The Foundations of Western Theology II: Aristotle

A Course with Thomas Patrick Burke

Tuesday evenings, March 17 to April 21, 2009

Aristotle’s distinctive conception of the nature of God and his arguments for the existence of God are great achievements of Western thought, and ever since they were discovered during the Middle Ages a guideline not only for Christian  but also for Jewish and Muslim thinkers. Aristotle was baptised by Aquinas, and amongst other things immortalized in the poetry of Dante as “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,”  (l’amor che muov’il sol’ e le altre stelle) a line that,  though apparently simple,  cannot be understood without Aristotle. This is true also of the inscription Dante places over the gates of hell: “the divine power made me, the highest wisdom and the first love” (la somma sapienza e’l primo amore)  —  a message our world has forgotten, just as it has forgotten Socrates’s teaching that just punishment heals the soul (no doubt a different point).  For like Socrates and Dante, and unlike so many of those who now claim to possess wisdom, Aristotle believed that individuals bear responsibility for their actions.

Aristotle’s point of departure in his approach to the divine, like Plato’s, is the physical movement we experience in the universe. For he is a scientist, and begins to lay a place for God in the world in a book called “Physics.” But he goes in a different direction from Plato, as we shall see.  He ends with nothing less than an analysis of the interior life of God, and one that many have found persuasive. Along the way he even makes suggestions about prayer: “Men pray for and pursue [material goods],  but they should not, but should pray that the things that are good in themselves may also be good for them, and should choose the things that are good for them.”

The Founding Fathers of the United States believed in God. That this was not merely an irrational faith, but could be a conviction based on reason, was a possibility they owed in large measure to Aristotle.

We included some consideration of the influential arguments of the Stoic philosophers.