Raising the Standard.

Why Did Curiosity Kill the Cat?

Amore e Psiche by Giuseppe Crespi

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

So the saying goes.

Originally it was care that killed the cat, as popularized by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing. Certainly, this is more appealing than the idea that curiosity can have harmful side effects. After all, didn’t curiosity take us to the moon?

Curiosity often motivates academic investigation and intellectual enterprise. Yet this is partly why it has been damned as a vice for centuries.

Much has been made about St. Augustine’s views on curiositas (rendered in English as one might expect — curiosity) in his famous autobiography Confessions. For Augustine, curiositas was a grave sin, not only the source of one’s desire to attend inappropriate performances, but also the source of an insatiable inquisitiveness — an unbridled desire to learn. This condemnation of curiosity continued into the Middle Ages. Eventually it inspired the creation of Goethe’s character Faust, who made a pact with the devil in an attempt to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and experience.

As unpalatable as this idea is to most modern audiences, Augustine was not being original in condemning curiosity. He was interacting with a tradition that extends into ancient Greece and that was developed by many writers both pagan and Christian. The adjective “Faustian” in the English language is only one mark of the traditional skepticism of curiosity.

THE EDITORS: The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps?

It became almost rote in ancient literature and philosophy that there were certain things that a wise man should not see or should not bother investigating. Whether the fault was being nosy, as in Plutarch and Aristophanes, or research, as in Cicero’s criticism of Chrysippus for gathering too much data, the common thread is that there are certain things that are proper for you, and certain things that are not. Apuleius’ The Golden Ass gives another example: Lucius, the Faustian protagonist, is turned into a donkey as a result of his unhealthy interest in magic.

But curiosity also often had a decidedly religious aspect. There were things about the gods that we simply could not know, and it wasn’t merely a waste of time attempting to figure them out — it was impious and unjust. In The Golden Ass Psyche is punished for attempting to discern the identity of her husband, because her husband was Cupid— a god, not to be beheld.

Christian philosophy picked up on this religious curiosity. Tertullian founded it in the Latin tradition, basing his discussion on Matthew 7:7 —  “Seek and you shall find.” This is not, Tertullian says, an excuse to investigate anything and everything ——a practice which leads to heresies.  Minucius Felix, Arnobius and Lactantius perpetuated this idea until Augustine picked it up and ushered it into the Middle Ages.

These apologists’ aversion to curiosity was more than simple condemnation of knowledge. They were incredibly well-educated and well-read, and in their apologies they appeal to numerous pagan philosophers and poets in their arguments. Their views were related to the ancient notion that the pursuit of virtue is the supreme good.

For Stoic philosophers, anything that distracted you from the pursuit of virtue was a vice. So Cicero, having praised learning and knowledge, warns of an error:

“Some people devote too much industry and too deep study to matters that are obscure and difficult and useless as well.” —De officiis, I.6

Excessive and unnecessary investigation distracts from an ultimate purpose. The Christian apologists would agree, saying that a person’s ultimate purpose is to worship the one true God.

And thus from the earliest times is born the phrase: curiosity killed the cat. It is a modern mindset that added the rejoinder: but satisfaction brought it back.
Satisfaction just might bring it back, for it is good that we have abandoned this distrust of intellectual pursuit. At the same time, only benefit can come from respecting the ancients’ wholehearted pursuit of the summum bonum.

—Ryan Slauer is a pre-med senior studying economics and Latin

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