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Prime Movers, Immovable Movers, Self-Movers

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Prime Movers, Immovable Movers, Self-Movers


Chapter IV of Atlas Shrugged is titled “The Immovable Movers.” Rand opens the chapter with the following paragraph: “Motive power—thought Dagny, looking up at the Taggart Building in the twilight—was its first need; motive power, to keep that building standing; movement, to keep it immovable. It did not rest on piles driven into granite; it rested on the engines that rolled across a continent.” (64)

In that chapter are the lines: “She had always been—she closed her eyes with a faint smile of amusement and pain—the motive power of her own happiness” (65). This thought comes to her in an episode of wishing (after a day of learning that her capable contractor for rail construction of her Rio Norte Line in Colorado has decided to close his business and has vanished) “to find a joy outside, the wish to be held as the passive spectator by some work or sight of greatness. Not to make it, she thought, but to accept; not to begin, but to respond; not to create, but to admire. I need it to let me go on, she thought, because joy is one’s fuel” (65). She turned that evening to listening to her phonograph record of a concerto to give her the feeling she wanted to experience just then. This music was “like a voice saying: there is no necessity for pain . . . why, then, is the worst pain reserved for . . . we who hold the love and secret of joy?” (67).

After days that formed a string of enormous obstacles, especially from a choking governmental directive, Dagny is with Hank Rearden at his mills, where they talk of how to accomplish what is needed for bright developments underway in Colorado, and they talk of all the new human possibilities opened by Rearden’s new metal: “She looked at him in the exact moment when he turned to look at her. They stood close to each other. She saw, in his eyes, that he felt as she did. If joy is the aim and the core of existence, she thought, and if that which has the power to give one joy is always guarded as one’s deepest secret, then they had seen each other naked in that moment.” (87) The chapter concludes with the line: “Dagny” he said, “whatever we are, it’s we who move the world and it’s we who’ll pull it through” (88).

In proclaiming joy to be the aim and core of existence, Rand meant the aim and core of human living-existence. “Happiness is the successful state of life” (1014). Ultimate basis of successful human existence, of successful human life, is recognition, in mind and in act, of all-encompassing existence: “Existence exists” is the root of her moral code. Wish to escape that axiom is the root of disastrous moral codes alternative to hers (1015). Existence and consciousness of existence are, in Rand’s mature philosophy, “irreducible primaries” broadly implied in any human action and knowledge, at all stages of development (1016). “My morality . . . is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live” (1018).

It is well known that Immovable Mover is a conception down from Aristotle. Likewise from Aristotle is Prime Mover, which conception and name Rand turned to human constitution in The Fountainhead. Therein she portrays Howard Roark as an end in himself, as an originator only secondarily concerned with others in his creative achievement. Such a human being is not concerned with others “in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his desires” (HR XVIII, 740).

“The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself” (737).

(To be continued.)

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Prime Movers, Immovable Movers, Self-Movers


“The object of desire brings about movement, . . . cognition brings about movement, because the object of desire is its starting-point . . . . Thought evidently does not bring about movement without desire” (De an. III.10, 433a18–23; trans. Fred Miller).

An object of desire, a real object, is not altered by the desiring of it alone, but by the desire eventuating in action upon it. (Desire for and pursuit of an unreal object will, I’d say, be neither moved nor unmoved in reality.) Between the initial desire and the eventual act, the object of desire is a mover that is itself unmoved (434b30–35). Moreover, there are unmoved movers of this sort which, though they move us, they are not what is affected in our purposeful actions ensuing their being an object of desire. I desire levelness in the stones I lay in my pathway through the wooded ravine, but the ideal of levelness—that object of desire—is not only a variety of unmoved mover, but is itself not affected by my ensuing pursuit of leveled stones.

Levelness as a standard in step-stones construction is the way of unmoved movers that are our ideals, including moral ideals. This is the way of the ideal, generic man whom Rand banners in Atlas Shrugged, man of rational mind, integrated in desire, thought, and action. “Do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. . . . / Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind” (1069).

Aristotle writes:

“In motion, there is nothing to prevent the first mover being unmoved (indeed, as regards some this is actually necessary), . . . and, in action, there is nothing to prevent the first agent being unaffected . . . . For if things have not the same matter, the agent acts without being affected; thus the art of healing produces health without itself being acted upon in any way by that which is being healed. But the [prescribed] food, in acting is itself in some way acted upon: for, in acting, it is simultaneously heated or cooled or otherwise affected.” (GC I.9, 324a30–324b2)

A physician’s decision to treat someone does not of itself affect the physician, nor does it affect the art of healing. My decision to make the stone pathway does not of itself affect me, the originator of the project, meaning specifically that the decision itself does not put me in any recoil motion. I am one type of unmoved mover at that moment; the object of desire—the stone pathway—is another type of unmoved mover at that moment; and the art of step-stone path construction, including the desideratum of levelness, is at all moments of the project another type of unmoved mover. This is Aristotle’s take on the project, I’ve gathered, and this far, I’ve no non-picayune objection.

In taking a step, I am a moved mover. The effect of the stone, firmly set in the immovable earth, effect of the stone on my foot and its load is necessary to taking a step down my pathway; and me moving my foot is necessary to taking a step down my pathway (MA 2, 698b7–21; Nussbaum 1978, 115–16). Among the three types of unmoved movers I have mentioned, the type instanced by the decision to make a path or to take a walk down the path, is the type for which it makes sense to characterize the unmoved mover as a first unmoved mover, or first immovable mover.

Aristotle had it that the earth was motionless and was at the center of the cosmos, and that all movements here at Earth, including our occasions of being first unmoved movers, are somehow dependent upon a Primary immovable mover—immovable in the absolute sense, immovable by anything whatever—necessary to stay the rotational motion of the farthest sphere around the earth, the sphere (purely a surface, not the volume contained within it) on which ride the stars in their nightly journey across the sky (MA 1, 698a10–12; 3, 699a12–20; Phys. VIII.6, 258b10–15, 259b32–260a19). The modern school child will want to let Aristotle know that those stars only appear to move in a circular arc, and the reality yielding that appearance is the daily rotation of the earth. She will of course report that the earth is not center of the cosmos, at least not in the simple way geocentrists of yore conceived it, and that insofar as we think of the rotational dynamics of the entire cosmos, we do not think of it as anything but the summation of galactic angular momenta, with no dependence of Milky Way (or Earth) angular momentum on the sum of galactic angular momenta. Similarly, we decline any idea that any dynamics of humans or their machines depend on cosmological dynamics (GA II.1, 731b24–732a11; De an. II.4, 415a26–415b8).

Aristotle got wrong his set of motion types that require only an initiating cause, not also a sustaining cause (Phys. VIII.4).  We’ve no advance knowledge that the rotation of galaxies that are rotating requires a cause to keep them rotating. Indeed if an astronaut in outer space has a wrench get away from her while doing extra-vehicular work and the wrench is rotating, we do not, in the leisure of intellectual reflection, look for a cause of its continued uniform rotation; we look only for a cause of any interruptions in its uniform rotation. Aristotle mistakenly took for absurd the possibility that any objects continue to move indefinitely in their state of motion, such as would be an object moving in a void, and this absurdity he took to count against the idea that a void can be (Phys. IV.8, 19–21).

There is constant centripetal force coordinate with the constant rate of rotation of the wrench, but this force is not causing the rotation; this force is a real attribute of the rotating wrench, but is not cause of that necessarily attendant rotation. This force is part of our causal explanation, for example, of why a sufficiently sensitive strain gauge affixed to the wrench would register non-zero. Note also that appeal to conservation of angular momentum as a causal explanation for uniform rotation in vacuum is off the mark; conservation of angular momentum is not a cause of anything. It is only part of our wider understanding of certain phenomena, such as the rotation or the orbit of the earth or of the wrench that got away from the astronaut.

Then again, Aristotle does not succeed in his effort to show that if there is motion or activity in the cosmos from all eternity and to all eternity, there must be a single, particular something that is moving in a certain simple way (uniform rotation) through all eternity, and there must be a sustaining cause of that motion, in particular, a Prime immovable mover (Phys. VIII; Falcon 2015; also GC II.10, 336b26–337a7; Quarantotto 2015, 178–84).

(To be continued.)


Aristotle 1984. The Complete Works of Aristotle, volume 2. J. Barnes, editor. Princeton.

Aristotle 2018. Aristotle – On the Soul and Other Psychological Works. Fred D. Miller Jr., translator. Oxford.

Falcon, Andrea 2015. The Argument of Physics VIII. In Leunissen 2015.

Leunissen, Mariska, editor, 2015. Aristotles Physics – A Critical Guide. Cambridge.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven 1978. Aristotle’s De Moto Animalium. Princeton.

Quarantotto, Diana 2015. A Dynamic Ontology: On How Aristotle Arrived at the Conclusion that Eternal Change Accomplishes Ousia. In Leunissen 2015.

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Prime Movers, Immovable Movers, Self-Movers


In Laws X, Plato takes up the task of argument against atheists and against those who believe in gods, but think gods have nothing to do with our human activities. (Atheist Underground) Plato specifies the view he opposes:

“Fire, water, earth and air, they say, all exist as a result of nature and chance—none of them as a result of art or design. As for the secondary bodies—those of the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars—they have all come into being thanks to these entirely lifeless substances. These bodies move by chance, each governed by its own particular powers. . . . From these causes, not as a result of intelligence, they say, nor as the result of any god, any art or design, but, as we have said, by nature and chance. Art and design come later, having come into being from these, being themselves mortal and the product of things mortal. . . . Those of the arts which really do bring something worthwhile into being, they say, are the ones which combine their own powers with those of nature—medicine, for example, or farming, or physical training.” (889b–d)

A devotee of this doctrine “believes that fire, water, earth, and air come first of all; it is just these things to which he gives the name ‘nature’, and soul, he thinks, comes later, derived from these” (891c). Plato to the contrary:

“Think about the soul, my friend. It looks as if practically the whole world has no idea what kind of thing it really is and what powers it has—and in particular no idea about its origin, or the fact that it is one of the primary things, having come into being before all physical bodies, and that any change or reconfiguration of those bodies is essentially under its control. But if this is so, then things related to soul must necessarily have come into being earlier than things belonging to the body, mustn’t they, since soul is older than body?” (892a)

Plato replies in the affirmative, and he sets about proving that the soul is older (or anyway metaphysically and causally more fundamental) than body and the ramifications of that. Plato sorts motions in various ways, and one way is to distinguish between movers (or generators more generally) capable of moving other things, though not capable of moving themselves, and on the other hand, movers of other things and capable of moving themselves as well. He proclaims the latter superior to all input-output motions and their concatenations because a self-moving mover is required to get the whole gang moving.

The self-mover is the first to effect motions (or alterations more generally). Self-motion is

“the prime cause of all movement, we shall say, which is first whether it comes into being among things which are stationary or exists already among things which are moving, the movement which moves itself, is necessarily the oldest and most powerful of all causes of change; whereas that which undergoes change at the hands of one thing, and transmits that motion to other things, is second.” (895b)

Such a self-mover, or self-generator, arising in earth, water, or fire, is alive (895c; also Phaedo 104c–d). Furthermore, motion capable of moving itself is the very definition of soul (896a; also Phaedrus 245c–e). Then soul is the most ancient thing there is. The spiritual order of things is older than and governs the physical order of things. By its own motions, soul is the driving force of all in heaven or earth. Soul keeps in control anything that is moved, and soul inhabits those things. Operations of physical bodies reflect the operations of soul (896c–897c).

By the lights of Plato, rotary motion has “the closest possible relation and similarity, in every way, to the movement of reason” (898a). The heavens are driven round by soul of the best sort, which is a god. “All things are full of gods” (899b; a saying ascribed to Thales). And just as men in doing a job attend both to the whole of the job and to the details, so a god attends to men (899d–903a).

Aristotle, we have seen, does not launch his argument for a Prime immovable mover from the proposition that immaterial soul has been around longer than bodies (or that soul is metaphysically and causally the more fundamental). At odds with Plato, Aristotle launches his argument from the proposition that the universe with its operations is eternal.

Then too, Aristotle is at odds with Plato’s thinking that soul is a motion entirely capable of moving itself. For Aristotle there are no motions entirely capable of moving themselves. Motions are in a sense “incomplete” according to him, or we could say that for Aristotle motions are in a sense privative (Coope 2015, 255).

“It is impossible that that which moves itself should in its entirety move itself, for then, . . . it would as a whole both undergo and cause the same locomotion or alteration . . . . Moreover, . . . it is the movable that is moved; and this moves potentially, not in fulfillment, and the potential is in process of fulfillment, and motion is an incomplete fulfillment of the moveable. The mover on the other hand is already in actuality” (Phys. VIII.5, 257b2–8; also Meta. IX.8, 1049b24–29).

For Aristotle: “Being potentially is a way of being for the sake of some fulfillment” (Coope 2015, 254) All motions, even ones not self-motions, are in potentiality, hence they are moves to an end other than their present condition. Such ends in fulfillment are primary causes of motions. “The primary cause must be something that is just what it is, without reference to anything further. The primary cause must be something that is in fulfillment, not in potentiality” (ibid., 255).

I should dispute the idea that motions of things, whether inanimate or animate, have in them an essential privation. The potentials an object possess are not ontological peers of the object’s actualities, including that object’s state of motion (cf. Rand ITOE app. 286). A potential belongs to a thing, as we should say a history belongs to a thing. They are both important to the identity of a present thing. But the actuality of a thing is not a belonging to a thing; there is nothing to any actual object deeper than its actuality. Motions of a thing are purely actual, and these are among the full complement of actualities of that thing. The actualities of those motions are not, qua actualities, belongings of the other actualities of a thing. But let us finish Aristotle’s response to Plato, and then repair their errors.

(To be continued.)


Barnes, Jonathan, editor, 1984. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Princeton.

Coope, Ursula. 2015. Self-Motion as Other-Motion in Aristotle’s Physics. In Leunissen 2015.

Cooper, John M., editor, 1997. Plato – Complete Works. Hackett.

Griffith, Tom, translator, 2016. Plato – Laws. Cambridge.

Leunissen, Mariska., editor, 2015. Aristotle’s Physics – A Critical Guide. Cambridge.


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