Sunday, December 23, 2007

James J. O'Donnell: Augustine's curiositas as "concupiscentia oculorum"

James J. O'Donnell
'...surrounded by spectacula to tempt
the concupiscentia oculorum'

Yesterday, we encountered the usefulness of James J. O'Donnell's Augustine: Confessions, an online text with scholarly commentary, for it provides insight and links concerning Ancient and Medieval views on curiosity.

Curiously, however, in his commentary to Augustine's Confessions Book 10, Chapter 35, Paragraph 54, O'Donnell tells us: "Curiositas (for the concept in A. before conf., see on 3.2.2)" -- which I will spell out as this: "For the concept of 'curiositas' in Augustine prior to his fuller view in his Confessions, see the commentary to Confessions Book 3, Chapter 2, Paragraph 2," which we will do in a moment, but let us first see what the passages itself says in Latin:
rapiebant me spectacula theatrica, plena imaginibus miseriarum mearum et fomitibus ignis mei. quid est quod ibi homo vult dolere cum spectat luctuosa et tragica, quae tamen pati ipse nollet? et tamen pati vult ex eis dolorem spectator et dolor ipse est voluptas eius. quid est nisi mirabilis insania? nam eo magis eis movetur quisque, quo minus a talibus affectibus sanus est, quamquam, cum ipse patitur, miseria, cum aliis compatitur, misericordia dici solet. sed qualis tandem misericordia in rebus fictis et scenicis? non enim ad subveniendum provocatur auditor sed tantum ad dolendum invitatur, et actori earum imaginum amplius favet cum amplius dolet. et si calamitates illae hominum, vel antiquae vel falsae, sic agantur ut qui spectat non doleat, abscedit inde fastidiens et reprehendens; si autem doleat, manet intentus et gaudens lacrimat.
If your Latin is as wonderful as mine, you'll also need help, so let us seek guidance from the Holy Catholic Church -- I mean its encyclopedia, which provides this translation of Confessions Book 3, Chapter 2, Paragraph 2:
Stage-plays also drew me away, full of representations of my miseries and of fuel to my fire. Why does man like to be made sad when viewing doleful and tragical scenes, which yet he himself would by no means suffer? And yet he wishes, as a spectator, to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched insanity? For a man is more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such affections. Howsoever, when he suffers in his own person, it is the custom to style it "misery" but when he compassionates others, then it is styled "mercy." But what kind of mercy is it that arises from fictitious and scenic passions? The hearer is not expected to relieve, but merely invited to grieve; and the more he grieves, the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. And if the misfortunes of the characters (whether of olden times or merely imaginary) be so represented as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and censorious; but if his feelings be touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.
Augustine would here seem to be arguing against Aristotle's defense of 'poetry' (cf. Plato's critique of poetry in The Republic), which included drama, particularly of tragic drama, which Aristotle argued acted as a sort of catharsis, a purifying of the spectator. Augustine, like Plato, disagrees with Aristotle on tragic drama's effect, finding that it does not purify but, rather, corrupts.

Be that as it may, you will now see why I found 'curious' that O'Donnell would direct us to his commentary to Confessions Book 3, Chapter 2, Paragraph 2, for Augustine does not use the term "curiositas" in this passage. However, we can understand if we see that the passage fits what Augustine elsewhere says of "curiositas" as "concupiscentia oculorum," i.e., "curiosity" as "lust of the eyes."

Anyway, let's see what O'Donnell has to say:
Curiositas is always a vice for A. For a definition using the word itself, vera rel. 52.101, 'quid enim appetit curiositas nisi cognitionem quae certa esse non potest nisi rerum aeternarum et eodem modo se semper habentium?'; though the word is absent, more revealing perhaps is vera rel. 33.62, 'ille [animus] autem vult mentem convertere ad corpora, oculos ad deum. quaerit enim intellegere carnalia et videre spiritalia, quod fieri non potest.'

For bibliography, see on 10.35.54. There is much originality to A.'s development, but the possible influence of Ambrose has not been sufficiently considered. Not that Ambrose has a concept of curiositas, but some of his suspicions of the excesses of the philosophers are at least apposite to A.'s own thoughts, though A. develops them further. See Amb. off. 1.26.122 (written 386), 'itaque tractant in veri investigatione tenendum illud decorum, ut summo studio requiramus quid verum sit, non falsa pro veris ducere, non obscuris vera involvere, non superfluis vel inplexis atque ambiguis occupare animum. quid tam indecorum quam venerari ligna, quod ipsi faciunt? quid tam obscurum quam de astronomia et geometria tractare, quod probant, et profunda aeris spatia metiri, caelum quoque et mare numeris includere; relinquere causam salutis, erroris quaerere?' Such ill-guided search for knowledge Amb. then contrasts to Moses' superior wisdom.

The subject emerges early and pervades the years before conf.; at ord. 1.8.26 he recalls watching a cock-fight: 'cur . . . nos ipsa pugnae facies aliquantum et praeter altiorem istam considerationem duceret in voluptatem spectaculi?' Later in the same work, he cautions measure in inquiry: ord. 2.5.17, 'si quis temere ac sine ordine disciplinarum in harum rerum cognitionem audet inruere, pro studioso illum curiosum, pro docto credulum, pro cauto incredulum fieri' (cf. ord. 1.11.31, 'curiosi vel nimium studiosi'); specific examples are offered: ord. 2.12.37 (the trivial pursuits of grammarians), 2.15.42 (on astronomy: 'astrologiam genuit, magnum religiosis argumentum tormentumque curiosis'); cf. quant. an. 19.33. The noun curiositas itself is introduced at mus. 6.13.39, 'avertit [a contemplatione aeternorum] denique amor vanissimae cognitionis talium rerum. . . . curiositas nascitur ipso curae nomine inimica securitati, et vanitate impos veritatis'. Connection with 1 Jn. 2.16 (see on 1.10.16 and on 10.30.41) is slower coming, though it may underlie mor. 1.21.38: 'quamobrem recte etiam curiosi esse prohibemur, quod magnum temperantiae munus est. . . . reprimat igitur se anima ab huiusmodi vanae cognitionis cupiditate, si se castam deo servare disposuit.' Similar discussions occur later: cf., e.g., trin. 10.1.3, 'aut si tam curiosus est ut non propter aliquam notam causam sed solo amore rapiatur incognita sciendi, discernendus quidem est ab studiosi nomine iste curiosus; sed nec ipse amat incognita, immo congruentius dicitur, odit incognita, quae nulla esse vult dum vult omnia cognita.'

A clear echo of 1 Jn. 2.16 occurs at lib. arb. 2.19.53 (nothing in the work can be surely dated before it was put in final form, which may have been as late as 395), 'ad proprium convertitur [1], cum suae potestatis vult esse; ad exterius [2], cum aliorum propria vel quaecumque ad se non pertinent cognoscere studet, ad inferius [3] cum voluptatem corporis diligit. atque ita homo superbus [1] et curiosus [2] et lascivus [3] effectus excipitur ab alia vita quae in comparatione superioris vitae mors est.' But comparable echoes may be found at Gn. c. man. 1.23.40 (quoted on 10.30.41) and 2.18.27 ('genus tertium temptationis his verbis figurare, quod est curiositas').

The last thing A. wrote before his ordination in 391 was vera rel., whose structure and contents are heavily influenced by 1 Jn. 2.16; there are clear attacks on curiositas at vera rel. 3.4, 4.7 ('nam tertio vitio curiositatis in percontandis daemonibus'), 29.52 ('in quorum consideratione non vana et peritura curiositas exercenda est, sed gradus ad immortalia et semper manentia faciendus'), 38.70, 38.71 (quoted on 10.30.41 for the link between the temptations of 1 Jn. and the three temptations of Christ in the desert), 49.94 ('iam vero cuncta spectacula et omnis illa quae appellatur curiositas, quid aliud quaerit quam de rerum cognitione laetitiam?'), and cf. also vera rel. 52.101-54.105, and see div. qu. 68.1, quoted on 5.3.5 below.

When we bring our modern incomprehension to A.'s disdain for what is now an unquestioned virtue, we forget that for him curiositas led directly to demons: cat. rud. 25.48, 'qui christianum nomen oderunt . . . et adhuc simulacris et daemoniorum curiositatibus servire desiderant,' and Io. ep. tr. 2.13 (on 1 Jn. 2.16), 'iam quam late patet curiositas? ipsa in spectaculis, in theatris, in sacramentis diaboli, in magicis artibus, in maleficiis ipsa est curiositas.' See also trin. 4.11.14-4.12.15, civ. 10.26, 10.28 (where he presents Porphyry playing to an audience of the curious: 'ut talium quoque rerum quasi peritus appareas et placeas inlicitarum artium curiosis, vel ad eas facias ipse curiosos'), and 10.29. (A familiar villain for fourth-century Christians was similarly led astray by curiositas, acting in concert this time with ambitio saeculi: civ. 5.21, 'apostatae Iuliano, cuius egregiam indolem decepit amore dominandi sacrilega et detestanda curiositas'.) For the word and the thing, see further on 10.35.54.

Curiositas emerges here in narrative as A. comes to the great city and finds himself surrounded by all manner of marvels. One innocent recollection may date to this awed time: civ. 16.8, 'quosdam [homines] sine cervice oculos habentes in umeris, et cetera hominum vel quasi hominum genera, quae in maritima platea Carthaginis musivo picta sunt, ex libris deprompta velut curiosioris historiae.'

spectacula . . . imaginibus: Students were discouraged by the local authorities from too much spectacle-going: cod. theod. 14.9.1 (12 March 370), 'neve spectacula frequentius adeant'. The same law declared that indiscipline could be punished (at least at Rome and Constantinople) by whippings and forced rustication. A similar moralizing restriction was enjoined upon the young Julian by his tutor Mardonius (Julian, misopogon 351c-d), and Libanius (ep. 976.) thought the theater a distraction for students. A.'s remarks here make it clear that it was the enacted stories that appealed to him most, as later the circus (6.7.11-12) and the gladiatorial combats (6.8.13) would appeal to Alypius; these seem to have been the three main classes of entertainment available to A. (and classed by him as spectacula): s. 198.3, 'delectantur nugatorio spectaculo et turpitudinibus variis theatrorum, insania circi, crudelitate amphitheatri, certaminibus animosis eorum qui pro pestilentibus hominibus lites et contentiones usque ad inimicitias suscipiunt, pro mimo, pro histrione, pro pantomimo [these three are from the theatra], pro auriga [from the circus], pro venatore [from the gladiatorial amphitheater].' 1

Spectaculum in A. is almost always accompanied by verbs of seeing, frequently with word-play on spectare; in this paragraph note 'spectacula', 'spectat', `spectator', `spectat', and add 3.2.3, `spectaculi', 3.2.4, `spectare', 3.8.16, 'spectatores', 3.8.16, 'principandi [1] et spectandi [2] et sentiendi [3] libidine'; the recapitulation at 4.1.1 (parallelling the recapitulation of Bk. 2 at 3.1.1) speaks of 'spectaculorum nugas'.

The appeal is to the concupiscentia oculorum (s. Den. 14.3, 'quae mala facit turpis curiositas, concupiscentia vana oculorum, aviditas nugacium spectaculorum, insania stadiorum, nullo praemio conflictus certaminum!'; cf. Io. ep. tr. 2.13, quoted above). Compare Alypius covering his eyes at the gladiatorial spectaculum, but yielding, 'curiositate victus' (6.8.13); cf. 1.10.16 ('eadem curiositate magis magisque per oculos emicante in spectacula'), 1.13.22, 10.35.54 (`ex hoc morbo [curiositatis] in spectaculis exhibentur quaeque miracula'); theatra also appeal to curiositas (10.35.56). Cf. vera rel. 22.43, 'nec ob aliud a talibus prohibemur spectaculis, nisi ne umbris rerum decepti ab ipsis rebus quarum illae umbrae sunt aberremus'; sim. at vera rel. 49.94, 54.105; and again at trin. 4.11.14. civ. 2.4, 'veniebamus etiam nos aliquando adulescentes ad spectacula ludibriaque sacrilegiorum, spectabamus arrepticios, audiebamus symphoniacos, ludis turbissimis qui diis deabusque exhibebantur oblectabamur, Caelesti virgini et Berecynthiae matri omnium, ante cuius lecticam die sollemni lavationis eius talia per publicum cantitabantur a nequissimis scaenicis qualia non . . . matrem ipsorum scaenicorum deceret audire. . . . quae si inlecta curiositate adesse potuit circumfusa, saltem offensa castitate debuit abire confusa.' civ. 2.26, 'ante ipsum tamen delubrum, ubi simulacrum illud [Caelestis] locatum conspicebamus . . . intentissime spectabamus, intuentes alternante conspectu hinc meretriciam pompam, illinc virginem deam.' See also civ. 1.32-3, 1.35, 2.8, 7.26.

G-M, Theiler P.u.A. 60, and BA all attempt to situate this text in the tradition of ancient discussions of the emotional impact of the theater. There is nothing here in conf. to connect A.'s views with any of the surviving discussions, but he is surely their heir at some distance (at civ. 8.13 he even invokes Plato's suspicion of poets in support of his views). Dominant is surely his own notion of the connection to curiositas. His works nevertheless (including the passages just cited from civ.) offer some glimpses of what the life of the spectacula entailed in the Carthage of his day. See also en. Ps. 103. s. 1.13 ('videtis quid faciat civitas ubi abundant spectacula: in agro securius loquerer'), 146.4, 147.8, s. 241.5 (quoted on 1.13.20, 'Aeneae nescio cuius'). Alfaric 32-33 offers additional texts.
O'Donnell provides even more commentary, but the above remarks are most relevant to our interest in curiosity. I notice that O'Donnell notes that Augustine "invokes Plato's suspicion of poets in support of his views," a point that I raised above. But O'Donnell's opening remark is the most significant: "Curiositas is always a vice for A." As O'Donnell explains, "When we bring our modern incomprehension to A.'s disdain for what is now an unquestioned virtue, we forget that for him curiositas led directly to demons" -- a reminder, however, that probably renders us not so much baffled in our incomprehension as aghast in our revulsion. One has to wonder how much of Augustine's mind remained captivated by a Gnostic distrust of the cosmos.

But let us return to this Blumenbergian theme later...

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2 Comments:

At 4:19 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

On a lighter note...many good wishes to you as the season of nativity approaches.

 
At 7:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you, Eshuneutics, and the same to you.

Jeffery Hodges

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