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Raphael's depiction of the unmoved mover from the Stanza della Segnatura

The unmoved mover (Ancient Greek: ὃ οὐ κινούμενον κινεῖ, romanizedho ou kinoúmenon kineî, lit.'that which moves without being moved')[1] or prime mover (Latin: primum movens) is a concept advanced by Aristotle as a primary cause (or first uncaused cause)[2] or "mover" of all the motion in the universe.[3] As is implicit in the name, the unmoved mover moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 (Greek: Λ) of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: self-contemplation. He equates this concept also with the active intellect. This Aristotelian concept had its roots in cosmological speculations of the earliest Greek pre-Socratic philosophers[citation needed] and became highly influential and widely drawn upon in medieval philosophy and theology. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, elaborated on the unmoved mover in the Quinque viae.

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First philosophy

Aristotle argues, in Book 8 of the Physics and Book 12 of the Metaphysics, "that there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world".[4]

In the Physics (VIII 4–6) Aristotle finds "surprising difficulties" explaining even commonplace change, and in support of his approach of explanation by four causes, he required "a fair bit of technical machinery".[5] This "machinery" includes potentiality and actuality, hylomorphism, the theory of categories, and "an audacious and intriguing argument, that the bare existence of change requires the postulation of a first cause, an unmoved mover whose necessary existence underpins the ceaseless activity of the world of motion".[6] Aristotle's "first philosophy", or Metaphysics ("after the Physics"), develops his peculiar theology of the prime mover, as πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον: an independent divine eternal unchanging immaterial substance.[7]

Celestial spheres

Aristotle adopted the geometrical model of Eudoxus of Cnidus, to provide a general explanation of the apparent wandering of the classical planets arising from uniform circular motions of celestial spheres.[8] While the number of spheres in the model itself was subject to change (47 or 55), Aristotle's account of aether, and of potentiality and actuality, required an individual unmoved mover for each sphere.[9]

Final cause and efficient cause

Simplicius argues that the first unmoved mover is a cause not only in the sense of being a final cause—which everyone in his day, as in ours, would accept—but also in the sense of being an efficient cause (1360. 24ff.), and his master Ammonius wrote a whole book defending the thesis (ibid. 1363. 8–10). Simplicius's arguments include citations of Plato's views in the Timaeus—evidence not relevant to the debate unless one happens to believe in the essential harmony of Plato and Aristotle—and inferences from approving remarks which Aristotle makes about the role of Nous in Anaxagoras, which require a good deal of reading between the lines. But he does point out rightly that the unmoved mover fits the definition of an efficient cause—"whence the first source of change or rest" (Phys. II. 3, 194b29–30; Simpl. 1361. 12ff.). The examples which Aristotle adduces do not obviously suggest an application to the first unmoved mover, and it is at least possible that Aristotle originated his fourfold distinction without reference to such an entity. But the real question is whether, given his definition of the efficient cause, it includes the unmoved mover willy-nilly. One curious fact remains: that Aristotle never acknowledges the alleged fact that the unmoved mover is an efficient cause (a problem of which Simplicius is well aware: 1363. 12–14)...[10]

— D. W. Graham, Physics

Despite their apparent function in the celestial model, the unmoved movers were a final cause, not an efficient cause for the movement of the spheres;[11] they were solely a constant inspiration,[12] and even if taken for an efficient cause precisely due to being a final cause,[13] the nature of the explanation is purely teleological.[14]

Aristotle's theology

The unmoved movers, if they were anywhere, were said to fill the outer void, beyond the sphere of fixed stars:

It is clear then that there is neither place, nor void, nor time, outside the heaven. Hence whatever is there, is of such a nature as not to occupy any place, nor does time age it; nor is there any change in any of the things which lie beyond the outermost motion; they continue through their entire duration unalterable and unmodified, living the best and most self sufficient of lives… From [the fulfilment of the whole heaven] derive the being and life which other things, some more or less articulately but other feebly, enjoy.[15]

— Aristotle, De Caelo, I.9, 279 a17–30

The unmoved movers are, themselves, immaterial substance (separate and individual beings), having neither parts nor magnitude. As such, it would be physically impossible for them to move material objects of any size by pushing, pulling, or collision. Because matter is, for Aristotle, a substratum in which a potential to change can be actualized, any and all potentiality must be actualized in a being that is eternal but it must not be still, because continuous activity is essential for all forms of life. This immaterial form of activity must be intellectual in nature and it cannot be contingent upon sensory perception if it is to remain uniform; therefore, eternal substance must think only of thinking itself and exist outside the starry sphere, where even the notion of place is undefined for Aristotle. Their influence on lesser beings is purely the result of an "aspiration or desire",[16] and each aetheric celestial sphere emulates one of the unmoved movers, as best it can, by uniform circular motion. The first heaven, the outmost sphere of fixed stars, is moved by a desire to emulate the prime mover (first cause),[17][note 1] in relation to whom, the subordinate movers suffer an accidental dependency.

Many of Aristotle's contemporaries complained that oblivious, powerless gods are unsatisfactory.[7] Nonetheless, it was a life which Aristotle enthusiastically endorsed as one most enviable and perfect, the unembellished basis of theology. As the whole of nature depends on the inspiration of the eternal unmoved movers, Aristotle was concerned to establish the metaphysical necessity of the perpetual motions of the heavens. It is through the seasonal action of the Sun upon the terrestrial spheres, that the cycles of generation and corruption give rise to all natural motion as efficient cause.[14] The intellect, nous, "or whatever else it be that is thought to rule and lead us by nature, and to have cognizance of what is noble and divine" is the highest activity, according to Aristotle (contemplation or speculative thinking, theōríā). It is also the most sustainable, pleasant, self-sufficient activity;[18] something which is aimed at for its own sake. (In contrast to politics and warfare, it does not involve doing things we'd rather not do, but rather something we do at our leisure.) This aim is not strictly human: to achieve it means to live in accordance not with mortal thoughts, but something immortal and divine which is within humans. According to Aristotle, contemplation is the only type of happy activity which it would not be ridiculous to imagine the gods having. In Aristotle's psychology and biology, the intellect is the soul (see also eudaimonia).

According to Giovanni Reale, the first Unmoved Mover is a living, thinking and personal God who "possesses the theoretical knowledge alone or in the highest degree...knows not only Himself, but all things in their causes and first principles."[19]

First cause

In Book VIII of his Physics,[20] Aristotle examines the notions of change or motion, and attempts to show by a challenging argument, that the mere supposition of a 'before' and an 'after', requires a first principle. He argues that in the beginning, if the cosmos had come to be, its first motion would lack an antecedent state; and, as Parmenides said, "nothing comes from nothing". The cosmological argument, later attributed to Aristotle, thereby draws the conclusion that God exists. However, if the cosmos had a beginning, Aristotle argued, it would require an efficient first cause, a notion that Aristotle took to demonstrate a critical flaw.[21][22][23]

But it is a wrong assumption to suppose universally that we have an adequate first principle in virtue of the fact that something always is so … Thus Democritus reduces the causes that explain nature to the fact that things happened in the past in the same way as they happen now: but he does not think fit to seek for a first principle to explain this 'always' … Let this conclude what we have to say in support of our contention that there never was a time when there was not motion, and never will be a time when there will not be motion.

— Physics VIII, 2[24]

The purpose of Aristotle's cosmological argument, that at least one eternal unmoved mover must exist, is to support everyday change.[25]

Of things that exist, substances are the first. But if substances can, then all things can perish... and yet, time and change cannot. Now, the only continuous change is that of place, and the only continuous change of place is circular motion. Therefore, there must be an eternal circular motion and this is confirmed by the fixed stars which are moved by the eternal actual substance that's purely actual.[26]

In Aristotle's estimation, an explanation without the temporal actuality and potentiality of an infinite locomotive chain is required for an eternal cosmos with neither beginning nor end: an unmoved eternal substance for whom the Primum Mobile[note 2] turns diurnally and whereby all terrestrial cycles are driven: day and night, the seasons of the year, the transformation of the elements, and the nature of plants and animals.[9]

Substance and change

Aristotle begins by describing substance, of which he says there are three types: the sensible, which is subdivided into the perishable, which belongs to physics, and the eternal, which belongs to "another science". He notes that sensible substance is changeable and that there are several types of change, including quality and quantity, generation and destruction, increase and diminution, alteration, and motion. Change occurs when one given state becomes something contrary to it: that is to say, what exists potentially comes to exist actually (see potentiality and actuality). Therefore, "a thing [can come to be], incidentally, out of that which is not, [and] also all things come to be out of that which is, but is potentially, and is not actually." That by which something is changed is the mover, that which is changed is the matter, and that into which it is changed is the form.[citation needed]

Substance is necessarily composed of different elements. The proof for this is that there are things which are different from each other and that all things are composed of elements. Since elements combine to form composite substances, and because these substances differ from each other, there must be different elements: in other words, "b or a cannot be the same as ba".[citation needed]

Number of movers

Near the end of Metaphysics, Book Λ, Aristotle introduces a surprising question, asking "whether we have to suppose one such [mover] or more than one, and if the latter, how many".[27] Aristotle concludes that the number of all the movers equals the number of separate movements, and we can determine these by considering the mathematical science most akin to philosophy, i.e., astronomy. Although the mathematicians differ on the number of movements, Aristotle considers that the number of celestial spheres would be 47 or 55. Nonetheless, he concludes his Metaphysics, Book Λ, with a quotation from the Iliad: "The rule of many is not good; one ruler let there be."[28][29]


John Burnet (1892) noted[30]

The Neoplatonists were quite justified in regarding themselves as the spiritual heirs of Pythagoras; and, in their hands, philosophy ceased to exist as such, and became theology. And this tendency was at work all along; hardly a single Greek philosopher was wholly uninfluenced by it. Perhaps Aristotle might seem to be an exception; but it is probable that, if we still possessed a few such "exoteric" works as the Protreptikos in their entirety, we should find that the enthusiastic words in which he speaks of the "blessed life" in the Metaphysics and in the Ethics (Nicomachean Ethics) were less isolated outbursts of feeling than they appear now. In later days, Apollonios of Tyana showed in practice what this sort of thing must ultimately lead to. The theurgy and thaumaturgy of the late Greek schools were only the fruit of the seed sown by the generation which immediately preceded the Persian War.

Aristotle's principles of being (see section above) influenced Anselm's view of God, whom he called "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Anselm thought that God did not feel emotions such as anger or love, but appeared to do so through our imperfect understanding. The incongruity of judging "being" against something that might not exist, may have led Anselm to his famous ontological argument for God's existence.

Many medieval philosophers made use of the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise; but, we can say that God is not ignorant (i.e. in some way God has some properties of knowledge). We should not say that God is One; but, we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

Aristotelian theological concepts were accepted by many later Jewish, Islamic, and Christian philosophers. Key Jewish philosophers included Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides, and Gersonides, among many others. Their views of God are considered mainstream by many Jews of all denominations even today. Preeminent among Islamic philosophers who were influenced by Aristotelian theology are Avicenna and Averroes. In Christian theology, the key philosopher influenced by Aristotle was undoubtedly Thomas Aquinas. There had been earlier Aristotelian influences within Christianity (notably Anselm), but Aquinas (who, incidentally, found his Aristotelian influence via Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides) incorporated extensive Aristotelian ideas throughout his own theology. Through Aquinas and the Scholastic Christian theology of which he was a significant part, Aristotle became "academic theology's great authority in the course of the thirteenth century"[31] and exerted an influence upon Christian theology that become both widespread and deeply embedded. However, notable Christian theologians rejected[32] Aristotelian theological influence, especially the first generation of Christian Reformers[33] and most notably Martin Luther.[34][35][36] In subsequent Protestant theology, Aristotelian thought quickly reemerged in Protestant scholasticism.

See also


  1. ^ Now understood as the Earth's rotation.
  2. ^ The outermost celestial sphere, for Aristotle, the sphere of fixed stars.


  1. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics XII, 1072a.
  2. ^ Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice: A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, Harper & Row, 1971, pp. 170–2.
  3. ^ "Aristotle's Natural Philosophy". Aristotle's Natural Philosophy: Movers and Unmoved Mover. 2018.
  4. ^ Sachs, Joe. "Aristotle: Metaphysics". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ Shields, Christopher John (2007). Aristotle (reprint ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-415-28331-1.
  6. ^ Shields, Christopher John (2007). Aristotle. pp. 196, 226. ISBN 9780203961940.
  7. ^ a b Ross, Sir David; Ackrill, John Lloyd (2004). Aristotle (6th ed., revised ed.). Psychology Press. pp. 188, 190. ISBN 978-0-415-32857-9.
  8. ^ Mendell, Henry (16 September 2009). "Eudoxus of Cnidus: Astronomy and Homocentric Spheres". Vignettes of Ancient Mathematics. Archived from the original on 16 May 2011.
  9. ^ a b Bodnar, Istvan (2010). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). "Aristotle's Natural Philosophy" (Spring 2010 ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In Metaphysics 12.8, Aristotle opts for both the uniqueness and the plurality of the unmoved celestial movers. Each celestial sphere possesses the unmoved mover of its own—presumably as the object of its striving, see Metaphysics 12.6—whereas the mover of the outermost celestial sphere, which carries with its diurnal rotation the fixed stars, being the first of the series of unmoved movers also guarantees the unity and uniqueness of the universe.
  10. ^ Graham, D. W. (1999). Physics. Clarendon Aristotle Series. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 179. ISBN 9780198240921. LCCN 98049448.
  11. ^ Humphrey, P. (2007). Metaphysics of Mind: Hylomorphism and Eternality in Aristotle and Hegel. State University of New York at Stony Brook. p. 71. ISBN 9780549806714. The universe has no beginning in time, no temporal first cause, so Aristotle is obviously not seeking an efficient cause in the sense of "what set it all off?" Aristotle's unmoved mover acts as final cause, as the good toward which all things strive. That is, it acts an objects of desire: "The object of desire and the object of thought move without being moved" (Met., 1072a26–27).
  12. ^ Hankinson, R. J. (1997). Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought (PDF). Oxford University Press. p. 125 (PDF p. 103).
  13. ^ Ross, Sir David; Ackrill, John Lloyd (2004). Aristotle. p. 187. ISBN 9780203379530.
  14. ^ a b Shields, Christopher John (2007). Aristotle. p. 121. ISBN 9780203961940.
  15. ^ Aristotle (7 January 2009). "De Caelo" [On the Heavens]. Translated by J. L. Stocks. The Internet Classics Archive. I.9, 279 a17–30.
  16. ^ "Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God", in Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), Vol. 2, p. 233ff.
  17. ^ Aristotle, Physics VIII 6, 258 b26-259 a9.
  18. ^ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X 1177 a20.
  19. ^ Giovanni Reale, Il concetto di filosofia prima e l'unità della metafisica in Aristotele, Milan 1965, p. 23. As quoted in Father Battista Mondin, O.P. (2022). Ontologia e metafisica [Ontology and metaphysics]. Filosofia (in Italian) (3rd ed.). Edizioni Studio Domenicano. pp. 95–96. ISBN 978-88-5545-053-9.
  20. ^ Aristotle, Physics VIII, 4–6.
  21. ^ Brentano, F.C.; George, R.; Chisholm, R.M. (1978). Aristotle and His World View. University of California Press. p. 56. ISBN 9780520033900. LCCN lc76050245.
  22. ^ Aristotle, De Caelo Book I Chapter 10 280a6
  23. ^ Aristotle, Physics Book VIII 251–253.
  24. ^ Aristotle; (trans. Hardie, R. P. & Gaye, R. K.) (7 January 2009). "Physics". The Internet Classics Archive.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ Shields, Christopher John (2007). Aristotle (reprint ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 222. ISBN 978-0-415-28331-1.
  26. ^ Ross, Sir David; Ackrill, John Lloyd (2004). Aristotle. p. 186. ISBN 9780203379530.
  27. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1073a14–15.
  28. ^ Iliad, ii, 204; quoted in Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1076a5.
  29. ^ Harry A. Wolfson, "The Plurality of Immovable Movers in Aristotle and Averroës," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 63 (1958): 233–253.
  30. ^ John Burnet (1892). Early Greek Philosophy. p. 88.
  31. ^ Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 1982, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, 1989. p. 160.
  32. ^ Especially since the 1990s, there have been scholars who argue that the early Reformers have been misunderstood in their stance against Aristotle (and the Scholasticism that he permeated). A distinction must be made between scholastic methodology and its theological content. See the self-avowedly ground-breaking collection, Protestant Scholasticism, eds. Trueman, Carl, and R. Scott Clark, 1997, page xix. Even within that volume, however, Luther is admitted to have made a complete, sincere, and absolute renunciation of scholasticism (see D.V.N.Bagchi within Trueman and Clark, page 11).
  33. ^ Luther is certainly more acerbic and quotable, but both Calvin who "denounced scholastic theology as contemptible" (Payton, James R., Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, 2010, page 197) and Melanchthon who found that the church had "embraced Aristotle instead of Christ" (see Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 1521 edition, 23) also rejected Aristotelian elements of scholasticism.
  34. ^ Luther's quotes aimed directly against Aristotle are many and sometimes strident. For example, "Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace" (Thesis 41) and "Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light" (Thesis 50) in Luther's 97 Theses of September 1517 (Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517).
  35. ^ In a personal note, Luther wrote, "Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself." (Luther, 8 Feb 1517; quoted in Oberman, 121).
  36. ^ "Thomas [Aquinas] wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine." (Luther, Against Latomus, 1521; quoted in Payton, 196).


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