The Italian author Umberto Eco belonged to a rare breed—a medievalist of encyclopedic erudition, a creative philosopher and a talented novelist. Prompted by his recent death, Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, has resurfaced in bookstands everywhere. The novel is a murder mystery set in an Italian Benedictine abbey in the year 1327. It begins with the arrival at the abbey of brothers William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar, and Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice and William’s scribe. The pair’s initial purpose is to partake in a theological dispute taking place at the abbey. But the abbot soon recruits William for another task ideally suited for William’s penetrating intellect: to investigate a recent string of suspicious deaths among the abbey’s brethren.
The stage is set, and what follows is Eco at his best—arcane debates on the medieval problem of universals or the poverty of Christ interspersed with monks thrown off balconies and poisoned by secret books. Eco’s William of Baskerville is William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, and Sherlock Holmes all wrapped into one (his provenance is an homage to The Hound of the Baskervilles). Like Ockham and Bacon, William embodies the new proto-scientific spirit of the late Middle Ages. He is scrupulously attentive, humble before the evidence, distasteful of groundless speculation and endlessly curious about his surroundings. His inquisitiveness inevitably displeases the powers that be, and we soon learn the deaths are themselves a punishment met on overly curious monks.
There is no stopping William, however, or the new spirit of the age. William wins over Adso, who praises this newfound virtue of curiosity, “which I once thought, rather, a passion of the covetous spirit.” It is this new spirit, Eco believes, which awakens the late Middle Ages from its dogmatic slumber and sets the stage for the Scientific Revolution.
Eco is not alone. The word “curiosity” now enjoys entirely benign connotations. We hardly take curiosity to be a vice anymore, even though every traditional authority, from Augustine and Jerome to Aquinas, considered it to be just that.
Perhaps both Brother Adso and ourselves ought not be so quick to dismiss the views of our elders.
For the medieval schoolmen, curiositas (let us stick to the Latin to avoid contemporary connotations) did not concern knowledge in and of itself, but rather the pursuit of knowledge. Thomas Aquinas thought that knowledge is in and of itself always good, since any act of knowing “feeds” truth to the intellect, which brings the intellect, and hence the soul, ever closer to perfection. Yet Aquinas thought the pursuit of knowledge could sometimes be wrongful, much in the same way as bread retains its nourishing value even if wrongfully pursued by a gluttonous eater on a full stomach. The analogy is apt—Aquinas believed in such a thing as an intellectual appetite—but a limited one. After all, the glutton sins because he eats beyond satiety. But we do not usually acknowledge the existence of a point of intellectual satiety beyond which we must not go. How can knowledge be pursued wrongfully, indeed sinfully?
In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas points to several ways. Gossiping, or endeavoring to know about another’s private affairs. The man who seeks knowledge just so he can take pride in what he knows also engages in curiositas. Then Aquinas borrows Jerome’s harsh words against those who pursue frivolous knowledge, thereby neglecting their duties: “We see priests forsaking the gospels and the prophets, reading stage-plays, and singing the love songs of pastoral idylls.” There is also the man who pursues what far exceeds his understanding, falling into systematic error and hence no knowledge at all. Finally, there is the man who loses sight of the ultimate end of pursuing knowledge, indeed of any pursuit, God.
The virtue Aquinas opposes to curiositas is not humility, but studiousness, that is, knowledge pursued well. Neither does Aquinas condemn empirical observation or even the pursuit of difficult subjects, so long as one possesses genuine ability. Eco attacks a mere caricature.
Curiositas is best understood in the context of medieval monasticism. There, dozens of men with access to vast libraries sought spiritual perfection. They must have been tempted to meander from one book to the next instead of focusing on the task at hand; to browse through books far beyond their understanding just so they could convey to their brethren the appearance of understanding. And gossip is a well-known perennial problem in religious communities. In short, the monks would have been tempted to lose sight of the final goal of their endeavors—not the mere accumulation of facts or the ability to impress others but rather that deep, structured understanding which is ultimately synonymous with the Logos, the creative Word. Far from precluding it then, the condemnation of curiositas enables fundamental scientific enquiry. It reminds us that studiousness requires the self-discipline to exclude frivolous pursuits (including the pursuit of frivolous knowledge); that the pursuit of knowledge is at its best when motivated by a genuine desire for the truth, not self-aggrandizement.
The parallel between the monastery with the vast library and a globalized world with Internet access should now be clear. Aquinas thought of curiositas as largely caused by acedia—i.e. spiritual laziness or aimlessness. Who among us has not wasted hours on Wikipedia rather than completing the task at hand? Who is not acquainted with the blowhard who looked up a few things online so that he could impress others at a party? And who has failed to be frustrated when lectured by someone who clearly thought he understood more than he did from what he read online?
Rather than some outdated holdover from the Middle Ages, the vice of curiositas is alive and well. Indeed, one might go so far as to say the Internet made it again a defining vice of our time.
Adso ought not have been so quick to reject the wisdom of his elders.
Luís Pinto de Sá is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Saint Louis University.