Wonder at the Agora

FALL 2019

by Cj Stephens Cohort ’17

In our program at IDSVA the words that we read of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are English translated words that derive from Ancient Greek. If we are thorough, we learn words and phrases (Logos, Phusis, Aletheia) thanks to various philosophers (Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze) and philosophies. We also learn through hermeneutics how those words activate changes in meaning and culture. In June 2019 our walk through the ruins at the Agora of Athens reveals the conjunction of words and body in a most intertextual way.

(Fig 1.) Emperor Hadrian (117-138A.D.) Photo: Cj Stephens in the Agora, June 2019
(Fig 1.) Emperor Hadrian (117-138A.D.) Photo: Cj Stephens in the Agora, June 2019

To travel the paths of words spoken so carefully from here to there, the words of wisdom, of the ideas and forms of wisdom and words of wonder which seem to inscribe themselves into the body through the souls of my feet, this movement sparks an intertextual phenomenon of wonderment. The ground that we walk along carries with it the idea from Aristotle that the love of wisdom (philosophy) begins with wonder. This phrase in my mind is inscribed along the various routes within the marketplace of the Agora. As I think through the power of a word like ‘wonder’, my feet tread weightless through different Stoa, fragments of columns, buildings and fractured statues. (Fig. 1) There are varied stone sections with ancient Greek words carved into them, my favorite being the pieces that do not have an English transcription somewhere nearby. (Fig 2.) Instead of wanting to know definitively what these marks mean, I choose rather to look upon these ancient Greek letters as silent paintings, poems, and storytellings. These are gifts to an experience of difference, the difference between wonder and certainty.

(Fig 2.) Fragment of ancient Greek writing. Photo: Cj Stephens in the Agora, June 2019

As I experience a series of big and small sensations meandering through ancient-ness and ruin-ness, my thought is consumed with the way Hegel describes the occurrence of wonder in his Aesthetics (vol.1):

Whereas wonder only occurs when man, torn free from his most immediate first connection with nature and from his most elementary, purely practical, relation to it, that of desire, stands back spiritually from nature and his own singularity and now seeks and sees in things a universal, implicit, and permanent element. In that case for the first time natural objects strike him; they are an 'other' which yet is meant to be for his apprehension and in which he strives to find himself over again as well as thoughts and reason. Here the inkling of something higher and the consciousness of externality are still unseparated and yet at the same time there is present a contradiction between natural things and the spirit, a contradiction in which objects prove themselves to be just as attractive as repulsive, and the sense of this contradiction along with the urge to remove it is precisely what generates wonder. (315)

To describe wonder, not in the aspect of a metaphysical desire for sameness, we must recognize Hegel’s urge to remove the contradiction which is to say universalize spirit and nature. This thinking aligns Hegel’s metaphysics within the ground of oppositions. The word ‘wonder’ has changed from ancient Greek, ‘thauma’ (wonder, marvel) plus ‘azo’ (denominative verb suffix) ‘to be astonished’, to a word that induces one to perform a google search. Like steps along the dirt path from Tholos to Odeion of Agrippa, each word in its location and relation to a thinking; we travel in wonder sometimes tripping over the dangerous words stuck in the paths of the past. Words specific to sensation are agents of freedom. Where Aristotle places wonder in the advent of philosophizing, Hegel holds that wonder is predicated on a desire to remove otherness. Precisely what generates wonder here and now is the urge to form conjunctive relationships with differences that incite thauma as itself.