Hans Blumenberg: Complicating the Curiosity-Complex
In his investigation into the process by which curiositas became a vice, Blumenberg must also explore the Greek side of the Graeco-Roman understanding, which entails drawing links between etymologically unrelated terms.
Blumenberg does so in looking into the Latin work Metamorphoses (aka The Golden Ass), by Apuleius, and its intellectual background in Greek thought:
In the Latin patristic literature, the term curiositas receives its specifically anti-Gnostic aspect of significance from Tertullian (ca. 160-220 A.D.). Here the characteristic imprint that the word had been given in Apuleius's Metamorphoses, which were produced between 170 and 180 A.D., may have had an influence. The process whereby the cognitive appetite was transformed into a constituent element of the catalog of vices took a decisive step forward here, in that curiositas became the dominant trait of a character, of a type. (Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, page 298)I should here note that Blumenberg will next deal with the Greek background to the curiosity-complex, a point that he has earlier touched upon: "This polypragmonein [busyness, meddling] is the equivalent of periergia [overcarefulness, superfluity, investigation of 'curious' matters]" (p. 288). One will recall that Blumenberg has already noted the denigration of periergia in Greek thought, as expressed in Philos Judaeus's allegory De migratione Abrahami: "Chaldea is the land of curiosity (periergia), . . . understood as the independence of the senses, which have evaded their subordination to the intellect and instead of this deliver man up to what accords with them" (Legitimacy, page 284). I have commented on this passage in an earlier post. According to Blumenberg, this Greek understanding of polypragmonein as equivalent to periergia, both being terms for a disreputable curiosity, stand behind Apuleius's depiction of curiositas as "the dominant trait of a character, of a type":
This [character type] had been prepared for, in the conceptual history of the Greek polypragmosyne [officious busyness, meddling], by Plutarch (ca. 45-ca. 125 A.D.), in a treatise that had described busybody activity as harmful, particularly in the realm of human relations. Plutarch's suspicion of this characteristic takes as its point of departure the assumption that man's supposed 'interest' in other men is directed especially at hidden wickedness, which it seeks to bring to light and publicize through 'gossip.' This gossipy curiosity is directed at the intimate sphere of one's fellow man and penetrates the secrecy (which is, in its own way, humane) of human wickedness. It puts into words, and into the circulation of talk, the unspeakable things that pertain to others, so that, in an extreme comparison, adultery can be described as a sort of curiosity about someone else's carnal pleasure. It is characteristic of Plutarch, the Greek, that he recommends as a means of curing such gossipy curiosity the diversion of interest by other objects, and explicitly mentions the heavens, earth, air, and sea. He assures us, in this connection, that nature has nothing against the cognitive appetite diverted toward it; however, no hidden wickedness is to be found there, and he who cannot do without it will have to stick to history.One sees from this development of the curiositas complex that a curious concern with cosmic phenomena would begin to be seen meddling in the things that God has created for his own purposes, things that are none of mankind's business, things of which one should not speak lest one fall into the sin of gossip, which would perhaps imply that one is speaking of the things that God has created as though they were the result of improper acts of some "hidden wickedness" and one were a voyeur who had seen (or at least heard) of them. In some Gnostic treatises, the cosmic process of creation was, indeed, a sexual one -- as much birth, or abortion, as creation. The patristic authors critical of curiosity would not consider this to be the actual process by which the true God created the cosmos, but curiosity is credulous, quick to believe in and gossip about such nonsense, and therefore must be curtailed, condemned.
In Apuleius's novel, curiositas is radicalized; its magical potency -- which Philo earlier thought he had recognized in its secret drive toward transposition -- is made thematic. One of the ironies with which the author treats Lucius's curiosity -- animallike, credulous, and capable of any indecency -- is that he counts among his famous ancestors not only the author of the treatise on curiosity, Plutarch, but also the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus. For even the hero's immoderate lust for knowledge is exhibited as the degeneration of the philosophical appetite for knowledge when he introduces himself as "not indeed curious but still desirous of knowing everything, or in any event a great deal." Elsewhere he does not shrink from describing himself as possessed by an innate curiosity. The 'ontological' precondition of the hero's immoderate curiositas and of his magical inclinations is the vanished firmness of the contours of the world's constitution, the suspension of the cosmic quality of reality and the resulting explosion of the horizon of possibility, which creates a space in which what man can look forward to is indeterminate: "Nihil impossibile arbitror . . ." [I think that nothing is impossible]. What is unexpected in common experience, happens. Of the voluptuousness of a feast it is said, "Quicquid fieri non potest ibi est" [Whatever could not possibly come into being is there]. Curiosity seeks no longer what is admirable and wonderful in the cosmos but rather the strange, the peculiar, the curious (in the objective sense), that which can only be gaped at, in a structure of reality that is dissolved into transitions and alterations of form. The hero also describes himself as "all too eager to become acquainted with strange and astonishing things." (Blumenberg, Legitimacy, pages 298-299)
Such are the complications of the curiositas-complex.