Yesterday, Apple announced its much-anticipated new iPhone. I confess that, while I am no stranger to Apple products myself, I can’t help but think of a certain vice whenever these annual unveilings occur. It’s probably not a vice that you’ve heard mentioned very often (at least as a vice). You won’t find it in any list of the seven deadly sins or referenced in the Decalogue, at least not explicitly, but I believe it’s something that has a firm grip on many people in our day and has silently woven itself into the fabric of our culture. The vice I have in mind is curiosity. I’m not the first person to classify it as a vice: St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologiae, II-II.167 describes curiositas as such, a perversion of true wisdom.
I realize that this may sound strange to some; indeed, many would consider it to be an undisputed virtue. Most college admissions offices declare that they are looking for students who display “intellectual curiosity.” James Leach, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave a speech a few years ago at the University of Virginia, and its title was “Is There an Inalienable Right to Curiosity?” In this speech, he claimed, given that “the cornerstone to democracy is access to knowledge,” it is not too much to say that “the curious pursuing their curiosity may be mankind’s greatest if not only hope.” He went on to explain that it is the driving force of curiosity that has led to achievements such as space travel, a split atom, cloning, and the information revolution, and then announced, “The computer revolution holds out the prospect that the digital library could become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, I imagine. Most people today consider the expansion of knowledge to be an undoubted good. I remember, as a child, seeing posters on the wall of my elementary school gym that said things like “knowledge is the key” or, even more hauntingly, “knowledge is power.” But the key to what? The power to do what? And who is to teach us what we should know and why? Most people would probably point out that knowledge will lead to things that make our lives better. But there is still something very incomplete and unsatisfying about this answer. The motto seems to be “leave no stone unturned, there is always more to know, the more information the better.” As long as the information is accurate, it is worth our time and energy to pursue it.
It is hardly worth mentioning that our increase in knowledge and access to information has saved many lives and vastly improved our living conditions. None of us would enjoy the same quality of life if it weren’t for the technology brought about by advances in human knowledge. Perhaps it’s best simply to adapt to our society’s changes and make the best of it. It’s almost cliché now to point out how much our postmodern society relies on images and other visual media, but it is startling to stop and think about how different our everyday experience of the world is from that of our ancestors. It’s remarkable how quickly I can find directions, read the latest headlines, or download a newly released album. I wonder what the ancients, some of whom had to memorize entire books as part of their education, would think of the access we now have to books and virtually all kinds of data on the Internet.
Technological advances notwithstanding (including beneficial ones), the question still needs to be asked: have our advances in knowledge made us smarter? Have they made us morally superior? Have they made us holier? We’ve all heard the reports and surveys of the state of education in America; we’ve heard about the high school graduates who can’t name the nations bordering the United States. Most of us at some point have received the classic email forward that reproduces a public school examination from the 1800s, beating us over the head with the fact that we’ve lost something in our educational system over the years. But why, then, are we so convinced of this proverb that “knowledge (without any qualification) is the key”? How much more information needs to be available and how many more laptops need to be handed out before we begin to question the truth of this statement?
I wonder if the unencumbered thirst for knowledge that is so glorified in our culture has brought with it an inclination towards vice, or a particular kind of vice, that might otherwise go under the radar. It’s easy to point the finger at scientists and academics and criticize their obsession with knowledge and information, but I’m thinking just as much about everyday sorts of information that ordinary people encounter every day, whether its stock market updates, celebrity gossip, sports statistics, or your best friend’s “tweets.”
I’m not trying to suggest that this vice, curiosity, is something new; in fact, it is very old. We might even be able to make the case that it was the original sin. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, recounts how, in his pre-conversion life, he used to waste time watching a dog chase a rabbit at the circus. But after his conversion, even though he devoted his time to more fruitful things, he worried that his daily life was surrounded on every side by a buzz of distraction. He confesses that even when he is passing through the countryside, if a dog chasing a rabbit comes across his path, he becomes distracted from whatever matter he was pondering at the time. He could have used the opportunity to reflect upon God’s creation, but instead stands there watching “like an empty-headed fool.” We may not be as hard on ourselves as St. Augustine was, but I think we can all relate to another example he gives: there is a difference between the morbid fascination of wanting to look at a mangled corpse at the scene of an accident and, say, a doctor who studies a cadaver to increase his knowledge of the human body.
Each age, of course, is prone to particular virtues and vices, and I do wonder if this vice of curiosity has gotten the best of us. By buying into the idea that all information is good, any knowledge is worth pursuing, and every app is worth downloading, we’ve set ourselves up to be overtaken by curiosity. To be clear, I’m using the word “knowledge” in the broadest sense; I’m not limiting it to what we might think of as “book learning,” although it certainly includes that. I mean it to include anything and everything that enters our minds on a day-to-day basis, from the moment we roll out of bed and learn about the day’s weather or the news to the recipe we look up for a church potluck. What I mean by “curiosity” is a desire for knowledge or an experience for its own sake; to know for the sake of knowing, or to experience for the sake of experiencing. I think we might even be able to expand our definition to include any desire for knowledge that doesn’t ultimately aim at wisdom or understanding, but I’ll leave that aside for now. Regardless, we should be careful to note that, like any vice, it comes in degrees. It could be as serious as what Augustine describes as “a vain inquisitiveness dignified with the title of knowledge and science” or as discreet as the lure of the daytime talk show playing on the TV in the doctor’s waiting room.
One of the difficulties in recognizing the vice of curiosity perhaps lies in the fact that its outcomes are not always immediately obvious. Transgressions born of wrath include murder or the physical harm of one’s neighbor. Lust leads to adultery and broken marriages. But curiosity’s children are more subtle. Who, then, will teach us not to be curious? Is the Church equipped to catechize and prepare young adults who are “in the world but not of it”? Are our flocks being formed to pursue that which is worth pursuing? Are we preaching a Gospel that can re-form our desires for that which is truly satisfying? I don’t think there’s an app for that.
The image is Roger and Renate Rössing’s “Ein Kind schaut durch ein Türschlüsselloch und ein Kleinkind steht bei ihm” (Leipzig, 1952). It was uploaded by Deutsche Phototek and is licensed under Creative Commons.