Chapter VI

The Philosophy of Wonder

from the book


Robert Theobald

Shakespeare Studies in Baconian Light


Bacon's "Philosophy of Wonder" is expounded in several of his works, and it is in full expression something quite original and peuciliar to himself, although its origin may be partly found in Plato. Dr. Martineau, in his "Types of Ethical Theory" (Vol. II. p. 140), affirms that the assumption of Plato that Wonder is the primitive intellectual impulse, has perhaps its most emphatic expression in his Theaetetus, 155D : where he says,

"Wonder is the special affection of a philosopher; for philosophy has no other starting point than this; and it is a happy genealogy which makes Iris the daughter of Thaumas,"

ie. adds Martineau

"which treats the messenger of the gods, the winged thought that passes to and fro between heaven and earth, and brings them into communion, as the child of Wonder. Aristotle, in his more prosaic way, makes the same assumption in his "Metaphysics,' I. 2."

Bacon has nowhere given us a psychological system: there are numerous discussions on isolated pyschologic questions scattered through his philosophic works, but no general scheme. Like Plato, he considers that philosophy starts from wonder; he has a Promus note (No.227), super mirari caperunt philosophari : after wondering, men began to philosophize: when wonder ceases, knowledge begins : a motto which is quoted, with humorous application, in a letter to Mr. Cawfielde: Life, II. 373. So far as the knowledge of God is concerned, wonder never ceases, this knowledge cannot be attained by the contemplation of created things.

"It is true that the contemplation of the creatures of God hath for End ( as to the natures of the creatures themselves) knowledge but as to the nature of God, no knowledge, but wonder, which is nothing else but contemplation broken off, or losing itself" (Val.Ter. Works, III.218).

In the "Advancement" , he speaks in the same way, that " wonder is the seed of knowledge," "wonder is broken knowledge" (Works, III. 266,267). So that wonder recedes, as knowledge advances, wonder is antecedent; the essential starting point, which is left behind when the start has been made. Bacon generally refers to admiration, or wonder;for the two words are identical, admiratio being the Latin for wonder,--as implying a suspension of intellectual activity under the spell of emotion. Thus he speaks of Queen Elizabeth's skill in languages, by which,

"She is able to negotiate with divers ambassadors in their own languages: and that with no small disadvantage unto them, who, I think, cannot but have a great part of their wits distracted from their matters in hand, to the contemplation and admiration of such perfections." (Life, I. 139)

Knowledge, Bacon says, comes by comparison of similar things,

"there is no proceeding in invention of knowledge but by similitude."

Consequently wonder arises when the object contemplated cannot be brought into this relation with anything else;

"God is only self-like, having nothing in common with any creature:" (Works, III. 218)

And from this follows an extension of the theory of wonder which is Bacon's most characteristic thought. The mere fact that anything is unique, not related by similitude to anything else, although this is the special occasion for wonder, yet it does not arise. As there are miracles of nature, so there are miracles of art of which "a collection or particular history" should be made. But not only of

"such masterpieces and mysteries of any art which excite wonder." " For wonder is the child of rarity; and if a thing be rare, though in kind it be no way extraordinary, yet it is wondered at. While on the other hand, things which really call for wonder on account of the difference in species which they exhibit as compared with other species, yet if we have them by us in common use, are but slightly noticed." Among the singularities of nature, I place the sun, the moon, the magnet, and the like, things in fact most familiar, but in nature almost unique". (Nov.Organum. II. 31)

It is essential to observe that in Bacon's Latin, admiratio is the word for wonder: Admiratio est proles raritatis; and we see that as what is rare is the occasion for wonder, so what is common, or familiar, dispels it. Wonder is the sentiment appropriate to miracles, which are a species of monodica, singularities either of nature or art. And by the contemplation of "rare and extraordinary works of nauture," or " excellent and wonderful works of art," " the mind is excited and raised to the investigation and discovery of Forms: when the Form of a thing is known, its cause is known. And, says Bacon, "Causarum explicatio tollit miraculum" (Nov. Org. I. 70) Explanation of causes takes off, or removes, the marvel. Miracles and wonders are, in Bacon' s view, phenomena whose cause is not known. Thus, the Second Counsellor in the Gesta Grayorum concludes his speech as follows:

"When your Excellency shall have added depth of knowledge to the fineness of your spirits and greatness of your power, then indeed shall you be a Trismegistus; and then, when all other miracles and wonders shall cease, by reason that you shall have discovered their natural causes, yourself shall be left, the only miracle and wonder of the world." (Life I. 335).

Bacon concludes one of his letters to King James with the courtly compliment:;

"Miracles are ceased, though admiration will not cease while you live." (Life VI. 140).

The whole of this philosophy of wonder is most curiously, most exactly reproduced in Shakespeare. The identity between the two is at once suggestive by the observation that Shakespeare habitually uses the Latin word admiratio, in its English form, as the synonym for wonder, as will be evident in many of the passages to be quoted. At present I may refer to such passages as the following:
In Cranmer's prophecy relating to Elizabeth and James, in Henry VIII., he uses the following singular language :

Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies,--the maiden Phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in as herself.
(Henry VIII, V. v.40)

Note here that the bird of wonder is the unique bird, the rarity, the singularity of nature, the Phoenix. A similar reference to the Phoenix occurs in Cymbeline :

If she be furnished with a mind so rare,
She is alone the Arabian bird.
(Cymb. I. vi. 16)

The discovery of Perdita, is described with the same variation of language:

"The changes I perceived in the King and Camillo were very notes of admiration....... a notable passion of wonder appeared in them ." ( Winter's Tale, V. ii.11).

In Cymbeline " a mark of wonder" is used for purposes of indentification; and the phrase can be so used, because the mark is something rare or unique :

        Guiderius had
Upon his neck a mole, a sanguine star :
It was a mark of wonder.
(Cymb. V. v. 365)

Why a mole should be called a mark of wonder can only be explained by Bacon's philosophy.
That wonder is the vestibule of knowledgethe sentiment that is left when we pass beyond the porch and enter the dwelling is clearly, though not copiously, expressed in the dramas. In the interior masque of the Midsummer Night's Dream (V. i. 128) we find,

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show:
But wonder on, till truth makes all things plain.

The same philosophical idea is expressed , rather cumbrously, in Hymen's Hymm :

While a wedlock hymm we sing,
Feed yourselves with questioning,
That reason wonder may diminish.
(As You Like It, V. iv. 143)

The dissipation of wonder by the advent of knowledge is curiously referred to in the following, where also wonder and admiration are synonymous terms :

Bring in the admiration; that we, with thee,
May spend our wonder too; or take off thine
By wondering how thou took'st it.
(All's Well, II. i. 91).

The whole idea, and especially the remarkable expression, take off thy wonder, seems to me a reflection of the Latin explicatio causarum tollit miraculum : evidently some reasonable explanation is the leverage which takes off (tollit) the wonder to which the speaker refers.

So again in Hamlet, when the rare, almost miraculous, visit of the Ghost is referred to, Horatio says,

Season your admiration for a while,
With an attent ear, till I may deliver,
Upon the witness of these gentlemen,
This marvel to you.
(Hamlet, I. ii. 192)

It is worth noting that the quarto (1604) edition has the word wonder, instead of marvel, in this passage.
That wonder is the seed of knowledge, is implied in all these passages. That it is broken knowledge is expressed in many ways: especially by connecting silence, or hesitating, uncertain speech, with wonder. Thus, Paulina, before the suppose statue of Hermoine , says to the dumb-stricken onlookers

" I like your silence : it the more shows off your wonde." (Winter's Tale. V. iii. 21).

So, Bacon begins his discourse in praise of knowledge with,

"Silence were the best celebration of that which I mean to commend :" 

an axiom which has some affinity with Paulina's sentiment, in which silence is connected with broken language. The same idea is expressed by Claudio : 

" Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much." (Much Ado about Nothing, II. i. 317).

Benedict uses the same philosophical aphorism :;

For my part I am so attired in wonder,
I know not what to say.
(Much Ado, IV. i 146).

The same connection between silence and wonder is implied in Hamlet's reference to Laertes :

                                 What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers?
(Hamlet. V. i 277)

And in the Sonnets we find silence and wonder thus connected :

For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
(Sonnet 106).

The same arrest of speech and reflection by wonder is referred to by Prospero, the ruler of the enchanted island, the worker of miracles and prodigies :

                     I perceive these lords
At this encounter do so much admire
That they devour their reason, and scarce think
Their eyes do offices of truth,
their words
Are natural breath.
(Tempest V. i. 153)

The silence which may be paradoxically called the expression of wonder,mute, wonder,is excellently pictured in the account of Henry's V's eloquence:;

                  When he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears,
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences.
(Henry V. I. i. 47)

This passage becomes more intelligible when collated with the passage we have quoted from Bacon, referring to the eloquent discourse of Queen Elizabeth, and the mute wonder which held her ambassadors spell-bound in her presence. Bacon's philosophy is the key to all these passages. Henry and Elizabeth are eloquent in the same way.
In the passages already quoted the object of wonder is always something rare and unique, although this quality is not always pointed out. It is however, often indicated. An extraordinary, almost miraculous cure is All's Well, (II., iii. 7) called " the rarest argument of wonder." Bacon says, we have seen, that what is rare is wondered at; and what is in common use, or familiar, is not wondered at; even if it be unique, and that when philosophy or knowledge enters , wonder retreats. This philosophical placitum cannot be better expressed than in the words in All 's Well immediate preceding:

"They say miracles are past: and we have our philosophical persons to make modern [modern always in Shakespeare means common or ordinary] and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear. Why 'tis the rarest argument of wonder that hath shot out in our latter times."

This passage teems with Baconian thought; it is a particular application of the maxim causarum explictio tollit miraculum.
The philosophical teaching implied in this very Baconian speech in the play is exactly reproduced in the Novum Organum, II. 28. And the curious use of the word causeless is anticipated and completely vindicated. Bacon is discussing what he calls Singular Instances, i.e., instances

"which are like themselves alone."

And on these he makes the following deeply wise and philosophical comments. I give Professor Fowler's translation :

The use of Singular Instances is the same as that of the Clandestine Instances, namely, to unite and extend the limits of nature, for the purpose of discovering general or common natures, to be afterwards limited by the true differences. For we are not to desist from enquiry till the properties and qualities which are found in such things as may be taken for marvels of nature [pro miraculis naturae] be reduced and comprehended under some Form or Law; so that all irregularity or singularity shall be found to depend on some common Form, and the Marvel [miraculum] shall turn out to be only in the precise differences and the degree and the rare concurrence [concurso raro] and not in the species itself. Whereas now the thoughts of men go no further than to regard such things as the secrets and mighty works [magnalia] of nature, and as it were uncaused [secretis incausabilibus] and as exceptions to general rules."

We can, by help of Bacon's philosophy, see why causeless, and supernatural, are connected with what is miraculous or not familiar. We have seen in the speech of the Second Counsellor at the Gesta Grayorum how the two are connected : 

"Miracles and wonders shall cease., by reason that you have discovered their natural causes."

It is not often that philosophical technicalities are so copiously presented in Shakespeare: in these writings indeed there is plenty of philosophy, but it is usually fluid or molten, not shaped : incorporated with the dramatic situation, not formulated as a detached commentary. The same principles are latently present in other passages.
When Hero returns to life as if by resurrection, the friar, who has planned the entire incident, entreats the company to suspend their amazement till the mariage is solemnized, and that they may no be too much influenced by the apparent miracle, he suggests that it should be regarded with the seeming knowledge which emancipates from an unknown fear.

Meanwhile, let wonder seem familiar,
And to the chapel let us presently.
(Much Ado V iv. 70)

The wordslet wonder seem familiarare almost unintelligible till interpretation is supplied by Baconian philosophy.
That wonder and what is rare or unique are associated, is constantly implied. In the Tempest the unique specimen of womankind found in the enchanted island is named Miranda, which Ferdinand translates

                     Admired Miranda
Indeed the top of admiration! worth
What's dearest in the world.
(Tempest. III. i. 37)

"What's dearest, " is doubtless a variation of what's rarest; dear being one of those words which is occasionally used in almost a technical way, when the philosophy of wonder colours its application. the same use of the word is found in the 102nd Sonnet

Sweets, grown common, lose their dear delight.

The whole Sonnet, one of the loveliest ever penned, is full of the philosophical subtlety connected with rarity. "Rarity" might be it's title. "The top of admiration" recalls Bacon's demands that the tops,or ultimates, or summitates of human nature should be studied. (De Augmentis. IV i.) Ferdinand finds other arguments of wonder in the strange island, and rarity is curiously dragged in by a poetic strain on language which would be insufferably awkward in prose, but in poetry it brings to the philosophical sentiment an atmosphere of quaintness and subtlety,&emdash;

                     Let me live here ever:
So rare a wonder'd Father and a Wife
Makes this place Paradise.
(Tempest. IV. i. 122)

Even the mention of Paradise keeps up the impression of what is rare, or unique.
The passage just quoted is an instance in which language which is impossible for prose, becomes highly picturesque and expressive in verse, and at the same time brings into poetry the flavour of philosophy.In other passages this strained language is used to bring philosphical vigour into dramatic utterance. For instance, Iachimo,speaking of the good qualities of Posthumous, as but the riper developments of what he knew long before, says,

" But I could then have looked on him without the help of admiration," (Cymbeline I.iv.4)

which Bacon's philosophy enables us to explain, i.e. there was nothing unusual, or unique, or rare, or exceptional in his character, nothing to make me incapable of judging him calmly, rationally, by comparison with similiar natures : he was no argument of wonder then, he ranked with common and familiar facts.
Wonder is in Shakespeare, as in Bacon , constantly associated with the monodica naturae, comets, or the sun when covered by clouds, and so withdrawn from ordinary observation. Petruchio, when he appears at the bridal party dressed in beggarly costume, rebukes the company who are scandalized by his appearance,

             Wherefore gaze this goodly company,
As if they saw some wondrous monument,
Some comet,or unusual prodigy?
(Taming of the Shrew, III ii.95)

i.e., something to be regarded with speechless amazement.
Still more remarkable is the comment of Henry V. on the strange monstrouos crime of Lord Scroop, as something rare, unique causeless, or inexplicable as if causelessa sort of monodicum sceleris, a singularity in crime, a matter for wonder, not for explicatio causarum

                           'Tis so strange,
That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it.
Treason and murder ever kept together
As two yoke-devils sworn to either's purpose.
Working so grossly in a natural cause,
That admiration did not whoop at them:
 But thou, 'gainst all proportion, did'st bring in
Wonder to wait on treason and on murder.
(Henry V. II. ii. 102)

Here again Baconian philosophy is strangely evident. Wonderor admiration,(for again the words are interchanged) does not arise till no natural cause can be discovered; the crime is inexplicable, not to be explained by similitude or comparison, ('gainst all proportion), so entirely inexplicable that reason is silent, and admiration can only vent itself in an inarticulate cry, whooping not speaking.
That whooping, the inarticulate cry which is all that wonder is capable of, is a word technically used in this sense, is illlustrated by the following very curious passage : Celia is the speaker; she is tantalizing Rosalind in reference to the verses which Orlando has been scattering about the forest :

;"O wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful; and after that, out of all whooping!" ( As You Like It III. ii. 201).

This is a whooping speecha reduplicated exclamation, its best substitute for coherent utterance,and the occasion for it is wonder, or admiration.
In accordance with the same philosophy, the wild young Prince Hal, justifies his loose behaviour : he is preparing a suprise, a wonder for the world : The justification is somewhat sophistical :

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up this beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours tht did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
(1 Henry IV. I ii. 221)

In this passage the occasion for wonder is entirely fantastic and unreal, and it is therefore all the more worthy of remark that the poet is careful to define the condition on which wonder rests: no cause but rarity can be assigned for it. The sun is not wondered at till he has been hidden, and becomes rare and wanted : his return awakens wonder. Wonder is more natural to the ignorant and unreflective common folk, whom, I am sorry to say, Shakespeare, with his aristocratic sympathies, thoroughly despised. He remarks of them that nothing pleases which does not fit into their natural humour of wonder rare accidents. Bacon also observes

Nihil enim multis placet nisi imaginationem feriat. (Novum Organum. I.77).
Nothing pleases the multitude unless it strikes the imagination.

With this passage we may compare one in the 52nd Sonnet, in which Bacon's wonder-philosophy is clearly reflected :

Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in th carcanet.

If, however, we should see Bacon's philosophy of wonder, in its larger applications, most luminously expressed, we shall find it in Henry IV's remonstrances addressed to this same wild young Prince, for making himself so common and so cheap casting aside the veil of majesty which should always surround, and half conceal royalty, and so forfeiting the wonder and admiration which Princes only keep when they are secluded from their subjects, rarely seen, and when seen, admired. Opinion, or reputation, for Princes, can only rest securely on this basis of wonder.

Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at;
That men would tell their children 'This is he;'
Others would say 'Where, which is Bolingbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress'd myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new;
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at: and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast
And won by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping king, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with capering fools,
Had his great name profaned with their scorns
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative,
Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoff'd himself to popularity;
That, being daily swallow'd by men's eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes
As sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze,
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes

(1 Henry IV. III. ii. 39).

It is clear that in such a paternal lecture as this the philosophy of wonder need not have been introduced. It's unexpected appearance, with the care taken to fit it to its unusual application, shows what a strong hold in had on the poet's mind, and how thorougly it possessed his imagination.
There are one or two verbal curiosities in this speech which it is worth while observing. The poet speaks of eyes as sick and blunted with community. Common is one of the technical words in Bacon's philosophy of wonder : community is evidently a correlative and equivalent to familiarity. The place of this word in philosophy of wonder must be remembered when it appears elsewhere, as in the 69th Sonnet

But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,
The solve is this, that thou dost common grow.

Also, when we find Shakespeare using the striking expression,

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

it is interesting to find Bacon, in his charge against St. John, uses much the same expression

"You take upon you a pontifical habit, and you couple your slander with a curse." (Life, V. 141)

It is to be noted that Bacon's Philosophy of Wonder and Rarity, with his reference to the sun, comets, &c, as illustrations, was not published till 1620, four years after William Shakspere's death. How came "Shakespeare" to give such brilliant and ample expression to these ideas more than twenty-years before? How came all this very characteristic Baconian thought to find a place in these poems? Evidently some explanation is urgently required.
I might refer to other passages in Shakespeare which require to be interpreted by the light of Bacon's Philosophy of Wonder: but those which I have produced are, I submit, sufficient to prove some of Bacon's most characteristic ideas find their best, their amplest expression, not in Bacon's prose, but in Shakespeare's poetry. The crude, technical, scientific exposition of the theory is to be found in the prose:  while the larger and more varied applications of the theory, the theory set in many lights and colours, as it is seen reflected in the multiplying and transforming mirror of a poet's mind, is seen in Shakespeare. But admidst all this kaleidescopic changes the individuality of the patient thinker, and that of the tuneful singer and inspired seer remains the same. In the prose the speaker keeps on the solid ground of science and philosophy, his wings are folded, and his harp is silent; but in the poetry he carries the same thoughts into higher regions he ascends the Empyrean, and the higher he ascends the more rapturous and musical is his strain, although he has brought his theme from the lower levels of philosophy. As the lark, so also is he,

Type of the wise who soar, but never roam,
True to the kindred points of heaven and home.