The Four Causes of Aristotle

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The Four Causes of Aristotle

Aristotle, being the first historian of philosophy, categorized his predecessors according to how they’ve answered the central questions of the human mind – the question of the first principle of all things. It is otherwise known as the Four Causes. He defined science as knowledge through causes. This doctrine of causes is scattered in different Aristotelian treatises but have its highlight in his book Metaphysics.

This principle of causality is an essential part of Aristotelian thought. In his mind, Aristotle argued that events happen for a cause which will explain its origin, end and the way it came to be. For him, “everything that comes to be is due to causes.” He criticized his predecessors for their not having clearly explained the why of this, that, and so on. Chance, mythology or fortuitous events are not sufficient enough to solve the problem of cosmology. These causes are divided into four distinct types.

He developed this principle from the standpoint of being. For this reason, the basic Aristotelian division is between actual and potential causes, contrary to the traditional division made by the scholastics between intrinsic and extrinsic. As for the actual cause, there is the formal, efficient and final causes and for the potency only the material cause; in the traditional scholastic division, material and formal causes made up the intrinsic cause while the remaining two makes the extrinsic cause.

Each of these causes can be shortly defined as follows:

1.Material Cause is the constitutive element from which something is made from. 2.Formal Cause means the form of something, “it is what determines its essence to be what it is” 3.Efficient Cause is the being who made that something.

4.Final Cause is that for what sake something exists, “it is what constitutes the perfection of the being” . In other words, it is the purpose of that being. The final cause is the summation of all other causes; it is where every other cause can be founded. “‘Cause means (1) that from which, as immanent material, a thing comes into being, e.g., the bronze is the cause of the statue and the silver of the saucer, and so are the genera to which these things belong.

(2) The form or pattern, i.e., the definition of the essence, and the genera which include this (e.g., the ratio 2:1 and number in general are causes of the octave), and the parts included in the definition. (3) That from which the change or the resting from change first begins; e.g., the adviser is a cause of action, and the father a cause of the child, and in general the maker of a cause of the thing made and the change-producing of the changing. (4) The end, i.e., that for the sake of which a thing is; e.g., health is the cause of walking”

As mentioned earlier, Aristotle classified earlier philosophers by what kind of cause is their philosophy. We can classify Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras and Empedocles in the material cause. These philosophers, though differing in opinion of the primary principle of all things, emphasized the constitutive element of everything.

Thus, they are rightly to be numbered in the material cause. The water of Thales, the air of Anaximenes, fire of Heraclitus, the atoms of Leucippus and Democritus, the Homeomeries of Anaxagoras, the four elements of Empedocles and the apeiron of Anaximander (“… he [Anaximander] said that the principleand the constitutive element of the things that exist is the apeiron. He was the one who first designated the material principle of all things by this name” ) are all primary element of everything for these philosophers, may it be by some other cause or not.

For the formal cause, we can only classify only three pre-Socratic thinkers, Pythagoras, Parmenides and Anaxagoras. By formal cause, we mean that it pertains to the form of everything. Let us try to briefly examine each of these philosophers:

The Pythagoreans have thought that the first principle is Numbers; their idea of Numbers is different from ours. For them, numbers have resemblances from everything. “Musical harmony for example, could be reduced to a set of numerical relations. Natural phenomena followed an order e\which could also be measured numerically – the duration of the year, the seasons, the length of the day, etc.”

Parmenides, on the other hand, thought of the “being” as the principle of everything. “One statement alone expresses the road to follow: being is” . His being is univocal; it can only be apprehended by the intellect. He denied the existence of change, therefore, making his being as something permanent, unchangeable, immovable. It cannot cause something for it will mean to cause a change, thus, we cannot classify being as an efficient cause. Rather we classify it to the formal cause for his being underlies everything, it is actually in everything.

Lastly, Anaxagoras, though numbered earlier among the material philosophers, can also be classified in the formal cause. Because of the multiplicity of substances, he concluded that the first principle (in his case his Homeomeries) must, in a way, embody all things in itself.

We can also enumerate Anaxagoras and Empedocles in the efficient cause. Let us examine how this had happened. Alongside his Homeomeries, Anaxagoras added another principle, the Nous (Intelligence). It is important to bear in mind, that the Nous is separated from matter. It merely starts the cosmic movement from where everything starts to differentiate from one another. Its movement determines the diverse proportion of Homeomeries in each thing. Thus making reason “deus ex machina” “’The Intelligence ordains everything that is brought into being – those things that existed in the past and exist in the present and exist no longer, those that exist in the present and those that will exist in the future.”

Empedocles is another philosopher with an efficient cause. Because of the influence of Eleatic philosophy, he is forced to search for another cause besides the material principle in order to salvage the world of phenomena. He put Love and Hate as the efficient cause that unites and separates the four elements. While love brings forth together, hate separates. There is a perpetual alteration of dominance between those two; this cycle dictates corruption and generation. “Things never cease to change, sometimes uniting with one another through Love; and at other times, separating themselves from one another through the divisiveness of Discord”

The final cause: the most important of all the causes. In this category we can classify the sophists and Socrates. They have put man as the measure and end of all things. The final cause is for man.

Sophism ushered a new era in philosophy as a whole, this age turned to man for the first time. Everything belonged to man. Though sophism had been degenerated into “apparent wisdom” , with it still came the time where man has been the focus of philosophy. His end and his goodness is the final cause of everything. Protagoras, most famous of the sophists argued that man is the one who determines everything, even truth. This relativism of Protagoras is because he based his knowledge exclusively on senses which are constantly subjected to change. This can be summarized on his words in the introduction of On Truth: “Man is the measure of all things – things which exist insofar as they exist, things which do not exist insofar as they do not exist.”

Socrates, the one who “called philosophy from heaven”; is the foremost philosopher of the final cause. For him the most important thing is for the benefit of the human soul, ergo, knowing the good. For him the soul is the center of moral life. He identified virtue as knowledge, the mainspring of all other virtues. For him, only in ignorance does one commit sins. In Socratic thought, human dignity has been raised that all things are for the good of his soul.

These four causes of Aristotle gave a very clear view of the improvement of ancient Greek Philosophy, from its coldest principle for all things to the warmest humanistic approach. I am in a position with Aristotle concerning these causes. As for me, the causes clearly demonstrate the history of Greek Philosophy from the pre-Socratics up to Socrates.


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  • University/College: University of California

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  • Date: 5 November 2016

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