Aristotle’s prime mover

Antonis asked:

I’m recently engaged with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, especially with Lambda book of this work. I have this question: is the First Unmoved Mover just a cause of the purpose for the inferior beings, a cause of creation, or both of them? Thank you!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I preface my reply with two observations that cannot be left unmentioned. The first of these is, that our Aristotle has gone through the filter of Aquinas, who ‘christianised’ Aristotle thoroughly and therefore ‘christianised’ our conception of his philosophy as well. This spells out as a conflict between their respective conception of “God” and “Uncaused Cause”.

Secondly, the Greeks had no creation myth (e.g. in Hesiod the world already exists before the gods are born), which means that your question already has Aquinas’ prejudice ingrained in it and inevitably associates the prime mover with a creator.

Getting around these difficulties is a bit of a juggling act for us, as we cannot simply eject from our minds the doctrines that are part of the air we breathe.

So what does Aristotle teach? In Lambda 6, that an immutable substance is the necessary precondition for a world of mutable substances to exist. This substance differs from all others in not having been a potential — it is actuality per se, hence necessary; and thus the guarantor that the world is imperishable, while everything ‘in’ the world is both contingent and perishable.

In Lambda 7 he then proceeds to explain how an immutable and immovable substance can generate motion. This is the section where interpretation is caught between ambiguity and double-dutch. He holds the prime mover to be an object of intentionality, i.e. the supremely desirable state of perfection that is associated with a divinity. But to Aristotle this can only mean existence-qua-thought, or reflexive contemplation of its own contemplative perfection, while (near the end of 1072b) “the actuality of thought is life and the prime mover is that actuality.” Yet it is by no means unequivocal whether it is the prime mover causing motion or the desire of intentional existents on being incited.

From here to Lambda 8 is a bit of a jolt. Aristotle now interrogates the heavens for a prime mover and finds himself forced to allow a plurality (49 or 55, at your choice). Scholars are divided on what to make of this self-contradiction and many suggest foul play by an editor. It seems feasible, as Lambda 9 returns to the notion of contemplative reflexivity. However, to put my tuppence-worth of argument in: his multiple prime movers do not seem incompatible to me, as any serious enquiry into causality inevitably ends up with one of two irreconcilable problems: (a) the infinite regress in which the solitary prime mover serves to collapse the trend in a single point; and (b) the branching-out of innumerable strands of actual causal processes which cannot be returned to the ‘main thread’ of regression and logically demand a catalyst of their own.

Returning to your question, the part concerning ‘purpose’ puzzles me, but (b) below might answer it. That leaves creation, and now: (a) The contents of Lambda 6-9 do not involve any creation whatever, Aristotle stressing motion throughout, which ought to set you thinking “what is being moved?” (b) Aristotle’s theology is concentrated on immovable substances without parts; it says nothing other than that their actuality makes them intentional objects — which should again encourage you to ask, “intentional objects for whom or what?”, which is incidentally an issue raised by his own pupil Theophrastos. (c) Lambda 7 could be interpreted as a hint that intelligence is the default condition of the cosmos, on which intentional beings fixate their desire.

So much for my take on it. Other than this I would recommend that you read read the relevant chapters in Guthrie’s History of Greek Philosophy VI and Barnes’ in the Cambridge Companions volume dedicate to Aristotle, for two very contrasting accounts.

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