The Disease Called Curiosity

Nowadays we think of curiosity as an emotion necessary for the advancement of knowledge, indeed as the well-spring of scientific discovery. It was not always so.

Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, stated the traditional medieval view of curiosity, and it wasn’t favorable.  In the Confessions, the Bishop of Hippo made inquisitiveness in general the subject of a vicious polemic, thereby setting the tone for the debate over intellectual curiosity for centuries. Augustine included curiositas in his catalog of vices, identifying it as one of the three forms of lust (concupiscentia) that are the beginning of all sin (lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and ambition of the world).  The overly curious mind exhibits a “lust to find out and know,” not for any practical purpose but merely for the sake of knowing.  Thanks to the “disease of curiosity” people go to watch freaks in circuses and charlatans in the piazzas.  Augustine saw no essential difference between such perverse entertainments and the “empty longing and curiosity [that is] dignified by the names of learning and science.” 

No difference between gawking at freaks in a sideshow and making investigations in natural philosophy? That’s what the saint said: “From the same motive,” Augustine wrote, “men proceed to investigate the workings of nature, which is beyond our ken—things which it does no good to know and which men only want to know for the sake of knowing.”  Augustine’s severe judgment of intellectual curiosity, linking it with the sin of pride, the black arts, and the Fall, became conventional in medieval thought.  In the Renaissance, it gave rise to such memorable characters as Doctor Faustus, who bartered his soul to the devil to satisfy his insatiable curiosity and quest for power.

Yet gawking curiosity was the perpetuum mobile of Renaissance science.  Early modern curiosity was insatiable, never content with a single experience or object. Whereas Augustine linked curiosity to sensual lust and human depravity, Renaissance natural philosophers saw it as being driven by wonder and the engine of discovery. 

Renaissance Venice was fertile ground both for the generation of wonder and for the growth of experimental science. Galileo made his first telescope there, improving on a primitive device invented by a Dutch lens grinder.  The craftsmen in Venice’s busy Merceria were renowned for their precision, and the city’s Arsenale—an immense shipbuilding factory—encompassed nearly all the mechanical arts, from carpentry to metallurgy and from glassmaking to cannonry. 

Galileo relied on the testimony of craftsmen and employed them to build his scientific instruments. Questions that craftsmen asked about nature inspired him to penetrate more deeply into nature’s secrets. Venice’s maritime empire and its rich craft tradition provided plentiful fuel for wonder and curiosity. The continual contact with exotic commodities, whether herbs from the New World, mechanical toys from Persia, or fake dragons and basilisks, fueled Renaissance curiosity. All that evoked curiosity and wonder became prized objects for collectors, who displayed rare and exotic natural and artifical objects in curiosity cabinets, like peacocks proudly displaying their colorful feathers—indeed, peacock feather, too, were prized objects for collectors.

Pharmacies displayed the curiosities of Renaissance culture. The cabinet of pharmacist Francesco Calzolari at Verona, pictured here, displayed dried herbs, minerals, preserved animals, birds and snakes, including a supposed unicorn horn.

Such objects would become the “curious” things of early modern science. Saint Paul’s admonition, Noli alta sapere, “Do not seek to know high things,” gave way in the Renaissance to Horace’s more hopeful Sapere aude, “Dare to know.” 

The transformation of curiosity in the Renaissance was a precondition of modernity. Without curiosity, there can be no scientific discovery, and without discovery, there can be no new knowledge.

9 Comments to The Disease Called Curiosity

  1. August 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    nice post. thanks.

  2. alextmwk's Gravatar alextmwk
    August 8, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating. Thank you. Did early Protestantism take
    Augustine’s view or Horace’s?

  3. williameamon's Gravatar williameamon
    August 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    @alextmwk: Early Protestant did tend to follow Augustine on curiosity (e.g., Luther and Calvin); but later Protestants, especially in England, tended to take a more positive view of intellectual curiosity. I’m glad you liked the post.

  4. Howard's Gravatar Howard
    August 8, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Several questions:
    does the medieval injunction against curiosity contrast with classical antiquity, as I’d suppose?
    how about Jewish and Muslim attitudes?
    Was it and perhaps obviously related to an inwardness, emphasizing the wonders of what might be referred to as the soul? Meaning that though curiosity is banned wonder might not?
    Might it also serve the purpose of people minding their own business and knowing their place in the social hierarchy as a kind of cure or innoculation to the widespread conflict and turbulence of the ancient world?

    • williameamon's Gravatar williameamon
      August 8, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      Excellent questions. As to the first, I think it is a major shift away from the classical view. In general, there was no overal injunction against curiosity in the classical tradition (although you do find warnings in the tragedies). I’m not as sure about the Jewish and Muslim attitudes. Certainly in medieval Islam there is a strong scientific tradition, but also a counter-movement against it. You third question is very interesting. In the Augustinian tradition, wonder does not seem to be a sin, as long as it is directed toward God: one is not supposed to try to understand God; a more appropriate sentiment in that tradition would be awe in contemplating the Almighty, or, as you say, the depths of the soul. As for you final question, I agree, the injunction against curiosity was not just against being curious about natural things, but about the secrets of God and the secrets of the state as well. I think that, as you suggest, it carried a strong political message. If people get too curious they get restless, and that’s not good for the stability of established institutions.
      Thank you for these interesting questions.

  5. November 11, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Bill.
    Just to say you that Mar Rey, Maria portuondo and John Slater, we all are discussing some topics concernig History of Science during the last week. One of these topics is the role and place of every-day life into de Imperial Science (is), Secret Science (ss). I argue that such topics need to be very well explained before using them. There are a lot of questions to answer, such as:
    Does is determine to ss.? Where there is ss? And more. Since these topics are being used in relation with early modern Spanish Science, and since you are an expertised one on such topics, could you help us in calibrate what imperial science means?

  6. gerdon's Gravatar gerdon
    October 29, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m stunned. I had never heard of curiosity being described as a sin until reading a commentary on Marlowe’s Faustus. Is it ever included among the seven deadly sins?

    • williameamon's Gravatar williameamon
      October 30, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment. Not specifically, as far as I know; except that Augustine calls curiosity a form of “lust of the eyes,” and in that sense one of the 7 deadly sins.

  7. david's Gravatar david
    September 24, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    And yet Augustine also wrote: “Free curiosity has greater power to stimulate learning than rigorous coercion” And: “A free curiosity is more effective in learning than a rigid discipline.” He is hardly anti-intellectual.
    So, when he speaks of “the disease of curiosity” as delving into the “secrets of nature … which are beyond our understanding [and] which can avail us nothing,” he is not talking about the “desire to know” as such, but the desire to know at any price, even nuclear holocaust and environmental collapse. He is warning against knowledge without understanding, discernment and wisdom.

Connect to William