Friday, March 12, 2004

The Vice of Curiosity


It is a surprising thing to find that in Augustine and Aquinas, curiosity is listed as vice, not a virtue. We are accustomed to using the word in a good way, as in "What a curious little boy!" We mean by it that the little boy takes an interest in many things, which is indeed a good thing. But the word we use for the virtue is incorrect. Rather, we mean "studiousness", which refers to the habit of applying study to know truth. So what's curiosity?

Curiosity is the vice of seeking knowledge, which is a good thing, for a bad end, which makes it a vice. Thomas says in II-II 167.2 that seeking knowledge may be sinful in two ways: 1) if it is done to distract oneself from the good one should be seeking, or 2) if it is done to find out new sins to commit. For example "as looking on a woman is directed to lust: even so the busy inquiry into other people's actions is directed to detraction." Thus curiosity is the vice related to the sin of gossip, seeking to know about one's neighbors solely for the reason of tearing them down.

The vice of curiosity manifests most often in the remote control. There may be a million things one has to do, books to read, or children to love, but. . . what's on channel 234? Click, click, click. It's manifest in the second way by internet clicking, especially for men. There are so many enticements to lust available that one continues to browse for "boobs" and such, looking for an opportunity to sin. This is why, incidentally, I recommend all you men out there get some sort of parental controls on your computer, and give the password to your wife. It will help you control lustful curiosity.

Let me close with a description of curiosity from Josef Pieper's wonderful book "The Four Cardinal Virtues." He points out tha curiosity is driven by a fundamental unease with oneself: Peace and quiet is an enemy, because it leaves us alone with our empty, naked selves. Curiosity reaches the extremes of its destructive and eradicating power when it builds itself a world according to its own image and likeness: when it surrounds itself with the restlessness of a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows, and with the literally deafening noise of impressions and sensations breathlessly rushing past the windows of the senses. Behind the flimsy pomp of its faceade dwells absolute nothingness; it is a world of, at most, ephemeral creations, which often with less than a quarter hour become stale and discarded, like a newspaper or magazine swiftly scanned or merely perused; a world which, to the piercing eye of the healthy mind untouched by its contagion, appears like the amusement quarter of a big city in the hard brightness of a winter morning: desperately bare, disconsolate, and ghostly.

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