Saturday, February 28, 2015

Platonic forms

There is a certain standard of grace and beauty which consists in a certain relation between our nature, such as it is, weak or strong, and the thing which pleases us.

Whatever is formed according to this standard pleases us, be it house, song, discourse, verse, prose, woman, birds, rivers, trees, rooms, dress, etc. Whatever is not made according to this standard displeases those who have good taste.

And as there is a perfect relation between a song and a house which are made after a good model, because they are like this good model, though each after its kind; even so there is a perfect relation between things made after a bad model. Not that the bad model is unique, for there are many; but each bad sonnet, for example, on whatever false model it is formed, is just like a woman dressed after that model.

Nothing makes us understand better the ridiculousness of a false sonnet than to consider nature and the standard, and then to imagine a woman or a house made according to that standard.
Pascal sets the stage for an idea hundreds of years later than what I'm about to write about. The return of this idea is this notion that what pleases us in that long, rambling list of beautiful things is the same thing, this good model. We have a house. A song. A woman. A bird. A room. A tree. A dress. A verse. A discourse. We can likely add a smell, a lover's touch, a trashy television miniseries? What do all of these things have in common? Pleasure. And specifically it is a standard of grace and beauty which relates to us as we are, pleasing us. As a standard, it is also a model. It is something like a form, except not how we tend to teach it and learn it. How is it different? Well, one of the immediate ways is to notice that these models translate what is good or bad in one medium or mode into what is good or bad in another medium, according to the model forming it in both. The 'perfect relation' is a completely translational experiencing of the goodness or badness of something as the goodness or badness of something else completely different. As it stands, figuring out what a poem and a house and a woman all have in common in terms of how they are formed by their particular models is nearly impossible, unless we think of this standard as itself linking together two unlike things into a useful resemblance.

He writes we cannot understand the ridiculousness of a false sonnet any better than when we see how this sonnet translates through its formative standard—its model—into the modeling within the woman in the dress or the built house—see it in our imagination.

Here's the idea from Plato's Republic.

Socrates argues that investigating the case of the person is going to be difficult, but there's a shortcut of sorts he advocates:
The investigation we are undertaking is not an easy one, in my view, but requires keen eyesight. So, since we are not clever people, I think we should adopt the method of investigation that we would use if, lacking keen eyesight, we were told to identify small letters from a distance, and then noticed that the same letters existed elsewhere in a larger size and on a larger surface. We would consider it a godsend, I think, to be allowed to identify the larger ones first, and then to examine the smaller ones to see whether they are really the same.
Adeimantus: Of course we would. But how is this case similar to our investigation of justice in your view?
Socrates: I will tell you. We say, don't we, that there is a justice that belongs to a single man, and also one that belongs to a whole city?
Adeimantus: Certainly.
Socrates: And a city is larger than a single man?
Adeimantus: Yes, it is larger.
Socrates: Perhaps, then, there will be more justice in the larger thing, and it will be easier to discern. So, if you are willing, let's first find out what sort of thing justice is in cities, and afterward look for it in the individual, to see if the larger entity is similar in form to the smaller one.
Here's my puzzle every time I read this section.
How did we notice that the same letters existed elsewhere in a larger size and on a larger surface if we cannot accurately see in the small print first? I'm seeing the larger symbols, okay maybe, but the whole problem was we lacked keen eyesight to see the small so far away. How do I know these are the same letters—especially given all the issues Socrates presents about paintings and images being poor imitations cast onto surfaces without being seen from all their sides and depths and self-occluding, about how we must focus on what is and not on what things seem similar, about how we cannot look to those who paint images in words to tell us about something they themselves do not know. Lacking keen eyesight, why do we think we're right when we make this switch from city to individual?

It has to be that Socrates isn't really dealing with the form of the city or the form of the individual at all—in all his talk about the form, it's a model for the production of something else imitating it within a more flattened part of reality. The form of the table has more dimensionality to it than the table the craftsman makes. The table the craftsman makes has more dimensionality than the painting of the table. Something, however, in the background of Socrates' argument here is the idea that we are able to take the justice in the city, work backwards to its form, and then take the justice in the individual, work backwards to what we cannot identify clearly but what we take is the form of the justice in the individual, and then compare the larger-than-life-sized form (of which we are material products and parts) of the city with (what we think is) the form of the small and distant justice of the individual.

What makes us think we can do that? We gloss by this, but only because we have long since been primed to think of cities and governments as superorganisms of people. The body metaphor likely doesn't start here, but it definitely takes on strong metaphysical aspects. Namely, we have this idea reinforced with the deep truth: patterns repeat themselves. The idea, what Pascal much later in his own time calls the model, of this pattern is a form of forms.

So, what Republic is after is not the form of justice in a person or in a city, but the form of these forms expressing themselves through two very different things in reality.

Thus, Plato, like Pascal much later, is showing how to shift frames and see how different things reveal the same model, the same constraining or directing of reality to move material into its own making reality.

But the problem, subtle in Plato's account, is that this investigation proceeds on a lie: we imagine there is "more justice" in the city. Yet, very nearly everything in the argument will go on to show how rare and outright impossible it is for justice to be in the city, to the point where it's only kept on through the noble myths of its truths, noble myths that Socrates asks us to paint with him.

How is this possible?

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