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Curiosity vs. Wonder

6:00:00 AMLiz Stein

Augustine of Hippo, a revered 5th century philosopher and theologian, is known primarily for his works which have shaped western culture, its Christian Church, and the philosophy which is infused within them. One may be shocked to find that Augustine - even in his most popular work, the Confessions - defames things we generally accept, such as “curiosity”. Within Augustine’s Confessions, he defines curiosity as a form of temptation – a type of inherent evil. At first glance, this may seem to shame the concept of the intellectual drive or of humanity’s natural desire to know. However, other evidence from the text implies that this judgement could not be further from his literary intention. Rather, our immediate backlash against the saint is due to a simple linguistic misunderstanding. An important distinction must be made between “curiosity” and “wonder”.

When discussing the temptations which lead the human being astray from the practice of virtue, Augustine says:

“There is a form of temptation even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity.” (1)

With a retrospective view to current contemporary terminology, this is surely a shocking and provocative claim to make. We have seen an age in which so-called curiosity, aided by the scientific method, has led to great progress in nearly all areas of life. After all, in his book Metaphysics A, Aristotle comments that, “All men by nature desire to know.” (5) This observation about human nature’s rational nature is widely accepted and hailed as what differentiates man from lesser species, as well as the element which has allowed the continued survival and advances of the human species.

It is then helpful to examine the nature of curiosity according to Augustine and why it bears a negative definition. It seems that Augustine laments the tendency by which aimless inquisitiveness reaps evil effects rather than fruitfulness, and this he calls curiosity. The general attitude that curiosity is a sort of “prying” into things which do not concern us is held by many.
Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas delves into philosophical specifics and examines just how curiosity is disordered in both the sensitive and intellectual realms. In the Summa Theologica he presents the following stance;
“For the knowledge of truth, strictly speaking, is good, but it may be evil accidentally, by reason of some result, either because one takes pride in knowing the truth, or because one uses the knowledge of truth in order to sin.”(2)

Aquinas continues by explaining how the desire or study in pursuing the knowledge of truth may be right or wrong, dependent upon the same two qualifications listed in the quote above. He answers that curiosity of the intellective sciences, then, may indeed be sinful, for “vanity of understanding” and “darkness of the mind” are both sinful and are both themselves effects of unholy inquisitiveness. Of the pursuit of knowledge of sensible things (not just intellectual truths), Aquinas is of the same mind.
So – what about wonder? All of this being said, it seems worth noting that Aquinas is responsible for many philosophical writings which explore the limits and bounds of the metaphysical reality – thus demonstrating that Aquinas himself possessed a mind prone to wonder, or “holy curiosity”. Therefore, from his own experience as a philosopher, it is evident that Aquinas sees clearly and rationally, understanding both the objectively good and bad which can arise from man’s pursuit of knowledge – depending upon how the pursuit is ordered.
In studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.” (2)
Taking into account these various thoughts – both of which precede and build upon the fruits of Augustine himself – what seems reasonable is surely not that scientific advances, true art and progress are proclaimed to be within themselves “evil”, but rather that the roots of term ‘curiositas’ imply a pursuit of knowledge which is vain and toxic – and thus, in the case of Augustine and the Confessions, able to lead to sin
Aristotle himself, in his book Metaphysics – although he praises wonder (Greek: thauma) as the root of enquiry, saying: “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (2)– it seems as though he actually felt that curiosity (Greek: periergia) was far less important than its counterpart, existing only as a type of intellectual idleness and fruitless.
It seems only prudent that before allowing one’s unavoidable immersion in postmodern thought to overtake their analysis of the work and immediately dismissing Augustine’s chide against curiosity as idiotic, it may be worth considering that Augustine’s philosophical legacy marks him as a respected metaphysician whose work is consistent with Aristotelian ideas rather than dissenting from them.
Thus, Augustine’s admonishment of idle intellectualism but praise of wonder-infused-discovery is made clear in other writings. Although more subtly and symbolically, a definite attitude of wonder permeates throughout his memoir the Confessions. To fully appreciate Augustine’s clear and intentional spirit of ‘pursuit’ of truth, the following quote ought to be examined.
“I asked the heavens, sun, moon, stars, "Nor (say they) are we the God whom thou seekest." And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: "Ye have told me of my God that ye are not He; tell me something of Him." And they cried out with a loud voice, "He made us." My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer.” (1)
So evident it is that Augustine, who so intimately identified with the struggle and yearning of man to find truth, could certainly not admonish the pursuit of that very truth. It would seem, then, that it is only rational to assume that he must define ‘Curiositas’ as something very different (and far more sinister) than the word which is commonly thought to refer to the intellectual drive and the pursuit of knowledge for an end. With this, it may be rational to assume that if “wonder” is acceptable to Augustine – containing within it a questioning nature which is vigorous and seeking, but also fruitful – then he must believe ‘curiositas’ to be (in some ways) its antithesis. While in the situation presented in the quote, curiosity would seek mere knowledge with no end in mind, wonder would then desire the transcendent value of truth – seeking to know “why” and the fundamental causes and ends of things.
Indeed, upon thorough analysis, it is evident that the thought Augustine of Hippo and those like him does certainly not condemn the pursuit of truth and objective progress. Perhaps, then, when postmodern individuals who hail “curiositas” as a good appeal to their intellect and ask questions to seek knowledge and truth for any good end would be at linguistic odds with Augustine and thinkers of the like – they believe their actions to be curious in nature, when in fact they are simply exercising what should be called “healthy curiosity” – the natural and right ability to wonder.

  1. Augustine, Confessions  
  2. Aquinas The Summa Theologica
  3. Aristotle, Metaphysics


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