Openness, wonder, and joy

Philosophy is not for those who presume to know all there is to know. Nor is it for those who, being bourgeois, take life to be wholly self-explanatory. ‘The commonplace mind,’ writes Josef Pieper in ‘The Philosophical Act,’ ‘rendered deaf-mute, finds everything self-explanatory’ to the point at which ‘”wonder” is no longer there.’ Now that must be a great loss unknown to the self-professedly knowledgeable, such a magnificent and terrible loss to the one blanketing all reality in the endless commonplace. What unmarked, unremarked upon despondency!

There is only wonder, so we shall learn, once one is brought to doubt whether he knows something at all. But then how is someone brought to such a doubt, and what disposition brings one to wonder’s doorstep?

That doubt may arise through Zen, as the very fiber of one’s being is ripped open by zazen or a koan, and through Socratic refutation. Socratic refutation begins with your belief, your proposal, your certitude about the nature of some entity (piety, courage, justice, and the like) and methodically, undistractedly, with the utmost persistence examines it, illuminating its oddness, its incoherence, its incompatibility with other beliefs you also endorse, or simply its implausibility. Have you followed Socrates out of your lair? Are you dazzled? Are you lost? Can you speak still? Is it nonsense? Are you so turned about that you can’t turn around?

Common sense has been pierced through, your basic beliefs penetrated, picked bone clean. If dazzled, if stunned, then you are open like a old book, and in this openness you are on the verge of wonder. Inquiry has denuded you, stripped you of stubbornness, of stubborn and wretched hubris, of puffed-up pride. Openness therefore! Look up now, awake and look up now, and have your fill–too much! almost too much!–of the firmament of stars. Drink them, be drunk with them for the first time in your life!

To conclude with the words of Pieper on the beauty of wonder:

In wonder, there is something negative and something positive. The negative aspect is that the person who feels wonder does not know something, does not grasp something–he does not know, “What is behind it all”; as Thomas puts it, “The cause of our wonder is hidden to us.” He who feels wonder does not know, or does not know completely, does not comprehend. He who knows does not feel wonder. It could not be said that God experiences wonder, for God knows in the most absolute and perfect way. And, further: the one who wonders not only does not know, he is intimately sure that he does not know, and he understands himself as being in a position of not-knowing. But this un-knowing is not the kind that brings resignation. The one who wonders is one who sets out on a journey, and this journey goes along with the wonder: not only that he stops short for a moment, and is silent, but also that he persists in searching. Wonder is defined by Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, as the desiderium sciendi, the desire for knowledge, active longing to know.

But along with not-knowing, and not-giving-up, wonder is also… joy, as Aristotle said, and the Middle Ages agreed with him: omnia admirabilia sunt delectabilia–the source of joy and the source of wonder are the same thing. One might even venture to say that wherever spiritual joy is to be met with, the wonderful is also there, and where there is a capacity to feel joy, there is also a capacity to feel wonder. The joy of one who is astounded is the joy of a soul that is beginning something, of a soul that is always ready and alert for something new, for something unheard of.

Joyfully alert for something unheard of as if ordinary reality had become legend. Or rather: itself.