On Curiosity

Note: We bring you Fr. Schall a little earlier than is usual in our regular rotation. He went in for surgery earlier this week but seems to be doing fine – in fact, may be leaving the hospital today and returning to his retirement residence. Prayers, of course, are welcome, and you can keep up with his condition or send messages at the Schall family site here. Today is also the last day of our end-of-year funding drive. The Catholic Thing only continues to exist because of the generosity of its readers. That means you. Please make your tax-deductible contribution and keep TCT going strong, every day.   – Robert Royal

In his 1939 lecture, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, Abraham Flexner stressed the fact that great scientific discoveries were not necessarily made for their usefulness. They were rather the product of a “curiosity” that sought no rewards.

In 2012, an exploratory device landed on the planet Mars. This contraption was named “Curiosity,” a fitting name. “Curiosity” is still functioning. A companion device arrived on the Martian surface in November 2018. The name, curiosity, incites our wonder: What is happening on that near-by but distant planet? Ought we to know these things?

Most folks recall that curiosity “killed the cat.” A British rock band calls itself “Curiosity Killed the Cat.” In earlier versions of this saying, “care” killed Kitty, but “satisfaction” brought her back again. The saying cautioned uninhibited inquisitiveness.

What’s behind those closed doors? Some things it’s best not to know. Freda-Marie Hartung and Britta Renner studied the relation of social curiosity and gossip. The latter seems more focused on entertainment, while the former just wants to know things. “Curiosity killed the cat” seems unrelated to “cats have nine lives.”

In the New York Times (November 14, 2009), Stanley Fish recalled a lecture given at the University of Virginia by James Leach, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Looking over the life of UVA’s founder, Leach thought that “curiosity” would be a good word to describe the inquisitiveness to know just about everything that Thomas Jefferson displayed in his life. Leach even wanted to make “curiosity” a natural “right,” as if the word had no pejorative overtones.

But Fish had read the Bible, Aquinas, and Newman. He was aware of another tradition that was hesitant to embrace curiosity as an unmitigated virtue or right. The Chinese surveillance of every aspect of its people’s lives represents the downside of curiosity.

The real mother of curiosity, as Fish recalled, was our first parent, Eve. She was curious to know why she was not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So she was willing to find out by turning to a famous Serpent who told her: “No worry. You were lied to. You won’t die.”

Needless to say, Eve’s curiosity eventually did kill her, and evidently the rest of us to boot. And we are still curious about the forbidden fruit. We keep setting up our own definitions of what is good and what is evil. Our curiosity makes us wonder why our schemes do not work.


Aquinas, unsurprisingly, devotes some pages to curiosity (ST I-II, 167). He was curious about curiosity. We spend much time and money educating ourselves. Yet in academia today, we limit ourselves to certain ideas that are dubbed “politically correct.” We are curious about how this restriction of knowledge came about in institutions that are in theory designed to be open to all that is. As Aquinas says, just seeking knowledge is not a completely neutral activity.

Curiosity, it turns out, is not so much about knowledge as such but about “desire and study in the pursuit of knowledge.” Knowledge as such is good but it can be evil in virtue of the reasons we have in pursuing it. It easily leads to pride, the most dangerous of vices.

We are curious to acquire knowledge of something or someone in order that “we might sin.” Aquinas even notes that the looking lustfully at someone can fall under a curiosity that needs to be controlled. In today’s world of “rights,” both lust and sodomy use curiosity to accomplish their disordered purposes.

The Latin words that Aquinas uses are curiositas and studiositas. Alice Ramos points out that they differ as vice does to virtue. The virtue, studiositas, means the pursuit of reality in order to know and express it. Curiositas means using our knowledge for some other purpose. In this latter context, we are not interested in knowledge for its truth, for its own sake, but as a means to some less noble end.

In responding to an objection, Aquinas gives his understanding of curiosity. He refers to the philosophers. “The study of philosophy,” he tells us:

is in itself lawful and commendable, on account of the truth which philosophers acquired through God revealing it to them. . . .Since, however, certain philosophers misuse truth in order to assail the faith, the Apostle (Paul) says: “Beware lest any man cheat you by philosophy and vain deceit, according to the traditions of men and not according to Christ,” and Dionysius says of certain philosophers that they make an unholy use of divine things against that which is divine, and by divine wisdom strive to destroy the worship of God.

The ultimate aberration of philosophy is that it can use revelation to destroy both reason and revelation. We should be indeed curious about how this aberration could happen.

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*Image: Curioser and curioser: The Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel, 1865 [an original illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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