Aristotle on Prayer

Robert Mayhew
Seton Hall University
In Metaphysics L, Aristotle presents a proof for the existence of an eternal, immaterial being – a prime mover, which he calls ‘god’. This being is pure thought, and the objects of divine thought do not seem to include particulars. This conception of god has major implications for religion. If the gods can not know individual humans, then they cannot knowingly act to benefit specific humans, responding to particular sacrifices, prayers, and actions. But this would seem to conflict with those passages in Aristotle’s corpus that refer positively to the gods of traditional religion and their beneficial actions. In an attempt to better understand this tension in Aristotle’s thought, the present paper examines Aristotle’s scattered remarks on prayer – a topic that has received little attention from Aristotle-scholars. The author concludes that there is no evidence that Aristotle believed in the efficacy of prayer– i.e., that there are gods capable of hearing and responding to our prayers. Aristotle did not explicitly reject prayer, however, because he likely thought that it could nevertheless be useful, for example ‘with a view to the persuasion of the many’
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