"The Unmoved-Mover" in Aristotle's Metaphysics
Book L of the Metaphysics touches upon what Aristotle calls the "Unmoved Mover." In short, this is Aristotle's conceptualization of God which is worthy of our attention both because of the inherent interest of the topic and because of the significant influence this writing has had on subsequent philosophers as well as the theologians of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This hub will sketch out Aristotle's account for the existence of the "Unmoved Mover" and highlight some of its characteristics. I do not intend for this hub to be comprehensive, but just an introduction to generate an awareness of Aristotle's thought and to hopefully stimulate some interest in the original texts and the centuries of scholarship that this seminal work of Western metaphysics has stimulated.
Aristotle and Plato by Leonardo Da Vinci
The "Unmoved Mover"
In Chapter 6, Book L, of the Metaphysics, Aristotle begins a discussion about "substances." One of the substances he describes is that of an "unmoved mover" which, he argues, exists by necessity and is eternal. For something to be eternal, it is neither created nor destroyed, but always has and always will exist. For something to be a substance, it exists by virtue of itself ("kath'auton") in the sense that its existence is not dependent on anything else--it just is. In contrast, Aristotle describes things that have "accidental" existence ("kata symbebekos") whose existence depends and adheres to an underlying subject. To give you a better sense of his line of thought here, consider the following entity--a human being named Socrates. This entity's substance as far as Aristotle understands it would be the entity's "human-being-ness." Socrates is, by his very nature, human. His is human "kath'auton." But the fact that Socrates has the name "Socrates", and is Greek, and is a philosopler, and is hungry today or sleepy, is "accidental"--these predicates adhere to Socrates's human-being-ness "kata symbebekos", or "by accident". In other words these are contingent modications of Socrates' underlying essence.
So according to Aristotle the Unmoved Mover is a certain kind of "being" or "substance" just as a human being is a kind of "substance". It has certain essential qualities which are not accidental modifications. Unlike human beings or other "substances", the Unmoved Mover has a special unique quality--it is neither "moved" nor changed by any external agency. When Aristotle uses the word "moved", he conceives of more than just physical motion, but a state of being the effect of some cause or being affected by some external agency. For instance, consider Socrates again. He has the essential quality of human-ness and, among others accidental qualities, the quality of being "happy". Suppose as the day passes, his friend Callicles insults him and thereby makes him angry. Socrates still has the essential quality of being human but now he has the accidental quality of being "angry". In this sense, Socrates was "moved" by Callicles insofar as Callicles effected some accidental modification upon Socrates.
One of the distinguishing features of the Unmoved Mover is that there are no substances, or entities, in the universe that are able to cause any modifications upon it--in that sense, it is unmoved and thus internally motivated without exception. It is always the ultimate agent of any activity and never (to use an old fashion grammatical term) a "patient" of something external to it.
Now that we have a sense of where Aristotle is coming from when he uses the term "Unmoved Mover", it will be useful to consider why he found it necessary to infer such a being. The first assumption that Aristotle makes is the existence of change. Things are always changing in the universe, which he conceived of as a kind of kaleidiscopic dance of substances and accidents. If we are willing to grant the existence of change, we must necessarily infer the existence of time, since in the context of change, there is a before and after. Recalling my above example, Socrates was at first happy, subsequently Socrates was angry. Change implies as sequence of events and a sequence of events implies time, or a before and after. Aristotle's next step is to say there has always been change--always a sequence of precedent motions and modifications ad infinitum, and always a sequence of subsequent motions and modifications ad infinitum. This is to be contrasted with Biblical creation where creation has a beginning as described in Gensis and an end as described in the Apocalypse.
So then Aristotle is left with the following question: If we observe that there is always change and we observe that there is time, where do change and time come from? Aristotle argues that there must be some substance in the universe which keeps things in motion eternally, and so this substance itself must be eternal to do so. Aristotle continues by arguing that "nothing is moved at random, but there must always be something present to move it" (1071b 33-35). And so if one were to identify all the movements in the universe, one could theoretically trace all those motions to some motivating force. Here, one might visualize a billiard table on which all the balls are forever bouncing back and forth into each other and the walls of the billiard table. These balls must have something independent of them that causes them to remain in motion. And so Aristotle continues, "If, then, there is a constant cycle, something must always remain, acting in the same way." (1072a 9-10).
In Chapter 7, Aristotle explicates how this mover keeps things in motion. This mover is something that moves without being moved. Aristotle observes, "The object of desire and the object of thought move in this way; they move without being moved" (1071b 26-27). For example, let's consider an "object of desire"--a beautiful woman. Imagine an exceptionally beautiful woman sitting in a coffee shop. She minds her own business, head buried in a newspaper and sipping coffee. Now imagine some man takes notice of her, he is attracted to her and initiates conversation. As between the man and the woman, the woman is the "unmoved-mover", being an object of desire for the man. She stimulates the man to come over to her. She is an unmoved mover because she did NOT engage in any specific activity to bring the man closer to her or to have him initiate conversation. The woman causes the man "to move", but this causality is different than, say, the sort of causation that is involved when someone playing billiards hits a ball--the player is not an unmoved mover. He is engaged in some positive activity to set the cue ball in motion, i.e. propelling it in motion with a pool stick. And so, Aristotle would argue that the unmoved mover causes motion in a way that is analogous to the attractive woman rather than the pool player. However, comparing the charms of a beautiful woman to the motivating force of the unmoved mover, is not a perfect analogy. Unlike the attractive woman, the very nature or substance of the unmoved mover causes the motion of the universe, not some accidental quality as in the case of the attractive woman. Physical beauty is not an inherent quality of human-being-ness, but exists by accident just as anger existed "by accident" ("kata symbebekos") in Socrates.
The quality that allows the unmoved mover to set the rest of the universe in motion is thus not accidental, but essential. "On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature" (1072b 23-14). For Aristotle, the universe is not infinite, but a circular chain of finite things which are eternally in motion. Outside this finite circle of things, there is a principle which keeps everything in motion while it is itself unmoved.
The Metaphysics--Medieval Manuscript with Scholia
Alchemical Schemata Inspired by Aristotle
In Chapter 4, Aristotle refers to the unmoved mover as a living being, which has a life "such as the best which we enjoy, and enjoy for but a short time." In this passage, Aristotle uses uncharacteristically poetic language about the joys of thinking and the use of ones "rational faculty" or mind. Aristotle here indicates that the unmoved mover is a thinking being and is totally engrossed in the act of contemplation, an act which is, in the words of Aristotle, the "most pleasant and best." Interestingly, the unmoved mover is left with little else to do, if he is truly to be unmoved. Furthermore, the object of its contemplation would have to be itself apparently, otherwise it would be moved by some external "object of thought", and thus would become a moved mover whose thoughts were stimulated by something external to it, just as a man's desire is stimulated by some beauty external to it.
After referring to the unmoved mover as a living being, Aristotle suddenly starts referring to it as God. Aristotle does not always appear to be giving specific arguments--at times he is very elliptical, as if merely reminding the initiated rather than attempting to convince skeptic--and concludes this passage by asserting that "God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God."
The last significant point Aristotle makes is that this God cannot have any "magnitude", since every magnitude is either finite or infinite. An unmoved mover cannot have a finite magnitude because it produces movement through infinite time. Nothing finite can have power that is infinite in duration. Nor can God have an infinite magnitude since infinite magnitudes do not exist in a universe that is finite, as Aristotle supposed the universe to be. What Aristotle precisely means by "magnitude" is not entirely clear, but seems to mean some quality of depth that allows it to be perceived by the senses.
In chapter 8, Aristotle makes the point that there is only one unmoved mover and is the first mover of the universe, being prior to all motion and the cause of all motion. This unmoved mover keeps the universe and heaven in motion. There are other movers in the universe, which account for the motion of the stars and the different heavenly bodies, but ultimately they derive their motion from this "unmovable first mover" which, according to Aristotle, is God.
Aristotle in 1074b muses how the root of Greek myth and tradition is, in fact, consistent with his metaphysical views about God and the other movers in the universe. He states, "that they [the poets] thought the first substances to be gods, one must regard this as an inspired utterace..." (1074b 9-11). Aristotle who was a friend of "common sense" ("endoxa") not surprisely points out this connection between his system and traditional beliefs.
In chapter 9, Aristotle discusses the nature of divine thought or the content of God's thought. Thought according to Aristotle is the most divine of things. Divine thought, therefore, is divine in the highest degree. But God's thought must have some content, "for if [God] thinks of nothing, what is there here of dignity?" (1074b 18-19).
According to Aristotle, the unmoved mover either thinks about itself or thinks about something other than itself. Since God is by definition unmoved or unchanged by anything else, it cannot, therefore, think of anything other than itself. To think of something other than itself is to be moved or changed by something from without. This is impossible according to his definition of God, since God is unmoved/unchanged by any external agent. Thus, this leaves the other alternative, namely of God thinking about itself. Further, Aristotle makes the point that the content of God's thought must be the most excellent of things. "Therefore, God's thought must be about itself, and its thinking is a thinking on thinking" (1074b 32-34). Perhaps at face value, Aristotle seems to be describing a rather self-absorbed deity. But I invite the reader to entertain an alternative: perhaps if we allow the thinker (the unmoved mover), the thinking (the unmoved motion) and the thought (the sum total of all things in the universe including the unmoved mover) as being one at a deeply metaphysical level, then perhaps we can rescue Aristotle's Deity from the accusation of self-absorption according to the common understanding of the word. An apt anology might be to conceive of this Deity as the dreamer, the dreaming and the dream, where the substance of a dream is the product of the dreamer's act of dreaming without any of the three being truly distinct. One can continue this line of thought, but I will leave that to the reader.
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