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Many scholars of Aristotle regard him as a monotheistic theologian, one who sees humanity’s ultimate end as tied to a divine First Explanation. They do not go so far as to say Aristotle actually was an Abrahamic monotheist – that would be a very strange historical claim to make – but they see him as having anticipated that sort of monotheism in the fundamentals of his philosophy. The God at issue here would be very much the “God of the philosophers”, the God identified by medieval theologians from multiple Abrahamic traditions (ibn Rushd, Aquinas, Maimonides) who all considered themselves Aristotelians, and read Aristotle very much in this light. Their reading is shared by contemporary Aristotelian thinkers I greatly respect, like Alasdair MacIntyre and James Doull. This theistic approach to reading Aristotle, in short, has a long and noble pedigree.

Doull, for example, says that Aristotle’s unmoved mover, his originating metaphysical principle, turns out to be “a God who knows himself in natural necessity” (Philosophy and Freedom page 50). MacIntyre says of someone who reckons with the theoretical claims of “Aristotle and such Aristotelians as Ibn Roschd, Maimonides, and Aquinas” :

What their arguments will perhaps bring home to her is that her and their conception of the final end of human activity is inescapably theological, that the nature of her practical reasoning and of the practical reasoning of those in whose company she deliberates has from the outset committed her and them to a shared belief in God, to a belief that, if there is nothing beyond the finite, there is no final end, no ultimate human good, to be achieved. So she may complete her reasoning by discovering that what is at stake in her decisions in moments of conflict is the directedness of her life, if not toward God, at least beyond finitude. (Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity 55-6)

Yet their approach is also very strange just on the face of it. We know, after all, that Aristotle did not belong to any of the Abrahamic monotheistic traditions. It is not entirely clear to me whether he even knew of the existence of Judaism (the only such tradition to exist in his day). Aristotle was a classical Greek immersed in classical Greek culture. Like his fellow classical Greeks, he makes regular reference to a standard polytheistic array of gods – Zeus, Athena and so on. That doesn’t make it impossible that he was ahead of his time, anticipating a monotheistic God and seeing the polytheistic gods as its manifestations or even as mere popular delusions, but it would have been striking and strange for him to do so. (Perhaps one could argue that Plato indeed did so, but that would be a topic for another time.)

Some translations of Aristotle have him referring to capital-G “God”, but this is misleading. What these translations render as “God” is to theos, literally meaning “the god”, in lowercase in the Greek. The “the” in “the god” is used here in a generic sense, as classical Greek so often does – a universalized singular to represent the plural class of particulars, as when they might make general statements about what “the boy” or “the dog” is likely to do. Plato in the Laws, for example, said “Of all animals, the boy is the most unmanageable”; it is a classical Greek idiom that could also be translated “Of all animals, boys are the most unmanageable”. If we were to render to theos as “God”, then this passage should instead be rendered “Of all animals, Boy is the most unmanageable.”

In his excellent book Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, the Québécois Aristotle scholar Richard Bodéüs has done a brilliant job of showing how Aristotle is not the monotheist he is sometimes taken to be. In the Ethics and the Politics Aristotle refers to the importance of worshipping the traditional polytheistic Greek gods, exactly as one would expect of an inhabitant of polytheistic Athens.

Why then would one imagine Aristotle’s theism to be anything different? The monotheists rest almost all of their case on book Lambda (Λ), the twelfth book, of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which refers to the “unmoved mover” (the first causal principle underlying nature) and to to theos, the god. Monotheists from the medieval era onward have taken this book to mean that the unmoved mover is the ultimate god underlying nature, a god therefore much like the Abrahamic. But Bodéüs reminds us that even within book Lambda there are only two short passages, in chapters 7-8 (1072b24-30 and 1074a33-b14), that mention to theos. In a close and painstaking reading of these passages, Bodéüs shows that there Aristotle merely claims the unmoved mover is like the gods in that it it has a perfection comparable to theirs, with the highest end as contemplation. The unmoved mover is not a god; the gods exist on their own separate terms, the polytheistic terms of Homer and Hesiod. Aristotle mentions “the god”, the generic term for the plural gods, only as an analogy to help illustrate his point (against Plato) that the unmoved mover has a real presence in the physical world rather than being an abstraction. (Bodéüs 20-29) True, Aristotle does occasionally call the first philosophy of metaphysics “theological”, but by this he means only that he is studying immutable metaphysical realities which are “causes of the visible divine beings” (1026a17-18, emphasis mine). We need to know these immutable realities in order to understand the gods – but not vice versa. (Bodéüs 35) Aristotle, then, is exactly the pagan that one would expect him to be.

As for MacIntyre’s claim that there is no ultimate human good if there is nothing beyond the finite, the tenth book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which identifies the highest good with contemplation, does provide some support to this claim – but not in the way MacIntyre, or the medieval monotheists, intend. In that book there is a supreme good beyond the finite, but that good is not to reach a final end identified with the goodness of a single god. Rather it is to be godlike, to live the kind of infinite life that the many gods live – and it is quite questionable how achievable Aristotle intends this goal to be for humans. Martha Nussbaum in The Fragility of Goodness goes so far as to think these passages contradict the rest of Aristotle’s ethical thought, which advocate a more active life. I wouldn’t go as far as Nussbaum does, but I don’t think Ethics X gives us sufficient reason to think Aristotle’s final end is “inescapably theological”. It certainly isn’t theological in the way that MacIntyre (or ibn Rushd or Aquinas or Maimonides) would want it to be, where our lives can achieve their final ends only with the help of a single capital-G God – one in which Aristotle did not even believe. In these respects Aristotle’s view turns out to look strikingly like that of the early Buddhists: the gods are real, they’re just not that important.