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.)
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.
A second way
that the pursuit of knowledge can be disordered is when it is 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 , we saw that the Neo-Scholastic philosopher Thomas Harper
labeled this tendency the “unreality of thought.”)
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,
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
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, , 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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.