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Austin Nedved PHI 3311

Fr. James 12/9/10

Aristotle and Aquinas on God

The lives of Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Aquinas (1225-74 AD) were separated by over

1,500 years. In spite of this, Aristotle’s philosophy had a great deal of influence on Aquinas.

Aristotle was not a Christian, but believed in a sort of divinity. Aristotle held that god was the

third type of substance. This third substance — nonphysical-eternal substance — accounted for

change and motion in the universe. Aristotle believed that a first cause or an unmoved mover was

necessary in order to account the change in motion on Earth. This was his god. It should be

noted that he never once used the term “god” to describe the unmoved mover. We tend to

describe Aristotle’s unmoved mover as a god because of its resemblance to the Christian God we

believe in.

Aquinas’ God was not the god of philosophy, and by this I mean to say that his God was

not the product of a purely philosophic inquiry as was that of Aristotle. Aquinas was a Catholic,

and so he believed in the Christian deity. And unlike the god of Aristotle, the Christian God is

personal. He is far more than a mere unmoved mover who perpetually contemplates himself, as

Aristotle’s deity does. The Christian God also plays a much larger role in reality than does the

deity of Aristotle. But before I compare and contrast the philosophers’ conceptions of the deity

further, I will delineate their respective views of god. Aristotle lived before Aquinas, so I will

begin by describing the views of Aristotle.

Several aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy led him to posit the existence of a god. He

believed that there were three sort of substances, or matter. The first type was physical-
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corruptible substance. This is the substance we and other physical, non-planetary substances are

made of. Trees, for instance, are physical-corruptible substances. Our bodies are as well. These

things are physical-corruptible in virtue of their capacity to be destroyed. Human bodies and trees

are not eternal. There was a long period of time before they existed. When they did begin to

exist, they did so for a very short period of time before they were corrupted and ultimately

destroyed.

The second sort of substance was physical-eternal substance. This is what the planets are

made of (including Earth). Aristotle distinguishes the physical-eternal from the physical-

corruptible on the grounds that the former, unlike the latter, has always existed and always will

exist. It is indestructible, he believes. The planets are physical substances, but they are not

subject to intrinsic change or corruptibility. They do not reproduce, nor do they live or die. They

simply move perpetually in perfect circles from eternity to eternity.1

The third and final substance was non-physical eternal substance. These sort of substances

comprise the souls of the planets. According to Aristotle, all motion, actuality, and desire have

their source in the unmoved mover. Of course, in order for there to be motion, there must be

something that moves — and for there to be something that moves, there must be something that

is drawn to something else. Aristotle accounts for planetary motion by positing the existence of

an unmoved mover — the Good — to whom all the planets are drawn. This god accounts for

1
When I say that they move “from eternity to eternity,” I mean to say that Aristotle believed their motion to be
eternal and unchanging. According to Aristotle, the planets move perpetually and eternally in perfect circles.
However, observation of the planets tells us that this is not the case.

Aristotle believed that the eternality (as in physical-eternality) of the planets made them immune to change.
Mathematically, if the planets’ motion is anything but circular, they must change the degree at which they are
moving at some point in their rotation. This would be incompatible with the intrinsic immutability of the physical-
eternal substance the planets consist of, so Aristotle rejects the doctrine of elliptical orbits, in spite of the fact that
they very clearly appear to move this way.
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motion on earth as well. He is the Good everything capable of pursuing any sort of good moves

towards. Even the plants, who are unconscious, are pulled by this Good; they are moved towards

it. All living creatures move towards this good, but they do not only move towards it in the literal

sense. They also try to make themselves like the Good. Living creatures seek immortality

through reproduction, and Aristotle’s god, who is the Good, is immortal. Living things try to

make themselves like god in the sense that they attempt to behave like god. I do not mean behave

in the sense that living things try to behave in the manner that god behaves. Aristotle’s god does

not behave in any particular way, besides contemplating himself. Living things try to make

themselves like god in the sense that they attempt to imitate his attributes rather than his behavior

per se. Living things seek immortality through reproduction, but we do not perpetually

contemplate our own existence, nor do we have any desire to do so.

Aristotle’s god is not a personal god. His god does not concern himself with earthly

matters. But this is not because the deity does not wish to concern himself with us, but rather,

because he cannot. Aristotle’s argument for the inability of god to think of things besides himself

is similar to his argument for the circular orbit of the planets.2 He wrote,

“if it [the deity] thinks, but this depends on something else, then… it cannot be the
best substance, for it is through thinking that its value belongs to it. […] A
further question is left—whether the object of the divine thought is composite; for
if it were, thought would change in passing from part to part of the whole. We
answer that everything which has not matter is indivisible—as human thought, or
rather the thought of composite beings, is in a certain period of time… so
throughout eternity is the thought which has itself for its object” (Metaphysics,
1074b15-20; 1075a5-10).

2
See Footnote 1.
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Aristotle rejected the idea that god could possibly think of things other than himself (the

deity, that is). He cannot do so because things besides himself are composite—they are made out

of many things. Were god to contemplate changeable things, he himself would have to change as

he thought about them and learned more about them. His knowledge of them would have to

change as they themselves changed. But this is not the only reason god can think of nothing other

than himself. “And if it thinks, but this depends on something else,” Aristotle wrote, “then… it

cannot be the best substance; for it is through thinking that its value belongs to it” (Metaphysics,

1074b20-23). Were god to think of something besides himself, a part of himself—his thought—

would be contingent on something else. This, according to Aristotle, is incompatible with god

being the “best substance.”

Aristotle’s god seems strange and distant to us. We cannot relate to him in any way, and

he cannot relate to us either. He exists purely as an explanation for otherwise inexplicable

phenomena.3 Aquinas’ God, on the other hand, should be much more familiar to us. As I said,

Aquinas was Catholic, so he believes in the Christian God and none other. The descriptions of

this God we are accustomed to hearing are almost entirely Biblical—He is kind, loving, all-

knowing, et cetera. Aquinas analyzes God from an entirely different viewpoint. He describes

Him philosophically, in the terms Aristotle used to describe his own deity.

Aquinas’ method of philosophy differed greatly from Aristotle’s, and this led Aquinas to

conceive of God in an entirely different way. Interestingly, Aquinas’ Christian presuppositions

played less of a role than his philosophical beliefs did in forming his philosophical conception of

God. While Aristotle saw the world in terms of matter and form, Aquinas saw it more in terms of

3
Namely, motion and change.
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being, essence, and existence. Before I explain how these three concepts related to Aquinas’s

conception of God, I will briefly outline they meant to him. This must be done as carefully as

possible. As Aquinas himself said, “[w]e ought to get our knowledge of simple things from

composite things… so that the learning process will begin, appropriately, with what is easier”

(Being and Essence, Ch. 1, §1).

Being, Aquinas said, has two meanings. “Taken [the first] way it is divided by the ten

categories; taken in the [second] way it signifies the truth of propositions” (Ibid., §2). Aquinas

conceives of Being as the whole of reality. He generally conceives of being as positive aspects of

the whole of reality. What I mean by this is that he conceives of properties such as sight and

vision as parts of Being, but blindness and other negations are not parts of it. For any being,

therefore, affirmations can be made, but negations cannot. “[N]othing,” he said, “can be called a

being unless it is something positive in reality” (Ibid.).

Essence, said Aquinas, is not derived from the second meaning of Being. Rather, it is

derived from Being in the first sense. He defines essence as “something common to all the natures

through which different beings are placed in different genera and species, as for example humanity

is the essence of man, and so with regard to other things” (Ibid., §3). His definition of essence is

similar to that of Aristotle, who defined it as “what belongs to a thing in respect of itself”

(Posterior Analytics, 73a34-5). To clarify, Aquinas and Aristotle would have believed that

“hand” was in the essence of humanity, while individual hands were not. Human beings by nature

possess “hand,” but they do not possess any given individual hand. Aquinas believed that the

Form of a thing was its whatness, so he believed that Form and essence were one.

Existence is the simplest of Aquinas’s concepts. It can be predicated of any actual being,

or the actual accidents of that being. It is distinct from potentiality and Form (and, by inference, it
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is distinct from essence). It goes without saying that something which exists only potentially does

not actually exist. It should also be obvious that the Forms do not exist as well, although this

would not have been entirely uncontroversial in Aquinas‘s time (or Aristotle‘s).

The one last concept we must understand completely is Aquinas’s concept of soul. Like

Aristotle, he believed they were distinct from matter. A mind or soul, he said, was form without

matter. To Aquinas, minds were simple substances, not composite substances, which are

matter/form composites. In a sense, he believed minds to be pure essences. He believed that the

essence of a mind was intelligence.

All of this — the distinctions between being, essence, and existence, the ontological

description of the mind — led up to what was both his description of God and his argument for

His existence. “Whatever belongs to a thing,” he said,

“is either caused by the principles of its nature… or comes to it from an extrinsic
principle… Now being itself cannot be caused by the form or [whatness] of a
thing… because that thing would then be its own cause and it would bring itself
into being, which is impossible. It follows that everything whose being is distinct
from its nature must have being from another. And because everything that exists
through another is reduced to that which exists through itself as to its first cause,
there must be a reality that is the cause of being for all other things, because it is
pure being. […] It is evident, then, that an intelligence is form and being, and that
it holds its being from the first being, which is being in all its purity; and this is the
first cause, or God” (Being and Essence, ch. 4, §7).

Aquinas ultimately defines God as an essence-existence composite. He says, “[t]here is a

reality, God, whose essence is his very being” (Id., ch. 5, §1). God is pure Being, and so He lacks

no perfection or excellence. Rather, He possesses them all essentially. Id. When Aquinas said
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that God’s essence is to exist, he is saying that God is, literally, existence. He is not mere mind,

or matter, or color, or anything else. He is existence — limitless, boundless existence. Another

way of conceiving of Aquinas’s conception of God is by thinking of Him as pure Being.

As we can see, Aristotle and Aquinas had two very different conceptions of God. These

conceptions contain far more differences than similarities — and ultimately, Aristotle’s conception

of the deity suffers from fatal flaws that Aquinas’s does not.

We will begin with the limited similarities. First, both deities are supreme in the sense that

they are the greatest, or “highest,” thing that exists in the universe. When thinking of Aristotle’s

god, we must be exceedingly careful not to think of greatness in the way we usually do. What it

seemed to mean to Aristotle was self-sufficiency. The deities of both Aquinas and Aristotle were

self-sufficient. That is, they did not depend on anything but themselves for their existence. They

began causal chains, and were not affected by other things. Aristotle was particularly adamant

about this. The deity cannot be the best substance if it is affected by other things, for if it is

affected by corporeal, temporal beings, it must change and is not the finest substance, he said.

Another obvious similarity is the epistemic foundation of their beliefs in the deity. Both

believed that God could be known through pure reason. And not only could His existence be

known through pure reason, His nature could be known through reason as well.4 Aristotle relied

entirely on logical deduction from sensory input in order to establish the existence of his deity.

Aristotle saw that things move, and realized that there must be an ultimate cause of this

movement. He saw that corporeal beings were perishable, while movement towards whatever

good they pursued was not. Through logical inference he realized that everything that is moved is

4
Interestingly, this is a position the Church holds to this day. See CCC 32.
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moved by something else, and from this he inferred that there must be an unmoved mover — to

deny this would be to assert the existence of an infinite regress of causes, which is an absurdity.

Aquinas arrived at his conception of God through a similar pattern of inferential reasoning.5 He

believed that God was needed to explain the existence of actual things. God, who is Being itself,

is the foundation on which all other beings rest.

Aristotle and Aquinas both believed that God was essentially one with himself. Aristotle

believed god to be essentially incapable of change, because that which is capable of change is

destructible in a certain sense. To change is to pass from the part to the whole, from better to

worse — something Aristotle believed to be entirely incompatible with the nature of god.

Aquinas believed that God was one with himself as well. God, Aquinas said, was Being itself.

And since Being is one, unchangeable, immutable, et cetera, then God must be as well, since He is

Being itself. When asking whether there was anything (or anyone) whose essence was to exist,

Aquinas said that such a being could contain no differences within itself and so could not be a

form/matter composite. As Aristotle insisted, “[s]ince, then, thought and the object of thought

are not different in the case of things that have not matter, the divine thought and its object will be

the same, i.e. the thinking will be one with the object of its thought” (Metaphysics, 1074b5-11).

Insofar as the god is unable to look beyond himself, he is thought thinking itself. Surely

Aquinas’s God did more than this, but the idea of thought thinking itself entails a basic, general

sense of unity which is somewhat similar to the unity Aquinas applied to his God.

Now we must move on to the many differences between the deities. The most prominent,

I believe, is the respective gods’ relationship to Being. Aristotle dealt little with the question of

5
Aquinas also believed in God through faith. For now I will address only his strictly logical argument for the
existence and nature of God.
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Being,6 and to the small extent to which he dealt with the issue, it did not relate at all to his

conception of god. Indeed, the only relationship that Aristotle’s god has to being is that the god

is himself a being in a general sense. His god is a being, but he is no more of a being than any

other. He may very well be supreme, but the deity’s supremacy (or his status of being the “best

substance,” to use Aristotle’s terms) does not make him ontologically significant or supreme qua

Being. Aquinas’s views on his God’s relationship to Being could not be more contrary to this.

Not only is God the Supreme Being qua Being, He is Being itself.

When Aquinas says that God exists, he is referring to a specific type of existence.

Whenever we say that something exists, we are saying that it possesses one property while at the

same time lacking another. But God lacks no properties, so we must be careful how we speak of

God’s existence, Aquinas says. We must remember that His existence is one with His essence.

Aristotle obviously believes that the deity exists, but he exists mundanely. He does nothing and is

entirely useless. It is unclear in what sense Aristotle’s deity can even be said to be the Good

towards which all living things move. What is desirable about him? Furthermore, how can one

desire something he or she is entirely unaware of? We must remember that Aristotle’s god, unlike

that of Aquinas, does not manifest himself in the world in any noticeable way. Only the most

intelligent people can even be aware of his existence. Clearly, such an entity could not possibly be

the Good towards which all things move, if the things supposedly moved by it are both unaware

and unaffected by its existence.

The God of Aquinas, on the other hand, avoids this problem entirely. While Aquinas did

not go into a great amount of detail in describing His personality, much can be inferred from his

6
Here I am referring to the Parmenidean paradox.
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Christian beliefs. Aquinas believed that God was a personal being who created the world.

According to his Christian beliefs, even those who are unaware of the existence of God are

affected by Him. When we pursue a good, we are using the cognitive faculties and free will given

to us by God as we choose it. Even if we do not know that God exists, we are still affected by

Him in that we use the rational faculties He provided us with to choose between the apparent and

real goods that He placed in the world. Aristotle’s god simply cannot account for motion, as

Aristotle claims that his deity can. Why, precisely, would anyone bother pursuing something they

cannot see or even be aware of the existence of? How can a deity, who has no relationship with

us at all, be pursued by us? There is no reason, and he cannot.

But the most critical error on the part of Aristotle was his conceiving of the deity as

someone who did not interact at all with the world. According to Aristotle, god had nothing to

do with the world or with us. He could not; if he did, he would have to have knowledge of us.

For him to have knowledge of transient beings such as ourselves, he himself would have to be

transient, which is by definition impossible for a supreme being. And if the deity cannot interact

with the world, and exists in a state of isolation, he simply cannot explain anything. Ironically,

Aristotle criticized Plato’s theory of the Forms on the same grounds — how can Forms, which do

not interact with the world in any substantial way, explain anything that happens in the real world?

We should ask a similar question of Aristotle: how can this deity, which does not and cannot

interact with the real world, have any bearing on what happens within it? What can this deity

explain? In fact, what good are deities at all?

But before Aristotle could answer, Aquinas would insist that we not be so quick in

dismissing our belief in a god. He would tell us of the Christian God, whose essence is to exist

and who is the author of the world we live in and the goods we perceive. Not only is this God
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supreme, He is personal. “This,” he would tell us, “is the single most important difference

between our conceptions of the deity. While Aristotle’s god is isolated, and can explain nothing

in the actual world, my God is the source of the world’s very existence. He gives beings their

Being. The Christian God is to the existence of the world what the sun is to the light within it.

Aristotle‘s god can explain nothing that takes place in our world, but mine explains all of the

events that take place within the world and more — He explains the existence of the world itself.”