Reflections On Aristotle’s Prime Unmoved Mover

The summit of Aristotle’s examination of “first philosophy” occurs in Book XII of his Metaphysics. Chapters 1-5 of Book XII reiterate Aristotle’s examination into the nature of thinghood (an inquiry which had previously appeared in Aristotle’s Physics). Thinghood is a kind of whole (not a part of a whole) representing the sources as well as the causes of independent things. Thinghood delineates the world. There are three kinds of thinghood: the material which is a ‘this by coming forth into appearance’ – which is perceptible and exists in the world of motion and destruction (i.e. a human composed of skin and bones and so on). The second is the nature of a thing and the active condition into which it comes (a living human who is growing and aging and so on). Lastly, is the particular kind of thing, such as “Socrates” or “Callias.” Curiously, Aristotle does not mention the fourth of thinghood that is mentioned in the Physics: the final cause, or the controversial teleological cause (perhaps the fourth cause is discussed as the prime mover, itself, in the course of the book). Aristotle then discusses types of changes in the world (referencing his argument in the Physics) which include the material, and the two types of being: potency and being-at-work. Another is motionless such as Platonic forms or mathematics. In examining the idea of change and motion, Aristotle strives to discover one or multiple motionless origins of motion and also, therefore, time (according to Aristotle, motion and time are co-existent, which is contra Einstein).

In Aristotle’s Metaphysics as in the Physics, the world around us is the result of causes -for example, an oak tree drops an acorn, the acorn falls into the ground, it grows into a tree, and the cycle continues. However, taking into account an evolution of life over time, Aristotle wonders if the causal lineage of all things can be traced back to one central source that is the catalyst for all future causes. He says: ‘All things come into being by the motion of some prior being, such as by art or nature, or else by fortune or chance’ (1078a).

In Book XII chapter 6 of the Metaphysics the central argument of the prime mover begins. Aristotle suggests, for the sake of the argument, that both motion and time are continuous. According to a causal cosmos, however, there must be a source of motion that is being-at-work-staying-the-same, and is also ever-lasting like the stars in the sky (whose motions are considered to be everlasting by Aristotle). Aristotle believes that if we simply retrace the lines of causes it will inevitably lead back to a primary source (or perhaps multiple primary sources). However, no single human being can possibly trace all causes in a lifetime, therefore the act of retracing the causal lineage of things is fundamentally an activity of the intellect.

Aristotle poses his central question at the crux of his argument in Book XII: “For how will thing have been set in motion, if there were not some responsible thing at work?” For Aristotle, material requires a craftsman and menstrual fluid requires male seed, a revealing claim which he claims in Chapter 6. For “nothing moves at random,” but rather things are moved by force, intelligence, or something else -and what is that something else? Aristotle leaves this door open in suggesting the existence of other possibilities for the origins of motion. From here, Aristotle seems to shy away from explicitly confronting the difficult question of his inquiry and instead he points us to the problem, and then posits a certain teleology to the cosmos. Up until this point, Aristotle has offered a glimpse into the difficulties of approaching the question of being qua being.

The prime mover of all future causes initiates motion “in the manner of something loved.” Not unlike a philosopher, the prime mover is a lover of the intellect. It is a thinker contemplating thought itself which is revealed to be the cause of all being and motion. Since the prime mover is composed of thought thinking itself, it can have no knowledge of future causes or beings that have resulted from its continuous motion. The prime mover is everlasting ‘like a god’ but it is motionless and unmoved, unlike a god. The prime mover cannot have magnitude since all finitude depends on some form of magnitude and the prime mover has no finitude because it is everlasting (this discussion of magnitude is further discussed in Aristotle’s Physics). The prime mover instills one everlasting motion in the shape of a sphere, like the circular movements of the planets which are also everlasting (here in the discussion, Aristotle’s Prime Mover starts to resemble Plato’s master craftsman in the Timaeus dialogue). Like the stars and planets there are likely multiple prime unmoved movers as the movements of the wandering planets suggest the activity of thought thinking itself, as well. Thus, the planets who adorn the night sky are an imitation of the prime mover’s act or acts of intelligence that unwittingly cause the cosmos.

Aristotle concludes Book XII with comments on theology (theology is only invoked after philosophic inquiry has been fully explored). Aristotle labels the inheritance of the gods as “myths” for the “persuasion of the masses” and the clarity of the god’s role in relation to the prime mover is left ambiguous. However, Aristotle’s prime mover shares certain characteristics in common with latter monotheistic theology which is developed over many centuries after his death. Here, Aristotle ends his inquiry with a brief comment. He cites the poets (Homer) and suggests that the cosmos would be best governed by one single intelligible whole in a Parmenidean sense (in the same way that the concept of number is whole and not divisible according to ancient Greek mathematics). Aristotle cites the Iliad at the end of Book XII (“a divided sovereignty is not good; let there be one lord” Iliad Book II, 204) -a quote which is in reference to Odysseus’s reformation of the chaotic Achaeans into a well-organized army against Ilium. The “lord” being referenced by Aristotle in the Iliad is the master political leader (i.e. Odysseus) and the reference in connection to the cosmos opens the door to the possibility of a divine intellect which has not created the world, but rather confers upon things a unique, delineated thinghood (these claims will later be revised to fit with European Christian orthodoxy by Thomas Aquinas some fifteen hundred years later).

To recap, Aristotle initially began his book as an innocent inquiry into the nature of things. He then proceeded into a lengthy dialectical or conversational discussion about ontological questions. Through the investigation, Aristotle slowly dismissed certain commonly held opinions and offered a new and higher perspective on speaking about being qua being. By the end, Aristotle’s exploration concluded with several possibilities examined, particularly in regard to a possible origination of motion and time, and a commonly-held “myth” was reaffirmed at the end for the sake of what is orderly and good (similar to the form of Plato’s “Myth of Er” at the conclusion of the Republic).

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s monumental translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Further Thoughts on Aristotle’s Politics

Aristotle’s treatise on politics is the essential work on political philosophy from classical antiquity. Since the death of Socrates, philosophy had to learn to conceal itself from the wayward opinions of the majority. People are biased and occasionally these biases are directed at people in an unenlightened way. Each age and political regime carries certain prejudices, but philosophy’s goal is to rise above particular prejudices in an effort to examine the nature of things -and this is a dangerous project to political life. Free inquiry is antithetical to the essentially religious nature of politics. In the ancient world there was no such thing as freedom of speech nor freedom of religion and so on. Thus, Socrates was condemned to die for impiety as well as for spreading his allegedly idle tricks to the youth of Athens. Therefore in an effort to continue the exploration of the best political regime (i.e. the pursuit of justice) philosophers are compelled to disguise their true convictions. Plato conceals himself behind a mask of poetry in dialogic form, while Aristotle takes another approach. We know Aristotle wrote some dialogues in his day, but what comes down are Aristotle’s extensive treatises.

In many of his treatises, Aristotle begins his texts by making large, declarative statements that generally reflect the established opinions of his day, but as the book proceeds, we soon discover that Aristotle has examined and broken apart those common opinions so that we may rise above what is common to see things from a higher perspective. And that is exactly what he does in his masterpiece, the Politics.

Book I of Aristotle’s Politics is devoted to distinguishing two different kinds of rule (which other writers confuse -presumably Plato and Xenophon), however the true meat of the text begins with a ‘new founding’ in Book III wherein the parts of the city are discussed, namely the citizens, as well as the four cardinal virtues (courage, moderation, prudence, and justice). Each of the cardinal virtues arise in Aristotle’s discussion of how to properly govern a household: not according to property, but rather according to virtue. At the outset, he claims that the best way to approach an examination of justice is to first examine

For Aristotle, the city is the highest expression of man’s political potential -it is small and distinct from a nation (ethnos) and further still from an empire. Perhaps most importantly, a city has limits. Readers of Aristotle cannot help but wonder what Aristotle would think of the nation state. Given his preference for a small, self-sufficient community which is in pursuit of virtue, Aristotle would likely find the modern nation state to be a hideous monstrosity. He follows from Plato’s lead in the Republic by analyzing the character of each regime (i.e. democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, republicanism and so on), though his preference comes to light for the rule of the ‘best of men’ -an aristocracy, or perhaps we might call it an aristocratic republic.

Curiously, in Aristotle the city is a naturally occurring organism for mankind because ‘man is a political animal,’ yet the city is also founded intentionally. The city does not occur automatically in the same way that herds of animals organize themselves. A city is founded on a vision of the good, on the idea of justice. Without the pursuit of justice, humans fall into hideous abuses because most of politics is about preventing the bad rather than pursuing the good. Aristotle does not hold an ‘optimistic’ view of human potential. The city, or any political association for that matter, arises out of several needs and desires: such as for humans to share with one another, for humans to derive meaning and purpose from their collective, and also out of a need for security and mutual benefit (which later becomes the primary justification for the modern political community from the so-called “state of nature” writers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau). The human political community begins as a naturally paternalistic embryo: it begins with the family, or the household. A family is ruled by two parents (contra popular opinion, Aristotle exoterically critiques the idea of full equality between men and women, while esoterically he cites ‘the poets’ with a quote from Sophocles’s Ajax in which Ajax goes mad while his wife attempts to reason with him).

At any rate, for Aristotle the household relies on slavery -a kind of natural slave who is deficient intellectually. He accepts a natural hierarchy among beings -some are better suited to lead, some are better suited to follow. A slave is someone incapable of ruling himself for Aristotle. The notion of ancient natural hierarchies is foreign to the modern mind as productive machinery and the firm belief in democratic values has overcome the desire for hierarchical order (this optimism has soured into skepticism in our present day).

The chief insight we gain in reading Book III of Aristotle’s Politics is an awareness of the immense complexity in determining the city in motion. A city, or politics, is rife with inconsistencies and tensions. Who speaks for the city -the revolutionaries? The leaders? How shall we characterize an existing regime? Who belongs to the city? Who is a citizen? Aristotle suggests the citizen is one who truly and fully engages in the decision-making and office of the city. Each citizen pursues his own interests, the rule of his household, while also seeking for the common good. Similarly each competing regime (i.e. democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, aristocracy and so on) believes it is pursuing the common good. Every regime claims to be just. Perhaps in some ways like Herodotus, Aristotle begins by posing a fundamental question about political life, he then answers that question with common opinions, and then puzzles the reader by presenting other conflicting common opinions. Dialectically, the conflict or disagreement leads the reader to a higher perspective regarding the problematic nature of politics.

At any rate, returning briefly to the inquiry about citizenry, Aristotle asks who the truly fulfilled citizen is: he discusses the democrat, the oligarch and so on. Ultimately, Aristotle suggests a certain level of praise for the remote contemplative life -the philosophic life. He offers a certain praise that is consistent with the Jeffersonian ideal -a rural republic of farmers who pursue an honorable life and the offices of governance are not desirable because the offices do not offer financial incentives. Active engagement in political life is not necessarily preferable for Aristotle: a life of leisure (the word leisure here means something akin to serious intellectual work, coupled with laborious daily work for business or personal reasons -it is different from idle oligarchs or overworked peasants). The Politics comes to light as a book that inspires politically inquisitive minds in all places and times: it is a trans-civic work of inspiration and inquiry.

This essay was heavily influenced by Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns and their writings on “Aristotle’s Politics” in their book The Key Texts of Political Philosophy.

Perception in Aristotle’s On The Soul

Aristotle’s On The Soul (or “De Anima” as the Latins transcribed it) addresses the question of what it means to be alive. It explores the self-organization of all natural and living things, from the perspective and perception of an observer. The text is a qualified addendum to the Physics, and its corollary is a short treatise called On Memory and Recollection, part of the eight short works known as Parva Naturalia, brief writings pertaining to nature.

At first glance to the unsophisticated mind, we may look around the world and recognize a part of ourselves in nature. Living things are born, grow, reproduce, and die. How is it that our perception and our senses allow us to understand these things, by nature, things like the difference between a human being and a dog? Even if we see a human being with no arms, legs, or hair, we still have the capacity to understand that the creature we are beholding is still a human being, and not a separate species. This is the central question of eidos, which Socrates is always questioning in the Platonic dialogues. Observing nature, and the nature of living things, reminds us that we have souls. Or, perhaps, that we are souls. But the ontological questions are best addressed in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

The word Aristotle uses for soul is “psuche” or “psyche.” Much can be said about this word, but in essence it refers to a creature observing nature with intellect, and observing its changes and sameness while also being-at-work and staying-itself and, at the same time, still being open to potentia, or to becoming (see the anecdote in the preceding paragraph regarding observing nature). Nature, to Aristotle, is living, organic, and it is also ordered. It has a certain logos to it. In essence, Aristotle seeks to examine the potency that perceives the world (i.e. the perceiver perceiving his own perception and its consequences).

In contrast to Descartes, Aristotle suggests (in Book I) that it would be unwise to merely trust things that are immediately “clear and distinct” to our senses, because the senses are deceptive. Instead, we should proceed from what is familiar. The moderns, following from Descartes, are doubters that knowledge can ever be attained because proceeding from common opinions is suspect to the modern mind. Most notably in his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes sits alone in a room and he fabricates an imagined world for himself, that is perfectly knowable, and that somehow corresponds to the world we live in, as well. This is attained through instruments and mathematical precision, not through the facticity of human awareness. Thus, geometry comes to prominence in Descartes’s writings. Nevertheless, the central epistemological problem persists in Descartes –what is the thinking and perceiving thing that is Descartes? He seems to suggest his own perceiving mind and God are the only two things he can be sure of. The human element of perception is minimized with the moderns via a forceful negation or naysaying of all things susceptible to doubt. They seek to find the superior, more democratically approved theory, in order to posit a world picture (excluding souls), not to explore the world as a soul perceiving other souls and natural phenomena.

In contrast, Aristotle suggests that self-discovery comes not from solitary self-examination of the senses, but rather from experience and observations of living things. At least Aristotle acknowledges the possibility of human experience. While Platonic dialogues frequently (and exoterically) ask the question ti esti or “what is it” in attaching universal names to particular things, but Aristotle is interested in how the world sorts itself out. Living things are being, and insofar as they are living, they are beings at work. And Aristotle is also concerned with what keeps these beings in order amidst nature at all. Thus, he looks for beings who are actively-at-work-staying-themselves.

Plato, in his Timaeus, offers a pleasurable myth that seriously addresses deep questions in a playful manner, rather than a rational examination of the cosmos. Elsewhere in the Phaedrus, Socrates tells Phaedrus that he much prefers myth-making and story-telling to sober and rational criticisms, because self-knowledge is better attained through myth-making.

In Aristotle’s On The Soul, he proceeds from commonly held assumptions, upward toward a glimpse at truth, or at least a deeper understanding of the nature of things. He begins with the commonly held belief that knowledge is “something beautiful and honored” (Book I, 402a), and begins with an inquiry into the soul, since the soul “is in some way the governing source of all things.” He runs through various impasses when defining the thinghood of the soul -Democritus, Pythagoras, and even Plato in his Timaeus. All these thinkers define soul by three things: motion, sense perception, and bodiliness (405b 12).

In Book II, we get Aristotle’s definition of the soul (summarized here by Joe Sachs): “The body (soma) is material for the soul (psyche or psuche) which is its invisible look (eidos) because the body has being as a potency for the being-at-work-staying-itself. The body’s thinghood that keeps it being a body at all by means of speech, is its soul. The soul constantly maintains the body as a kind of living thing that remains in its self-same category, and the soul is nutritive, as it transforms material from the natural world into perceptible and necessary ingredients to sustain the soul.” Book II, explores the varying powers of the soul, such as the nutritive, reproductive, perceptive potential and so on. The final section of On The Soul is Book III which explores several of the most important ways the soul thinks. Only now, do we see Aristotle using “clarity” and “distinctness” to explore what comes to light with greater certainty.

The past two thousand years have brought considerable criticisms of Aristotle’s notion of “soul,” though most have originated in the last two hundred years in the modern era. Typical criticisms have attempted to push Aristotle’s definition into one of two camps: pure materialism, or else Aristotle is some manner of neo-Christian “ghost in the machine” dualist (i.e. a soul-body distinction is made, which, of course, is never explicated in Aristotle’s On The Soul. He does provide one artless metaphor wherein the soul is like the captain of a ship, but this should not be taken too heavily).

For these readings I used the magnificent Joe Sachs translation of Aristotles On The Soul.

What is the Teaching of Aristotle’s Poetics?

In Aristotle’s Poetics, the poetic art (or poieses meaning “to create” in Greek) is a natural organic activity. It is an imitative act (mimesis) and is also a kind of reflection of nature. The Poetics begins with a larger exploration of poetry, itself, and the book concludes with a dramatic duel between the two chief forms of poetry: epic (i.e. Homer) and tragedy (i.e. Aeschylus). Aristotle spends minimal time discussing comedy, which he is rumored to have addressed elsewhere in a now lost work.

Apparently, the philosophic art is a kind of mimesis – as Aristotle begins his inquiry in the most natural way: in the beginning. He begins by distinguishing the kinds of poetry: epic poetry (a la Homer), tragedy, comedy, and dithyrambic poems (a kind of Dionysian choral hymn).

As with painters, the performance art imitates people who are either of a serious moral stature, or a lower moral stature. This is because “all people differentiate states of character by vice and virtue” (1448a). While other poets imitate similar or inferior people, Homer imitates people who are better than we are. Tragedy can be distinguished from comedy in that the latter imitates inferior people, and the former imitates better people.

In this way, Sophoclean tragedy shares something in common with Homer in their mutual efforts to imitate people who are better than people are currently. However, in another way Sophoclean tragedy is also like Aristophanes’s comedies – both are dramas and showcase a demonstration of action (i.e. a performance).

It is likely that the poetic art was brought into being by two natural causes, since it is natural for human beings to imitate from the age of childhood and also “all human beings delight in imitations” (1448b). Imitation emerged along with harmony and rhythm naturally, with some imitating noble (or “beautiful”) actions and others imitating more base actions. The iambic meter originated because that is what the ancients used to ridicule one another, however Homer took the comedic art of ridiculing and, instead, dramatized the ridiculous. Regarding the tragic art, it originated in improvisation in the ancient “phallic songs” and satyr-plays and not until Aeschylus were multiple actors introduced, Sophocles introduced three actors and painted scenery, and upon the introduction of speaking, nature found a way with the iamb, as that is the most natural rhythm, for we speak in iambs.

As has been said, comedy is an imitation of a lower sort of people, though not in respect to every vice. For “what is ridiculous is a part of what is ugly” (1449a). The ridiculous is a sort of “missing the mark that is painless and not destructive”. Aristotle uses the example of the mask – an innocent but nevertheless ridiculous element of the comic plays. The making of these stories first came from Sicily, according to Aristotle.

Epic poetry is similar to tragedy in the fact that they deal with subjects of a serious nature (with magnitude), however the parts of epic poetry are mostly contained within tragedy. Tragedy is a complete imitation of a serious action using performance and not narration, accomplishing this by means of fear and pity – and cleansing these states of feeling through katharsis. There are six parts of every tragedy: story (imitation of the action), states of character, wording, thinking, spectacle, and song-making. The tragedy draws the soul by means of reversals and discoveries in the story, and discovery is a kind of leading from ignorance to recognition. A tragedy is best when a discovery and a reversal happen at the same time, as in Oedipus. Additionally suffering is the third and key element.

Since a tragedy is a complete whole, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. It is an imitation of one whole action, as in the Odyssey, with many small side-stories. In this way, poetry speaks of universals, of things that might happen, history speaks of things that have already happened.

Throughout the text, Aristotle makes liberal use of phrases: “what is likely” versus “what is necessary”. The likely sequence in the story is that which is some certain imitation of human action working itself out. In a tragedy, the plot does not unfold necessarily, for that would leave little room for twists of fate.

Aristotle begins addressing superior versus inferior poets in Chapter 9, in which an inferior poet will create an episodic story. It is inferior because it is random. The highest form of poetics is orderly and harmonized.

Next, he discusses the general vices and virtues of the appropriate tragedy. Tragedy produces fear and pity. Therefore tragedy ought not to showcase a decent man going from good to bad fortune, since this is repellent. Nor should it showcase people of bad character changing from bad to good fortune, since this is the least tragic and does not arouse feelings of philanthroupon, or love of humanity.

Therefore, tragedy displays a man not surpassing in virtue and justice. His status does not change into misfortune through bad character, but rather through some “missing of the mark” (1453b). This has sometimes been called the “tragic mistake.” For example Euripides, even if he does not manage other things well, is the most tragic of the poets, as he follows this formula. The other option is to end like the Odyssey, better for the good people – but this is more akin to comedy. Characters in the play should be solidly reliable. And the plot should contain a build-up and a resolution.

The Poetics concludes by ‘arriving at the mark’ – tragedy and epic poetry have been distinguished and defined, and both have hit their mark when they find common purpose in “wonder” – also a philosophic objective. Aristotle credits Homer with finding the peak allowable in the epic poetic art, but he also notes that latter tragedians perfected the art of poetics. Aristotle observed a kind of peak of poetics during his lifetime, followed by a decline. Poetics, particularly tragic poetry, was a phenomenon unique to Attic Greece, and it really only lasted primarily through a single lifetime of one man, such as Sophocles. The tragic demand in the ancient world is not unlike the modern invention of the novel.

For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.