The Great Hearts Irving motto is a quote from Socrates in the Theaetetus. It is frequently translated as, “Wisdom begins in wonder,” but a better translation might be, “The beginning of philosophy is wonder.” At face value, these words express that the education received at Great Hearts Irving is preparatory to higher learning and, indeed, the lifelong pursuit of truth. But let’s look more closely at each word.
Philosophiae means “philosophy.” But if we dig deeper, we find that the word “philosophy” itself is a compound of philo meaning “love” and sophia meaning “wisdom.” Philosophy is so called because those who do philosophy in the Socratic tradition do not claim to have obtained wisdom, but are instead lovers of—seekers after—wisdom.
Principium can mean simply “beginning,” as we translated it before, but it is also related to the word “principle.” Principium doesn’t refer to a kind of beginning that is chronological only, but also ontological. It is the principle, the cause, that not only sets something in motion once, but continually sustains it.
Finally, admiratio is correctly translated “wonder,” but it is also the root of the words “admire” or “admiration.” Admiratio is a kind of wonder that is not passive, but active. It includes the kind of open-minded and open-hearted observation that is at the center of our Science instruction, but really it is even more than that.
What is wonder? It is not the same as curiosity. Curiosity is a desire to understand how things work, usually by taking them apart, destroying, or vivisecting them, and usually so as to be able to make them do things for you. The spirit of curiosity has driven much of modern science since the Scientific Revolution was set in motion by Descartes, Bacon, and others, and, while it has certainly given us more power over the natural world, it also carries an inherent danger. This is the curiosity the perils of which Gandalf reminded Saruman when he said, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
The kind of wonder we’re talking about is that pure and childlike gaze that seeks to peer into the heart, the very being of things, with no agenda whatsoever, except to know the Other because it is there, and it is good. It is a thirst for knowledge because it is good to know things, and it is good to know other beings that are a part of this good world we inhabit. “The one who experiences wonder,” says Josef Pieper, “is one who, astounded by the deeper aspect of the world, cannot hear the immediate demands of life—if even for a moment, that moment when he gazes on the astounding vision of the world” (Leisure, the Basis of Culture 101–102).
When we say that wonder is the beginning, or the principle, of the love of wisdom, what we’re saying is that our most important task as a school is not to shape the minds, or even the actions, of our students. We do those things, and we do them well. But our most important task is to shape their imaginations—to shape the very way they perceive and interact with the world. To model for them and train them, “in the everyday things . . . to be able to see the deeper visage of the real so that the attention directed to the things encountered in everyday experience comes up against what is not so obvious in these things—it is exactly here, in this inner experience, that philosophy has its beginning” (Pieper 100).
Authentic wonder finds both its origin and its culmination in an encounter with the Other. It is the Other that inspires it, and it is in mutual relationship with the Other that wonder finds its ultimate fulfillment. “The beginning of philosophy is wonder” means that our job is to show our students how to enter into relationship with the world, how to gaze upon it with the eyes of wonder, how to behold the world in a spirit of receptivity to all that is good in it, in short, how to love the world and the people in it, so that, they can go into the world as young adults desirous to know as much as they can about that world and its people, and free to make virtuous choices about how to live in it.
Adapted from a presentation for new Great Hearts Irving faculty by Thomas Beyer, Assistant Headmaster for the Great Hearts Irving Lower School.