Friday, August 20, 2010

A Tale of Three Loves, Part Three

The Romantic poet Percy Shelley described poetry as "the center and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred." These words sound shocking to modern ears, for they invert the currently accepted hierarchy of knowledge. Most people today probably don't think of poetry as knowledge at all, let alone "the center and circumference of knowledge", and most likely would laugh if anyone suggested that poetry is a superior form of knowledge to science.

Ray Bradbury, that poetic, philosophical science fiction author, has been one of my favorite writers since childhood. In the story "--And the Moon Be Still As Bright", from The Martian Chronicles, the character Spender describes how the noble Martian civilization reconciled the various forms of knowledge:

They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.

Poetry, philosophy, art, religion, science--each of these is a way of knowing. We are trained to think in our modern world that science is either the only valid way of knowing, or that it is at least the most valid way of knowing. But this is a sad misunderstanding. Science is an important way of knowing the world, but it is only one way of knowing it. In order to be well-rounded human beings, we must also know the world through the vehicles of artistic and literary beauty, philosophical contemplation, religious revelation--each of us will choose a different set of sources in which to seek truth and meaning, but the point is that we need something beyond science to provide us with those answers. Science is not in the business of meaning. This is not a criticism of science, it is just a recognition of its nature as a form of human knowledge.

Going along with Shelley and Bradbury, I would say that science tells us facts about the universe, while poetry (or, by extension, any of the other non-scientific ways of knowing) attempts to tell us what it all means. I believe this is what Shelley meant about poetry being the "center and circumference of knowledge". Poetry--historically the vehicle of religious truth expressed in the form of myths--is what interprets reality for us. It takes the raw data and information of science and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, in highly symbolic forms that are the most powerful way of expressing and understanding the deepest truths about the world.

The ancient philosophers understood that philosophy, the "love of wisdom", has its beginning in the sense of wonder. I have often thought of philosophers as being like children in their ability to continually wonder at the world and ask "Why?", even about the simplest and most ordinary things. Grown-ups and non-philosophers are often impatient with such questions, or (in the case of philosophers) think the questions are stupid or pointless. But philosophers are simply seeing the world through the eyes of a child, i.e. with an acute sense of wonder.

Wonder is the sense that the world is marvelous, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating. It is akin to the odd feeling you get when you stare at some ordinary object long enough until it becomes strange to your sight, or think about some quite ordinary concept until it starts to seem quite bizarre. It is the power that makes the scales fall from our blinded eyes and allows us to see the astonishing reality of what has always been there right in front of us. Wonder is a humble attitude toward reality, a recognition that we do not really know what we think we know. Poetry, too, is born in the sense of wonder. So are all the arts. So is religious faith. And yes, science, too, is born in the sense of wonder.

My own childhood sense of wonder compelled me to marvel at the natural world around me, from the subtropical Florida landscape in which I dwelled to the farthest reaches of the cosmos that I could see quite clearly through the magic windows of books, movies, and television. That same sense of wonder compelled me to explore the universe through my own imagination, whether this took the form of drawing pictures, writing stories, or playing astronaut. It later compelled me as a young man to undertake the journey of philosophy, to scale the solitary mountain heights and seek what wisdom I could find there. And, at least at certain sparkling moments when my mind can temporarily escape the cares and concerns of practical existence, this same sense of wonder illuminates the mundane, everyday world in which I move about and reminds me that I am, to my utter amazement and delight, still living in the same magical universe that I remember living in as a child.

"It is good to renew one's wonder," said the philosopher. "Space travel has again made children of us all."

--The Martian Chronicles

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