Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Augustine: Curiosity in the Catalog of Vices...

"All men by nature desire to know."
(Image from Wikipedia)

Let us look again today into Hans Blumenberg's chapter "Curiosity Is Enrolled in the Catalog of Vices" (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age), in which Blumenberg discusses St. Augustine's classification of "curiositas" as a vice.

I want to reflect on a couple of paragraphs in which Blumenberg notes that Augustine criticizes that cupidity (cupiditas) of vain desire in the appetite of our insatiable curiosity (curiositas) to seek knowledge beyond our proper limits, i.e., beyond either utility (utilitas) or self-knowledge:
When we return . . . to the central passage, book 10, chapter 35 of the Confessions, some light is shed on the catalog of the levels of curiositas: After amusment as a mutilated corpse, theatrical shows are mentioned, and from here a transition to investigation of nature and to the magical arts is found. The riddles of nature, to which the mere desire to know applies itself, are characterized as objects that lie praeter nos [beyond us], in the double sense that neither are they seen from the point of view of their utilitas nor do they relate to man's self-knowledge. Investigation of the things that nature does not make openly accessible to man is of no use to him. This proposition involves the teleological assumption, familiar from Cicero, that the degree of a thing's theoretical accessibility indicates its 'natural' relevance for man. When he goes beyond this region of what lies open to him, he obeys the cognitive appetite that is justified by no other interest.

The appeal to nature proves itself here, as so often, to be an ambiguous type of argumentation, whose self-contradiction Augustine seeks to avoid by not attributing a natural status to man's inherent cognitive appetite but instead interpreting that appetite -- as always where cupiditas is applied -- as a consequence of the condition of man having fallen away from his original nature as a result of his original sin. The first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics has become, through the omission of "by nature," a description of man's status defectus [failed, defective condition]. On this assumption, confirmation by the "predilection for sense experience" can no longer be a "sign" from which the vindication of the disinterested purity of the theoretical attitude "independent of need" can be obtained. The grasp at the 'tree of knowledge' caused the unregulated cognitive appetite to degenerate into the vana cura [futile care] of a godless state of being fallen into the power of the world. (Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, page 314)
The famous first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics states:
All men by nature desire to know. (Aristotle, Metaphysics (350 B.C.), translated by W. D. Ross)
Blumenberg's point is that Augustine, despite his appeal to the teleological point about not going beyond what nature has laid open to our senses, cannot consistently accept even Aristotle's assumption, grounded in nature, of our cognitive right to any knowledge, for our original nature has been distorted, as has been nature itself.

Augustine may rely upon Aristotle to critique our 'busybody' tendency to inquire into nature's riddles, a realm beyond that which is teleologically fit for us to know, but Augustine's views on the double aspect of fallenness -- mankind and the world both being fallen -- entail that the teleological fitness of mankind to the world no longer holds since sin has entered the world through Adam and Eve and ruined God's creation.

For Augustine, therefore -- if he were to be consistent -- curiosity about the cosmos would inevitably lead reason into the coils of error through any attempt whatsoever to study nature, given its deceptive, quasi-Gnostic appearance, let alone a foolhardy attempt to investigate the even more recondite riddles of nature.

Let's return to this tomorrow...

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