ARCHÉ (Greek ’αρχη—principle, the beginning of something; cause, origin, reason, source, composition, stock, sum, recapitulation, whole; Latin—principium, initium, imperium, magistratus—beginning, element, component, factor, source, supposition, rise or generation, the beginning of the world, dominion, authority, office, quintessence, principle, attribute)—a philosophical term applied in attempts to explain reality in ultimate terms.

The term arché is most often used in the meaning which Aristotle gave to it, although it comes from common usage, and was associated with mythic and religious view of culture. There, in the order of pre-philosophical thought, they applied the concept of a primeval first substance from which the world arose spontaneously or by divine intervention. The world was not yet called a cosmos, although it was marked by order, harmonious tuning, and was produced from eternal chaos. Heidegger thought that arché was not an “archaic” conception but came from Aristotle, and later due to “doxography” it was interpreted ex post (after the fact) as having been part of the beginning of Greek philosophy.

All the possible meanings of arché may be divided into three (overlapping) major fields of meaning. (1) They refer to the categories of time and space while they designate something’s source, the beginning from which arises a being, a process of generation, or knowledge. This is the extreme starting point which does not follow by necessity from anything else but after which in accordance with the nature of things something else occurs. That which was first before anything else began to exist; also the beginning (and end) of a segment or line, sometimes identified with the cause of what is happening in the present. (2) They indicate a cause-factor-principle that sets something in motion, the so-called efficient cause and ultimate reason of something. As the starting-point and beginning, the arché reaches further than this “something else” which emerges from it. The arché encompasses the other and at the same time has dominion over it. Thus it constitutes the limit of all comprehensibility and at the same time it is the condition for the possibility of the limit as such. (3) Arché may be connected with meanings of a sociological and political provenance. Arché describes the highest position, the accumulation of power with explicitly formed authority; hence in further meanings it may designate an official office, a period of the exercise of power, also a way of governing, a land, a political state, and so that which is under political power.

It is difficult to determine when the word arché first appeared as technical term in philosophy. In any case, we find it in the sayings of Anaximander, most likely the successor and disciple of Thales. According to extant Hellenistic extracts from a lost treatise of Theophrastus, Anaximander suggested that the apeiron (’απειρον) was the principle and element of all existing things (although many scholars have reservations concerning this opinion). Thus it may be supposed that in the case of Anaximander we are dealing with a focus on an important connection between the conception of arché and the conception of infinity or the unlimited (ápeiron). This is important because for the first time a philosopher explained material reality by a factor with a spiritual, immaterial, and indefinite nature from which (we infer a priori) arises everything that is definite. This factor is (supposedly) already endowed with features belonging to the divine sphere (immortality, indestructibility). It is the principle of all things, encompasses all things, and rules all things (Diels-Kranz 2). In this way Anaximander presented the law of “cosmic justice”. This law was formulated in various ways depending on the individual generalizations of particular thinkers or philosophers. Yet in one case it describes a principle or foundation in light of which the cosmos itself is explained. Some of these philosophers introduce “physis” (φυσις) as an equivalent term. This term is taken from Homer’s Odyssey. The term is adapted to a new domain of knowledge and describes (only in the cognitive order) the whole of what is presented as an ordered system, but the term also refers to particular individual things that possess within them something stable and unchanging: nature, the reason, the cause of everything including harmony and change: what is uniform in things and what we would call today an “internal structure” hidden from sense experience. Man has human nature, and the world has its “physis”. Thus the world can be subjected to investigations consisting of an analysis of its operation and the description of observed changes, growth, or disappearance. The changes occur because there is a foundation, a cosmic order that enables changing reality to endure. There is nothing that would not be “physis”. People, the god, and the world form a unified, homogenous, and one-level reality; they are parts or aspects of one and the same physis which everywhere sets in motion the same forces and manifests the same living force. Hence “physis”—the broadest concept—comprehends arché as well, as this principle is equivalent to a concrete material of a cognitive aspect that is necessary (it should exist) in attempts to justify reality as a whole.

In the question presented, Aristotle is an eminent guide. In the Metaphysics, he presents a precise account of all the possible meanings of the term arché, both in the ontological order and in the gnoseological order. He notes that arché may be regarded as a starting point, a principle or beginning, from which motion first begins in things (e.g., the beginning for a length and a road is that to which an opposite terminal point corresponds), and it may also be that from which something best begins (since, e.g., in science, sometimes it it is better to start not from what is first but what can facilitate the acquisition of knowledge) (Met., 1013 a). Aristotle holds that the “principle-beginning” is the first and immanent component from which the generation of something begins (the foundation of a house, the heart or brain in living things), and this is recognized as the material source of the thing (ibid, 986 a 17).

The “principle-beginning” is also the factor that provides natural motion and natural transformation, and it is an efficient cause. Aristotle gives the examples of a child who comes from his father and mother, officials in cities, in an oligarchy, dynasty, and tyranny, and arts, especially architecture (ibid, 1013 a 10–14). Finally, principa cognoscendi are a “principle-beginning”—these are certain, cannot be defined, and are independent of each other or anything else. They are the principles of knowledge, that whereby we arrive at the knowledge of something. They are found at the foundation of all the sciences and are divided into two categories: (1) first principles that are found in all the science and are applied in inferences and demonstrations (e.g., the principle of non-contradiction), and (2) principles applied in the particular sciences. Aristotle firmly states that we should not ask “why” concerning the first principles of knowledge, because each of the first principles is certain by itself (Top., 100 b).

The “principles-beginnings” all have in common that they are beginnings from which every being, its generation, and our knowledge, arises. We discover some principles in things themselves, and other principles are found outside of things. A nature or element is a principle-beginning. The reason and conscious choice are principles. A substance and an end are principles, since the good and beauty are the principle-beginning of knowledge and motion (Met., 1013 a 20). In this way, by calling upon the formal cause and final cause of being, the list of ultimate principles is completed.

Aristotle’s proposed systematization compels us to ask to what extent do the multi-faceted approach and metaphysical characteristics of this systematization correspond to the actual solutions undertaken by the Greek philosophers who spoke of an arché? In response, we may say that in the period from the seventh to the fourth century BC the conventional view among philosophers was that an immanent principle of reality existed, although they had widely varied conceptions of what this principle was. Thales formulated it in the form of a law-principle-arché. The basic element of the universe is water (‘υδωρ [hydor]). Water took different forms but through its changes it continually and always remained water—the beginning, the original material, the first substance. Anaximenes spoke of air-life as the principle. Diogenes thought that reason was the cause of things (’αηρ ‘ομαλωτατος [aer homalotatos]). Empedocles spoke of earth together with other elements. Pythagoras spoke of a non-extended number-principle, a sign of formal universality, a unity (‘ενας, το ‘εν [henas, to hen]. Xenophanes of Colophon spoke of earth together with water as the principle by which living things are produced. Anaxagoras spoke of an eternal number of qualitatively different elements. Leuccipus and Democritus spoke of an infinite number of indestructible particles called atoms. Heraclitus spoke of fire-reason-logos. Ion of Chios spoke of the three or trinity. Parmenides, already at a high level of the metaphysical project, spoke of Being (that which is) conceived in terms of identity, that which explains reality although it changes practically nothing in human life. Plato spoke of a really existing order of ideas, and the chief idea was that of the Good.

These descriptions of the world’s deepest foundation were not elements that went beyond the cosmos. Each one was a principle and at the same time the source of a principle that unifies reality. Even Anaximander’s arché—the apeiron or unlimited, although possessing the property of infinity and lack of definition, could not be comprehended by reason. It still did not become, as would be the case with Heraclitus, a transcendentally pure concept, because from it all the worlds emerge by necessity, and the process of destruction and generation repeat in cycles from eternity. We are dealing here with a certain kind of multi-functional philosophical principle. As the source and measure of the order of law in the cosmos it had divine value, while as another indefinite nature it did not go beyond the eternal order of the cosmos.

Why was the arché of the early philosophers who spoke of arché identified with God (το θειον [to theion])? It was most likely the result of a comparative analysis that considered the function and role of the gods concerning the world, and considered the function of an intellectually separated philosophical principle. In a “flash of intuition”, but also by systemic necessity, since in the monistic vision of the world no one could speak of a “crevice in being” by which (or in which) religious contents could come through, the indicated orders were treated as identical, and the polytheism and anthropomorphism of the theology of the poets was refuted. Therefore Aristotle could argue convincingly that the “first philosophy” studied every being as such not for its own sake but in view of its first causes. These first causes are the basic reason for philosophical interest. Thus knowledge of these first causes should be regarded as the highest kind of knowledge, knowledge of a sapiential and theological dimension. Meditations and reflections on the suggestions of the philosophers of arché led Aristotle to the conclusion that there is only one truly first cause of everything, and this cause was divine in character. Only God, he said, can be the truly first cause of things.

We may understand the conclusion when we examine how the conception of arché was refined. The first philosophers did not yet divide the principle conceived in terms of matter from the world, and did not separate God who permeated all reality. The Pythagoreans, however, gave rational expression to the beliefs of the Orphic religion and created a qualitatively new version of the principle-being which unified diverse chaotic materials into a harmonious whole. They explicitly called this power God and the Demiurge. This conception of God also had an ethical and normative aspect since in the language of rational theology it provides a rational justification for the “commandments” of Orphic theology. Plato later took up conception without any reservations. Unfortunately, in his philosophical vision, God did not acquire a rationally justified place, and Plato’s “theology” seems to be full of gaps and methodological inconsistencies in this regard.

Meanwhile Aristotle, Plato’s disciple and successor, presented God in his philosophical theology, or in his onto-theology, to use Heidegger’s term. Aristotle, however, was also unable to overcome some difficulties. God as the Absolute, the First Mover, and the Pure Act, is completely uninterested in the world, and has no personal concern for it. He simply thinks himself. No relations between the Absolute and man are possible. While by contemplation of God one can achieve supreme happiness, Aristotle could not resolve the “problem of the soul” and the immortality of the soul. He remained at the level of speculations and limitations caused by the presence of the metaphysical system he accepted. Nevertheless, he made thinkers aware that it was necessary to bring precision to persistent theological-philosophical problems.

Thus we are dealing with an evolution in the way the Greeks conceived the first principle or arché. A naturalistic, indeed materialistic, understanding of the arché began to lose its significance. It became distinct from the nature (physis) of the philosophers of arché, although it did not yet acquire the character of a being that was transcendent in reflection to nature. Xenophanes and Heraclitus first established the meaning of a first principle which they explicitly conceived as the divine, and so as different being as such, and from being as a whole. A critique of mythological images (supported by the Heraclitean power of self-consciousness) made it possible to introduce a rational conception of the divinity as a synthesis of cosmic principles. In this way, the conditions for primacy became increasingly precise and were formulated in the conception of identity and transcendence. One consequence of the above-mentioned procedures was that the first principle was separated from that for which it was the condition. A significant distance or ontological abyss appeared between Thales’ arché, Aristotle’s absolute, and Plotinus’ one.

Thus the traditional question in Greek philosophy about the arché, i.e., about the first principle of intelligibility for everything, finally in this philosophy took the form of a question about the truly first cause of all being as such and as a whole. With the transformation (perhaps the establishment) of the meaning of the question about arché, the sought-after principle of intelligibility for everything was conceived as the divine, that is, as the absolute. Hence also God, the causally ultimate source of reality, is also the causal source of reality and at the same time constitutes the ultimate foundation for the possibility of providing a rational justification for reality.

Christians later accepted the Aristotelian paradigm for how to conceive the meaning of the question of the arché. In accordance with this paradigm and with the Christian conception of being as a whole, this whole was described as encompassing two opposed members: the sphere of the divine, and the sphere of the created, the region of the “world” in which man occupies an exceptional position.

Henceforth Christian philosophical thought would accept that the whole of being includes God, nature, and man. The domains of particular metaphysics are ordered to these three chief areas of being: rational theology, cosmology, and rational psychology. The Greek conception of arché finally found its ultimate coronation.

Diels-Kranz, I–III; Copleston, HF I; J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy. Thales to Plato, NY 1957; M. Heidegger, Wegmarken, F 1976 (Znaki drogi [Road signs], Wwa 1995); J. P. Vernant, Le origini del pensiero greco, R 1976 (Żródła myśli greckiej [Source of Greek thought], Wwa 1994); G. Guérard, L’aspect néoplatonicien de la critique des idées par Aristotle (Métaphysique, 2 14–15), RTP 1 (1986), 35–45; R. Rożdżeński, Heideggerowskie ujęcie metafyziki jako onto-teologii [the Heideggerian conception of metaphysics as onto-theology], LEth 1 (1991), 17–28; Reale I; J. Gajda, Teorie wartości w filozofii przedplatońskiej [Theories of value in pre-Platonic philosophy], Wr 1992; T. Buchheim, Die Vorsokratiker. Ein philosophisches Porträt, Mn 1994; W. Stróżewski, Istnienie i sens [Existence and meaning], Kr 1994, 7–49; P. Hadat, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie ontique?, P 1994; J. Sochoń, Spór o rozumienie świata [Controversy over understanding the world], Wwa 1998; J. Gajda-Krynicka, Teologie starożytne (Teologia filozoficzna jake filozofia pierwsza) [Ancient philosophies (philosophical theology as first philosophy)], in: Fides et Ratio. Na skrzydłach wiary i rozumu ku prawdzie[Fides et Ratio: on the wings of faith and reason toward truth], Wr 1999.

Jan Sochoń

<--Go back