December 6, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Augustine explores both healthy and unhealthy curiosity in The Confessions. He writes: “We can easily distinguish between the motives of pleasure and curiosity. When the senses demand pleasure, they look for objects of visual beauty, harmonious sounds, fragrant perfumes, and things that are pleasant to the taste or soft to the touch. But when their motive is curiosity, they may look for just the reverse of these things, simply to put it to the proof, not for the sake of an unpleasant experience, but from a relish for investigation and discovery” (107B). From this, I gather that Augustine encourages intellectual curiosities, but not idle vanities. However, he writes about the “relish of investigation” which I would call both a curiosity and a pleasure.
For Augustine, all pleasurable investigation should stem from some divinely-inspired intuition. It seems to me that he approves of some level of curiosity, but not anything that distracts from God. So, it is not just that we think of God, but that we gain more wisdom when we acknowledge a truth in God. He explains that curiosity can masquerade as truth-seeking, but is in fact a self-indulgent pleasure. I would argue that humans are curious by nature, so, regardless of the question, all curiosities may be considered self-indulgent pleasures. Still, I want to better understand what type of curiosity Augustine approves of.
Moving from what Augustine disapproves of may prove the easier path. He says that an unhealthy curiosity is satisfied by “freaks and prodigies…in the theatre, and for the same reason men are led to investigate the secrets of nature, which are irrelevant to our lives, although such knowledge is of no value to them and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing. It is curiosity, too, which causes men to turn to sorcery in the effort to obtain knowledge for the same perverted purpose. And it even invades our religion, for we put God to the test when we demand signs and wonders from him, not in the hope of salvation, but simply for the love of experience” (107B). Clearly, then, to seek answers beyond our realm is impossible and unwise. In fact, it defies faith. Augustine mentions sorcery here, but I also wonder if he was troubled by all scientific pursuits. Would he denounce modern scientists’ expedition towards relativity, for example? I honestly cannot decide except to say that if science leads us to a greater understanding of God, then I think he would approve. However, if it distracts humans from the eternal truth of God, then I think he would not approve.
Augustine uses his own childhood as an example of the wrong path. He blames himself for his early education, and his tendency to find comfort and enjoyment in shallow stories and theatre. In a long and telling passage, Augustine explains his own weakness so that we might strengthen ours. He writes:
“Yet who can tell how many times each day our curiosity is tempted by the most trivial and insignificant matters? Who can tell how often we give way? So often it happens that, when others tell foolish tales, at first we bear with them for fear of offending the weak, and then little by little we begin to listen willingly. I no longer go to watch a dog chasing a hare at the games in the circus. But if I should happen to see the same thing in the country as I pass by, the chase might easily distract me from whatever serious thoughts occupied my mind. It might not actually compel me to turn my horse from the path, but such would be the inclination of my heart; and unless you made me realize my weakness and quickly reminded me, either to turn my eyes from the sight and raise my thoughts to you in contemplation, or to despise it utterly and continue on my way, I should simply stop and gloat. What excuse can I make for myself when often, as I sit at home, I cannot turn my eyes from the sight of a lizard catching flies or a spider entangling them as they fly into her web?” (108A). These novels, or curiosities, are vulgar distractions to Augustine. They represent sport or game which in no way reflects upon the vaster questions of life.
This passage makes me think of the dog in the Disney/Pixar film Up who constantly gets distracted by a squirrel. The point here is that there is a larger purpose to attend to and that the trivial often pulls us off course. The final part of his long quote is most important to me. He continues: “Does it make any difference that these are only small animals? It is true that the sight of them inspires me to praise you for the wonders of your creation and the order in which you have disposed all things, but I am not intent upon your praises when I first begin to watch. It is one thing to rise quickly from a fall, another not to fall at all” (108A). In other words, the intention with which we begin a project is of utmost importance to Augustine. The problem is not that we look, but why we look.
The Confessions opens with praise for God. Augustine says that “all who look for him shall find him” (1A), which seems to grant permission to curiosity, but only that which seeks to find God. I struggled with this also since I believed that all nature represents God’s greatness and diversity. So in our curiosity, what can we look for? What is a right question? I believe that a better word for the type of investigation that Augustine wants to inspire is contemplation. While it may not seem like a huge change, I believe that Augustine wrote The Confessions in a way that would encourage contemplation of one’s life, not simply to spark a curiosity, which seems more trifling, but to motivate others to contemplate our role within life and existence, our behaviors and relationships, and most importantly, the mystery of faith.
Augustine sees man divided into two natures: good and bad. Perhaps man was intentionally given these two natures in order to struggle. After a negative experience with strict primary school teachers, he writes, “we learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion” (8A). Augustine’s struggles elucidated his path. It was only after much internal reckoning that he was able to determine which was the better nature in himself, and once he did, he felt strong and sure. Ultimately, Augustine feels that humans do not have enough strength to withstand struggle on their own. According to Augustine, only through contemplation of God, and love of God, will humans find peace.
So, according to Augustine, there is a right way to be curious. Trifling curiosities pull us away from ourselves and our truth and get in the way of our real education which is to lead us to wisdom. He writes that the “appearance of what we do is often different from the intention with which we do it” (22B), and that we should begin with the right motivations before moving further. It is here that we will find peace.
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