Sunday, September 20, 2009

John Heilbron: "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi"?

Linus Pauling

In looking yesterday for the video interview of John Heilbron by Harry Kreisler, I came across another interesting video featuring John, this time of a lecture, "Remarks on the Writing of Biography," given in 1995 at a conference dedicated to Linus Pauling. In that talk, John remarks (somewhat with tongue in cheek):
Biographers may be particularly prone to what Saint Paul called nimis cupiditas cognoscendi -- that is, too great a desire to know.
My Latin isn't very good, but the English translation that John provided didn't immediately strike a chord of memory despite some overtones in Paul's warning words about interesting oneself in human knowledge:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Colossians 2:8, King James Version)
A Google search for "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi" turned up only John's talk. Perhaps I'm exhibiting this condemned intellectual sin, but I'd like to know where this expression came from. I've managed to find the English expression "too great a desire to know" in Kempis's Imitation of Christ:
Rest from too great a desire to know, because therein is found great discord and delusion. Learned men are very eager to appear, and to be called learned. There is much which it profits the soul little or nothing to know. And foolish indeed is he who gives his attention to other things than those which make for his salvation. (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by EM Blaiklock, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979) page 24)
Another translation offers this:
Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise. (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1940))
This passage appears in Kempis's second chapter, which opens by quoting Aristotle's famous words from the initial line to his Metaphysics: "Every man naturally desires knowledge." Kempis then goes on to cite Augustine's warning about knowledge, which places Kempis's own warning squarely within the lengthy Christian tradition that put restrictions on curiosity. Indeed, a search for "curiosity" in Kempis's Imitation reveals many warnings against it. However, I lack a Latin copy of Kempis and therefore cannot check the original behind "too great a desire to know."

But maybe this is barking up the wrong tree anyway. Perhaps John meant not "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi" but "nimis cupidus cognoscendi"? I don't think that Saint Paul said that, either, but the second-century writer Apuleius did, in Book Two of his wonderful novel The Golden Ass, which tells how Lucius follows his overeager curiosity into a world of trouble wrought by his transformation into a donkey as punishment for his inquisitive ways, characterized by Lucius as "nimis cupidus cognoscendi quae rara miraque sunt," i.e., "too great a desire to know what is rare and miraculous." Apuleius doesn't have quite the cachet that Saint Paul has, but Augustine did stoop to cite him on the dangers of curiosity, so I think that we can allow him entrance here in John's lecture as the probable source behind what was quoted as "nimis cupiditas cognoscendi."

Future biographers writing on The Life of John Heilbron will undoubtedly thank me for clearing this up . . . especially if I can get John himself to supply a comment to this blog entry.

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At 12:24 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Jeffery: Your post brought to mind Roger Shattuck's "Forbidden Knowledge" []. I don't recall if he referred to the phrase in question, and I don't have my copy handy to check. Good book, though.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, thanks for the reference. I've heard of the book, particularly that it's a scholarly work . . . though that 'pornography' reference has me a bit concerned.

Jeffery Hodges

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