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Wonder and Skepticism


By Marcus R. Berquist
Lecture at Thomas Aquinas College
September 13, 1985


It has been a tradition at the College since its beginning that the first lecture be given by a member of the faculty, and concern liberal education in some fundamental and general way. Over the years, we have had a number of such topics. For example, we have had lectures that considered the relationship of the Catholic faith to liberal education. We have had a lecture about the importance of the inferior disciplines: logic, grammar, mathematics. We discussed the importance those disciplines have for liberal education. The lecture last year had to do with the effect that the social condition of equality, a major characteristic of democracy, has upon liberal education, in particular, whether it makes it more or less feasible than it would be under other circumstances.

Our topic tonight is wonder and skepticism. This has a general and fundamental bearing on liberal education. But this bearing may not be altogether clear, so I would like to begin by indicating briefly what the connection is between liberal education and wonder, and what importance or bearing it has on liberal education. I think that bearing will become clearer when we discuss, later in the lecture, the nature of wonder.

So let us make a brief indication of how our topic tonight connects with liberal education in a fundamental and general way. I would like to propose two premises, which I will manifest. The first of these is that liberal education is ordered principally to philosophy. The second of these is that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, from which it follows, of course, that wonder has an essential bearing on the very possibility of liberal education.

Liberal Education Is Ordered Principally to Philosophy

Let us take the first of those premises, then, that liberal education is ordered to philosophy. Here. by ‘philosophy’ I mean pretty much what the Pythagoreans originally meant, which fits with the etymology of the name itself. Nowadays, philosophy is thought of as a very particular discipline, divided off against the others. It is distinguished both from theology on the one hand, and natural science and mathematics on the other. But that is not the sense the name had originally. As most of you know, the word ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom.’ There is an interesting story about how that name first came to be used, but we might leave that story for later, when it seems more appropriate.

At any rate, when I say that liberal education is ordered to philosophy, I mean by philosophy what was meant in the original, unrestricted way in which it was understood by the Greeks as the love of wisdom. According to that understanding, philosophy would include not only wisdom itself, but also those sciences which, although they are not themselves wisdom, are either preparatory for wisdom or, as well as being preparatory, participate somewhat in the same nature as wisdom. They are, as it were, particular and limited forms of wisdom. On this understanding, part of philosophy would be not only the things that go by that name, but natural science itself, and such sciences as logic and mathematics, because these sciences are both preparatory for wisdom; and natural science in particular, though it is not wisdom simply speaking, partakes somewhat in the same nature as wisdom. They both have, as we will see later, an investigation of principles and causes. One does indeed, in natural science, bring one’s considerations back to certain principles that are first in that order. Philosophy in this sense would also include Sacred Doctrine. If we consider the word ‘wisdom,’ and that philosophy means the love of wisdom, we would see that a true lover of wisdom would be even more concerned with what God would reveal about Himself, for that is more truly wisdom than any human science can possibly be. Taken in that sense, the philosophic life is not something set off against the study of theology, but, as the name itself would imply, it would have theology as its principal end. So in saying that liberal education is concerned with philosophy, I am using the word philosophy in that unrestricted sense, simply meaning the love of wisdom.

To further manifest that premise, one might argue like this. The words ‘liberal education’ mean, of course, the education of the free man. But man is thought to be free for two reasons that are closely connected. The free man is the one who is capable of governing himself and who actually does govern himself and govern himself well. Secondly, the free man is thought to live for his own sake, by which we do not mean that he is selfish, but that he lives within himself or has within himself the things that make life worth living. He does not simply live as the instrument of other men, realizing some good that will be found only in them. Such a man would be a slave. The free man, by contrast, is one who realizes within himself the good of human life.

That being the case, then liberal education will be concerned with the kind of knowledge that would concern a free man, both as regards making it possible for him to govern himself and also — perhaps even more so — with the kind of knowledge that gives life an intrinsic value. That could only be the kind of knowledge that is itself intrinsically valuable. This means that the free man, or he who aspires to be free, must be a lover of wisdom. By ‘wisdom’ we mean, most basically, ‘perfection of knowledge.’ Wisdom is certainly knowledge, but not all knowledge is wisdom. Wisdom is that knowledge that we conceive from the first to be the most perfect kind of knowledge, but that is most perfect in the nature of knowledge itself.

One might say not all knowledge is equally knowledge. The use of the word wisdom, as distinguished from other forms of knowledge, indicates our awareness of this fact. Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, has a somewhat extended discussion of this at the beginning,1 but even when stated right out, it is fairly clear that the best type of knowledge is the knowledge of the causes and the principles of things. Therefore the best type of knowledge absolutely would be the knowledge of the first principles, the causes and principles of all the other causes and principles. That would be the reflection of the proposition that not all knowledge is equally knowledge, that is to say, not all causes are equally causes. Some causes are causes of other causes. We might say that knowledge of that kind, namely knowledge of the first causes, concerns the things that are most worth knowing in themselves.

With that in mind, perhaps the proposition I started out with is now more intelligible — that liberal education, the education of a free man, will be concerned principally with the pursuit of wisdom, because wisdom is that knowledge that is most intrinsically valuable, and that is the kind of knowledge that makes life worth living.

Wonder is the Beginning of Philosophy

The second premise, that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, or more exactly, that it is the desire or the passion that gives rise to the philosophic life, should become clearer in the lecture that follows. But for now I would like to give some preliminary indication to make that proposition more intelligible.

First of all, from authority: Aristotle remarks at the beginning of the Metaphysics that it was from wonder that men first began and now begin to philosophize.2 It is not a particular cause that led some philosophers at some time, but all philosophers at all times have been led to philosophize by that passion.

The second way I would manifest it is with an anecdote. I gave a lecture on this topic about five or six years ago, to a group at the Claremont Colleges. As I was driving over there, entering the campus, I was still trying to think of an appropriate beginning to the lecture. As I drove by the gates of Pomona College I noticed an inscription on the gate. I sort of half read it, and I could not believe my eyes. So I stopped the car, turned around and drove back, got out and read the inscription more carefully, and wrote it down. This is what it said: “Let only the eager, the thoughtful, and the attentive enter here.” I considered that an excellent omen and a good beginning because, as you will see in what follows, those three things are elements of the passion of wonder. The founder of that college, whose words were written on that gate, understood the critical importance of wonder to the course of liberal studies that would be pursued in the college. She put it on the gate that you should not enter until you already had that particular attitude. So it was not something that she expected to come out of the course of study there, but was presupposed to it, and necessary beforehand, to such an extent that you should not even pass through the gate without already being a man of that disposition. From this you could divine, or rather conclude, that Pomona College was founded a long time ago.

The third indication is my own experience, and that of my friends, and the experience of the race as it has been told by those who went before us. Those of us who went to school, not for some extrinsic reason (like preparing for a career, or because our parents sent us, or to avoid the draft, or whatever), but who went to school for the education itself, were moved by wonder. Wonder was not a thing with which we were provided or which we were to attain. It arose spontaneously, and with surprise, from our experience of things, and moved us to do other things that we had never imagined beforehand. We were at the beginning of a new life, a life of study and reflection.

I think the critical importance of wonder for the philosophic life might also be illustrated in advance by a likeness. Perhaps all of us, especially those of us who are somewhat older, have experienced the difficulty of explaining something to someone who lacks the experience that would be necessary to understand the explanation. We all know this is true with respect to children. There are a great many things about which we should be silent in the presence of children, or we should simply tell them, for they do not have at this point the experience that would make an explanation intelligible.

This difficulty shows up elsewhere, too, even among those who are grown up. Imagine, for example, trying to explain the Sacrament of Penance to a man who has no sense of sin, no feelings of guilt or remorse for anything he has ever done, and no thought that he may have to render an account to God for the way he has led his life. I think any attempt to explain Penance to such a man would be doomed to failure because he lacks the experience that would make the existence of such a sacrament intelligible. You might compare the example C. S. Lewis gives of his experience in trying to explain the truths of the Faith to modern nonbelievers.3 He said he found them very different from the pagans when you read about them because they had no sense of sin and therefore no sense of the need for redemption. The idea of redemption (which would be good news to man) was very alien to them, whereas to the pagans, who were very much concerned with their guilt and with the punishment in the next life for he had things done in this life, the Gospel was indeed good news. There is a way out. For modem man, if it is anything, the Gospel is bad news.

I think a situation similar to this one obtains with respect to philosophy. I have frequently been asked through the years, as I meet people, what I do for a living. I say, “I teach.” And they ask me what I teach. Then I hesitate. Finally, I say, “I teach philosophy,” and then I hope they won’t say anything more. Usually, they don’t, but sometimes they do, and they say, “What’s philosophy?” Then I rejoin, more sanguine, by trying to give an explanation of what philosophy is. And I think the things I have said were true and basically right. They were formally correct. But almost without exception (in fact, without any exception that I can remember), the answer clearly meant nothing to the individual to whom I was speaking. For many years, in my humility, I concluded that the fault was entirely my own. But now that I am older, and have done this many times, I don’t think the blame is entirely mine, perhaps not even principally mine, but it is because the person to whom I was speaking had never had the experience that would make even a true and basic answer intelligible to him. In a word, he had enough to have a difficulty and to realize there is more to know about this object than he already knows. He is partly a knower, and partly ignorant. And in a certain sense his ignorance is based upon his knowledge. He knows enough to know that he is ignorant, and knows enough to focus that ignorance, to focus on where that ignorance is.

But what is this “something more” that a man who wonders has to know? What is his ignorance in particular? St. Thomas makes two suggestions, which we will discuss at some length. What is characteristic of the man who wonders is that he is ignorant of the reason why or the cause of something even though he recognizes the fact. The second thing St. Thomas says, which is related to the first, is that when a man is induced to wonder about an object he somehow knows, it turns out to be different from what he had expected, from what he would suppose it to be from what he already knows. He is surprised, even shocked, by the way the object turns out to be.4

We shall manifest both these points together, sometimes more one, sometimes more the other. Think upon the way we use speech, for example, the sentence, “I wonder.” The ordinary and typical completion of that sentence is. “I wonder why . . . ?” That is not the only way to complete it: “I wonder whether . . . ?” “I wonder where . . . ?” “I wonder when . . . ?” But the most typical complement or follow-up to “I wonder” is “Why?” In speech, then, we have an indication that the proper object of wonder is the cause or the why of things. We shall see the outcome of this by talking about the rational connection between those two points. When are we moved to ask the question “Why?” When are we aroused from our “dogmatic slumber” as Kant would say? Wouldn’t it have to do with an object we already know? It seems that so long as it is the way we expect it to be, it is as we think it should be and even as we think it must be, so that it seems no account of the why is necessary. Aristotle remarks, in the Metaphysics, that the customary seems self-evident.5 What we see over and over again seems to be something self-evidently true, and so it seems to be beyond the need of any explanation. Also in the Physics, he remarks on the fact that philosophers tend to think that what always is has a sufficient explanation just in the fact that it always is.6 But then we are surprised when the object turns out not to be the way we expected it, not the way we are inclined to think about it from our custom. We become aware of our ignorance, and we become aware of where we are ignorant.

The final way I can manifest this is from examples. Let us take an example from mathematics. This is an example that Aristotle gives: the discovery of the incommensurables.7 This is not what men would have supposed. The Pythagoreans who first discovered the incommensurability of the diagonal with the side of a square were amazed. There is even a story to the effect that the discoverer was buried alive. It was a shocking discovery, but it was also the occasion for wonder. They became aware of the fact that this ratio was not the same thing as numerical ratio. What is first and most known to us in ratios are the numerical ones: one to two, two to three, three to four, and so on, as exhibited in musical tones. But they realized that here you have ratio and proportion that could not be so expressed, and yet there was ratio. As the side of this square is to its diagonal, so is the side of that square to its diagonal. That may not be self-evident, but it is fairly certain on the face of it that that is the case.

In investigating this question, they were led to ask the question, “Why?” The answer to that question is given in Euclid, where we see that whenever two straight lines are commensurable, it is necessary that the squares upon them have the ratio of two square numbers. But there can be, and there are, squares in other ratios. But every square has a side. So it is not possible that every straight line be commensurable with every other straight line. This led to another doctrine, too: the doctrine of ratio and proportion, which you find in Book V of the Elements, which applies to magnitude, a doctrine that would never have been discovered had the Pythagoreans not received the shock that they received at the discovery of the incommensurables. This also makes one aware of the fact that there is a fundamental difference between number and magnitude, that the principles of the one cannot simply be collapsed into the principles of the other.

I think there are many examples like that, too. Certain kinds of knowledge are intrinsically desirable. Therefore the questions that concern that sort of knowledge are intrinsically interesting. If the person is not interested in the question, there is a sense in which there is nothing you can do to make him interested; any fuller explanation of the difficulty or the question will not have meaning to it unless the person, from the start, feels the importance of the question. You are fighting, it often seems, a losing battle. Aristotle makes a somewhat similar observation with respect to the virtues and the vices in the beginning of his Ethics.8 He points out that an individual who has not been brought up well does not see the fact that it is good to strive to be virtuous, to be temperate, to be brave, to be just. He is not going to profit from ethical doctrine, and Aristotle says even further that he will not understand it. The reason, it seems to me, is exactly the same: There is an experience that is necessary to make ethical discussion intelligible, and that is the experience of living a good life — maybe not living a perfect life, but living a life where you are trying, day by day, to be good, according to your life, and where you see that certain basic things are right and other things are wrong, without being able to give much of an account of them.

That, then, gives a kind of preliminary indication of the importance of wonder for the philosophic life. I hope it will become clearer in what follows that this passion we call wonder is a prerequisite to the philosophic life of such importance that philosophic life does not exist without it. There is no other road into it. We might, then, conclude our introduction by defining philosophy as the way of life that arises from wonder. That is not a very perfect definition, but it has the advantage of starting with what is more known to us, at least more known to those of us who are indeed educable. We have all experienced the passion. We cannot see at this point what it is going to lead to with any great precision, but we do have the passion, and therefore we have the beginning; and therefore we have the gate of the road into philosophy. So in what follows, we hope to get a better understanding of philosophy, and therefore of liberal education, by an account of wonder, which is the distinctive origin of such a way of life in us.

Wonder and Skepticism

Let us turn, then, to our topic, wonder and skepticism. The plan of the discussion is this. We are going to start by analyzing wonder — by distinguishing its various elements. Second, we will speak of its contrary, which is skepticism, for a thing becomes clearer when put next to its contrary. Finally, we will briefly compare and contrast wonder and skepticism on the basis of what has been said in the discussion of each one.

Now it might seem surprising at the start that I have named skepticism as the contrary of wonder. The opposite of skepticism, as the skeptics say, is dogmatism, which seems quite different from wonder, and even opposed to it. But further, both the skeptic and the man of wonder are aware of their ignorance, and of the difficulties that are inherent in the quest for knowledge. They are both men who ask questions and pursue those questions. So, at first sight, we may be struck more by the resemblances between wonder and skepticism than we are by the differences. The truth is, however, that wonder and skepticism are deeply opposed. The reason why their opposition is not apparent is that each of these is a complex passion, involving many elements. Until those elements have been distinguished, their essential opposition will not become clear.

Distinction of the Elements of Wonder

So let us proceed, firstly, to wonder. I think the first and most evident element of wonder is ignorance. A man who wonders is ignorant. But there is more to that. He is aware of his ignorance, and not just of his ignorance in general, but of his ignorance of some specific thing. We all know from general experience that there are many things of which we are ignorant, but we are not, by that very fact, aware of each particular thing of which we are ignorant. The man of wonder has a specific focus for his question, a specific area where he is aware of the ignorance in himself. He is ignorant, and he is aware of his ignorance. Yet, of course, it is not total ignorance. It is ignorance of his object in part, but not as a whole. This is clear from the fact that he knows it enough to name it. He knows. indeed, that it is, that it is a fact. He knows “what he does not know.”

So here is a case where wonder is the beginning of philosophy. It arises from an awareness of one’s ignorance, in which one has been shocked by something that has turned out to be quite different from what one has expected.

Another example, from natural science, is the familiar example of the paradoxes of Zeno, which most people have heard in one form or another. On the basis of our ordinary experience, we tend to draw the conclusion that before you can go all the way, you have to go half the way. Zeno picked up on that thought, and propounded the following paradox. He said, “If that’s true (that you have to go half the way before you go all the way), then after you’ve gone half the way, you have to go half the remainder and half the remainder and half the remainder. And since the continuum is infinitely divisible, it is impossible for you to come to the end of all those halves; and therefore it is impossible for a moving thing to cover a distance.”

How should one react to such a paradox? It would certainly be a sign of intellectual weakness to conclude that there is no such thing as motion, because motion is an evident fact of experience. What one should conclude, if he cannot resolve that paradox (and no one can at first sight), is that he is ignorant of the nature of motion, and that on the basis of that ignorance he has made certain assumptions about motion that cannot be true, even though he concludes this from the most easy and obvious observations anybody could make. You obviously have to go half the way before you go all the way. So one is led to realize that motion needs to be defined, that knowing motion well enough to name it is not the same as knowing what motion is essentially. The whole doctrine of Aristotle’s Physics is based upon the realization of that fact.

One could also take the example, which has already come up with the freshmen, in the study of insects in Fabre. Fabre was particularly concerned with the difference between instinct and reason. He gets into his discussion by what amounts to opposite considerations. When you look at one side of the bug’s behavior, you would naturally conclude that he knows quite well what he is doing; he knows what he is doing much better than I would know what to do if I were in his shoes. On the other hand, there is indisputable evidence from other experiences that Fabre cites that the bug has not the slightest idea what he is doing, or why he is doing what he is doing. You put these things side by side and you realize it is not an easy thing to say what the insect did. You cannot simply say, “Oh, yes, animals are intelligent, but they are less intelligent than man,” or “No, animals are simply a higher and more complex type of mechanism.” You see that there is a third reality in there that has to be accounted for, that there is something, which goes by the name of instinct, which is not merely another name but another faculty, which is neither reason nor some kind of automatic reflex. It is something which is knowledge, and yet a knowledge which is dramatically different from reason. This is another example of wonder. One might say he is shocked at learning how incapable the bug is of dealing with a situation when one alters things just a bit in the right way. It becomes very incapable of figuring out what it should do now.

The prime example is taken from Sacred Doctrine. The Blessed Mother is known as the Seat of Wisdom, and, I think, not least of all because she gives us an excellent example of wonder, of wonder as opposed to skepticism, as we will see later, as opposed to simple ignorance and doubt. It is worthwhile contrasting the story of Zachary, when he receives the annunciation of the angel, and that of Mary. Most people who have read that story and not thought about it too carefully are struck by the very different outcome. Both are given news of a miraculous birth. Elizabeth, the wife of Zachary, will give birth to a child in her old age. The Blessed Mother will conceive a child in spite of the fact that she knows not man. Two miraculous births. In both cases, the annunciation is followed by a question. In one case, the case of Zachary, he is punished. He is reprimanded by the angel, and he is punished by loss of speech; and his loss is not restored to him until he is present at the christening of his son. In the case of the Blessed Mother, the question is answered, and she is given a kind of confirmation of the truth of the message she has received: The angel tells her about the miraculous conception of a baby by her cousin Elizabeth, which is, of course, a miracle of a much lesser nature, but a miracle which she can herself confirm by evidence as she immediately proceeds to do.

One is struck by the difference there. On the last feast of the Annunciation, I heard a homily in which the homilist speculated that the reason for this different reaction of the angel was that Gabriel had lost his temper with Zachary and was reprimanded by the Lord; being somewhat chastened when he went down to speak to the Virgin Mary, he moderated his tone. I think the kind of theology that is behind that kind of comment is beyond comment. But actually, when you look at the text, you see a very great difference. Zachary’s question is quite different. He says, “Whereby will I know this? For I am old, and my wife is advanced in years?”9 What he does is doubt the fact. He wants to know. “How can I know that this is true? Give me some assurance that this is true.” Mary asked, “How can this be?” And she gives the objection, too: “For I know not man.” She does not ask, “How can I know that this is so?”, but “How can this be?” The angel answers precisely in that spirit: “The power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow you.”10 She gives us an example of wonder, which consists not in a doubt about the fact, but in a realization of ignorance of the cause of the fact and a desire to know that. Zachary is punished for skepticism, for doubt about the truth of the word of the angel. In Zachary’s case, one also notices that it is rather without excuse, because the promise that is made to him is the same promise that was made to his father Abraham, whose wife, Sarah, conceived in her old age. There is a precedent. God is doing for Zachary and his wife what He has done for Abraham and his wife. That would be an object of faith for the Hebrews.

So much for what would seem to be the first and most obvious element in the definition of wonder, which is ignorance that one is aware of, ignorance of the cause as opposed to ignorance of the fact, and an awareness of ignorance that is prompted by things turning out differently than you would have supposed.

This, however, is clearly not sufficient. These things seem presupposed to wonder, rather than wonder itself. When one becomes aware of one’s ignorance, very many reactions are possible. One may, for example, become angry, or one may become ashamed; one might even be amused; one might begin to mistrust all his previous knowledge or think that it is hopeless to study. The reactions are just about as various as the men who are involved. It is perhaps rarely that wonder itself is aroused. One might ask, “What makes the difference?” Well, what is most obvious and necessary is that the one who wonders has a desire to know. For one does not simply ask, “Why is this so?” but says, “I wonder why this is so?” The verb there seems to convey a certain yearning for the answer, not merely a proposal of the question, but a certain stretching for the answer to that question. One not only asks the question, but feels an interest in knowing the answer.

The man who wonders, insofar as he wonders, has a passion for knowledge. This is something more and something rarer than awareness of one’s ignorance. The dialogues of Plato give many examples of this. Socrates is probably the most skillful man of whom we have record at getting men to see that they are ignorant. But we notice that very seldom in the dialogues is Socrates able to elicit any desire for knowledge in those whom he convicts of ignorance. So it is seldom that any strong desire is brought forth by the revelation of ignorance.

Now when we say that the man of wonder has a passion for knowledge, we imply that he desires the knowledge for its own sake, and not because of some usefulness that it might have. And this implies further that he desires knowledge of things that are most worth knowing. At least that would follow if we assume that wonder is a reasonable passion, which we are doing for the present. To make this clearer we might compare wonder with curiosity. In ordinary conversation the two words are often used interchangeably. To say you wonder about something is to say you are curious about it. We often say “I wonder” about something, which is curiosity in the strictest sense. But there is a difference, which we can see only by first of all remarking on the likeness.

A person who is curious, in the ordinary sense of the word, wants to know, has indeed a kind of passion to know, but without any real useful purpose in it. Gossip is often taken as a good example of curiosity. Just any talking about the people we know is not called gossip; rather, gossip is that kind of conversation that has no end in view other than just the knowledge of the persons themselves. I suppose there is even more curiosity about the people we do not know, since knowing about the people we know is part of the friendship we have with them. One thinks particularly of publications that are ordered to this: People Magazine, Vanity Fair, and other magazines of that kind. They deal with individuals whom we do not know personally and with respect to which there is no practical utility in knowledge. And yet one desires knowledge of those things in spite of its lack of utility.

This is not like the case, for example, of an anxious father, who wonders where his child is at two o’clock in the morning. He is anxious to know, but here knowledge is not his end. One cannot imagine the child coming in, the father asking where he has been all this time, and the child saying. “Why do you want to know?”, and the father saying, “Oh, I was just curious.”

There is, then, a certain likeness between curiosity and wonder, in that both the man who wonders and the one who is curious have a desire for knowledge for its own sake. The difference is that curiosity itself sometimes names a vice, an excessive desire to know. One does not say that wonder killed a cat, but that curiosity killed a cat. And this is because curiosity regards objects that are not your concern, and are not in themselves worth knowing unless they are your concern in some other connection. So we say, “Mind your own business. Stay away from what does not concern you.” That is what we mean when we speak of curiosity as a vice.

We see a difference in the corresponding adjectives. When we say that something is wonderful, or wondrous, we imply that it is excellent, that it is beautiful, that it is good. But when we say that it is curious — ”That’s a very curious saying” or “That’s a very curious object” — we imply that it is odd, strange, and even grotesque. If you go into a store called a “curiosity shop” (I don’t know whether there are still stores called that), you do not particularly expect to find beautiful things, but you expect to find odd things, things that you have not seen somewhere else. If we put these various things together, I think we can say this about wonder: It involves a desire to know for the sake of knowledge itself. This is its likeness to curiosity. But the difference is that it concerns things that are in themselves worth knowing. That is the reason why men who truly wonder tend to wonder about the same things as other men who wonder. Curiosity tends to vary with the individuals in question: Some are curious about movie stars; some are curious about athletes; some are curious about musicians; and there are as many variations as there are variations in temperament. Wonder concerns things that are in themselves worth knowing, whereas curiosity, as distinguished from wonder, deals with things that are interesting only because of a particular quirk in oneself as opposed to an intrinsic value of the object itself.

In concluding this part, we might say that the man who wonders is characterized not only by ignorance and awareness of his ignorance, but by a desire to know, and a desire to know things that are in themselves worth knowing, the things that are, as we say, wonderful.

It seems we still have not dealt with wonder adequately. It is a richer and more complex passion than what we have indicated so far. For it is evident from experience that wonder also includes a kind of fear a somewhat agreeable fear, no doubt, but fear nonetheless. And we shall see clearly that this is so by seeing why it is so. A man who wonders has just discovered a certain disproportion between his mind and the things that exist. Things are much harder to understand than he had supposed. They are not exactly as he had expected, and their causes are hidden from him. He is like the workman who finds that his training and skill are not equal to the task he set for himself and that with more training he may still not be able to work successfully. The result, in the one case as in the other, is a certain fear of making a mistake.

Let us consider this fear a little bit, for it is somewhat complex. The man who wonders desires knowledge, and he desires it for its own sake. Accordingly, ignorance and error are evil to him in themselves — not just because of some consequence they might have, but just in and of themselves. Rather than any further consequences they might have referred to them, he fears what Plato calls “a lie in the soul,” the possibility that his inner convictions may not correspond to the nature of things. And yet this fear itself is twofold. The man of wonder fears for himself. He regards error as about the worst evil that he can suffer. But he also fears for the object of his study. This is itself rather strange, and is in itself an occasion for wonder.

One might say that whether the man of wonder thinks the sun goes around the earth or the earth goes around the sun makes no actual difference to their motion, and so he does no harm to the objects that he fears in thinking wrongly about them. That is not quite true. There is a fear in such cases. There is a fear that what one says may not be worthy of the object about which one is thinking. Accordingly, a man who has wonder has a kind of reverential fear for the object of his knowledge. This is simply the logical outcome of the sort of ignorance he has discovered in himself. He sees there is more to reality than he had thought there was, that his mind, as it were, is not as big as the objects that he has been thinking about. He realizes that what is first in reality is not first in his thought. He has got a long way to go to measure up to things. So he finds himself in the presence of something that exceeds his understanding, even though it is perfectly reasonable and understandable in itself.

You might compare him to a good doctor. A good doctor is, of course, afraid of malpractice because this can lead to a great many unpleasant and even disastrous consequences for himself. But he also fears, even more, that he will practice his art unworthily, that he will treat his patients badly. He wants to be worthy of the art, to be worthy of the end of the art. Even our praise of good men bears this out in some way. We worry, sometimes, that our praise of good men, even if it is not going to affect them intrinsically one way or another, is not worthy of the object. That same sort of thing is found even more clearly in our praise and honor of God. We know that nothing we say or think about God can harm Him in any way. And yet we are still anxious that the things we say about God will be worthy of Him, that they will be fitting, that we will reverence Him properly by what we think and say.

Now we have these three elements in our definition of wonder: ignorance, desire, and fear. Is our account complete? I think not. For each of these three things seems to be painful. Ignorance may be bliss, but awareness of ignorance is painful rather than the reverse. And desire for something we do not have seems to be painful rather than pleasant. And even reverential fear, although not a painful passion the way ordinary fear is, does not seem to be a particularly pleasant one either. But wonder seems to involve a kind of delight and pleasure. For, those who have experienced wonder would not exchange the delight they feel or experience in having wonder for any of life’s more obvious pleasures.

One might ask where this delight comes from. One source would seem to be the discovery that wonder involves. The man of wonder has discovered that there is more to reality than he suspected, that what remains to be found is more interesting and more excellent than what he already knows. It is like suddenly finding oneself in a place of unsuspected beauty, and being told that one may stay there. Chesterton speaks of this delight, saying it is better to be a small man in a big world than a big man in a small world.11 Like all discovery, wonder is delightful, but more delightful than other discoveries because of what has been discovered. One discovers that the world is a better place, a richer place, than one had supposed beforehand.

I think there is another source of delight, here, which is equally important. We said above that the desire for what we do not have is painful. We should have added, “when we have no hope of getting what we desire.” On the other hand, when the desire is accompanied by strong and realistic hope, it is a source of pleasure rather than pain. By hope, we confidently anticipate the possession of the thing we are looking for, and in some way, if not in fact, we are beginning to enjoy its possession in anticipation. This is why we distinguish between the man of wonder and the man who has, as we say, idle curiosity. The man of idle curiosity raises the question, but does not persist. He does not persist because he does not greatly care, or perhaps because he lacks confidence. That is why he only asks a question when he has nothing better to do. When difficulties or other interests arise, such a questioner abandons his search. But the man who is possessed by wonder is not discouraged or distracted; he persists, and no one can persist without hope. The greater the difficulty, the greater the hope required.

It is like being in love. There is a difference between being in love when one despairs of attaining the object of one’s love and when one has some hope and some confidence. One is just plain misery, and the other has a certain joy and delight. And that is true even where there are many difficulties to be overcome before the love is consummated.

This concludes our account of wonder. Perhaps something essential has been omitted, and surely much remains to be said. Nevertheless, we have distinguished the man of wonder from the rest of the ignorant by the most basic differences in human passion. He is desirous rather than indifferent or reposed; he is fearful rather than bold; and he is confident and hopeful rather than despairing. Now we must turn to the skeptic, a familiar type, no doubt, but not too easily defined.

Wonder’s Contrary: Skepticism

Skepticism is difficult to analyze because it is not so much a definite doctrine as a tendency of thought or an attitude. Few of those who exhibit this attitude would describe themselves as skeptics. That is, skepticism is not explicitly proposed and defended, but rather it is implied in what skeptics say and what they do. Like wonder, skepticism is more or less spontaneous in both the learned and the ignorant — in the learned and the simple, one might say — and it is seldom conscious of itself. It is almost as old as philosophy, but not quite, because it is essentially a reaction to philosophy, as we shall see.

In order to get a clear view of skepticism. we shall consider briefly the views of a man named Sextus Empiricus, a Greek skeptic of the second century. There are two advantages to this. First of all, Sextus Empiricus wrote extensively and gave a complete treatment of the skeptical system. Secondly, in common with other Greek thinkers, he tends to give a simpler and clearer exposition of his views than others who follow in the same tradition. With his clear example before us, we shall be able to compare skepticism with wonder and discern more clearly the vague skepticism that pervades modern education and modern culture generally.

Sextus Empiricus begins by distinguishing three types of philosophers: the dogmatic, who claims to have discovered the truth; the academic, who asserts that it cannot be grasped; and the skeptical, who continues to inquire. He then defines ‘skepticism’ as ‘an ability that proposes appearances and thoughts in any way whatsoever, so that through the equal force of the opposing things in our view, we are brought first to suspense and with that to quietude.’ By ‘equal force’ he means equality as regards belief and disbelief, so that no one of the conflicting arguments stands out as more believable.’ By ‘suspense,’ he means ‘a standstill of thought through which we neither deny nor affirm anything.’ And by ‘quietude’ he means an untroubled and tranquil condition of mind.’ However, he points out that the skeptic does not adopt this attitude toward every belief, but only to what he calls ‘dogma,’ which he defines as ‘assent to non-evident objects of scientific inquiry,’ So skepticism, in its Greek form at any rate, does not put common experience or self-evident propositions in question. It reserves its criticism for the objects of scientific inquiry, though one could perhaps expand that to dialectical inquiry — to things that must be investigated and proved. It is about those things that the skeptic adopts his attitude.

He speaks in the following way about the origin and end of skepticism. The skeptics were in the hope of gaining quietude by means of a decision regarding the disparity of the objects of sense and of thought, and being unable to affect this, they suspended judgment. They found that quietude, as if by chance, followed upon that suspense, even as a shadow follows its substance. What originally came about by chance, the skeptic now pursues deliberately and methodically. He works to produce that suspense and that quietude.

Now there are several things worth noting, here. To begin with, we see that Sextus Empiricus is careful to avoid the self-contradictions involved in asserting that the truth cannot be determined. That would he a position which is just as doctrinal as those in the tradition, and perhaps less likely than they. It would also be a dogma, something which the skeptic says he is not going to profess. The true skeptic is much too cagey to commit himself in this way. At the same time, however, he has abandoned the attempt to give a reason for how he lives. The skeptic can give no justification for skepticism, for he cannot claim it to be any more reasonable than any other philosophic tradition without departing from the fundamentals of his own system. Then something other than understanding has become a principle upon which human life is to be built, or at least the philosophic life; everything originates in a choice for which one deliberately refuses to give a reason. Thus Sextus Empiricus describes what a skeptic does; he does not justify what a skeptic does because then he could not remain a skeptic.

Note also that quietude or tranquility has become the end. This might seem to present no difficulty, inasmuch as a certain peace and quiet follows upon the attainment of any end. But it is precisely here that the difficulty arises. Are we at peace because we have attained what we desire, or is it peace itself that we desire? The difficulty is similar to the one that arises concerning pleasure. What do we desire principally, knowledge or the pleasure of knowing? The act of justice, or the pleasure of acting justly? Do we seek justice because it is pleasurable, or is justice pleasurable because it is what we seek? Much depends upon the answer, for we see that those who take the end to be the pleasure inevitably try to detach that pleasure from the act that it naturally goes with. We naturally see the connection as inseparable, insofar as we see the pleasure deriving its nature and value from the activity that it accompanies, and to this extent we see it as secondary. Accordingly, those who refuse to submit the pleasure to the activity in this way, are almost compelled to separate the pleasure, as much as possible, from the activity, which we do by trying to bring it about by other means. The present case is quite similar. Because the skeptic has supposed from the start that the end is quietude rather than knowledge, and because knowledge is difficult if not impossible, he is quite willing to pursue quietude by other means. If the knowledge itself were his end, skepticism would be ridiculous.

It is also worth noting that the quietude that results from suspense is quite different in nature from that which results from judgment. The latter may be compared to a natural body that is at rest because it has reached the place toward which it was tending. The former, however, can be compared to a natural body that is at rest because it has been violently stopped in its path. These cases look similar from the outside, but inwardly they are very different. In one case, the tendency has been fulfilled, and that is the reason for the stop. In the other case, the tendency has been frustrated and stopped in mid-course; the tendency remains, but now is opposed. So we see what the skeptical system does to the understanding. The understanding, which is essentially a power of knowing. has a natural tendency to move from ignorance into knowledge. That is not to say that that movement is easy, or that it does not involve the possibility of many errors. But that is what the natural tendency of the mind is. The skeptics implicitly concede this when they try to check the movement, by urging contrary opinions. The understanding is used against itself.

This is a great difference between the skeptic and the investigator who finds himself in the tangle of contrary arguments which he cannot resolve. In the latter case, the likely result is that the investigator will either seek help or give up the search. He either becomes a disciple, or gives up the intellectual life altogether. The skeptic, on the other hand, goes on quite busily, reading and talking and arguing, He goes through the motions of inquiry, but in such a way as to prevent it from reaching its natural term. Skepticism is the contraception of the intelligence. A sign may be taken from the titles of Sextus’ books: Against the Physicists, Against the Moralists, Against the Logicians, and so forth. He works and works to make everything inconclusive.

I might mention parenthetically that in a public library somewhere, I ran across a little magazine called The Skeptical Inquirer, and I was moved to look in it because I saw there was an article in it on Our Lady of Guadalupe and the miraculous image of the Blessed Mother that is on the tilma of Juan Diego. The article was, of course, an attempt to show that the whole thing was a fraud, or at least a misconception. In the course of the article there were frequent references to other articles about the Shroud of Turin, which endeavored to show that it likewise was a fake. Looking through the table of contents I saw that really all the articles had pretty much the same sort of character. That is to say, no one of them concluded upon examination that something actually was so, but always that something was not so, or, more precisely, that there was no sufficient reason to think it so. You would think that, if they were just earnest researchers, that every now and then they would come down on the positive side of a question, and say, “Yes, indeed it is true.” But it was just the contrary.

We might go on to make a last observation that I think is even more remarkable. The skeptic is deliberately false to the nature of things. For the things themselves are going to be one way or another. They are not in suspense between being and nonbeing. The skeptic himself concedes this, for he does not question the principle of contradiction. Nevertheless he makes every effort to keep his mind out of conformity with reality, to keep his balance, as if in a kind of forceful way that would only be appropriate if things were in fact as much non-being as they were being. It is his intent that his mind should never correspond to the way things are.

Now someone observed that the schools of philosophy that came into being after Aristotle, such as the Stoics and the Epicureans, were philosophies of revolt and escape. In the light of the foregoing, this seems an apt description of skepticism also. It is not in revolt against a particular set of human oppressors, but against the human condition as such, in which philosophical truth can be attained only by a few, after long labor, and with considerable admixture of error, as St. Thomas says.12 As a consequence, it is a revolt against the very nature of man. For, as Aristotle had taught, the things themselves are the measure of our understanding.13 Our understanding is as it should be when it is conformed to the way things are. But the skeptic refuses to submit his mind to this measure. He seeks to create his own end, while using his mind against itself.

Conclusion: Comparing Wonder and Skepticism

Let us now turn to a comparison of wonder and skepticism. From what we have said so far, their opposition should be evident, but it may help to summarize and make more explicit the particulars of that opposition.

To begin with, both the man of wonder and the skeptic are aware of their ignorance. But here the resemblance stops. The man of wonder does not wish to convict mankind in general of ignorance. On the contrary, because the questions he asks are intrinsically interesting, he supposes that other men have asked those questions, too. And because he has a hope of finding the answers to those questions, he naturally supposes that men have lived who have found the answers to those questions. The question is not so much, in his mind, whether anybody knows the answer to the question, but who has the answer. He is a disciple in search of a master. He is quite willing to suppose that others have already found the answers to the questions, which he seeks. But it is essential to the skeptic to go beyond his own ignorance and show the ignorant presumptions of all those dogmatists who think they have found trustworthy answers to the questions that they ask, as well as to prevent beginners of philosophy from ever reaching any definite conclusions.

Furthermore, it is quite evident that the skeptic has no desire for knowledge. Or, if he has a desire for knowledge, he has suppressed it as completely as a man can. For his end is quietude, which he proposes to achieve by bringing the activity of understanding to a stop. The contrast is well characterized by St. Thomas when he contrasts or distinguishes the ratio of wonder with a stupor. He says that one who wonders flees from giving judgment, for the present, about the object of his wonder, fearing a mistake. But he searches in the future. But one who is stupefied fears to judge in the present, and to inquire in the future. Hence, wonder is the beginning of philosophy, but stupor is an impediment to the philosophic consideration.14

Therefore, one might say that the inquiry or searching that the skeptic says he is doing is nothing of the kind, because his activity is so ordered that any movement of the mind to a definite conclusion is checked, to the best of his ability, by some contrary consideration. They are quite wrong, then, to call themselves searchers. One who searches wishes to find, and has some realistic expectation of finding, whereas the entire effort of the skeptic is to prevent finding.

Again, the man of wonder has fear of error and reverence for the object of his inquiry. He is also disposed to reverence other men as wiser than himself, for he supposes that men can become wise, and he knows that he is not. As said above, he is a disciple in search of a master. But the skeptic has no fear, except perhaps of the inconvenience that might follow upon discovery of the truth. He has no fear of error, for he deliberately puts his understanding out of tune with reality. And he has no reverence for the objects of knowledge, for he refuses to subject his mind to their measure. And he has no reverence for any man, for he lives as if no man knew anything and as if those who profess to know were all impostors.

Finally, while the man of wonder is eager and hopeful and attentive, the skeptic lives in despair. From the start, he has abandoned all hope of knowledge and now seeks quietude, a negative state characterized by the absence of perturbation. It is characteristic of despair to seek the absence of what would otherwise be sought for. Suicide, the principal act of despair, cancels out life itself with all its strivings and vexations. In the unceasing reading, writing, and arguing, which the skeptic so often engages in, we may discern a persistent slide toward self-destruction.



  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 981a24-982a1.
  2. Ibid., 982b13.
  3. Cf: “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not . . . .” From an address by C.S. Lewis to the Socratic Club, 1944.
  4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, Q. 32, a. 8.
  5. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 995a2.
  6. Aristotle, Physics VIII, 252a35.
  7. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983a19-21.
  8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a9-11.
  9. Lk 1:18.
  10. Lk 1:34-35.
  11. G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1919) chap. 3, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”
  12. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. Ia, Q. I, a. 1.
  13. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1053a31-33.
  14. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. Ia-IIae, Q. 41, a. 4.
Marcus R. Berquist
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