Questioning the Universe With Wonderment: ‘Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
October 25, 2020 Updated: October 25, 2020

Science, with people believing that the truths it offers are absolute, has become a source from which many people gather their beliefs. The Age of Enlightenment was a philosophical catalyst in helping science gain a foothold over religion and faith, with some of the era eventually seeing them as outdated and even harmful modes of belief.

Science is always advancing, however, and the scientific truth of yesterday—despite being thought of as absolute—is often overturned by new evidence tomorrow. As science continues to develop and evolve, is there a place for those things that exist outside the domain of science, such as religion and faith?

Asking these questions makes me think of a scientific artist I loved as a young boy, Joseph Wright of Derby. As an adult, however, I find myself leaning away from the Enlightenment thinking that Wright advocated. Despite this, we can still see if his work, separate from his intentions, offers our hearts and minds any wisdom.

Joseph Wright of Derby

Joseph Wright of Derby (17341797) was an 18th-century English painter interested in the progress of Enlightenment philosophy and the industrial revolution. According to The J. Paul Getty Museum website, “Wright invented the scientific Enlightenment subject: scenes of experiments, new machinery, and the leaders of the Industrial Revolution.”

The Tate Museum supports the Getty Museum’s claim with another: “[Wright’s] paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of scientists and industrialists living in the English midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.”

Wright, influenced by artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, used tenebrism—an artistic practice of high contrast in which forms are illuminated in dark environments—to depict the scientific inquiries of the Industrial Revolution.

‘Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery’

In his work “Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery,” Wright depicted eight figures illuminated in a dark room. The room is one of study and research, which is indicated by both the orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system—in the center of the composition and the unveiled bookshelf at the top right of the composition.

The focal point is the philosopher: the large figure with gray hair and red cloak who towers over the other figures as he gives his scientific explanation of the solar system. The philosopher looks not at the orrery, however, but to his right, where a young man takes notes on the lecture. 

The other figures around the orrery seem to be in a mode of cold, intellectual contemplation. The figure sitting to the far left is emotionless and cold, one of the figures to the right looks at the philosopher, and the other figure to the right puts his hand to his head as if in deep concentration.

Only two figures don’t seem to be in the same type of deep concentration: the two children. The light from the orrery, a light representing the sun, shines on them the brightest, and they have expressions of playful curiosity.

The other child is almost silhouetted and has her back turned to us. Wright, by placing her with her back to us on the opposite side of the orrery from the philosopher, has increased the three-dimensionality of the composition as a whole. Having figures all around the orrery allows us to read the dark environment as a room with depth.  

The Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism

In order to unpack some of the meanings this painting may have for us, it is important to first have an understanding of the Age of Enlightenment. 

The Age of Enlightenment corresponds with a period of philosophical inquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment philosophers pursued absolute truths centered around science, reason, and logic instead of faith-based belief. 

Enlightenment philosophy attempted to produce absolute and rational truths by way of the human intellect. In other words, the Enlightenment philosopher looked to define human existence by using nothing but the logic of the human mind.

Traditionally, the philosopher is one who asks questions in pursuit of wisdom. Enlightenment philosophy also began with asking questions, but it ended with absolute definitions around how human beings think and experience the world, all in the absence, seemingly, of faith. 

If we now return to Wright’s painting and look at it, not from Wright’s perspective but from the perspective that faith is important, it’s easier to see Enlightenment principles at play. For instance, the philosopher seems more concerned with the notes taken by the student to his right than with the orrery in front of him. 

Arguably, these notes—which are nothing more than the philosopher’s thoughts manifested in the world—can be a symbolic representation of pure, rational thought, which became the purpose of the Enlightenment philosopher’s inquiries. 

The philosopher is no longer interested in the orrery, that is, the workings of the universe—the very thing that would have initiated his philosophical inquiries—but is now more concerned with the accuracy of the student’s jotting down the philosopher’s own definitions. 

We can see the effect these definitions have on the other students. Some of the older students around the orrery are presented as having cold or detached expressions. These characteristics would later be criticized by Romantic philosophers.

Romantic philosophers argued that Enlightenment philosophy was too cold and calculating, and therefore tended to treat human beings like objects instead of possessors of sentient life. In its obsession with rational thought, Enlightenment philosophy left behind the heart and the gut, that is, human emotion and intuition, and faith as well. 

Questioning the Universe With Wonderment 

The two children, however, represent a certain hope. They still look at the universe with curiosity and wonder. Their interest suggests a curious questioning—as young children are apt to question everything—which is fueled by a foundation of wonderment.  

Scientific inquiry and absolute rational philosophy have not yet defined and therefore limited the children’s wonderment. They are not overwhelmed by the absolute rationality of the philosopher’s lecture. They most likely understand very little, if any, of it. They even seem to care very little for anything in the room but the model of the solar system in front of them. 

Is this why the orrery shines its light on the children the brightest—because they still approach the mysteries of the universe, of life, with wonderment, a playful curiosity, and sincere questions?

Anything taken to an extreme can have dire consequences. I think Enlightenment philosophy went to the extreme of logic in its scientific inquiries, left behind matters considered irrational (such as emotions and faith), and became more concerned with its own definitions than with the mysteries of the universe. 

This isn’t to suggest that emotions reign supreme. The Romantic philosophers, like the Enlightenment philosophers, also were in danger of going to an extreme—the extreme of irrationality. But the Enlightenment thinkers looked at the universe through the lens of human logic only, anything else seemed irrational and therefore, suspect.

But is it rational to suspect faith? After all, isn’t science based on faith in logic and the scientific method? Isn’t it a matter of what one places faith in? And, isn’t faith in logic alone limited to the parameters of what is already known?

For Kierkegaard, the later philosopher who coined the phrase “leap of faith,” faith, which for Enlightenment philosophers was irrational, was an awesome force through which we lived; for him, the objective and abstract truths of science don’t define us and could never express our individual authenticity or our love of God.

Maybe the representation of these two children can remind us to balance cold logic, reason, and our adherence to science with the fact that we are beings of faith, who often find meaning in life through a childlike curiosity about the mysteries of existence and the universe, and a love for God.

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist.