The Four Causes

Aristotle’s Scientific Approach

The opening sections of the Poetics are quite confusing. Aristotle appears to be classifying different art forms (poetry, music, painting) using a bewildering set of criteria.

It turns out that Aristotle starts with the most general concept (art) and then gradually zooms in. We might diagram this as follows:

In Aristotle’s time, much literature had a musical component, and so it is not surprising to see him include hymns (as well as other forms of music).

By “poetry,” Aristotle therefore means a wide variety of literary works, and indeed the term “poiēsis” stems from the verb “to make.” The poet is a maker, and poetry is not so much a matter of rhyming (even a scientist can rhyme), but of representing the world in a certain way. Aristotle begins by thinking about making and then focuses on mimesis (imitation) as found in literature. Poetry is thus a productive art—like building a boat or framing a house—though the world of poetry remains quite distinct from reality.

To further distinguish the various kinds of poetry, Aristotle turns to “the four causes,” which are four different ways to explain the properties and purpose of any object.

The Four Causes

The four causes can be defined as follows:

  • The material cause refers to the materials out of which something is made. For instance, a sofa might be made from leather, wood, metals, staples, etc.
  • The formal cause is the essence or form of something. It’s how we define and describe the object. For example, a cello is a stringed instrument played with a bow, a bowl is a round dish with a concave inside.
  • The efficient cause describes how something is made or put together. The word efficient goes back to Latin (ex + facio = to work out). For instance, to create a flowerbed, we might need a gardener along with tools such as a shovel and wheelbarrow.
  • The final cause consists of the goal or purpose of the object. A table exists for eating on (among other functions), a fountain provides beauty and pleasure, a teacher is meant to make us smarter and wiser.

To illustrate this division further, let’s use the four causes to analyze a smoothie:

Four CausesSmoothie
Material CauseIngredients: banana, strawberries, raspberries, yoghurt, milk, etc.
Formal CauseFormal Definition: A refreshing drink made from blended fruit. Typically served in a glass or cup.
Efficient CauseA person employing a blender.
Final CauseTo quench one’s thirst.

From here it is not such a difficult transition to literature:

Four CausesPoetry
Material CauseSound, speech, rhythm, melody.
Formal CauseThe artistic representation (mimesis) of people in action.
Efficient CauseA poet using writing techniques such as point of view (e.g., first-person narration) to relate a story.
Final CausePleasure.

For Aristotle, the four causes allow us to understand the “natural order” of things. Aristotle treats art as if it can be organized and subdivided like a species of animal or plant. Similarly, the history of an art form can be described as a natural development or evolution.

It might be argued that this approach confuses nature and culture, and later critics would argue that no artificial product created by people is ever truly natural. A Marxist critic, for example, would suggest that the popularity of a genre reflects the values of a social class, which in turn wants to pass off its worldview as if it is rooted in nature.

In any case, the four causes help us make sense of Aristotle’s language. When he talks about different “media” (colour, rhythm, music), he means the material cause. When he mentions the different objects imitated by art, he is discussing the formal cause. When he turns to the “manner” in which the art work is created and performed, he is interested in the efficient cause.

Now it’s also possible to see how Aristotle defines a specific genre. For example, early on, Aristotle contrasts comedy and tragedy because their formal cause is different: comedy represents or imitates people that are worse than the average human being; tragedy describes people that are better.

If we zoom in and analyze tragedy in more detail, we can see all four causes in action:

Hopefully this helps to show how we can break down Aristotle’s definition into its component parts!