The three most important figures in Western philosophy are Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Aristotle’s works were largely lost to Western philosophy until Thomas Aquinas utilized Aristotle in shaping his Christian theology. But with the revitalization of Aristotle came the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church with heavy influence on medieval scholarship.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato, and a teacher of Alexander the Great. He was born in Stagira, Chalcidice about 34 miles east of Thessaloniki in modern Greece. The name Aristotle means “the best purpose.” His name seems to fit the course of his life.
He studied under Plato at the Academy in Athens for twenty years. Aristotle was appointed by Philip II of Macedon to head of the royal academy of Macedon. He was not only a teacher of Alexander, but of Alexander’s successors Ptolemy and Cassander. Aristotle retuned to Athens in 335 BC establishing his own school, the Lyceum from where his greatest works were composed.
Arguably, Metaphysics is Aristotle’s most recognizable work. He calls metaphysics,
“a science which studies Being qua Being (το ον η ον), and the properties inherent in it in virtue of its own nature.” Aristotle XVII, Metaphysics I-IX, Loeb Classical Library, translated by Hugh Tredennick, ed. Gould, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1898, Book IV, p147
Aristotle does not begin with a search for God, but with a search for truth. If this search leads to God, then that is good.
It is right that philosophy should be called knowledge of the truth (ἐπιστήμην τῆς ἀληθείας). For the end of theoretical knowledge is truth…
Metaphysics, Bk II, Ch 1, 19, 993, p. 712 (the Basis Works of Aristotle, ed Richard McKeon, the Modern Library, New York, Random House Inc., 1941)
In a way, Christians are searching for the truth also, but this search begins with God:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
A revelational approach to truth begins from a radically different motivation than the classic philosophical approach to truth. Philosophy means love of wisdom. It does not mean pursuit of God for the love of God. Philosophy as practiced by Aristotle means pursuit of wisdom for its own sake. Without revelation as a guide, Aristotle is left with uncertain, if not faulty, premises to build his understanding of reality.
Aristotle believes the world can be understood through a hierarchy of being. He builds this worldview from two fundamental premises. Aristotle calls the first “that which is” (τί ἐστι) and the second “this something” (τόδε τι). A philosopher will call “that which is” a universal and “this something” a particular. Aristotle is a particular, a certain man. Man is a universal; an assertion which is made about a related group of individuals.
In order for the world to be intelligible, human beings must discriminate and put certain related objects in categories. For example, a baby must learn that ice cream is good for eating and rocks are not.
If the only knowledge of things was particular things, then the millions of images and forms seen every day would be impossible to understand. It would be impossible to known if a thing was for sitting (a chair) or for eating (ice cream). That is why universals are needed. Concrete things like rocks can be stepped on but deep water cannot be stepped upon.
Aristotle proposes three candidates for being. The first is matter which he calls sensible. The second is form which he says is immutable. Lastly, the third is substance, a composite of form and matter, such as an individual, Socrates.
How is Socrates a particular? When Socrates was living, he is constantly eating and replacing body cells, so that the water and the material that made Socrates a baby are not the same water and material in Socrates the man. It is not the material that makes Socrates a man but the form of the material.
The form continues after Socrates is dead. In particular, the form in man, at the species level, continues after the death of Socrates, but continues in the existence of men. The combination of Socrates form and matter is the individual Socrates. Aristotle believes the form-species is the best candidate for primary substance.
After and long and tenuous discussions, Metaphysics maintains that form is primary substance (Metaphysics VII.17, 1041). A primary substance is identical with its essence (Metaphysics VII, 61031,p. 257) and has no predicates (On Interpretation VII). Both of these concepts will have tremendous influence in developing the classical interpretation of the divine attributes. That primary substance which is on top of the hierarchy of being is God.
For science which be most meet for God to have is a divine science, and so is any science that deals with divine objects; and this science alone has both these qualities; for God is thought to be among the causes of all things (αἰτίων πᾶσιν) (ἀρχή) and to be a first principle (ἀρχή) , and such a science either God alone can have, or God above all others.
Metaphysics, Bk I, Ch 2, ,6-10, 982b, p. 693 (the Basic Works of Aristotle, ed Richard McKeon, the Modern Library, New York, Random House Inc., 1941)
In Aristotle’s work Categories, he identifies an individual man or horse as a primary substance. In Metaphysics Aristotle suggest that the species-form is the primary substance. However, categories are useful for deciding what accidental properties are and what essential properties are. Primary substances must have essential properties but can lose accidental ones. If a man dies and his body decomposes, the essential attributes that make him man also disappear. Accidental attributes can change. Socrates is pale. However, Socrates can become red and robust and still be Socrates.
Aristotle’s Categories are meant to summarize everything that can be said of existence into ten categories. The first category is substance and other nine categories are accidents, what can be changed or said of a substance without changing what it is. There are nine accidents: quantity, quality, relation, action, passion, time, place, position, and possession. Substance (ουσια) is that which exists after the nine accidents are removed.
Aristotle’s god, the unmoved mover, causes all things. Aristotle believes the universe is in eternal motion sustained by the unmoved mover. There has to be an unmoved mover because if everything is moved by something there is an infinite regress and no beginning. The First Cause or the Unmoved Mover through its own motion is eternal, unbegotten and unchangeable.
But since there is something which moves (κινοῦν) while itself unmoved (ἀκίνητον), existing actually(ἐνεργείᾳ), this can in no way be otherwise than as it is. For motion in space is the first of the kinds of change, and motion in a circle the first kind of spatial motion; and this the first mover produces. The first mover, then, exists(ἐστὶν ὄν) of necessity(ἀνάγκης); and in so far as it exists (ἐστὶν ὄν)by necessity, its mode of being is good, and it is in this sense a first principle(ἀρχή). For the necessary has all these senses-that which is necessary perforce because it is contrary to the natural impulse, that without which the good (καλῶς) is impossible, and that which cannot be otherwise but can exist only in a single way(ἁπλῶς).
Metaphysics, Bk XII, Ch 7, 7-14, 1072, p. 880 (the Basic Works of Aristotle, ed Richard McKeon, the Modern Library, New York, Random House Inc., 1941)
Here we see the some of the incommunicable attributes of the classical theologian in primitive form. God is unmoved (immutable), pure actuality, good, and simple. Aristotle echoes Platonic argument that any change is for the worse.
“Clearly, then, it thinks that which is most divine and estimable, and does not change; for the change would be for the worse, and anything of this kind would immediately imply some sort of motion.”
Metaphysics XI-XIV, Loeb Classical Library, translated by Hugh Tredennick, ed. Gould, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1898, p165, Book XII, IX,3
Aristotle also maintains, like Plato, that changlessness implies eternality.
And further, if there is always something of this nature, a movement that is jtself unmoved and eternal, then that which is first moved by it must be eternal.
Physics, Bk VIII, Ch 6, 31, 260, p. 376, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed Richard McKeon, the Modern Library, New York, Random House Inc., 1941
It was thought that Parmenides demonstrated how change was impossible. Despite our conception of the world, Parmenides had shown that it is impossible to cause change. It was impossible to bring something that did not exist into the world since the only things that exist are real. Change would bring something that does not exist into existence.
Aristotle wanted to prove that change was possible. He explained change as movement. Movement includes more than just covering distance. To Aristotle movement includes how something can become something else. He explained this movement as differentiating between the potentiality(δυναμις) actuality (ενετελεγμεια). Motion (κινεσις) as “the fulfillment of what exists potentially, insofar as it exists potentially” (Physics 3.1; 201a 10-12). Most real sensible things are in a dual state of existing actuality, and potentially becoming something else. I am 60 but I will potentially have the body of a seventy year old. Its potentiality is, as it were, an attribute of thing as actual.
Things become moved when they are in contract with an efficient cause, or a mover. The movers are the cause by which all things move. The mover causes the actualization of the thing being moved. There exists a first cause or prime cause or a mover that is not caused by anything else. This unmoved mover exists actually only, there is no chance of the unmoved mover existing potentially. Otherwise the unmoved mover would not be eternal there would be a chance that he would go out of existence. This is the unmoved mover of Aristotle.
Whether in Parmenides, Plato, or Aristotle, all the attributes of God defined in classical theology rear their heads through similar philosophic reasoning. It is an understanding of God that begins through philosophical definitions of perfection and manifests itself in Christianity through the ad hoc application of these tenants to irrelevant passages from the Scriptures. Both early and medieval theologians alike would readily study and quote these philosophers.
Nonetheless, even in the works of these philosophers there remains only an indirect connection between all these concepts and God. God is Aristotle’s first cause in hierarchy of being. God is Plato’s intellection of perfection. It would require the work of a lesser known philosopher to synthesize all these concepts into a systematic theology that made the philosophical god palatable for a Christian audience.