Book Lambda (XII) of the Metaphysics sketches Aristotle’s brilliant and beautiful solution to the problems that have been under investigation in this work. The text of book Lambda itself, however, seems more like a series of fragments than the kind of tight, continuous development that characterizes the so-called “central books” Zeta (VII), Eta (VIII), and Theta (IX), or the books of Aristotle’s Physics.
He now clearly affirms that there is a first cause of all things — not only of their being what they are, but also of their motion. As a result, book Lambda presents a mix of philosophical theology and Aristotelian physics.
Aristotle has a very distinctive notion of what the first cause is. I would call this pure entelechy. I’m not aware that he literally uses that phrase, but he definitely says that the first cause is pure energeia (actuality, being-at-work, or fulfillment), and he very strongly identifies energeia with entelecheia (a new Greek word coined by Aristotle, meaning literally “in [it] end having”, or “being-at-work-staying-itself” in Sachs’ translation), for which I am using the English “entelechy”.
Entelechy is the theme that unifies Aristotle’s account of motion with the inquiry about why things are what they are. Motion is a kind of incomplete entelechy. The first cause, both of motion and of things being what they are — which he identifies with the good, that-for-the-sake-of-which, thought thinking itself, and what I would call a kind of pure delight — is a complete and pure entelechy. The concept of entelechy thus binds Aristotle’s physics together with his theology.
Apart from considerations related to the first cause, Aristotle normally distinguishes that-for-the-sake-of-which from the potentiality that is an internal source of motion in things. But he also says that every motion is for the sake of that toward which the potentiality inclines. And the first cause of all motion affects things purely as that-for-the-sake-of-which.
The kind of motion that best exemplifies entelechy is circular motion. Circularity is also a kind of figurative image or metaphor for entelechy. Continuous motion in a circle is in a sense always complete in the sense of unchangingly accomplishing its goal, and yet it is always ongoing. But not even the first motion is itself unconditionally complete as an entelechy, since it is still moving. Only the first cause is that.
For Aristotle, there is one thing that is directly moved by the first cause, and that is the sphere of the fixed stars, which also demarcates the most comprehensive whole of things that occupy space. Other motions are indirect consequences of this, which follow only in a conditional way.
The first cause is not just pure entelechy in the generic sense of a logical universal. It is a particular independent thing that turns out to be the unique exemplar of its kind.
In virtue of its unique relation to all other things, it plays the role of what Hegel would later call a concrete universal. Further, the unique character of that relation of “firstness” makes it an unconditioned concrete universal. This is the kind of unconditioned thing that Kant says reason is always reaching for, but that cannot be strictly known. It is also the kind of unconditioned thing that Hegel treats as the ultimate ground of intelligibility and value.
He begins by recalling that the path of the inquiry has approached “all things” by focusing on those sources and causes that make concrete independent things be what they are. Independent things turn out to be those that have some entelechy of their own, which exhibits greater self-determination than the minimal kind that applies to all motions. These include plants, animals, and the stars.
“Our study concerns thinghood, for it is the sources and causes of independent things that are being sought” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 231).
“[E]verything changes from something that has being in potency to something that has being at-work” (ch. 2, p. 232).
All change for Aristotle is from something being potentially something to its being that same something in actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment. This is narrower than common English usage. In Physics book VII he says that “states, whether of the body or of the soul, are not alterations” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 412).
“Now if something has being in potency, still this is not a potency to be any random thing, but a different thing comes to be from a different potency” (ibid).
Although one thing may have many potentialities, each of which may or may not be realized, each of these is a specific potentiality to be actual or at-work or fulfilled in some definite way.
“The kinds of thinghood are three, since the material is a this by coming forth into appearance (for whatever has being by way of contact, and not by having grown together, is material and underlies something else), while the nature of a thing is a this and an active condition into which it comes; and then the third kind is the particular thing that consists of these, such as Socrates or Callias” (ch. 3, p. 233).
He reminds us that when we speak of particular things, to avoid confusion we need to attend to whether we mean their matter, their form, or the composite consisting of both.
“Now things that cause motion are causes as being previously present, but things that are causes in the sense of rational patterns are simultaneous with what they produce” (p. 234).
Causes that are not of motion as such, but rather simply of being in a certain way, like form and that-for-the-sake-of-which, are not like more direct causes of motion in their mode of operation with respect to time. Their operation as causes does not involve a distinct externality related to a before and after, but rather unfolds immanently in their effects.
“Now there is a sense in which the causes and sources of different things are different, but there is a sense in which, if one speaks universally by way of analogy, they are the same for all things…. [B]ut the elements are different in different things, and the first cause that sets them in motion is also different in different things…. [B]ut still, over and above these, is the cause which, as the first of all things, sets all things in motion” (ch. 4, p. 234-236).
For Aristotle, everything has both a particular cause or causes, and a dependency on the first cause of all. The first cause of all operates through particular causes. This is the first time he has unambiguously implied that there is a first cause of all things. (In the middle above, when he speaks of “the first cause that sets them in motion”, this is not the first cause of all, but the first more specific cause of the motion in question.)
“Now since some things are separate while others are not separate, the former are independent things. And it is on account of this that all things have the same causes, because without independent things, attributes and motions are not possible. So then these causes will be, presumably, soul and body, or intellect, desire, and body. And in yet another way the sources of things are the same by analogy, namely being-at-work and potency, though these are both different and present in different ways in different things” (ch. 5, p. 236).
Once again, he recalls both the strategy of deriving the saying of being in the other categories from the saying of what independent things are, and the analogy by which the meanings of actuality and potentiality were illustrated. Again he emphasizes actuality and potentiality as sources of all things.
In passing, he seems to suggest thinking about human being in more specific terms of intellect and desire, rather than an undifferentiated soul. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he specifies that choice is grounded in a fusion of intellect and desire.
“Further, it is necessary to see that some things are possible to state universally, but others not. Now the primary sources of all things are a this that is first at work and something else which is in potency. So these are not the universal causes, since the source of particular things is particular; for a human being is the source of a human being universally, but no one is this universal, but rather Peleus is the source of Achilles and your father of you, and this particular B is the source of this particular BA, but B in general is the source of BA simply. And then, if the causes and elements of independent things are the sources of all things (but different ones of different ones), then as was said, of things not in the same class (colors and sounds, or independent things and quantity) they are different except by analogy; of things that are in the same kind they are also different, but not in kind, but because they are different for particular things, your material and form and mover from mine, though they are the same in their universal statement” (p. 237).
Again he emphasizes that particulars have particular causes. The kind of universality and operation that will be attributed to the first cause of all will be of a sort that respects this. He also again emphasizes that the primary sources of all things are particular actualities and potentialities.
“So as for seeking out what are the sources or elements of independent things and of relations and the of-what-sorts of things, and whether they are the same or different, it is clear that, since they are meant in more than one way, they do belong to everything, but when they have been distinguished they are not the same but different, except in one sense. And the causes of all things are the same in this sense — by analogy — because they are material, form, deprivation, and a mover, and the causes of independent things are the causes of all things in this sense — because when they are taken away everything is taken away; and further, the primary thing that is completely at work is the cause of all things. But the causes are different in this sense — they are as many as the primary contraries, described neither generically nor ambiguously, and as there are kinds of material as well. So what the sources are of perceptible things, and how many there are, and in what way they are the same and in what way different, have been said” (pp. 237-238).
At long last, we come to the argument that there really is a first cause of all things. Again he emphasizes that everything also has particular sources and causes.
“Now since there are three kinds of thinghood, two of them natural and one motionless, about the latter one must explain that it is necessary for there to be some everlasting motionless independent thing” (ch. 6, p. 238).
“For independent things are primary among beings, and if they were all destructible, everything would be destructible; but it is impossible for motion either to come into being or to be destroyed (since it always is), and impossible too for time” (ibid).
For Aristotle there is no first motion, or first moment in time. Instead, there must be an everlasting cause of motion.
“For if there were no time, there could be no before and after; and motion is continuous in just the way that time is; since time is either the same as or some attribute of motion” (ibid).
He points out that to speak of anything “before” there was any time is incoherent, since before and after presuppose time.
“But there is no continuous motion other than in place, and among these, other than in a circle” (ibid).
Only motion in a circle could continue forever. Space is vast, but Aristotle does not believe in infinite distances, so for him there could not be motion continuing forever in a straight line.
He seems to imply that the most fundamental motion of all — that of the fixed stars — provides a uniform measure for time. In modern terms, this is the earth’s rotation on its axis, as observed from a point on the earth. In the absence of evidence refuting what we see to be the case, he assumes that the stars forever rotate around the earth, and that the apparent motion of what is apparently the outermost sphere of the fixed stars is therefore a primary motion that spatially surrounds all things. If we take earth as the point of reference for whatever relativistic motions we see in the sky, this fits all the observational facts.
“But surely if there is something capable of moving and producing things, but not at work in any way, there will not be motion; for what has a potency admits of not being at work” (ibid).
Here he returns to the Physics sense of potentiality and actuality, and to the priority of the actual. Every potentiality is a source of motion that requires something external that is already an actuality of the same sort, in order for the potentiality to be actualized. The child requires a parent, the artifact a Platonic model.
“Therefore, there is no benefit even if we adopt everlasting independent things, as do those who bring in the forms, unless there is in them some source capable of producing change; moreover, even this is not enough, not even if there is another independent thing besides the forms, since if it is not going to be at work, there will not be motion” (ibid).
A pure form or logical universal that is not “actual” cannot explain motion. Once again, motion as the actualization of a potential depends on a pre-existing actuality.
“What’s more, it is not enough even if it will be at work, if the thinghood of it is potency, for there would not be everlasting motion, since what has being in potency admits of not being” (ibid).
Further, any first cause of motion must be everlasting, continuous, and unchanging in its action. That is to say, it must itself be purely actual, with no admixture of potentiality. It would not be sufficient to explain everlasting, continuous motion if the first cause just happened to be actual for some period of time.
“Therefore it is necessary that there be a source of such a kind that the thinghood of it is being-at-work. On top of that, it is necessary that these independent things be without material, for they must be everlasting, if indeed anything else is everlasting. Therefore they are being-at-work” (ibid).
As he just suggested, any first cause of all must therefore be a pure actuality with no potentiality. What Aristotle calls matter is kind of potentiality, so the first cause must have no matter either.
“For how will things have been set in motion, if there were not some responsible thing at work? For material itself, at any rate, will not set itself in motion” (p. 239).
“And this is why some people, such as Leucippus and Plato, bring in an everlasting activity, for they say there is always motion. But why there is this motion, and what it is, they do not say, nor the cause of its being in a certain way or some other way. For nothing moves at random, but always something must be present to it, just as now something moves in a certain way by nature, but in some other way by force or by action of intelligence or something else” (ibid).
It is not enough to simply posit motion. This does not explain anything.
“And then, what sort of motion is primary? For this makes so much difference one can hardly conceive it. But surely it is not possible for Plato to say what he sometimes thinks the source of motion is, which sets itself in motion; for the soul is derivative, and on the same level as the heavens, as he says” (ibid).
The thought here seems to be that if there is a first cause of motion, there must be a primary sort of motion that it primarily causes. For Aristotle, this is the movement of the fixed stars.
“Anaxagoras testifies that being-at-work takes precedence (since intellect is a being-at-work), as does Empedocles with love and strife, and so do those who say there is always motion, such as Leucippus; therefore there was not chaos or night for an infinite time, but the same things have always been so, either in a cycle or in some other way, if being-at-work takes precedence over potency. So if the same thing is always so in a cycle, it is necessary for something to persist always at work in the same way” (pp. 239-240).
If all things did not come from something that is an actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment, then they could only come from what the poets called “chaos and night”. But if all things came from chaos and night, there would be no hope of understanding anything. Aristotle suggests that several of his predecessors ought to have recognized the priority of actuality, as an implicit presupposition of what they did say.
“But since it is possible for it to be this way, and if it is not this way things will come from night and from ‘all things together’ and from not-being, these questions could be resolved; and there is a certain ceaseless motion that is always moving, and it is in a circle (and this is evident not only to reason but in fact), so that the first heaven will be everlasting” (ch. 7, p. 240).
He does not claim to positively know that actuality is necessarily prior to potentiality. He claims that the account is plausible, and that any alternative must lead back to sheer chaos, which would make it impossible for anything to be truly intelligible at all.
“Accordingly, there is also something that moves it. And since what is in motion and causes motion is intermediate, there is also something that causes motion without being in motion, which is everlasting, an independent thing, and a being-at-work” (ibid).
Behind each independent celestial motion, there must be some actual everlasting independent thing. Behind these, there must be something that is completely unmoved, and that is a pure actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment.
“But what is desired and what is thought cause motion in that way: not being in motion, they cause motion” (ibid).
For Aristotle, desire and thought are unmoved movers.
“But the primary instances of these are the same things, for what is yearned for is what seems beautiful, while what is wished for primarily is what is beautiful; but we desire something because of the way it seems, rather than its seeming so because we desire it, for the act of thinking is the beginning” (pp. 240-241).
Desire and thought both aim at what is good or beautiful. The way things seem — and consequently, the act of thinking or judging — drives wishing and willing, not vice versa. Further below, he will again emphasize the active rather than merely receptive role of thought.
“But the power of thinking is set in motion by the action of the thing thought, and what is thought in its own right belongs to an array of affirmative objects of which thinghood is primary, and of this the primary kind is that which is simple and at work” (p. 241).
Thinking itself is driven by the actuality of what it thinks. This does not negate his emphasis on thinking as act.
“But what is one and what is simple are not the same, for oneness indicates a measure, but what is simple is itself a certain way” (ibid).
The simplicity he attributes to the first cause is a stronger criterion than being one.
“But surely the beautiful and what is chosen in virtue of itself are also in that same array, and what is primary is always best, or analogous to it” (ibid).
First things are good and beautiful, and the first thing of all can be identified with the good and the beautiful.
“And that-for-the-sake-of-which is possible among motionless things, as the [following] distinction makes evident; for that-for-the-sake-of-which is either for something or belonging to something, of which the former is and the latter is not present among motionless things” (ibid).
Here he explicitly says that that-for-the-sake-of-which has a broader scope than any source of motion. Alone among the four kinds of causes, it provides ultimate reasons why things are what they are. Form may be identified with what things are, but that-for-the-sake of which is the cause of form and the reason why it is what it is.
“And it causes motion in the manner of something loved, and by means of what is moved moves other things” (ibid).
The highest kind of cause, that-for-the-sake-of-which, involves no force or compulsion or unconditional necessity. Other things are moved because they love it or are attracted by it, but they could not be so moved if they did not have their own sources of motion. They are not moved by some active power emanating from the first cause.
“But since there is something that causes motion while being itself motionless, this does not admit of being otherwise than it is in any respect at all” (ibid).
“For among changes, the primary one is change of place, and of this the primary kind is a circle, but this is what this mover causes” (ibid).
“Therefore [the first cause] is something that has being necessarily…. On such a source, therefore, the cosmos and nature depend” (pp. 241-242).
“And the course of its life is of such a kind as the best we have for a short time. This is so because it is always the same way (which for us is impossible), and because its being-at-work is also pleasure (which is what makes being awake, perceiving, and thinking the most pleasant things, while hopes and memories are pleasant on account of these)” (p. 242).
If we speak in terms of pleasure here, it would be of the highest possible sort. I think “pure delight” captures the meaning more clearly.
“And the thinking that is just thinking by itself is a thinking of what is best just as itself, and especially so with what is so most of all” (ibid).”
“But by partaking in what it thinks, the intellect thinks itself, for it becomes what it thinks by touching and contemplating it, so that the intellect and what it thinks are the same thing” (ibid).
And this, I say, is pure delight.
“For what is receptive of the intelligible and of thinghood is the intellect, and it is at work when it has them; therefore it is the being-at-work rather than the receptivity the intellect has that seems godlike, and its contemplation is pleasantest and best” (ibid, emphasis added).
He is saying that it is by virtue of the more perfect entelechy of intellect, which goes beyond the limited entelechy associated with motion — rather than intellect’s incidental touching or contemplation of something else — that intellect seems godlike. Here again he emphasizes the primarily active rather than receptive character of thought.
“So if the divine being is in this good condition that we are sometimes in, that is to be wondered at; and if it is in it to a greater degree than we are, that is to be wondered at still more. And that is the way it is” (ibid).
For Aristotle, the divine is not incommensurable with the human. Albeit in a very partial manner, we also partake of it, and the more so the more that we are moved by our highest values.
“But life belongs to it too, for the being-at-work of intellect is life, and that being is being-at-work, and its being-at-work is in itself the best life and is everlasting. And we say it is a god who everlastingly lives the best life, so that life and continuous and everlasting duration belong to a god; for this being is god” (ibid).
“That, then, there is an independent thing that is everlasting, motionless, and separate from perceptible things, is clear from what has been said. And it has also been demonstrated that this independent thing can have no magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible (for it causes motion for an infinite time, while no finite thing has an infinite power, and since every magnitude must be either finite or infinite, it cannot have magnitude, either finite, for the reason given, or infinite, because there is no infinite magnitude at all). But surely it has also been demonstrated that it cannot be affected or altered” (p. 243).
Sachs says in a note that the reference to a demonstration that the first cause is not involved with magnitude effectively incorporates the entire argument of the Physics by reference. Book VIII of the Physics has a far more thorough argument that there must be a first unmoved mover corresponding to the primary observable motion of the circling of the fixed stars, but that account does not address the what-it-is of things.
“But since… we see in addition to the motion of the whole heaven, other everlasting motions which belong to the planets…, it is necessary that each of these motions also be caused by something that is itself motionless and an everlasting independent thing. For the nature of the stars is for each to be an everlasting independent thing, while the mover is everlasting and takes precedence over the thing moved, and what takes precedence over an independent thing must be an independent thing” (ch. 8, p. 244).
The terrestrial independent things are mainly plants and animals. These have the richest entelechies among terrestrial perceptible things.
Aristotle also acknowledges each star participating in the motion of the heaven as an entelechy of its own. At least in a way, it is superior to ours, in that to all appearances it lasts forever.
The stars he calls planets are those that stand out by having observable independent motions of their own, different from the primary motion that they share with all the stars that are called “fixed” by contrast.
“[B]ut the number of motions is already something one must examine from that kind of mathematical knowledge that is the nearest kin to philosophy, namely from astronomy. For this kind makes its study about perceptible, everlasting thinghood, while the others, such as those concerned with numbers and with geometry, are not about thinghood at all” (ibid).
“[A]s for how many [independent motions] there happen to be, we now state what some of the mathematicians say, for the sake of a conception of it, … and as for what remains, it is necessary to inquire into some things ourselves, while listening to what other inquirers say about others. If something should seem to those who busy themselves with these matters to be contrary to what has just now been said, it is necessary to welcome both accounts, but trust the more precise one” (pp. 244-245).
“[F]or let the number that is necessary be left for more relentless people to say” (p. 246).
Apparently he made an arithmetic error counting the motions (“either 55 or 47”, where the 47 should have been 48, according the details I have not reproduced), then made a joke of it. I don’t believe Aristotle is very attached to specific enumerations of any sort. It is the principles upon which distinctions are based that matter.
“There has been handed down from people of ancient and earliest times a heritage, in the form of myth, to those of later times, that these original beings are gods, and that the divine embraces the whole of nature. The rest of it was presently introduced in mythical guise for the persuasion of the masses and into laws for use and benefit” (p. 247).
The divine embraces the whole of nature. We still name the planets by the Roman names for the Greek gods that were associated with them in antiquity.
Next he seems to respond to, or perhaps anticipate, doubts about what he said earlier about intellect.
“Now concerning the intellect there are certain impasses, for it seems to be the most divine of things that are manifest to us, but the way it is if it is to be of that sort contains some things that are hard to digest. For if it thinks nothing, what would be solemn about that? Rather, it would be just like someone sleeping. But if it does think, but something else has power over it, then, since it is not thinking but potency that is the thinghood of it, it could not be the best independent thing, for it is on account of its act of thinking that its place of honor belongs to it. And still, whether the thinghood of it is a power of thinking or an activity of thinking, what does it think?” (ch. 9, p. 247).
“For [what intellect thinks] is either itself or something else, and if it is something else, either always the same one or different ones. And then does it make any difference, or none, whether its thinking is of what is beautiful or of some random thing? Isn’t it even absurd for its thinking to be about some things? Surely it is obvious that it thinks the most divine and honorable things, and does not change, since its change would be for the worse, and such a thing would already be a motion” (p. 248).
Intellect will prefer the beautiful and the good over any random thing. Physics book VII much better explains why certain things that we are used to calling “changes” are not considered changes in his way of speaking.
“First, then, if it is not an activity of thinking but a potency, … it is clear that something else would be more honorable than the intellect, namely what it thinks…. Therefore what it thinks is itself, if it is the most excellent thing, and its thinking is a thinking of thinking” (ibid).
For a third time, he insists that intellect is primarily active, rather than receptive. Its main concern seems to be with whatever is most good and beautiful and honorable. It is a thinking of thinking — true higher-order thinking, rather than a first-order “thinking” of something external.
“But [the human soul’s] knowledge and perception and opinion and step-by-step thinking seem always to be about something else, and about themselves only as something secondary” (ibid).
The above seems to be in implicit contrast with the active thinking about which he was speaking just before. In this way, intellect in its own right is unlike the human soul.
“What’s more, if the thinking and the being thought are different, then in virtue of which of them does what is good belong to it? For to be an act of thinking and to be something thought are not the same” (ibid).
They are the same and yet not the same. Of course, this is in different respects. This is the model for many similar formulations in Hegel.
“Or is it rather that in some cases the knowledge is the thing it is concerned with, so that in the case of the kinds of knowing that make something, the thinghood without material and what it is for something to be, or in the case of the contemplative kinds of knowing, the articulation, is both the thing the knowledge is concerned with and the activity of thinking it? So since what is thought and what is thinking are not different with as many things as have no material, they will be the same, and the act of thinking will be one with what is thought” (ibid).
Here he suggests that we may after all be able to see instances of this identity by reflecting on our experiences of productive and contemplative knowing. Insofar as we actually know anything, we partially escape the inherent limitations of the human soul.
“But there is still an impasse left as to whether what is thought is composite, for then thinking would be changing among the parts of the whole. Or is it the case that everything that has no material is indivisible?” (pp. 248-249).
Implicitly, he seems to favor the latter alternative. Then twice more he speaks of intellect’s predilection for what is good and best.
“So the condition the human intellect, or that of any composite being, is in at some period of time (for it does not have hold of what is good at this or that time, but in some whole stretch of time it has hold of what is best, since that is something other than itself), is the condition the thinking that thinks itself is in over the whole of time” (p. 249).
Again, for Aristotle we have a little bit of the divine within us insofar as we have intellect, so there is no radical incommensurability between the divine and the human.
“One must also consider in which of two ways the nature of the whole contains what is good and best, whether as something separate, itself by itself, or as the order of the whole of things. Or is it present in both ways…?” (ch.10, p. 249).
Book Lambda’s final chapter ends with a quote from a speech by Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. The whole chapter is oriented toward this literary image. At this point in the Iliad, the Greeks had been in complete disarray, a confused mass, but Odysseus’ words restore their morale and disciplined unity. (Notably, Odysseus was not the high king or commander-in-chief, though he was a leader. It was what he said that mattered.) Aristotle wants us to see this as a metaphorical answer to the question just posed. What is good and best must indeed be present in both ways — both as from the first cause, and as distributed and embodied throughout the whole — but he wants to emphasize that the “for the sake of which” of the first cause plays a real leading role, even though it does not govern by force.
“But beings do not present the aspect of being badly governed” (pp. 251-252).
As we have seen, this does not mean that all the facts of the world are as they ought to be. It does mean that life and the world are essentially good.