Since my mind is necessarily consumed by Cal Townsend’s class “Classical Political Philosophy,” the word “mysteries” instantly recalls its satirical scene in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. In the play, a student of Socrates describes their academic pursuits as “mysterious.” Within this context, the word “mystery” does not merely describe the possible subversive, problematic and abstract pursuits of Socrates’ academy, it also assigns the unknown with a divine significance. Socrates has made it his mission to use science to do away with mythological creation narratives—leaving mysteries behind. He has used science to dismantle a previous explanation, yet fails to use science to present an alternate explanation. To address these newfound mysteries, therefore, Socrates presents the “Clouds” as an alternative transcendent force responsible for creation. This understanding of the properties of a “mystery” or the “unknown” wields a profound power over our environment, and it has had a profound effect on our culture.
To begin, mystery has become an entire genre of literature. Great authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers have used the concept of mystery to seek truth, much like the detectives they create, concerning human depravity. First, in this type of literary mystery, the fabric of society has been compromised either by crime, death, absence, or some combination of the three. The protagonist is compelled to make amends, combating this deficit with logic and reason. These qualities put the detective in stark contrast with the battle-hardened heroes of mythology. While the hero’s tools are weapons used to perpetuate violence, the detective does not approach such depravity with blunt force; instead, they use their intellect as an instrument to resolve conflict. This use of the word “mystery” takes the notion that the pursuit of truth should be applied to combat the insidious power of the mystery a step further. The integral finale has the detective restoring the social fabric and relegating the depraved to their rightful position outside of society.
I was recently afflicted by a different sort of mystery. I am currently interacting with my own limitation while taking a class in the hard sciences. I haul my textbook around, I dedicate hours of my time to study, yet the complexity of the subject continues to elude me. Last evening, as I was traversing the library bookshelves, which is, to be sure, a pretentious way to say that I was procrastinating, I stumbled upon the Physics section. The titles were enticing, and I beheld them as you are supposed to behold books written by people of superior intellect. I wanted to devour them. I wanted the wealth of knowledge within them. In them, I would solve mysteries I did not yet know even existed. However, looking at those books in light of my recent failure in the sciences, I was forced to come to terms with this situation where mysteries would remain mysteries. It is a testament to the intensity of the university experience, as well as my coming off of a caffeine spike, that the simple sight of a stack of physics textbooks could force a confrontation between me and my own inadequacy.
The failure to solve a mystery is often remedied by some sort of ghostly or supernatural explanation. Ghost stories, after all, are superstitious antidotes for unexplained phenomenon. Such fables seem to perpetuate the idea that humans have a tendency to assume divine agency is present in things that we do not understand. This is a comforting practice for two reasons. First, in the case of horrific depravity, we can continue believing that something outside of ourselves is responsible. Second, in the case of the all-consuming mystery of the natural world, we get a sense of both provision and security from a force greater than ourselves. Ghost stories are a way to avoid a reckoning with the unknown.
Finally, I find myself to be a student. I find myself to be like Socrates, having my abilities in the hard sciences challenged, due to the fact that I have failed to produce explanations to disperse the mysteries of creation. Therefore, I will assume the posture of Socrates’ student and begin the slow process of pursing truth. The approach of the student is to assume that each effort to academically decipher a mystery is actual revelation from the Divine. It has been conclusively proven to me that I will not solve mysteries, but neither will I be one of the superstitious. I will not content myself with the answer that the “Other” is responsible. Instead, I will work in concert with the Divine to pursue truth, in spite of the overwhelming presence of the mysterious and the unknown.