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Why shapes have forms

Nowadays we think of shape and form as the same thing. It didn't use to be this way.

1. Form could mean essence, which is then expressed in various copies that have shape. Usually this was Plato's idea of form. For example, Plato famously said that there are pictures of beds, and physical (actual) beds ... but both pictures of beds and physical beds are shapes because they express the essence (the form) of bed -- which has no shape.

Nowadays we have traces of this when we say, for example, "The form of the argument was such and so..."

2. Form could mean the vital force which combines with materiality to bring something into being. Usually this was Aristotle's idea of form. So for Aristotle there was a wonder in completed wholes -- trees, horse saddles, houses, so on. These wholes are whole because they express an existential unity of just the right vitality with just the right shape. This is what is known as substantial form.

In both cases, the early Greeks recognized that, by the time you get to the physical shape of something, a profound immaterial domain had to have been active in making the shape what it is.

3. Nowadays we just think of shape and form as the same thing. This is why it is so much harder to derive definitions for beauty and morality.

If physical shapes are all there is, we eagerly await the next contortion.

This is one result of Progress.


"Verily how great is even the humblest beauty of this world, and how pleasing to the eye of reason diligently considering not only the modes and numbers and orders of things, so decorously appointed throughout the universe ... I confess, sinner as I am, with mind befouled in flesh, that I am moved with spiritual sweetness towards the creator and ruler of this world, and honor Him with greater veneration, when I behold at once the magnitude, and beauty and permanence of His Creation..." Vincent of Beauvais (1190 b). Cited in Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University, 1986), 37. Eco cites from H. O. Taylor, The Medieval Mind, II, pp. 347-8.


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