Thursday, June 30, 2011

De Metaphysicam Aristotelis


I think that one of the greatest poverties of our modern education is that we have taught ourselves that what is new is better than what is old, simply because it is new. And yet, one of the best ways to understand reality was expounded upon over 2000 years ago, by a Greek man named Αριστοτλε (Aristotle). Specifically, today, I am speaking of the "four causes" of Aristotle.

These four causes are:

  1. Formal
  2. Material
  3. Efficient
  4. Final

We're going to work through these today as a sort of groundwork for some other thoughts coming up. Let us begin, shall we?

It is important to keep in mind that we're not thinking of "cause" the way we normally would in English. We will brush the English definitions, but with the exception of the efficient cause, we're in somewhat foreign territory. As we go through these, it may be helpful to think of these causes as answers to questions about the nature of a thing.

The Formal Cause

The formal cause answers the question, "What form does it follow?" or, "What type of thing is it?" For example, let's take your grandpa's rocking chair. Let's say it's a Lay-Z-Boy, or equivalent. Well then, the formal cause is "furniture," or "chair," or perhaps, "rocking chair."

The Material Cause

The material cause answers the question: "What is it made of?" Keeping with the example from the last section, one could say that the material causes of this chair could be considered to be wood, metal, fabric, padding, the components of the chair.

The Efficient Cause

This cause is the one most cognate with the English word. The efficient cause is that which brings about the object, the chain of events which caused it to be. The efficient causes of this chair might include the laborer or machine which crafted it, the order for it from the showroom, things of that nature.

The Final Cause

Finally we come to the final cause, also know as the teleological cause (from the Greek Τελοσ - end). This answers the question, "What is it meant for?" In the case of our grandfather's rocking chair, the simple answer would be "for sitting," a more complex answer might be, "for providing a place to rest." Any final cause of a thing, however, is its purpose, what it is meant for.

As another example, let's take me. My formal causes include "human" and "male." My material cause is an embodied soul or an ensouled body, so a soul, flesh, bone, blood, et cetera. My efficient causes are my parents, and their parents, and their parents. Lastly, my final cause is God, that is to say, since we know that we were created to live in union with God, and that God is our end, God is our final cause, our finality, our purpose.

Now, I did say that the word "cause" here is not being used in the sense we normally associate with it; however, these usages do share a certain sense with their common cousin. Specifically, there is a sense of contingency - that the caused (that which is under investigation) depends upon the cause(s) for its existence. That is to say, the caused is contingent on the cause.

But what does that mean?

Basically, if you take a cause away, you take the thing away. Let's say there's no such thing as flesh and blood, no such thing as a soul. What am I then made of? I cannot exist because what I'm made of doesn't exist.

Take away my parents meeting, marrying and having me, I don't exist.

Take away such a thing as humanity, then I can't even be human, I am formless.

Take away my end, and while I may exist, I exist to no end. I am pointless.

We may begin to see here the dangerous game we play when we attempt to remove God from the equation. He is our proper (and only true & fruitful) end. Our lives are literally meaningless if not for him.

We will discuss more of the ramifications of this worldview in later posts, and will also be coming back to these ideas.


  1. Nice attempt, but his name is Ἀριστοτέλης.

  2. Yeah, okay, tell me that when you have an ablative to back it up with...


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