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.

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