How to Be More Alive: Hermann Hesse on Wonder and the Proper Aim of Education
By Maria Popova
It bears repeating that what makes life livable is our ability — our willingness — to move through the world wonder-smitten by reality. The most wonderful thing about wonder is that it knows no scale, no class, no category — it can be found in a geranium or in a galaxy, in the burble of a brook or in the Goldberg Variations. “A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” wrote Walt Whitman, eternal patron saint of wonder.
Wonder, after all, is what we look for when we are looking and the richest recompense of learning how to look. G.K. Chesterton knew this when, in his wonderful meditation on the dandelion and the meaning of life, he observed that the object of the creative life, of the full life, is to dig for the “submerged sunrise of wonder.” Dylan Thomas knew it in the recognition that “children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end.” Rachel Carson knew it when she insisted that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” Goethe knew it when he exclaimed: “I am here, that I may wonder!”
How to live into that knowledge with the full capacity of our creaturely potential is what Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) explores in a soulful century-old reflection included in Butterflies: Reflections, Tales, and Verse (public library).
With an eye to Goethe’s immortal line, Hesse writes:
Wonder is where it starts, and though wonder is also where it ends, this is no futile path. Whether admiring a patch of moss, a crystal, flower, or golden beetle, a sky full of clouds, a sea with the serene, vast sigh of its swells, or a butterfly wing with its arrangement of crystalline ribs, contours, and the vibrant bezel of its edges, the diverse scripts and ornamentations of its markings, and the infinite, sweet, delightfully inspired transitions and shadings of its colors — whenever I experience part of nature, whether with my eyes or another of the five senses, whenever I feel drawn in, enchanted, opening myself momentarily to its existence and epiphanies, that very moment allows me to forget the avaricious, blind world of human need, and rather than thinking or issuing orders, rather than acquiring or exploiting, fighting or organizing, all I do in that moment is “wonder,” like Goethe, and not only does this wonderment establish my brotherhood with him, other poets, and sages, it also makes me a brother to those wondrous things I behold and experience as the living world: butterflies and moths, beetles, clouds, rivers and mountains, because while wandering down the path of wonder, I briefly escape the world of separation and enter the world of unity.
But while we are born wakeful to wonder, our cultural conditioning and indoctrination — what we call our education — often schools us out of it. A century before scientists came to study the vitalizing psychology and physiology of enchantment, a century before our so-called liberal arts education had become the factory farming of the mind, Hesse laments:
Our universities fail to guide us down the easiest paths to wisdom… Rather than teaching a sense of awe, they teach the very opposite: counting and measuring over delight, sobriety over enchantment, a rigid hold on scattered individual parts over an affinity for the unified and whole. These are not schools of wisdom, after all, but schools of knowledge, though they take for granted that which they cannot teach — the capacity for experience, the capacity for being moved, the Goethean sense of wonderment.
Complement with Nietzsche on the true value of education and the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington on our spiritual responsibility to wonder, then revisit Hesse on the wisdom of the inner voice, solitude and the courage to be yourself, and the day he discovered the meaning of life in a tree.
Published July 6, 2023