Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

There's Generative Power in Form: Further Thoughts on a Name

"Forma” is a Latin word with a range of meanings. Because it is Latin, it sounds good. Because it has a range of meanings, it makes for a good journal name. In our previous issue, David briefly explained some of the reasons we chose this name. I’d like to to use this opportunity to explain it a little more. 

Ideas are spiritual, the food that the soul feeds on, without which it starves, on which its health depends. We are fascinated by the complex relationship between the words “idea” and “form.” At CiRCE, we are concerned that the modern man undervalues ideas and forms because he does not see how they link the temporal and the eternal. 

Christ is the Idea embodied, and as such He is the Form of thought and of Truth (thought’s object). When ideas are embodied, they have a form, enabling the soul (which loves forms) to perceive them. When it does, it is changed. 

This trans-form-ation is much more important to the human than any practical application (i.e., solution to a problem) that can be gained from it. 

In a simple sense, we value forms as patterns or structures of relationships. 

Forms are what make life and learning playful. Sports and music, for example, are almost pure form. Consequently, content and self-expression defeat themselves when severed from form. Any idea that comes to an artist immediately seeks the fitting form to contain it. 

Contrary to popular belief, even informal people love forms. People who understand it recognize that form is not only restrictive, but generative. For example, Wendell Berry describes in his wonderful essay “Poetry and Marriage” how marriage is a form that generates the possibility of a family. Reject the form’s restrictions (which is another way of saying, reject the relationships), and you reject the possibilities. But if you reject the form of family, that just means you’ll seek a new one. What is more formal than a group of informal adolescents, policing each other’s language and dress! 

The word “forma” reaches beyond forms to a mysterious but universally perceived inner essence of a thing.

Thinking follows a God-given form. When we follow it, we are able to establish right relationships between the elements of our thoughts, such as subjects with their predicates, prepositions with their objects, and even conclusions with their premises. Truth is formal. 

But form goes beyond shapes and patterns. 

The word “forma” reaches beyond forms to a mysterious but universally perceived inner essence of a thing that can be called form or even Form. A Greek word for this concept has been more or less transliterated into English: “idea.” Sometimes people call this a Platonic idea, and there is little doubt that Plato thought directly about ideas more than pretty well anybody who preceded him. He believed in a world of non-material Forms that were the pattern for the material forms that you and I see and experience through our senses. Aristotle modified Plato’s concept of forms rather significantly, but never lost sight of the transcendent ideas that govern our thinking. 

Of course, Plato didn’t invent the idea of an idea. People have always known that we think with and about ideas, even if they didn’t say so or weren’t conscious of what they knew. 

All the way back in Moses’s day, in Genesis 1, God told plants and animals to reproduce after their “kinds,” an old English word that translates the Hebrew word “min” and is translated “genos” in Greek and by two different words in Latin: “genus” and “species.” Speaking of kinds, genos, genus, and species, the Bible recognizes that there is something that goes beyond the individual instance of a tree or a dog, something found in the specific instance but that outlives it. That’s one way of thinking about what an idea is. 

When John speaks of Christ as the “Logos,” he uses what may be the most exalted word in the Greek language to express something that transcends human thought. And yet it is often also used to name thought or reason or ideas. 

“Forma” is one Latin word for idea or even genus or species, and because we want to think about ideas and forms, we call our magazine FORMA. In my opinion, the Latin translators of John 1 and Genesis 1 would not have erred if they had used the word “forma” for the Greek word “Logos” in John 1 and for the Hebrew “min” and Greek “genos” in Genesis 1. 

“Forma” is thus a lofty word and it is also a pleasing one. “Forma” gives us the word “formosa,” a Latin word for beautiful, formerly used to name a particularly pleasant island off the coast of China, and generally used to describe things for their formal perfections. 

Because we embrace the generative power of forms, believe in the reality of ideas, and cherish the beauty of the things forms inform—and also because we want to contemplate and discuss these things with you—we call our magazine FORMA.

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