Why curiosity is a vice

james-stevenson--curiosity--new-yorker-cartoon_i-G-65-6591-EUV2100ZFrom a superb essay by Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths, “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning” (Teaching and Christian Practices):

Following the Latin fathers, and especially Augustine, we can briefly define curiosity as “appetite for the ownership of new knowledge.” This appetite the fathers judged a vice, identifying it as fundamentally pagan and as inevitably failing in its attempt to come to know things and to think well about them. This failure was, they thought, guaranteed by the strange relation between knower and known established by curiosity. That relationship is characterized by two fundamental desires: to own what is known, and to know new things. To own what you know is to establish a relation of dominance over it by making it exclusively yours. In order to do this, you need to cut it out from the herd of other knowables, as it were, rope and tie it, and bring it, now under constraint, into solitary confinement in your mental pen. This sequestration in the direction of ownership attempts, so its Christian critics say, to give those who undertake it a quasi-divine dominance over what they know. The object known, for the curious, lies passive before the gaze of the knower, and is removed from its participatory relation with the Lord who made it. If you try to know things as the curious do, to become curiously learned, you make idols of the creatures you study, things that can be known exhaustively, without remainder, and without reference to the Lord. This attempt must fail, for no creature can be known in this way; what you get when you try it is a simulacrum of knowledge, something like what you get when you substitute for making love with an actual human being making love to a phantasm, an image imagined. The phantasms that the curious attempt to grasp do not satisfy them, which is why the definition of curiosity includes reference to novelty: the curious are driven, desperately, to seek new things to know because they can never be satisfied by the simulacrum of knowledge curiosity provides. The fathers root this analysis of curiosity in 1 John 2:16, where there is a division of the love of the world into three kinds: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Curiosity is identified with the second of these three, the concupiscentia oculorum. It is an idle, restless, idolatrous attempt to establish intellectual dominance over creatures as if they were not creatures but, instead, mere objects under the complete control of the curious knower. The curious value learning for its own sake, alone, which is the precise Augustinian definition of idolatry: they exchange use for enjoyment.


One thought on “Why curiosity is a vice

  1. As you know, I am reading Confessions. Now that I am in the last two books, I have had much exposure with the three lusts that Augustine struggled with and that you mention now. This excerpt put the lust of the eyes in perspective for me, it teased out the sin in being curious (something that I was doubting while reading Augustine, somewhat).

    P.S. Funny cartoon!

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