Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Blumenberg: Cicero on Curiosity as Distraction

Marcus Tullius Cicero
"...when the burden of care is relaxed"
(Image from Wikipedia)

On the ornate steps leading up to the Medieval Christian understanding of curiosity as a vice stands the figure of Cicero in all his ambivalence.

Why ambivalence? Like Augustine -- as Blumenberg explains -- Cicero feels the tug of curiosity but resists:
The naturalness of the cognitive drive is thus both a justification and a danger....

Cicero portrays the danger threatening the curious man by the Homeric image of Odysseus lured by the Sirens, not only by their song but also by the promise of knowledge of all earthly things . . . . Odysseus's conflict in view of the enticements of the Sirens is not a conflict between the aesthhetic and the ethical in our sense but rather between his theorectical curiosity and his native country. Although Odysseus does not succumb to their enticements, it is suggested by the length of his wanderings alone that knowledge was more important to him than his native country. In this context there emerges, in connection with the term curiosus, the negative characterization of curiosity as the longing to know everything. However, this negativity is seen as quite close to the quality of greatness, since being driven by the perception of sublime objects to desire knowledge is characteristic of important men. (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, p. 281-282)
But as Blumenberg notes, "Cicero himself is marked by the conflict he describes" (Legitimacy, p. 282). For Cicero, curiosity -- albeit a natural drive -- threatens ever to draw him away from his practical duties, so he consoles himself with the promise of an afterlife of study:
Alleviation of doubt about the tasks to which life should be devoted can only come through being convinced of an immortality that promises compensation for everything that curiosity's self-restraint denies itself in view of political duties. Even this Platonizing solution has acquired a different function in Cicero than it could have had in the Greek world. The renunciation of theory seems to be something one can perform without prejudice to one's political and practical capability, so that relegation to the Beyond really can resolve the problematic: ". . . as happens now, when the burden of care is relaxed, we feel the wish for an object of our observation and attention, this will happen much more freely then, and we shall devote our whole being to sudy and examination, because nature has planted in our minds an insatiable longing to see truth; and the more the vision of the borders only of the heavenly country, to which we have come, renders easy the knowledge of heavenly conditions, the more will our longing for knowledge be increased." [cf. "Cicero, Tusculanae disputationes I 44; translation by J. E. King (London and New York: Loeb Classical Library, 1927), pp. 53-54)," Blumenberg, Legitimacy, p. 626, n. 11]

Here the transcendant deferment of the satisfaction of theoretical curiosity, whose pursuit in the circumstances of civic life could only be an exceptional situation like that of Cicero's enforced leisure, does not yet have the Christian visio beatifica's essential differentiation from all earthly access to truth. It is only a matter of degree, a drawing near and improvement of the standpoint of the knower, with, in fact, a clear opposition to the immanence of the Stoa, according to which the human observer was guaranteed the favored standpoint of contemplator caeli [observer of the heavens] by his central position in the universe. At the same time the text makes clear, with the antithesis of care (cura) and contemplation (contemplatio), the basis on which the new formation of curiositas comes about: In illegitimate curiosity the place of the civic/practical concerns and chores is occupied precisely by the theoretical attitude, so that this latter, contrary to its nature, itself becomes a care dominating one's life. (Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 282-283)
Blumenberg's basic aim here is to show how curiosity came to be seen as a natural drive that tempts us away from our duty. For Cicero, a natural drive is not inherently bad, but in this life, we have other cares that concern us, duties that we must fulfill. For Augustine, natural drives are inherently suspect due to the fallenness of our human nature, so curiosity as a putative 'natural' drive becomes a sinful distraction from our duty to God and thereby places our soul in mortal danger.

Enough for now. I must turn from this curious distraction and return to my grading...

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