On Curiosity – Aquinas vs. Augustine

This post isn’t on the recent landing of Curiosity on Mars. Although if you go here you’ll see a beautiful interactive 360 degree photo of Mars from Curiosity. It is impressive although skeptics will just say it’s footage of some Arizona desert. But it does spark the question why did we send this thing to Mars anyway? Part of the answer is that we are a curious lot and we have a desire to know. Augustine called curiosity a “disease.” By the time of the Middle Ages this had become a common view. I’ve been reading The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas which has been fascinating. I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve learned in later posts but this segment I found very interesting.

“With this conclusion Aquinas opposes another tradition in the Middle Ages that was especially powerful in the monastic world. This tradition discerns and deplores human ‘curiosity’, and unvirtuous desire to know in human beings. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), one of the leading figures in twelfth-century intellectual life, writes, ‘There are people who want to know solely for the sake of knowing, and that is scandalous curiosity.’ The authority behind this tradition is Augustine.

In Book X, 35 of the Confessions, Augustine deals at length with the vice of curiosity. He calls it ‘a vain desire cloaked in the name of knowledge.’ Curiosity is the temptation to seek knowledge for its own sake. For Augustine, ‘knowledge’ has an instrumental meaning. It must be subservient to human salvation and oriented to faith. God and the human soul are the only things worthy of being known. From this perspective Augustine criticizes the inquiry of philosophers into the nature of things: ‘Because of this morbid curiosity . . . men proceed to search out the secrets of nature, things outside ourselves, to know which profits us nothing, and of which men desire nothing but to know them.’

For Aquinas, however, the human desire to know is not a vain curiosity. Following Aristotle, he sees the desire to know as natural. It arises from human nature and is directed to human perfection. The Augustinian tradition of condemning the vice of curiosity accordingly plays no role in Aquinas’s work, stamped by the new world of the university. In the part of ST that deals with the theme of curiosity, he claims that ‘the study of philosophy is legitimate and praiseworthy (licitum et laudabile) in itself.’ Human beings marvel at things and desire to know the causes of what they see.” (28)



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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