BMCR 2001.02.29

Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals

Richard Bodéüs, Aristotle and the theology of the living immortals. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. xi, 375 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0791447278 $19.95.

Richard Bodéüs challenges the widespread view that Metaphysics L presents a theology, and one so sharply at variance with traditional Greek beliefs about the gods that Aristotle did not, indeed could not have, endorsed those beliefs. Bodéüs argues that Aristotle endorsed many (but by no means all) traditional Greek beliefs about the gods, and that he put these beliefs to use in his theoretical philosophy and, even more importantly, in his Ethics and Politics. The place to look for Aristotle’s views about the gods is not his physics or metaphysics but his practical or human philosophy. It is time to recognize that Aristotle was serious and sincere in what he said there about the gods.

Chapter 1 reinterprets the passages usually taken to indicate that Aristotle was or was trying to be a natural theologian. Thus Metaphysics A 2, 983a5-10 does not indicate that god is the object of Aristotle’s proposed wisdom, only that the gods have such wisdom. The theological science of Metaphysics E 1, 1026a19 is not to be confused with a theology, for by theologia Aristotle means not a scientific discipline but rather a discourse produced by poets about the traditional Greek gods. The science superior to physics is not a scientific theology in opposition to the theology of the poets. It is a science of separate and immovable realities, not of gods; if Aristotle sometimes speaks of the separate substances as divine, that is a metaphorical usage. Apart from Metaphysics L 7, 1072b24-30 and 8, 1074a33-1074b14, which Bodéüs takes to be parenthetical, L is silent about the gods. L is not a theology but a study of substance. Its aim is not to argue that the separate substances are the true gods, though it shows how traditional ideas about the gods can provide us with some idea of the separate substances. Aristotle looked on the traditional opinions about the gods not as obstacles to be overcome but as resources to be exploited for philosophical purposes. It is no surprise that L does not support a doctrine of divine providence, since it is basically not talking about god or gods in the first place. Physics VII and VIII have no theological relevance either. As in Indian thought, so for Aristotle, the gods are subordinate to the transcendent order. The close connections between metaphysics and theology that produced Western onto-theology are post-Aristotelian. Nothing in Aristotle’s physics or metaphysics invalidates Aristotle’s adherence to traditional Greek views about the gods.

Chapter 2 contends that Aristotle did not attempt to use the notion of transcendence (immobility, immateriality) to understand god or the gods, but rather used the more familiar notion of god or the gods in order to understand the transcendent. Aristotle’s transcendent reality is not itself god, though it has something in common with god. Aristotle does not reason directly from the gods to the transcendent. Rather he first reasons from the gods to the noblest thing in the realm of nature (i.e., in physics, not in first philosophy). These are the celestial natures of the De caelo. The De caelo does not present a cosmic theology of the fifth element or ether. It is not a theological work, but a work of physics that uses traditional beliefs about the gods to understand the heavens, precisely where traditional belief located the gods. Since our senses give us only limited access to celestial phenomena, Aristotle turns to traditional religious language to confirm his celestial physics. The visible celestial bodies are described as divine, not as gods; they are like the bodies of gods without actually being gods. Thus both physics and first philosophy are guided by a mental picture of a god: the body of the god provides an image for the object of celestial physics, while the soul of the god provides an image of the object of first philosophy. But neither physics nor first philosophy aspires to offer a scientific theology.

Chapter 3 contends that the word theologia and cognates do not designate a theological science in the strict sense, but rather a more or less probable knowledge about the gods, based on credible opinions and presented in story form, primarily by poets. (These points are also argued in the Appendix.) The stories are myths, told not to teach the truth but to make human beings obey the laws. Aristotle interprets them not as allegories but as traditions stemming from a bygone heroic age and possibly grounded in historical fact. He is not committed to the Olympian gods or to the polytheism of Greek popular religion or to the truth of myths devised to influence human behavior, but rather to the invisible gods that human beings recognized when they first acquired civilization. This conviction is on the level of reasonable belief, not of philosophical or scientific certitude.

Chapter 4 contends that Aristotle believed that civilizations are cyclically destroyed by cataclysms and then slowly reborn through rediscovery of previous achievements. He saw himself as entering philosophy at a point when its ultimate secrets were being rediscovered. Thus the myths are the link between Aristotle’s own time and the predecessor civilization. Like Plato, he understands the gods as perfect eternal living beings. The De anima indicates that he conceived of the gods not as pure souls, but as composites of soul and body. Unlike humans, gods do not have to maintain their bodies by nourishment or to rest them through sleep. So conceived, the gods would still be capable of sensation and locomotion. Their intellects are separate from the world in the sense that they are always in the same state that human intellects attain on the occasions when they grasp the intelligible. This conception of the gods makes it possible to affirm that they are happy, totally independent or self-sufficient, and never active externally in ways that are improper to them.

Chapter 5 argues that in his two Ethics and the Politics Aristotle is in many ways committed to traditional beliefs, in particular the views that the gods are supremely happy, beneficent, and pleased by good conduct. The gods’ beneficence is the basis for piety, which Aristotle understands in terms of exchange justice, and for mutual love between gods and humans. He thinks that the gods stand behind our parents in the gifts of life, nurture, and education. If he does not argue that we are indebted to the gods, that is because he takes it to be self-evident. The gods’ concern for us must be conceived of as a gratuitous love. The most complete expression of piety is not sacrifice but rather the effort of individuals to perfect themselves, trying to be like the gods by practicing philosophy. Here we have a highly coherent set of ideas, supported not by first philosophy but by reflection on traditional views, ideas that allow Aristotle to answer the relevant ethical questions even if they cannot be neatly integrated into the theoretical teachings of first philosophy. In a sense, however, Aristotle has reversed traditional opinions about the gods of the city. The true homage of wise human beings to the gods is philosophical contemplation. Such homage is no longer a duty undertaken for the sake of the city but instead gives ultimate meaning to politics itself.

The above sketch does not do justice to the detail of Bodéüs’s arguments, to his subtle handling of Aristotelian texts (his list of Aristotle references occupies fourteen double-column pages), or to his helpful integration of material from Plato’s Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Laws. At the risk of oversimplification, I will summarize his position in five theses and comment on each.

(1) Aristotle’s surviving works do not present a scientific theology, certainly not one at variance with Greek popular belief. If Bodéüs is right, interpreters such as W.D. Ross, Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924), Lloyd Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), and C.D.C. Reeve, Substantial Knowledge (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2000) have missed the mark. Bodéüs cites Gerson’s book once but does not engage it in detail. He is right to point out how little Metaphysics L actually says about god or gods. That does not, however, entail that L was not intended as scientific theology; it is compatible with the view that L provides a sketchy and incomplete attempt at a scientific theology. Bodéüs’s sharp distinction between occurrences of the noun theos, “god,” and occurrences of the adjective theios, “divine,” strikes me as artificial.

(2) What Aristotle means by theologia is not a scientific theology but popular poetic narratives about the gods. If Bodéüs is right about this, he is right about Aristotle’s usage of a word. But such a fact of Aristotelian usage would not entail that Aristotle had no interest in scientific theology, only that he did not call it theologia. Even if Bodéüs is right to distinguish between theologia and theological science, and between gods in the basic or traditional sense and entities termed divine by extension, it is artificial to deny the title of philosophical theology to Aristotle’s study, however rudimentary, of the highest or ultimate metaphysical reality. So (2), even if true, does not provide strong support for (1).

(3) While recognizing that the popular narratives about the gods include fantastic elements, Aristotle believes that the core of popular belief about the gods is sound, including: (a) the gods are living immortals; (b) they are supremely happy; (c) they are beneficent; (d) they reward good human beings; and (e) we owe them the duties of piety. Thus the question about Aristotle’s commitment to traditional beliefs is really a series of questions about his commitments to particular beliefs. Commitment to (3a) and (3b), which are compatible with the natural theology traditionally ascribed to Aristotle, does not entail commitment to (3c), (3d), or (3e). That Aristotle used (3a) and (3b) both in theoretical and in practical philosophy strongly suggests that be believed them. The case for his belief in (3c) and (3d) is more difficult to assess. Bodéüs cites a number of brief references as well as the longer discussion in EE VII 14, but the silence of Physics II 4-6 about divine activity is telling. He would have a stronger case if Aristotle had explained, or raised aporiai about, how the gods cause benefits to human beings, how (whether?) they reward good human beings, or how they know what is going on in our sublunary world. Bodéüs’ handling of evidence that might seem to oppose his view is at least open to question. Thus he construes Politics VII 3, 1325b28-30, which is naturally taken in the sense that god and the cosmos have no external activities, no activities beyond their own, as meaning that the gods do have external activities, namely, those that are fitting for them.

(4) The popular beliefs about the gods are relevant to theoretical philosophy in two respects: (a) within the realm of nature, as confirming the findings of celestial physics in the De caelo; and (b) beyond the realm of nature, as helping us to conceive of the immaterial and unmoved first principle in Metaphysics L. These theoretical treatises make use of common beliefs (3a) and (3b), but not (unless perhaps at De caelo I 4, 271a33, “god and nature do nothing in vain”) to (3c), (3d), and (3e). Readers of Aristotle with unitarian leanings will welcome Bodéüs’s argument that the De caelo and Metaphysics L are compatible statements about two distinct levels of reality. This compatibilist reading would be stronger if the De caelo referred unambiguously to the first mover beyond nature or if L (especially L 8) referred unambiguously to the celestial physics of the De caelo.

(5) The popular beliefs about the gods are of much greater relevance to practical or human philosophy, where they provide sound guidance for ethics and politics. Bodéüs has done a service by reminding us that there is a large amount of god-talk in Aristotle and that most of it occurs in practical contexts. But even if Aristotle believed in all the common opinions listed under (3), Bodéüs has not shown (and has not, I think, tried to show) that these opinions are central to the analyses and arguments of the NE. The story may be more complicated for the EE and the Politics, both of which are of great importance for Bodéüs’s argument.

Bodéüs has got hold of a real problem: it is problematic for Aristotle to echo contemporary popular beliefs about god and gods as frequently as he does if at the same time he subscribes to a theology that makes nonsense of those beliefs. Bodéüs’s solution is bold: Aristotle held no such theology, and he means what he says when he echoes popular beliefs. But there is a further possibility to be considered: that Aristotle sincerely but unreflectively accepted common beliefs about the gods, even though his theoretical understanding of divine reality was moving in directions incompatible with some of these beliefs, and that he never got around to facing the resulting difficulties. It may seem impertinent to suggest that Aristotle overlooked such a problem. But apart from Metaphysics L 6-10, which Bodéüs would say is not really theology, it does not appear that Aristotle was all that interested in working out the truth about the divine, ready though he was to appeal to traditional ideas about the divine at many points in his theoretical and practical philosophy. We know that Aristotle was extremely interested in figuring out Eleatic monism and immobilism, in understanding what it is to be a substance, in making sense of pleasure and moral weakness, and a host of other questions. Perhaps his interest in theology, while real, was not so strong.

The 30 page bibliography should be of great use even to those who do not accept Bodéüs’s interpretations. Jan Garrett’s translation is a model of ease and clarity.