The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Last Things: On the Preservation of Kindness
James V. Schall, S.J. - 05/06/09
boys sharing an ice cream cone
Kindness is preserved by a constant reciprocation of benefits or interchanges of pleasures; but such benefits only can be bestowed as others are capable to receive, and such pleasures only imparted as others are qualified to enjoy.
—Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, Tuesday, July 9, 1751.[1]


In a famous passage at the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle tells us that what incites our mind to that strange activity of thinking is “wonder.” The world is out there before us. A second intentional “world” in our minds tries to figure out what it is all about, how things are distinct, how they relate to one another, what is their “being.” The world itself does not wonder, except through us. We, within it, do wonder about ourselves and about what is not ourselves. But our wonder is not about wonder, though that too is a wonder, but about what is. We wonder about ourselves through what is not ourselves.

No one who has read these lines of Aristotle has ever simply passed them by without what? Yes, without “wondering about wonder.” What exactly did Aristotle mean by that expression, “to wonder?” Knowing Aristotle as we do, we suspect that he did not put this notion at the beginning of his famous book on being for nothing. On self-reflection, he was in fact pointing out something that we already have been doing all our lives. But we often need to be prodded to know the significance of what we do without reflecting on its meaning or origins.

Essentially, wonder is the first sign of active intelligence. We run across something that we do not previously know about. We would like to know what it is. What is it doing? Why is it that way and not this? Furthermore, we just want to know for no other particular reason than the fact that we do not already know what we deal with. Our mind, in retrospect, seems to be full of a myriad of things about which we have once wondered. The mind seems capable of knowing something of everything that it encounters in its course through life. This experience is why Aristotle defined mind as that faculty we possess that makes us capax omnium, capable of being all things which we are not. Initially, knowledge does not change the things known, but it does change the person who knows them. “To be” and “to know” seem somehow to be necessary to each other. World and Word are related.

No direct etymological relation exists between the English words “wonder” and “wander,” however close their spelling. The later is related to “wend,” as in “wend our way,” and even to “wind,” to “wind up” a clock or “wind in” a fish on a reel. We “wander” or “wend” with our feet. We have “local motion.” We walk all over the place, aimlessly perhaps, yet covering what is actually there. We are in no hurry. We have time to savor what we see, pause over it, walk on, return for a second look.

Hazlitt’s great essay, “On Going a Journey,” is about this topic of wandering through walking. So are Belloc’s books, Path to Rome and The Four Men. We are beings with two legs, an amazing thing, really. Only in this relatively non-purposive way of roaming about do we see what happens to be there. We often overlook it when we set about some particular task or business. We only see what we seek. “To wonder” means that we want to know about everything. “To wander” means that we cross over to many places and things just because they are in our path, in our way. Both words carry with them the sense of wanting to touch everything that is with these very different capacities we are given, the capacity to walk, the capacity to think. Man is thus both homo ambulans and homo rationale. Without legs, he could not walk. Without a mind, he could not think. He gave neither powers to himself, but found himself endowed with them from his beginnings, which itself was not the result of his own causality.


Not so long ago, I came across one of Samuel Johnson’s famous essays in The Rambler. At first sight, I expected the essay to be simply a repetition of Aristotle, which it is, in inspiration. But it adds something implicit in wonder that I, at least, had never seen in Aristotle, though that is probably my deficiency. Few things worthwhile knowing are not touched by Aristotle. What has always enthralled me, and I do get this from Aristotle also, is the fact that we simply want to know things for their own sakes.

We do not necessarily want to “do” anything with the things we know. In fact, we cannot “do” anything until we first “know.” And we cannot know unless there is already something to be known. The very first act of our knowing is not just a preliminary step to do something with our knowledge. It is a simple beholding, a rejoicing in actually knowing what we did not know. It is an initially contemplative act. It lets everything be as it is, except ourselves. We are. But we become what we are not in knowing. We are the only beings in the universe who, by becoming what they are not, remain more themselves.

But it is obvious that our initial curiosity about something, our initial judgment about what a thing is, is usually rather insufficient. There is a love at first sight, but also one at second and third sight. Wonder is a beginning, even though we really do initially know something about what we encounter. Thus, when I came across the following words of Johnson, I was quite perplexed by them: “That wonder is an effect of ignorance has been often observed.” When we do not know, a state of ignorance, the effect is to incite us to know.

“The awful stillness of attention with which the mind is overspread at the first view of an unexpected effect,” Johnson added, “ceases when we have leisure to disentangle complications and to investigate causes.” That is a powerful expression—“the awe-full stillness of attention.” The word “stillness” is most apt. We are totally still before that which we never encountered before. Stillness implies that what is not ourselves is itself capable of teaching us something. Yet, in this stillness, with time and with “leisure,” another great Aristotelian word, we “disentangle” what struck us. Our wonder passes to knowledge, almost as if to say that, in every stillness, a sound, a word is to be heard if we but listen.

We do not allow ourselves, then, simply to remain perplexed or entangled. It is not a virtue to remain perpetually “perplexed” about everything We want to know more. We usually can if we “put our minds” to it, as they say. “Wonder,” in Johnson’s analysis, takes on a new depth. “Wonder is a pause of reason.” The whole of what is seen is before us. We are struck by it. This is a completely healthy and common experience. We are the ones who “pause” precisely because something has come before us about which we know little or nothing. It astonishes our mind. It makes us actively alive.

Soon we figure out, however, that, if we take the trouble, we can grasp more of a thing than our initial gaze. Aristotle’s causes and categories come to mind here as guides to comprehending something more fully. That thing in front of us in stillness, we can divide up into its parts. We can mark its “gradations from the first agent to the last consequences.” The initial stillness is not enough. It is an incentive. It prods us on to know more, to know the causes and consequences connected with the thing we encounter. Stillness leads to fullness, or at least the desire for it, even when, to cite Socrates, we “know that we do not know.” This famous admonition is not a cause of despair. It is a seeking of the light.

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