Reflections on Wonder (with Reference to Marcel)

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I am fascinated by human fascination. I have titled this blog, Through Wonder, purposefully, because I feel that wonder and fascination are essential in pursuing truth. Wonder is both the starting point, as Aristotle and Plato point out (see my About page for their direct quotes), and, I would add, the ending point to true philosophic study. We end in wonder, not because we are finished, but because it is a state of consciousness that we cannot escape. The more one pursues philosophy, the more one realizes that such a pursuit must be constantly done in the presence of wonder.

What does it mean to wonder? Does it mean that we look at a math problem, such as 5000 divided by 5, and wonder what the solution is? And then, when we have discovered the solution is 1000, do we no longer have the need to wonder? Due to Aristotle’s scientific approach, his notion of wonder appears to be more along these lines: we have a curiosity about how things in the world work, we do the necessary steps and we can discover the solution. I would argue though, perhaps more in the vein of Plato, that wonder is much broader than this.[1]

Human wonder is not only the human desire to solve a puzzle, but, it is also our response to puzzles which cannot be solved. We have all had this experience in studying a particular subject: the more we study, the more we feel that we do not know. Having played the piano since I was little girl, I told myself that once I learned how to play the piano, then I would begin a new instrument. But as I studied the piano through high school and then through my degree in music in college, I continued to find more and more things that I did not know and that I wanted to learn. As a result, I have never learned to play another instrument (at least, not yet).

As we plunge into a subject, we begin to feel small, in contrast to the vastness of the knowledge that it includes as well as the unsolved complexities buried within its structure. Marcel puts this beautifully when he says that the thaumazein (wonder) of the Greeks “lies on the borderline between wonderment and admiration.” [2] Wondering as exploring, as opposed to wondering as solving, allows us to find admiration because we are forced to recognize how little we actually know.

Socrates praises Theaetetus for his pursuit of this kind of wonder, a wonder that brings him to admiration as opposed to arrogance. It’s easy to get away from this wonder and start to view philosophy as a chore, something to be attacked or sorted out. Through his interaction with Theaetetus, Socrates is reminding us of the starting place of philosophy: wonder at how certain things that seem true at first glance unravel upon investigation.

According to Marcel, when we have “progressed” beyond wonder, we are no longer doing philosophy. He writes, ” . . . a philosopher remains a philosopher only so long as he retains this capacity for wonderment in the presence of certain fundamental situations, despite everything surrounding and even within him that tends to dispel it.” [3]

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Thinking of wonder as the starting place for philosophy reminds me of the words of Christ. Jesus tells his followers that in order to enter the kingdom, they have to become like little children: “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place – becoming like this child – is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [4]. Children let their wonder and curiosity guide them without reserve. Socrates praises Theaetetus, a young boy, for allowing his wonder to bring him to philosophy and Jesus encourages us to be like children, creatures of wonder, to draw us to Himself.

  1. [1] Granted, the url of this blog is based off the quote from Aristotle so I am in no way implying that Aristotle’s understanding of thaumazein is inaccurate. I am only suggesting, as the footnote on my About page also mentions, that his concept of thaumazein may need to be expanded to include the delight in wondering about mysteries. Thanks to Robert Wood for pointing out the distinctions between Plato and Aristotle’s views on wonder.
  2. [2] Gabriel Marcel, Existential Background of Human Dignity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 11
  3. [3] Ibid., 12.
  4. [4] Matthew 18:3-4. See also Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14-15, and Luke 18:16-17.

Plato’s Democratic Character and Kierkegaard’s Aesthete

An expanded version of these thoughts was presented at the University of Dallas for the Institute of Philosophic Studies Spring Colloquium 2013.

In the city-soul narrative of Books VIII and IX of The Republic, Plato clearly directs our attention to the major weaknesses of the democratic character, illustrated by the lack of order and chaotic state of the soul. The democratic character is supposed to be second to last on the list of degenerating characters: take one wrong step and – watch out! – your soul might end up in a tyrannic state! With its low placement and its negative description, the democratic character appears to have only place to go: downwards; such a person appears to be headed straight for wickedness and irrationality. And yet, Plato also remarks about some surprisingly positive elements of this character. Why does Plato include these positive aspects? Is there hope for such a character?

A democractic character has a high regard for the democratic values of equality and freedom and attempts to govern his or her whole life in accordance with them. At first, the democratic character is like an immature son who runs after wild pleasures, but later, as he grows older, he appears to live according to some kind of moderation and even refers to his life as “sweet, free and blessed.”[1] Plato describes this “senior” democratic character as follows:

. . . he . . . lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him . . . drinking and listening to the flute . . . practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him . . . And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free and blessed he follows it throughout.[2]

The freedom to enjoy life, the interest in philosophy, as described here, in addition to the practice of moderation, the basic decency of the democratic soul, the unwillingness to give into hostility or lawless behavior, mentioned elsewhere in the text, are all positive aspects of the democratic character. Over 2000 years later, Kierkegaard offers us a narrative description of a similar sort of character: the reflective aesthete. By looking at Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthete, I believe that we are better able to understand why Plato is including such positive elements.

The aesthete lives according to similar principles as the democratic character. He or she is focused on the now, the immediate and is dedicated to satisfying whatever desire happens to come along. Kierkegaard describes: “ . . . the [a]esthetic in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is.” [3] An aesthete, however, cannot remain in the aesthetic way of life for very long without the infiltrating of the ethical. In other words, the ethical way of life will come knocking at the door. He or she has the opportunity to make a free choice to begin the journey upwards toward higher ways of life, the ethical and ultimately, the religious.

The upward climb, for Kierkegaard, begins with a free choice, but for Plato, it begins with the dialectic, the practice of dialoguing and searching for truth. With the democratic character’s openness to philosophy and the principle of moderation, he or she could realize that there is something more than the equal gratification of desires and through the practice of dialectic, begin to seek after the Good.

Thus, upon an analysis of Kierkegaard’s aesthete, an implicit orientation of the democratic character comes to light: the ability to climb upward as well. This type of character, who, at first, appears stuck in the selfish gratification of desires and privy to a disorderly soul and life, contains hope of something more. The aesthete cannot escape the offer to go higher, but whether or not a person will choose to ascend is another matter. In the same way, the democratic character, upon tasting philosophy, may crave for more and begin the search for the Good. Though many desires may entrap him or her, a democratic character has the opportunity to ascend higher, but he or she must be willing to turn completely around.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books 1991), 561d.
  2. [2] Ibid., 561c-d.
  3. [3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), II 178, p. 77.

Music Opening the Road to Truth and Beauty: Plato and Marcel


In the construction of the theoretical city in The Republic, Socrates argues that when the appropriate kind of music is employed for the training of the youthful guardians of the city, they will be more inclined toward the love of reason. Like a fresh breeze blowing into a field, so music will bring health and life to the soul. Socrates eloquently describes:

Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.[1]

As they grow up, the youth of this theoretical city will only be exposed to music, which uses the proper words, melody and rhythm to foster a love of reason. Music will be carefully filtered to make sure that only certain words, which tell stories of good virtues, are allowed to be sung, certain melodic sequences, which are only found in the Dorian and Phrygian modes, are allowed to be used in composition,[2] and certain rhythmic patterns, which incite only the appropriate emotions, are accepted. All of this is for the sake of cultivating a love of reason so that the youth will better be able to discern the “true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” “For,” Socrates asks, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”[3] The goal for the restrictions on art and music in the city is not to deprive the guardians of pleasure for the sake of some kind of asceticism, but to use art to all the more foster an environment which allows the youth to fall in love with reason and to go after the beautiful.

In one of his more autobiographical lectures, “Music in My Life and Works,” the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, relates his own journey directed by music toward the love of the beautiful and the love of truth.[4] Music, for him and for his family, was more than a hobby, as it played a significant role in establishing familial relationships as well as expressing life values. Marcel’s childhood mirrors Plato’s hopes for the youth of his city since he is surrounded by music from birth, by his mother, his father, his aunt and his own playing, which then “opened the road to Truth.” He recounts:

On this level my thought continues in the tradition of Schopenhauer . . . Of course, I admit his pessimism, against which I have always protested without ever forgetting that the world does seem on all sides to invite us to despair. But . . . it seems to me that it is music and music alone that has caused me to discover the saving light. It is music that has opened the road to Truth for me, towards which I have not ceased striving, this Truth beyond all the partial truths that science demonstrates and expounds, the Truth that illumines the work of the greatest composers like Bach or Mozart.[5]

Marcel finds that music revealed the notions of truth to him from an early age and though he did not consciously understand this till much later, he is able to look back and see how music was one of the primary stepping stones leading him toward his idea of truth. To apply Plato’s terms, music was a use to him in that it refined his rational abilities to follow after the beauty and the truth.

Marcel, however, would not apply the same type of restrictions to music (or art) that Plato puts forward in The Republic. He often gravitated toward art that expressed the despair that he found in his own life and in the world around him which included many diverse art forms. Not that he would make no distinctions between good and bad art, but he would argue that art promoting a multiplicity of values was what gradually allowed him to discover hope and truth. The exploration of other values allowed him the freedom to be gently led toward what he called, “the saving light.” Nevertheless, the common thread between both Plato and Marcel is significant: though the scope of music (and art) may be different, both recognized that a greater love of truth and beauty can be gleamed from music.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book III, 401, pg. 27-28.
  2. [2] The Greek Dorian and Phrygian modes are not the same as our modern Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Phrygian mode went from the note d-d’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between and the Greek Dorian mode went from e-e’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between. The sounds, however, could differ greatly as the tetrachords could be either diatonic, enharmonic or chromatic meaning that the number of whole steps, half steps and even quarter steps composing the tetrachord could vary. Along with the patterns of notes, these modes included other characteristics coming from the people groups after which they were named. The important point here is that these two modes were seen as promoting positive values for the youth. See Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1978) for a very brief reference to these ideas and the article Mode (music) on Wikipedia for a more detailed overview.
  3. [3] Plato, The Republic, Book III, 403, pg. 29.
  4. [4] Marcel would claim, however, that all of his works are autobiographical as one cannot divorce his life from his writings.
  5. [5] Gabriel Marcel, “Music in My Life and Works,” In Music and Philosophy, trans. by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 53.