June 21, 2006

Essence and Accident

1518 page16 capounded by Stalin, poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) wrote, “Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,/Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,/Misery gnaws to the bone./ Why then do we not despair?”
Why? She then answers her own question: Because “by day, from the surrounding woods,/cherries blow summer into town;/at night the deep transparent skies/glitter with new galaxies.”
Something about creation, something about the “cherries” and the “deep transparent skies” carries within them intimations of a goodness that exists beneath the plundering, betrayals, and deaths on the surface.
Aristotle differentiated between “essence” and “accident.” Take a circle that is red. Its roundness is an essence, an essential characteristic, but its redness is an “accident”—a trait that wasn’t necessary. Circles, to be circles, have to be round; they don’t have to be red.
Now let me draw an analogy. If we could, with the created world, peel away the “accidents,” all the things that don’t belong there, all that weren’t essences, what would be left? According to the Bible, when God created the earth, He declared it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Then sin entered, and afterward death, curses, and evil. But these (death, curses, and evil) were accidents, after-the-facts, after the essences. Yet the essences themselves—as pure essence—were good, even “very good.”
1518 page16The point? The good, the “very good,” came first; evil then followed, an apostasy from the postulate, a paralogism from the axiom. If we could just, with X-ray eyes, see past the phenomena to the thing-in-itself, to the essences as they came fresh from the mouth of the Creator, how much closer the miraculous would appear than it does now, so burdened with after-the-facts.
Look closely. A rotted peach demands, first . . . what? The peach. There can be no sexual disease without, first . . . what? Sex. And, behind the abused child exists only the child. Like cracks in the Pietà, or the blotch on a banana, these modifiers (diseased, rotted, abused, cracked, blotched) are secondary, accidents, after-the-fact intrusions, that are after the fact. The fact itself, as pure fact, is good.
Children, peaches, sex—before any deficiency, antecedent to any defect—reveal the creative touch of such a tender, genteel love. Think of them edited as unintended adjectives; imagine the child, unmodified, at least by anything other than the essences.
But even now it’s there in the subtle curves of the peach, in the deep echoes of sex, and all through the child. It’s dripping off the trees even, more apparent than air, and we sense it in every breath. However rudely deflowered, nature still sprinkles us with hints of something more hopeful than plunders, betrayals, and death. And it tells us, without words, just how unsatisfying any eupraxophies really are.
Sure, at times the after-the-facts are harsh and cruel, and so embedded in the essences we conflate them with the essences themselves. But death and sickness were no more originally built into this world than the wreck was built into the car. If someone cracked the glass and slashed Mona Lisa at the Louvre, do those gashes diminish the love Leonardo first put into the essences?
It’s tragic that at times crops are so dry the birds eat only scarecrows. But there can be no famine without first the fields of wheat and corn. And what do the wheat and the corn (and the rye and barley and soy and rice) say about the One who first wrapped their seed in the shell before water, dirt, air, and sunshine lifted the stalk out of the earth and covered it with sweet buds that, when toasted, taste so good in our mouths and fit so snugly and healthfully in our cells?
“But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10, KJV).
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.