The Birth of Wonder

There is no more pathetic spectacle than that of an age which is bored with life.

Materially our modern world is richer than perhaps any preceding age; spiritually we are paupers. Not all our truly wonderful physical accomplishments, not all our abundance of amusements and sensations can hide the fact that we are poor within.

In fact, the task of the latter is but to hide the poverty within; when our inner life is arid we must needs create artificial stimuli from without to provide a substitute, or at least cause such an unbroken succession of ever varying sensations that we have no time to notice the absence of life from within.

There are but few who can hear either solitude or silence, and find a wealth of life arising in themselves even when there is naught from without to stimulate.

Yet such alone are happy, such alone truly live; where we find the craving for amusement and sensation from without we see an abject confession of inner lifelessness.

There lies the difference between the quick and the dead, some are dead even in life, others can never die since they are life.

We all seek life, since life is happiness and life is reality. But it is only when we have the courage to cease from sensationalism and outer stimulants that we may be successful in our quest.

Philosophy is the quest of life.

It is more than a love of wisdom, unless we understand wisdom as being different from knowledge, as different as life is from death.

Wisdom is knowledge which is experience and therefore life; the quest of wisdom is in reality the quest of life.

It is true that the name of philosophy has often been used to corer a game of intellectual question and answer which leaves men no richer than before. Thus the average man distrust philosophy and accuses it of giving stones for bread.

But real philosophy is not the intellectual solving of problems; in the words of Plato, philosophy is the birth of wonder, and he is the true philosopher who begins to wonder about life, not he who is certain of having solved that which is beyond solution.

It is profoundly true that, until we can see the wonder of life all around us, unless we see ourselves surrounded by a mystery that challenges our daring exploration, we have not entered on the path of philosophy.

Unawakened man knows only facts, no mysteries, to him things are their own explanation; the world is there and what else is there to know?

Such is the animal outlook; to the bovine mind pastures may be good or bad, but they need no explanation.

Thus unawakened man is content with the facts of existence — his environment, his food, his work, his family and friends are so many facts surrounding him, pleasant or unpleasant, but never in need of explanation.

To speak to him of mystery hidden in his life and his world would not convey any meaning; he exists and the fact of his existence is sufficient unto him.

Death and life themselves may for a while cause him anxiety or joy, but even then they do not arouse any questions; they are familiar and customary.

It is the very familiarity of life which hides its mystery to the animal mind.

That which seen once would be a marvel becomes familiar when seen a hundred times and ceases to suggest the possibility of further explanation; have we not switched on the electric light so many times that the unexplained wonder of electricity is lost in the familiarity of the action and the fact has become its own explanation?

There was a time, in the childhood of humanity, when primitive man lived in a world of mystery moving among dark fears and unknown terrors.

But even them, though the mystery was felt and the world was seen as in a dream, the possibility of questioning the mystery did not suggest itself–primitive man was too much part of nature to question and investigate.

With the dawn of intellect the mystery of primitive man is lost and naught but facts in their vulgarity remain; in the sublime ignorance of a self-satisfaction, which doubts neither itself nor the world, man moves among mysteries which, could he but realize them, would strike terror into his heart.

And should he occasionally catch a glimpse of the mystery of life he but hastens to cover it up and even deny it, lest the comfort of his intellectual slumber should be disturbed.

Rather than risk the chance of an upheaval of the familiar and comfortable facts of his existence he will shut his eyes to the unexplained and burn at the stake those who persist in seeing and questioning.

The time, however, comes for most of us, when catastrophe and suffering shock us out of the ruts of familiarity, when our old world is destroyed beyond hope of recovery.

It is as if the universe, in which, but a few days before, we moved about with the easy certainty of unawakened man, had disappeared overnight and each familiar object and event had become a dark and terrible mystery.

Thus would the traveler feel who, waking from a dreamless slumber, finds that he has slept by the side of deadly reptile, unaware of its proximity and happy in his ignorance.

The awakening to the mystery of life is a revolutionary event; in it an old world is destroyed so that a new and better one may take its place, and all things are affected by the change.

We ourselves have become mysterious strangers in our own eyes and tremblingly we ask ourselves who we are, whence we came, whither we are bound.

Are we the being who is called by our name, whom we thought we knew so well in the past?

Are we the form we see in the mirror, our body, offspring of our parents?

Who, then, is it that feels and thinks within us, that wills and struggles, plans and dreams, that can oppose and control this physical body which we thought to be ourselves?

We wake up to realize that we have never known ourselves, that we have lived as in a blind dream of ceaseless activity in which there was never a moment of self recollection.

Our very consciousness is terra incognita; we know not the working of our own mind.

What is it that happens when we think or feel, when a moral struggle takes place in us, when we are inspired, respond to beauty or sacrifice ourselves for others?

It is as if we were prisoners in the vast palace of our consciousness, living confined to a small and bare room beyond which stretch the many apartment of our inner world, into which we never penetrate, but one of which mysterious visitors–feelings, thoughts, ideas and suggestions, desires and passions–come and pass through our prison, without our knowing hence they come or whiter they go.

In our consciousness we knew but results, we saw but that which rose to the surface and became visible; now we begin to realize a vast and unexplored world of mystery which, mirabile dictu, is the world of our own inner life. We are discovering the wonder of life.

It is everywhere around us, this wonder of life, nothing now is common or familiar, everything throbs with a mysterious life which is there for us to explore.

The sacred enthusiasm of the investigator claims us, we desire to know as a starving man desires food, we cannot live unless we know; we will know if it must cost our lives.

Thus are we born as philosophers.

Excerpt from The Conquest of Illusion by Dr J.J. van der Leeuw, 1928.