It’s hard not to like Josef Pieper. His Leisure: the Basis of Culture is a veritable battle-cry for young, intelligent Catholics who like to talk about what’s wrong with the world but don’t like falling into soul-crushing despair. His writing is accessible, relevant, and Thomistic, providing a reliable diagnosis of problems that really do matter. Pieper is what young Catholic grad students talk about through puffs of pipe-smoke and swigs of imported ale.
And so it is with great reluctance that I offer criticism, or at least a word of caution. There is a curious phenomenon among many Pieperites, which might be called “the exaltation of wonder.” Having been an imported-ale-drinking young Catholic graduate student, I have had firsthand experience of this exaltation of wonder, and so offer some cautionary thoughts.
Pieper legitimately rejects the “work-a-day world’s” utilitarian approach to reality and argues that philosophy is useful precisely because it shatters utility as the measure of all meaning. It is through wonder, he says, that philosophy is able to accomplish this intellectual liberation. The man who wonders at the world around him is profoundly different from the man who takes the world as a given that must be “worked” to various purposes. Wonder opens the path to the appreciation of being and of the world, and so can serve as a gateway to contemplation. This is why Aristotle and St. Thomas say that philosophy begins in wonder.
The exaltation of wonder is the temptation to take this insight and run with it. Seen as the antithesis of the capitalist grind, wonder can quickly become synonymous with amazed delight and being bedazzled by the world around us. Thus understood, wonder is nothing more than Charles’ first summer at Brideshead, or looking at the world with big eyes. The temptation to exalt wonder arises in us because we see how necessary it is to be freed from the dehumanizing monotony of cubicle life. But if we are content, once freed, to simply abide in wonder, it becomes a trap.
The human mind is made for truth. We want to know – what is it? why is it? – and when St. Thomas speaks of the mirabile that is the beginning of philosophy, he is not speaking of what satisfies that desire, but of what stimulates it. This is why it can be helpful to remind ourselves that another way the “wonder” of Aristotle and St. Thomas might be translated is as “puzzlement” or “perplexity.” This state is both unsettling and unnatural for the mind – it is not what we were made for. While it may be tempting to glorify wonder, the thought of glorifying perplexity is less appealing, and this can teach us something important.
When we wonder rightly, we really are freed from the utilitarianism of the work-a-day world and drawn out of our everyday comings and goings. This is because when we wonder rightly, we come to know that we do not know, and to desire that knowledge which is part of our perfection. Thus, true wonder is a holy puzzlement. If all creation is in and through the Word, and knowledge brings the known into the knower, then the more we know of creation the more we are conformed to the Creator. Wonder is the first step in this process, making us aware of the chasm of ignorance that still stands in the way of that conformity – a gap that will not be crossed until at last we come to that beatific vision of the one who is First Truth and Final Perfection. There, face to face, wonder will cease, giving way to an eternity of knowledge and love.
Image: J.J. Grandville, Astrologus stellas contemplans