Wonder and the Philosopher


Prehistoric cave paintings from the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (from about 35,000 years ago)

“Fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.” ~G.K. Chesterton

“The beginning of philosophy is wonder,” and its end is divine worship.[1]  Yet since the end of the Medieval Era, philosophy has begun from a place that has ensured ends of uncertainty, dislocation, and despair. In his essay The Philosophical Act, Josef Pieper observes that modern philosophers adopt only the disillusionment aspect of wonder, never moving towards its positive ends—the ends that humble us, but also give us a cosmic location and identity. They interpret someone like Socrates as merely a gadfly, failing to see that his insistent questioning was founded upon assumptions that were deeply rooted in tradition, not merely doubt. Pieper notes that “under the impulse of a rationalistic and ‘progressive’ doctrine, the history of philosophy as it has been written in modern times, does the exact reverse and sets the beginning of philosophy at the moment when thought cut itself free from tradition.”[2] Modern man uses philosophy to break down what he sees as the confining walls of dogma without moving further up and further in, so to speak, to the wonder that will move him to praise. One such man was philosopher David Hume, the thinker that would awaken Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.”[3] Hume needed a good dose of the species of disillusionment that wonder evokes, for his doubt did not go deep enough. It merely uprooted the mind, leaving it to languish in an unexamined, skeptical dogma of its own. G.K. Chesterton’s Elfland is perfectly suited for this task, for it is built upon this more “elementary wonder” that reminds us the world is astonishing because it could have been different.[4] This is the true wonder that is the beginning of philosophy and whose end is gratitude.

In his book Socrates Meets Hume, Peter Kreeft calls Hume “the most formidable, serious, difficult-to-refute skeptic in the history of human thought.”[5] He writes that Hume was an empiricist in that he “believed that we could know truth only through the senses and that we had no ‘innate ideas.’”[6] These “premises led him to the conclusion of Skepticism, the denial that we can ever know the truth at all with any certainty.”[7] Hume’s was a philosophy that was founded upon its own unexamined dogma of a doubt that kills wonder, halting philosophy from the start. Because of this empiricist assumption, Hume criticized belief in miracles and ultimately denied the synthesis of faith and reason. Indeed, he was most suspicious of wonder, writing that “if the spirit of religion joins itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority.”[8]

Much of the skepticism of Hume was prompted by the cosmic model that dominated the time. He lived in an age in which a clockwork view of the workings of the universe had taken captive the collective imagination, imprisoning it in fatalism. This view had been taken to such an extreme by some Enlightenment thinkers that several things happened: 1. God’s intervention in the world became unnecessary; 2. miracles were then impossible; and 3. Mankind’s sense of wonder at the world was deadened. With wonder thus deadened, philosophy suffered a serious blow, the reverberations of which could still be felt centuries later when Chesterton was writing the story of his own conversion in his book Orthodoxy. In his chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton confronts this Newtonian conception of a machine-like universe where everything is inevitable, unfolding in a set of necessary and inviolable laws, for it had “a sort of insane simplicity” that paralleled a “madman’s argument.”[9] He wrote that one had “at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.”[10] In essence, such a model “understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.”[11]

Hume also challenged the Newtonian model, but he took his doubts in the direction of greater skepticism and uncertainty, and thus his universe shrank even more. Because of his empiricism, he concluded that we cannot really know that our perception of cause and effect is true. We observe through experience one thing happening after another, and we assume effects arising from causes. The uniformity of nature could not be ultimately verified for it was an assumption.[12] Chesterton seems to agree with Hume’s theory of causality in “The Ethics of Elfland,” but he does so for very different reasons. He takes his doubt in the opposite direction, in fact, towards a greater wonder that is at once grounding and humbling. He wants to show that there is a Will that decides that apples grow on trees rather than candlesticks, not some abstract, dead Law or principle of probability. What grows on trees is not the necessary by-product of Nature—many things in Nature are not necessary and we see this in fairy-tales by what he calls “the test of the imagination.”[13]

Chesterton is not trying to cast doubt on our apprehension of cause and effect; rather, he wants to inject a sense of wonder back into the facts—to counteract what J.R.R. Tolkien called the “penalty of appropriation” in which things take on a triteness when we think “we know them.”[14] This is at the heart of Hume’s skepticism, and Chesterton tries to show him this in Elfland. Hume represents Chesterton’s maniac, for he is “the man who cannot believe anything” but his senses. Hume’s empiricism ultimately amounts to the “clean and well-lit prison of one idea” founded upon a dogma of doubt.[15]

Chesterton’s challenge of the machine-like model emerges from a sense of wonder, while Hume’s is a result of doubt. Because of these different starting points, the two come to very different conclusions. Chesterton ends in a gratitude that will eventually lead him to Christian Orthodoxy. “Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” he asked.[16] Hume ends in skepticism and a meaningless system of colorless illusions and useful fictions whose only purpose is the passing on of genes. Modern philosophy is a system of negations that never begins and that, in the end, negates the very thing it is trying to free—mankind. Chesterton remarked “that it is reason used without root, reason in the void … without the proper first principles” that causes such skepticism and, ultimately, self-destruction.[17] Chesterton’s search for these proper first principles took him back to fairytales and the sense of wonder at the world that they evoked. He discovered that “the ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always … had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland.”[18] It is a “morbid logician” like Hume that “seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious” and unknowable.[19] A trip to fairyland is what Hume needs to recall himself to the wonder that is the root of all good philosophy.


[1] Josef Pieper, “The Philosophical Act,” Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009), 111.

[2] Ibid., 128-9.

[3] Peter Kreeft, Socrates Meets Hume (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 11.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 48.

[5] Peter Kreeft, 9.

[6] Peter Kreeft, “The Pillars of Unbelief: Kant”, http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/pillars_kant.htm, First accessed March 1, 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Hume, “Of Miracles: From An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” The Portable Atheist, ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), 37.

[9] G.K. Chesterton, 18.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] It is interesting to note, however, that Hume is willing to make use of the uniformity of natural laws in his argument against miracles, something that Chesterton will challenge him on in Elfland.  See below.

[13] G.K. Chesterton, 46.

[14] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories: Expanded Edition with Commentary and Notes, ed. by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014), 67.

[15] G.K. Chesterton, 17.

[16] Ibid., 50.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Ibid., 22-3.

[19] Ibid., 23.