Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

General Character of Wisdom← TOC→Teleology and the Formative Principle


Four Kinds of Causes

Since we manifestly must acquire scientific knowledge of ultimate causes (for in an individual case we only claim to know a thing when we believe ourselves to have apprehended its primary cause), and since the term "cause" is used in four senses, to signify (1) the essence47 or essential nature48 of things (for the why is reducible in the last instance to the concept of the thing, but the ultimate why is a cause and principle), (2) the material or substrate, (3) the source of movement, (4) cause in a sense opposed to this last, viz., the purpose or good (for that is the end of all processes of becoming and movement),49 though we have already treated this subject at length in our discourses on Physics, we may seek further light from the consideration of our prede­cessors (983 b) in the investigation of Being and the philosophical examination of Reality. For they, also, obviously speak of certain principles and causes. Hence it will be of service to our present inquiry to review these principles, as we shall thus either discover some further class of causes, or be confirmed in our confidence in the present enumeration.

Now, most of the earliest philosophers regarded principles of a material kind as the only principles of all things. That of which all things consist, from which they are originally generated, and into which they are finally dissolved, its substance persisting though its attributes change, this, they affirm, is an element and first principle of Being. Hence, too, they hold that nothing is ever generated or annihilated, since this primary entity50 always persists. Similarly, we do not say of Socrates that he comes into being, in an absolute sense, when he becomes handsome or cultivated, nor that he is annihilated when he loses these qualifications, because their substrate, viz., Socrates himself, persists. In the same way, they held, nothing else absolutely comes into being or perishes. For there must be one or more entities51 which persist, and out of which all other things are generated. They do not, however, all agree as to the number and character of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says it is water. Hence, he also put forward the view that the earth floats on the water. Perhaps he was led to this conviction by observing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that even heat is generated from moisture, and lives upon it. (Now, that from which anything is generated is in every case a first principle of it.) He based his conviction, then, on this, and on the fact that the germs of all things are of a moist nature, while water is the first principle of the nature of moist things.52 There are also some who think that even the men of remote antiquity who first speculated about the gods, long before our own era, held this same view about the primary entity. For they represented Oceanus and Tethys as the progenitors of creation, and the oath of the gods as being by water, or, as they [the poets] call it, Styx. Now, the most ancient of things is most venerable, while the most venerable thing is taken to swear by.53 Whether this opinion (984 a) about the primary entity is really so original and ancient is very possibly uncertain; in any case, Thales is said to have put forward this doctrine about the first cause. (Hippo, indeed, from the poverty of his ideas, can hardly be thought fit to be ranked with such men as these.54) Anaximenes and Diogenes, however, regard air as more primitive than water, and as most properly the first principle among the elementary bodies. Hippasus of Metapontium and Heraclitus of Ephesus think it is fire; Empedocles, all four elements, earth being added as a fourth to the previous three. For they always persist and never come into being, except in respect of multitude and paucity, according as they are combined into a unity or separated out from the unity.55 But Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, who, though prior to Empedocles in age, was posterior56 to him in his achievements, maintains that the number of principles is infinite. For he alleges that pretty nearly all homoeomerous57 things come into being and are destroyed in this sense [just like water and fire, viz., only by combination and dissolution. In an absolute58 sense, they neither come into being nor perish, he thinks, but persist eternally.

According to all this, one might regard the "material" cause, as it is called, as the only kind of cause. But as they progressed further on these lines, the very nature of the problem pointed out the way and necessitated further investigation. For, however true it may be that there is underlying the production and destruction of anything something out of which it is produced (whether this be one thing or several), why does the process occur, and what is its cause? For the substrate, surely, is not the agent which effects its own transformation. I mean, e.g., that wood and brass are not the causes of their respective transformations; the wood is not the agent that makes the bed, nor the brass the agent that makes the statue, but something else is the cause of the transformation. To inquire into this cause is to inquire into the second of our principles, in my own terminology, the source of motion. Now, those who were the very first to attach themselves to these studies, and who maintained that the substratum was one,59 gave themselves no trouble over this point. Still, some60 at least of those who asserted its unity were, so to say, baffled by this problem, and maintained that the one and the universe as a whole61 are immutable, not merely as regards generation and destruction (for that was a primitive belief in which they all concurred), but in every other sense of the term "change;" (984 b) and this view was peculiar to them. So none of those who said that the universe is one single thing had an inkling of the kind of causation we are now considering, except possibly Parmenides, and he only recognized its existence so far as to assume not merely one cause, but, in a sense, two.62 To be sure, those who assume a plurality of causes are in a better position to say something on the subject; e.g., those who assume as causes heat and cold, or fire and earth, for they treat fire as having the nature of an agent,63 but such things as water and earth in the opposite fashion.

After these philosophers and such first principles, since these principles were found inadequate to account for the production of the universe, men were once more compelled, as I have said, by facts themselves to investigate the principle which naturally follows next in order. For it is, perhaps, equally improbable that the reason why there are goodness and beauty both in Being and in Becoming should be fire or earth or anything else of that kind, and that these philosophers should have had such an opinion. Nor, again, would it have been reasonable to ascribe so important a result to accident and chance. So when some one said that it is the presence of Mind which is the cause of all order and arrangement in the universe at large, just as it is in the animal organism, he seemed, by contrast with his predecessors, like a sober man compared with idle babblers.64 Now, we know for certain that Anaxagoras65 had conceived this idea, but Hermotimus of Clazomenae is alleged to have given still earlier expression to it. Those who framed this conception, then, assumed the cause of Beauty as a principle in things and, at the same time, as being a principle of the kind by which motion is communicated to things.

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[47]. οὐσία.

[48]. τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι lit., "What the being of the thing was found to be," i. e., the fundamental characteristics, or connotation as expressed in the definition.

[49]. The scholastic names for the four senses of cause in the order of their enumeration here are thus: (1) causa formalis, or forma; (2) causa materialis, or materia; (3) causa efficiens; (4) causa finalis, or finis.

[50]. φύσις lit., "nature." In the mouths of the early Physicists, of whom Aristotle is here speaking, the word means the supposed primary body or bodies of which all others are special modifications or transformations. (Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, pp. 10-12.)

[51]. φύσις i. e., primary form of body.

[52] Aristotle does not prefer to know the reason of Thales for his doctrines, and the biological character of the reasons he conjecturally ascribes to him makes it improbable, as Burnet says (op. cit. p. 43), that they are really those of Thales. Possibly, as Burnet suggests, Aristotle has, in the absence of positive information about the arguments of Thales, credited him with arguments actually employed by Hippo of Samos, who revived his doctrine in the fifth century.

[53]. Probably a "chaffing" allusion to Plato, who makes the suggestion here referred to in two obviously playful passages: Cratylus, 402b; Theaetetus, 181b.

[54]. The remark about Hippo breaks the connection, and is probably, as Christ holds, a marginal gloss.

[55]. Cf. Empedocles, 36 (Stein), R. P., 131b: "There is no coming into being of any perishable thing, nor any end in baneful death, but only mingling and separation of what has been mingled."

[56]. "Posterior in achievements" probably means simply "later in the date of his activity as a philosopher" (Burnet). Alternative explanations are "philosophically inferior" (Alexander); "more developed in his views" (Zeller).

[57]. "Homoeomerous" things is not an expression of Anaxagoras, but a technical term of Aristotle's own biology, denoting the forms of organic matter (bone, flesh, etc.) which can be divided into parts of the same character as themselves. It is here appropriately applied to the infinity of qualitatively different molecules which Anaxagoras regarded as the primary form of matter. (Burnet, op. cit. p. 289.) The words in brackets are probably a gloss.

[58]. Reading with Zeller ἁπλῶς, "in an absolute sense," for ἄλλως, "in any other sense." The reference is to Anaxagoras, Fr. 17., R. P. 119: "Nothing comes into being or perishes, but there are mixture and separation of things that already are."

[59]. i. e., the Ionian Monists of the sixth century.

[60]. Parmenides and his successors of the Eleatic School.

[61]. Or "body as a whole" (τὴν φύσιν ὅλην).

[62]. The reference is to the dualistic cosmology of the second part of Parmenides' poem, the "Way of Opinion." It is now fairly established, however, that this cosmology represents the views not of Parmenides himself, but of a rival school, probably the Pythagorean, whom Parmenides regards as entirely in error. (Burnet, op. cit. p. 195 ff .)

[63] The reference is apparently to the active role ascribed to fire in the system of Empedocles. (Burnet, op. cit. p. 244.)

[64]. Cf. Plato's account of the effect produced upon Socrates by the famous statement of Anaxagoras about Mind, Phaedo, 97b ff. Aristotle probably intends an allusion to this passage.

[65]. Anaxagoras, Fr. 6; R. P., 123: "All things that were to be, and that were, all things that are not now, and that are now--Mind set them all in order."

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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