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Who’s afraid of wonder? θαῦμα and θάμβος.

Rik Peters

University of Chicago

A number of Greek and Roman philosophical authors, including Lucretius, Horace, and Epictetus, draw a connection between wonder and fear. In this paper, I will argue that this connection has its roots in Greek vocabulary of wonder, and specifically in the terms θαῦμα and θάμβος.

The literature on Greek conceptions of wonder (θαῦμα) has largely focused on positive valuations of wonder, such as the Platonic/Aristotelian motto that philosophy begins in wonder (e.g. Llewelyn 1988, Nightingale 2004, Kenaan 2011), Herodotus’ delight in narrating θώματα (e.g. Barth 1968, Hunzinger 1995, Munson 2001), and wonder as a term for describing successful works of visual art or other impressive sights (Prier 1989, Hunzinger 1994, Neer 2011).

Less attention has been given to the negative valuations of wonder, the thaumatophobic strands of Greek culture (Jouanna 1992 is a notable exception). For instance, the genealogy of Horace’s nil admirari in Hellenistic philosophy is still obscure. Commentators on Horace generally point to Strabo 1.3.21 (C61), who claims that “Democritus and all other philosophers” sing the praises of “wonderlessness”, ἀθαυμαστία, because it is close to absence of fear, absence of disturbance, and intrepidity (παράκειται γὰρ τῷ ἀθαμβεῖ καὶ ἀταράχῳ καὶ ἀνεκπλήκτῳ). This would then make absence of wonder virtually equivalent to Epicurean ataraxia and Stoic apatheia (Mayer 1994: 143). That story relies, however, on the notion that wonder is a kind of violent disturbance or passion, which in turn is largely based on the connection between wonder and fear.

In this paper, I will argue (1) that the notion that wonder is a violent disturbance, as entertained by Horace, Lucretius, and Epictetus, is due to a connection between wonder and fear; (2) that this connection is inherent in the Greek vocabulary of wonder, and (3) that this connection is partly obscured because of the division of labor between words related to θαῦμα and those of the θάμβος family.

That Greek θαῦμα can carry connotations of fear is clear from a number of sources; e.g. Eumenides 46-47, where the Pythia calls the Erinyes a θαυμαστὸς λόχος … γυναικῶν, or Pindar’s Pythian 1, where the erupting Aetna is a τέρας … θαυμάσιον προσιδέσθαι. However, it is not an acute sense of dread: in Eum. 406, Athena says, on seeing the Erinyes, “ταρβῶ μὲν οὐδέν, θαῦμα δ’ ὄμμασιν πάρα”. Rather, the fearful component of θαῦμα is due to the surprise and ignorance inherent in wonder, even when it is an otherwise pleasant and innocent experience.

On the other hand, θάμβος is a more fearful kind of wonder; for instance, Cicero parses Democritus’ ἀθαμβία (DK 68 B 169) as animum terrore liberum. (Fin. 5.29.87). I argue that there is a semantic division of labor between θαῦμα and θάμβος: the former mainly has positive connotations, the latter mainly negative ones. θάμβος is θαῦμα’s darker twin brother.

But in some cases, this division of labor breaks down. Some Greek authors (e.g. the Attic orators, Plato, and Strabo) seem to shun the word θάμβος; and the Latin (ad)mirari covers both θαῦμα and θάμβος. In the absence of a specialized term for frightful wonder, θαῦμα/admiratio can get the negative valuation and the connection with fear that is otherwise reserved for θάμβος. This breakdown can help explain a number of odd passages that give a negative valuation to wonder, like Strabo’s assimilation of Democritus’ ἀθαμβία to ἀθαυμαστία, and the warnings against admiratio in Horace (Ep. 1.6) and Lucretius (5.82-88 and 6.58-64).

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Greek Semantics

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