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.
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.”)
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.).
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, , 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 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. that curiosity can be a byproduct of the cardinal sin of acedia or apathy toward the pursuit of the highest spiritual goods.
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 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. have afforded unprecedented occasions for this particular manifestation of the sin of curiosity.
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.