Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics is a collection of his writings from the year 350B.C.E. This collection, literally meaning ‘after the Physics,’ from ‘μετά τα φυσικά,’ consists of a range of arguments investigating the things that exist. It is not a unified piece of work on a specific enquiry, but a general enquiry that goes beyond the cataloguing of things (physics), investigating ‘being qua being,’ - being understood as being. This essay will begin with a brief introduction to the foundation of how Aristotle’s understanding of God arose, followed by a detailed account and commentary on the kind of a Deity he is referring to. I will then refer to the writings of Catriona Hanley, as well as David Bradshaw, discussing their comments on the text. Finally, I will briefly show how the God of Aristotle’s Metaphysics has influenced Christianity’s well known theologians Augustine and Aquinas.
Aristotle’s study of the divine begins with his assertion that in order for movement to occur, something has to affect it. Movement cannot exist without previous movement - and of course this process points to a problem of infinite regress. There simply cannot be an infinite regress of movers, because if this were true, then nothing could have started this process of movement. Aristotle therefore comes to the conclusion that there are ‘unmoved movers,’ that are unseen and undeniable. Unmoved movers cause movement through their power of attraction - which for Aristotle, proves their goodness. They are responsible for all the good in the world.
Aristotle seeks to explain what makes a primary cause (or unmoved mover). He is not interested in tracing causes and movements back through time, but rather to discern what the first causes actually are. Aristotle’s study of the divine (Aristotelian theology) dismisses the ancient greek gods of the pantheon, however these gods are elaborations of a greater truth. This truth is the first cause, and the unmoved mover. He understands that there are objects which must be in eternal motion, so for this reason it would equate that there are eternal unmoved movers. The eternal heavens must be moved by a mover ‘which moves without being moved, eternal and a substance and actual.’ This is a very important claim, as ‘the subject of our inquiry is substance;for the principles and the causes we are seeking are those of substances.’ Substances, for Aristotle, exist in a primary way, and are not dependant on anything else. ( as opposed to accidents ) They are knowable and can be conceptualised, but more importantly substances are independently existent, as the unmovable mover cannot be dependant on anything else. They ‘can exist apart.’ These substances are the source of all movements and modifications, as they are the ultimate sources of desire, responsible for all the goodness in the world. For this reason, many understand the first causes as being providential, in the sense that they are responsible for the arrangement of the natural world, existing for a good purpose. It is here that we can see the connection between Theology (the study of God) and Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics.’ These first causes of motion, link with the causal aspects of the Divine. Aristotle writes that if there are substances outside and beyond nature, the science which investigates them must be a primary philosophy, suggesting the investigation of divine existence, and their attributes. It would seem that for Aristotle, the unmoved movers are actual (from έντελέχεια, actuality) rather than potential (from δύναμις, potentiality). Actual means they are perfect, and in fullness of being, as well as eternal and an immaterial substance. All material things have potentiality, in that they are formed of material, and are imperfect and incomplete.
So, for Aristotle, God, as the eternal prime mover, is immaterial. His life is one of ‘νοήσεως νόησις,’ self-contemplative thought, in that He cannot be distracted potentially from His eternal self-contemplation. God, Who everything depends upon, appears to be in this eternal state of goodness, fullness and pleasure:
"On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature…since its actuality is also pleasure…And thinking in itself deals with that which is best in itself’
This concept of God, the unmoved mover, as being perfectly good is rather interesting. Aristotle tells us we will only be in this good state of thought (which the prime mover is always in) occasionally. This certainly links with much of Christian theology today, as God is the source and definition of goodness, and it is humanity’s goal to reach the heights of divinity, with Him as our end. Aristotle also implies there is a standard of good - the Divine, which we should in a way look up to. ‘God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are..’
God is described as ‘thought of thought,’ in other words God does not think about anything which causes Him to change in any way, but simply thinks of Himself. From these assertions, Aristotle concludes that God only knows Himself, with no knowledge of, or plan for the physical world. Augustine elaborates on this statement, by writing ‘singula propriis rationibus a Deo creata sunt.’ sunt - God knows His own essence perfectly; and He knows it in all the ways in which it is knowable…’ Furthermore, He is not affected by the world that we inhabit, and therefore it would seem God has no personal relations and connections with human beings. Due to His nature, consisting of full actuality, something potential simply cannot be connected to God, as this would cause an absence of the actuality that God perfectly has. In summary, God in Aristotle’s metaphysics appears to be the prime mover, Who is immaterial, eternal, transcendent of the physical world, purely spiritual and intellectual, Who’s activity is that of unchangeable thought.
Catriona Hanley argues that as the prime mover, God, is an ‘αιτία’ (the cause) of the eternal shift from potentiality to actuality. This means that God is the ‘ground for the attainment of form.’ For Aristotle, unlike his teacher Plato, the form of an object is not an abstract idea, but is within the object’s structure. God is the source, and ground of the continued manifestation of form in the world, as He is pure form. Hanley highlights the fact that humans do not fit into God’s plan, according to Aristotle. Although the responsibility for the ordered cosmos falls on God, God simply fits the human plan, in that without the notion of a prime mover there would be no rational order within the cosmos. God, as an ουσία (substance), means He cannot be present in the world as an abstraction. Interestingly, Catriona Hanley points out that for Aristotle, God (as αιτία) is the ground of the workings of the physical universe, but is also an αρχή (principle) - and principles relate to scientific knowledge, making it possible to have knowledge of universal grounds. God is an αρχή because His existence (as pure form) makes universal knowledge of form possible. We can see that for Hanley, God in Aristotle’s metaphysics is responsible for the continued presence of form, and universal knowledge - implying that God, as the supreme subject and source of thought, motivates us and attracts us towards understanding and rationality. However, the human role in creating a necessary God of reason alone does not appear to be at the forefront of Aristotle’s metaphysics, as Martin Heidegger points out. To summarise Hanley’s commentary, as the supreme αρχή, and αιτία, God is the primary cause of qua being.
Hanley points out that Aristotle’s metaphysics, as an enquiry of being and the knowledge of ‘what is,’ (as opposed to what is not) searches for the presence of beings in particular. This concept of presence seems rather strange as Aristotle makes it clear that God is unable to interact with, or have a relationship with humanity and the entire physical world. Surely presence is only felt or known when there is some form of interaction? However, in ‘Metaphysics,’ God is not physically present, but eternally present, and in fact the very ground of the presence of beings. In Heidegger’s view, Aristotle does not in fact connect the relationship between beings, and God as the unifier of beings. This view does indeed make sense, because in Aristotle’s writing the importance lies in the fact God is the eternal and transcendent prime mover, not focussing at all on His presence. On the other hand, it would be difficult to refute the idea of Aristotle having the notion of God’s presence at all, as God’s eternal presence is clearly motion, form and rationality.
David Bradshaw draws attention to the fundamental shift which takes place in Aristotle’s discussion on God. Aristotle describes God’s activity as a constant state of thought and pleasure (ηδονή η ενέργεια τούτου), which is rather unexpected, as up to this moment he has portrayed the prime mover as simply the cause of motion. Only after asserting the fact that the eternal unmoved mover is a living, thinking ‘actual’ being, does Aristotle refer to it as ‘God.’
‘It is a life such as the best which we enjoy, and enjoy for but a short time (for it is ever in this state, which we cannot be), since its actuality is also pleasure…We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God.’
This leap from a rather elementary and uninvolved prime mover, to a God who’s activity is that of goodness and love (‘κινεί ως ερώμενον’) does begin to , albeit slightly, resemble the Christian God Who ‘is love.’ (1 John 4:8) Of course Aristotle does not go as far as saying God is personal, and this is perhaps the main difference between the Creator and Lord of the Old and New Testaments, and Aristotle’s description of God. One could question why Aristotle thinks that God must be real, if the mover’s only role is to ‘serve as an ideal for the first heaven to imitate.’ However, Augustine would argue that this is a central mode of revelation - the vision and concept of God as truth, enjoyed by the intellect. It is certainly through his own intellect, that Aristotle realises there is indeed a prime mover, a perfect and all-good God. For Augustine, this intellectual process, consisting of observation and investigation, leads to reality and truth, and vitally, the knowledge of God. Furthermore, Augustine’s ‘Doctrine of Simplicity’ asserts that God, as divine nature, has no accidents (is not necessary) which is of course routed in Aristotle’s metaphysics, consisting of his own assertion. There are no divisions or distinctions in God’s nature, and so His entirety is attributed to Him, highlighting the view that He is utterly transcendent of all else. Thomas Aquinas’ perspectives on God are highly influenced by Aristotle’s ‘prime mover’ (his cosmological argument being a development of this), as well as Augustine’s ‘Doctrine of Simplicity.’ We can see these clear aristotelian concepts throughout ‘the Summa Contra Gentiles,’ with Aquinas concluding that God is ‘actus purus.’ (pure act)
To conclude, I have summarised what kind of God is portrayed within Aristotle’s Metaphysics, with an overview, followed by references to writers such as David Bradshaw and Catriona Hanley, as well as to the connections to Christian theology, with Augustine and Aquinas as examples.
Aristotle, Metaphysics (translated by W.D Ross) Book XII.
Bradshaw, D 2004, Aristotle East and West, Cambridge : CUP, 27-31.
Gilson, E 1990. The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 157.
Hanley, C 2000, Being and God in Aristotle and Heidegger, Oxford: R&L, 89-94.
On Aristotle’s Teleology, 127-135.
The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle 1995, 103-105.
Weigel, P, Divine Simplicity (within the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)