Updated: May 13, 2018
The image of a boy holding aloft his toy plane is an iconic depiction of the bold, romantic ambition with which man has always regarded the sky. From the ill-fated liberation of Icarus to the rescue operations of the Berlin Airlift, the heavens have always represented the realm of freedom and wilderness.
To get there, however, requires incredible diligence.
A great example of this diligence can be found in the structure of an airfoil. The wing of an aircraft is what produces the requisite lift needed to counteract the force of gravity. Rockets and balloons can lift, kites can catch the current, but only the wing can truly fly. And it can do so, because it holds a secret: it’s shape. That very specific curvature, with every angle and proportion carefully made, is what, when subjected to speed, produces a wing’s lift. One small deformation of this shape, and all bets are off. That’s why pilots fear icing on their wings- just a tiny bit can send them hurtling into the ground.
Believe it or not, the first person to grasp the significance of form was not Orville or Wilbur Wright, or even Leonardo Da Vinci. No, the idea of Ideal Form was first postulated by Plato, who described the “form” of something as being the transcendent essence of that thing. Or as Wikipedia better describes it, “an objective ‘blueprint’ of perfection.” Virtue and morality, Plato argued, were reflected through the pursuit of such ideal forms. Think again of the wing, and how the conformation to its design is what allows it to fly.
Modern culture, however, is not friendly to the concept of ideals.
The first problem with ideals, is that they require effort to attain, and requisite effort has become something of an outlaw to society. Certainly anyone is free to pursue whatever unreasonable difficulties they might personally fancy. Climbers can scale rocks and doctors can read books, but the liberties afforded to a modern society dictate that by no means must the general citizen be compelled to do anything more than consume air- and not even that if he’s so not-inclined. The state is far less concerned with what heights its citizens might reach, than it is with whether or not they manage to avoid conflict.
Applied to society, unfortunately, the assertion of ideal form has become blasphemous. Somewhere between abandoning tradition and becoming our own god, we have lost the ability to identify common virtues, and thus, as we have continued to factor for the lowest common denominator, ideal forms have been dispensed with, in the name of “Liberty.” For no man in a free world can be expected to conform himself to the ideals of another. As a consequence, moral consensus has become limited to legislation, and the individual has been defined apart from responsibility in anything other than subjugation to the state- who’s primary concerns necessarily gravitate more towards taxation and compliance.
Ideal forms are unpopular for another reason as well, and that is because they would presume to define function. A wheel, for instance, is ideally round, and the further out-of-round a wheel is, the less it conforms to its function. Just as a square wheel could be described as “dysfunctional,” so too could any other entity be described, which significantly differs from its own ideal form.
While this is perhaps a concept easily applied to objects, the modern world condemns any association of ideals to man. In an effort of misdirected compassion, they would seek to relieve the invalid’s recognition of his ailment. The would-be defendant of the injured would argue it unkind to identify the ideal form of a man, citing the apparent brutality of diagnosing a handicapped individual as “dysfunctional.”
The fallacy of this perspective lies in close proximity to the distinction between a sin and sinner. While an injury or ailment may indeed be nothing of the invalid’s fault, it is the ailment itself, like the sin, that is lamented- not the person beneath it. A man with a broken leg might be quite functional, but as long as his leg differs significantly from its ideal form (ie: being not-broken) then it remains a dysfunctional leg. In fact, the person most prone to recognizing this dysfunction is the invalid himself. What blind man, if given the chance, would refuse the gift of sight?
Yes, it is true that ideals present a burden, but they are the burdens of success. Without an ideal for which to reach, there is no metric of success beyond the existing state. Ideals are essential to greatness, if only because their alternative is the availability of inaction. They require dedicated effort. The champion of a match is not a man who enters the ring content to win or lose- his vision, his goal, and his ideal, is that he shall become the victor. But to achieve this end, he must fully embrace the difficult path that that entails.
While it is simple enough for the “champion” to define the ideal form of a boxer, however, the ideal form of a man is another matter entirely. To achieve the ideal of “champion,” a fighter must simply defeat his opponent, but for a man in pursuit of his Ideal Form, the struggle is never over, because there will never be a time in his life where he will not be able to improve upon himself. Nor can he be declared closer to his goal by a mere status of being, regardless how content he might be. Where a man might find himself in life bears far less significance to his pursuit of ideal than does the direction of his travel. For when “perfection” describes the objective, 1st place is as infinitely distant from the goal as last place.
The ideal form of man then, is not defined by strength, wealth or even intellect, but by his constant striving towards all that is best.
We call this effort, “Virtue.”
The funny thing about virtue, and why the modern man is so prepared to rid himself of it, is that it promises a finish line beyond the natural realm. Perfection in this life is unattainable and purity is available in the next, only by grace. For a creature who’s only hope of existence remains above the grave, however, the investment of life must be made with a more practical time-frame in mind. There are useful degrees of virtue for a mortal who shares with others his time and space, but when it comes to the pursuit of perfection, if you can’t get there, why go any further than you have to?
Thus the primary debate between modern man and his theological brother is not whether or not virtue is something of worth, but that enough of it can be had.
For the theologian, the affirmation of his peers is insufficient solace for the demands of his Ideal Form. His wager is with God, and it is only with God that he will rest. The irony of the modern man, is that in his dogged pursuit to define himself apart from the burden of God's design, he has succeeded only too well. Resentful of the effort to fly, the eagle now wallows in mud. The standard of man made in the image of God, has been replaced by an emptiness, that despite being celebrated as freedom, is fled from in a scourge of distractions. The self can be a god, but only an insignificant one. And where it falls short, busy-ness is the new virtue. Just watch a modern man endure the silence.
The virtuous man, however, achieves fulfillment for the price of his diligence. For all his sacrifice, he reaps the reward of a strenuous life: purpose.
The significance of the "Ideal" to a man's form then, is the same as for the wing: Function, Design, and Utility.
The substance of this assertion depends whether or not Man was, in fact, designed. While this is question far beyond the scope of this essay, it would not be unreasonable to explore the question by asking: do certain attributes of men lend themselves, universally, to strength, while other attributes universally foster dysfunction? Just as the significance of a wing's form is shared with man, so too is the evidence of poor formation. A disfigured airfoil will crash and burn, as will the man apathetic to his Ideal Form. Contrast the drug addict and the olympian.
There is a commonality to heroes as much as there is a commonality to thugs. And these common traits of heroes- these are things for which we should relentlessly strive.
I wish you then, my Brothers, diligence in seeking your own Ideal Forms. May you never lack in Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude, and may you apply them all with Faith, Hope, and Charity.