Someone asks you the question,

"Why are you?"

You reply

My parents conceived me.

Am I correct in saying that your conception, according to Aristotle, is the efficient cause of your existence, and that the material cause is the fusion of the sperm and the egg?

2 Answers 2


One can discuss how to apply Aristotle's concept to answer the question

Why are you?

My interpretation:

  • causa finalis: The wish of the parents to get a child
  • causa efficiens: The fusion of the sperm and the egg
  • causa materialis: The cells of the animate being
  • causa formalis: The character of the person.

Note that Aristotle's concept is broader than today's why-question which often asks just for a causal reasoning in the sense of causa efficiens.

Added. As Mauro correctly quotes in his comment: According to Aristotle causa efficiens is the father [sic].

  • @Mauro ALLEGRANZA Concerning which point do you disagree? - In my opinion, the quoted key-passage from Metaphysics shows that Aristotle uses "aition" in a broader sense than todays English term "cause".
    – Jo Wehler
    May 24, 2016 at 11:35
  • The sperm is an instrumental cause.
    – Geremia
    May 24, 2016 at 17:53
  • Also, the final cause isn't the wish itself but that this wish be actualized.
    – Geremia
    May 24, 2016 at 18:09
  • @Geremia Why do you not consider the fusion of sperm and egg as causa efficiens - according to todays knowledge about conception? - I suppose the concept of instrumental cause is not due to Aristotle but to Thomas Aquinas. The link from your comment refers to STh I, q. 118, a. 1. Does Thomas introduce the concept at this location?
    – Jo Wehler
    May 24, 2016 at 18:49
  • Look at §3A (PDF p. 17-20) of that article I linked for a good description of instrumental causality.
    – Geremia
    May 24, 2016 at 19:24

Intrinsic causes:

  • Material: answers "Out of what am I?"
    answer: "My body."
  • Formal: answers "What am I?"
    answer: "My soul. It makes me actual."

Extrinsic causes:

My conception is my existence, and existence is not extrinsic to myself. My form is what makes me actual, just as the form of the Statue of David is what makes it actually the Statue of David and not a formless lump of marble.

cf. St. Thomas Aquinas's short work (opusculum) De Principiis Naturæ

Commentating on Aristotle's Metaphysics book 5, St. Thomas Aquinas shows (Sententia libri Metaphysicae lib. 5 l. 3 "All Causes Reduced to Four Classes" [785]) that there can a hierarchy of causes:

785. (1) For one cause is said to be prior and another subsequent; and causes are prior or subsequent in two ways: (1) In one way, when there are many distinct causes which are related to each other, one of which is primary and remote, and another secondary and proximate (as in the case of efficient causes man generates man as a proximate and subsequent cause, but the sun as a prior and remote cause); and the same thing can be considered in the case of the other classes of causes. (2) In another way, when the cause is numerically one and the same, but is considered according to the sequence which reason sets up between the universal and the particular; for the universal is naturally prior and the particular subsequent.

cf. also l. 2 "The Four Classes of Causes. Several Causes of the Same Effect. Causes May Be Causes of Each Other. Contraries Have the Same Cause"

So, the sun is a remote efficient cause of me,* and my parents** are a proximate efficient cause of me.
*The sun helped plants grow so my parents could live and procreate me.
**Aristotle seems to have thought the father was the only proximate efficient cause, but St. Thomas knew the woman wasn't completely passive in procreation; she contributes the material out of which my body is made, so she is also an efficient cause. Two efficient causes can work toward the same end, just as multiple builders can build the same house.

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