Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hans Blumenberg: "The 'Trial' of Theoretical Curiosity"

Studious, not Curious
(Image from Wikipedia)

Hans Blumenberg has a wonderful chapter in his Legitimacy of the Modern Age, titled "Curiosity Is Enrolled in the Catalog of Vices," which shows the significance of Augustine of Hippo in classifying "curiositas" as a vice.

As we saw yesterday, Aquinas accepted this classification but strove to justify inquiry as a virtue. Indeed, he opposes curiosity to studiousness in his Summa Theologica, for in the "Second Part of the Second Part: Question 166," Aquinas states in "Objection 2" that "studiousness is opposed to curiosity," a distinction that still receives serious attention today, as shown in an article by Alice Ramos, "A Secular Contract, A Sacred Calling" (pdf) for Pi Lambda Theta's journal educational HORIZONS (Volume 83, Number 4, Fall 2005).

Blumenberg situates Augustine's classification of curiosity as a vice within Augustine's turn away from Manichaean Gnosticism toward orthodox Christianity and argues that Augustine retained a Gnostic distrust in the cosmos as an intricate structure within which mankind can remain trapped. For the Gnostics, the trap was set by an ignorant demiurge (though in Manichaean Gnosis, this view is somewhat ameliorated, a point that Blumenberg apparently missed), whereas for Augustine's Christian theology, the problem lies rather in the fallenness of the cosmos, which can distract the curious man away from the proper attention to his salvation.

According to Blumenberg:
Curiositas is indeed a category applied in turning away from Gnosticism, but the world in which it can become a possible cardinal vice is no longer the cosmos that is open to man and symmetrically intelligible in all directions from the center but rather a sphere filled with Gnostic attributes in which man is [literally] 'eccentric' -- for nowhere in Augustine either does Stoic geocentrism play a role relevant to man's understanding of himself.

Augustine's world is not fulfilling but seductive, and curiositas is a 'temptation' (forma tentationis) in the double sense that to test oneself on and with what is resistant and uncommon (tentandi causa) is at the same time to be tempted (tentatio). In its extreme form this 'tempted attempt' of the appetite for experience and knowledge directs itself at God Himself, since even in religion there is hidden the attempt -- the 'experiment' with God -- to demand signs and miracles not as promises of salvation but merely to satisfy curiosity. In this attitude God is taken into service and made into a means to the enjoyment of purely worldly experience. This makes clear what it means when Augustine again and again insists in his thinking on a strict differentiation between enjoyment and usefulness, between frui and uti. He sees the basic character of the world in its utilitas [usefulness] as the instrumentality ad salutem [for salvation], whereas a fulfilled and fulfilling existential relation is only to be expected from the fruitio [enjoyment, delight] directed at God. The ordering principle of human life, which can be spelled out in the form of the ethical virtues, is fixed in the maxim that one should correctly distinguish between the usefulness and the enjoyment of things. At the same time there emerges a criterion for the positively evaluated attitude to which curiositas is contrasted: All theory is concerned with disclosing the instrumental relevance of the things in the world, the serviceability inherent in them. But this means that the Augustinian interpretation of knowledge of the world is no longer the 'pure' theory of Hellenistic philosophy.

Curiosity violates this ordering principle of use and enjoyment and betrays its content of disorder precisely by the fact that in its extreme and logical consequence (as Augustine defines it), it subjects even God to the criterion of utilitas, so as to be able to seek fruitio in the human self alone. (Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pages 312-313)
In short, curiosity as a vice overturns the established order of things by making God 'useful' for human beings 'enjoyment' of themselves and thereby distracting them from a proper concern with their salvation and entangling them in improper pursuit for frivolous knowledge of a world whose fallenness serves as a temptation to mankind's equally fallen mind.

Augustine is not the sole word on this subject, for we've already seen Aquinas put Augustine in his proper place. Moreover, the early Medival Christians were greatly concerned with knowledge and its transmission, as a recently published book promises to show:
No period in the intellectual history of North-Western Europe has been so formative as the early Middle Ages, when missionaries transferred the learning accumulated for centuries in the Mediterranean basin to recently founded centres of religious scholarship in the ever expanding Christian world. The aim of this scholarship focused, first and foremost, on a proper understanding of the Bible as God's Word and Nature as God's Creation. During this period the foundations of medieval learning were laid in the monasteries and schools by men from distant shores who considered it their calling to entrust this precious knowledge to future generations of indigenous scholars. In this process, Syrians ended up in England, Irishmen in Italy, and Anglo-Saxons in Frisia and Bavaria and thus helped build a common intellectual culture in Europe. Even though the memories of these missionaries were fed with vast amounts of reproducible knowledge far beyond the capacity of modern man, the most important means of storing and conveying knowledge was the written word stored in what was then modern technology: the parchment codex. The composition of these books reflect the extent and diversity of early medieval learning. Sometimes they contain a single work, but often enough they contain compilations of diverse material which at first sight shows little coherence to the modern reader, and rightly so. In a way such miscellanies are mini-libraries. Nevertheless, they are storehouses of wholesome learning in their own right; further study reveals a rationale in such collections that leads us to a monastic learning environment, in some cases even to the classroom. The present volume demonstrates how the study of texts and manuscripts combined opens up windows on the early medieval world of learning as represented by glossaries, proto-encyclopedias, biblical companions, hagiographical guides, didactic verse, or descriptions of the world in word and image. The essays demonstrate that scholars have too often concentrated on the study of single texts, but especially that the compilations of manuscripts and libraries reflect the kind of knowledge that was required of monks, ministers and missionaries for the contemplation, celebration and promulgation of the Christian message.
Such is the promise contained in the blurb for Foundations of Learning: The Transfer of Encyclopaedic Knowledge in the Early Middle Ages, a book of articles edited by R.H. Bremmer Jr. and K. Dekker as book 9 in the Mediaevalia Groningana New Series (Peeters Publishers).

Clearly, then, the early Medieval Christians, perhaps despite Augustine, were greatly 'curious' about the knowledge amassed over the centuries of the then fading Graeco-Roman world and were transmitting it to northwestern Europe through a process in which "Syrians ended up in England" -- though this sort of intellectual exchange was soon to be cut off by Islamic conquest of the Near East.

But this is enough heavy reading for today, and for those who wish to indulge their idle curiosity, feel free to visit this site to satisfy your ocular and aural desires both. For those who wish not to do so, consider this a test of your resolve and do not go there.

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At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I've read this right, does this make me Vice-President? I'm curious to know.


At 11:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Consider yourself on a trial run for such a curious office...

Jeffery Hodges

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