God the Prime Mover

Before we proceed to consider the meaning and import of the proofs for the existence of God and His providence, it will be well to point out one general proof that virtually contains them all. It may be summed up in this way: The greater does not come from the less, the more perfect does not come from the less perfect, since the latter is incapable of producing this effect.

There are in the world living, intelligent beings that come into existence and disappear again; they are therefore not self-existent. And what we say of the present applies equally to the past.

Consequently they require a cause, one that is self-existent.

Hence there must exist from all eternity a first Being Who owes His being to none but Himself and is able to confer being on others: a first living being, a first intelligence, a first goodness and holiness. If it were not so, the life, intelligence, goodness, and holiness of which we have experience could never have made their appearance in this world of ours.

Already open to common sense, this proof may be further scrutinized by philosophical reason, but no fault can be found with it.

The greater cannot come from the less as from its wholly adequate, efficacious cause, for the additional perfection would itself then be without a cause, without a reason for its existence, and hence absolutely unintelligible. It is utterly absurd to maintain that the intelligence or the goodness of Jesus, of the great Saints --- of St. John, St. Paul, St. Augustine --- are the result of unintelligent matter, of a material and blind fatality.

This general proof is at once more convincing when we consider the motion of bodies and spirits---motions from which it is shown that God is the first mover of every being, both corporeal and spiritual.

Already advanced by Aristotle, this proof from motion is set out as follows by St. Thomas in his Summa Theologica, Ia, q. 2, a. 3:

There is motion in the world, from the lowest order of beings to the highest.
St. Thomas takes as his starting-point a fact of evident experience, that there is motion in the world: the local motion of inanimate bodies displacing and attracting one another; the qualitative motion of heat increasing or diminishing in intensity; the motion of development in the growing plant; the motion of the animal desiring food and going in quest of it; the motion of the human intellect passing from ignorance to a knowledge at first confused, then distinct; the motion of our spiritual will, which from not desiring a certain object comes to desire it more keenly; the motion of our will which after desiring the end desires also the means to attain it.

Here, then, is a universal fact: there is motion in the world, from the motion of the stone that is thrown into the air, to the motion of our minds and wills. And we may say that everything in this world is subject to motion or change --- nations and peoples and institutions as well as individuals. When a motion has reached its peak it gives place to another, as one wave of the sea is followed by another, one generation by another, a phenomenon that the ancients represented by the wheel of fortune on which the more successful were lifted up, only to descend once more and give place to others. Is it a fact, then, that everything passes, that nothing endures? Is there nothing constant, nothing stable and absolutely permanent?

All motion requires a mover

How are we to explain this universal fact of motion, be it either corporeal or spiritual? Is the explanation to be found in motion itself? Is it its own reason, its own cause? To answer this question, we must begin by pointing out two facts. First, in motion there is something new that requires explanation. Where does this new element come from, which previously had no existence? The question applies to past as well as to present forms of motion. Secondly, motion exists only in a movable object: it is this individual motion for the sole reason that it is the motion of this mobile object. There is no displacement without a body that is displaced, no flowing without a fluid, no current without a liquid, no flight without a bird that flies, no dream without a dreamer, no motion or volition apart from an intelligent being that wills.

But if there is no motion apart from a mobile object, is it possible for that object to move itself by its own power and without a cause of any kind? Can the stone of itself set itself in motion without someone to throw it into the air, or without some other body to attract it? Can the cold metal become hot of itself, without a source of heat?

But, you may say, a living thing moves itself. True, but is there not in the living thing a part that is moved and another that moves? If the blood circulates through the arteries of an animal, is it not because the heart by its contraction makes it circulate?

So also in man. If the hand moves, is it not because the will moves it? And if in its turn the will is moved, passing from a state of indetermination to one of determination, must it not be moved by some object attracting it, by some good? And is it sufficient merely for the good to be presented to it? Must not the will direct itself or be directed to it? It does in fact direct itself to the means because it first of all desires the end; but in the case of the first desire of an end, as when we come to the age of reason or when on waking in the morning we begin to exercise our will, is not an impulse from some higher source necessary to start our volitional activity, so as to make our will pass from the state of repose, of inactivity; to that first act which is to be the cause of all the acts that follow? That act contains something new which demands a cause; and the will, not yet in possession of this new perfection, cannot give it to itself. (Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 9, a. 4; q. 10, a. 4.)

Shall we say that this particular motion, whether corporeal or spiritual, has as it cause another motion anterior to it? But, if we consider motion as such, whether realized in this present motion or in the motions that precede, we shall see that it is a transition from potency to act. Now potency is Our will, too, passes from potency to act, to which at times it clings heroically. Where does this new perfection come from? The will could not confer this upon itself, since it did not possess this before.

All motion, then, whether corporeal or spiritual, requires a cause: without a mover the mobile thing is not moved. The mover may be within, as the heart is within the living animal; but if this mover is itself moved, it demands another mover superior to itself. The heart that at the moment of death stops beating cannot set itself going again; in this case it would require the intervention of the Author of life Himself, by whom that life was given and who maintained its motion until the organism finally spent itself.

Every motion demands a mover: such is the principle by which St. Thomas throws light upon this great universal fact of motion. The irrational animals perceive, indeed, that there are motions of the sensible order; but, that every motion demands a mover, is beyond their comprehension. They have no grasp of intelligible being or of the raison d' être of things, but only of sensible phenomena---color, sound, heat, and the like. On the other hand, being and the raison d' être of things constitute the very object of our intellect; hence we are able to grasp the truth, that without a mover all motion is impossible.

Every motion requires a supreme mover

But we must go a step farther. If for every motion either corporeal or spiritual a mover is required, does this necessitate a supreme mover?

A number of philosophers, including Aristotle, thought it possible to have an infinite series of movers accidentally subordinated to one another in past time. For such as these the series of animal generations, for instance, never had a beginning. There was never a first hen or a first egg, but always, without beginning, there were hens that laid eggs; the motion of the sun revolving in the heavens had no beginning and will have no end'; the evaporation of water from the rivers and seas has always been producing rain, but there was no first rainfall.
We Christians hold it to be a fact known from revelation, that the world had a beginning: that it was created not from all eternity (non ab aeterno), but in time. This is an article of faith defined by the councils.

But precisely because it is an article of faith and not merely one of the preambles to the faith, is why St. Thomas holds that reason alone can never demonstrate that the world had a beginning (Ia, q. 46, a. 2). And why does this truth transcend the natural powers of our intellect? Because that beginning depended on the free will of God. Had He so willed, He might have created the world ten thousand years, a hundred thousand years, millions of years before, or at a time even more remote, without there having been a first day for the world, but simply a dependence of the world on its Creator, just as a footprint in the sand is due to the foot that makes it, so that, had the foot always been there the footprint would have had no beginning.

Although revelation teaches that the world did in fact have a beginning, it does not seem impossible, says St. Thomas, for the world always to have existed in its dependence on God the Creator.

But, if a series of movers accidentally subordinated in the past may be infinite and does not of necessity require a first in time, it is not so with a series of movers necessarily and actually subordinated at the present moment. Here we must eventually arrive at a supreme mover actually existent, one that has not merely given an impulse at the beginning of the world, but that is moving all things now.
For example: the boat carries the fisherman, the sea enables the boat to float, the earth holds the sea in check, the sun keeps the earth fixed in its course, and some unknown center of attraction holds the sun in its place. But after that? We cannot go on in this manner ad infinitum in a series of causes that are actually subordinate. There must be a first and supreme efficient cause existing not merely in the past but in the present, and this supreme cause must act, must exert its influence now; otherwise the subordinate causes, that act only when moved by another, would not act at all.

 Trying to dispense with the necessity of a source is the same as saying that a watch can run without a spring, provided it has an infinite number of wheels. The watch may have been wound up a thousand times, a hundred thousand times, or times without number, in the past --- it matters little; what is necessary is for it to have a spring. Likewise it matters little whether the earth had a beginning in its revolution around the sun; what is necessary is for the sun to attract it now, and for the sun itself to be attracted by a more remote and actually existing center of attraction. In the end we must come to a first mover that acts of itself and not through another of a higher order. We must come to a first mover able to give a full and adequate account of the very being or reality of its action.
Now that alone can account for the being of its action which possesses it in its own right, and that not only potentially but actually; a being which, as a consequence, is its very act, its activity, and which, instead of having received its life, is life itself. Such a mover is absolutely immobile in the sense that it already possesses of itself what others acquire by motion. It is in consequence essentially distinct from all mobile things, whether corporeal or spiritual. And here we have a refutation of pantheism. God cannot be confounded with the world, for He is immovable, whereas the world is in a state of perpetual change. It is this very change that demands an immobile first mover, who, instead of passing from the potential to the actual, is His act from all eternity; who is consequently being itself, since action presupposes being and since the mode of action follows upon the mode of being. "I am the Lord and I change not" (Malachias 3:6). It is false to say that everything passes and nothing endures, that nothing is constant, nothing stable. There must be a first mover who is Himself absolutely immovable.

To deny the necessity of a supreme cause is to maintain that the explanation of motion lies in itself, that a mobile thing can of itself and without a mover pass from potency to act, can confer on itself the act, the new perfection it does not yet possess. To do away with a supreme cause is to claim that, as someone has said, "a brush will paint by itself provided it has a very long handle." [1] This is maintaining always the same thing, that the greater comes from the less.

As evidence of this necessity for a supreme mover in the present and not merely in the past, we may take another example, this time from motion of the spiritual order.

Our will begins to will a certain thing: a sick person, for instance, wishes to call in a doctor. And why? Because first of all he desires to be cured, and to be cured is a good thing. He began to will this good thing, and this act of willing is an act distinct from the volitional faculty; for with us this faculty is not of itself an eternal act of love for the good; it contains its first act only potentially, so that when the act makes its appearance it is in the will as something new, a new perfection. In order to find the ultimate raison d' être of this becoming, of the very reality of this first act of willing, we must go back to a first mover of mind and will, one that has not received the impulse to act, who acts without its being given Him to act, to whom it can never be said: "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" We must eventually arrive at a first mover Who is His Own activity, who acts solely through Himself, since action presupposes being and since the mode of action follows upon the mode of being.

Only being itself, which alone exists of itself, can in the last analysis account for the being or reality of a becoming, which is not self-existent.

Are we not forced to recognize the existence of this first mover when we are confronted with an important duty to be performed at all costs and without delay, such as the defense of family or country; are we not too aware of our weakness, our powerlessness to proceed to action? What is then needed is action, not words. Who, then, will effect the transition from potency to act, if not He and He alone who has given us, the faculty to will and is able to move the will, seeing that He is more intimately present to it than it is to itself?

Similarly, the first act of our intellect, whether it be when we come to the age of reason or when we wake in the morning, presupposes a first impulse given to it by the supreme intellect, without whose concurrence we could not think at all. This impulse, by many unperceived, becomes at times strikingly apparent on those occasions known as flashes of genius. Even the man of genius merely participates in intellectual life. He has a part in it, and everything that is by participation is dependent on that which exists of itself and not through another.

Is not the existence of the first mover of intellects forcibly brought home to us when, after failing to see where our duty lies, we retire within ourselves and there eventually get enlightenment? How have we passed from potency to act if not by the assistance of Him who has given us intelligence and who alone can enrich it with new light?

The first mover, therefore, is not in potentiality for further perfection. He is pure act without any admixture of imperfection. Consequently, He is really and essentially distinct from every limited mind, whether angelic or human, these passing from potency to act, from ignorance to knowledge. Here again we have a refutation of pantheism.

Is the first mover of corporeal and spiritual beings necessarily spiritual?

To move intellects and wills without doing violence to them, evidently the mover must be spiritual. The greater does not come from the less.

But even the first mover of corporeal beings must be spiritual, for, as we have seen, It must be immobile in the sense that It is its Own action, its Own being. This cannot be true of anything corporeal; all bodies are mobile; matter is in perpetual motion.

Even if prime matter is supposed to be endowed with primitive essential energies, still it cannot as an agent account for the being of its own action; for such an agent must not only possess action and existence, it must be its very action, existence, and consequently must be absolutely immobile, possessing of itself all perfection and not a tendency to it. Now matter is forever in motion, constantly acquiring new perfections or forms and losing others.

The first mover, therefore, of corporeal and spiritual beings must evidently be spiritual. It is of Him the liturgy speaks when it says:

Rerum Deus tenax vigor,
Immotus in Te permanens.

 (God powerful sustainer of all things,
Thou Who dost remain permanently unmoved.)

In what then does the immobility of the supreme mover of corporeal and spiritual beings consist? Not in the immobility of inertia, of an inert body, for that is inferior to motion. It is the immobility of supreme activity, which has nothing to gain, because of itself and from the first it possesses all that it is possible for it to possess and is able to communicate that abundance externally. On board ship the sailors pass to and fro at their duties, but is it not the captain who directs them to action by the spiritual activity of his intellect and will, standing immovable on the bridge? There is far more vitality in the steadfast contemplation of truth than in mere commotion.

The immobility of the first mover is not the immobility of the stone, but the immobility that characterizes the contemplation and love of the supreme good.

The characteristics of the supreme mover

Since the first mover is pure act with no admixture of the imperfection of potentiality, it follows that He is in no way perfectible. He is infinitely perfect, pure being, the pure and ever actual intellection of supreme truth, the pure and ever actual love of the fulness of being ever actually loved.

He is omnipresent, because to move all beings whether spiritual or corporeal, He must be present, since these beings do not move themselves, but are moved by Him.

He is eternal, for He has always by and of Himself all His being and all His action of thought and love. In one immobile instant transcending time, He possesses His life simultaneously in all its completeness. When the world was created, the creative act did not commence in God, for it is eternal; but it produced its effect in time at the desired moment fixed from all eternity.

The first mover is unique: for pure act does not receive existence, it is existence; it is being itself, which cannot be multiplied. Were there two first movers, since one would not be the other, each would be limited and imperfect and would no longer be pure act and being itself.

Moreover the capacity of a second pure act could be nothing more than the first, and would be superfluous: Could there be anything more absurd than a superfluous God?

If such be the case, if there is an actually existing first mover of corporeal and spiritual beings, what practical conclusions are to be drawn from it?

In the first place we must learn to distinguish in life between the immobility of inertia and the immobility of higher activities. The immobility of inertia or of death is inferior to motion. The immobility that characterizes the contemplation and love of God is superior to the movement it may produce by directing and vivifying it.

Instead of dissipating our life in mere commotion, let us endeavor to recollect it so that our activity may be more profound, more consistent and lasting, and directed to eternity.

Secondly, let us frequently establish a contact in the summit of our soul with the first mover of corporeal and spiritual beings, who is none other than the living God, author not only of the soul and its natural acts, but of grace also and salvation.

Let us make this contact on waking in the morning, for then we receive within us that impulse from God that stirs us to action. Instead of going astray at the beginning of the day, let us welcome this first impulse by responding to it.
Let us in the course of the day resume this contact with Him who is the author of life, who was not content merely to urge us in the past, or merely to set us in motion at the beginning of the day, but is ever sustaining us and actualizing our voluntary actions --- even the freest of them --- in all their reality and goodness, evil only excepted.

Before lying down to rest, let us renew this contact, and all that sound philosophy has just told us about the first mover of corporeal and spiritual beings will appear transfigured, transported to a higher plane, in the Our Father.

"Thy kingdom come": the kingdom of the supreme intellect, by Whom all other intellects are directed. "Thy will be done": that will to which every other will must be subjected if it is to attain to its true end.

"Lead us not into temptation," but sustain us by Thy strength; maintain our intellect in truth and our will in the good. Then we shall have an even deeper insight into the meaning of those words of St. Paul spoken in the Areopagus (Acts 17:24): "God, who made the world and all things therein ... hath made of one all mankind ... that they should seek God, if happily they may feel after Him or find Him, although He be not far from everyone of us. For in Him we live and move and are." In Him we have our being --- not natural being only, but the supernatural being of grace which is the beginning of eternal life. Of this supreme  mover, the source from which the life of creation proceeds, we have been able to speak only in an abstract and very imperfect manner. It is He whom we must see face to face when we come to the end of our journey and reach eternity.

1. Sertillanges, Les Sources de la croyance en Dieu, p. 65.


The Background is from a late March afternoon sky in Augusta, Maine photo that I shot on the quick, and rendered sepia, adding the sun in Corel Photo Paint. The cloud pattern is exactly as it appeared in the heavens as it sailed past me below.

The Image of Salvator Mundi
is taken from a public domain old French holy card urging the Reign of Christ, in black and white, which is also treated in sepia.