Consider the Lily: An Experiment in Platonism

I look out my window, where there are some white lilies bobbing in a gentle rain. If I analyze my act of perception, I find it a layered action, containing within itself multiple valences.

On one level, I see what I identify as a lily; that is, my perception corresponds to an intelligible form, made up of certain properties, which I call “lily.” However, upon reviewing the raw data of my senses, I do not discover this intelligible form anywhere—only a mass of qualities (such as whiteness) and spatiotemporal relationships which some processing faculty has identified with the form of which I had prior knowledge.

The disparity is only worsened if I engage in detailed empirical examination of the lily as an object in time and space. I find, first, that the lily is composed of matter, atomic particles, knitted together by invisible forces, which if studied independently of my direct perception does not seem to resemble my idea of the lily at all. Still closer examination reveals that even this is mostly empty space. At the quantum level, my perception of matter—along with my reference frames of time and space—dissolves entirely into a probabilistic flux. The “stuff” of the lily is not stuff at all; its very materiality is an illusion of the senses. It is clear that the lily as such cannot be discovered through this kind of reduction.

Yet my initial identification of qualities with form is so seamless and intuitive that, if I am inattentive, my discursive consciousness may notice few if any of these supposedly constitutive qualities; I will simply register “lily” as a form, and might be hard pressed later to describe it with meaningful particularity.

The process seems baked into our psychology. If one examines the drawings of young children, one will find a plethora of stereotyped forms rather than precise representations of optical data; often these forms seem to exist utterly independent of their natural qualities, such as color or shape, and children take great delight in varying or swapping out these attributes while maintaining some visual relationship to the intelligible form. If my daughter chose to draw the lily outside my window, it would not appear as it does in life, but flattened and abstracted to a few (hopefully distinctive) scribbles. She might well opt for a purple crayon, and it might turn out to be a fire-breathing dragon lily.

We call this imaginativeness, and indeed it is. For between the intelligible form and the pure qualities of sensible experience lies some other element of perception: the image. As we have noted, forms are not comprised of sensory qualities, but in some way transcend them even as they seem to be received through them. Images, however, are comprised of qualities. The form of the lily may generate an infinity of images. Yet qualities, as mentioned, are irreducible to matter. Many qualities are even irreducible to what we normally consider sense-information. I find the image I received of the lilies in the rain beautiful: their paleness, their curved petals, the reflective drops, the green spring grass framing them, even the leaden atmosphere. This image changes me: it adjusts my mood, makes me feel more satisfied and at home in reality. Beauty is kind of a quality, and there are innumerable qualities without name to which our psyche responds.

Remove form and image from perception, and we get meaningless and indifferent sensory data. The world ceases to exist, and so do we. Form anchors both being and thought—apart from it, the lily does not exist, nor any other thing, nor the thought of the lily, nor any other thought. This was clear long before quantum mechanics, when the ancient Greeks and Indians observed that material reality is unstable and corresponds poorly to the stable existence of forms such as “lily.” This famously led Plato to privilege the forms and intellect over matter and sense; the latter he described as a shadow through which the reasoning intellect of the philosopher passes to attain the true intelligible reality behind.

The image is the sensible presence of the form. The faculty of imagination summons it forth from the screen of perceptible qualities, rendering reality transparent to our gaze. The image mediates the form without comprehending it; the lily comes to me delightfully through its image, but that image does not exhaust the lily. It always has more to give.

Of course, there may be false or true images. The hallucination, in one sense, is a false image. But given how tenuous our notions of “correspondence to objective reality” are, questions about the truth of an image must go deeper. And indeed, as a study of propaganda and conspiracy theory can show us, even a highly representative image accurate to optical experience, like a photograph, can be misleading if its context and content are insufficiently understood. Such images are not in harmony with truth. The truth of an image depends on its function as a symbol, a presence-maker. Every true image is a metonym for the inexpressible that transcends image. As such, every true image leads beyond itself. The false image points to blind alleys and prisons of the soul. Even the true image can become false if its lack of intrinsic verity is not recognized; it becomes idol rather than icon.

And what about my child’s purple, fire-breathing dragon lily? There may be no more basic technique of creativity than juxtaposition, where different elements within an image produce a whole greater than its parts. The dragon-lily chimera may celebrate some hitherto unrecognized dragonlike quality in the lily. But more fundamentally, it is a creature of the imaginal, a vast treasury of images mediated to us by the senses. Images visit us in artistic inspiration and dreams; the imaginal itself far transcends the five senses and conscious control, for it is accessed through the imagination, the eye of the heart. Imprinted on our souls, these images are incorporated into an interior landscape and shape the person for good or evil.

Thus Pseudo-Macarius in the fourth century: “There is the example of the eye, little in comparison to all the members of the body and the pupil itself is small, yet it is a great vessel. For it sees in one flash the sky, stars, sun, moon, cities, and other creatures. Likewise, these things are seen in one flash, they are formed and imaged in the small pupil of the eye. So it is with the mind toward the heart. And the heart itself is but a small vessel, yet there also are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there is also God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace—there are all things.” (Homily 43)

And so Conrad Pepler, O.P.: “There is a need of an imaginative response to life, a training of the imagination, not merely in a few cases of poetic talent, but as a common function in every member of society. Incalculable harm can be done to men generally by the perversion or deadening of this faculty. When society becomes entirely secular and mechanized, men’s common experience and imaginative furniture becomes secular. Divorced from nature and from a common religious experience, their minds are furnished with a stream of secular images and symbols. As the sensations flow on, the spiritual, creative forces of intellect and will are dulled. Men thus become more easily carried along in the stream of a mechanized external life.” (Riches Despised (1957), as quoted in “The Formation of the Imagination”)

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