I don’t think of myself as a pope-basher. But there are times when one can’t help being flabbergasted at what the Vatican is capable of saying and doing. That’s how I feel on discovering this report of a speech by Pope Francis from last November.
From a supposedly progressive pope, these comments plunge us straight back to the early Middle Ages. This in particular: “In the Gospel, the Pope underlined, we find ourselves before another spirit, contrary to the wisdom of God: the spirit of curiosity’.”
“The spirit of curiosity”, Francis goes on, “distances us from the Spirit of wisdom because all that interests us is the details, the news, the little stories of the day. Oh, how will this come about? It is the how: it is the spirit of the how! And the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit. It is the spirit of dispersion, of distancing oneself from God, the spirit of talking too much. And Jesus also tells us something interesting: this spirit of curiosity, which is worldly, leads us to confusion.”
Oh, this passion for asking questions! The pope is, of course, scripturally quite correct, for as it says in Ecclesiastes,
“Do not pry into things too hard for you
Or examine what is beyond your reach…
What the Lord keeps secret is no concern of yours;
do not busy yourself with matters that are beyond you.”
All of which tells us to respect our proper place. But if you want to take this to a more judgemental and condemnatory level, then of course we need to turn to St Augustine. Curiosity is in his view a ‘disease’, one of the vices or lusts at the root of all sin. “It is in divine language called the lust of the eyes”, he wrote in his Confessions. “From the same motive, 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.”
I don’t see much distance between this and the words of Pope Francis. However, let’s at least recognize that this is not a specifically Christian thing. The pope seems to be wanting to return the notion of curiosity to the old sense in which the Greeks used it: a distraction, an idle and aimless seeking after novelty. That is what Aristotle meant by periergia, which is generally taken to be the cognate of the Latin curiositas. Plutarch considers curiositas the vice of those given to snooping and prying into the affairs of others – the kind of busybody known in Greek as a polypragmon. In Aristotle’s view, this kind of impulse had no useful role in philosophy. That’s why the medieval Aristotelians tried to make a distinction between curiosity and genuine enquiry. It’s fine to seek knowledge, said Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus – but as the latter wrote,
"Curiosity is the investigation of matters which have nothing to do with the thing being investigated or which have no significance for us; prudence, on the other hand, relates only to those investigations that pertain to the thing or to us."
This is how these folks tried to carve out a space for natural philosophy, within which science eventually grew until theology no longer seemed like a good alternative for understanding the physical world.
Should we, then, give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he wasn’t talking about the curiosity that drives so much (if not all) of science, but rather, the curiosity that Augustine felt led to a fascination with the strange and perverse, with “mangled corpses, magical effects and marvellous spectacles”? After all, the pope seems to echo that sentiment: “The Kingdom of God is among us: do not seek strange things, do not seek novelties with this worldly curiosity.”
Oh yes, we could allow him that excuse. But I don’t think we should. How many people, on hearing “curiosity” today, think of Augustine’s “mangled corpses” or Aristotle’s witless periergia? The meaning of words is what people understand by them. For a schoolchild commended for their curiosity, the words of the pope will carry the opposite message: be quiet, don’t ask, seek not knowledge but only God. This seems to me to be verging on a wicked thing to say.
But worse: the idea of a hierarchy of questions in which some are too trivial, too aimless or ill-motivated, is precisely what needed to be overcome before science could flourish. Early modern science was distinguished from the admirable natural philosophy of Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, of Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste, by the fact that no question was any longer irrelevant or irreverent. One could investigate the gnat’s leg, or a smudge on Jupiter, or optical phenomena in pieces of mica. That wasn’t yet in itself science, but the liberation of curiosity was the necessary precondition for it. In which case, Pope Francis’s message is profoundly anti-progressive and anti-intellectual.