The Human Condition:

Platonic Forms in Everyday Life – August 13, 2017

Quarter Horse
Carousel horses

In various of Plato’s Dialogues he has Socrates address the notion of “ideal forms.” This is the theory that we can recognize everyday objects because we hold in our minds—and, in some interpretations, because there separately exists, perhaps somewhere in the stratosphere—a perfect form or prototype of the object. According to this theory, the physical thing before us is just an imperfect copy of the ideal form. Thus, for all the horses on Earth, from the dog-sized “dawn horse” Eohippus up through the race-winning Quarter Horses, wagon-pulling Clydesdales, playground ponies, donkeys, and zebras, there exists somewhere in heaven the perfect Horse, of which these living examples are only pale and imperfect copies. Similarly, for all the oaks, maples, birches, cypresses, and bristlecone pines, there is an ideal Tree somewhere in an imagined forest that all of these specimens are trying to be.1

As I’ve noted before,2 when it comes to living examples, there is no ideal form toward which the various species of a genus or family are striving. Each one is a product of adaptation to a niche in the environment, whether by accidental mutation or selective breeding. Mutations gave rise to the Eohippus, donkey, and zebra. Judicious breeding gave us the Quarter Horse for speed and the Clydesdale for pulling power. Sure, when the average person thinks of a horse—just daydreaming, without context or the prompting of a picture—he or she probably pictures Secretariat, Sea Biscuit, or some other famous racehorse. But that no more makes these celebrities an “ideal form” than movie stardom has made Marilyn Monroe or Scarlett Johansson the ideal woman anywhere but in the adolescent imagination.

The same goes for trees and every other living thing. Those we find in the wild have been shaped in every feature and part by adaptation to some aspect of the local environment. Those we find in the barnyard and or in our homes have been removed from the wild and selectively bred—not always wisely—for some feature of appearance, intelligence, temperament, strength, or taste. There is no ideal form of a tree, a dog, or a beef cow anywhere.

So does the ideal, Platonic form have any meaning in life, except as a bit of naïve Greek philosophy? I can think of a couple of examples.

The first is in the arts. Michelangelo famously said of his statues that he did not carve them so much as release the figure that already lived in the marble. Well, maybe. And to the extent that a particular piece of recrystallized calcium carbonate may have had streaks, veins, and fissures, or the block itself may have some critical defect—like the awkward indentation that yielded the bent knee of the David—this may well be true. But other than that, I’m pretty sure Michelangelo’s figures resided first in his own mind, an image of what he was about to carve, and he merely removed stone, first in big chunks, then in grains and flakes, and finally in softly polishing strokes, until the figure he had conceived stood before him.

Thus every artist—painter, writer, musician—pursues an image, a thought, or a sound that he or she carries in the mind and works to reproduce on canvas, paper, or the keystrokes and fingerings of a chosen instrument. However, the image or thought might not always be as clear as Michelangelo’s stone people. I know from experience that my conception of the book I’m writing usually remains hazy—just big chunks somewhere out there in the fog—until I sit down to compose and actually live vicariously through the action and hear in my mind the dialogue as my fingers are flying over the keyboard. Even a fairly extensive outline is, for me, just a suggestion of where the book might go. Many times I have carried a scene in the outline that I thought was fixed, and the writing of which would be practically a job of just finding the opening line and then fleshing out the details—only to discover that, when I sat down to experience the action at first hand, it wanted to go in another direction and cover different ground. And I’ve learned to trust this instinct, because the scene as it gets written is usually richer and more satisfying than whatever thought I had in mind before.

Another, and perhaps better, example of the ideal form is found in karate. The style I practice, Isshinryu, relies heavily on the katas, or forms, as developed and adapted by the master, Tatsuo Shimabuku. These are practice routines for an individual, laid out as a series of punches, blocks, kicks, and other movements in sequence against the imagined attacks of an invisible opponent. In the dojo I attended back in Pennsylvania—now almost fifty years ago—learning and mastering the hand-and-foot and weapons katas were the main course of study. Yes, the practice included sparring, or kumite, with a partner, where blows were simulated at two inches to a light tap. Sparring gives the student a feel for the timing, reach, ranging, and reactions of a live human attacker. But the essence of Isshinryu was carried out in the katas.3

As a creation in the mind of Master Shimabuku, each kata is an ideal form, the perfect combination of stance, movement, balance, and rhythm representing a certain aspect of the style or emphasizing a certain pattern of defense. There is only one way to perform the kata. Or is there? When I was in training, we practiced the twist punch, with the hand rotating from a palm-up position at the hip to a palm-down position in the last quarter of the arm’s extension. This was my sensei’s teaching, and he had studied personally with Master Shimabuku. But after the master died, his sons took over the style. They decided that the twist punch was archaic or impractical or something—I don’t know their minds—and so introduced the vertical punch, in which the hand moves like a piston with the knuckles aligned vertically in a single plane from beginning to end. The vertical punch is easier to throw and master, more practical in an actual brawl, and more in keeping with Isshinryu’s “one-heart-way” teaching—short and direct. But it’s not very elegant and, in my opinion, not as good as the twist punch for keeping your wrists flexible and exercising your forearms.

So … were the katas with all those twist punches the “real” mind of the master? And is the vertical punch a later corruption of the ideal form? Who can say? I do know that old movies of Master Shimabuku, taken when he visited this country in the early ’60s (you can see them at the site referenced above, but they are small and blurry after being copied over from eight-millimeter film into digital files) show him throwing punches that are sometimes twisting, sometimes vertical. In the same way his basic stance, the seisan, sometimes has the back foot parallel with the front, sometimes turned out—and our school taught parallel feet as if they were Holy Writ. Maybe the master had gone so deeply into the idea of Isshinryu that it didn’t mush matter if his punches and his stances were one thing or the other. Certainly, the kata would then depend on its shape in the mind of the student: what were you taught and how closely are you following it? So the “ideal form” of the kata really is just an expression of the school’s current practice and the student’s understanding.

A further example of ideal forms in everyday life draws on something I have learned from taking music lessons. As a boy, I played—well, attempted to play—the trombone. But I never learned the underlying structure of Western music itself, with is twelve notes, some in whole and some in half steps, laid out in the black and white keys of the piano. I never learned about key signatures and how they affect what notes I played; so my playing was a disaster. I could pick out the notes on the staff and in the positioning of the trombone’s slide, but I didn’t understand their relationships.4 After I retired from the business world, I determined to fix this hole in my education. I bought a keyboard instrument and started taking formal lessons. And one of the things that has come home to me through my teacher is that, although a song might be written down on the page in clear, precise notation, this isn’t always the way you play it.

I’m not talking here about the key signature, because that’s pretty well established in music. But sheet music as written is not always an exact copy of the composer’s original musical thought, his or her ideal form. For instance, the person transcribing the music is just as prone to making errors as someone typing up a manuscript. So my teacher, who has edited music scores professionally, is constantly correcting chords called out in my music book: “That’s not a dominant chord, it should be a major.”

And then, every piece of sheet music—especially those lead sheets in which most popular music is published—shows both the melody and the harmony, and the harmony can be further broken down into the root note and the accompanying chord (third, fifth, and seventh notes). A person playing the piece as a solo might play the melody in one hand and the chords in the other, or her or she might “voice lead” the song—stacking the harmonics of the chord’s root below the melody note in the right hand, and then playing the root note in some rhythmic variation or a “bass walk” for timekeeping. And when playing as part of a group, the keyboardist might perform just the bass walk and chords, letting a singer or lead guitarist carry the melody. Or if the group already has a bass player, the keyboardist might not even bother with the root at all. So the song itself, that ideal piece of music written on the sheet, might change according to where and when it’s played. And we’re not even talking yet about changes in tempo and jazz improvisation.

Chords themselves are subject to much variation, too. For example, the harmonics around the root can be played on the keyboard in the order third-fifth-seventh or inverted as seventh-third-fifth, creating the correct notes but with a different sound and feel. And the player might have to move quickly between two chords, or adapt the harmonics when voice leading. So it’s always acceptable, my teacher tells me, to drop the fifth note. The chord may also be marked to play with a ninth, a sixth, or some other note included—and then usually dropping the fifth—which creates a wholly different sound. And finally, pairs of chords that are commonly associated in music often shift from one to the other through the movement of just a single finger from note to note, without changing the whole hand. So the “ideal form” of every piece of music really is just an expression of the song’s setting and the player’s immediate needs.

Of course, karate katas and popular songs are not physical objects, such as Plato was describing. These are sequences and ideas that start out and live in the human imagination and travel from one head to another by the means of crude copies: physically demonstrating the movement, or humming and playing the tune, or making abstract notations on paper. But even there, in the mind of the karate master or the music composer, the process of evolution—yielding subtle changes in structure, timing, and sequence—work against any fixed, immutable form that might live in the stratosphere or in heaven forever.

1. Of course, on an individual and personal level, this is a perfectly valid—if somewhat obvious—point of psychology. Each of us does build up, in our own minds, based on our varied experiences, an idealized image of a horse or any other object of which the world has offered us repeated examples with minor variations. When we think of a horse without a living specimen before us, we picture this mental composite. And the image is less specific and more fanciful the farther a person is removed from the world of the barnyard and the paddock. It is this sort of mental extrapolation that lets woodcarvers and painters create the horses that children delight to ride on carousels.

2. See, for example, The Point of Evolution from April 27, 2014.

3. The forms are so complete a statement of the style that I can still use them to practice Isshinryu karate fifty years later, at least for their benefit in cardio exercise, balance, and coordination, if not for actual fighting skill. Although I haven’t stepped inside a dojo in all that time, I can still throw punches, blocks, and kicks with relative speed—although probably not to any modern teacher’s satisfaction.

4. That those sharps and flats at the left end of the staff in the first line of music might affect how you were supposed to play all the other notes on the staff further down in the piece—this was a mystery to me as a boy. My teachers had either assumed I understood the relationship of the different keys in the Circle of Fifths—a bit of arcanum, like the Rosetta Stone, that they never actually discussed—or else they taught the key signature as a kind of just-so story. And as a rational young man, I tended to ignore anything I didn’t understand.