The Great Intuition
Asking “Why?” is not a skill that we need to be taught. When we are young, life presents us with innumerable puzzles. As we learn to navigate the world, those puzzles become fewer and fewer. Experience, then, comes with a certain cost, for if we do not persevere in asking “Why?”, we risk losing our child-like spirit of inquiry.
The philosophers whom we admire have something in common with the saints: they have retained the minds of little children. Thus the paradoxical character of wisdom, which brings stability and vision, but also keeps alive a thirst for the ever-deeper appreciation of the knowledge that has been gained.
Socrates is the paradigmatic instance of the philosopher with childlike wisdom. Insatiable in his quest for truth, he continued to seek it in and through conversation until the moment the hemlock did its fatal work. Admiring his spirit, we may share his frustration with his predecessor Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (flourished ca. 450 B.C.), whose philosophical career unfolded when Socrates was a young boy and whose books he read.
On the one hand, Anaxagoras was the man of the great intuition: the bewildering multiplicity of things in the world come together in a beautiful order and therefore must owe their being to Mind. On the other hand, he was incapable of making this intuition the foundation of a life of systematic inquiry. Socrates taxed him with having offered explanations no different from those of his predecessors who reduced all things to their material cause.
Aristotle was more generous to him and credited Anaxagoras with having spoken like a “sober man” surrounded by drunkards. Aristotle himself was the very model of philosophical perseverance. It fell to him to take the Socratic and Platonic inheritance—the art of dialectic—and to marshal it in the service of Anaxagoras’ great intuition. Reason, logos, rightly deployed could “trace links of causation” from the humblest animals back to the ruling Mind, which Aristotle famously spoke of as “thought thinking itself.” Perhaps it was because he knew first-hand what that labor of reasoning had cost that he was more favorable towards Anaxagoras. To have begun well, after all, was itself a victory.
How might that intuition have come to Anaxagoras? It is difficult to say because all that remains of his writings are a few fragments from second-hand witnesses. He was responding both to the first students of nature—Thales and his followers—and to the challenge to their theories that had been posed by Parmenides. If all things are water, or air, or the infinite, then how could there be any new things? And how are the things that we see—olive trees, doves, goats—anything other than congeries of that material substratum, be it what it may? Change, then, is an illusion, and with it, all that we sense.
With his great intuition, Anaxagoras turned the tables on Parmenides. What is the stance of the critic of change and of sensation? From what perspective is he able to see beyond sight and measure beyond touch? From the same perspective that enables him to ask “Why?” in the first place, that is, from the vantage of mind. If mind can reach around our senses and gather what they teach us into a whole that we are able to interrogate, then mind is more powerful than sense. To ask “What is?” and “What is not?” is to climb to the heights. The first to scale those heights—Parmenides—despaired and denied reality. Anaxagoras did not lose hope. If we can ask “Why?” and “What is it?”, then we can be sure that the spark that enables us to ask those questions is but a small flame from an infinite divine light at the heart of all things.
Two millennia later, John James Audubon looked upon the hummingbird. The thoughts he penned on that occasion made him a worthy bearer of the child-like confidence of Anaxagoras and a true philosopher:
Where is the person who, on seeing this lovely little creature moving on humming winglets through the air, suspended as if by magic in it, flitting from one flower to another, with motions as graceful as they are light and airy, pursuing its course over our extensive continent, and yielding new delights wherever it is seen—where is the person, I ask of you, kind reader, who, on observing this glittering fragment of the rainbow, would not pause, admire, and instantly turn his mind with reverence toward the Almighty Creator, the wonders of whose hand we at every step discover, and of whose sublime conceptions we everywhere observe the manifestations in his admirable system of creation? There breathes not such a person; so kindly have we all been blessed with that intuitive and noble feeling—admiration!