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Aristotle’s Metaphysics: Causality and Theology in Antiquity

Aristotle is arguably one of, if not the, most influential philosophers in the history of Western civilization, outlining in painstaking detail not only a fully formed and comprehensive system of reason and logic, but also a comprehensive system metaphysics, what some (including Aristotle himself in fact) refer to as a theology, as well as an ontological framework which for the first time, at least in the history of Western civilization, defined the requirements and boundaries of not just knowledge, but reality itself.[1]  Aristotle takes pains to distinguish himself from his predecessor and teacher Plato but nonetheless, if his doctrines are truly understood, represents more of a development or evolution of Plato’s theo-philosophy rather than an opposing or distinctive intellectual, metaphysical or even theological system per se.  In fact, this more cohesive and integrated perspective on the classical Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition as a whole (a tradition which was of course dominated by the teachings, works and influence of Plato and Aristotle) is precisely how the Neo-Platonists, as well as the early Muslim philosophers – the so-called falṣafa – viewed the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition; the whole being greater than the sum of its parts as it were. [2]

Given the style and technique, the intellectual strategy as it were, that Plato employed by using Socratic Dialogue, even if it were by design, left much room for interpretation not only with respect to the philosophical system itself, but also in regard to the clear understanding of what Plato actually held to be true, what his actual philosophy was even.  Aristotle took pains to avoid the same lack of clarity, and actually articulated as much in some of his criticisms of Plato’s philosophy in Metaphysics.  It’s with Aristotle however, that we find the first expansive, cohesive, and rational framework, comprehensive attempt, at a fully rational conception of the world and mankind’s place in it, effectively establishes the very ground of rational thought, what became known in the Hellenic world and beyond as philosophia, i.e. philosophy[3], providing the intellectual foundations of Western thought.  Plato’s work and teachings, , while certainly extensive, nonetheless did not provide the same level of detail, the same specificity, that we find in Aristotle’s work.  So much so in fact, that the Arabic philosophical tradition, the falṣafa, who looked upon the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition as their forefathers in a very real sense (falṣafa is in fact directly derived, phonetically, from philosophia) referred to Aristotle as the First Teacher, establishing him as the forerunner of the Arabic/Muslim falṣafa tradition as a while, with Al Fārābī from 9th century Baghdad being designated his successor, the so-called Second Teacher, or Second Master.

Having said that, it is still important to keep in mind when studying Aristotle, that he was a student at Plato’s Academy for some twenty years, and although he diverges from Plato in some very significant respects (and he does not shy away from letting the reader know when he does just that), he nonetheless could not avoid being heavily influenced by Plato’s philosophy, as well as his mode of teaching.  So while it is very easy to focus on the differences between Plato and Aristotle’s belief systems, and in fact much of the academic literature is devoted to precisely this topic, nonetheless it is important to keep in mind that it is within Plato’s Academy that Aristotle’s philosophy was born, and that without Plato there would in fact be no Aristotle.  Just as Plato’s works and teachings, his philosophy, was much more expansive and comprehensive in terms of intellectual breadth and scope that what today considered Philosophy, Aristotle’s works explored many topics outside of the realm of what we would classify as Philosophy proper as well, exploring the very boundaries and structure of knowledge itself and in many respects establishing the intellectual and epistemological framework in the West for centuries to come, millennia even.  His works and teachings covered topics such as Biology, Physics, Logic, Mathematics, and even Geology, along with topics that we consider falling under the umbrella of Philosophy proper, including metaphysics, epistemology and ontology, topics that are especially relevant with respect to many of the arguments and theses we make throughout this work.

Note that this broad range of topics that Aristotle explored, all of which he clearly felt required further examination and analysis relative to the work of his predecessors (the Platonists included of course), covered not only how the world should be viewed or framed, with respect to identifying those qualities or attributes that describe reality, or being – i.e. ontology – which represent his metaphysics and/or theology, but also the theoretical foundations for ethics and morality, as well as the optimal socio-political structure, all topics that were of special interest to most of the philosophical schools in the classical Hellenic period and in fact came to define the Hellenic philosophical tradition, i.e. philosophia, in many respects.  It’s within this more broad intellectual framework then, what came to be understood as philosophy, or philosophia, that Aristotle could establish the principles and basic intellectual framework within which the “natural world” could be defined and explored, what he  referred to as natural philosophy, which, along with his work in logic, geometry and mathematics, provided the very foundations of philosophical, really scientific, enquiry in the West.

All of these fields of research, these sciences, were related not just from Aristotle’s perspective, but also from the perspective of the school established by his predecessor, Plato, the two arguably establishing the next major step in the evolution of philosophia in the Hellenic world as it had been passed down to Athens primarily out of the tradition of the so-called Pre-Socratics,, which although were revolutionary in their own right, nonetheless were was more concerned with the more general problem of providing a more rational structure of the cosmos (kosmos) necessarily, rather than a full description of what might be considered to be (borrowing Aristotle’s terminology) the more practical, or theoretical disciplines that came to be hallmarks of philosophia in the classical Hellenic period.

Aristotle is perhaps best known however for not only his comprehensive and cohesive system of metaphysics, or his ontology, fleshing out in much greater detail that had been done prior a completely rational model for the universe, and the boundaries of reality itself in fact, as well as his epistemological framework, his theory of knowledge as it were, consisting of a set of basic delineated types, or branches, of knowledge, combined with a fairly sophisticated notion of causality upon which the more abstract aspect of knowledge is constructed.  Aristotle’s causal framework, his theory of causality, not only represents a hallmark distinction and unique invention with respect to Aristotle’s philosophical system in and of itself, but it also represents one of the very unique characteristics that has come to be associated with the Western worldview itself, as reflected most definitively in the field of Science of course, what we refer to within the context of 20th century Physics as the principle of causal determinism.  Up until the Middle Ages, in fact, Aristotle’s works on logic and metaphysics, the Organon and Metaphysics respectively, continued to be used as standard teaching texts throughout the West, and even were used in areas of Muslim influence as well further East, effectively establishing much of the intellectual foundation of classically Western, and Arabic, thought more so than perhaps any other single figure in the history of civilization.

One of the most pervasive and intellectually loaded words that we find used throughout Aristotle’s works as they have survived down to us through the centuries in various languages in various (Western) theo-philosophical traditions, is epistêmê, a Greek word that translates into the English as “knowledge”, or “science” but in the more broad and general context that Aristotle uses the term can perhaps more accurately be translated as “field of knowledge” or “branch of study”.[5]  The branch of Philosophy called epistemology in fact, a more modern, post Scientific Revolution philosophical development, is derived from Aristotle’s semantic framework around this very topic – the word meaning literally the “study of” (logos),”knowledge” (epistêmê.  This branch of Philosophy is concerned specifically with the nature and scope of knowledge itself, exploring its nature and boundaries as a metaphysical and intellectual construct, as well as how it can be acquired and to what extent it is possible for a given subject or entity to be known.[6]  The English word science as it turns out, which is typically how the Greek word is translated, comes to us through the intermediary language Latin as sciencia, which in turn is derived from the Latin verb scire, or “to know” or “understand”.  It’s worth pointing out that It wasn’t until much later in history, not until after the Scientific Revolution (aptly named we might add), that scientific method as a method of investigation in and of itself transformed what Aristotle originally referred to as natural philosophy (more below) into Science proper as we understand it today.  Subsequently, Science became an independent and very technically defined branch of study, or again field of knowledge, that was founded upon well-defined empiricist and rationalist principles that were some of the hallmark intellectual and philosophical developments of Enlightenment Era philosophy.

With respect to Aristotle’s extant works specifically, there are in total thirty-one surviving works that can be attributed directly to Aristotle, occasionally referred to in the academic literature as the Corpus Aristotelicum.  Although classification and grouping of Aristotle’s extant work is open to interpretation (to say the least), for the most part it is agreed that Aristotle divided science, again knowledge, into three basic categories.  The first category, and the one of most interest within the context of inquiries into the historical development of philosophy as a discipline in and of itself, is what Aristotle refers to as the theoretical sciences, what he calls first philosophy.  Aristotle actually uses a variety of terms and phrases to describe this more theoretical and abstract branch of the sciences, this field of knowledge, what has come to be known in modern Philosophical circles as metaphysics, describing it variously as first philosophy, theology, first science, or the somewhat loaded Hellenic theo-philosophical sophia, typically translated as wisdom.  From Aristotle’s perspective however, the discipline that we will, for simplicity’s sake, refer to as first philosophy, was primarily concerned with the study of that which defines that which is or can be said to exist – what in philosophical circles, based again upon the terminology used by Aristotle, has come to be known as the oft quoted and oft misinterpreted and/or not so well understood, being qua being.[7]

The term metaphysics has stuck over the centuries however, and over time has evolved into a very specific discipline within Philosophy, despite its very close affiliation and association, from the very beginning in fact, with Physics.  Aristotle’s first philosophy included works in fields that would fall under the umbrella of Philosophy proper, as well as theology (more below), a discipline which in Aristotle’s time was in no way distinguishable from philosophy itself, and also works in fields of study related to disciplines today that fall under Science proper, e.g. Biology, Astronomy, and of course Physics.[8]  His second science, or branch of knowledge, he referred to as practical philosophy, distinguishing it from the theoretical branches of science, consisting primarily of the analysis of human conduct, the idea of virtue, and socio-political issues as they related to ethics and morality in general.  Much of his work in this area built off of the foundation provided by his predecessor and teacher Plato, as set forth in The Republic primarily, although Aristotle deviated from Plato’s ethical and socio-political philosophy in many significant ways.  The third main branch of knowledge according to Aristotle epistemological framework was what he referred to as the productive sciences, a domain which included exploration into such topics as rhetoric, agriculture, medicine and ship building, as well as the arts of music, theater and dance.[9]

While Aristotle no doubt was heavily influenced by the teachings of his predecessor, he differed with his teacher in many key, significant areas, many of which in fact continue to be the subject of philosophical debate even today.  In particular, Aristotle took issue with not only Plato’s epistemological framework, but also his metaphysics, or theology as well, topics that are covered at length also in Metaphysics.  Aristotle for example, is openly critical of Plato’s theory of forms as we can see in the below excerpt from Metaphysics, Book I:

The fact, however, is just the reverse, and the theory is illogical; for whereas the Platonists derive multiplicity from matter although their Form generates only once, it is obvious that only one table can be made from one piece of timber, and yet he who imposes the form upon it, although he is but one, can make many tables.  Such too is the relation of male to female: the female is impregnated in one coition, but one male can impregnate many females.  And these relations are analogues of the principles referred to.

This, then, is Plato’s verdict upon the question which we are investigating.  From this account it is clear that he only employed two causes: that of the essence, and the material cause; for the Forms are the cause of the essence in everything else, and the One is the cause of it in the Forms.  He also tells us what the material substrate is of which the Forms are predicated in the case of sensible things, and the One in that of the Forms—that it is this the duality, the “Great and Small.”  Further, he assigned to these two elements respectively the causation of good and of evil; a problem which, as we have said, had also been considered by some of the earlier philosophers, e.g. Empedocles and Anaxagoras.[10]

Despite its brevity, we have here in this passage not only the rationale behind Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s epistemology, his theory of forms primarily, we also have here find some of the intellectual pieces, as well as the rationale, for what has come to be known in philosophical circles as hylomorphism, one of the cornerstones of Aristotle’s metaphysics and, to use the more modern designation, ontology.  We can see here quite clearly as well, the basic strategy that Aristotle employs to try and distinguish himself from his “Platonist” brethren, providing what he sees (and arguably fundamentally is) as a more rationally sound and complete metaphysical framework upon which a more robust and cohesive system of philosophy can be constructed.  While Platonic idealism – as understood via theory of forms, perhaps most eloquently described the famous Allegory of the Cave passage in The Republic – along with the technique that he employed, and arguably perfected, to convey his teachings, i.e. Socratic method or more generally, dialectic, no doubt represented significant intellectual and philosophical advancements relative to his predecessors who collectively are referred to as the “Pre-Socratics, Platonism still left much open to question and lacked definitional certainty in many areas, even a generation or two after Plato’s death which is when many of Aristotle’s later works are believed to have been written.[11]

In order to provide logical framework within which all of Aristotle’s sciences could be established, however, Aristotle first found it necessary to fully articulate and describe how precisely one can discern truth from falsehood, as well as the methods of reason from which any argument can, or should, be considered sound, or coherent – e.g. inductive or deductive reasoning techniques or more generally dialectic.  To this end, Aristotle wrote several works that fell under the heading of what in antiquity was referred to as logic, and his works in this area are typically collected together under the title of the Organon (the title being derived from the Greek word which means “instrument”, “tool”, or “organ”), a treatise which had a profound impact on Western philosophy and was used as the standard textbook on logic for some two thousand years.  The Organon consists of six of Aristotle’s titles on logic and more generally, reasonCategories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, and Sophistical Refutations.. In Categories, Aristotle outlines his basic ontological framework, delineating and “categorizing” existence itself, establishing its scope and boundaries as well as its basic system of classification.  In Prior Analytics and Topics, Aristotle delves into the very foundation of reason itself, providing the grounds for not just his rational methods for his entire philosophical system, but also providing the logical, or rational, basis for truth and falsehood, some of the very underpinnings of philosophy.

Some of the other epistemological groundwork so to speak, that was necessary to be established prior to fleshing out both his Physics as well as Metaphysics, can be found in a work entitled the CategoriesIn this work, Aristotle lays out his basic conception of the complete division of the known universe into ten basic categories, or kinds, into which the entire landscape of “things”, or again more accurately “beings”, belong (a list which is presumably exhaustive but not necessarily mutually exclusive).  Aristotle’s category theory, not only informs the rest of his philosophy, it outlines the very foundational structure of his epistemological framework, providing some of the core components of that permeate much of his theoretical philosophy.  In it, we find the basic organization of the entire epistemological landscape as it were, the division not of existence itself or the universe, but a division of all of the possible descriptions, qualities or attributes that could possibly be associated with things, or again beings, which may exist in the known universe.[12]  The most ontologically significant of these categories, with respect to Aristotle’s theoretical sciences at least, was what has come to be understood as substance, or ousia in the Greek, one of the very cornerstones of Aristotle’s metaphysics.

Of things said without combination, each signifies either: (i) a substance (ousia); (ii) a quantity; (iii) a quality; (iv) a relative; (v) where; (vi) when; (vii) being in a position; (viii) having; (ix) acting upon; or (x) a being affected. (Cat. 1b25–27)

All other things are either said-of primary substances, which are their subjects, or are in them as subjects.  Hence, if there were no primary substances, it would be impossible for anything else to exist. (Cat. 2b5–6)

In this passage, we see the categorical list under, or into, which all “beings” (tá ónta), or what he refers to as “things that are said” (ta legomena), must fall into.  This list includes, the ontologically more significant first four categories of Substance, Quantity, Quality or Qualification, and Relative or Relative to, followed by the somewhat less significant: Where or Place, When or Time, Posture or Attitude, Having a state or condition, Doing or Action, Being affected or Affection.

Again, it is the category of substance, which more so than any of the other categories underpins Aristotle’s metaphysics, and also plays a primary role in one of Aristotle’s other primary ontological theories, which has also had a profound influence on Western philosophy, hylomorphism (more below).[13]  Translating ousia to substance in English however, does not express the full meaning of the term the way Aristotle intends.  Given the critical importance of this term in Aristotle’s theoretical science, it is worth exploring this term ousia and how its relationship to its Latin derivative substantia or essentia, from which its English counterpart substance originates.

Ousia (οὐσία) is the Ancient Greek noun formed on the feminine present participle of εἶναι (to be); it is analogous to the English participle being, and the modern philosophy adjectival onticOusia is often translated (sometimes incorrectly) to Latin as substantia and essential, and to English as substance and essence; and (loosely) also as (contextually) the Latin word accident (sumbebekós).

Aristotle defined protai ousiai, or “primary substances”, in the Categories as that which is neither said of nor in any subject, e.g., “this human” in particular, or “this ox”.  The genera in biology and other natural kinds are substances in a secondary sense, as universals, formally defined by the essential qualities of the primary substances; i.e., the individual members of those kinds.

Much later, Martin Heidegger said that the original meaning of the word ousia was lost in its translation to the Latin, and, subsequently, in its translation to modern languages.  For him, ousia means Being, not substance, that is, not some thing or some being that “stood”(-stance) “under”(sub-).[14]

As illustrated from the passage above, the word ousia that Aristotle uses to describe the cornerstone of his metaphysics is far from straight forward to translate into English, and the word substance, again, does not really do it justice so to speak.  In fact, as noted in the quotation above which attempts to define its meaning within which Aristotle originally intended, it seems clear that Aristotle’s ousia is closer to Plato’s Being – i.e. that which is not subject to change in contrast to Becoming which was, the two ontological predicates in Plato’s metaphysics, or theology, that we find in the Timaeus – than it is to material or physical reality in the modern, scientific, sense that typically one would think substance is very closely related to if not almost identical to.[15]  So in a very real sense then, Aristotle’s substantial form, ousia or essence, is no doubt a derivation and type of evolution of Plato’s notion of Being.  In typical Aristotelian fashion however, the concept is expanded upon, and placed in a much broader metaphysical context, provide for a much stronger rational foundation to his metaphysics than his predecessors no doubt, but also establishing it as one of the cornerstones of not just Aristotelian philosophy, but of Western philosophy as a whole.[16]


One of the most preeminent philosophical principles that underpins Western thought, one of the foundational presumptions of modern Science in fact, is the notion of causality, or what we refer to more specifically within the context of 20th century Science as causal determinism.  This doctrine, the belief that our knowledge of reality, is effectively determined by causation, and that every action or state of being has come to be as such due to the compilation of, or the direct result of, a series of causal based actions or events, is directly attributed to Aristotle’s theory of causality.[17]  In order to fully appreciate and understand Aristotle’s philosophy, one must understand his theory of causality which underpins his epistemological framework as well as his metaphysics to a large degree.  It is Aristotle’s theory of causality which comes to underpin and ultimately define his notion of being qua being upon which Aristotle ultimately comes to defines existence itself, and it is his causal framework, described below, that he uses as the intellectual foundation for his metaphysics.  In other words, the existence of a thing, its substance or essence, is understood and defined by the things which bring said substance or thing into existence, i.e. its causes.  Aristotle’s theory of causality, sometimes referred to as the four causes, or four-causal theory, rests on the assumption that knowledge of a thing, or being itself really, is fundamentally predicated upon a complete understanding of how, and why, such a being has come into existence.  That is to say, to understand the nature of any being, anything that can be said to exist, one must come to a full and complete understanding as to all of the underlying causes that have brought said being into existence.  From Physics, for example, we find:

This is most obvious in the case of animals other than man: they make things using neither craft nor on the basis of inquiry nor by deliberation.  This is in fact a source of puzzlement for those who wonder whether it is by reason or by some other faculty that these creatures work—spiders, ants and the like.  Advancing bit by bit in this same direction it becomes apparent that even in plants features conducive to an end occur—leaves, for example, grow in order to provide shade for the fruit. If then it is both by nature and for an end that the swallow makes its nest and the spider its web, and plants grow leaves for the sake of the fruit and send their roots down rather than up for the sake of nourishment, it is plain that this kind of cause is operative in things which come to be and are by nature.  And since nature is twofold, as matter and as form, the form is the end, and since all other things are for sake of the end, the form must be the cause in the sense of that for the sake of which. (Phys. 199a20–32)[18]

Here we find a very apt description of another one of Aristotle’s metaphysical cornerstones, i.e. the notion of hylomorphism.  In Aristotle’s philosophy, the known universe consists again not of things necessarily but of beings, entities that are primarily defined by the notion of substantial form, a so-called “hylomorphic construct where being, or substance (ousia) is a compound of matter as well as its underlying form.  In contrast, to Plato the underlying form, or idea, of thing not only “informed” its existence, the thing itself actually depends upon its underlying form in order to exist at all.[19]  To take this argument one step further, and a precursor to an understanding of Aristotle’s theology, to Aristotle, existence itself is to a large extent is defined by its underlying purpose or meaning.  That is to say, using Aristotle’s terminology, for everything that can be said to “exist”, there must be an underlying purpose that brings said being into existence, this is what Aristotle refers to as the final cause.  This idea of existence being ultimately dependent upon some underlying purpose then, or meaning, in turn from a theological and cosmological standpoint yields the necessary existence of some penultimate, or first cause, which later Islamic philosophers interpreted as equivalent to God, or Allāh‎, effectively placing the complete Islamic theological framework, their theology, directly on the back of Aristotle’s rational metaphysical model of the universe and epistemological framework.

In Physics, we find a detailed explanation of his theory of causality, a description of the four causes, as:

One way in which cause is spoken of is that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists, e.g. the bronze of the statue, the silver of the bowl, and the genera of which the bronze and the silver are species.

In another way cause is spoken of as the form or the pattern, i.e. what is mentioned in the account (logos) belonging to the essence and its genera, e.g. the cause of an octave is a ratio of 2:1, or number more generally, as well as the parts mentioned in the account (logos).

Further, the primary source of the change and rest is spoken of as a cause, e.g. the man who deliberated is a cause, the father is the cause of the child, and generally the maker is the cause of what is made and what brings about change is a cause of what is changed.

Further, the end (telos) is spoken of as a cause.  This is that for the sake of which (hou heneka) a thing is done, e.g. health is the cause of walking about. ‘Why is he walking about?’ We say: ‘To be healthy’— and, having said that, we think we have indicated the cause.[20]

From this we can gather that Aristotle’s intellectual framework for determining the full scope of knowledge of a thing, the core of his epistemological framework, which consists of four distinct but related causes, the second of which corresponds loosely to Plato’s forms.

  1. the material cause of a thing or that from which a thing is made,
  2. the formal cause of a thing or the structure to which something is created (loosely corresponding to Plato’s idea of Forms or Ideas),
  3. the efficient cause of a thing which is the agent responsible for bringing something into being, and
  4. the final cause of a thing (telos[21]) which represents the purpose by which a thing has come into existence.

The first two causes, the material and the formal, are born out of the importance that Aristotle places on the notion that being, which is the term he (and Plato in fact) uses to define reality, or existence – i.e. “things” – requires both form as well as substance, in order for it to be brought into existence as it were.  These two basic elements of Aristotle’s epistemological and ontological system are typically described using the term “hylomorphicdenoting the complex and interdependent relationship they have as they come together to establish Aristotle’s substantial form, arguably the basic building block in Aristotle’s ontology.  The third of the four causes, the efficient cause, represents that which brings something into being, incorporating to a large degree his physics into the system, and the final cause (no pun intended) is Aristotle’s final cause, which integrates the notion of purpose, or meaning (from the Greek telos meaning “end”, “purpose” or “goal”) directly into Aristotle’s epistemological framework, one of its distinguishing features in fact.

Aristotle’s doctrine of substantial form to a large degree can be seen as, and perhaps best understood as, an enhancement to Plato’s notion of forms, the fundamental building block in Plato’s epistemology, but Aristotle grounds the forms, ties them as it were, directly into the material world with ousia, the Greek word for substance but is perhaps better translated as essence.  The epistemological system as a whole not only rests on the hylomorphic construct of substantial form, but also quite elegantly integrates the notion of change as well with the notion of the efficient cause which represents that which brings something into existence – a feature that is arguably lacking in Plato’s metaphysicsForm in Aristotelian philosophy, is that which gives shape to matter, and is the source from which potentiality yields actuality, informing as it were, and providing the intellectual guiding principle, to things that can be said to exist.  Although it is open to debate whether or not Aristotle presupposes that all four causes must be present in order for a thing to exist (in fact in some cases he cites examples of which all four causes are not present but yet existence of said thing is still adequately explained[22]), this idea of a required efficient cause is unique to Aristotle relative to the philosophers that came before him and forms the basis upon which much of his theory of natural philosophy rests.  This efficient cause of Aristotle can also be seen as representing the connecting principle of Plato’s concept of forms to Plato’s illusory realm of the senses, representing again an expansion of Plato’s metaphysics as reflected in the theory of forms rather than a complete abandonment of it.[23]


Perhaps the best way to understand Aristotle’s theology – outside of his theory of causality which speaks to the question as to the existence of some underlying final cause, purpose as it were, for the entirety of existence – is to contrast his theological system as we understand it with that of Plato’s, specifically as represented in the Timaeus along with his theory of forms as outlined in The Republic.  Aristotle does not necessarily directly attack Plato’s belief in the existence of a divine creator per se, Plato’s Demiurge, but he did argue, as we have seen, that Plato’s idealism  lacked the rational foundations to truly explain the totality of existence, what has come to be understood as being qua being.  That is to say, Plato’s theory of forms, despite being a powerful metaphor to describe the what Plato at least considered to be the underlying illusory nature of reality, did not truly and completely describe how a form or idea transformed or constituted being in its myriad of representations or manifestations.  Aristotle however, takes pains to articulate these concepts in detail, how form underpins existence as a component of substantial form, i.e. Aristotle’s hylomorphic conception of existence, but nonetheless does not carry the same ontological significance as substance, i.e. ousia.  Through the notion of substantial form then, Aristotle provides not only the rational underpinnings of his ontology, his description of reality or the totality of being as it were, but also the rational foundations of his conception of the Soul, and as such his philosophy of ethics.

In Metaphysics Book XII, we perhaps find the most intriguing and forthright evidence of how Aristotle conceives of what we call in the West God, but to Aristotle represents a primordial ontological entity that sits behind the natural world and all of its phenomena.

There is something which is eternally moved with an unceasing motion, and that circular motion. This is evident not merely in theory, but in fact.  Therefore the “ultimate heaven” must be eternal. Then there is also something which moves it.  And since that which is moved while it moves is intermediate, there is something which moves without being moved; something eternal which is both substance and actuality. [24]

Here we find Aristotle’s unmoved mover, that which sets the entire universal order, the heavens in motion.  His rational deduction which leads to its existence, is based upon his principles of change, or motion, from which deduces that there must exist something eternal and unchanging behind it.  Furthermore, this primordial entity, is both substance and actuality, which in Aristotle’s metaphysical and epistemological framework puts it in the category of things that have a material existence.  The unmoved mover is not an idea or a concept – something that has potentiality but is not yet actualized – it’s an “eternally” existent entity, a being, which sits behind the motion of the heavens.  Now that the rational necessity of the unmoved mover has been established, according to principles of Aristotle’s Physics primarily, Aristotle goes on to apply his causal theory to it, specifically the final cause, outlining its application to immovable objects in general, and – somewhat surprisingly – ascribes the source of the motion of said objects to love, blessed Eros.

That the final cause may apply to immovable things is shown by the distinction of its meanings.  For the final cause is not only “the good for something,” but also “the good which is the end of some action.”  In the latter sense it applies to immovable things, although in the former it does not; and it causes motion as being an object of love, whereas all other things cause motion because they are themselves in motion.  Now if a thing is moved, it can be otherwise than it is.  Therefore if the actuality of “the heaven” is primary locomotion, then in so far as “the heaven” is moved, in this respect at least it is possible for it to be otherwise; i.e. in respect of place, even if not of substantiality.  But since there is something—X—which moves while being itself unmoved, existing actually, X cannot be otherwise in any respect.  For the primary kind of change is locomotion, and of locomotion circular locomotion; and this is the motion which X induces.  Thus X is necessarily existent; and qua necessary it is good, and is in this sense a first principle.  For the necessary has all these meanings: that which is by constraint because it is contrary to impulse; and that without which excellence is impossible; and that which cannot be otherwise, but is absolutely necessary. [25]

In applying his causal theory, along with rational deduction, he ascribes to this primordial ontological principle – again the unmoved mover – not just as a requisite entity in and of itself, but also as representative of benevolence in some way, ascribing “good” behavior to it within the context of his ethical philosophy.  The introduction of Eros into the rational framework is interesting, betraying Aristotle’s uniquely Hellenic, and Platonic heritage, where Eros of course plays such a prominent role in the Theogony of Hesiod.  And Hesiod’s Eros, is no stranger to Plato’s Good, the form of forms who provides order – logos – to the world in the Timaeus.

Aristotle goes on describe this entity, this being, referring to it more specifically now as it relates to the notion of God, or theos, the ancient anthropomorphized figure that holds dominion over the natural world.

Such, then, is the first principle upon which depend the sensible universe and the world of nature.  And its life is like the best which we temporarily enjoy.  It must be in that state always (which for us is impossible), since its actuality is also pleasure.  (And for this reason waking, sensation and thinking are most pleasant, and hopes and memories are pleasant because of them.)  Now thinking in itself is concerned with that which is in itself best, and thinking in the highest sense with that which is in the highest sense best.  And thought thinks itself through participation in the object of thought; for it becomes an object of thought by the act of apprehension and thinking, so that thought and the object of thought are the same, because that which is receptive of the object of thought, i.e. essence, is thought.  And it actually functions when it possesses this object.  Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best.  If, then, the happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we enjoy sometimes, it is marvelous; and if it is greater, this is still more marvelous.  Nevertheless it is so.  Moreover, life belongs to God.  For the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and the essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal.  We hold, then, that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.[26]

In this passage, arguably representing the very summit of Aristotle’s theology, he bridges the gap between the first mover, the Good (in the Platonic sense), and the existence of God as benevolent, fully actualized being that is “eternal” and the “most good”.  Interestingly, this deduction is made by applying some of Aristotle’s psychological theories, his theories surrounding the Soul and its sensory apparatus and the relationship of thought and “participation in the object of thought” – once again using his notion of actuality (versus potentiality).  He completes the passage with the conclusion that best life, the “most good”, Is one that is lived in the likeness of God, i.e. the contemplative life.  And in the last line, we can find the seeds of the Stoic notion of corporealism as well as, perhaps somewhat less directly, the Neo-Platonic notion of emanation, where God is held to be not just a primordial entity that sets the heavens in motion, or some idealistic conception of the most Good, but is equated in the broadest metaphysical sense with all of existence as a “living being, eternal, most good”, and equated with “life and continuous eternal existence” which “belong to God, for that is what God is.”  While a bit of a circuitous journey no doubt, we see here in Aristotle’s argument the application of many of his philosophical doctrines and tenets, from his theoretical framework of motion and change which underpins his Physics, to his theory of causality combined from a teleological perspective (final cause), using logic to argue for the existence of God as actualized substance, and finally the combination of some of his psychological theories around perception and apprehension along with his physical theories on actualization and potentiality that are used to not only argue for God’s existence as a contemplative being, but one that actually exists, is eternal and Good, and ultimately is equated with the entirety of existence – existence itself really.

While Aristotle’s theological beliefs are certainly open to debate, it is nonetheless safe to say that his theology differed from that of his teacher and predecessor Plato, on both physical and epistemological grounds  – physical in the sense that his notions of substantial form, actuality and potentiality all represent the basic building blocks of not only his notion of Physics, but his theological framework as well, and epistemological in the sense that his understanding of God rests squarely within his overall theory of knowledge, and more specifically his theory of causality as the final cause of the universe as it were.  But despite these differences, there are some very basic and fundamental – and oft overlooked – similarities between Aristotle and Plato’s theology.  While within the context of Plato’s idealistic theology  we find an ontology that is fundamentally predicated on ideas, or forms rather than on any material substance (in contrast to Aristotle), God is nonetheless represented in both philosophical systems as the ultimate creator – Aristotle’s prime mover and Plato’s Demiurge – of a fundamentally rational and ordered universe.  It is the core belief in the creation of an ordered, rational universe by a divine, primordial being in fact, that is not only central to the theologies of Plato and Aristotle, but also represents the fundamental theological, and cosmological, ordering force of all of creation itself, all of existence, all throughout Eurasia in antiquity in fact.

In particular in the Hellenic philosophical tradition however, and again both Plato and Aristotle are no exceptions here, this abstract concept of reason itself as it were – what came to be understood as Logos which played such a prominent role in the Stoic philosophical tradition as well as early Christianity in particular – comes to play a fundamental role not only in theology and cosmogony, but in a broader sense in the Hellenic philosophical tradition as a whole.  We can see this principle of reason or order at the very root of the Hellenic cosmological tradition in fact, with the very word for cosmos, the Greek kosmos, meaning literally “ordered” or “harmoniously arranged”.  And then of course we find this notion of order, or reason, as a fundamental ontological principle not only in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, but also in Plato’s Timaeus and also in Pythagorean philosophy.  The Hellenic philosophical tradition as a whole in fact, to a large degree has become known for, is fundamentally characterized by, its fundamentally rational basis – the first theo-philosophical tradition in antiquity, at least in the Western world, to establish a fully rational framework for reality.  For in the Hellenic philosophical tradition, the epistemological, metaphysical and ontological positions are effectively established by, are rooted in, reason itself as it is understood through the system of logic that is also (for the most part) a fundamentally Hellenic discipline that is tied to the very heart of the philosophical tradition itself.  It is reason itself, as an ontological precept that again comes to be known as Logos, from which all knowledge, all existence, is born.  This is one of the hallmarks of Hellenic philosophy in fact, and certainly the philosophical traditions of Plato and Aristotle represent this just as much as, if not more so, than any other philosophical tradition in the Hellenic world.

It is this concept of the abstract principle of reason in fact, as a further abstraction to the discipline of logic, a discipline which plays an integral role in virtually all of the schools of classical Hellenic philosophy, which forms the basis of not just geometry, but of mathematics as a whole as well.  And it is these two disciplines in fact – geometry and mathematics – that, outside of the discipline of philosophy as a whole, represent perhaps the defining contributions of the ancient Greeks, the Hellenes, to Western thought.  And it is these two disciplines as it turns out, which are also integrally linked to cosmogony and theology throughout almost the entire Hellenic philosophical tradition, with again Plato and Aristotle being no exceptions here, through again this notion of Logos – as we find in Plato’s Timaeus for example, or again in Pythagorean philosophy (the Tetractys), both of which are heavily laden with geometrical symbolism – symbolism that also managed to find its way into Christianity (presumably through the Gnostics) as reflected in the profound geometric symbolism that underpins the story of Jesus the fisherman and the net in the Gospel of John.

Furthermore, we find the ontological significance of love, Eros, buried right into the very core of both Aristotle’s and Plato’s theology, and cosmogony.  In each of these philosophical systems, it is love – again Eros – that is the motivating, or driving force as it were, that brings the universe into existence.  In this sense, both Plato and Aristotle here reflect a much broader Hellenic cosmological tradition, one that is in fact rooted, and expressed, in the Theogony of Hesiod where Eros represents one of the primordial deities who participates in the very act of creation – what in the Orphic tradition is conceived of as Phanes, who emerges out of the great cosmic egg at the beginning of time from which the kosmos itself is created.  Love in fact, outside of its role in Plato and Aristotle’s theogony and cosmogony, plays a pivotal role in the philosophical system as a whole, providing one of the core, fundamental building blocks in each of their conceptions of virtue, as reflected more broadly in their systems of ethics – love as it were representing a very basic, and core, desire and motivating principle in man just as in God.[27]

So more generally then, in looking at the theology of Aristotle as it relates specifically to the theology of his predecessor and teacher Plato, we clearly find that the two differ fundamentally in terms of their overall epistemological and metaphysical framework, however Aristotle does not necessarily completely abandon Plato’s idealism entirely, even though ontologically speaking Aristotle treats the abstract concept of form, or idea, very differently than Plato, as a component of substantial form, but not as significant ontologically speaking as substance, or ousia – necessary but not sufficient as the case may be.  In Aristotle’s ontology, which very much rest at the heart of his theology, it is causality, and more specifically the notion of purpose, his final cause, from which the very necessity of the existence of an unmoved mover is deduced.  It is only when applying his psychological theories (his theoretical framework for thinking as the apprehension of objects, which only when actualized come into existence) that Aristotle establishes – under the implicit assumption that man is fashioned in the image of God (or perhaps better put that God is a contemplative being just as man is) – that God in fact exists and that he is nothing other than the entirety of (eternal) existence itself.


[1] Aristotle is also known to have been the tutor for Alexander the Great, the great Greek empire builder of the 4th century BC.  While the extent of the influence that Aristotle had on Alexander is debated by scholars, it is well established that Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher/tutor for at least two years, from when Alexander was 13 to 15.  At 15 however, Alexander was commissioned to the Macedonian army and therefore any later influence by Aristotle is brought into question.

[2] In later centuries in fact, with the work of Plotinus and Porphyry in particular (as illustrated in the Enneads), the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are looked upon as complementary and not altogether inconsistent – hence the name given to the Enneads, classically considered to be part of the Platonic tradition proper, in Muslim philosophical circles as the Theology of Aristotle.

[3] Philosophia In the Greek φιλοσοφία.

[4] From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spangenberg_-_Schule_des_Aristoteles.jpg, public domain.

[5] The English word science as it turns out, which is typically how the Greek word is translated, comes to us through the intermediary language Latin as sciencia, which in turn is derived from the Latin verb scire, or “to know” or “understand”.  Furthermore, it’s perhaps worth noting that It wasn’t until much later in history, not until after the Scientific Revolution (aptly named we might add), that scientific method as a method of investigation in and of itself transformed what Aristotle originally referred to as natural philosophy (more below) into Science proper as we understand it today.  Subsequently, Science became an independent and very technically defined branch of study, specific field of knowledge, that was founded upon well-defined empiricist and rationalist principles that were some of the hallmark intellectual and philosophical developments of Enlightenment Era philosophy.

[6] Epistemology as a specific term in philosophy was introduced by the Scottish philosopher James Frederick Ferrier (1808–1864) and the field is sometimes referred to as the theory of knowledge.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology for more details.

[7] The philosophical discipline of metaphysics is in fact derived from the title of one of Aristotle’s works on this very subject.  Aristotle however, did not himself use this word as either a title to any of his works or even as a description of any of their contents, but it was the title that was assigned to his work on the subject by later editors and compilers of his work because the work was to be introduced subsequent to, or was to be studied after (meta) Aristotle’s treatises on Physics, in all likelihood because the work was more intellectually challenging and advanced than certainly his treatises on Physics necessarily.  Thereafter his works on the subject, which now were assembled as a collection of works under the title of Metaphysics, came to be forever be associated with the specific discipline within Philosophy we now know as metaphysics.

[8] See Cohen, S. Marc, “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/aristotle-metaphysics/>.

[9] The epistemological framework established by Aristotle was used in the West up until the very end of the Scientific Revolution.  Prior to the establishment of Science in the post-Enlightenment Era, scientific questions were addressed as a part of the domain of natural philosophy, as established in the epistemological framework established by Aristotle some two thousand years prior.  After the Scientific Revolution however, once scientific method and empiricism became entrenched and formalized, natural philosophy was transformed into a purely empirical activity, where theoretical advancements were derived from hypotheses and ensuing experiments to test the same, after which natural philosophy, as Science, became split from Philosophy proper as we know the fields today.  Some philosophers of science believe that the natural sciences, or natural philosophy, is mutually exclusive from the study of metaphysics, while other philosophers of science strongly disagree.  This author holds, as did Aristotle, that Science is just as much a philosophical endeavor as is metaphysics, or theology for that matter.  Even though Science in the modern era focuses on empirical results and theories of reality based upon measurable results of material phenomena, i.e. empiricism or objective realism, without a system of metaphysics and system of logic upon which science undoubtedly rests, no rational notion of reality – be it scientific or metaphysical – can be arrived at.

[10] Aristotle Metaphysics Book I 988a.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D988a

[11] This is perhaps the reason why, for example, Aristotle’s philosophy – and in particular his work in metaphysics and logic (the Organon) – rather than the teachings attributed to the Platonic school, were integrated into the core curriculum of Scholasticism, the dominant method of teaching and learning during Medieval Europe, lasting for roughly 600 years from circa 1100 to 1700 CE.

[12] Note that despite the critical role that Aristotle’s category theory plays in his metaphysics and worldview, he does not anywhere describe the rational foundation as to why the world should be broken up into the ten categories that outlines.  This of course leaves much of his category theory open to criticism by later scholars and interpreters of his work given the lack of rational underpinning for such a critical metaphysical construct that permeates virtually all of his theoretical scientific work. Furthermore, Aristotle’s category theory also exerts a profound influence on the development of Western philosophy, even if many subsequent philosophers rejected his basic division – which many of them did in fact

[13] Before being able to classify and determine substance and its relationship to reality, it should be pointed out that it was necessary for Aristotle to define quite clearly, at least as clearly as he possibly could and more clearly than his predecessors had done, how one can discern truth from falsehood, a subject that he deals with at great length in his works that were later compiled together the Organon, which as we’ve already mentioned had profound influence on the development of Western philosophy.

[14] From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ousia.

[15] This is a perfect example of the non-trivial task to try and translate some of these ancient esoteric ideas from Ancient Greece to the Indo-European, Romance languages in particular, languages that derived from the Latin translation of the Greek and then into the destination tongue, i.e. at least two transliterations away from the original source.  This was true not only when attempting to translate some of the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers into English, but also when translating some of the extent Judeo-Christian literature into English which in many cases was also authored in Greek, or in many cases from an even more distant relative of English, Hebrew.  To make matters worse, the Greek language itself was not necessarily designed to handle these esoteric and philosophical ideas that Aristotle, Plato and others were trying to articulate.  A classic Judeo-Christian example of this transliteration problem can be found in the Gospel According to John, or simply John, the fourth of the Canonical Gospels of the New Testament and the Gospel unique to the other three Synoptic Gospels in many respects.  The oldest extant examples of the John were authored in Greek, and in particular the opening verse which is classically translated into English as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Contrast this with the Indian theo-philosophical tradition who from earliest times had a language framework, namely Sanskrit, from which their esoteric and metaphysical, and of course theological, principles and constructs could be articulated to the reader.  A reflection of this translation difficulty is that much of the Indian philosophy, and many of the key terms that are used, are NOT in fact translated into the English when being described or conveyed to the modern reader, i.e. English has adopted some of the original Sanskrit terms for there is no English equivalent.  The terms Ātman and Brahman for example, and their relationship in the human body-mind construct as described by the chakras and Kuṇḍalinī Yoga, are all Sanskrit terms that represent core Vedic philosophical and theological constructs that have no English counterpart.  These terms, and others such as Satcitānanda, typically translated into English by modern Sanskrit and Vedic scholars as “Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute”, or even samādhi, the state of immergence of the individual soul Ātman into the essence of the source of all things or Brahman which is the eighth and final limb of the Yoga, both are examples of esoteric terms that have a deep philosophical and psychological meaning in the Vedic tradition and have no direct English translation.  These Sanskrit terms, and many others, have made their way into the English language over the last century as Yoga has been introduced to the West as the most accurate way to describe these principles and to a great extent this provides for a better direct communication of their true underlying meaning.  Samādhi has no English equivalent; the state which it refers to is best understood within the context of the Yoga Sūtras within which it is described and the seven limbs that come before it, all of which also have their own Sanskrit counterparts and also have no direct English translation.  Not so for the Greek and Judeo-Christian esoteric words that were used by the ancient philosophers and theologians, these words in almost all cases have been transliterated into English and in so doing have lost at the very least some of their meaning and context, and in some cases the original meaning intended by their original authors may have been lost altogether.

[16] Plato, and in turn Aristotle, should be considered the first metaphysicians in the modern day sense of the word, a metaphysician in this sense being defined as someone who attempts to create and describe a framework within which reality as a whole can be described, as well as the boundaries which knowledge and truth can be ascertained, the prevailing characteristic of such a quest being the implementation of reason and logic as opposed to myth or any theological framework which rested on faith.  They called this search and exploration philosophy, but the meaning of the term in Greek implied not only at the study of the true nature of knowledge and reality, but also the source of virtue (arête) and ethics and their relationship to society at large.

[17] The Greek word that Aristotle uses is aitia, from Greek αἰτία, which is more accurately translated as “explanation” rather than “cause”.  However, our terminology, for consistency sake, will follow the philosophical literature on the topic which refers to Aristotle’s theories related to aitia as causality, or more broadly Aristotle’s theory of causality.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Four causes’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 June 2017, 12:28 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Four_causes&oldid=788094892> [accessed 8 November 2017].

[18] From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle.  Found at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.

[19] While Aristotle does not go so far as Plato as to put forth the notion of a full cosmological order based upon the “likely” existence of some intelligent creator upon which the Good or Best, as a divine, ideological ordering principle, serves as the underlying principle, or model, upon which the material universe is fashioned as he lays out in the Timaeus, Aristotle nonetheless does clearly indicate that from his perspective as well, what has come to be – reality – is so because of some reason, or set of reasons, i.e. causality, that not only determine the nature of that which comes into existence, but also bring said being into existence in the first place.

[20]Aristotle, Physics 194b23–35 as taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/.

[21] In the Greek, τέλος, or telos, for “end”, “purpose”, or “goal” is an end or purpose used in a philosophical sense as the end or purpose of a thing, the root of teleology as a philosophical pursuit.

[22] See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/ pages 41-43 for a more detailed description of Aristotle’s view on the necessary and sufficient attributes of his four causal theory.

[23] It is however, very clear that Aristotle most definitely deviates from Plato’s view that the world of forms is real and the world of the senses is simply illusory, which does in fact represent a significant divergence from Plato in his world view of reality akin to the dualistic view of reality in the Vedic philosophical tradition.

[24] Aristotle, Metaphysics Book XII, 1072a-1073a.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D12%3Asection%3D1072b.

[25] Aristotle, Metaphysics Book XII, 1072a-1073a.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D12%3Asection%3D1072b.

[26] Aristotle, Metaphysics Book XII, 1072a-1073a.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D12%3Asection%3D1072b.

[27] Plato in particular delves into the nature of love, Eros, as reflected most poignantly in perhaps the Symposium, as well as in Lysis and to a lesser extent in the Phaedrus.

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