[Aristotle], On the Cosmos

LCL 400: 336-337

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On The Cosmos

which is the climax of the book, developed gradually in the history of Greek religion. Its chief exponents were the Stoics, and no doubt the De Mundo is influenced by Stoic religious thought. But the author rejects an important part of the Stoic doctrine: his god is not immanent in the world, interpenetrating all things, but remote, unmoved and impassive. He maintains the order of the cosmos by means of an undefined “power,” which relieves him of the dishonourable necessity of personal intervention.

Clearly we have here a development, however remote, of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. At first sight the god of the De Mundo seems far removed from the god of Physics viii and Metaphysics A, who is inferred as the necessary result of a theory of motion, whose only activity is thought which has itself as its object, and who moves “as the object of love.” Aristotle himself, however, seems to have spoken with a rather different voice in his published works. In the De Philosophia he said that the orderly movement of the heavenly bodies was one of the reasons for man’s belief in gods. Cicero reports an elaborate passage from Aristotle to this effecta: suppose there were men who had lived all their lives in caves under the earth and were then released; “when they saw, suddenly, the earth and seas and sky, when they learnt the vastness of the clouds and the force of the winds, when they beheld the sun and learnt its great size and beauty and the efficacy of its work, that it spreads its light over all the sky and makes day, and when night darkened the lands and then they saw the whole sky adorned with a pattern of stars, and the changes in the moon’s light

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On The Cosmos

as it waxes and wanes, and the rising and setting of them all, and their courses planned and immutable for all eternity—when they saw this, they would think at once that there are gods and that these mighty works are the works of gods.” This is close to the spirit of the De Mundo.

In one other important respect the author sides with the Peripatetics and Neo-Pythagoreans against the Stoics. Most of the Stoics believed that the element of fire was more powerful than the other elements, and that it periodically enveloped the cosmos in a universal conflagration (ἐκπύρωσις). Pseudo-Aristotle is emphatic in his rejection of this doctrine: the elements are equally balanced and there is no universal conflagration, nor any other kind of cosmic destruction. The eternity of the cosmos was maintained by Aristotle in the lost De Philosophia,a and in the De Caelo.b In Hellenistic times it was believed by the Stoic Panaetius, but his successor Posidonius apparently reverted again to ἐκπύρωσις. There are two Hellenistic treatises extant which argue that the cosmos is eternal—De Universi Natura, falsely attributed to the Pythagorean Ocellus of Lucania, and Philo (or Pseudo-Philo), De Aeternitate Mundi.

Author and Date

It is almost universally agreed that this treatise is not a genuine work of Aristotle. The style and various details of doctrine all make it unthinkable that it was written either by Aristotle himself or during his lifetime; but no such certainty is possible about the identity of the author or the date of composition.

  • aCf. fr. 22 Rose.
  • bBk. I. 10–12.
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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.aristotle-cosmos.1955