Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Signifiers


Numinous, yet decipherable.

Wilfred M. McClay

Martin Adams via Unsplash.

Students of Plato will remember Socrates’s encounter with the young prodigy Theaetetus, who would become one of the most influential mathematicians of the ancient world. As Plato tells the story, Theaetetus became so enthralled with Socrates’s dialectical riddles that he confessed himself “dizzy” with “wondering” whether these mysteries could ever be unraveled. To which Socrates responded with an approving pat on the head, “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

Plato’s student Aristotle agreed: It was “wonder” that prodded the first philosophers to engage in their characteristic activity. And Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle’s devoted student more than a millennium later, echoed the claim that philosophy “arises from awe” and the philosopher is one who is “big with wonder.”

Yet the connection between the sense of wonder and the drive for knowledge has not stayed constant in subsequent years. Aquinas himself hinted that wonder might cease once the “causes of things were known.” Some six centuries later, Max Weber followed up on that prediction, lamenting that the rationalizing spirit of modern life—one of the proudest of the West’s intellectual achievements—had led to the “disenchantment of the world,” a cold and forbidding view devoid of all shadows of mystery. Does philosophy therefore cease when there are no mysteries left to gaze upon in wonder?

How we got to this doleful point is beyond the scope of this brief essay, except to speculate that it has something to do with the drive to know becoming indistinguishable from the desire to control. But it is also important to point out that we do not seem to be universally content with the status quo. A growing number of scholars—the list is too long to recount—have pushed back and proposed a re-enchantment of the world. To which I say, nice work if you can get it! It sounds like a quixotic errand, to say the least, to imagine that we can coax the fair maid Enchantment back into circulation, in a grand act of intentional self-forgetting. But what if such knight-errantry is pointing us toward something important, a real and profound human need? Toward the need for wonder, enchantment, mystery—not merely in the form of the flickering romantic allure of a candlelit room, but as something enduringly true, and essential to our souls?

Mystery gets too little respect. Scientific progress has always been sustained by a tension between what is known and what is unknown, between the things that may be questioned and those that must be presumed. This is what the late and great physicist Freeman Dyson meant when he said that “science is not a collection of truths,” but rather “a continuing exploration of mysteries.” It is what astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser meant when he noted that while “we strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge…[we] must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” In this regard, Dyson and Gleiser are not outliers in the scientific community. Prominent scientists—from Newton to Einstein to Steven Weinberg—have always acknowledged the essential role of mystery and wonder in the advancement of science.

We need the presence of mystery in the same way that the coherence and beauty of a landscape require the presence of a horizon, whether as a line defining the field of vision or as a dark boundary that gives sharper definition to the world that is illuminated. Or as language needs the refreshment of silence. We need a sense of communion with that which lies beyond human understanding, that which it is not only forbidden to express, but also which is in its nature inexpressible.

Interestingly, the use of mystery to refer to a detective story is a relatively recent development, little more than a century old, having first been recorded in English in 1908. But the appearance of this newer meaning has made it necessary for us to distinguish between at least two kinds of mystery: the mysteries you can solve, and the ones you can’t. A mystery in the older sense is like a prime number, which cannot be resolved into any combination of factors, but remains fully, inexorably, and unchangeably itself. A mystery in the newer sense, however, is a puzzle that can and will be worked out, or solved.

All mystery in this newer sense is only seeming mystery, a diaphanous veil the intellect delights in removing. It is like the mystery of the skilled magician who seems to his audience to have decapitated his lovely assistant but proves in the end to have done no such thing, and is eventually able to bring her back on stage, beautiful and smiling, unmarred and unmussed, to applause and smiles. In this sense, what we call “mystery” is merely ignorance wrapped in wonderment, a magic act that has not yet been decoded or explained away as something entirely normal. Like the world before it became disenchanted for us. Hence our delight.

And so our imperfect knowledge, far from discouraging us, spurs us on to ever more determined and audacious voyages of discovery. We thirst for knowledge, and it is in our nature to seek it without ceasing. Mystery in this sense is not something to be accepted, or rested in, let alone celebrated or even worshiped.

Yet there remains a connection between the two senses of mystery—call them the numinous and the decipherable, respectively. They are distinct but can be hard to separate. Part of our pleasure in seeing an expert magic act is precisely in seeing the gap between appearance and reality being made so great. We love the suspension of disbelief that leads to a recovery of a sense of wonder, and allows us to entertain, however briefly and flirtatiously, the notion that perhaps we still live in a world of enchantment and miracles.

We love it so much that we teach it to our children, encourage the deepening of their imaginations, and cherish the childlike sensibility in writers like G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling, who love and value ancient myths and fancy-filled children’s stories, and find in the best of them, rightly, much enduring and enlivening wisdom about the human condition. Every Christmas we greet the coming of Santa Claus and watch Miracle on 34th Street—a movie whose overriding theme is the inadequacy of a disenchanted world.

So we have a split-mindedness in our approach to mystery. We may seem to accept modern science’s disenchantment of the world, yet we also consistently rebel against it, not only when it comes to the rearing of our children but in our imaginative fare, the media and expressive arts with which we fill up our minds. We moderns and postmoderns may have decided that the numinous should no longer predominate in the way we understand the world, but we seem flatly unwilling to accept its disappearance.

The great Dante scholar Charles Singleton used to declare, enigmatically, that “the fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction.” Whatever else Singleton may have meant by this koan-like saying, he surely intended to convey that the emotional and intellectual power of Dante’s work is so great that it presents itself as something too compelling to be disbelieved in, something one cannot help but credit as a description of a world that actually exists.

How can such a thing be possible? How can we be so split-minded? I say let’s be content to call it a mystery, for now