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The Sense Of Wonder

July 2024
4min read

Something valuable went out of the world when the last blank spaces on the map were filled in. The age-old area of myth and fable, which had helped to condition men’s minds ever since men first had minds to develop, shrank to the vanishing point, and an odd constriction of the human spirit seems to have begun. Western man lost his sense of wonder; his world became smaller than it had been, and having no more room for surprises it appeared also to have less room for opportunity.

Perhaps all that had happened was that Western man grew up. Knowing more about the world, he began to realize—as any youth does, when he gets on into full manhood—that most of the infinite possibilities which once beguiled him were simply part of a mirage. Yet growing up is a painful process, even a crippling one. The ultimate horizon turns out to be nearer than had been supposed, and what lies beyond it will be about what lies on this side. The universe hereafter is just a little less stimulating.

The loss of that sense of wonder may have odd effects. As far as Western man is concerned it seems to have been accompanied by a certain loss of drive, almost a loss of vitality. One of the great characteristics of the age of exploration and discovery which dawned in western Europe five centuries ago was the unbounded energy that it evoked. The lid was off, and anything could happen. Western man had a sense of destiny; facing the unknown, he had a bubbling confidence that he could master anything he might discover. Precisely because the world was so uncertain, he developed an enormous certainty about the part he himself was going to play.

So small nations attempted great things. There was Portugal, for instance: a minor nation, menaced by Spain and by the Moslems, poor, with a scanty population scratching a living from an inadequate countryside and with no visible prospects worth betting on. Yet it was Portugal that led the way in the great break-through, opening the sea road to the East, developing the ships and the men with which the unknown was first approached, producing such world figures as Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama, and incidentally winning for itself a fabulous empire half a world away. The slow development, in this unpromising land, of the knowledge, the skill, and above all the energy which made all of this possible is succinctly detailed by Bailey W. Diffie in a meaty little book called Prelude to Empire , which sheds an interestins’ lieht on the wav in which the business eot started.

Prelude to Empire: Portugal Overseas Before Henry the Navigator , by Bailey W. Diffie. University of Nebraska Press. 127 pp. $1.95.

Portugal, to repeat, started with nothing much except a very old seafaring tradition and a strategic location on one of the world’s early trade routes. Before the Renaissance, ships from the Mediterranean were going out past Gibraltar to carry goods to France and the Low Countries, clinging to the coast as they went, calling at the sea towns of Portugal. Portuguese exporters contributed their own goods, and Portuguese ships carried their share, and the nation began to see that its future lay on the open sea. But there were problems. Sea-borne commerce then was an odd mixture of piracy, hot-and-cold war, and commercial chicanery. The ocean was cold, rough, and cruel; to trade by sea and survive at all called for a genuinely unusual combination of talents.

The Portuguese made it. Most of the time, as the author of this book makes clear, they were thinking about nothing much more than the business of making a living. Yet their picture of the world began to expand. You trade with the Low Countries, with England, with Genoa, with North Africa, and bit by bit you get a new idea. The sea is a highway rather than a barrier; with all of its desperate hazards it is a way into a broader universe; get tough, figure all of the angles, develop better ships, sharper merchants, more daring princes—and in the end you may have a great deal more than you thought about when you started.

So the far horizon became a challenge rather than a limitation. Trying to do no more than make a profit, the traders and adventurers of Portugal (the two had to be one and the same, just then) found themselves bringing on the great age of discovery. They developed the caravel, the ship that could go far with few hands at low expense, a fit instrument for men who wanted to go beyond the curving edge of the known world; they developed also the body of knowledge that would be needed for the great explorers; and with all of this they generated an immense driving force that would not be satisfied with the trade to the Low Countries but that would insist on surpassing the bounds of the known and familiar. As Mr. Diffie remarks: “There was energy to spare in Portugal. The question was not if it would burst out, but when and where.”

This uprush of energy, of vital force, of daring and know-how and hard determination, grew out of the simple business of trying to make a living at sea. Sea captains wandered to places we still do not know about, came back and deposited the odds and ends of their knowledge with wealthy patrons or in waterfront taverns, talked vaguely of far-off islands no one else had seen, and of the possibilities that might come if a seafaring man shot the works—and suddenly this small nation was ready to lead the Western world into a new era where the possibilities, at least for a few generations, would be infinite.

The break-through came in 1415, when Portugal somehow found the resources and the driving force to seize the Moslem stronghold at Ceuta, in Africa. Ceuta was not far away, but it was a first step; beyond it, down the coast, was the western bulge of the continent, beyond that was the cape, and beyond that was the road to the East, the road to an illimitable expansion of the European horizon, the open road to everywhere. Nobody was quite ready to take this road in 1415; but this small nation was ready for the great Henry, for serious attention to what might be done beyond the known seas, for Vasco da Gama and what came after him. Thinking to do no more than survive, these people accomplished something far greater than they had intended.

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