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?

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).