On the Perpetuation of Wonder


The human being is by nature a philosophical animal.
This is of course not to deny that philosophy manifests itself
in different degrees within different individuals.
The contention is rather that the structure of human life
is defined
by the need for wisdom.
This need can be blocked or perverted in countless ways,
but it will always shine through in our perception and analysis of human motives.

– Stanley Rosen

All human beings are endowed with the ability to discover sense in the world far beyond the extent necessary for mere survival. Yet possessing the means does not necessarily imply possessing the motive. Wonder provides that motive: it impels the drive to render the world intelligible beyond the necessities required by our physicality. It inspires us, in short, to endow the world with meaning.

The ability to marvel is the ability to respond to the demands placed by our innate capacity for reason and by the world’s appeal to that reason—the intersection of which leads to truth and/or meaning. It is the ability to sustain a perpetual state of astonishment: the ability to be startled, time and time again, that the world is what it is (and for the particularly gifted, the ability to marvel that the world simply is).

As a capacity, it is neither necessarily outward-looking nor inward-looking. Though the experience of amazement tends to begin with and to be facilitated by an external orientation, our interior depths can command our awe as well (and, in fact, usually remain far more mysterious as objects of wonder).

As a disposition, wonder tends to be colored by a certain “emotive” flavor—that of the feeling of gratitude. One can begin with an attitude of wonder, and upon seeing the world, collapse into despair at the sheer absurdity of existence. But despair leads to a sense of futility, cutting off awe and the subsequent drive for further inquiry. Wonder can only be sustained by a deeply felt sense that the gratuitousness that is existence is not an absurdity, but a gift—that we are not here as the objects or perpetrators of a mockery, but as participants and co-authors in an unfolding drama of grace.

At the same time, however, we cannot maintain an attitude of wonder towards everything we encounter. To do so would be cognitively impossible, at the most, and existentially impractical, at the very least. But to find at least a single source of awe that can command our attention and inspire our devotion would be to find the meaning of life itself. For astonishment can only be inspired by those objects—for lack of a better word—that are ultimately inexhaustible in their mysteries. To settle for the pursuit of anything else would only leave us dissatisfied and discontent, and ultimately less than who we really are.

The question of which, perhaps, is one of the most enduring wonders of all.

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