Thursday, January 20, 2011

Aristotle, his god and the primum mobile

absurd but influential, apparently

Despite his conviction that the world was uncreated, Aristotle did believe in a divine spirit, or God. But the attributes he assigned to his God, whom he called an 'Unmoved mover', would have been strange, and perhaps repugnant, to anyone raised in one of the three traditional monotheistic religions. Obviously, Aristotle's God was not the creator of our world, since it is uncreated. Indeed, he is not even aware of the world's existence and, therefore, does not, and could not, concern himself with anything in our world. Such a deity could not, therefore, be an object of worship. The only activity fit for such a God is pure thought. but the only thoughts worthy of his exalted status are thoughts about himself. Totally remote from the universe, Aristotle's God thinks only of himself.

Edward Grant, 'Aristotle and Aristotelianism', in Science and Religion: a historical introduction, edited by Gary Ferngren

I've long had a thing for Aristotle, especially his ethical and political philosophy, but it's all been from quite meagre gleanings. He seemed to have a common-sense empirical approach, and I like to think of him as a this-wordly philosopher through and through, making big assumptions such as that his primum mobile was just a way of kick-starting the universe, after which it could be abandoned, with all the focus being on a kind of physicalist approach thenceforward. If the above quotation is to be trusted, though, Aristotle's metaphysics are a lot weirder than I'd assumed. I was under the impression that Grant's term 'unmoved mover' was a direct translation of primum mobile, which I always took to mean 'first mover', but I'm beginning to realize my error. In fact the term primum mobile [first moved] is a medieval construction used in astronomy and having nothing to do with Aristotle's metaphysics [though it may have been indirectly drawn from him]. So enough of that concept and let's look at Aristotle's god, at least as revealed in the quotation.
How this god could even be described as a 'mover' is a mystery. He didn't create the world, he's unaware of the world, so of what theological use is he? Why even posit his existence? Clearly we would have to investigate Aristotle's metaphysics much more thoroughly to answer these questions. One possible answer is that it was impossible, in those times, for a thinker worth his salt not to have a theology or a metaphysics of some kind. So Aristotle invented a metaphysics that was beside the point. Not consciously perhaps, but just to get it out of the way, to focus on this world, a world entirely untouched by his god. Whether this answer is plausible would depend on a greater familiarity with his metaphysics, which I may or may not achieve. I actually spent some time in Borders bookshop the other day perusing a book called Aristotle's Metaphysics, a contemporary commentary [something like this one, but costing more than $50] on the works under the title of The Metaphysics [not a term Aristotle used himself]. That's essentially why I'm writing this post today.
I do find that Aristotle's strange god, as presented in the quotation, provides a salutary lesson, and an amusing one. You can create in your mind all sorts of supernatural beings, even ones that are completely irrelevant to the generally agreed purpose of supernatural beings - to give purpose and meaning to the world, or to reality. In fact, Aristotle's god is irrelevant to everything except himself. There seems something important here about theological pointlessness, but maybe not. In any case, I might just return to Aristotle's metaphysics in a later post, when I've learned more about it.

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