Aristotle’s God

Source: John M. Cooper, “Aristotle,” The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy, ed. David Sedley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 141-142.

“Aristotle’s conception of god as the absolutely first cause and principle greatly influenced the development of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology during late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Modern readers coming from those traditions have to understand, however, that Aristotle’s god or divinity is not to be conceived as a person–a father or mother who loves and, as such, is concerned in some personal way with what happens to human beings and the rest of nature, and has hopes and expectations, or who has any power of punishment in case something happens that he or she disapproves of or has forbidden. God for Aristotle is an eternally existing, extraphysical and non-material entity, whose activity is the original and fundamental model of what it is to be in any way or respect, and which as such serves as the foundation for the being of everything in the physical world–and as the source of the constantly renewing series of changes that keep the world unified and functioning as a single whole over the vast expanse of time…[I]ts activity is that of pure knowing, knowing about itself as the source of being to everything else.”

At DePauw, I took a philosophy class that covered Aristotle. As the professor told us about Aristotle’s conception of God and noticed our puzzled expressions, he said, “This is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And, like Cooper, he said that Aristotle’s God spends time thinking about himself.

I’m not sure what the content of this God’s thoughts would be. One can only think about his role as the source of being for so much time. One needs variety in his thought life!

Another point: I took a class on medieval Jewish philosophy here at HUC, and the professor said that Aristotle sees God as the first cause, while maintaining that the universe has always existed. I asked the professor how both can be true: Doesn’t the universe need to have a beginning for God to cause it? My professor responded that Aristotle doesn’t see God as a first cause in the sense of creating a universe that did not previously exist. Rather, Aristotle’s God is the basis for all existence–like the power source that causes everything else to exist and run.

I like this quote from Cooper because it actually defines the Judeo-Christian conception of God. I walk around with this view of God in my mind, but it’s often vague in my thoughts, so it’s nice when someone puts it into words.

Also, while I prefer a God who is more personal than the one Aristotle presents, I can still appreciate a God who eternally exists and sustains an orderly universe.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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