Quote of the Day: The War Against Wonder and Awe

 

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.― Thomas Aquinas

Has there ever been a poet who set out to write the Final Poem, the work that would make superfluous all other poems that ever were or will be?  Does any filmmaker want to make the final movie?  A novelist the last story? Every scientist would be thrilled to be the first to discover something but do any want to make the last discovery, to declare their field over and complete, to claim that everything has been discovered and explained?

In contrast to ongoing, living, joyful encounters with the fullness of reality and the human experience within it, tyrannies of all kinds invariably seek to impose the final word.  They are more about pruning that which does not agree or fit the requisite dogma or narrative than about encouraging a rich, growing diversity of artistic expression and scientific inquiry.  Tyrants want to sever the connection with that which inspires art, philosophy, and even science.  And like all tyrannies, wokedom instinctively hates wonder.

It is noteworthy that science, the arts, and the US Constitution all resist the notion of a last word by their very nature.  We should never run out of wonder and awe and precisely because our limitations make complete capture of reality impossible thus every glimpse of larger truths is that much more precious and the journey endless.  No generation will ever reach an endpoint after which future generations would then stop seeking, asking, and wondering.

Great writers not only seem to have fingertip access to every spark of wit and wisdom in Shakespeare, the Bible, and every folk tale popular song, or myth but they also craft metaphors and imagery of their own.  In stark contrast, if you read woke tomes, they spew new terminology for sterile ideas but almost never cite or create instances of image-rich literature.  Metaphor and reference to art, literature, and history is a mode of mental life that tyrants instinctively hate. That way of looking at the world affirms the existence of larger truths that do not emanate from the narrative and its owners. The absence of wonder, humility, imagery, and joy in the tiresome prose of the woke is diagnostic and itself a warning.

Aquinas said we should fear homo unius libri, the guy who has read only one book and is immersed in it.  He will tend to win arguments on his own turf (that book) and simply ignore or reject all else.  The equivalent of the one-book guy now runs almost all our universities.  Wonder, humility, and inevitably diverse paths of inquiry are being extinguished in education in favor of an attempt to impose the final word in lieu of the experience of wonder and to take away all of the rich tools to enhance that experience that comprise our real cultural heritage.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    They have tried to kill curiosity, our desire to explore and learn and create. I don’t believe they will ever be successful at that effort.

    • #1
  2. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    One of my heroes in the world of business and finance is Sir John Templeton

    An unfailing optimist, a believer in progress, and a relentless questioner and contrarian, he devoted the second half of his long life to promoting the discovery of what he called “new spiritual information.” To his mind, this term encompassed progress in understanding not only matters usually considered religious but also the deepest realities of human nature and the physical world — that is, subjects best investigated by using the tools of modern science. Templeton was convinced that our knowledge of the universe was still very limited. His great hope was to encourage all of humanity to be more open-minded about the possible character of ultimate reality and the divine.

    In 1972, he established the world’s largest annual award given to an individual, the Templeton Prize, which honors individuals whose exemplary achievements harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Its monetary value, currently £1,000,000, always exceeds that of the Nobel Prizes, which was Templeton’s way of underscoring his belief that advances in the spiritual domain are no less important than those in other areas of human endeavor.

    Templeton also contributed a sizable amount of his assets to the John Templeton Foundation, which he established in 1987. That same year, he was created a Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II for his many philanthropic accomplishments. (In the late 1960s, he had moved to Nassau, the Bahamas, where he became a naturalized British citizen.)

    Although Sir John was a Presbyterian elder and active in his denomination (also serving on the board of the American Bible Society), he espoused what he called a “humble approach” to theology. Declaring that relatively little is known about the divine through scripture and present-day theology, he predicted that “scientific revelations may be a gold mine for revitalizing religion in the 21st century.” To his mind, “All of nature reveals something of the creator. And god is revealing himself more and more to human inquiry, not always through prophetic visions or scriptures but through the astonishingly productive research of modern scientists.”

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I’ve been thinking about poets and philosophers and considering a post on the subject. But I didn’t know whether the post would be very long. What I will say is that neither poets nor philosophers can be famous. Infamous, on the other hand. . .

    • #3
  4. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I’ve been thinking about poets and philosophers and considering a post on the subject. But I didn’t know whether the post would be very long. What I will say is that neither poets nor philosophers can be famous. Infamous, on the other hand. . .

    When I was in my final year of law school, working full-time at a law firm in the day and classes at night or day classes then make-up hours after and then a late train ride home each night regardless, I developed an appetite for poetry that I never had before.  Yeats and Walt Whitman took me home every night.  There is something about sustained legal mental work that is foreign to being human (ask any first-year associate in a big firm).  Or something like that. Anyway, the words seemed to resonate.  

    As an undergraduate, I appreciated that Plato, Aristotle and Kant were trying to find words for ideas born of an encounter with what genuine inquiry finds and that some modern philosophers were so pleased with clever mastery of words they dispensed with that encounter altogether.  

    Even apart from big questions and grand artistic endeavors, there is something about a disposition of being alive to it all versus that kind of ennui Peggy Lee sang about:

    Is that all there is?
    Is that all there is?
    If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
    Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
    If that’s all there is

    The feeling, the intuition that it is all worth it seems to be a pre-req to discovering valuable things.  The pursuit of entertainments to ward off the horror vacui is at an opposite end of a spectrum where affirmation, joyful surprise, cognitive production and creativity live at the other.  Some great philosopher needs to meld poetry and science there, wherever it is.

    • #4
  5. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    The feeling, the intuition that it is all worth it seems to be a pre-req to discovering valuable things.  The pursuit of entertainments to ward off the horror vacui is at an opposite end of a spectrum where affirmation, joyful surprise, cognitive production and creativity live at the other.  Some great philosopher needs to meld poetry and science there, wherever it is.

    Agreed.

    • #5
  6. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    I love this post so much! And yet, I think of the vast imagination required for Nicole Hannah-Jones and her writing partners to craft the narrative of the 1619 Project. But they want their false history to be the last word, so I think your point still stands.

    • #6
  7. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Old Bathos: Aquinas said we should fear homo unius libri, the guy who has read only one book and is immersed in it.  He will tend to win arguments on his own turf (that book) and simply ignore or reject all else. 

    I would tend to agree.

    • #7
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    It has long struck me that many ‘educators’ are not very interested in *knowledge*, and can’t believe that anyone else would be, either.  Similarly, it seems that the senses of curiosity, awe, and wonder are missing in many of these people.  Hence, everything has to be wrapped in “relevance”, and the only thing that has viewed as really important is Power Relationships.

    • #8
  9. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    I love this post so much! And yet, I think of the vast imagination required for Nicole Hannah-Jones and her writing partners to craft the narrative of the 1619 Project. But they want their false history to be the last word, so I think your point still stands.

    Propaganda does not require imagination as much as it requires chutzpah and a flexible conscience.

    • #9
  10. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    The feeling, the intuition that it is all worth it seems to be a pre-req to discovering valuable things. 

    Yes, and I think that explains why science came out of the Judeo-Christian West. It presupposes God who made an intelligible universe which makes the truths of it (Truth) worth exploring. So many other points-of-view start and end with randomness (atheism) or God’s supposed capricious will (Islam) that there’s little point in searching for truth or meaning in the universe. 

    • #10
  11. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    In the spirit of finding innocence in man’s folly…

    There was a time when everything that we didn’t understand was awesome, the direct handiwork of one or another god or spirit, something utterly and permanently beyond our ken. Now we interact each day with things we don’t understand, but that we know aren’t awesome because we’re aware that some bunch of nerds invented them in Cupertino.

    What prosperity and the scientific method have done is create a gap between the prosaic and the sublime. That gulf is filled with the comforts of modernity, with technology and processes most of us don’t understand but take for granted — and it’s a huge gulf.

    It takes real artistic talent to stand on the prosaic side and describe something so clearly and unambiguously on the other side of that gulf that people feel the sense of awe that was once inspired by everything beyond man’s quotidian experience.

    The late engineer and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke gave us his famous dictum: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It used to be easy to be “sufficiently advanced.” Now we live in a magical time. We carry the world in our pocket. But we know it isn’t really magic, and we begin to suspect that nothing ever was.

    We have become a tough audience.

    • #11
  12. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    In the spirit of finding innocence in man’s folly…

    There was a time when everything that we didn’t understand was awesome, the direct handiwork of one or another god or spirit, something utterly and permanently beyond our ken. Now we interact each day with things we don’t understand, but that we know aren’t awesome because we’re aware that some bunch of nerds invented them in Cupertino.

    What prosperity and the scientific method have done is create a gap between the prosaic and the sublime. That gulf is filled with the comforts of modernity, with technology and processes most of us don’t understand but take for granted — and it’s a huge gulf.

    It takes real artistic talent to stand on the prosaic side and describe something so clearly and unambiguously on the other side of that gulf that people feel the sense of awe that was once inspired by everything beyond man’s quotidian experience.

    The late engineer and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke gave us his famous dictum: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It used to be easy to be “sufficiently advanced.” Now we live in a magical time. We carry the world in our pocket. But we know it isn’t really magic, and we begin to suspect that nothing ever was.

    We have become a tough audience.

    When I was about twelve years old, I discovered some textbooks in my grandfathers attic from when he was in high school (in the late 1800s). At that young age, I was surprised at the number of “facts” that were no longer true. Just when we are sure we have the world figured out, reality intrudes.

    • #12
  13. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    In the spirit of finding innocence in man’s folly…

    There was a time when everything that we didn’t understand was awesome, the direct handiwork of one or another god or spirit, something utterly and permanently beyond our ken. Now we interact each day with things we don’t understand, but that we know aren’t awesome because we’re aware that some bunch of nerds invented them in Cupertino.

    What prosperity and the scientific method have done is create a gap between the prosaic and the sublime. That gulf is filled with the comforts of modernity, with technology and processes most of us don’t understand but take for granted — and it’s a huge gulf.

    It takes real artistic talent to stand on the prosaic side and describe something so clearly and unambiguously on the other side of that gulf that people feel the sense of awe that was once inspired by everything beyond man’s quotidian experience.

    The late engineer and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke gave us his famous dictum: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It used to be easy to be “sufficiently advanced.” Now we live in a magical time. We carry the world in our pocket. But we know it isn’t really magic, and we begin to suspect that nothing ever was.

    We have become a tough audience.

    When I was about twelve years old, I discovered some textbooks in my grandfathers attic from when he was in high school (in the late 1800s). At that young age, I was surprised at the number of “facts” that were no longer true. Just when we are sure we have the world figured out, reality intrudes.

    I wish I’d been able to retain my grandmother’s 1906? science catechism.  Aside from the designation of the planet Herschel (now Pluto) I remember it describing the sun as not hot as it is commonly experienced and thought to be, but clearly a cool phosphorescent body, and demonstrated by the fact that mountain tops which are closer to the sun are not hotter by proximity, but ice capped, which they wouldn’t be if the sun were a source of heat.

    • #13
  14. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    When I was about twelve years old, I discovered some textbooks in my grandfathers attic from when he was in high school (in the late 1800s). At that young age, I was surprised at the number of “facts” that were no longer true.

    Right? A mere 100 years ago, the great debate was over whether our own galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe. (Those who took that position were off by a factor of at least a trillion, and possibly vastly more.)

    • #14
  15. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    When I was about twelve years old, I discovered some textbooks in my grandfathers attic from when he was in high school (in the late 1800s). At that young age, I was surprised at the number of “facts” that were no longer true.

    Right? A mere 100 years ago, the great debate was over whether our own galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe. (Those who took that position were off by a factor of at least a trillion, and possibly vastly more.)

    You would think the long unbroken history of mankind getting it wrong would inspire humility instead of the smug notion that we have finally arrived at The Science with just a few details to be filled in. 

    • #15
  16. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    When I was about twelve years old, I discovered some textbooks in my grandfathers attic from when he was in high school (in the late 1800s). At that young age, I was surprised at the number of “facts” that were no longer true.

    Right? A mere 100 years ago, the great debate was over whether our own galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe. (Those who took that position were off by a factor of at least a trillion, and possibly vastly more.)

    You would think the long unbroken history of mankind getting it wrong would inspire humility instead of the smug notion that we have finally arrived at The Science with just a few details to be filled in.

    And, on the other hand, you would think four thousand years of literature that describes human nature as frightfully (or gloriously, if you’re an irredeemable optimist like me) consistent and shot full of hope and hubris would encourage us to expect mankind to do exactly that: to think that now, finally, we’ve figured it out.

    I remember reading, a long time ago, a description of something some monk wrote upon seeing the longbow used for the first time. The gist of it was that he thought he had seen the mechanism of Armageddon, something so terrible that surely mankind itself must fall before it.

    “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Let’s assume Oppenheimer was also calling the end-times prematurely. One can only wonder what horror will prompt the next observer to declare that the means of our destruction has arrived. One can probably assume he’ll be similarly mistaken.

    (And no, it isn’t Global Warming.)

    • #16
  17. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):
    When I was about twelve years old, I discovered some textbooks in my grandfathers attic from when he was in high school (in the late 1800s). At that young age, I was surprised at the number of “facts” that were no longer true.

    Right? A mere 100 years ago, the great debate was over whether our own galaxy was the only galaxy in the universe. (Those who took that position were off by a factor of at least a trillion, and possibly vastly more.)

    You would think the long unbroken history of mankind getting it wrong would inspire humility instead of the smug notion that we have finally arrived at The Science with just a few details to be filled in.

    And, on the other hand, you would think four thousand years of literature that describes human nature as frightfully (or gloriously, if you’re an irredeemable optimist like me) consistent and shot full of hope and hubris would encourage us to expect mankind to do exactly that: to think that now, finally, we’ve figured it out.

    I remember reading, a long time ago, a description of something some monk wrote upon seeing the longbow used for the first time. The gist of it was that he thought he had seen the mechanism of Armageddon, something so terrible that surely mankind itself must fall before it.

    “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Let’s assume Oppenheimer was also calling the end-times prematurely. One can only wonder what horror will prompt the next observer to declare that the means of our destruction has arrived. One can probably assume he’ll be similarly mistaken.

    (And no, it isn’t Global Warming.)

    Putting my money on ice-9.  Yes!  Yes!

    • #17