Thursday, December 22, 2011

Speculations on imitation, reflection, symmetry, truth, justice and value

Beartooth Butte / USDA/Forest Service
Imitation is a kind of reflection, and reflection seems to introduce a new symmetry into the world.  Symmetry has value, aesthetic value.  Therefore imitation seems to introduce value.

Plato thought that the value of an imitation was derivative from the value of what was imitated.  That may be true if one considers the imitation in and of itself.  If the water is perfectly still, an ugly building will have an ugly reflection (if the water is not perfectly still, the natural beauty of the water may improve on the building).  But when one considers the imitation together with the imitated, the resultant symmetry can produce new, additional beauty.  The kaleidoscope is the most obvious example, where beauty arises by reflection from a jumble of shapes.

Thus the revelation of ugliness, as in Picasso's Guernica, when taken together with the horror that it reflects is a greater whole with a kind of grim beauty of symmetry.  This kind of symmetry is a case of truth.  It is aesthetically crucial for Guernica that the horrors it reflects are real.  Truth can have a beauty to it when it is a form of symmetry.  Thus at least sometimes we should take truth to correspond to reality.  

Symmetry, thus, is one way in which the bad and the ugly can become a constituent part of a good, a good that defeats the ugly and moves in the direction of defeating the bad.  Justice, in fitting reward and punishment, provides a further symmetry, a symmetry that also exhibits the aesthetic value of symmetry--we admire this aesthetic value when enjoy works of literature and film that exhibit poetic justice.  But justice has a value going beyond the aesthetic, as surely does truth.

The above show how one can derive an aesthetic value in imitation from the value of symmetry.  One could try to run the derivation in the opposite direction.  Could symmetry just be a form of imitation, and hence take its value from imitation?  First of all, only non-naturalists like theists and Platonists can say this, because a "chance" arrangement of pebbles can exhibit a genuinely beautiful symmetry without there being any imitation there.  The theist can say that Providence is behind the chance arrangement, and hence each symmetric segment of the arrangement can be imitating God in an infinitely imperfect way, while the Platonist can say that both symmetric segments reflect some Form.  But this would put the imitation in the wrong place.  For in the "chance" symmetric arrangement, what is beautiful is not just that each symmetric segment imitates God or the Forms, but that they are symmetric to one another.  This symmetry is not just a mirroring, because mirroring has an essential distinction between the mirror image and reality, with the reality being explanatorily prior, while the segments of an artistically planned symmetric arrangement do not need to have one of them be explanatorily prior to the others.

But, nonetheless, the theist needs to affirm that there is a value in imitation that does not come from the value of symmetry and, further, that there can be cases where imitation has no value of symmetry.  For all creation imitates God, but it does not thereby produce a greater God-and-creation whole (even an ontologically innocent) that exhibits the value of symmetry.  For nothing can add anything to God.  There is no holistic value of which God is component.  God perfectly exhibits the symmetry of three Persons with precisely one essence, and creation's imperfect imitation adds nothing to this perfection.  There is no new valuable symmetry of "God and creation".  Thus while symmetry is valuable in and of itself, imitation can have a value over and beyond the value of symmetry: the imitation of God only highlights the infinite gulf between God and creation rather than creating symmetry.

And so we come back to seeing that Plato may have been right.  The value (aesthetic and otherwise) of the imitation qua imitation, rather than of the imitation qua producer of symmetry, depends on the value of what is being imitated.  Creation as imitation of God exhibits that value, but does not as imitation of God exhibit the value of symmetry.  On the other hand, Guernica has no additional value of imitation qua imitation beyond symmetry, since the horrors of war that are being imitated are ugly and evil.  But at the same time, revelatory imitation of evil can have an additional value qua revelatory, namely the value of truth.

Thus, while there is a tie between imitation and symmetry, and within creation imitation produces a kind of symmetry, we should not derive the value of imitation from that of symmetry nor that of symmetry from that of imitation.  Likewise, truth and retributive justice have values independent of symmetry, though truth about creatures and retribution, whether positive or negative, to creatures seems to always exhibit the value of symmetry as well.

1 comment:

Sami said...

Can you explain God's infinitness for me? It is a little confusing. When we say He is infinite, in what way? For example, is He infinite in size? It's a little confusing.