Around 400 B.C., Plato and Aristotle recognized three transcendental desires or “properties of being”: the good, true, and beautiful. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many other philosophers have spoken of and added to these same desires throughout the centuries.
Based on a synthesis of teachings from Plato to contemporary philosophers, Fr. Spitzer identifies five transcendentals: truth, love, justice/goodness, beauty, and home/being. These five transcendentals describe aspects of ultimate reality that we all not only have an awareness of but desire to be perfect.
In this article, we’ll define the five transcendental desires—and then show how they provide evidence for a soul. For more on evidence for a soul, see our pdf, “5 Types of Evidence for the Soul.” This download includes the five transcendentals—plus four more types of evidence of the soul. Download below.
The Transcendental Desire for Perfect Truth
The first of the five transcendentals is truth. Aristotle said that our ability to ask questions is the beginning point of all knowledge—and, therefore, the beginning point of science and civilization. Our power to ask questions separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and is one of the major causes of human aspiration, creativity, and progress. Not only do we have the capacity to ask questions, but we also ask them continuously until we have arrived at the complete set of correct answers to the questions.
Awareness of Transcendent Truth
In order to ask questions continuously, we must be aware of not only something to be known but all that is to be known: perfect knowledge or ultimate truth. What is this awareness of perfect knowledge or ultimate truth?
Contemporary philosophers such as Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner call it a “horizon of perfect knowledge.” Recall that as we look toward the horizon, we know that something is out there without knowing exactly what is out there.
The Horizon of Perfect Knowledge
Lonergan and Rahner are saying that we have an awareness that there is an “all that is to be known” beyond us; furthermore, what we currently know is not the “all that is to be known.”
So where do we become aware of “this horizon of all that is to be known”? We could not have become aware of it from the world around us because the world around us has only partial answers to our questions.
Moreover, the brain cannot do this either because it operates according to restricted structures and processes. So there must be a source of our horizon of all that is to be known (the horizon of ultimate truth) that is commensurate with ultimate truth itself.
In other words, perfect truth itself must produce the horizon of ultimate truth within us.
The Transcendental Desire for Perfect Love
Parents love a newborn baby unconditionally and, in a sense, perfectly. The interpersonal bond with their child happens “instinctively” and naturally.
We also have the desire to connect with other people in profound friendship and care. The ancient Greeks referred to friendship as “filia,” which basically means “reciprocal love.” By “love,” they meant “concern for others, caring for others, seeking the good of others, and loyalty to others—even at great cost or sacrifice.” Notice that friendship grows when you give more of these qualities to others, and they, in turn, give more of them back to you.
The Awareness of Perfect Love
Some people do not believe they have an awareness of and desire for perfect love, but if you think about it, you will see that you do. In a phrase, we have the capacity to recognize every imperfection in our and others’ love. How can we know every imperfection in our and others’ love if we do not have some awareness of what perfect love would be like?
For example, have you ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend who you thought might be someone you would want to spend the rest of your life with—and then subsequently discover that his or her love was not perfect? If so, you might ask yourself, “What were you looking for?”
If Plato was correct, you were probably looking for perfect love. If you were looking for perfect love, then it is safe to say that you desire it.
So where did you get this awareness? Do you think you came to it from something in your brain? Remember, your brain is a composite of restricted physical structures and processes. Perhaps we can follow Plato to the solution that we must get our awareness of perfect love from something which is itself, perfect love. For Plato, only perfect love itself can induce an awareness of perfect love.
The Transcendental Desire for Perfect Justice/Goodness
Most of us have heard the familiar refrain from brothers, sisters, children, and friends, “That’s not fair!” You may have never thought about this, but this familiar refrain reveals yet another indication of your transcendental nature.
Since childhood, most of us are able to instinctively recognize virtually every imperfection in people’s fairness, justice, or goodness. We see unfairness on the part of our parents, teachers, and friends, and later when we grow up, we see the same unfairness or injustice in the educational system, the legal system, the political system, organizations of commerce, media, culture—there seems to be no end to it. We expect perfect justice, and everything short of it causes frustration, disappointment, and sometimes even outrage.
Awareness of Perfect Justice
We may now return to the familiar question we have asked twice above. How could we recognize every imperfection in fairness, justice, and goodness—instinctually—without having to learn it?
Would we not have to have some awareness of what perfect justice or goodness would be like? If so, then how did we come to be aware of this horizon of perfect justice and goodness? By now, you will probably be able to answer this question.
It could not have come from the world around us because the world around us manifests only imperfect justice and goodness. It could not have come from our brain because it is constituted by restricted physical processes and structures.
Therefore, it would have to come from—you guessed it—perfect justice and goodness itself. Recall what Plato said: only perfect justice itself can induce our awareness of it.
The Transcendental Desire for Perfect Beauty
All of us recognize and enjoy the beauty in nature, music, people’s appearance, architecture, art, poetry, and literature (and in many combinations of these forms). Beauty evokes a sense of pleasure, reveling, inspiration, awe, and even love. Its power to attract and hold us is quite remarkable.
As with the other transcendentals, animals do not seem to recognize beauty—the breathtaking landscape of mountains, ocean, and sunset is not nearly as interesting to them as odors along the ground. Meanwhile, our awareness of beauty is so powerful we can become obsessed with it—and as many a poet has suggested—it can intoxicate us.
Still, we are never satisfied with the beauty we experience. We are always trying to get more—and more. Even when we are in the midst of a beautiful sunset on the beach, we find ourselves looking for a slightly better angle. It is difficult to deny that we are seekers—not just of more beauty, but of perfect beauty.
We not only desire perfect beauty, but we also recognize every imperfection in beauty in the world around us—in nature’s little flaws, in people’s slight blemishes, in music’s inability to satisfy us at the same level after we have replayed a song one hundred times, etc. There seems to be no limit to our ability to recognize imperfection in beauty—so much so that we become harsh critics of ourselves, others, and the world around us.
Awareness of Perfect Beauty
We return once again to the question of Plato.
How can we recognize every imperfection in beauty in virtually every context—from nature to human beings, to music, to art and architecture—if we do not have some awareness of what perfect beauty would be like? If we do have such an awareness of perfect beauty, then where did it come from?
Again, you will be able to answer this question according to Plato’s logic. It could not have come from the world around us because it is filled with only imperfect beauty. It could not have come from our brain because it is constituted by restricted physical structures and processes.
And so, we conclude that it must have come from perfect beauty itself.
The Transcendental Desire for Perfect Home
Many of us—even since the time we were little children—have at times felt disconnected, like we are not completely at home in this world.
Though we can feel quite secure, happy, and loved within our families, we can also feel a nagging sense of emptiness, loneliness, and alienation (not being at home) in the world—or even the universe—or the totality of everything around us.
These feelings are not uncommon. Virtually every spiritual writer from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis has commented on this peculiar sense of emptiness and loneliness. They say it comes from “not being at home in the universe or reality itself.”
Where does this feeling of “not being at home in the cosmos” come from? Ironically, it comes from our sense of the “perfect home.” If we probe more deeply into this feeling, we may see that it is linked to being at home with an ultimate personal being—that the perfect home we anticipate and desire entails companionship with a perfect personal being—who cares for and loves us in a perfect way.
One man who sought to move beyond his peculiar feelings of emptiness and loneliness was the great St. Augustine. He realized that the only thing that could ultimately satisfy him—the only thing that would enable him to be perfectly at home within the whole of reality—was a perfectly loving personal being who wanted to be with him. He prayed at the beginning of “The Confessions”:
“For Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
The Awareness of Perfect Home
Our desire for a perfect home resembles our other four transcendental desires for perfect truth, love, justice/goodness, and beauty. The same familiar argument is evident.
Let’s review. First, we desire a perfect home, and we have the capacity to recognize every imperfection in a home that we experience in others and the world. Given that we do have such an awareness, we are led to the next question of how we came to it.
Once again, we see that it cannot come from the world around us because this is precisely where we don’t feel perfectly at home. It can’t come from our brain because it is constituted by restricted physical structures and processes and is, therefore, not perfect.
And so, we conclude that it must come from the perfect home itself.
How Do the Transcendentals Provide Evidence for the Soul?
Now that we have defined each of the five transcendentals—and where our desire and awareness of them comes from—we can begin to explore how they provide evidence for a soul. Let’s begin with the truth.
In the above sections, we found that our awareness and desire for perfect truth came from perfect truth itself. But what is perfect truth itself? Many philosophers believe that it is a perfect idea that must be generated by a perfect act of thinking—which can only occur through a perfect cause, namely, God.
So, God (a perfect act of thinking) must be present to us—presenting us with a horizon of ultimate truth. This presence of God within us makes us transcendental—beyond the restricted, imperfect, physical world—indicating that we have a transcendental soul.
The same philosophers that identify a perfect act of thinking with God believe that perfect love itself, perfect justice itself, perfect beauty itself, and the perfect home itself must be one and the same as perfect truth itself. If they are correct, then all five transcendentals would come from the same perfect act of thinking—the exact perfect cause—God.
Again, we are transcendental beings since God is present to us as the source of our awareness and desire for the transcendentals.
For a concise 4-Step argument on how the transcendentals provide evidence for a soul, see the image below (note: our article Proof of a Soul from the Transcendentals and Our Interior Sense of God also goes into these proofs in more detail):
The Five Transcendentals Conclusion
If the above reasoning is correct, then God is not only the unique, unrestricted, uncaused reality that is the cause of everything else; he is also perfect intelligence, perfect love, perfect justice (goodness), perfect beauty, and perfect home. Furthermore, he is present in our consciousness as the source of our awareness of truth, love, justice (goodness), beauty, and home—and as such, he incites us to creativity in every form of human endeavor.
In light of this, we must judge every human being—including ourselves—to have the same intrinsic transcendental value. As such, we should treat every human being with the utmost respect and dignity for their soul and transcendental capacity.
In his goodness, God not only gives us a transcendent soul but also fills our souls with the horizon of his perfection, which causes us to be everything that we are—an image of himself.
Would you be interested in learning about more evidence for the soul? Download “5 Types of Evidence for the Soul” below.