Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient and final

Aristotle’s Metaphysics was written with the aim of investigating the causes and principles of being in general. This means that he did not seek to study a particular being, as is the case, for example, with the biological sciences, whose object is only the living being as such.

Metaphysics seeks to go beyond the particularities of physical reality. While biology studies living beings and their complexities, Metaphysics strives to discover the causes of being itself, that is, of reality as such.

Aristotle’s theory of the 4 causes was elaborated precisely from the attempt to find that which underlies all of our reality.

Aristotle held the existence of 4 causes that, for him, condition the entire reality of beings.

What are the 4 causes according to Aristotle?

First of all, it is worth pointing out that cause, in Metaphysics, means principle, in the sense of something that grounds, that conditions the existence of something. And according to Aristotle, there are four types of causes:

Material cause

Material cause is what a thing is made of. A statue, for example, can be made of marble, bronze, wood, etc.

Formal cause

The formal cause is the principle that determines matter making it a particular essence. We cannot confuse this metaphysical form with that kind of geometric form (rectangular, circular, etc). Matter and form are principles that are connected with the notion of act and potency.

For Aristotle, matter is by itself ontologically indeterminate, that is, it is pure potency. Only when united with form does it become something determined: fire, water, wood, earth, air.

To the compound of matter and form we give the name sensible substance or synolos. The material and formal causes constitute the intrinsic principles of beings.

Efficient Cause

Efficient cause refers to the agent that causes a change (movement). And movement necessarily implies the passage from potency to act.

The bronze that has the potency to be a statue will only become one through the action of an agent (sculptor) who will act as the efficient cause of its change. Another example: Leonardo da Vinci is the efficient cause of the Monalisa painting.

Final cause

Final cause is that for which a thing was made, that is, its purpose. We can ask: Why did the sculptor make the bronze statue? Just for the purpose of producing art or for his livelihood?

Whatever the answer, what is evident is that without a goal, a purpose in mind, the statue would not exist, so the purpose of a being must also be considered a cause.


Reale, G. (2002). Metafísica Aristóteles Vol II. São Paulo: Edições Loyola.

Cite This Work

Vieira, S. (2021, August 07). Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient and final. Filosofia do Início. Retrieved from

Vieira, Sadoque. “Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient and final.” Filosofia do Início, August 7, 2021.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Aristotle’s four causes: material, formal, efficient and final.” Filosofia do Início, 7 Aug. 2021,


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