I started to climb because I wanted to see what it was like in the clouds. I reached them long ago, but I kept going. Every step showed more ahead and more behind. How could I stop?
When I came to the top, the clouds broke. Only the stars showed down. I lay on my back and stared at them. They seemed to stare back. I was the center of an hour glass; the universe opened wide above me, the mountain grew out below me. Everything narrowed here and poured through me, earth to sky and sky to earth.
I was scared; it was like the fear of heights, but in two directions. If I moved, I could easily slide down and crash so far below. But even worse was the possibility that I might fall into the sky, fall forever, with nothing to catch me.
The Feeling of the Philosopher
Every important question is like a steep mountain. Smaller questions help with bigger questions, like rocks scattered up the cliffside. To climb the mountain, we have to pick our way up the stepping stones, concentrating on one at a time. Once we’ve got a grip on the first question, for a moment, we seem to have reached the top, and we glory in the achievement. But for the really important questions, there’s always a next stone.
It’s hard work, and fear waits for you to look around and realize where you are. What makes you climb in the first place?
Philosophy begins in wonder
In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates famously said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Though it is a side-note, praise for his companion in conversation, it has sparked a lot of controversy; where your philosophy begins and ends can change your entire outlook on life.
There are two ways we commonly use the word “wonder”. First, as a desire, an itch to know something more. Second, as a feeling of awe mixed with surprise. Which of these did Socrates mean when he spoke of wonder as the beginning of philosophy?
The first way we use the word “wonder” is as a desire, an appetite. “I wonder how rainbows work.” It’s a desire for knowledge of a particular thing. Used in this way, “wonder” is synonymous with “curiosity”. The statement that “philosophy begins in wonder” means that a hunger for knowledge makes you search for answers.
Any kind of desire is pain, because desire means you lack something that you should have if you are to be complete. In the case of curiosity, you don’t have knowledge. When you gain the particular knowledge you were missing, you scratch the itch, and you are brought into your natural, whole state. You no longer feel the pain.
Curiosity is certainly part of the beginning of philosophy. If we have no desire for knowledge of ourselves or our world, we will never undertake the hard work of climbing the mountains of questions that face us. Curiosity causes us to ask the all-important “Why?”
Because curiosity is a pain, however, once we are caught in its clutches, we try to be rid of it as soon as possible. Once we have gained the knowledge we lacked, the curiosity is gone, just as hunger doesn’t exist once you’ve had food. The pain ceases. (Thank you, Google!) Curiosity ends in philosophy.
While it would encourage a search for truth, then, this sense of wonder cannot be the only one Socrates was pointing to. He did not mean that philosophy is the satisfaction of wonder, as though wonder were something to avoid, the way we avoid pain. He was praising Theaetetus for his wonder, not pitying him. So let us look to our second sense of wonder.
Wonder is the feeling…
The second possible sense of wonder is a feeling, an emotion. We tend to use “wonder” this way when we are speaking of wonderful things. Like most emotions, it is not strictly efficient; it doesn’t help you get things done in a timely manner. It requires leisure, a break from the world. You must consider the wonderful things around you. Stop and smell the roses!
This feeling is surprise mixed with admiration. The truest form of wonder is when we are faced with something so good, true, or beautiful that—for a moment at least—it is beyond our comprehension; we can only contain an intuition of it. We allow the wonderful thing to flit around in our minds, showing off its beauty, truth, and goodness. We can’t form words, but the object astonishes and delights us, fills us with wonder. Wonder is a glorious participation in that transcendence.
I think Socrates was speaking more of this latter sense of wonder. The context of his statement that “Philosophy begins in wonder” supports this. Just before, he says, “Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher.” This shows he doesn’t believe wonder is something to avoid; if wonder ends when philosophy begins, you stop being a philosopher—one who feels wonder—as soon as you begin philosophizing… Which is ridiculous.
Rather, the more philosophy allows you to pursue the “truth” aspect of the wonder, the more you understand how close that truth is to goodness and beauty. For the philosopher, wonder leads to philosophy, which leads to a greater sense of wonder. Wonder is the beginning, the end, and the continuous feeling of the philosopher.
This idea might be disappointing to some. What if you really don’t like wonder? What if you want it to end when philosophy begins? What a comfort! As soon as philosophy gives all the answers, there will be nothing to wonder about any more! Then wonder will leave us alone!
I would suggest there is a difficult question to ask about this feeling. What is behind this animosity? If wonder is—as I’ve suggested—a participation in transcendence, what is there to dislike?
A lot. Wonder is frightening. Fear stops us from enjoying it.
The problem with this second, intuitive sense of wonder is its uncertainty. We all want certainty; it’s so grounded, so stable. We don’t like the messiness that wonder entails. It shows us that we’re not in control. Wonder requires a surrender, an admission that there is something beyond us, something above the material existence that can so easily become our all.
Why can’t we stick with the first type of wonder? If we only wonder about small things, we can have certainty. For example, if you desire to know more about rainbows, philosophy points to science, who hands you the answer, wrapped in a neat little bow. As Cole says in The Sixth Sense, “They don’t have meetings about rainbows.” Isn’t that lovely?
Yes. But it’s not wonderful.
If, on the other hand, wonder is a feeling derived from an intuition, it is what begins true philosophical musings. It is terrifying! It’s a lot like standing at the top of a mountain and realizing, so close to the sky, how very small you are. Standing up so high, with the sky right there, pressing against you. Makes you want to climb down, doesn’t it?
The truths philosophy will give you will change your life, will change the world around you. You will sometimes come to the conclusion that you can’t come to a conclusion. You will discover things about the world that are frightening and uncomfortable. You will discover things about yourself that you wish were otherwise. But knowing is better than not knowing.
And don’t be afraid. If you’re looking for what’s true, you’ll also find what’s good. And that can never be bad.