The animating thesis of this newsletter is a question asked by Heidegger: “How does the deity enter into philosophy, not just modern philosophy, but philosophy as such?”
What makes Heidegger’s question so analytically interesting is that first word: how. The question isn’t whether God shows up in philosophy, even modern philosophy; that’s undeniable. The question is the mode of God’s appearance. Heidegger, mystically inclined, is particularly attentive to those philosophies that domesticate the divine, where conceptual conditions lord it over the timid god that is allowed to appear therein. Indeed, Heidegger contended, too many “religious” philosophies are guilty of such domestication, which is why Heidegger suggested that “god-less” thinking, refusing the god of the philosophers, might actually be open to a “more divine God.” In this sense, Heidegger was a scandalous disciple of someone like Meister Eckhart (whom I adore).
And as Heidegger noted, God doesn’t just appear in modern philosophy, or medieval philosophy. God shows up from the very origins of western philosophy in Greece. And in the spirit of Heidegger’s point, it could be that these “pagan” philosophies are open to a “more divine” God in ways that get forgotten in the history of philosophy. For example, it’s worth remembering that Levinas, who (as we noted a couple of weeks ago) was deeply opposed to philosophy’s tendency to domesticate transcendence, often appealed to Plato’s “Good beyond Being” as an inspiring intuition for his own work.
In that same spirit, this week I want to highlight Aristotle’s encounter with God in Metaphysics XII.
Now, on the one hand, one could read Aristotle as the very progenitor of what Heidegger decried as “onto-theo-logy,” the inventor of the causa sui (self-caused cause) as a stand-in for the God beyond Being. In other words, if the “god of the philosophers” is an idol (on Jean-Luc Marion’s account), Aristotle ran the first forge, the Vulcan of western philosophy.
However, even that is too simplistic, because there is another sort of encounter with God in Aristotle that is very different: not a god who solves a philosophical puzzle but a God who is the object of longing.
To appreciate the difference, we need to remember that there are different kinds of causality in Aristotle. Here in Book XII of the Metaphysics it is the distinction between “efficient” and “final” causality that is germane to understand two different arguments for the existence of God. “Efficient” causality is probably closest to what we moderns usually think of when we think of causality. An efficient cause gets the proverbial ball rolling–the pool cue striking the billiard ball, the kick of the snowball down the hill, the push in the back. Efficient causality is a “push,” the what-comes-before. It is the cause “behind” and “before” things, as it were.
But Aristotle talks about a kind of causality that feels more foreign to us–what he calls a “final” causality. Rather than moving something with a push, a final cause moves by its magnetism, a cause that pulls toward itself. A final cause moves things by its allure.
So let’s look at two quite different arguments for the existence of God in Book XII of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. (If you want to pause here for a moment, it might be helpful to read sections 6 & 7 to sort of “upload” what I’ll be discussing. Don’t be discouraged if it feels unclear.)
Here’s how the argument for a first efficient cause goes in 12.6, a argument to what Aristotle calls “pure actuality”:
This is Aristotle’s answer to the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” At the bottom of everything is an “unmoved mover,” a being of pure actuality that moves everything else, converting potentiality to actuality.
I won’t dwell on this argument. It’s a familiar form of cosmological argument, the sort taken up and expanded, classically, in Aquinas’ “five ways.” Some time soon, I’ll spend a week discussing Kierkegaard’s critique of such “proofs” in Philosophical Fragments (stay tuned).
Instead, I want to highlight a different sort of causal argument in Metaphysics XII.7: the argument from final causality. This ancient notion of causality was largely undone by the scientific revolution which fixated on efficient causality and called into question the notion of a telos (goal, end) that was pulling the cosmos toward something. But I find something deeply existential –and beautiful–in what Aristotle points to here: a cause that attracts rather than propels.
Indeed, just when you’re embroiled in metaphysical speculation, getting used to a terrain that feels mechanical and machine-like, Aristotle disrupts our notion of causality by introducing love. “The final cause, then,” Aristotle says, “produces motion as being loved, but all other things move by being moved” (1072b4). The final cause is erotic, seducing us to our end, wooing us to become what we’re meant to be–to find our end in a “final cause” who turns out to be a Lover.
It’s as if the philosopher has been guiding you through the factory of efficient causality, a clanging, banging world of cause-and-effect (hammer/nail, hammer/nail), then opens the back door of the factory, and suddenly you’re perched on a vista where the sun has just arisen over a coastal mountain range and the mix of sun and sea and the sublime of the mountains makes your heart sing songs you didn’t know. And you start to wonder if you were made for more.
This will seem an odd recommendation, since it’s not directly focused on Aristotle; but to dwell further on this Aristotelian intuition that there is a love that fires the cosmos, I’d recommend Hans Urs von Balthasar’s remarkable little book, Love Alone is Credible, particularly his first chapter on “The Cosmological Reduction.”