Does a donkey have to bray?

Terry Eagleton

  • Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History by Ross Hamilton
    Chicago, 342 pp, £18.00, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 31484 6

It would be surprising if millions of ordinary people turned out to be familiar with the Platonic Forms or Spinoza’s doctrine of nature, yet millions of waiters, nurses and truck drivers have a working knowledge of Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accident. This is because they are Roman Catholics, and the Council of Trent drew on Aristotle’s teaching to account for how the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the body and blood of Christ despite continuing to look and taste like bread and wine. In this way, one opaque doctrine was obscured by another.

Ross Hamilton begins his impressively erudite study of the accidental with Aristotle’s distinction, and notes its influence on Catholic theology. But he overlooks a more interesting theological aspect of the accidental, which is the doctrine of Creation. This has nothing to do with how the world got started, which is the domain of the scientist. It has to do with the fact that for Christian belief, everything in the world depends for its existence on God. Since God is sheer freedom, this means that he is the source of everything’s capacity to flourish as itself. But since his freedom also means that there is no necessity about him, other than the necessity to be true to his divine nature, it follows that he did not need to create the world at all. He did it just for the hell of it. There was nothing in it for him. He could simply have remained indolently, luxuriously himself for all eternity. He might also have saved himself an unbelievable amount of trouble.

In this sense, the universe is an accident. This does not mean that God created it by mistake or in a fit of absent-mindedness. It means simply that like falling house prices or the invasion of Iraq, there is no necessity to it. There is nothing that is not sheerly contingent. Theologically speaking, the world is overshadowed by the scandal that it might never have happened; and this is especially obvious in the case of creatures like ourselves, whose existence is haunted by an awareness of our mortality. As St Augustine puts it, existence is shot through by nothingness from end to end. As such, the world is like a work of art, since God created it out of love rather than need. More specifically, it is like a Modernist work of art, which in order to avoid bad faith must find some oblique way of intimating that its existence is utterly gratuitous – that it has no ground or rationale and might just as well never have been.

If the world itself is not essential, does this also apply to its contents? Are they necessarily the way they are, or could they have been different? Does a donkey have to bray, or could it deliver a pitch-perfect aria and still be a donkey? This is one aspect of the medieval debate between realists and nominalists. Realists like Thomas Aquinas hold that general entities such as natures or substances really exist. Things have inherent natures, which even God must respect. He cannot just muck around with his creation as the fancy takes him, and neither can we. There is an air of otherness about it which prevents it from becoming our private property. Nominalists like Duns Scotus, by contrast, thought that general concepts such as nature were a fiction, and that for things to have given natures would be to place an unacceptable limit on God’s omnipotence. If he is to be all-powerful, then things must be the way they are not by virtue of some inner necessity, but because he says so. Two and two make four because God has decreed that they do, not because they just do. If he had wanted, he could have made infanticide admirable and mercy repugnant. Perhaps there is some other universe in which he has.

This debate is still with us, in secularised form. Postmodern anti-essentialists hold that things have no determinate natures other than those we construct ourselves. The nominalists were so called because they held that general ideas were just names, or effects of language; for postmodernists, the whole world is an effect of language, including South Kensington and the lower bowel. Reality for them does not spontaneously sort itself into classes and sub-species. ‘Weed’ is a category we come up with, not nature. Postmodernists are wary of nature because they suspect that if things have natures then they are hard to change, which is not necessarily true. They prefer the notion of culture because they imagine that the cultural is easier to change than the natural, which is also not necessarily true. Behind both these mistaken beliefs lies the assumption that change is generally positive whereas permanence is generally negative, which is certainly not true.

Whatever one’s opinion of all that, anti-essentialists of a postmodern persuasion have a problem, though not one many of them seem aware of. The problem is that there is, it could be argued, a path from medieval nominalism, which they mostly endorse, to Enlightenment reason, which they do not. It is probable that the Enlightenment idea of an instrumental rationality which subjugates nature has some of its roots in Duns Scotus and his ilk. Postmodernists don’t like fixed natures, but they don’t like instrumental rationality either; and historically speaking these two cases have been closely linked. If God is not constrained by the essences of things, then neither need we be. We can be just as imperious as he is. Stripped of their substances, things can be regarded as clay in our hands, to be moulded to our own ends. Reality becomes one vast cosmetic surgery. The plasticity of the world goes hand in hand with a cult of the unbending will, as in current US foreign policy. Voluntarism and mutability are sides of the same coin. This poses another problem for postmodernists, since they are fond of mutability but not of the autonomous will.

Hamilton reminds us that in Aristotle ‘accident’ means those properties of a thing which are not essential to it. It is of the essence of Bruce Forsyth, as a member of the human species, that at one time he was unable to sit up unaided, but not that he should wear a silly wig. Social class is accidental for us, but it was not so for many of our ancestors. Hamilton also points out that for Aristotle ‘accidental’ can mean unusual, surprising or unpredictable. The assassination of President Kennedy was in this sense an accident, though not even the whitewashing Warren Commission had the nerve to claim that it was an accident in the everyday sense of the term. The death of Princess Diana was accidental in both senses of the word.

This has a bearing on the question of literary realism, though it is not an aspect of the subject that the book follows up. One might claim that realism presses the accidental into the service of the non-accidental. It deploys random details to create what Roland Barthes calls a ‘reality effect’, and in doing so reinforces an overall sense of necessity. The Portrait of a Lady tells us that Ralph Touchett accompanies Henrietta Stackpole to look at the pictures in the long gallery of his father’s country house the day after they have been boating together, but we know that it could have been three days later, or five. The time is specified simply to generate an air of reality. So the detail is arbitrary and contingent in itself, but contributes to the solidity of the narrative as a whole, and thus to a sense of general necessity. A Modernist author, intent on laying bare the workings of the reality effect, might claim not to know how much time had passed, or might make it one day but contradict himself later. Or you can elaborate free-floating details with such mock laboriousness that in Flaubertian style they come to assume monstrous proportions and block the reader’s vision, puncturing the narrative rather than lending it credibility.

Hamilton remarks that Greek tragedy converts the accidental into the necessary; but this could be claimed of a great deal of art, not least of the realist kind. It might also be thought to have certain undesirable ideological effects. Robing the contingent in the garb of the ineluctable is usually a more convenient stratagem for our rulers than for ourselves. The popular sense of ‘realism’ suggests putting up with something one can do little or nothing about, rather like the popular use of the word ‘philosophical’ to mean ‘stoical’. If a poem is to be defined as these irreplaceable words in this exact order, doesn’t this suggest there is a necessary or iconic relation between the language and the experience, such that the latter could be conveyed only in this way? And doesn’t this suppression of alternative possibilities, of the free play between signifier and signified, generate a sense of fatality where none need exist? What if poetry is not a critique of ideology, but (as Paul de Man suspected of this version of the poetic) its paradigm?

It was with this sense of tragic inevitability in the Greeks that Brecht took issue. ‘This man’s sufferings appal me,’ he said, ‘because they are unnecessary.’ The task of art was to allow the subjunctive to shine through the indicative – to suggest in the very representation of an event how it could have been different, or might still be. For Hegel, necessity was retrospective: looking over our shoulder at the story so far, we can see how our actions had to constitute the narrative shape they do, however free-wheeling they might have seemed at the time. By the cunning of reason, even the cock-ups, blunders and cul-de-sacs of history contribute in Hegel’s view to the truth of the whole. All our errors are fruitful ones. Freedom and necessity are not antagonists. This is obvious enough in everyday life, where we would be incapable of acting as free agents without an expectation that the world will behave in a dependable, law-governed sort of way. There can be no freedom if the world will not stay still long enough for us to execute our projects. The idea of a freedom beyond all constraint is the ultimate bourgeois fantasy.

Besides, our own freely chosen actions determine us at every point, closing down certain possibilities for all time in the course of opening up others. Behind Hegel’s sense of historical logic lies the idea of providence, which is not at odds with our freedom because it is factored in from the outset. This differs from the Spinozist view that freedom is simply ignorance of necessity, or Engels’s that it consists in the knowledge of it. On the Hegelian or providential view, freedom is real enough; it is just that there is another way of recounting the story which shows that, given the way people chose at each point along the line, it had to happen as it did. The fact that we are all characters in some impenetrable plot does not necessarily mean that we are not free agents. For Aquinas, our dependence on God is the source of our freedom, not the obstacle to it.

Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History is a remarkably versatile study. The Divine Comedy, Raphael’s frescos, Montaigne on cannibalism, Pascal’s wager, Newtonian physics, 18th-century gambling, Persuasion, Darwinism, Surrealist film and photography: all this and a good deal more is grist to Hamilton’s mildly relentless mill. The concept of accident ropes in discussions of fortune, scepticism, selfhood, improbability, chance, interpretation and a host of other unlikely topics. But there are times when the subject threatens to disappear under this imposing weight of learning, only to re-emerge just when one thought it had sunk without trace. Hamilton does not keep a sharp enough eye on the storyline. There is a grand narrative struggling to get out of this study, which is the mysterious tale of the disappearing substance.

The concept of substance is a good illustration of Wittgenstein’s warning that our thought can be held prisoner by an image. Like many such beguiling images, ‘substance’ is a spatial one. It literally means ‘that which stands underneath’, so the possibility that the true nature of a thing might be hidden from view, inaccessible to knowledge, is built into the model from the outset. Aquinas was one of the few thinkers to escape this trap. For him, ‘substance’ was simply the answer to ‘what is that?’ As European history unfurls, however, substance becomes a philosophical holy-of-holies which seems to make no difference to anything. It is the mere ghost or parody of a real entity, at once inescapable and unlocatable. Like sex for the Victorians, it is all-pervasive but invisible. What counts as real for empiricists like Locke is what we can perceive, and substance is imperceptible. It was thus logical enough for Bishop Berkeley to abolish this pointless non-entity at a stroke, leaving us with nothing but our perceptions – the Irish were never much taken with English empiricism. Substance in Kant becomes the enigmatic ‘noumenon’, of which all we can say is that we can say nothing about it. It is a brief step from this to the phenomenalism of Nietzsche, for whom the way the world is is no way in particular, and for whom substance is simply one of a whole series of metaphysical fictions which includes agents, objects, mental acts and the self.

The fact that the self can be found in this list is one reason why getting shot of substance is not as simple as it might appear. If it cannot be allowed simply to drop out of the picture, it is partly because we may find ourselves throwing out personal identity along with it. The self, after all, is an obvious candidate to be the phantasmal thing that remains consistent through the variable accidents of our experience, providing them with a medium in which they can inhere. It is therefore not surprising that postmodernism, which takes up the story where Nietzsche left off and is really one long footnote to his work, eradicates given natures only at the risk of liquidating the human subject.

What Hamilton is tracing, though he does not announce the fact loudly enough, is the gradual ascendancy of accident over substance. For Augustine and Dante, the world is a sacred text whose apparently accidental signs are to be deciphered as revelations of divinity. Berkeley will return to this idea some centuries later. Hermeneutics converts the random into the necessary. In Hamilton’s view, this means that for Dante nothing can be accidental. Montaigne is inclined to the opposite view, seeing substance simply as a rhetorical term that blocks a greater understanding of empirical experience. Pascal regards the script of the world as shifting and ambiguous, which means that all interpretation is to some degree accidental. Locke inverts the traditional primacy of substance over accident. The science of the Enlightenment is in one sense a return to medieval semiotics: every apparent accident, every sparrow that falls, can be explained in terms of some necessary whole. Yet in another sense, accident, which Aristotle had excluded from scientific investigation, is now the focus of disciplined inquiry, vital to the generation of fresh knowledge.

So it is, too, in the emergence of realist fiction, with its sense of history as mutable and character as evolving rather than fixed. External properties were now clues to the soul, as novelists like Austen became sensitive interpreters of the accidental. One thinks of Erich Auerbach’s magisterial Mimesis, a book which records the literary triumph of the popular, plebeian and everyday over the noble, mythical and heroic. The latter traits were much in favour with Fascism, from which Auerbach was a refugee. There is, in short, a politics of the accidental, which has much to do with the rise of middle-class society, popular democracy and the idea of everyday life. (The latter, Charles Taylor claims, was the invention of Christianity, but it took the modern French intelligentsia to establish it as a kosher intellectual concern.)

Authors like Defoe and Richardson emerged from the fledgling middle class’s endless fascination with the bric-à-brac of its own existence – what Jean-François Lyotard once dismissed as its ‘pornographic appetite for the real’. In Tristram Shandy, the accidental wreaks its hilarious vengeance on rationalist concepts of necessity. Novels, to be sure, must be more than chapters of accidents if their moral lessons are to be driven home. If we do not take Moll Flanders, Tom Jones and Clarissa Harlowe as more than random individuals, we are at risk of dismissing their stories as of no general import, and thus as of no relevance to ourselves. We might, in other words, read as nominalists rather than as realists. But neither will the moral lesson be driven home unless these figures are painstakingly detailed and persuasive. It is this tension between the generic and the particular that realism is forced to negotiate as best it can.

The rather ponderous narrative of this book is punctured by moments of what Walter Benjamin might have called profane illumination, accidental events that manage even so to represent strange epiphanies or conversion experiences. ‘Accident,’ Hamilton remarks, ‘rose to prominence as a site of self-transformation.’ Augustine opens Paul’s epistles at random and senses a divine light flooding his heart; Montaigne falls from his horse and feels the pleasurable sensation of rehearsing his death; Rousseau knows a moment of spiritual illumination as he lounges exhaustedly under some trees; Giacometti is hit by a car in Paris and experiences a moment of joy. There are also Wordsworth’s celebrated ‘spots of time’, of which the book delivers a notably sensitive account. These are all events in which, for a precious moment, outer accident and inner substance merge into one.

Accident handles all this and much more with insight and dexterity, though it is a book that inspires more admiration than affection. Unaccountably praised by a colleague as ‘beautifully and lucidly written’, Hamilton’s stodgy academic prose hardly serves his subject well. But that he has alighted on a strikingly original vein of inquiry, to which he brings remarkable intellectual resources, is not in doubt. One wonders whether the idea of the book just idly struck him, or whether it loomed up with a certain implacable necessity.