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18 December, 2011

Aristotle's Search for Truth

       The question arises, as to what human intelligence can tell us about God.  Therein lies the whole thrust of philosophy and, more specifically, metaphysics.

       Aristotle wants truth.  He wants to establish a science of truth.  Make no mistake; metaphysics is in some respects a very difficult science.  We should not take lightly or oversimplify the means by which Aristotle comes to an intellectual knowledge of God.  It is not an easy process of deduction.  We need a level of intelligence that goes beyond the mere establishment of facts or an investigation of the how.  Metaphysics seeks to go beyond any notions of such-and-such a thing or such-and-such group of things, to grasp the very being of things.  That is why Aristotle says that object of metaphysical study is being in virtue of its own nature and not in its capacity as such-and-such a thing.

       To be convinced of the rigor of Aristotelian thought, we have only to read the Metaphysics, his analysis of substance, actuality, and potency, of the "one" and the "many," of motion, and of the definition of words in Book 5.  Aristotle seeks to penetrate the being of visible things and their movement, from their generation to their decay.  He hopes to come to know the light residing in them, their intelligibility, their capacity to be grasped by human intelligence.  And so he looks at their being, their existence.  But he also recognizes that visible things do not possess their existence; they are things in a state of motion, of "becoming."  From the way they come to be and yet do not have fullness of being in themselves, Aristotle deduces that beyond them there must necessarily be a being that simply is, eternal.  Aristotelian contemplation is the penetrating gaze of reason that sees - not with the eyes, but with the intelligence, a presence, the God.

       How does the metaphysician see God?  On the basis of the reality of movement and becoming, Aristotle seeks the origin of becoming, for all movement implies not only an efficient cause, a mover, but above all, a reason for the existence of the movement, a good that gives rise to the movement, which is the final cause.

      There is therefore also something which moves it [the First Heaven, which is the source of movement in the universe] and since that which is moved and moves is intermediate, there is something which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality.  And the object of desire and the object of thought move in this way; they move without being moved.  (Metaphysics 1072a21).

       Aristotle also notes, 'If it were not true, the world would have proceeded out of night and 'all things together' (universal confusion) and out of night and 'all things together' (universal confusion) and out of non-being" (Metaphysics 1072a19-20), a possibility that he considers absurd.  It would be a negation of the intelligence.

       The first mover, then, exists of necessity; and in so far as it exists by necessity, its mode of being is good, and it is in this sense the first principle.... On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature.  (Metaphysics 1072b10-14).

       In some very dense texts (Metaphysics 1072b-12-21), Aristotle tries to grasp what this life of God and in God is.  God is the sovereign thought that thinks on itself, for in God "the intelligence and the intelligible are the same."  And Aristotle adds that God always has the immense joy of contemplation - the joy that we possess only for a few fleeting moments.

       We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal most [the supreme] good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God.  (Metaphysics 1072b26-30).

       Finally, Aristotle asks himself in what way the universe contains the good, the sovereign good:

       ... whether as something separate and by itself, or as the order of the parts.  Probably in both ways, as an army does; for its good is found both in its order and in its leader, and more in the latter; for he does not depend on the order but it depends on him.  And all things are ordered together somehow, but not all alike - both fishes and fowls and plants; and the world is not such that one thing has nothing to do with another, but they are connected.  For all are ordered together to one end. (Metaphysics 1075all-18).

       Obviously, the wise the philosopher becomes, the more this capacity to philosophize and contemplate takes root in him, the more this activity of looking at God, in and through visible things and their movement, becomes a source of joy.  It becomes the happiest, most blessed, most joyous activity and the source of  immense - I dare even say ecstatic  - pleasure.  This activity is not then intellectual investigation, a laborious labor, but leisure.  It is as if the intelligence has finally attained its principal object.  It rests in this object.  Of course the word "leisure" does not mean here what we commonly use it to mean, the opposite of serious activity.  It is the perfection of intellectual activity, which pauses and marvels in the greatest and finest of its objects:  God.  Thus the wise man extricates himself from the law of becoming and movement, from that of stress and political activity, to attain the eternal: the prime, unmoved mover.  Through contemplation, he takes his place, for a brief moment, outside of time.

Source: Excerpts from the Book on Made for Happiness, Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle by Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier is the son of a former Governor General of Canada, George Vanier.  Vanier wrote his doctoral thesis on Aristotle and taught philosophy at the University of Toronto.  In 1997, he received the Paul VI Prize for his work on behalf of human development and progress.  Jean Vanier lives in France. 

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