Monday, June 21, 2021

Curiosity damned the cat

Aquinas tells us that curiosity is a vice.  Before you clutch your pearls, dear village atheist reader, know that Aquinas was not condemning the pursuit of knowledge as such.  On the contrary, he refers to such pursuit as “studiousness,” and he regarded it is a virtue, not a vice.  “Curiosity,” as Aquinas uses the term, refers instead to intellectual pursuits that are disordered in some respect.  (Compare: The sin of wrath is not anger, but the indulgence of disordered anger; the sin of lust is not sexual desire, but the indulgence of disordered sexual desire; and so on.  In each case, it’s not the thing, but the abuse of the thing, that is condemned.)

Facilitating wrongdoing

In what cases might the pursuit of knowledge be disordered?  Perhaps the most obvious case is when one’s aim in acquiring knowledge is to facilitate evildoing.  If doing X is morally wrong, and you are trying to learn about Y for the sake of enabling you to do X, then your pursuit of knowledge about Y is wrong.  Of course, that leaves it open that pursuing such knowledge for some other reason might be legitimate.  (For example, if you are doing research on firearms because you are trying to figure out how to commit a certain crime, then you are doing something wrong.  But if you are doing such research because you are trying to figure out how to defend yourself against criminals, then you are not necessarily doing something wrong.)

The easy access to information afforded by the internet has opened the door to unprecedented occasions for this particular kind of curiosity.  Knowledge relevant to carrying out identity theft, finding partners for illicit sexual encounters, organizing a riot, doxing political enemies, and other immoral activities is just a few clicks away.

Manifesting pride

A second way that the pursuit of knowledge can be disordered is when it is motivated by the sin of pride.  The pursuer is, in this case, less concerned with knowledge than with the glorification of self that such knowledge might provide.  Obviously, someone who knows a lot precisely because he wants to be seen by others as knowing a lot would be guilty of this.  But there are other ways that pride can manifest itself in the pursuit of knowledge, which are especially evident in contemporary intellectual life, not least in my own field of academic philosophy.

One of them is the desire to be seen as clever.  Manifestations of this might include developing abstruse lines of argument, with feigned earnestness, for positions one does not really take seriously and one’s readers are not likely to take seriously either; the use of logical symbolism and other technical apparatus in cases where it is not necessary in order to make one’s point; a predilection for one-upmanship and argumentativeness; and, in general, a tendency to treat intellectual life as a kind of game or mental onanism.  (In a recent post, we saw that the Neo-Scholastic philosopher Thomas Harper labeled this tendency the “unreality of thought.”)

Another way pride manifests itself in intellectual matters is in the attitude of the sort of intellectual who takes delight in destroying the convictions of ordinary people, so as to facilitate his feelings of superiority over them.  We see this in the tiresome “everything you think you know is wrong” style of pop science writing, and in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” style of philosophy and social science that purports to “unmask” ordinary innocent beliefs and values as “really” “nothing but” the manifestation of some hidden and sinister motivation (economic class interests, subconscious neuroses, the promptings of selfish genes, the will to power, racism, sexism, etc. etc.).

Trivial pursuit

A third way the pursuit of knowledge can be disordered is when it reflects an excessive interest in matters that are not of ultimate importance.  The highest sort of knowledge concerns the divine first cause and last end of our existence, and of how to prepare our souls so that they might be united to him forever.  The further one’s intellectual pursuits take one from interest in and knowledge of these ultimate matters, the more disordered they are. 

Now, one can certainly pursue scientific or philosophical knowledge in a manner that distracts one from these highest matters.  To be sure, scientific and philosophical inquiry, at least when done well, do put one in some contact with the natures of things and with objective reality in general, even if not always in a way that is oriented to the very highest realities.  But one of the pathologies of modern intellectual life, alongside the ones already mentioned, is a tendency toward hyper-specialization that makes one so doggedly oriented toward a narrow aspect of reality that one’s view of larger matters becomes positively distorted or obscured altogether.  That can cause grave spiritual harm.

Outside of academic life, a similar excessive focus on matters of at most secondary importance is exhibited by those who are hyper-enthusiastic about travel, cuisine, and the like.  And the most absurd manifestation is the rise of “geek culture” – of people who devote enormous amounts of time and energy to learning and thinking about the minutiae of fictional universes from movies, comics, and games, or who obsess over the work and personal lives of favorite actors, musicians, bands, etc.  My point, as longtime readers know, is by no means to disparage such things per se.  But for many people today, such trivial pursuits have gone well beyond a point that is spiritually healthy, and have become a kind of substitute religion. 

Aquinas tells us that curiosity can be a byproduct of the cardinal sin of acedia or apathy toward the pursuit of the highest spiritual goods.  Modern popular culture and its dizzying variety of entertainments have to a large extent become precisely this – a drug that so thoroughly immerses people in fantasy life that they are distracted from pursuing what is necessary for the eternal wellbeing of their souls.

Arrogant amateurs

Aquinas sees an additional manifestation of the vice of curiosity in people who pursue matters that they lack the wherewithal to understand.  I don’t think that what he has in mind here is the sort of person who finds it interesting to learn something about a subject he could never master himself, such as the non-expert who reads popular works of philosophy, science, etc.  That seems to be not only harmless, but an exercise of the virtue of studiousness.  What Aquinas has in mind, I would suggest, is instead the sort of person whose confidence in his opinions about such matters is out of proportion to his actual knowledge or ability.  The problem here is a lack of intellectual humility.  (The difference from the sort of prideful person discussed earlier is that that sort of person typically does have the requisite intellectual ability.) 

The internet and social media have afforded unprecedented occasions for this particular manifestation of the sin of curiosity.  Anyone with access to Wikipedia, or even just to the Twitter or Facebook feeds he peruses every day, fancies himself possessed of such expertise on matters of politics, science, and philosophy that he is justified in shrilly denouncing all who disagree with him.

Occult knowledge

Aquinas also classifies interest in divination as a species of curiosity.  Here the idea is that demons are of their nature unreliable sources of knowledge, driven as they are solely by the aim of corrupting souls.  But a disordered interest in the occult in general would plausibly be classified as a kind of curiosity in Aquinas’s sense.  I say “disordered” because not all inquiry into such matters is bad.  For example, Aquinas himself has a lot to say about the nature and activities of demons, and the topic is of both intellectual and spiritual interest.  What I have in mind is rather an interest in the occult that is disordered in that one is attracted to the study of evil powers precisely insofar as they are evil.

For example, there are in modern society subcultures that are excessively fascinated, and indeed titillated, by the demonic, the deviant, and the macabre in their various forms – in satanic symbolism and other forms of sacrilege and blasphemy, in the lives and mindsets of serial killers and the grisly details of their crimes, in pushing ever further out the boundaries of sexual license, and so on – precisely because these things are deeply subversive of normal sensibilities and taboos.  Some people of this type may not believe in the literal existence of the demonic, but are nevertheless drawn to what it represents.  This love of what is subversive qua subversive is gravely disordered, so that the pursuit of knowledge that is driven by that love is also disordered.

When one considers these varieties of the disordered pursuit of knowledge – again, those which facilitate wrongdoing, manifest pride, obsess over trivia, foster aggressive and arrogant ignorance, or evince delight in the demonic and subversive – it is evident that curiosity, as Aquinas uses the term, is not only a sin but an extremely common one.

73 comments:

  1. "For example, there are in modern society subcultures that are excessively fascinated, and indeed titillated, by the demonic, the deviant, and the macabre in their various forms – in satanic symbolism and other forms of sacrilege and blasphemy, in the lives and mindsets of serial killers and the grisly details of their crimes, in pushing ever further out the boundaries of sexual license, and so on – precisely because these things are deeply subversive of normal sensibilities and taboos. Some people of this type may not believe in the literal existence of the demonic, but are nevertheless drawn to what it represents. This love of what is subversive qua subversive is gravely disordered, so that the pursuit of knowledge that is driven by that love is also disordered."

    I take it you are not a fan of the band Slayer?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Abstain from all appearance of evil." (1 The 5:22)

      Delete
    2. Laudator Temporis ActiJune 22, 2021 at 1:41 AM

      You can also take it that Dr Feser is a grown-up. And wouldn't saying "fan of Cannibal Corpse" have made your comment even more hilarious?

      Delete
    3. Being a jazz guy, i suppose that Dr. Feser is not into metal. I dunno, they seems pretty diferent.

      Delete
  2. Dr Feser,
    Your comment about researching firearms for self-defense vs. researching firearms in order to commit a crime is an excellent point.

    Similarly, looking at Internet nudity for the purpose of sexual arousal is sinful. But there is nothing sinful about an art major in college taking a required course in figure drawing and working from a live nude model. The artist has a legitimate reason to look at a nude male or female model.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even if the artist has a legitimate reason, if it is an occasion of sin, it must be avoided. Another example might be a male gynecologist - if his job is causing him to be tempted, he had better get another job ASAP or risk going to jail.

      There are subjective and objective factors at play in all of these, I think.

      Delete
  3. "Arrogant amateurs." First person who comes to mind is Ron Conte.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fauci was the first I thought of.

      Delete
  4. I would never put myself forward as anything other than a novice-at-best student of Aquinas, and there is much of his writing that I lack the machinery to really process. But what I can understand, I find it really just well-written common sense. I don't mean this as an insult to Thomas, but a compliment. The stuff he says that I can comprehend makes a lot of sense.

    This discussion of knowledge is another specimen of what appears to be just plain old (sanctified) common sense. It also lines up with the scriptural admonitions against witchcraft and seeking "supernatural" type knowledge on one's own accord.

    Final whimsical note: "And the most absurd manifestation is the rise of “geek culture” – of people who devote enormous amounts of time and energy to learning and thinking about the minutiae of fictional universes from movies, comics, and games, or who obsess over the work and personal lives of favorite actors, musicians, bands, etc."
    I immediately think of Comic Book Guy walking down the street pondering Aquaman when a warhead is training in on him, and he looks up and says something like "I've wasted my life!".

    ReplyDelete
  5. - the sin of lust / wrath have specific symbols. i find it conceptually faulty if one uses the same concept / symbol for good and bad. + the world definition / understanding of the term. curiosity cannot be a sin, find a different symbol. sadly i cannot think of one and perhaps you have tried to find one as well. prying is by default associated with something negative .. its a step up.

    - same goes for pride. lack of humility is not the synomim of pride, at best its arrogance. we should stop using pride as a symbol of sin.. in a world already ready to criticize and dismiss any symbol they deem inaccurate (undiferentiated between good or bad).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not sure what you mean, Gruia. Where did Feser use "the same concept/symbol for good and bad"? I think it's pretty clear he gave examples of where curiosity could become sinful, and explained how.

      Delete
    2. I think that Gruia is saying that "curiosity" is a bad word to be used to refer to the vice that Dr. Feser described. This because it already has a meaning in english, so it can confuse.

      Delete
    3. I think the choice of the word curiosity was based on the title of the article, Curiosity damned the cat.

      Delete
  6. Laudator Temporis ActiJune 22, 2021 at 1:38 AM

    C.S. Lewis writes well about the lust for occult knowledge in Surprised by Joy:

    But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since--the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. Not everyone has this disease; those who have will know what I mean. I once tried to describe it in a novel. It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts. It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians.

    https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy/lewiscs-surprisedbyjoy-01-h.html

    ReplyDelete
  7. When you have unprecedented freedom of choice as to who you hang out with, such as the internet affords, it's all too easy to find an echo-chamber to reinforce your pre existing beliefs (confirmation bias). And it seems to me that conspiracy theories are a form of intellectual arrogance, since they appeal to a sense of being 'in the know', and superior to the sheep-like masses who bumble along half asleep in a state of ignorant stupor. Those who buy into the numerous conspiracy theories know what's REALLY going on.

    But really, such people are just lazy and arrogant.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those kind of people should have their own label such as "conspiracy monger" to differentiate them from 'honest' conspiracy theorists who are trying to find out exactly who is oppressing them, and how.

      Delete
  8. What about seeking knowledge of what is higher in itself but the seeking is disordered based on circumstances (of time, occupation, etc.)?

    For example, say I neglect my daily duties in order to read about metaphysics or theology. Seems like that should have its own category. It's not a trivial pursuit, nor does it necessarily involve being an arrogant amateur but it's still disordered per accidens. Not sure if Aquinas speaks to this specifically, if he would consider it curiosity or classify it under another vice. Thoughts?

    [I see that he does mention in the II-II, Q.167, a.1 (linked by Feser): "when a man is withdrawn by a less profitable study from a study that is an obligation incumbent on him" but the example given is of a priest forsaking higher things for lower things.]

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course it would qualify as curiosity due to the disordered motive and excessive degree (small in any case, but still disordered).
      It would just a sin lesser magnitude than the case with the priest. You would probably have to do this for a good hour or more for it to be serious in most cases, unless you are neglecting something critical like guard duty.

      Delete
  9. One current important area where some scientists such as Antony Fauci and Francis Collins seek knowledge where they should not is this gain-of-function research. That research led to the COVID epidemic we have all suffered under. Curiosity killed millions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Finley
      Stop watching Tucker Carlson

      https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/fauci-gain-function-covid/

      Delete
    2. Fauci is more a manager of mad scientists than a scientist; he is the poster boy of the Arrogant Amateur.

      Delete
    3. Spoken with the unflinching certainty of a religionist. The fact is though that although logically possible, there is no evidence to actually support the scenario you hint at, while the great majority of those qualified to form a truely informed oppinion reject it.

      Delete
    4. Anonymous,
      I did not say that Fauci funded gain-of-function research (he may have; I do not know). Fauci and Collins have argued in favor of gain-of-function research. Nothing I said came from Tucker Carlson, so get your facts straight.

      Delete
    5. Pursuing gain-of-function as such is a great example.

      Delete
  10. Interesting. How then would this apply to someone like me, who reads a blog post like the above for fun on his lunch when I still have much to contemplate about the existence and nature of God? What is the rational justification for simply doing something for fun?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Moderate recreation is an essential part of a well-ordered life. The bow cannot always be bent.

      Delete
    2. Journey 516,

      See my response to Tony below. There's nothing at all wrong with that.

      Delete
  11. Great blog post for a philosopher's examination of conscience!

    ReplyDelete
  12. I am personally guilty of a disordered interest in the macabre in terms of serial killers, spree killers, etc. I have spent hours past midnight hopping from Wikipedia page to Wikipedia page on these topics. Sometimes I tell myself the extremes of human behaviour are of interest in the light they shed on what is latent in normal behaviour. But in reality I know it is sinful, and I do try to curb it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just to be clear, I wouldn't say that an interest in the macabre is of itself disordered or sinful. That's why I used words like "excessive" and "titillated." I think it's natural for people to be to some extent interested in trying to understand what's going on in the minds of criminals etc. The problem is when one takes a kind of positive delight in being transgressive, treats criminals as merely wayward folk heroes, etc.

      Delete
  13. While I fully agree that the pursuit of a specific body of knowledge in order to commit some sin or crime is a wrongful and sinful pursuit of knowledge, I really don't think it falls under the term "curiosity". Sorry, I think it needs some other term. Knowledge gained for a specific use or practical employment is divided from the "curious" in that the latter, at least by connotation, is not pursued for some definite practical use. It may HAVE some practical use, to someone else, but not to the merely curious seeker. Purposelessness is built into the term, at least in its negative connotations, in English. Perhaps the Latin expression Thomas was using has a larger sphere of meaning than the English "curiosity", or perhaps it does now where it didn't in past centuries.

    Also, while there is vast room for faulty and idle curiosity in the internet, we should be just a bit cautious on how far that extends: a father who is a handyman around the house, who spends 20 minutes looking up specific fixes to an existing problem, and then another 1/2 hour following trails to fixes to associated or similar problems (that he does not have), is not to be charged with idle curiosity: a range of associative knowledge is an important reservoir of possible new ideas that will become useful, or may become useful, and this is part of the reason that OVER=specialization is damaging to both science and personal development.

    Also, it is possible for a non-specialist to make himself sufficiently learned in a specific area, without formal education, by devoted study of it over a long period, so that even without some academic credential he is justly considered something of an expert, or at least qualified to hold forth on it. We have all run into people like that. If they use the knowledge so gained for even so modest a purpose as to correct some errors endemic in the field, i.e. correcting some other experts in some erroneous belief, this may be sufficient reason to justify their hours of study. (Depending on the field and its inherent value, I suppose, but if the field itself ACTUALLY justifies there being academic credentials, then presumably it justifies gifted amateurs.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Tony,

      Re: your first point, I was trying to explain what Aquinas had in mind by the term, and he does include "study to learn something in order to sin" as a species. I was not trying to capture the modern connotations of the term, and I agree that it is not the best term to use (in the case of this first species of the vice or with respect to the other varieties of "curiosity" discussed by Aquinas, really).

      I also agree completely with your second and third paragraphs, and wouldn't dream of classifying such things as falling under the vice of "curiosity" or as otherwise sinful. In fact, probably most of what people have in mind when they talk about "curiosity" in the modern sense -- learning about something just because it strikes one as interesting -- is perfectly innocent and not at all sinful. I don't think an inquiry always has to have some purpose beyond itself. That the subject matter is interesting is reason enough. E.g. reading about something just because you saw a book about it at Barnes and Noble and struck you as interesting is natural and normal. "Idle" curiosity of that sort is fine.

      Again, the term "curiosity," given its contemporary connotations, just isn't a good one for what Aquinas has in mind. That's why I tried to focus on specific examples to make it clear that I'm not talking about what most people today think of when they hear the term.

      Delete
    2. Can you help me with the phrase, subversive qua subversive? I am familiar with noun qua noun, but not adjective qua adjective.

      Delete
  14. Isn't your third to last argument (trivial pursuit) against curiosity pretty hypocritical?

    The Central Processing Unit (CPU) of your computer (that you used to write this blog) is not the product of an engineer's lazy work. It is the result of pure specialization made by a small group of people with extreme understanding of CPU pipelines, opcode decoding and other subjects which the average person will never learn or care about. These academic pursuits are the furthest possible away from "the divine" and "how to prepare our souls to unite with him".

    I also don't believe spirituality and religion has to be a part of your scientific research for it to be considered healthy to your psyche.


    "Aquinas tells us that curiosity can be a byproduct of the cardinal sin of acedia or apathy toward the pursuit of the highest spiritual goods."

    Ah. I see where the fundamental disagreement comes from. Reflecting on the purpose of life seems to be a modern problem plaguing most people. However, I believe an obsession on such matter can be equally as harmful as ignoring it. I'm of the opinion that we're (mostly) a sack of protein and electrical signals and that we will forever be slave to what is hardcoded in our DNA (reproduction, survival, etc). Until we can modify our genes and start hacking away at our own purpose, I don't believe we will truly find happiness in our spirituality.

    Still, I found a number of arguments from this page to be quite interesting and some have challenged my own views, so thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, I didn't mean to imply that specialization per se was bad (that's why I spoke of "hyper-specialization," and I had in mind a general phenomenon within academia rather than what might be true of this or that specialist). Nor did I say that all inquiry into every topic must somehow explicitly bring up God.

      Delete
  15. Finlay
    I would also add that in 2020 Collins won the Templeton Prize the most prestigious award in religion. Pope Benedict also made him a member of the Roman Pontifical Academy. He is one of the world's greatest scientists.

    ReplyDelete
  16. The Templeton Prize is not the most prestigious award in religion; you don't need to be religious to win it. Martin Rees won it and he is an atheist, and was when he won it. Francis Collins is a brilliant man, but brilliant men can make horrific misjudgments. Many scientists warned of the dangers of gain-of-function research before the present crisis.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "Arrogant amateurs: Aquinas sees an additional manifestation of the vice of curiosity in people who pursue matters that they lack the wherewithal to understand. I don’t think that what he has in mind here is the sort of person who finds it interesting to learn something about a subject he could never master himself, such as the non-expert who reads popular works of philosophy, science, etc. That seems to be not only harmless, but an exercise of the virtue of studiousness."

    Agreed.

    "What Aquinas has in mind, I would suggest, is instead the sort of person whose confidence in his opinions about such matters is out of proportion to his actual knowledge or ability. The problem here is a lack of intellectual humility."

    I demur. People whose confidence in their own opinions is out of proportion to their actual knowledge are often just products of miseducation (from parents, teachers, priests, etc.). Often they are ignorant of their own ignorance (and ignorant of the fact that this should even be an issue) through the fault of those who have poorly educated them (thus, invincible meta-ignorance), rather than through a disorder in their desire for knowledge. Any disorder in their desire for knowledge may be accidental. The problem isn't really a lack of intellectual humility, it's a lack of real knowledge, and it is likely enough a lack of real knowledge that has been imposed upon them by forces beyond their control and contrary to their (perhaps latent) desire, but a lack which in turn has the unavoidable effect of providing the will with a distorted object of desire, without that necessarily implying a distortion in their desire for knowledge as such.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It depends on the case. Judging by the next paragraph, Dr. Feser seems to have in mind the average social media genius who knows that his knowledge is superficial and also than that could be changed by studing but just feels like acting like he knows better that anyone else.

      If you are on this blog for years or if you consume any polemical content in places like Youtube i suppose that you already have some guys in mind. These people are hardly blameless for their ignorance.

      Delete
    2. "I demur. People whose confidence in their own opinions is out of proportion to their actual knowledge are often just products of miseducation (from parents, teachers, priests, etc.). Often they are ignorant of their own ignorance (and ignorant of the fact that this should even be an issue) through the fault of those who have poorly educated them (thus, invincible meta-ignorance), rather than through a disorder in their desire for knowledge."

      The question is then, how best to show these folks that they are in fact ignorant? You have to show them that they are wrong in some way. And it is hard to do this without actually humiliating some individuals such that they are compelled to admit they were wrong. Some folks, who are already intellectually humble, may allow themselves to be convinced by good arguments, but some may remain arrogant amateurs, refusing to accept a good argument or allow themselves to be proven wrong in their initial judgement.

      Often times such arrogant amateurs will appeal to some greater authority they respect. For example, they might appeal to the popularity of an argument, or to a particular body of expertes they think have the final say and quote from them without even having a good grasp on what they have said. And that becomes a way for them to stay in their arrogant amateur status without ever having to actually refute a good argument. They may start off a discussion with statements like, I haven't bothered to read x y and z, but here is my confident assessment or judgement about it.

      So yes, they began as ignorant of their own ignorance, but if someone has charitably tried to educate them, and they obstinantly refuse to budge on their point of view or to acknowledge a good argument, I think we can characterize such as these as arrogant amateurs. They are now in a position where it should be clear to them that their confidence in their opinions about such matters is out of proportion to their actual knowledge or ability. But because of their arrogance, they refuse to admit this fact.

      And agreed, there are lots of reasons why someone might be such and they may not be fully responsible for their state. Of course people naturally want to be right in their oppinions and it takes humility to accept that they are wrong. It is easier to accept correction if the fault is of little consequence. But if the fault in their reasonning requires that they completely alter their worldview, swallowing such a red pill will require much more humility, intellectual honesty, reflection, and even suffering.

      What can we do then to educate such as these? Scatter seeds of truth, I imagine, and trust that God will provide the growth. Administer corrections as gently as possible, and only resorting to harsh correction as a last resort perhaps or when dealing with folks who ought to know better.

      Delete
    3. It's hard to generalize about "the average social media genius," I suppose, but what makes you think that such an average person knows that his knowledge is superficial? I think even the average PhD in philosophy has a very superficial knowledge of the history of philosophy, say, or of philosophical theology, or even of metaphysics. And yet they are completely unaware of how superficial their knowledge is (if they were aware, they wouldn't be so superficial). So a fortiori for the average social media genius. I think Feser has written some interesting things about conspiracy theories, in particular the notion that certain conspiracies would supposedly undermine our confidence in our basic framework of knowing so much that we could know longer have any means of confidently asserting we know or can discover the truth about anything (to put it hyperbolically, perhaps). But the problem is, I think it's plausible to say that often people are in precisely that position, where they have bought into (or rather been indoctrinated into) premises (a worldview) such that they have been effectively cut off from knowing the truth about a lot of things, and they don't know that, and have no ready means at their disposal for coming to know it, and so the upshot of Feser's analysis perhaps really should be to grant the everyday practical force of skeptical arguments, rather than to say we must reject so-called "conspiracy theories" for the reason that they would lead to the same problems as more properly "philosophical" skepticism. Even if that's true about certain conspiracy theories, that is nonetheless precisely the position that practically speaking many people are in with regard to many important things. (Hence my reference to invincible ignorance, and meta-ignorance.)

      Delete
    4. I would recall also that the upshot of (at least some) classical skepticism is to seek ataraxia, freedom from unnecessary stress and worry caused by trying to know what is beyond our ability to know, and this concern aligns pretty well with some of what is involved in Aquinas's discussion of the vice of curiositas.

      Delete
    5. @Daniel: "But if the fault in their reasonning requires that they completely alter their worldview, swallowing such a red pill will require much more humility, intellectual honesty, reflection, and even suffering."

      Sure, but keep in mind that life is suffering, they're already suffering anyway, and it is better to suffer injustice than to do injustice, and certainly better to suffer correction than to carry on in error. It may be that people are often too ignoble to recognize this, but nonetheless it is true and it is of first importance to insist upon it. As for the importance of gentleness, I'm not sure about that. Sometimes it's called for, sometimes not (wwJd?). Saying "be as gentle as possible" seems no more universally imperative in correcting others than it is in, say, playing football. The important thing is to play by rules and keep your eye on the ball, so to speak.

      Delete
    6. David- you have to read Saint Francis de Sales on Gentleness towards others and Remedies against Anger. In my opinion, it is a masterpiece of spiritual advice.

      https://ccel.org/ccel/desales/devout_life/devout_life.v.viii.html

      I totally agree with you about it being better to suffer correction than to carry on in error. It is an act of charity to offer correction, for sure.

      Delete
    7. "It's hard to generalize about "the average social media genius," I suppose, but what makes you think that such an average person knows that his knowledge is superficial?"

      I'am thinking of a more particular group of persons, not the average social media person. Think of that person who knows that there is a vast literature o. the subject but does not bother to look at it and nevertheless discuss things like the other side is completely dumb or dishonest and dismiss any criticism of his views as nonsense, not even trying to get it.

      Dr.Feser seems to have these guys in mind, not the average person online. The average person normaly at least recognizes that there is a lot of things that they do not know and tend to not act with that much certitute or disdain for thr other side. This can change on more heated topics, tought.

      Delete
    8. @Talmid: "Think of that person who knows that there is a vast literature o. the subject but does not bother to look at it and nevertheless discuss things like the other side is completely dumb or dishonest and dismiss any criticism of his views as nonsense, not even trying to get it."

      Two points: One, such a person might be right, and have (subjectively and/or objectively) good reason for believing that the vast literature on a given subject is all worthless. Two, I don't see why we should assume such a person (whether he is right, or wrong) would be guilty of the vice of curiositas.

      @Daniel: I'll check it out. I know Francis has a reputation for gentleness. Similarly, I believe that gentle Peter Canisius thought Robert Bellarmine too bellicose. But presumably Bellarmine might have thought Canisius too soft (St Paul condemns softness, malakia), so I suppose we should leave it to God to judge.

      Delete
    9. @Daniel:
      A couple of reactions to de Sales:

      "Just so when reason prevails, and administers reproof, correction, and punishment in a calm spirit, although it be strict, every one approves and is content" -- manifestly false.

      "it is better to refuse entrance to any even the least semblance of anger, however just" -- false, it's not better (please don't try to be better than Jesus, you're guaranteed to fail) and generally speaking impossible anyways.

      I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's idea of "men without chests" -- one of the referents of "chests" being Plato and Aristotle's thumos, I believe, sometimes translated as "anger" -- a work which I think has its shortcomings, but in general makes a very important point: men need chests, men without chests are defective.

      On the other hand, I do think the issue of so-called arrogant amateurs is more likely one of the vice of wrath than of curiositas. And perhaps even more likely the problem is a matter of sins against faith (blindness of mind and dullness of sense), or against love (hatred, sloth, envy, discord, contention) or against prudence (imprudence, negligence).

      Delete
    10. Hey David,

      There are the quotes from James to look at. What exactly did James mean when he said "wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." Surely he was aware of what Christ did at the temple with the moneychangers.

      Aquinas seems to admit a just anger here:

      "... if one desire the taking of vengeance in any way whatever contrary to the order of reason, for instance if he desire the punishment of one who has not deserved it, or beyond his deserts, or again contrary to the order prescribed by law, or not for the due end, namely the maintaining of justice and the correction of defaults, then the desire of anger will be sinful, and this is called sinful anger."

      And I think that is the problem. Unless you have such solid control over your anger, it is too easy to let it carry you way beyond what justice requires into injustice.

      Here is another one from Gergory the Great

      "There is an anger which is engendered of evil, and there is an anger engendered of good. Hastiness of temper is the cause of the evil, divine principle is the cause of the good, such as that which Phinees felt when he allayed God's anger by the use of his own sword."

      Again though, it is so easy for anger to boil over into rage. Here is one from Saint Augustine:

      "It is better not to allow anger, however just and reasonable, to enter at all, than to admit it in ever so slight a degree; once admitted, it will not be easily expelled, for, though at first but a small plant, it will immediately grow into a large tree."

      Anger had a tendency to eclipse reason. Then all bets are off. The barbarian inside is let loose.

      But as you said, we can't just make a blanket prohibition on ever getting angry. But if we are the type of person who flips off the handle at ever objectionable post from every internet troll.... then maybe its better just to avoid anger as an occasion of sin. Or respond in anger, but then quickly pull away from the debate and allow yourself to cool off.

      Delete
    11. @David

      Your first point is just missing the point*, these guys could have subjective reasons to suspect that the literature is worthless, but that is not the principal motivation to dismiss it. Come on, look on your memories harder!

      Your second point is smart, though. Like you said somewhere else, these guys are probably suffering of a vice on the other extreme.


      *sorry, that is the best i had

      Delete
    12. @Talmid:
      I'm not sure what you think my point was or why my point is missing "the point." Is it possible that my point is different from your "the point" but not thereby missing it? I certainly don't know why you've introduced the notion of "principal motivation." Your doing so suggest to me that you're the one missing "the point." Oh well!

      @Daniel:
      I think that anyone who is even inclined to doubt for a moment that there is such a thing as just anger has a fundamentally defective understanding of human nature. Anger is fundamental to the irascible (ira - anger) appetite, which is one of the core elements in the Thomistic account of the human person and human action in pursuit and defense of the good.

      The quote of Augustine you mention is the same quote quoted by Francis that I quoted above. And I continue to maintain that it states a plain falsehood.

      Delete
    13. Here is an interesting discussion of Augustin on the place of Anger in the City of God book 14, chapter 19 https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120114.htm so clearly his prohibition on anger is not absolute.

      I'll see if I can find the context of the original quote. Maybe he had in mind anger in the context of a religious community. The word "Better" makes me think of a spectrum of good, better, and best. So that gives him some wiggle room.

      Delete
    14. Ah, here it is!

      https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102038.htm

      Seems like it is advice given specifically to Profuturus. And perhaps he hardens his advice into a principle just for him because of a certain conversation they had had:

      "You will understand with how great care and anxiety I write these things, if you consider the things which lately on a certain journey you said to me."

      Perhaps this Profuturus was a man who habituallly let his anger get the better of him.

      And this fits with another leter he wrote to Nebridius where he defines anger and what happens when one overindulges in it.

      https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102009.htm

      "The mind, if it be continually obstructed by some difficulty in the way of doing and accomplishing what it desires, is thereby made continually angry. For anger, so far as I can judge of its nature, seems to me to be a tumultuous eagerness to take out of the way those things which restrict our freedom of action. Hence it is that usually we vent our anger not only on men, but on such a thing, for example, as the pen with which we write, bruising or breaking it in our passion; and so does the gambler with his dice, the artist with his pencil, and every man with the instrument which he may be using, if he thinks that he is in some way thwarted by it. Now medical men themselves tell us that by these frequent fits of anger bile is increased. But, on the other hand, when the bile is increased, we are easily, and almost without any provocation whatever, made angry."

      Perhaps Profuturus was one of these men who could be made angry without provocation whatever.

      Delete
    15. Interesting. So perhaps Augustine was just giving advice to a particular pathologically bilious person, without denying that bile (now we might better say adrenaline) has an essential role to play in the functioning of the human person. And Francis took Augustine's counsel out of context and tried to make it into a general moral principle regarding anger?

      Delete
    16. "Interesting. So perhaps Augustine was just giving advice to a particular pathologically bilious person, without denying that bile (now we might better say adrenaline) has an essential role to play in the functioning of the human person."

      Seems like it is a defensible position anyway. At the least, we probably shouldn't draw vigorous conclusions from statements made in letters addressed to specific people of a pastoral nature.

      " And Francis took Augustine's counsel out of context and tried to make it into a general moral principle regarding anger?"

      I have seen other writings of Saint Francis where he does categorize anger with sexual desire, as Saint Augustine does in the City of God (see my quote above). Something that is good in itself, but corrupted by original sin, such that we have to subject it to firm rational controls and not let it get the better of us. And that this is a direct result of the fall.

      At any rate, one cannot accuse him of Malakia based on his heroic actions and deeds. Pope Pius XI wronte an encyclical about him here:

      https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_26011923_rerum-omnium-perturbationem.html

      See paragraphs 8 to 11.

      Delete
    17. @Daniel:
      You're right, I certainly wouldn't want to accuse Francis of softness in his own personal life. But I can't help suspecting that many people are prone to softness, especially priests and bishops these days, and so my point is about his advice, not his life. What people in general need is certainly not the advice to stifle all anger, no matter how just and reasonable. Not that the problem is primarily one of stifled anger, it's the stifling of what is just and reasonable -- and thus the stifling of reason itself and justice itself -- that is the problem. And the stifling of reason and justice, of reasonable and just anger, and correspondingly the stifling of the will and even ability to correct errors, that has become an increasingly serious problem for us.

      Delete
    18. I agree with you about not stifling what is just and reasonable. And I agree with you in principle that there are occasions where just anger is appropriate. I suspect, though, that it is like just war. One should only indulge in anger when the prospect of ammendment or change in the one you are angry with has some hope of being effective. Still, in general, I side with Francis on not resorting to anger. It reminds me of psalm 37

      8 Refrain from anger; abandon wrath; do not be provoked; it brings only harm.
      9 Those who do evil will be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD will inherit the earth.

      Archbishop Cordelione's response to the democrat's open letter last week is a perfect example of responding to the demands of justice and truth in our day and age without showing anger.

      Another example I personally wish to emulate is Scott Ryan. http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2016/03/scott-ryan-rip.html

      To quote from Ed

      "I did not know Scott personally, but I always greatly valued his contributions to combox discussions, which consistently manifested Scott’s high intelligence, breadth of knowledge, sense of humor, clarity of expression, and charity toward others. The exchanges on this blog have been of a consistently high quality in large part because of Scott’s presence."

      Anger was not on that list. I don't think I ever heard an angry word come from that guy's mouth. And I personally saw him change hearts and minds on this blog.

      Delete
    19. I don't think you quite grasp what anger fundamentally is. It is not something you should ever "indulge." It is an inherent part of the perceptual and motivational makeup of the human person. If you're talking about "indulging" it, it seems you're talking about disordered anger, which you should never indulge. If you're talking about reasonable and just anger, then that's something you should experience in relation to rightly perceiving the good as being under attack and in need of being defended. You can say, "I don't need to indulge in anger to do that," but then you're just begging the question that it's a matter of indulging anything, as opposed to responding rightly to the situation. Also note, in the Psalms if you like, that God himself is often angry. This has nothing to do with him "indulging" himself, it's simply a necessary consequence of his perfect knowledge and perfect will as these bear on moral evil.

      Delete
    20. "I don't think you quite grasp what anger fundamentally is. It is not something you should ever "indulge." It is an inherent part of the perceptual and motivational makeup of the human person."

      Agreed. As does Aquinas, Francis, and Augustine.

      "If you're talking about "indulging" it, it seems you're talking about disordered anger, which you should never indulge."

      Yes.

      "If you're talking about reasonable and just anger, then that's something you should experience in relation to rightly perceiving the good as being under attack and in need of being defended. You can say, "I don't need to indulge in anger to do that," but then you're just begging the question that it's a matter of indulging anything, as opposed to responding rightly to the situation."

      So we are agreed that Anger, the emotion, is just part of human nature.
      We are agreed that anger arises from a perceived good being under attack.
      We are agreed that anger should lead to good and reasonable actions that defend to rectify the situation.

      So I see three things here - the emotion, the perception or knowledge of the evil or injustice that gives rise to the emotion, and the action of the will to rectify the problem.

      Now, in principle, if we err in the perception of the evil, and what we perceived as evil was actually not evil, then the emotion it gives rise to and any actions it leads to will be in error as well. Here we have a case on unreasonable and unjust anger.

      Here is another scenario - the evil we grow angry at is not in our sphere of power to effect any change in. In this case, we have a feeling that is engendered that we have no power to rectify. For example, there are millions of abortions every years across the globe. We rightly see this as a great even, but we cannot do anything about it on the global scale, and we can do very little about it on the local scale. So what do we do about the anger. Do we let it fester and taint our lives? Clearly the human response of anger needs to be blunted in that case. The anger is no longer appropriate and will end up actually hurting our peace and joy. Probably the most effective course of action at this point is to pray, to make intercessory prayer for the unborn and pregnant mothers who are thinking of taking their own children's lives. Here anger could turn to sadness and even depression, but we maintain our peace and joy because our hope is in the lord. If we indulge our righteous anger at this point, we are only harming ourselves. So this is a case of just but unreasonable anger.

      So while acknowledging that anger can lead to actions that are just and reasonable, they often, and in fact I would say are even inclined in many cases to lead to actions that either hurt others or hurt yourself. And this is because of original sin. And even in the case where there is just and reasonable action, it can often occure that the implementation of the corrective action is excessive or imperfectly carried out, and it leads to just more evils.

      Again, I'm reminded of Scripture and Romans 12

      "17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.
      18 If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.
      19 Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
      20 Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”r
      21 Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good."

      Delete
    21. Hi Daniel,
      I think that in a sense anger must "fester and taint our lives." Strange claim, right? But the alternative is to turn a blind eye. Why should we eat, drink, and be merry, in unalloyed peace and joy, while our next-door neighbor is being murdered, or while Lazarus is suffering at the gate? Indeed, how can we? Do we really want to insist on having our reward now? Don't we thereby risk losing our eternal reward? Sure, we can aim to "rejoice always," but that can't mean in a way that cancels out being angry always. That's part of love and responsibility and the cross we must take up. It's a matter of sorting out the objects of each (of joy and of anger) and integrating them in a truthful, charitable way. You say the most "effective" course of action is probably to pray; sure, but prayer can be angry. Consider Psalm 10, for one of many scriptural examples.

      "33 O Lord God, bestir thyself, lift up thy hand; do not forget the helpless. 34 Why is the sinner allowed to defy God, to think he will never exact punishment? 35 But in truth thou seest it; thou hast eyes for misery and distress, and wilt take them into thy keeping. The destitute are cast on no care but thine; to thee only the orphan looks for redress. 36 Break down the power of the wicked oppressor, punish his ill-doing, and let him be seen no more. 37 The Lord will reign for ever and ever, while you, the heathen, will vanish from the land he loves. 38 The sighing of the defenceless has found audience; thou wilt heed them and bring courage to their hearts, 39 wilt give redress to the fatherless and the persecuted; mortal man shall make himself feared no longer."

      Delete
    22. Also, corrective action can err by excess, true, or by defect (just as the virtue of studiousness can). The Church today is plagued with which vice: excessive correction of error, or defective?

      Also, speaking of the fruits of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience... I'm reminded of Romans 9:22: "Quod si Deus volens ostendere iram, et notum facere potentiam suam, sustinuit in multa patientia vasa iræ, apta in interitum..." - "What if God, wanting to show his anger, and make known his power, has born in great patience the vessels of [his] wrath, who are fit for destruction..." So love, peace, and joy don't cancel anger, they make possible the patience that bears up the weight of anger, through faith that those who are vessels of God's (and thus our) just anger will be destroyed, while through love of Christ we have the joy, peace, patience, longsuffering (etc.) that come from trusting that through, with, and in Christ we can be made vessels of his mercy.

      Delete
  18. Another type of curiosity that can lead a man into trouble is a prurient curiosity about a woman. This is probably the cause of many second glances.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would agree--I find that in this area curiosity is much more of an issue for me than lust.

      Delete
  19. Nice set of reminders and guardrails for the mind. Edifying and practical. In this current era I'm inclined to suspect there are more temptations in this general area than in any other area.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Prof. Feser, you are a God-send :)
    Congratulations on your immense work and keep pushing materialism into a corner.
    It belongs into the dustbin of History and the lid is open.

    (Currently reading and enjoying Aquinas).

    ReplyDelete
  21. I've been convicted for a few years now that curiosity (in the Thomistic sense) is one of my great vices. Coming to understand it in a Thomistic way has been helpful, as I know that to overcome it I need to develop the virtue of studiousness. E.g., recently I've made a rule for myself that I need to log every internet article I read and at some point go back and summarize/rate the article (even if that is just to say it was a waste of my time). I haven't been 100% successful in following that rule, but it's definitely been helpful, both in solidifying any information gleaned, but also in avoiding consuming things that I can already tell won't be useful.

    For me, I tend to experience curiosity as a form of greed or gluttony. It probably comes back to pride in some form, but a) I like the raw feeling of discovering new things and b) when I know about something, it gives me a sense of control, that it has become in some way my possession. (I am also learning that I may have some ADHD tendencies, and reading all the things is one way of getting a dopamine hit...)

    I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising that there could be a physiological component to our natural virtues & vices.

    ReplyDelete
  22. People's GOOGLE and SOCIAL MEDIA use are big examples of sinful curiosity imo.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Curiosity is inherent in the human condition.
    If one presumes to be a separate individual and thus differentiates ones presumed separate self from everything else, or the entire spontaneously moment-to-moment arising cosmic display then every moment of ones entire life is an exercise in desire or endless curiosity as to the nature of whatever is arising.
    The desire to positively embrace or be inspired by pleasurable happenings, or, conversely to avoid and/or suppress unpleasant or threatening happenings.

    Meanwhile the cosmic display or beginningless and endless pattern is completely indifferent to the survival or the well-being of any and every temporarily arising biological form/entity.

    Unfortunately the negative possibilities always win out in the "end" - all biological forms change (on a moment to moment basis), inevitably disintegrate and sooner or later thus die.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Ah, human motives... Complicated things they be, and even an honest man will have trouble sorting them out in himself.
    Fortunately he can get help, for the Spirit "convicts of sin and of righteousness".

    ReplyDelete
  25. Another thing, it seems to me a curious omission on the part of Aquinas that curiosity is the only vice he opposes to studiousness. What about the opposite vice, carelessness, as in "don't know, don't care"? That actually seems to be a much better candidate for what may be typically wrong with "arrogant amateurs" than curiosity, and at least as serious a problem in our society.

    ReplyDelete
  26. From Dr. Robilliard's article: "Meanwhile veteran suicide rates in this country get shoved behind a superficial veil of ‘Thank you for your service’, but please someone stop the presses, because ‘trans people are dying’, whatever the hell that even means. Still these folks are somehow ‘the marginalized.’..."
    "What’s more, such arguments are often deployed from such folks with a self-satisfied air of condescension and a near total lack of gratitude for anything and everything their fellow countrymen or forebears have sacrificed on their behalf, making the luxury of sustaining such superfluous and nonsensical arguments even possible in the first place. I can honestly say now, having seen both sides, that during my time in the military I met folks who were markedly less conformist, far more open-minded, and far less vindictive towards peers and colleagues who dared to entertain or voice alternative viewpoints."

    Compare the America academia are indoctrinating this generation to the America that the "greatest generation". It's ugly.

    ReplyDelete
  27. So basically Aquinas condemns your silly attempts at discrediting the Bible and it's clear views on the flora and fauna in heaven?
    Your argument with "no marriage so no sex in heaven" against animals in heaven is pretty darn weak, if you can even call it an argument at all - just your personal opinion about what you will or won't miss. Just because we won't miss one bodily function that literally was designed only for the early life, it doesn't mean God will just throw away most of His creation, because "you won't miss it because, you know, the bEaTiFiC ViSiOn", how stupid is that even for a "traditional" catholic? Animals were created before us, and they were quite literally in paradise (adam was kinda happy to name them, even with the bEaTiFiC ViSiOn around, according to you he should just sit there and do nothing because you know... the bEaTiFiC ViSiOn!), fell with us and with our salvation we bring them back with us, thats what enormous amount of Biblical and patristic texts about animals say, no matter how much philosophical bubbling you produce.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do believe that there will be animals in heaven because they are cool but relax a bit, my friend.

      Delete