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Plato: The Cause of Aristotles Four Causes

Between Plato and Aristotle, some say, lies all the debate in the world. As two Titans of
Greek philosophy and science, they each have their own views on theories of explanation in the
natural sciences. The Phaedo is famous for introducing Platos theory of Forms, according to
which there exist abstract Forms that, alone, are sufficient to explain all the properties and
characteristics of any object. In Physics, Aristotle lays down a different theory to explain things, in
which any object or event can be explained by a basis of four causes. Aristotle, being a student of
Plato, is certainly familiar with his theory of Forms, which must influence his own theories.
Platos arguments in the Phaedo motivate Aristotles investigation of cause: he seeks to settle the
contradictions and differences in Platos theory. While he believes in forms, he doesnt believe in
the full-fledged form of Platonic Forms. He refines and adapts Platonic Forms to his empirical
approach; keeping its essence, Aristotle builds upon it to construct a theory of explanation in the
natural sciences that is, according to at least him, superior.
Any theory of nature is an attempt to understand the universe, which both Plato and
Aristotle endeavour to do. For Aristotle, knowledge is the object of our inquiry, and men do
not think they know a thing until they have grasped the why of it (which is to grasp its primary
cause) (194b17). Thus any natural science must incorporate a theory of explanation. Plato
seems to agree: Socrates admits in Phaedo, I was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they
call natural science, for I thought it splendid to know the causes of everything, why it comes to
be, why it perishes and why it exists (96a). They have both voiced their concerns on this matter.
Both assert that natural science must be concerned with the cause of things. Their conception
of the word cause differs from in fact encompasses our modern English usage. To Aristotle
the cause of something is the why of it (194b17), which is similar to Platos definition: why
things begin, exist and end. To both Plato and Aristotle, the cause of things, which natural
science aims to uncover, is the reason behind them. Each of them must develop theories of
cause in order to even begin to understand or explain the universe around them.
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Plato, fed up with theories of cause in contemporary natural science, posits his theory of
Forms. Forms are abstract ideals that are embodied by physical objects. These Forms exist prior
to anything else, i.e. they are the most fundamental things in the universe. In the Phaedo it was
agreed that these Forms existed, and that other things acquired their name by having a share in
them (102a). Thus the cause of anything is in the Form it manifests. The only thing one can say
about something is with regard to its Form, and that alone can explain any object or event:
you do not know how else each thing can come to be except by sharing in the particular
reality in which it shares, and in these cases [the numbers two and one] you do not know
of any other cause of becoming two except by sharing in Twoness, and that the things
that are to be two share in this, as that which is to be one must share in Oneness, and
you would dismiss these additions and divisions and other such subtleties. (101c)
For example, the sole true reason behind the existence, generation and destruction of a beautiful
object is that it shares in the Beautiful (100c). This type of causation alone, according to Plato, is
enough to explain every aspect of any object or event. All relevant aspects of a beautiful object
are caused by the Beautiful, and so on for each attribute and corresponding Form.
Platonic Forms are deeply embedded in Aristotles theory. In his words, nature has
two senses, the form and the matter such things are neither independent of matter nor can be
defined in terms of matter only (194a14). He believes that nature is composed of two parts:
matter and form. Both these parts, which are inherently linked together, are required to describe
physical objects. This theory, known as hylomorphism, fundamentally incorporates a weaker
form of Forms: they are what matter is organised into, to constitute physical objects. Not only
do forms exist, but so does matter. Plato believes that these Forms constitute a primary reality,
i.e. that Forms are more fundamental than the material, so any Platonic science would be
concerned primarily with Forms. However, to Aristotle, the physicist is concerned only with
things whose forms are separable indeed, but do not exist apart from matter (194b12), so
Aristotelian science would consider matter at least as fundamental as forms. Because Aristotle
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does not claim that forms are the most fundamental, Aristotelian forms are weaker than Platonic
Forms. This is reflected in the style as well: Platonic Forms are capitalised, while Aristotelian
forms are not. Nevertheless forms are indeed integral to Aristotles theory, which raises
interesting questions. If the theory of Forms holds sway for Aristotle, why does he modify it and
weaken it in his own theory? What motivates him to place so much more importance in matter
than his intellectual progenitor did?
Aristotle believes that while forms are essential to physical explanations, forms are not
sufficient to describe all the characteristics of physical objects. He makes a distinction between
the mathematical and physical realms, claiming that Forms belong in the former:
the mathematician, though he too treats of these things [surfaces, lines, etc.], nevertheless
does not treat them as the limits of a physical body; nor does he consider the attributes
indicated as the attributes of such a body. That is why he separates them; for in thought
they are separable from motion, nor does any falsity result, if they are separated. The
holders of the theory of Forms do the same, though they are not aware of it; for they
separate the objects of physics, which are less separable than those of mathematics.
(193b32-37)
Mathematical objects do not involve motion (198a17) and their attributes are independent and
separable. Objects involving motion, like flesh, bone and snub nose are fundamentally
different from those like number, line or curved (194a2-6). These physical attributes cannot
always be separated; they require more careful consideration. The attributes of flesh, for
example, are not independent of the flesh because flesh is physical, so cannot be separated from
the flesh as easily as the attributes of, say, a triangle can be separated from that triangle. The
theory of Forms is the supreme separation: every attribute of an object is a property of its
corresponding Form, independent of all other attributes of the object. Aristotle doesnt believe
that attributes of objects involving motion, i.e. physical objects, can be separated to the extent
that the theory of Forms supposes, with the ease that it does. Thus while forms explain
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mathematical objects perfectly, for physical objects they explain some, but not all, attributes. For
example, all the attributes of a sphere can be explained by the sphere form, i.e. the mathematical
definition of a sphere, but a physical ball can have all these properties and other properties as
well, such as its material, colour, elasticity, durability, purpose, maker, etc., that do not come
from the form of a sphere. Forms are necessary, but not sufficient, cause in the physical realm.
If forms do not fully explain the cause of things, there must be more types of causes.
Indeed, Aristotle posits four causes for physical things: the matter, the form, the mover and
that for the sake which [i.e. final cause] (198a25). For example, in the case of why a ball is
rolling, the material cause is that is made of something solid, e.g. leather, the formal cause is that
it is round, the moving cause is the person who set it in motion, e.g. a sportsman, and the final
cause would be the purpose for which the person did so, e.g. to participate in a sport. These four
causes combined contain the answer to every possible why question. Aristotelian causation
differs from Platonic causation in one crucially fundamental aspect: that there can be more than
one type of cause. Plato insists on things having one real cause: he uses words like the real
cause (99b) and no other reason (100c). He rejects Anaxagoras theory of causation because it
relied on two different types of causes: I never thought that Anaxagoras would bring in any
other cause for them than that it was best for them to be as they are (98a). Platonic causation
comes in only one flavour: the cause of the Form. Aristotle, on the other hand, believes there
are several causes of the same thing (195a4). Even though Aristotle is concerned only with the
primary cause (194b20) of something, it could be from different types of causes, while Platonic
theory only admits one. Aristotle rejects Platos requirement of a monolithic theory, which
enables him to amalgamate all the theories that appeal to him and to his teacher into an even
greater and more powerful theory.
The final cause, that for the sake which, is the teleological cause concerned with the end
outcome. Plato was attracted to teleological causation, even though he ultimately found no place
for it in his theory. He was intrigued by Anaxagoras teleological theory that Mind chose
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everything for the sake of the best outcome, but was ultimately dissatisfied with Anaxagoras
inability to use this cause to explain the things we see, by explaining why their ends are best
(98b). Before presenting his theory of Forms, Plato argued for final causation with the
justification of Socrates continued presence in Athens by his reasoned choice to do so for the
sake of virtue and honour (99a). This argument stands against Platonic Forms as well, but does
not pose a threat to Aristotles final cause. Aristotles conception of final cause is very similar to,
and probably derivative of, Platos: to Aristotle not every stage that is last claims to be an end,
but only that which is best (194a32). Aristotle believes final causation to have an integral role in
science because of its role in nature. He claims that nature is for the sake of something (198b4)
and that nature is a cause that operates for a purpose (199b32). By allowing multiple modes
of causation and multiple levels of explanation, rather than one true explanation, Aristotle is
able to incorporate final cause into his theory, and thus fulfil his teachers goals by unifying two
beliefs that appealed to both of them. The motivation to incorporate and validate Platos beliefs
is clear, as Aristotle repeatedly suggests at links between final causation and forms, hinting at
ways the two theories that held sway to Plato could be reconciled: the form is the end, or
that for the sake of which (198b3); the form must be the cause in the sense of that for the
sake of which (199a33). So in final causation, too, can be seen Aristotles drive to remedy
Platos theory.
Material cause is where Aristotle diverges completely from Platos views. Plato rejects
material causation entirely. He finds it absurd (99a): Imagine not being able to distinguish the
real cause from that without which the cause wouldnt be a cause (99b). Aristotle would argue
that the cause of a cause is more fundamental than the cause itself; he says that the last cause
is prior: and so generally (195b24). Aristotles stance on material causation, however, is a direct
consequence of his hylomorphic principle: if bodies are matter and form, then both matter and
form are required to describe its reason. Aristotles disagreement with Platos criticism of the role
of matter in causation is simply a restatement of his rejection of the full theory of Forms, i.e. his
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rejection of the belief that Forms alone constitute the primary reality of the universe. This is
inevitable once Aristotle loses faith in the idealist theory of Platonic Forms.
Aristotle is able to satisfy all of Platos objections in the Phaedo with his four causes. Even
the last addition Aristotle makes, the moving cause, could be motivated by Platos objection that
Socrates himself was the cause of his remaining in Athens after his sentencing. In fact, Platos
objections are exactly the kind of problems that drive Aristotle to concoct his own theory. One
can see Aristotles theory as an attempt to create an expanded, dualist embodiment of Platos
idealist theory of Forms, i.e. to incorporate a materialist theory with Platos idealist one.
Evidence of Aristotles intentions to redeem his predecessors work abounds in his Physics. It is
not surprising then, that Aristotle also hints at ways his theory could be reconciled with Platos.
Aristotle believes to each form there corresponds a special matter (194b9). It is not
unthinkable that a theory of forms could somehow include matter as well. Aristotle even admits
the possibility of incorporating matter into forms: if one defines the operation of sawing as
being a certain kind of dividing [then the saw] cannot be unless it is of iron. For in the
definition too there are some parts that are, as it were, matter (200b5-9). It leaves open the
possibility of expanding Platonic Forms to include matter while maintaining their absoluteness,
bridging the gap between these two theories. Thus while Aristotles theory is quite distinct from
Platos, the evolution of ideas from Phaedo to Physics is quite clear.
Aristotle carries forward his teachers theory, refining and elaborating it. Like Plato, he
isnt satisfied with the theories of causation in contemporary natural sciences. While he agrees
with some of Platos theory of Forms, he finds it inadequate to explain all the things in the
physical world. He believes that Platos abstract ideals dont explain the material world, so he
seeks to reform it to make it more materialistic. He finds three additional causes, between the
four of which lie the explanations to any and all events in the universe. One of those causes, the
final cause, appeals to Plato, and Aristotle fulfils his wishes, in a sense, by including it in his
theory. Another cause, the material cause, is completely rejected by Plato. Aristotles dualist
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theory incorporates Platos idealist theory the same way Aristotle thinks physical objects
incorporate mathematical ones. Aristotles theories are motivated, influenced and drawn from
Platos dissatisfaction with explanations in the natural sciences and his attempts to improve that:
the cause of Aristotles four causes is none other than Platos theory of Forms.