Today I have heavy topics on my mind: nature, chance, and fate. I have talked myself into a tentative thesis: Eventually, every person who lives long enough has to contend in one way or another with these three. The critical edge of this thesis is that most human social institutions, especially in modern times, aim to reduce our exposure to nature, chance, and fate. I don’t really know where to go from there, and I am not comfortable with some of the possible implications of this view. In general, I like human social institutions, and I certainly don’t want anyone to take me for one of the flock of Know-Nothings in contemporary American life who affect a pretty good pose of wanting to turn the clock back on the last two centuries of historical experience. (Looking at you, Tea Party.) I’m not sure that my view, suitably understood, has specific political implications, beyond perhaps ascribing limits to what we can expect politics, progressive or conservative, to achieve.
The best way into what I am thinking is through an excursus on Aristotle. Aristotle’s metaphysics is famous for, among other things, drawing a distinction between the “accidents” of things– those properties of things that undergo change over time– and their substance, an enduring substratum that provides the thread of enduring continuity underlying all of the changes the thing undergoes. Aristotle also invokes this notion of substance in order to explain what later came to be called the “essence” of a thing– in other words, why a thing over the course of its development seems to become a certain kind of thing and not some other kind. Calves do not grow up to walk upright and play the piano; humans do not grow up to moo and graze. Aristotle himself does not, to my knowledge, use a single word translatable as “essence” for this notion, however. On numerous occasions, he instead uses a rather odd-sounding circumlocution in Greek that I won’t attempt to reproduce here. It is difficult to translate literally, I am told, but I am reassured by others I trust on matters like these that the best English equivalent is something like the “what it was to be” of a thing.
Independently of any philological stake in the original Greek, I find the “what it was to be” of a thing to be a rather elegant notion. Certainly it is more evocative than the word “essence,” less tied to that word’s ponderous Latin origins. For Aristotle, there is a “what it was to be” for everything. Not everything becomes what it was to be. Both in the realms of nature and human production, things are sometimes thwarted from becoming what they were to be. What Aristotle says about nature is famously complicated, but I think it is fair to say that Aristotle would have thought that in nature things for the most part do become what they were to be. However, human existence is not similarly favored. A central premise of Aristotle’s ethics and politics is that humans are odd among natural kinds in that they do not become what they were to be absent some deliberate cultivation and art. The philosopher, according to Aristotle, has some role to play in clarifying just which practices of cultivation and socialization are conducive to humans developing into what they were to be and which are not. Aristotle’s virtue-theoretic approach to ethics and political theory is his own attempt at such clarification.
I do not pretend to know whether any of what I have just attributed to Aristotle is worth believing on the merits. Substance-based accounts in metaphysics have numerous liabilities, some of which Aristotle himself is honest enough to point out. I have long harbored something of an animus for virtue-theoretic solutions in philosophical ethics, especially Aristotle’s own description of what constitutes virtue. (One can, and many have, substituted different accounts of virtue for Aristotle without substantial alteration of the underlying approach.) I only recall all of these things today for intensely personal reasons: I do not feel like I have become what I was to be. Nor do I feel like human societies in general are what they were to have been. I don’t think that Aristotle has the answer to this problem, but I think he names the problem, or at least nearly enough.
One of the explanatory burdens of an account of human existence’s place in nature this general and ambitious is to point a finger, at least, in the direction of explaining this pervasive sense that human affairs are not what they were to have been. It is probably too much to ask a philosophical theory to explain the ultimate cause of human existence’s being set off at a relative distance from the rest of nature; this is the task of mythos, broadly conceived. Yet what we might do, and what Aristotle does, is take a poll of the alternatives. Is human society no more prone to friction with the rest of nature than the rest of nature is with itself? Or are human affairs especially exposed to luck or chance, a sort of causal deficit in the natural order? Or is it fate, a causal surplus that steers nature awry for the sake of its own ends? Or perhaps it is both?
Nature, chance, fate: These days, it is only literary types who think they have anything to say about these things. Life in the “advanced nations” is structured in such a way as to eliminate or minimize the extent to which any of these things has any meaningful role to play in what happens. Even natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are captured, however roughly, in the conceptual net of contemporary risk mitigation strategies. Even at the level of the individual’s life, we are discouraged from appealing to a person’s nature or to chance or fate. Instead, we have agency and capacity, and we have rights claimed and rights honored (or breached). The institutions of “normal” life– positive law, bureaucratic government, and the like– allow us to develop our life plans in such a way as to take only minimal account of notions like nature, chance and fate, however insensibly we might feel that they may play around the uttermost horizons of our everyday existence. Nature, chance and fate are hard for us to integrate into a meaningful life.
Yet I am coming to believe that my life is not explicable in terms that do not appeal at some level to nature, chance and fate. They are a threefold cord woven finely, almost imperceptibly, into my life and the choices I have made when I pay close enough attention to them. I cannot and dare not speak for you in this regard. Nor do I even say for myself that these are the only factors at play in making my life what it is. I am largely responsible for how my life has turned out and claim full responsibility for the effect, positive or negative, my actions have had on others. But there is something more to my agency than just my agency. Even Kant, the paradigmatic philosopher of free will and moral agency, concedes in his philosophy of religion that actual agency has a certain blind spot that reflection cannot entirely master. The best we can do is cope with it.
Knowing how a lot of my friends think, I suspect that their first instinct will be to call this “something more” God. To which I say: maybe. I believe in God, and the God in which I believe has something to do with everything. So if you want to call this “God,” I won’t stop you. To my ear, however, calling it “God” will for most people make it more difficult to take in what I am struggling to point towards. For most people, including many atheists, talk of “God” evokes something akin to fate, to supernatural overdetermination, in a way that is indifferent to nature and forecloses chance completely. This isn’t to say that one can’t have a theology built around a God whose grip on the created order isn’t principally secured by the tight leash of fate or destiny or providence. It’s just that most people don’t have a theology like that. And for my part, I try to get by with as little of a theology as I can. I let my more theologically disposed friends carry that burden for me.
Maybe I will have further thoughts on this some other time. For now, I submit the above for your patient consideration.