Plato may be to blame here…

The modern mind has a deep seated discontent with inconsistency. We see consistency from item to item as a mark of quality and any difference as a defect. I don’t know when this entered our collective (Western) human consciousness. Maybe it’s Plato’s fault.

You can argue that the bulk of Plato’s most consistent and sustained though centered around moral and political philosophy, but perhaps his most lasting influence has been felt in what we might now call  science or scientific thinking. Here’s what I mean by that: When Plato finally gets around to writing out his theory of nature and the physical world in the Timaeus it’s pretty clear that he thought the science of his day had reached a blind alley, in no small part because he had a notion that what we saw wasn’t the true nature of things. So, he proposed, there must be some perfect “form” of these things that exists in the abstract, and that abstract world is reality.

The rest of the physical world was, at best (in his own words) “a likely story.” 

Even Plato’s divine craftsman (of course he was a man, right?) couldn’t create perfect copies of the forms because of the limitations of matter. He confronts, contorts and orders matter, doing his best, but dang it, it just doesn’t look like it did in the catalog.

Sorry for the Philosophy 101, but humor me here…

I know that if I am making a significant purchase in a store, I will look through the whole rack to find the “best” one. I make this judgement on some arbitrary idea of consistency between the items. I have to confess that once, when buying a high-end saw I rejected the first one I looked at because there was something wonky going on in the grain or finish of the handle. I have since repented of that childishness, but I recognized that even in something as wholly unpredictable as wood I have an idea about what consistency I should find matched up against some arbitrary standard of perfection.

Knowing this about myself has left me with some questions:

-Has industrialization trained our hearts, minds and eyes toward ever stricter standards of consistency, perhaps at times at the sacrifice of quality?

-Is this why we need to re-learn ask different questions about pre-industrial furniture and what makes it beautiful?

-What does that mean for the work of the individual artisan?

There are certainly some places where you want consistency. When, for instance, I pony up and order a nice expensive handplane I want to know that the machining is precise, the fit and finish are excellent and the final product performs as it should. I want to know these things for reliability purposes mostly, but what about the relationship of these things to beauty?

Consistent (high) standards of performance may lead to quality, but is it possible that consistent standards of beauty lead not to some ideal form, but to accepted mediocrity?

Last time I wrote about one rocking chair. This time I submit two into evidence. The pre-industrial chair made by hand, presumambly with hand tools and its factory manufactured counterpart.



Look closer at the arm stile.


There’s nothing technically “wrong” with this turning, and it certainly is consistent throughout, but where’s the funk?

These chairs came from different sides of the family. They both rock. Literally. They both hold a small child with aplomb. One attains a higher level of manufactured consistency that in some minds would make it superior, but the other clearly speaks to me more. Is it just because I know what it takes to make something like this with my own hands?

Maybe. Maybe the rebellion is on.

Plato, watch your back.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. As always a thought provoking piece that raises many questions, James. I think
    I will try and practice the new way of looking things you propose, and see what effects it has on my appreciation of furniture.

    As a starting point, what you say does chime with me. From the perspective of a guitarist, I’ve never understood the fascination others have with high end PRS models. To me, that level of “perfection” feels almost sterile. I like my guitars (and furniture) to be built to high standards, but also to feel like they were made by people, with all the infallibilities that must follow.


    1. Haha! Ditto on PRS. 😉


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