Aristotle and the Omen


1)   Is there a mode of analysis that is capable of unfolding the nature of the omen? I suggest that an appropriate starting point is Aristotle’s discussion of causes. His method is rooted in the debates of antiquity, but at the same time it lays the foundation for later philosophy; it is also frequently implicit in the way later thinkers take up the question of divination and the omen. Our concern is a topic that may well present us with an irreducible mystery, and the conclusions being reached may be far from Aristotle’s original intentions in framing his analysis. Nevertheless this road of thought is unparalleled in its capacity to lead us towards the right questions, to frame our first steps into the topic, and to suggest in what way it is to be accounted a mystery.

2)  Aristotle takes up the discussion of what can reasonably and meaningfully be said of the relations between events in order to bring to view the agency by which things are brought into being. The term used in Greek for these intelligible relations is aitia, translated into Latin as causa, the ancestor of our much narrower present-day notion of cause. These ’causes’ are categorised as final, formal, efficient, and material. Aristotle applies this analysis both to natural objects and events and to human actions.

3)  According to Aristotle all change proceeds in response to a need to reach an end-goal. As an example, consider the production of a book. The material cause is the stuff of matter out of which any thing is formed, so the material cause of a book is the wood-pulp, paper, glue and ink which comprise it. The efficient cause is what brings about the change in the materials so that a book is made; paper and ink are assembled in a certain way, physically assembled by the publisher. Within the same cause we can also place the computer software the author uses in writing a book. The formal cause – the ‘form’ – is the bookness of the book. Through written language, words and ideas are intelligibly expressed in the book, and this is what makes its bookness. The original idea the author desires to express is an essential part of the book’s formal cause. Simply looking at the material of the book will never grant us access to this formal realm unless we too share in the author’s language and thought.

4)  The final cause is the goal or end-purpose of the book, the in-order-to. The author’s intentions may carry the unspoken goal of bringing to light the human condition, or he or she may wish to share an inspiration. The final cause can seem quite intangible and vague, and it is often taken for granted and unexpressed, yet it is of the essence, because it is the final purpose of the book. Without it there would be no book and no book-ness. In general we may interpret the final cause as a need that is required to be fulfilled, where we say it is ‘good’ that it is fulfilled. All of these aspects need to be considered if we are to answer the question, what is the book? Aristotle is concerned to bring out an unceasing process of change and becoming in things, rather than offering a static naming of parts, and in this sense the four causes are relative and dynamic aspects or phases of entities.

5)  In examining any process of change, an entity is seen as form with respect to the more primitive material of which it is composed. Equally it may be the material expression of a further form. Take for instance an urn presented in evidence in a court of law. Considered in its own right the urn is complete in its urn-form. However a circumstance may occur where it becomes a piece of material evidence in court. The urn becomes material in the form of evidence to be employed by the lawyer (efficient cause) in presenting a legal case; its urn-form becomes secondary to its evidence-form. The final cause of its employment in this evidence-mode is the good of justice.

6)  Let us see what happens when we apply this persuasive analysis to our subject matter. The omen will immediately strike us as an unusual class of event which does not, on the face of things, appear to fit. There is something missing, since the omen appears to manifest a three and not a four-cause structure. We can lay out the material cause, the actual physical manifestation of the omen; we can also suggest its formal cause, in the figure or form of what the omen ‘means’. We can also infer what the message intends, its final cause or ultimate purpose, whether this is regarded as the work of some spiritual agency or intelligence, or as a hidden working of the soul. But what is missing is the reason known as the efficient cause, since we are unable to determine the means-by-which the initiating intelligence or agency has brought-to-pass the event of the omen.

7)  We are inclined to substitute for this bringing-to-pass a magical causality, as if the mind may directly work its intention in matter without any intermediating organ or movement; and indeed such a magical causality appears to be the only way we can get round the problem. A similar problem of the absent efficient-cause is even more unambiguously presented in the case of the miracle. It is precisely the direct and unmediated equation of idea and intention with the material event that renders it physically ‘impossible’, lacking a movement of physical force and energy to bring-to-pass, that renders the phenomenon apparently super-natural, or above and beyond the known laws of nature.

8)  The omen does not, unlike the miracle, defeat or transcend these known laws of nature, since in its usual form the omen is an event that may equally be interpreted as a product of nature or contingency. The logical connection with the miracle resides in its being taken-up, that is in meaning and intention being inferred into it; because by that very taking-up, an idea (a formal cause) and possibly a final goal (a final cause) are read into the material event in a way that cannot be justified by any conceivable interpretation of the means-by-which the event has arisen (the efficient cause). Thunder is a natural event for which a chain of physical causation may be established or inferred; interpreting the thunder as a message, to us, to me, from Zeus requires not only a super-physical agent (the god himself), but also a means of effecting his intention through physical means that is unimaginable except as a metaphoric and non-literal construction. We return therefore to the impossibility of containing a meaningful reading of an omen from thunder within a logical framework that demands an efficient cause expressed as physical movement, force, or energy. In the case of Zeus, we seem impelled to revert to a magical or spiritual causality, namely that what is in the mind of a god is directly and without mediation shown or effected in matter.

9)  To reiterate, what is suggested here is that, viewed within the framework of the Aristotelian four causes, the understanding of miracles, signs and omens qua miracles, signs and omens is commonly taken to show either an absence of the efficient cause, or a reading of the efficient cause as magical or supernatural action.

10) There is, however, reason to suppose that this common approach loses sight of something essential in the nature of all of these manifestations of the divine. We seize upon the fantastical element of the phenomenon, its unusualness, its apparent un-naturalness, at the expense of not enquiring more closely about the missing term, the region of the efficient cause, which is rendered obtuse when we fall back on explanations couched in terms of magical or spiritual causality. A caution here also arises from the likelihood that Aristotle’s analysis has been obscured by the metaphysical constructions of later philosophy, especially with regard to the efficient cause. There is nothing in ancient Greek thought that matches our modern notion of causality. This ubiquitous and primordial concept has come to be equated with just one of the four terms, the efficient cause, and Aristotle’s own usage has been narrowed and twisted away from its original meaning.

11)    Disturbed by the seeming absence of an essential logical category of causation, our usual way of thinking about omens, even – or perhaps, especially – amongst those who lay claim to them, covers over their nature. We think of the problem of the omen as to ‘how’ it can come to pass and so stand before us, as if we are passive spectators to a show presented to us. We ask, who has shown this, and to what purpose, and by what means has some intelligence or entity brought this phenomenon about? We struggle for the efficient cause and find it to belong to magical causality, to be a little miracle.

12)   But in seeking this way, we lose sight of an essential character of the sign and omen, which is that the omen is such only by virtue of being taken-up as such. The omen is an interpretation, it is not a fact granted by the senses. Since the omen has no literal basis other than its status in thinking-by-analogy, and in metaphor, by substitution or simile, then it cannot be an omen for one who simply does not see it as such, however hard we – and they – may try. Unlike the literal reality given to our senses, more or less open to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the omen will typically require a contextual field of shared cultural values, sometimes of considerable sophistication, before it makes some sense. Above all it requires the basic cultural supposition that there are such things as omens, a condition widely granted in all times and societies other than our own.

13)  It is not even a question of our enquiring minds meeting the omen half-way, as if there is something materially there that we still have to correctly interpret – the existence of the omen is wholly in the act of its interpretation as omen. In terms of the four-causes analysis, the omen has its existence as form, conceived in mind or in the soul, shaping its comprehension – the matter of its manifestation – to its own purpose.

14)  Once we have established the primacy of interpretation, then the logic of the efficient cause undergoes a hermeneutic turn. The one seeing the omen in the truest sense becomes responsible for the omen, for it is this one who in being addressed has been ‘called’ to see it, and being called, declares the omen and grants it reality. The granting is a making, and the making fulfils what is seen by bringing its truth into being.

15)  The nature of this reversal of our usual thinking becomes most evident when we look back to the pattern of ancient augury and oracles. The seeking of the oracle at Delphi is something more than a super-normal attempt to gain information about existing or future conditions, upon which a rational decision may then be made. Rather, the appeal seeks divine authorisation of conduct towards a goal witnessed and augmented by the god. The first view of asking the oracle is essentially passive, characteristic of our modern view of such practices; the second interpretation, more consistent with an archaic attitude, is active. It is in dialogue with the divine.


Geoffrey Cornelius     Symbol & Sacred 2019
* A version of this text was discussed in the seminars of December 2018 and January 2019. The text above has some minor changes, for clarification.




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