Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Four Causes in Plato

Everyone knows that Aristotle invented the Four Causes.  In the Metaphysics he lays it out: the Material Cause, the stuff that something is made of; the Formal Cause, the form or pattern, the shape of something; the Efficient Cause, the source of the something, such as the father of a child; and of course the famous Final Cause, the purpose or "end" of something in the world.

Today of course, we often like to think that nothing has a purpose: everything just is.  But then everything in the world acts as if it had a purpose, whatever that means.

Aristotle may have been the chap to define the Four Causes, but Plato seemed to take the Four Causes for granted in his dialogues.  For instance, in the Timaeus he tells us how the world came into being.  First of call, of course, it came into being because God wanted it.
The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible, and so he took over all what was visible--not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion--and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order, because he believed that order was in every way better than disorder. [30a]
Reads like an Aristotelian Final Cause to me, even if young Timaeus spoke it.

Having decided to bring order out of disorder the god next had to decide what the world would look like.  And so he decided to make it like "the best of the intelligible things... a single visible living thing".{31a]  But here's a puzzler.  Should there be one heaven or many?  What a modern thought: universe or multiverses?  But if it is to be One Living Thing, then obviously it must be one and not two.[31b]  Of course it ought to be shaped in a way "that embraces all the shapes there are" and that would obviously be a sphere.  And there it is, turning in a circle in a single solitary heaven.[34b]

So much for the Formal Cause of the heaven and the earth.

What of the material of the earth?  It would obviously have to be at least "fire and earth."  Now it is clear that if two bodies need to be bonded together they need a third agent, and since the world is to be a solid, it needs not one but two bonding agents: air and water.  So the universe will be composed of earth, fire, air and water, just as we would expect.  The Formal Cause of binding together the universe requires a Material Cause of the four elements.

Then there is the Efficient Cause, the designer god himself.  In his art he had to decide whether the universe needed all the appurtenances that humans need: ears, eyes, nose, hands, and feet.  It wouldn't need that, he decided, because he would build it complete and self-sufficient.  It wouldn't need to see or hear or breathe or digest, or catch or stand on anything.  It would just need to spin.  It would be complete and entire, organizing the disorganized, able to "keep its own company without requiring anything else."  There are a lot of decisions to make when you are designing and building the universe.

A rather male universe too, it seems to be.  But then Plato probably didn't ever ask his wife Xanthippe what she thought about the origin of the universe.

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