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Form, Style, and Rhythm: Ideals that have changed in the course of western history

by William McGaughey


This discussion belongs to the field of philosophy. At one time, philosophy was on the cutting edge of human knowledge and culture. However, times have changed. People no longer look to philosophy for useful knowledge. Also, cultural ideals have changed. This paper will look at the progression of ideals from form to style to rhythm. Those terms may require explanation.

Form is a concept developed primarily by the Greek philosopher Plato who lived during the 4th century B.C. It was inspired by the conversations of Socrates. Basically, form represents abstraction. It represents a general category whose definition includes specific instances of something. Form is also what a word signifies. Plato’s philosophy sought to define and know the idea of such concepts as goodness, beauty, justice, and truth. If those concepts could be defined properly, philosophers like Plato believed that we could reliably produce instances of them in the world.

Style, as I use this term here, refers to beautiful expressions of music and art, including the literary arts. The creative artist or musician has produced a work that expresses his personal vision in a compelling or sublime way. The expression may be slabs of marble, dabs of paint, words, or musical notations. The artist’s or musician’s work habits and perceptions are intimately connected with the production. At the highest level, such works are regarded as the product of genius.

The third ideal, rhythm, is a kind of beauty or grace arising from personal performance. It differs from style in being connected to a particular performance; it is when the performer is performing especially well. The performer has a single opportunity to get it right. A rhythmic performance takes place when it sparkles with the best that the musician, athlete, or other performer can bring to the situation at hand. This kind of beauty is an exhibition of personal ability summoned on demand.

I make these distinctions because we tend to see knowledge and culture in terms of form alone. We want to know how to do or make something as if there were a formula for it. However, there is no formula for painting like Rembrandt or writing drama like Shakespeare. Those creative artists had a knack for doing what they did. Likewise, there is no formula for playing basketball like Michael Jordan or hosting late-night talk shows like David Letterman. The performance comes from the personality of such persons. No one else, however knowledgeable, can do what they uniquely do.

All structures of knowledge, or expressions of music and art, or personal performances of a routine are products of human thinking. Some creative person(s) had the thoughts that led to their creation. The production originally came from the human mind. Once created, however, it has a stand-alone existence, separate from mind. It exists in the form of an idea or design preserved on paper, or a musical or artistic work, or a human performance of some kind which may or may not be recorded. In some cases, the expression, once created, may be replicated by other thinking persons. In other cases, the expression is too closely tied to the original creator to be meaningfully duplicated.

This is most clearly understood in the case of form. As Plato saw it, form existed independent of human thought. It was an eternal being that created a pattern for objects in the world. Philosophers were persons who perceived form’s being and, on that basis, were able to handle the related objects. Although Plato may have been overly ambitious in applying form to ideas such as goodness and truth, his general approach underlies scientific and technological undertakings. Once we have the carefully defined design of a product, anyone can build it. We can build tools from a blueprint or buildings from an architect’s drawing. A person of mechanical talents can fully implement form’s vision.

However, there is no blueprint for creating poetry or plays like William Shakespeare. To think that someone of ordinary talents can find the “secret” of producing such works is ludicrous. Shakespeare was a creative genius who worked in his own way. Traces of his mind remain in the style of Shakespearean plays. Another dramatist, having his own style, would create an entirely different type of expression. We view these works as stylistic commodities, mirroring the various thought processes of their creators, even though the works themselves are expressed in words that anyone can comprehend. Like Platonic form, they have a kind of independent existence.

When it comes to rhythm, the expression is even more intimately connected to its creator. Really, it is the creator who is on display. The rhythmic performance is inseparable from its performer. Rhythm is a general term I would use when “everything clicks”. There is a package of movements where everything falls perfectly in place. Sports history is filled with performances of this sort when particular athletes or teams rose to the occasion to become champions. There are also times when concert musicians give especially inspired performances or when orators stir crowds with moving rhetoric. Such performances exhibit “rhythm” as a new kind of ideal.

Because form can be transferred from one mind to another, one might assume that the same is true for style and rhythm. This is not so. One nevertheless seeks to produce style or rhythm in one’s own works. How can a person train himself to become an excellent writer? How can he psych himself up to give an inspired performance? Certain techniques can be taught but the ideal expression or performance goes beyond teaching into the realm of uncontrolled inspiration. It’s mostly a matter of luck that things go well or poorly at a given time although proper habit formation can affect the outcome to a certain extent.

What can be said,then, is that knowledge in itself cannot produce rhythm. If an athlete thinks too hard while playing a game, he will surely fail. The various techniques of successful execution must become a matter of habit rather than something to be willed. Therefore, the high-achieving performers do not think about what they are doing while they are doing it well. Quite the opposite, their minds are blank. Athletes speak of “being in the zone” - of falling into an unconscious, automatic performance - while experiencing their own excellent performance. Plato would have had a fit.

How does this relate to cultural history? The great philosophers were persons such as Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, living in the middle part of the first millennium B.C. Their ideas influenced subsequent philosophies and religions. People were disciplined by their ideas and beliefs.

The great writers, artists, and musicians of our culture were persons such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, Wordsworth, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Dickens, and Mark Twain. This tradition began during the Renaissance and continued through the 19th century into the 20th. An educated public came to appreciate their works.

Finally, the great performers of rhythm are the athletes, singers, film stars, and television personalities who achieved stardom during the 20th century: Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis Presley, Arnold Palmer, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Carson, Michael Jackson, Madonna, etc. There was something unique about these persons in relation to their art.

There is a reason why the various ideals came along when they did. The expressions needed to be supported by a congenial communication technology. When the great philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. lived, the Greeks had recently become literate. The philosophers’ ideas were recorded in writing using alphabetic scripts. Therefore those ideas had acquired a structure that allowed them to be preserved for the ages. Knowledge preserved in one instance exists forever and, through manuscript copying, can be known throughout the culture.

The great artists, writers, and musicians came along during and after a time when the technology of printing had been introduced to Europe. Printing allowed entire texts to be reproduced inexpensively. That, in turn, allowed numerous readers to become acquainted with particular authors’ exactly preserved texts. The readers could thus become aware of artistic style. It was not ideas that spread but the expressions as well. So great writers, as well as painters and composers of music, became cultural heroes in their day.

But now, in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have sensuously more powerful modes of communication in the form of photography, tape or disk recordings, motion pictures, radio, and television. These allow the sights and sounds of human performers to be transmitted with fidelity to a vast audience. Ideas and even stirring expressions of orchestral music or high art are much too faint to compete with their colorful images. Today we relate more to faces and voices and the performers’ body language than we do to intellectual themes. We are seduced by the comfort and convenience of free television shows while reclining on a couch for hours on end. This has become like a substitute life.

All hail the alluring rhythms of the mass media. The stars of this domain, being unique products on the market, are able to command astronomical salaries while the price of products that can be produced from a blue print comes down as industries become saturated with competitors who copy ideas. We want attractive personalities. We want consistent wellness. We want immediate beauty and wealth. These are ideals promoted in the present culture.

Returning to philosophy, you of such cultural inclination are like an intelligent, hard-working grandparent who amassed a great fortune. We, the descendants, want to have fun spending some of it.


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