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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
This articles is about the transcendental properties of being, for other articles about transcendence, see Transcendence.

The transcendentals are the properties of being. Typically there are three generally agreed upon transcendentals, truth, beauty, and goodness. Added to these at times are unity and being.

The transcendentals are ontologically one, thus they are convertible. Where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also.




In typical accounts being is said to be One, Good and True (unum, bonum, verum). Additional properties such as Thing, Beautiful and Being (ens) are often posited as transcendentals but remain more disputed.

It was Parmenides who first explored the properties co-extensive with being. Plato then followed. However, it is in Aristotle we first see the term transcendentals used. They were so called as they transcended (ὑπερβαίνειν huperbainein) each of his ten categories. Aristotle treat only of unity ("One") explicitly because it is the only transcendetal intrinsically related to being, whereas truth and goodness relate to rational creatures.

St. Thomas Aquinas listed five transcendentals: res, unum, aliquid, bonum, verum. Saint Thomas does not list these as transcendentals, at least not in the cited source. He follows the typical account of the transcendentals consisting of the One, Good, and True.

The transcendentals are ontologically one, thus they are convertible. Where there is truth, there is beauty and goodness also.

In Christianity

In Christian theology the transcendentals are treated in relation to Theology Proper, the doctrine of God. The transcendentals, according to Christian doctrine, can be described as the ultimate desires of man. Man ultimately strives for perfection, which takes form through the desire for perfect attainment of the transcendentals. The Catholic Church teaches that God is Himself Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Each transcends the limitations of place and time, and are rooted in being. The transcendentals are not contingent upon cultural diversity, religious doctrine, or personal ideologies, but are the objective features of all that is.

Beauty Goodness Truth

truth and beauty

The three terms Beauty, Goodness, Truth form a separate subgroup within the general family of transcendentals and their development can be considered separately. Associated in particular with Platonism the ideas may have an earlier origin, appearing for example in the Bhagavad Gita to describe "words which are good and beautiful and true".

In Plato's Dialogues various words representing these highest forms or ideas are mentioned although nowhere in his works are beauty, goodness and truth put forward as a specific group. In several places he mentions beauty, goodness and justice; in other places he mentions justice, goodness and wisdom. In Phaedrus he talks of "the ability of the soul to soar up to heaven to behold beauty, wisdom, goodness and the like".

Aristotle says less about beauty, goodness and truth than Plato. Like Plato he conceived of the possibility of structuring the intelligible world, but for Aristotle this resulted not in an eternal world of forms but in a set of universal categories by which all things could be predicated. Standing above or transcending the categories, as he noted in Metaphysics, stood such concepts as Being, Unity, Truth, Goodness and the rest.

Some of Aristotle's other ideas were however of importance to the later development of beauty, goodness and truth. Among these was the division of the sciences into three: the Productive, the Practical and the Theoretical. The productive concerned itself particularly in ancient Greece with the production of beautiful objects; the Practical concerned itself with ethics and the nature of the good; the Theoretical was concerned with knowledge and truth. In Topics Aristotle talks of "the theoretical, the practical and the productive and each of these signifies a relative". A different type of relation underlies each of the three and in Metaphysics he gives us a clue as to what these three types of relation might be:

"Things are called relative in three ways: as the double to the half; as that which acts to that which is acted upon; and as the knowable to knowledge".

We can see here the beginning of a structure underlying beauty, goodness and truth based on different types of relation. Beauty can be seen in terms of mathematical relations, as the double to the half; Goodness in terms of the causal relations underlying action and conduct; and Truth in terms of those categorical relations underlying knowledge.

There was a resurgence of Platonism in the second century AD. Plotinus reduced Aristotle's ten categories to five and questioned whether "Beauty, Goodness and the Virtues should not be placed with these primary genera".

At the beginning of the medieval period the philosophy of Aristotle was pre-eminent, kept alive in particular by the work of Arabic philosophers. The term "transcendental" was introduced into the west from Arabic philosophy by Philip the Chancellor in the early thirteenth century. (Eco U. The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas 1956 (tr. Bredin H., Radius 1988)) Thomas Aquinas reduced the number of transcendentals to three, namely Unum, Bonum, Verum the One, the Good and the True which he referred to as the Ens Realissimum, or the most real Being. Bonaventure added the term Pulchrum or Beauty to the list.

In the fifteenth century in Florence, it was Marsilio Ficino who was instrumental in reviving an interest in Plato and translating some of Plato's rediscovered texts. It is to Ficino that we can safely attribute the first definitive formulation of Beauty, Goodness and Truth, and this is found in his Commentaries on Plato's Dialogues. The idea was not without influence and in Palladio's I Quattro Libri, to take an example from architecture, we find reference to the "true, good and beautiful method of building".

In Italy in 1706, Ludovico Antonio Muratori wrote on Beauty, Goodness and Truth. In France Diderot, compared Le Vrai, le Bon et le Beau to Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and the German Johann Georg Sulzer in a supplement to Diderot's Encyclopaedie in 1776 translated the ideas in terms of the Aesthetic, the Moral and the Intellectual.

The great philosophers of the eighteenth century enlightenment were well acquainted with the group of terms. Immanuel Kant's three books: Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Critique of Practical Reason (1786) and Critique of Judgment (1790) dealt with the problems of truth, goodness and beauty respectively. Truth was set out in terms of the categorical relations of predication and the syllogism; Goodness was defined in terms of the causal or even hypothetical relations arising from one's actions; and Beauty in terms of the disjunctive relation between sense and color for example, or those relations found in the contemplation of form and proportion.

Hegel drawing on the transcendental dialectic of Kant, introduced a complex system of sets of three among which can be found the group: goodness, truth and beauty. Later in the nineteenth century, in America, Charles Sanders Peirce, developed a Logic of Relatives and investigated many sets of threes corresponding in varying degrees to beauty, goodness and truth. In fact we might conclude that Plato's original sequence for the group of terms was reinforced when Peirce wrote that "Logic follows Ethics and both follow Aesthetics".

There has been little development of these ideas in philosophy since the 19th Century. Indeed Nietzsche at the end of that Century rejected consideration of the group rather questionably as being "unworthy of a philosopher".


  • Jan A. Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: the Case of Thomas Aquinas, Leiden: Brill, 1996.
  • Jan A. Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy as Transcendental Thought. From Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1225) to Francisco Suárez, Leiden: Brill, 2012.
  • John P. Doyle, On the Borders of Being and Knowing. Late Scholastic Theory of Supertranscendental Being Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012.
  • Graziella Federici Vescovini (éd.), Le problème des Transcendantaux du XIVe au XVIIe siècle, Paris: Vrin, « Bibliothèque d’Histoire de la Philosophie », 2001.
  • Bruno Pinchard (éd.), Fine folie ou la catastrophe humaniste, études sur les transcendantaux à la Renaissance Paris, Champion, 1995.
  • Piero di Vona, Spinoza e i trascendentali, Napoli: Morano, 1977.

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