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Aristotle's Seven Causes

Explanations > Motivation > Aristotle's Seven Causes

Chance | Nature | Compulsions | Habit | Reasoning | Anger | Appetite | So what?


Aristotle said in his book, Rhetoric:

'Thus every action must be due to one or other of seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reasoning, anger, or appetite.'

Within this, he notes that all actions are due either to emotion or reason and that we seek pleasant things and act to reduce pain, thus predating Freud's pleasure-pain principle by over 2000 years.


Chance events affect us all the time and, although some have little effect in changing what we do, a number of others force us to act or otherwise motivate us into action.

'The things that happen by chance are all those whose cause cannot be determined, that have no purpose, and that happen neither always nor usually nor in any fixed way.'


Natural forces are those 'originating in the body, such as the desire for nourishment, namely hunger and thirst' as well as other forces, such as to procreate.

'Those things happen by nature which have a fixed and internal cause; they take place uniformly, either always or usually.'


Compulsion occurs when we feel that we must act, even though we may not wish to act this way. This may be compliance with the law or dysfunctional obsessive-compulsive behavior.

'Those things happen through compulsion which take place contrary to the desire or reason of the doer, yet through his own agency.'


Habit is unthinking action, and Aristotle said 'Acts are done from habit which men do because they have often done them before.' Whilst compulsion is unpleasant and un-useful repetition of action, habit is pleasant and generally useful.

'Habit, whether acquired by mere familiarity or by effort, belongs to the class of pleasant things, for there are many actions not naturally pleasant which men perform with pleasure, once they have become used to them.'


Aristotle points out that rational and reasoned action are to defined ends, achieving something that serves personal goals.

'Actions are due to reasoning when, in view of any of the goods already mentioned, they appear useful either as ends or as means to an end, and are performed for that reason.'

He also notes that when we act in a way that we believe to be rational then we also believe that it is good.

'Rational craving is a craving for good, i.e. a wish -- nobody wishes for anything unless he thinks it good. Irrational craving is twofold, viz. anger and appetite.'


Sometimes interpreted as 'passion', anger can lead to extreme action.

Anger is closely related to revenge, and anger curiously lessens when there is no prospect of vengeance.

'To passion and anger are due all acts of one grows angry with a person on whom there is no prospect of taking vengeance, and we feel comparatively little anger, or none at all, with those who are much our superiors in power.'

Aristotle notes that 'angry people suffer extreme pain when they fail to get their revenge'. Applying the pain-reduction principle, then perhaps it is not surprising that anger reduces in such circumstances.


Sometimes interpreted as 'desire', appetite is 'craving for pleasure'.

Whilst anger serves negative motivation, 'Appetite is the cause of all actions that appear pleasant'.

Aristotle pointed out that wealth or poverty is not a cause of action, although the appetite for wealth may well motivate.

'Nor, again, is action due to wealth or poverty; it is of course true that poor men, being short of money, do have an appetite for it, and that rich men, being able to command needless pleasures, do have an appetite for such pleasures: but here, again, their actions will be due not to wealth or poverty but to appetite.'

So what?

These are all motivations that drive people in different ways, and some people are more affected by some causes than by others.

If you can understand how the causes affect people in specific ways, then you may be better able to influence them and motivate them effectively. 

See also

Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 10




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