Sunday, December 16, 2007

Blumenberg: On Stoic Teleology and Limits to Curiosity

Luca Giordano, The Death of Seneca (1684)
Ordered by Nero to 'be taken care of'...
(Image from Wikipedia)

Readers will recall yesterday's long quote from Martin Jay's review of Blumenberg's Legitimacy book. I want to call attention to Jay's summary of Blumenberg's argument with respect to the Stoics:
With the Stoics, Blumenberg argues, came a further obstacle to unlimited curiosity. Far more skeptical than their predecessors about the possibility of achieving a human version of divine truth, they preached against the inevitable disappointment that seeking it would engender. Instead of an open-minded and open-eyed contemplation of the world, they counseled a therapeutic form of ataraxia, in which disillusionment is avoided by a preemptive refusal to seek the truth at all. (Martin Jay, "Review: The Legitimacy of the Modern Age by Hans Blumenberg; Robert M. Wallace," History and Theory, Vol. 24, No. 2. (May, 1985), p. 190. Accessed via JSTOR.)
Stoics were not entirely consistent on the vexed issue concerning a legitimate care for expanding one's knowledge. Blumenberg notes that the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger, aka Seneca) uses teleology both to justify seeking after knowledge and to restrict seeking after knowledge. On justifying the desire for knowledge, Seneca says:
Nature has given us an inquisitive spirit (curiosum ingenium), and being aware of her own skill and beauty she has brought us forth as spectators of the great spectacle of things, since she would have sacrificed the enjoyment of herself if she had displayed her works so vast, so wonderful, so artfully constructed, so luxuriant, and so various, to empty solitude. That you may understand that she wants to be investigated and not only contemplated, notice the position she has assigned to us: She has set us in her center and given us a panoramic view in all directions, and she has not only given man an upright posture but also an elevated head resting on a flexible neck, so that he can follow the course of the stars from rising to setting and let his face turn with the movements of the heavens. (Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pages 260-261; citing (p. 623, n. 37) Seneca, De otio, c. 32; see Epistulae ad Lucilium 94, 56.)
Blumenberg remarks that "In such a [teleological] context curiositas still cannot carry a negative value; in the observation of the heavens it is the very highest objects that compel our intellectual curiosity (curiosos nos esse cogunt)" (Legitimacy, p. 261). The Latin expression is taken by Blumenberg from Book 7 of Seneca's Naturales quaestiones (VII 25, 5; cf. Legitimacy, p. 623, n. 38) and would seemingly allow for rather open study of nature, except that it does not, as Blumenberg notes:
But in the 88th Letter to Lucilius, Seneca uses the same teleological premise to argue for theoretical self-restriction, for the economy of necessary knowledge: "Plus scire velle quam sit satis, intemperantiae genus est" [To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance]. (Legitimacy, p. 261)
Teleology, thus, is a two-edged sword, cutting two ways, both for and against curiosity. The ancient assumption of a teleologically arranged cosmos allowed for some pursuit of knowledge through curiosity, a legitimate care for that to which one's senses and intellect were fitted but simultaneously restricted that same curiosity if it sought knowledge beyond what was sufficient, namely, beyond that for which one's senses and intellect were fitted.

The ancient assumption was that the cosmos could be trusted, and even skepticism retained a residue of trust in the cosmos, as Blumenberg argues in his chapter on that theme (Legitimacy, pp. 269-277). As Blumenberg notes elsewhere in his comments upon this same theme:
Trust in the teleological background hypostatized as Pronoia [providence] and Logos [word, reason] makes possible indifference as a mode of behavior toward everything that impinges on man from outside. An apocryphal remark ascribed to Ptolemy characterizes the basic Hellenistic concern with being unconcerned in such a way as to subsume even the Stoa in this totality: Inter altos altior est qui non curat in cuius manu sit mundus [Among the profound, the profoundest is he who does not care in whose hand the world is]. This multiply significant formula indicates what the Hellenistic attempts to unburden man metaphysically had in common and designates at the same time what, in the sense of the late term curiositas, is superfluous concern, extending beyond what is possible and needful for man. (Legitimacy, p. 258)
As Blumenberg notes, the origin of the quote attributed to the astronomer Ptolemy is unknown but that "it is unlikely that the philosopher and writer of [that great astronomical work of antiquity, the] Almagest was its author" (Legitimacy, p. 623, n. 28). It nevertheless reflects the ancient assumption underlying restriction on curiosity, the assumption that one could trust the cosmos. Ironically, Blumenberg might point out, the Christian theology of high scholasticism broke open the possibility of unrestricted curiosity by its nominalistic destruction of any teleological trust in the cosmos.

More on that another time. For now, I'd like to note -- so that I don't forget it -- Blumenberg's citation of a study on that "late term curiositas":
On the verbal history of curiosus and curiositas, see A. Labhardt, "Curiositas. Notes sur l'histoire d'un mot et d'une notion," Museum Helveticum 17 (1960): 206-210. (Legitimacy, p. 623, n. 29)
By the way, concerning the apocryphal quote attributed to Ptolemy:
Inter altos altior est qui non curat in cuius manu sit mundus [Among the profound, the profoundest is he who does not care in whose hand the world is]
Blumenberg's translator, Robert M. Wallace, reminds us that "curiositas, 'curiosity,' derives from curo, to care" (Legitimacy, p. 262, n. a).

Hence, the ancient view might be that curiosity, by caring for things beyond its concern, leads into unnecessary cares, from which it must be cured.

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