Sunday, December 4, 2011


The first step of pride is curiosity. You can recognize it by the following signs. You see a monk of whom you had thought well up to now. Wherever he stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander: His head is lifted; is ears are alert. You can tell from his outward movements that the inner man has changed. "The worthless man winks with his eye, nudges with his foot, points with his finger" (Prov 6:12ff).  These unusual bodily movements show that his soul has fallen sick. He has grown careless about his own behavior. He wastes his curiosity on other people. "Because he is ignorant of himself, he must go out to pasture his goats" (Song 1:7).

The goats, of course, which signify sin, are rightly called eyes and ears: for just as death entered the world through sin, in the same way sin enters the mind through these windows. Therefore the curious man occupies himself pasturing these, while he does not care to know in what sort of a state he has left his inner self. And truly, oh man, if you should vigilantly attend to yourself, it is extraordinary if you should ever attend to anything else. Listen, curious man, to the words of Solomon; hear, oh foolish one, what Wisdom says. "With all defenses, it is said, guard your heart" (Prov 4:23): so that all of your senses may keep watch over that from which life proceeds. For to what do you retire, oh curious man? In the meanwhile to what do you commit yourself? Why do you dare to lift your eyes to the heavens — eyes that sin in the heavens? Look to the earth, so that you may think of yourself. It will show you to yourself, because you are earth and will pass into the earth.

Yet you might lift your eyes inculpably for two reasons: either so that you may ask for help, or out of devotion. David lifted his eyes to the mountains, so that he might implore aid (Ps 120:1): and the Lord raised them over the crowds, so that he might help them (John 6:5). The one did so wretchedly, the other mercifully — both inculpably. If, taking the time, the place and the occasion into consideration, you too lift up your eyes because of your brother's need, not only do I not blame you: I praise you greatly. For wretchedness excuses it, and mercy commends it. But if you lifted up your eyes for some other reason, then I would call you not an imitator of a prophet or of the Lord, but of Dinah or Eve, or even more so Satan himself. For when Dinah went out to pasture her goats she was snatched away from her father, and her virginity was taken away from her.  Oh poor Dinah! You wanted to see the foreign women (Gn 34:1)! Was it necessary? Was it profitable? Or did you do it solely out of curiosity? Even if you went out idly to see them, you were not idly seen. You looked curiously, but you were looked on with more than curiosity. Who would believe that your idle curiosity, or curious idleness, would not be idle in the future, but pernicious for you, and for your family, and even for your enemies?

And you, oh Eve! You were placed in paradise to work there and guard it with your husband (Gn 2:15), and if you had done what you were told you were to have passed to a better life in which you would not have to work or be concerned about guarding. Every tree of paradise was given to you to eat, except the one which was called the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gn 2:16). For if the others were good and tasted good (Gn2:9), what need was there to eat of the tree which tasted bad? "Do not know more than is appropriate" (Rom 12:3). For to taste what is evil is not sensible but senseless. Therefore protect what has been entrusted to you, expect what has been promised; avoid what has been prohibited, lest you lose what has been given to you. Why do you look so intently on your death? Why are you always glancing at it? What is the good of looking at what you are forbidden to eat?

"I reach out with my eyes, not my hands," you say. "I was not forbidden to look, only to eat. Can I not look where I like with the eyes God gave me?" To this the Apostle says, "Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is expedient" (1 Cor 6:12). Even if it is not a sin, it is a token of sin. For if the mind had had not been keeping insufficient watch over its own curiosity, curiosity would not have had empty time to fill. Even if it is not a sin, still it is the occasion of sin, and a sign of commission, and the cause of what is about to be committed. For when you are intent upon something, in the meanwhile the serpent slips secretly inside your heart, speaking seductively. He imprisons fear with lies, and reason with flatteries. "By no means will you die," he says (Gen 3:4). He adds to your cares while arousing your appetite; he provokes curiosity, while building up carnal desire. Finally he presents what is prohibited, and obtains submission: he holds out the apple, and snatches away paradise. You drink the venom and will die, and you are about to give birth to those who will also die. Salvation is destroyed, and you have not even finished giving birth. We are born, we die: and for this reason we are born dying: because we who are about to be born have died long ago. Therefore this heavy yoke falls upon all your sons, even up to the present day.

— St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae 
(revision of the G.R. Evans translation by me)


  1. Augustine doesn't really have a syllogism against curiosity. Instead, he has a bunch of worries about it, which he lays out -- more or less haphazardly -- in Chapter 35 of Book 10 in the Confessions. You can refresh your memory it here:

    He seems to be worried about the following things:
    (a) Curiosity often draws us to the ugly, wretched, grotesque. (Bernard hints at this when he talks about the apple tasting bad, I think.)
    (b) Curiosity can distract our attention from the Divine.
    (c) Curiosity encourages the love of knowledge for its own sake.

    As a hardcore Neoplatonist, Augustine holds that the Good = the Useful is a conceptual truth. Notice that all of the arguments above address the utility of curiosity.

    I'm on board with all these worries, but I am not sure they are enough to justify enrolling curiosity in the catalog of vices. Knowledge is a good, and we might be able to seek it out without falling into one of the traps the Lion has laid out for us.

    Bernard is picking up on all of this, I think, but he adds a dichotomy between introspection and worldliness that's not quite right (imho). Since almost all forms of curiosity (except phenomenology, I guess) would have to do with world, this would mean a much broader condemnation of curiosity.

  2. If you are interested in the topic, two things to look at:

    Paul Griffiths wrote a book called "Intellectual Appetite," where he discusses Augustine on curiosity in depth. He has a completely different view on what Augustine on curiosity is all about (and he's more educated than I am, so you should probably listen to him.) He thinks the problem is that the curious want to keep knowledge for themselves and not share it.

    I just finished Carlin Barton's The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans a few weeks ago, and that might be helpful, too. It puts Augustine's critique in the context of Roman psychopathology.

  3. So, after reading the whole treatise that this passage is taken from, I'm going to say that St. Bernard's concerns about curiosity are very different from St. Augustine's. For Bernard, curiosity could probably be defined as the openness to knowledge of things beyond one's concerns. He's worried about it not only because it tends to be useless and distracts from God, but also because it actively leads one into sin. Aside from St. Bernard's lovely paraenetic descriptions of the vice, St. Thomas's description of moral activity makes clear why something like curiosity would be a vice in the first place: The motion of the will follows the judgment of the intellect, and human choice ultimately resides in our power to consider or not to consider some thing or course of action as good. The person who fails to restrain his thoughts and direct his mind to what is necessary — to the exclusion of what does not concern his goal — will end up something like Plato's Democratic Man: tossed about by whatever idea strikes him at the moment, always changing plans and pursuits, fundamentally disoriented as a human being. More to the point, though, Bernard is writing for monks and monks already know what is necessary for them: prayer and work, poverty, chastity and obedience. These concerns are enough to fill a lifetime, and to let one's mind wander where it will is to open a side-path off of the straight and narrow. Curiosity is a kind of indifference w/r/t what occupies one's mind, and therefore it forces one in the regulation of behavior to fall back on one's own character and habits, which are usually bad. And if they aren't bad, the world throws evil enticements in front of it constantly, meaning that the curious man will quickly fall into sin, because he will not be able to restrain himself from entertaining the thought of illicit goods. So the virtue opposed to curiosity is "custody of the eyes," which is necessary for intellectual discipline, itself necessary for growth in virtue and the development of good character.