Our English word ‘wonder’ translates the Greek verb thaumazein (usually rendered in Latin as admirari, although English ‘admiring’ only gets a part of the meaning). Both Plato (Theat. 155d) and Aristotle (Met. I.2, 982b 12ff.) insist that philosophy only begins when wonder is experienced. Since I am expected to seed wonder among my students as a teacher of philosophy, I will try to make clear what I understand wonder to be, and also warn about its counterfeits.
To begin with, wonder is not mere ignorance. You cannot wonder about something of which you know absolutely nothing, much less wonder at something you don’t even know exists. Neither is it knowledge qua knowledge: the simple cognition of an object. Instead, it is a special, almost subversive kind of knowledge which bespeaks and references the unknown. It is a knowledge the very possession of which points to a penumbral incognitum just out of sight.
It is one part knowledge and many parts ignorance, but not in a zero-sum relation. In true wonder, the more one genuinely knows about an object, the more one will simultaneously grow aware of the extent of one’s ignorance of all it implies and signifies. Paradoxically, increase in knowing does not equal decrease in unknowing. Although the new knowledge may be a gain indeed, that gain promptly serves as a new platform from the heights of which we glimpse the shadows and outlines of an even vaster throng of yet unconquered truths.
Wonderment is also not a state of being puzzled over an enigma, with the hope of solving it; rather it is the condition of being summoned into a mystery, and invited to live within it. I don’t mean to mystify or romanticize the matter. Envisioned here are not bemused individuals walking about with mouths agape and dazzled eyes, much less the stoned zombies of my generation who concluded their sessions of cannabis consumption, flat on their back, staring at the ceiling, saying: “wow!”
Wonder comes from authentic growth in knowledge, and that means a knowledge that is acquired in context, perspective and focus. That kind of knowledge was once provided by a proper liberal education, where both humanities and sciences opened imaginations, minds and hearts to the boundless worlds of the real. Such knowledge instantly sparkles with reflections of all the world around it (context), all the values subordinate and superior to it (perspective), and is articulated at just the right degree of exactitude proper to its nature (focus).
Wonder should also be distinguished from mere curiosity. Certainly common usage will often innocently confuse the two, but we are much the poorer for it. Strictly speaking, curiosity refers to a prying interest in knowing what is usually “none of our business,” and not our natural desire to know (which for Aristotle is very much our business). For what happens when we know something is that we in some very real way become integrated into and united with the thing we know. Disordered and curious cognitions, on the other hand, cleave to us in a way that divides and fragments our interior, like telling children all the details of our sexuality. Properly ordered knowledge opens the soul to greater oneness through a nesting of its energies in a welcoming mystery – a mystery it can forever approach but never exhaust.
Where does this wonder come from? Sensation, and especially vision, are already charged with an excitement which we see in the face of every infant. They see something, and by that act, they also ‘see’ that there is so much more to see, but which is teasingly hidden. Their little minds are already hungry for the meat of reality. This mixture of knowledge and ignorance – the very chemistry of wonder – keeps our senses alive and alert even after the intellect has embarked on its parallel quests. Since we need order, and feel threatened on the one hand by the sheer volume of sensory objects and the menace of chaos, and on the other, by the inevitable limitations of our own personal experience, civilization has come to our aid. It has traditionally structured our sensorium and emotions through the system of the arts. These bring both integration into the crazy world of multiplicity, and vicarious expansion into our native cognitive provincialism.
Delight in sensation, with all its ceaseless suggestions of something greater beyond it, gives birth to the arts. The intellect’s wonder at the multiple signs of transcendence sires philosophy. Delight and wonder lift themselves, finally, into an august awe, into the very fear of God, as senses and intellect follow the purified will’s appetite for infinity. Religion – sooner or later – rises over the horizon of all human experience, with even its negations assuming its mantle of authority.
The dance between knowledge and ignorance is destined to continue in religion, and will become the very source of our beatitude in eternity, what Maximus the Confessor calls “eternally active rest.” In the presence of Him Who Is, one forever learns more of his infinite beauty, but is thereby embraced even more warmly by the ecstatic excess of his permanently un-mappable abundance. As the saints say, God is always greater. You never figure him out or reduce him to a formula or definition, nor would you want to.
But this is not so foreign to us as we might suppose. What happens with any person you love? You can never map or master them, and as much as you learn and live together, there forever remains that beautiful blur behind their eyes that tells you there is always more. Your love touches the mystery even when your thought cannot. So much more so with God. As the arts prime us in wonder, and philosophy is fueled by that wonder, religion tells us why. Vere mirabilis Deus.