Monday, December 10, 2007

Aquinas: Careless Curiosity

The Slothful Punished in Hell
(Nicolas le Rouge, Le grant kalendrier des Bergiers, 1496)

In a somewhat obscure passage of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (but is anything not obscure in that tome!), Hans Blumenberg observes -- on Thomas Aquinas discussing sloth (acedia) as a sin and a vice -- that for Aquinas, sloth leads both to indolence and to curiosity:
The acedia [indifference, apathy] that is dealt with here accomodates itself better to the syndrome of the 'postparadisaic' situation. Thomas uses this cardinal vice to epitomize the despondency and indolence of the man who has deviated from his vocation, who conceals from himself in this pure melancholy the seriousness of the cura, actio, and labor [care, action, and labor] that are his task. Acedia is a form of sadness that surrenders itself to its own heaviness and thereby turns away from the goal of its existence, indeed, from all purposeful behavior and 'exertion' whatever (fuga finis [flight from purpose]). Curiositas is only one of the forms that this purposelessness takes. Here lies the connection with its definition as inconsistency, as premature failure with respect to the demands of a reality that no longer holds itself open to man in immediate self-givenness. (Blumenberg, Legitimacy, page 334)
By the "postparadisiac" situation referred to here, Blumenberg means the "fallenness" of the world that renders its no longer teleologically fitted to mankind's senses and reason. Recall that Augustine used this reasoning to cast suspicion upon curiosity for its tendency to focus one's attention upon the misleading things of this world and away from one's soul. Unlike Augustine, however, Aquinas is strongly Aristotelian and therefore more interested in the empirical things of this world. One must still seek God's purposes in this cosmos, of course, but this takes focused, purposeful effort. Lack of effort, or purposelessness, results from sloth and manifests itself in carelessness, inactivity, and inexertion on the one hand and in curiosity on the other.

We may find ourselves surprised to read that the vice of sloth leads to the vice of curiosity, since that seems a kind of activity, but that is what Aquinas says in Summa Theologica II. 2, Question 35, Article 4. In Objection 3, Aquinas notes that:
[Isidore of Seville] states that from sloth seven things arise, viz. "idleness, drowsiness, uneasiness of the mind, restlessness of the body, instability, loquacity, curiosity." (Summa Theologica II. 2, q. 35, a. 4, obj. 3)
In his Reply to Objection 3, Aquinas notes that Pope Gregory I ("the Great") specifies some of the effects of sloth as belonging to the "wandering of the mind after unlawful things," concerning which Aquinas observes:
This tendency to wander, if it reside in the mind itself that is desirous of rushing after various things without rhyme or reason, is called "uneasiness of the mind," but if it pertains to the imaginative power, it is called "curiosity"; if it affect the speech it is called "loquacity"; and in so far as it affects a body that changes place, it is called "restlessness of the body," when, to wit, a man shows the unsteadiness of his mind, by the inordinate movements of members of his body; while if it causes the body to move from one place to another, it is called "instability"; or "instability" may denote changeableness of purpose. (Summa Theologica II. 2, q. 35, a. 4, rep. obj. 3)
Thus does sloth lead to action, but action without purpose, lazy, an idleness in activity, and since "idleness is opposed to carefulness" (Summa Theologica II. 2, q. 35, a. 2, obj. 3), hence to carelessness.

Hence the irony -- given the etymological link between care (cura) and curiosity (from curiosus, meaning "careful") -- of a careless curiosity.

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