In his book Intellectual Appetites Paul J. Griffiths, following the lead of St. Augustine, contrasts studiousness and curiosity with the former being a virtue and the latter a vice. We moderns are not accustomed to regarding curiosity as vice, but Griffiths explains well how it can be so. Let’s start with the excerpt from Augustine:
“And so, every love that belongs to a studious soul which wants to know what it does not know is not a love of what it does not know but rather of what it does know. It is because of what it does know that it wants to know what it does not know. But someone so curious as to be carried away by nothing other than a love of knowing the unknown, and not because of something already known, should be distinguished from the studious and called curious. But even the curious do not love the unknown. It is more accurate to say that they hate the unknown because they want everything to become known and thus nothing to remain unknown.”
Griffiths glosses the excerpt in this way:
Curiosity is a particular appetite, which is to say a particular ordering of the affections, or, more succinctly, a particular intentional love. Its object, what it wants, is new knowledge, a previously unexperienced reflexive intimacy with some creature. And what it seeks to do with that knowledge is control, dominate, or make a private possession of it. Curiosity is, then, in brief, appetite for the ownership of new knowledge, and its principal method is enclosure by sequestration of particular creatures or ensembles of such. The curious want to know what they do not yet know, and they often want to know it with supremely ardent appetite. But the appetite for new knowledge that belongs to them ravishes them: they are violated and dragged away, with full consent and eager cooperation, by what is likely to seem to them a noble desire for nothing other than to know the (unknown).
The appetite of the curious is in that way closed, seeking a sequestered intimacy: the knowledge they seek is wanted as though it were the only thing to be had, and this means that the curious inevitably come to think that the only way in which they can be related to what they seek to know is by sequestration, enclosing a part of the intellectual commons for their own exclusive use, and thus mastering it.
I want to pause here because what Griffiths describes above is an epidemic in today’s mediasphere. Let’s start with the facts on the ground:
a) There are not many jobs in media.
b) One obvious path toward a job is becoming a known personality or brand online.
c) One’s reading and written work, then, becomes an extended practice in gorging oneself on new knowledge to advance one’s own interests.
On top of all the above, there’s a final point to consider, which may be bleakest of all: One of the ideas I have been playing with for awhile is that climate change is a good image for broader societal norms in the modern west. The way I put it in the book is to say that late modern liberalism does to our social climate what climate change does to the ecological climate. In both cases, non-renewable resources are heedlessly consumed and discarded in the pursuit of short-term wealth and success with the result being the erasure of place. The social ecosystem, you might call it, is eroded over time by mobility, loneliness, technology, familial breakdown, economic stagnation, and a host of other factors.
What does this have to do with curiosity? Here is Griffiths defining the virtuous form of the quest for truth, studiousness:
Studiousness, like curiosity, is a particular love, a specific ordering of the affections. And like curiosity it has knowledge as its object, which it seeks. But the studious do not seek to sequester, own, possess, or dominate what they hope to know; they want, instead, to participate lovingly in it, to respond to it knowingly as gift rather than as potential possession, to treat it as icon rather than as spectacle. A preliminary definition of studiousness, then, is: appetite for closer reflexive intimacy with the gift. The appetite of the studious may rival that of the curious in ardor; but the former, unlike the latter, treat what they seek to know as iconic gift and thereby as open to and participatory in the giver. Objects of knowledge so understood can be loved and contemplated, but they cannot be dominated by sequestration. The studious therefore seek a peculiar reflexive intimacy with what they want to know, and they seek it with the understanding that they, as knowers, have creaturely participation in the giver in common with what they want to come to know.This understanding carries with it another, which is that this commonality makes cognitive intimacy possible. And the studious are committed to treating the intellectual commons as indeed common, and not as a field of conquest, a set of objects to be sequestered.
What ultimately separates studiousness from curiosity, then, is attentiveness to the natural order. The studious person desires knowledge not as a means of self-advancement or of acquiring power, but rather desires knowledge out of a love for the object and a desire to observe it more closely, to know it better, to exist alongside that object in a closer way.
This, then, is why I am nervous: If late modern liberalism is a long-form project in dismantling the given forms of the natural order—families, the planet, our bodies, our places, and so on—then what things will be left for us to love? Indeed what things will be left for us to simply work on, regardless of the level of fondness we feel for them or the sacrifices we are willing to make? I fear the answer is “the only thing left will be individual identity.” But what then?
If we have no common objects of love, what is the affection that can lead us toward studiousness and away from curiosity? If my confidences in everything save my own identity is diminished—and late modern liberalism seems to me to be designed to do precisely that—then my desire for knowledge can only be curiosity.
This, incidentally, is what I meant in the first issue when I said that the only writers with something valuable to say in this context are the writers with a deep love and affection for a particular home place. If we don’t have something outside ourselves that our work is ordered to, then all that we have left is the self and all our work is merely a form of identity construction. And at that point, I fear that the standard for our work is no longer truthfulness or whether the work tends toward love but is, rather, whether the work satisfies us personally or advances our private interests.