Studiousness and the Vice of Curiosity
by Clemens Pater
When I was a young student it seemed that “curiosity” was promoted as a good thing. Maybe we called it “healthy” curiosity. At the same time we knew that “curiosity killed the cat.” the message was clear enough. Be careful where you stick your nose!
With the explosion of data available on our hand-helds, or by asking “Siri, Alexa, Assistant, or Cortana,” we may find ourselves or others constantly looking up facts. A short time back we amused ourselves in pursuit of “trivia;” and for generations we may have enjoyed collecting baseball or other sports stats. It seems harmless enough.
Eight hundred years ago, St Thomas Aquinas, taught about the moderation of the appetites seeking knowledge. He taught about studiousness, (studiositas), noting that all people have a natural desire for knowledge, but temperance must moderate curiosity,(curiositas) (II-IIae, 166;2).
That great philosopher mentions several of the pitfalls of curiosity:
First, when a person avoids his proper study to inordinately occupy himself with lesser things;
Second, When he might turn to the occult or to seek to know the future through demonology of one type or another;
Third, when we engage in a kind of idle curiosity and forget the divine truth;
Fourth, when one seeks truth beyond his ability and easily falls into error. (II-IIae, 167;1)
Eight centuries ago the world could not imagine the ready availability of information – words and pictures – that so marks our 21st century culture, but in today’s plethora of available facts (Of course, there is no guarantee of factual accuracy), all these dangers of which St. Thomas warns, are potentially or actually present.
We may convince ourselves that a harmless search is a good diversion, but in fact it may become a conscious or less-conscious door to gratification, for example, pornography. If curiosity is a type of intemperance, the immoderate exercise of that appetite can easily open a door to the sexual appetites. Pornography is addictive and the devil is always looking for an opportunity to exploit us.
A more benign example of searching for trivia can quickly result in a dissipation of time and energy. Moments turn to hours, which may distract us from the legitimate search for truth.
This quest of curiosity becomes a goal not always worthy of our human dignity. It can also become an obstacle to human encounter. Unbridled curiosity can distract us from generosity to others, or from appropriate productivity.
I have visited a family restaurant occasionally to see every one at a neighboring table using a device. Even the toddler has propped before him a tablet of some sort with an interactive display. But no one at the table appears to be interacting with each other. The family members may legitimately ask, “Is this how we fulfill our vocation to help each other to Heaven?”
Studiousness, by comparison, is a virtue. People trained in professional or other skills are often required to accrue hours of continuing education. All of us would be prudent to do something comparable. We are life-long learners. We are created by God “to know Him; to love Him, to serve Him…” One of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit is Knowledge. That faculty of reason which distinguishes us as “human,” needs to be fed. It finds fulfillment in the search for and attainment of substantive truth.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Parochial and Plains Sermons, Volume 8. (ca. 1842) Excerpt from Sermon V, Curiosity a Temptation to Sin
“Be not you thus deceived and overcome, my brethren, by an evil heart of unbelief. Make up your minds to take God for your portion, and pray to Him for grace to enable you so to do.
Avoid the great evils of leisure, avoid the snares of having time on your hands. Avoid all bad thoughts, all corrupt or irreligious books, avoid all bad company; let nothing seduce you into it.
Though you may be laughed at for your strictness; though you may lose thereby amusements which you would like to partake of; though you may thereby be ignorant of much which others know, and may appear to disadvantage when talking together; though you appear behind the rest of the world; though you be called a coward, or a child, or narrow-minded, or superstitious; whatever insulting words be applied to you, fear not, falter not, fail not, stand firm, quit you like men; be strong.
They think that in the devil’s service there are secrets worthy of our inquiry, which you share not: yes, there are secrets, and such that it is a shame even to speak of them.
And in like manner you have a secret which they have not, and which far surpasses theirs. ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him.’ (Ps 25:14) Those who obey God and follow Christ have secret gains, so great. …
[This secret] .. is given but in small measure to those who begin in God’s service. It is not given at all to those with a divided heart. To those who love the world, and yet are in a certain sense religious, and are well contented with such a religious state, to them it is not given.
But those who give themselves up to their Lord and Savior, those who surrender themselves soul and body, those who honestly say, ‘I am Thine, new-make me, do with me what Thou wilt,’ who say so not once or twice merely, or in a transport, but calmly and habitually; these are they who gain the Lord’s secret gift. …”