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Aristotle’s Peaceful Non-Christian God

October 25, 2019

The Christian God is derived of course not only from biblical scripture, but also from Plato.

But theologians also borrowed (along with an entire cosmology) some terminology from Aristotle: ‘unmoved mover’ and ‘first cause’, among many others. But they explicitly and vehemently rejected Aristotle’s notion of God.

Islamic portrayal of Aristotle, 1220 (partly damaged)

They didn’t like it that, unlike Plato’s God, the god of Aristotle did not create the universe. This is a needless abdication of power. Christians are supposed to feel infinitely subordinate to God and irreversibly indebted to Him as well. That’s an easier place to get to theologically (i.e. politically), if you can say that God created us, and that we are thus his property.

Aristotle thought the earth and the heavens had simply always been there: the spherical earth at the centre of the universe; the heavens slowly turning above, in an unchanging and unbroken circle. The animals, a category to which humans also belong, live out their lives as their predecessors always have done, beautifully attuned to their respective habitats.

For Plato, the demiurge created tiny geometric particles and shared out some creative tasks to lesser deities, who did the best they could to create a world out of this rather unforgiving material. All they could do though was to create a pale and unsatisfying copy of the divine master plan: the eternal “Forms” that are the immaterial true essence of the various things in the universe. Our world, according to Plato is a realm of shadows and imperfection.

This accorded well with Christianity, as did the path to “true knowledge” that Plato installed in this model as well. Only by revelation can knowledge be gained. His famous simile of the cave has a prisoner who has only seen shadows, led out into the light to see real things themselves. As with Christian revelation, knowledge gained in this manner grants the knower a special status. Better still, the knowledge itself is invulnerable to criticism as well as to revision. Its more baffling aspects can be “interpreted” by a priesthood, who attain special and unquestionable special status, which can be maintained as long as they maintain a grip on political power.

The Great Chain of Being: Christian cosmology based on Aristotle, 1579. (Source)

For Aristotle, the world was worth knowing about in itself. While Christianity indeed adopted his cosmology (with the heavens above, eternal and unchanging, and the realm of change below — the sub-lunary realm), the Church added Plato’s Creator-God into the mix. Thus it reintroduced what Aristotle had explicitly rejected in Plato: a beginning, a Creator, and the Forms.

While the heavens were for Aristotle governed by different laws (of circular motion) and consisting of different stuff (a fifth element, the quintessence), they weren’t separated by the same gulf as with Plato and Christianity. Knowledge of the world is genuine knowledge,m for Aristotle, whereas for Plato and the Church, true knowledge can only come from revelation.

In a way, Aristotle drew the invisible Forms of Plato a few steps closer to earth. That same wonder Plato invoked for a revelation of the Forms (and Christianity invokes for the presence of God), was for Aristotle the same thing we all feel when we gaze at the stars.

The encounter between reason and revelation, that has occupied theologians for so long, is, in Aristotle, simply the encounter between reason and reality as we perceive it.

Plato’s somewhat intolerant impatience for the natural sciences, which says ‘Ok, you can study that stuff, but ultimately who cares?‘ is the most enlightened position on scientific inquiry that theology has ever come up with. Tolerant theologians have always seen it as the study of the works of the Creator. Some have even granted that it might possibly be a “path to the divine”, though always with a cautious glance over their shoulder. It is always, however, seen as a circuitous and unreliable route to take.

They accept the reasoning that if God created the world, then to study the world is to study the works of the Creator… but that “IF” is barely audible, and usually surgically removed before it can do any further damage. The most liberal modern theologians are prepared to accept free inquiry, but always with one hand resting on the handbrake.

But for Aristotle, with no Creator-God, there is also no fear of disproof or disappointment; no burden of assumptions, and no big stick for any priest to wield.

“Humans”, as Aristotle said, “by their nature desire to know.”

The soul dies with the body, according to Aristotle, although he did see consciousness in a de-personalised sense continuing somehow. Prayer also went out the window for Aristotle. He saw it not only as useless but, under his conception of God, also impossible and pointless. And he said so. (And yes, he did spend his final years in exile.)

Not that he said people shouldn’t pray, but rather, that if they do, God won’t hear it, because he doesn’t love us, doesn’t care and doesn’t even know we exist.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 7, translated by William of Moerbeke c. 1250 (source)

This is a horrifying thought not only for those who find solace in prayer, but also for the priesthood. Prayer is the currency of Christian theology. It’s a “thing” that people can “do”, can even be seen “doing”, can be told to “do”, and can say they’ve “done”. It’s a way that guilt can be resolved, that one can feel one’s own status has been raised, and one can feel a connection to one’s God. Above all, it confirms and reinforces the submissive, subordinate relationship that a believer has not only to their God, but — most importantly for the purposes of this piece of writing — to their priesthood.

So Aristotle’s God didn’t create anything, doesn’t answer prayers, doesn’t grant absolute knowledge through revelation, doesn’t keep the universe ticking over in some mysterious way, doesn’t reveal Himself unexpectedly to people or impregnate virgins or appear in human form. He also doesn’t perform miracles, sit in judgment, or grant any person eternal life.

What’s left then?

There are two aspects to that.

The first is that Aristotle’s God touches people and moves people. But not in the active sense of reaching out; rather in the passive sense: in the same way as people are “touched” by a work of art or “moved” by the beauty of nature. (The language is Aristotle’s.) The things of the natural world — the animals, the plants, even rocks and minerals — embody their closeness to the divine in the form they take. Aristotle saw a great hierarchy, a scala naturae, as it was called by the Christian theologians who embraced this idea, from the lowliest worm to the pinnacle of this great pyramid — humans, of course.

This particular idea — the Great Chain of Being — though it survived the destruction that Galileo and Newton wrought on Aristotle’s cosmology, did not survive Darwin. there is no grand hierarchy. Living organisms are adapted to their particular habitat, not to any kind of absolute or external hierarchy. (This is too rarely emphasised. Darwin didn’t just demolish creationism; he also dismantled the idea that the differences between species — and more importantly races — are of no intrinsic significance or value. They are related to habitat and chance mutation, and are not marks left by a divine Creator.)

Darwin’s conception of species branching out from a common origin, c. 1837

The second (and final) aspect is Aristotle’s consideration of what exactly God is and what it does.

God, according to Aristotle, thinks. He thinks about thinking. Or if I may risk a little pseudo-Buddhist supposition about what Aristotle is referring to, God is conscious awareness that is aware of itself. It contemplates its own awareness. (Maybe meditators will have a clue what I’m babbling about, and maybe it even means something.)

For Aristotle, it is good to be aware of the objects of the world — the search for knowledge is intrinsically good. But it requires an effort to “possess” the things of the world in one’s mind. You have have to go outside yourself to do it. But for awareness to simply be aware of itself, it takes no energy. Or maybe to today we might speculate that it takes less to be simply aware of awareness itself, relatively untroubled by the distractions of sensory input.

I’m not claiming necessarily that this kind of thing is psychological possible, but there’s the kernel of an idea there that I think is similar to the ideas found in Zen Buddhism, and also — I think — able to explored for oneself.

Whatever the case, Aristotle, as much as he valued scientific inquiry — and he did value as highly as anyone and in fact founded a genuine science of biology — he also saw conscious awareness itself as divine.

This happy state does not involve the endless prattling inner dialogue of ‘normal’ thought; not does it passively fall asleep. It is aware, but it doesn’t actually do anything. Awareness just is, ultimately. (Perhaps.)

Thought, Aristotle says, “seems to contain” what he calls the “divine element” (yep, that term also comes from him). And “the act of contemplation is what is most pleasant and best. If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder…”

And life also belongs to God because the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is is life most good and eternal.

If that sounds like cheap theology, it’s partly because his rather pedestrian lecture notes are all we have on this, and also because it’s exactly the style theologians try to emulate. (The passage is from the Metaphysics, Bk 7, Ch 7.)

Whatever the case, and whatever Aristotle means by all this, it is clear that this “God” is not the Christian God. It doesn’t confer privileges on one class of people over another, nor does it claim it will rescue you or your soul. Nor will it even so much as raise an eyebrow at our private antics.

It’s just aware. A silent, non-judging witness.

Aristotle as portrayed by the Germans, 1520 (don’t ask)

Posted by Yakaru

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