In today’s post-modern culture, man is lost. He lacks, in his thinking, the necessary reference points to discern truth, have meaningful communication, and even to truly love. In the despair that he finds himself in, as a result of this lostness, he often turns his attention to government—and that disappoints too. In his post-modern framework he has no rational basis to create a government (or recognize it if it exists) that will relieve the tension he experiences, due to the imbalance of freedom and form in all areas of his life.
Government is the right place to turn, in theory at least. Government, as an abstract principle (physical laws for nature, God's law for mankind, human goverment for states, etc.), maintains things in their proper order. It organizes and regulates, each thing in the way most suited to its nature, to preserve its value, fulfill its function, and to reach its potential value. When something is out of whack, we look for the regulating principle to set it right.
When we speak of the philosophical problem of freedom and form, freedom is the realm of all possible behaviors for a given thing; form refers to the order or organization, innate to or imposed on a thing.
In the classical Western philosophical worldview, it is this order or organization of a thing upon which its integrity depends, and from which its value is derived. And the recognition of, and respect for that which makes the thing the thing—that which defines it—is necessary to freely enjoy the full potential value of that thing.
It is this recognition and respect that true government addresses. Government provides the definitions, descriptions of behavior, reward and punishment when necessary, and anything useful to secure the value of things under it.
The goal is the value; the proper balance of freedom and form protects it. Too much or too little form, and the value is diminished.
We tend to be satisfied with this balance as we observe it in nature. We don't cry out for the planets or electrons to be set free from their oppressive orbits, or wish that the grass could be red and the sky green. We don't wish that the instinct that controls the migration patterns of birds could be just a little less rigid, just for variety, or more rigid so when we build a city in their path they don't adjust for it. And though you might occasionally hear a complaint about gravity (it seems to be getting stronger as I age), no one wants it to get stronger and weaker or vanish and reappear from day to day. With a few notable exceptions, like weather or disease (and even with these we tend to look to man for the cause and the solution), whether by chance or by design, the balance of freedom and form in nature seems to be optimal in terms of their value and benefit to us.
So it's not with nature that we have the biggest problems, but when we consider human beings. It's here we've got the possibility, afforded by our free wills, to set the balance ourselves. In philosophy, art, relationships, and government, we have the freedom to impose the extremes of oppression or anarchy or anything in between. What we use to guide us in this grand enterprise is another discussion; my purpose here is only to outline the concept and the need.
In the human arena it's obvious that too much form stifles freedom and thereby diminishes value, but the idea that too little form diminishes value isn't intuitive, but consider these examples:
- The Two-Way Street
In two-way traffic the law requires that we drive on the right-hand side of the street (in America). This law (or form) protects our freedom to travel. Remove the law and we'd have chaos. The benefits of being able to visit friends, go to work, go to the beach, or go shopping would all be lost without this law.
There is a great deal of form involved in music: the frequency intervals in a scale, tempo, meter, rhythm, etc. While various styles may adhere to more or less rigid form, contrast classical music with punk or blues with jazz, they all must maintain some kind of form to maintain their value as music.1
- Trust, in Relationships
If we lie to one another, we destroy one of the foundations required to protect our relationships—trust. Without that form, we lose a great many freedoms.
- Definitions of Words
To writers, philosophers, scientists—anyone who wants to communicate—language is the medium relied on throughout. Words must have meaning. Definitions must be hashed out. If these basic building blocks aren't solid, then stories can't be told, arguments can't be made, hypotheses can't be tested. We're talking about a great deal of form. But figures of speech add value to communication (to varying degrees, depending on the field). Metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche, and the like push toward the freedom end of the spectrum. The post-modernists have pushed in this direction, stretching language until it breaks. Until finally, with dada words have no meaning, and all value is lost.
- Wedding Vows to Marriage
In marriage, the basic building block of society, the strict forms of a lifetime commitment, fidelity, and respect are considered by the Christian to maximize the value for the couple, their children, and society at large. In the sixties there was a great shift toward freedom in this area with "free love," the expansion of the ideas of uncommitted families, open marriages, easy divorce, etc. Though disputed by many, I think an honest assessment of the result of this trend would conclude that these freedoms have had a destructive effect on individuals, their children, and society at large.
- Human Government
Both ends of the spectrum of freedom and form in human government, anarchy and authoritarianism, are bad for the individual's well-being.
- The Artist's Canvas
Just as the symbols of words allow us to communicate in written or spoken language2, so there is a visual language of symbols the artist must use if he wants to communicate. Certainly shapes can realistically or abstractly represent things we recognize from the real world, but they can be abstracted and combined in such a way as to communicate new ideas to us as well. In addition, the artist can make a calculated use of color and stroke to evoke emotions. But all of this is form, rules3. In recent decades, within the post-modern framework that questions the objectivity of everything, the artist has pushed the limits of freedom to the destruction of the value of the thing just like we've seen in the other areas we've discussed. Joseph Pollack's chance paint drippings (see sidebar image and link) are not communicating anything. When Picasso, late in his career, pressed abstraction of images so far they weren't recognizable, he ceased to communicate. His painting of his wife (see sidebar image), titled Femme Nue (J'aime Eva), which translated means "Nude Woman (I Love Eva)," was scarcely recognizable as human, let alone a particular human. He apparently couldn't live with the logical conclusions of his philosophy, because he ended up writing "J'aime Eva" ("I Love Eva") on the painting so he would communicate something, though his painting failed to.4
In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer says,
"Abstraction had gone to such an extent that he [Picasso] had made his own universe on the canvas—in fact, he seemed at that time to be successfully playing at being god on his canvas. But at the moment when he painted a universal and not a particular, he ran head-on into one of the dilemmas of modern man—the loss of communication. The person standing in front of the painting has lost communication with the painting—he does not know what the subject-matter is. What is the use of being god on a two-by-four surface when nobody knows what you are talking about."5
And so, the artist is god to the canvas, until he wants to say something. Even the artist is bound by the form of the real world around him, the visual language of his culture.
- A Trivial Example—The Silverware Drawer
It's tempting for me to enjoy the freedom of tossing my forks, knives, and spoons anywhere in the silverware drawer, but if I take the extra time to stack them nicely, organized by kind, then I reap the benefit of them remaining unscratched and shiny and being able to find what I need quickly. Sorting them in alphabetical order would be too much form and would be oppressive because it would add no value but would be more trouble.
So you see, the issue of freedom and form is every-where we look.
In a future article I will explain how God, through His actions in history, has provided a government for all mankind that truly solves the problem of freedom and form. I will link to it from here once it's done.
1While it could be argued that chance noise such as was produced by John Cage is an example of music without form, I think it defies the consensus definition of music to do so. In any case, my argument here is that the value is diminished with too much form or too much freedom; I don't think too many would disagree with the idea that too much freedom has diminished the value in this case. At the very least one must acknowledge that there is less data being communicated in noise than in music. In Cage's composition titled 4'33", which consists of nothing but four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, the data communicated is down to the smallest possible quantity of data: one bit of information.
2We refer to language as being symbolic because the sounds we make when we speak and the shapes we draw when we write words are not the things themselves, but symbols representing objects, actions, feelings, ideas.
4Peter C. Sutton, Love letters: Dutch genre paintings in the age of Vermeer, 47.
5Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume One, A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, 247-248.
Schaeffer goes on, in the next paragraphs, to say:
However, it is instructive to see what happened when Picasso fell in love. He began writing across his canvas "J'aime Eva." Suddenly there was now a communication between the people looking at the picture and Picasso. But it was an irrational communication. It was communication on the basis that he loved Eva, which we could understand, but not on the subject-matter of the painting. Here again is the leap. Because he is still a man he must leap, especially when he falls in love.
From that time on, it is possible to take Picasso's work and follow the curves of the paintings as he fell in and out of love. Later, for example, when he fell in love with Olga and married her, he painted her in a most human way. I am not saying the rest of his paintings are not great. He is a great painter, but he is a man who failed to do what he set out to do in his attempt to achieve a universal, and his whole life after this was a series of tensions. Later I saw some of this work when he fell in love again, with Jacqueline. I said at the time, "Picasso is in a new era—he loves this woman." True enough he later married her—his second marriage. Thus, in his paintings of Olga and Jacqueline, in a manner contrary to almost all of his other work, he expresses the irrational leap in the symbol system of the form of his paintings, but it is the same irrational leap which others express in words.