Aristotelian view of god

Aristotle's theology, and the scholastic view of God, have been influential in Western intellectual history.

The Metaphysics

In his first philosophy, later called the Metaphysics, (or “after the Physics”), Aristotle discusses the meaning of being as being. He refers to the unmoved movers, and assigns one to each movement in the heavens; or more prosaically, he tasks future astronomers with correlating the estimated 47 to 55 motions of the Eudoxan planetary model, by his estimates, with the most current and accurate observations. According to Aristotle, each unmoved mover continuously contemplates its own contemplation; they have no knowledge of the cosmos, nor do they participate therein. The planets and stars, which have their source of motion within themselves (by virtue of aether, Aristotle's fifth element) aspire to emulate the uniform circular motion of their particular mover. Thus captivated, their tireless performance is entirely the result of their own desire. This is one way in which the movers are said to be unmoved. Also, because they are immaterial eternal substantial form, they lack any aspect of magnitude or volume and occupy no location; thus, they are physically incapable of moving anywhere, or of moving anything. Likewise, they must have no sensory perception whatsoever on account of Aristotle's theory of cognition: were any form of sense perception to intrude upon their thoughts, in that instant they would cease to be themselves, because actual self-reflection is their singular essence, their whole being. Like the heavenly bodies in their unadorned pursuit, so the wise look, with affection, toward the star; and hence as a role model, they inspire those who look up to them, and by whom others still, will yet find themselves enthralled, and so on, they muse… the enduring natural order of aeon, season, animal and plant.

The principles of being

In the metaphysical order, the highest determinations of Being are Actuality (entelecheia - Greek: ἐντελέχεια) and Potentiality (dynamis - Greek: δύναμις). The former is perfection, realization, fullness of Being; the latter imperfection, incompleteness, perfectibility. The former is the determining, the latter the determinable principle. Actuality and potentiality are above all the Categories. They are found in all beings, with the exception of the Supreme Cause, in whom there is no imperfection, and, therefore, no potentiality. God is all actuality, Actus Purus.

All other beings are composed of actuality and potentiality, a dualism which is a general metaphysical formula for the dualism of matter and form, body and soul, substance and accident, the soul and its faculties, passive and active intellect. In the physical order, potentiality and actuality become Matter and Form. To these are to be added the Agent (Efficient Cause) and the End (Final Cause); but as the efficiency and finality are to be reduced, in ultimate analysis, to Form, we have in the physical order two ultimate principles of Being, namely, Matter and Form. Aristotle's Four causes -- Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final—are seen in the case, for instance, of a statue:

  • The material cause, that out of which the statue is made, is the marble or bronze.
  • The formal cause, that according to which the statue is made, is the idea existing in the first place as exemplar in the mind of the sculptor, and in the second place as intrinsic, determining cause, embodied in the matter.
  • The efficient cause, or Agent, is the sculptor.
  • The final cause is that for the sake of which (as, for instance, the price paid the sculptor, the desire to please a patron, etc.) the statue is made.

Mere potentiality without any actuality or realization (Prima materia in Latin) nowhere exists by itself, though it enters into the composition of all things except the Supreme Cause. It is at one pole of reality, He is at the other. Both are real. Primordial matter possesses what may be called the most attenuated reality, since it is pure indeterminateness, God possesses the highest and most complete reality, since He is in the highest grade of determinateness. To prove that there is a Supreme Cause is one of the tasks of metaphysics the Theologic Science. And this Aristotle undertakes to do in several portions of his work on First Philosophy.

In the Physics he adopts and improves on Socrates' teleological argument, the major premise of which is "Whatever exists for a useful purpose must be the work of an intelligence". In the same treatise he argues that, although motion is eternal, there cannot be an infinite series of movers and of things moved. Therefore there must be one, the first in the series, which is unmoved, to provide movement without being moved: described in Greek as proton kinoun akineton and in Latin as primum movens immobile.

In the Metaphysics he takes the stand that the actual is of its nature antecedent to the potential, that consequently, before all matter and all composition of matter and form, of potentiality and actuality, there must have existed a Being Who is pure actuality, and Whose life is self-contemplative thought (noesis noeseos). The Supreme Being imparted movement to the universe by moving the First Heaven, the movement, however, emanated from the First Cause as desirable. In other words, the First Heaven, attracted by the desirability of the Supreme Being "as the soul is attracted by beauty", was set in motion, and imparted its motion to the lower spheres and thus, ultimately, to our terrestrial world.[1]

According to this theory God never leaves the eternal repose in which His blessedness consists. Since matter, motion, and time are eternal, the world is eternal. Yet, it is caused. The manner in which the world originated is not defined in Aristotle's philosophy.


Aristotle's principles of being (see section above) influenced Anselm's view of God, whom he called "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Anselm thought that God did not feel emotions such as anger or love, but appeared to do so through our imperfect understanding. The incongruity of judging "being" against something that might not exist, may have led Anselm to his famous ontological argument for God's existence.

Many medieval philosophers made use of the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term, all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant (i.e. in some way God has some properties of knowledge). We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

Aristotelian theological concepts were accepted by many later Jewish, Islamic, and Christian philosophers. Key Jewish philosophers included Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides, and Gersonides, among many others. Their views of God are considered mainstream by many Jews of all denominations even today. Preeminent among Islamic philosophers who were influenced by Aristotelian theology are Avicenna and Averroes. In Christian theology, the key philosopher influenced by Aristotle was undoubtedly Thomas Aquinas. There had been earlier Aristotelian influences within Christianity (notably Anselm), but Aquinas (who, incidentally, found his Aristotelian influence via Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides) incorporated extensive Aristotelian ideas throughout his own theology. Through Aquinas and the Scholastic Christian theology of which he was a significant part, Aristotle became "academic theology's great authority in the course of the thirteenth century"[2] and exerted an influence upon Christian theology that become both widespread and deeply embedded. However, notable Christian theologians rejected[3] Aristotelian theological influence, especially the first generation of Christian Reformers[4] and most notably Martin Luther.[5][6][7] In subsequent Protestant theology, Aristotelian thought quickly reemerged in Protestant Scholasticism.

See also