Monday, 4 December 2017

Saved by Accident

In a couple of previous posts (here and here), I wrote about form as that principle in things which commands an attitude of reverence. It is perhaps an unusual way of thinking about form, but I think it is very grounded in traditional philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle, to Aquinas and Richard Weaver. In the second post, I briefly mentioned the issue of accidental and artistic forms in relation to reverence. Today I am thinking about this issue again, with some more detail. I think it is an important issue, that has not been much written about, as far as I know; but I think deserves some attention, and possibly some more development in its metaphysics.

This is a question which I think can be raised, for example, when liturgical ritual is brought into the picture, as it was in my other post. Ritual involves forms that are predominantly accidental perhaps not all of its forms, but certainly a great many of them. The interpretation of symbols in religious ritual is largely based on merely accidental qualities possessed by certain objects of nature. Ritual itself, moreover, seems to be an accidental sort of unity, possessing an accidental form that is the result of a kind of art.

But this does not apply only to ritual, in the strict sense in which it applies to liturgical worship. It applies also to an enormous scope of traditional, political, and cultural forms, all of which are artificial in some way, the practical results of human reason and creativity. A particularly poignant way in which man expresses the image of God in which he is made is by means of art, in which he reaps the fruit of his contemplation and applies his intellect to the task of bestowing form upon matter. The love of beauty in nature gives rise to the inclination to reproduce it by art, and the same reverence which is rendered towards natural beauty is given likewise to art forms which seem to replicate, sometimes even elevate, that beauty. Art is the result of the reverence for form, of which beauty is the splendor; and the artwork itself becomes a thing of beauty, whose form is splendorous, and worthy of reverence.

Politics and culture are essentially matters of accidental forms. Human society is an accidental unity. Governments are accidental forms, largely structured according to what is, at first sight, a mere  human convention. Patterns and customs of behavior, standards of polite manners, rules of economics and trades, etc., are all accidental forms, apparently constructed by arbitrary conventions. So much seems arbitrary, that one might begin to think that the conservative project to elevate rules and laws and customs and traditions seems doomed from the start.

One might even base this objection on traditional metaphysics: it seems more fitting that substantial form, and not accidental form, should be the primary object of reverence; for it is substanceand not accidents, which, in Aristotle's metaphysics, primarily exemplifies the meaning of being itselfAccidents are beings only secondarily, i.e. in dependence upon substance. Hence, it seems that substantial, more than accidental, forms are deserving of our reverence; and it seems unfitting that an instance of, not merely accidental, but also artificial forms, namely the liturgy, should be the occasion for the highest degree of reverence.

This sort of objection is, I think, not unexpected, though it appears in various forms. In general, I have noticed a kind of dismissive attitude, in simple academic discussions of form, towards accidental and artificial forms. Oftentimes an artificial (and hence accidental) form - such as "chair-ness" - is used as an example of form in general, but then it is quickly dismissed as somewhat unimportant compared to what is really the issue: natural and substantial forms. I think this is related (perhaps not identical) to the general disregard for forms that seems to mark contemporary political and cultural discourse. It is really a certain irreverence for forms that lies at the basis of the modernist contempt for tradition and high culture, and the sheer thirst for novelty and autonomy for its own sake. Especially since these things, tradition and culture, seem to be instances of artificial forms arbitrarily imposed upon individuals, it seems not unfitting that they be thrown off as unnecessary. So the question now is this: why is reverence due to forms that are accidental and artificial? Or, perhaps, is the "traditionalist" demand for reverence simply exaggerated and disproportionate to the lesser status in terms of being that belongs to such forms? They are, after all, "merely accidental"...

I respond that accidental forms are very often a kind of outward expression of the very essences of things, by which they have their substance. That is to say, there are accidents which, though accidents, nonetheless belong to things in virtue of "flowing forth" from the essence itself, as a kind of sign of it. Indeed, St. Thomas notes, rather surprisingly for an Aristotelian, that "even in the case of sensible things, the essential differences themselves are not known; whence they are signified through accidental differences which rise out of the essential ones, as a cause is signified through its effect; this is what is done when biped, for example, is given as the difference of man" (De Ente et Essentia, 5). Which is immediately to say that just because something is "merely accidental," it does not follow that it is unimportant, merely arbitrary, or easily disregarded. On the contrary: we know essences themselves only through their proper accidents. Accidents are signs and symbols of the essences from which they properly flow forth, as expressive perfections of them.

Accordingly, it is quite irrational to posit an opposition between what is natural about man and what is accidental and "artificial" about human society. Just because human society - and consequently, human government - is an accidental and artificial unity, it does not follow that it is therefore alien to human nature. On the contrary: man is by nature a political animal; and thus by nature people tends to come together in society with his fellow man, forming families and villages and cities for the sake of living and of living well, in shared pursuit of the common good. In a similar way, art is not necessarily something alien to nature simply because it is merely artificial. On the contrary: art imitates nature, and it is moreover a specifically human virtue proper to man according to his nature as a rational animal. The virtuous practice of art is thus the true expression of human nature, something flowing forth from the very substance of the artist as man. 

This objection reminds me of an objection which Charles DeKoninck addresses in On the Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists. DeKoninck identifies the intrinsic common good of the universe, and thus of all political societies, as peace or order, which is in fact a kind of accidental unity, an accidental form. The objector proposes the objection that it seems more fitting that the highest good should pertain, not to the unity of an accidental form, but to the unity of a substantial form, because substance is more properly being, and thus things are more noble according as they are more perfectly substances. Thus, the highest good should rather be the good of the individual substance, as opposed to the common good of an accidental unity, such as the whole cosmos or a political society. DeKoninck responds quoting St. Thomas:
It is because of its substantial being that each thing is said to be absolutely (simpliciter); whereas it is because of acts added over and above the substance that a thing is said to be in a certain respect (secundum quid).... But the good has the notion of perfection, which is desirable, and consequently it has the notion of end. That is why the being which possesses its ultimate perfection is said to be good absolutely speaking; but the being which does not possess the ultimate perfection which belongs to it, even though it has a certain perfection from the fact that it is in act, is not nonetheless said to be perfect absolutely speaking, nor good absolutely, but rather in a certain respect. (Summa Theologiae, (Ia, q.5, a.1, ad.1)

The proper goodness of things, in other words, is expressed only through accidents. Being and the Good are convertible, indeed, but they are said according to different rationes. Hence, what is being simply speaking is good in a qualified sense; whereas what is good simply speaking is, as such, being only in a qualified sense. 

The final cause, the cause of all causes, is first in intention but last in execution. It is attained only at the end, in a manner that is extrinsic, as it were, to the being or substance of a thing, though it proceeds from within. The attainment of the final cause, the final union with it, for the sake of which a being exists, towards which it is wholly and entirely oriented - this is something "merely accidental." Union with the end is a perfection that is added to the being of a thing. It is not essential to it. Nonetheless, it is its proper perfection - certainly in a way that is determined by the inner substance of the thing, as an actuality is only the actuality of a specific potency. A particular being has specific potencies for specific actualities - i.e. for specific perfections. The attainment of these perfections is indeed desired by the thing according to its own, inner, substantial nature. But the attainment of the end is not itself the substantial nature of the thing. The attainment of the end is an accident of the being that attains the end.

Especially is this true of man, for whom, above all other creatures (besides the angels), his perfection comes from outside of him (although, again more than all other creatures, the potency for this perfection is indeed within him); and he must proceed from within himself towards what is outside, transcendent, Other, in order to be united to the Good, which is his own good. The attainment of perfection is a matter of ecstasy, which is going outside of oneself. A human person is not a subsistent relation; but he is saved only by entering into a relation.

Man is saved by accidents. Virtues are accidents of the soul. Knowledge is an accident of the soul. Grace is an accident of the soul. The light of glory is an accident of the soul. The Church is an accidental unity. The forms of the Sacraments are accidental unities. We are united to our neighbors in an accidental unity, by the virtue of charity. Our own attainment of our final end, union with God Himself, is an accident of the soul. Suddenly, contrary to all of our initial intuitions, the best and most important things in life come to us in the form of accidents; suddenly we owe the most reverence to things which are accidental - second only to what we owe to God. Without all these accidental things, human life would not only be utterly pale, boring, minimalistic, and iconoclastic; it would also be destined only for death. 

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