethical and moral action in the world.

Notes on “Summum Bonum”


Moses Maimonides, A Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlaender, 4th revised ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1904). Chapter: CHAPTER LIV Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1256/91218 on 2013-04-01

  • Sacred

    That which is set apart from the ordinary, the worldly, and the mundane.

  • Transcendent

    That which is beyond the ordinary.

  • Summum Bonum

    Latin for "highest good."