To Choose Wonder
Updated: Apr 21
Plato and Aristotle agreed that philosophy starts in wonder, but wonder is a much broader feeling than what they meant. There is childlike wonder and there is chosen wonder, and the latter is what I want to focus on. It is rarer and it is near the center of the realized soul.
Let me first say that chosen wonder, as the name suggests, is a relatively late addition to our mental toolkit. We start, of course, with childlike wonder, which is the reaction that toddlers and even grown-ups have to soap bubbles, tile floors and fairy tales. This kind of wonder is spontaneous and ingenuous and is a blessing upon existence. But it is not enough to get one through life beyond childhood.
As we become adults, we tend to feel this kind of wonder more infrequently. We have seen soap bubbles a hundred times, and we develop a network of superficial, “practical” concepts that we snap everything up in as we try to get through our daily routines. Everything is seen in terms of its everyday use: A tile floor becomes just something to stand on. Furthermore, fairy tales do not really speak to our mature concerns. We are in danger of going through lives in a kind of pragmatic trance. The remedy for this is deliberate wonder.
Deliberate wonder isn’t a spontaneous feeling one has at something unexpected and amazing. It is, rather, a choice: We choose to see the world in a certain way, and simultaneously, we choose to be a certain something: We choose to see what we are regarding afresh, as if we’ve never seen it before. And we choose to be someone who lives more than a banal existence, who lets life touch us, instead of living in a cocoon of quotidian routines.
The wonder of a child, although it can through many repetitions shape his sense of life, is essentially ephemeral: It lasts the moment and is gone. But chosen wonder is something you incorporate into your soul as a permanent attitude. I remember Rainer Maria Rilke’s justly famous poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” It is about a headless statue from ancient times. The poem describes how the beauty of the statue’s missing eyes shines through its various remaining parts like a dimmed lamp. It continues by saying that there’s no part of its body that does not see you. Then it abruptly concludes: You must change your life.
That is the meaning of deliberate wonder: You must change your life. You must see the world for what it is and become who you are. This sounds onerous, but really it’s beautiful. After a while it requires no more effort than breathing. To take a modest example from the place where we used to live: I gazed upon the vertical blinds behind my desk. I wondered at their length and graceful curvature, and I delighted in the pattern of shading on the curves. I was amazed that someone created a machine to make them. And I loved the way they break the view of the woods outside into stripes of cream and green.
This is no trivial experience. Things as ordinary as vertical blinds change my life because seeing them as I do forbids me to see reality as ordinary. If I can’t take even the blinds for granted, then I can’t take nature for granted, or human works, or my wife, or myself. If I allow and cause the experience of wonder really to permeate me, then it becomes impossible for me to see the world as some people do, as one big office cubicle and myself as a drone.
This form of wonder involves an appreciation of beauty, but it is not mere aestheticism. The world is not my bauble and I am no mere connoisseur of beautiful objects. The world is real to me, and as a living human being, I am far more than a mere spectator of it. The engine that powers deliberate wonder is not a view of the world as eye candy, but life, which demands that I act in the real world and that I realize my potential.
This last point may not be obvious. Aestheticism is so common, especially in our sometimes decadent age. Nietzsche went so far as to say that life is only justified as an aesthetic experience. I, on the other hand, believe that life is involvement. You shouldn't hold it at a distance and gaze upon it. Making things for yourself and other people and doing things for yourself, for other people, and with other people are the heart of life, and exploration is the heart of all of them. Thus we encounter the world and can choose—and share—wonder.