When Curiosity Becomes a Vice

Near the end of the Inferno, Dante encounters Homer’s famous character Ulysses (or Odysseus) suffering from the flame of desire. Surprisingly, however, Ulysses’s unchecked desire was not lust or gluttony, but intemperate curiosity. Dante imagines Ulysses, after his homecoming to Ithaca, overcome by wanderlust so that not even “my fondness for my son, nor pity for my old father, nor the love I owed Penelope, which would have gladdened her,” could restrain his desire to know what lay “beyond the setting sun.”

He rouses his few remaining wizened sailors for one last voyage with a tantalizing “chance to know”:

To such brief wakefulness,
     Of our senses as remains to us,
do not deny yourselves the chance to know —
     following the sun — the world where no one lives.
Consider how your souls were sown:
     you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge. (Inferno 26.115–120)

Insatiable Desire to Know

The noble call to explore — to pursue the yet unknown — resonates strongly still, even after the age of Christopher Columbus. Today we no longer explore undiscovered continents but distant galaxies and microscopic quarks and complex genetic codes. We are driven, however, by the same fundamental desire to know.

We often characterize that basic desire to know as curiosity, and it seems to be a desire that knows no excess. Despite a stodgy caution like “curiosity killed the cat,” modern culture gives nearly unmitigated praise to the curious child, pioneering technologist, and inquisitive leader.

“The desire to know, like the desire for food or sex, can be corrupted.”

So why would Dante — and most Christians throughout history — warn against the dangers of curiosity? They recognized that the desire to know, like the desire for food or sex, can be corrupted. Until the modern world, Christians thought of curiosity as a corrupted desire to know. Contemporary culture defines curiosity as any desire to know. The error of our modern approach to knowledge is not in praising our desire to know but in failing to discipline it. Like a vine, the desire to know needs the structure of the trellis and the pruning of the vinedresser in order to bear good fruit.

And in the Information Age, where every desire to know receives praise, we need even more wisdom about how to discipline this desire.

Two Kinds of Curiosity

Disciplining natural desires, Christians have long recognized, is a fundamental part of spiritual formation. Such formation requires that we not only strive to cultivate virtue but recognize and overcome vices. In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo evaluated his own ongoing vices according to the three categories of sin named in 1 John 2:16: “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” Augustine interprets “the desires of the eyes” as curiositas, the Latin term the ancients used for the disordered intellectual appetite for knowledge (Confessions, 10.35.54–57).

In his succinct summary of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas contrasts curiositas with studiositas. Since the English transliteration of both Latin terms obscures their meaning, we need to clarify what these earlier Christians meant. When they praised studiousness, they did not limit the virtue to nerdy students who constantly hit the books. Rather, studiositas describes the virtue of a strong mind capable of pursuing whatever knowledge it seeks in a well-ordered and godly way. In contrast, curiositas describes an intemperate and weak mind pursuing knowledge in a disordered and ungodly way. Ultimately, curiositas is indulging our desire to know at the wrong time or in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.

Discovering how our desire to know can go wrong is a crucial first step in learning to discipline that desire so that we avoid the intemperate “desires of the eyes.”

At the Wrong Time

We all know that moment when we discover ourselves watching or scrolling online and think, How did I get here?

We had been diligently working on a project when, almost unconsciously, we gave in to the impulse to just “check the score” or “look at my DMs” or “glance at my inbox.” Then, suddenly, our minds chased after some other object of interest rather than our work or any number of other obligations. Curiositas indulges that impulse. And, ironically, the more we indulge the wrong kind of curiosity, the less we come to know anything that matters. Apps with infinite scroll prey on undisciplined curiosity, distracting us from far more satisfying pursuits. And habituated to distraction, we struggle to be still and know God (Psalm 46:10). Augustine describes how “the great business of prayer is broken off through the inrush of every sort of idle thought” when we regularly fall into curiositas (Confessions, 10.35.57).

“The more we indulge the wrong kind of curiosity, the less we come to know anything that matters.”

Yet curiositas can also cause us to seek knowledge beyond our maturity or position. Like a young teenager who refuses to be satisfied with his parents’ reasons for denying his request to watch a mature film, we can demand knowledge that we are not yet ready to handle with discernment. Similarly, leaders will often classify sensitive information to protect the organization or nation. If the American President’s daily briefing on national security threats was broadcast on cable news, the average American citizen would be overwhelmed with fear. Without the authority to prioritize and respond to such threats, such knowledge would be crippling.

In the Wrong Way

Considering how we come to know guards against fragmented knowledge and ingratitude. First, against fragmented knowledge. In the age of the Internet, it has become increasingly possible to pursue knowledge anonymously. Perhaps out of convenience, but often because we want to know anonymously, we often turn to the Internet first to answer even our most significant questions. Yet certain questions are better asked of people who know us rather than of search engines (or ChatGPT). God put us in families and joined us to communities so that we can grow in knowledge of the truth through wise parents, friends, teachers, and pastors. Cultivating our desire to know requires not only learning what to ask but whom to ask.

Online algorithms that serve up increasingly narrow content undermine our ability to think about knowledge as an integrated whole. Going down the rabbit hole in one aspect of reality while neglecting the wider picture is a kind of curiositas. An expert biochemist without a moral framework will pursue harmful research. A teenager may be radicalized by increasingly narrowing channels on YouTube, or a pastor on Twitter.

Wisdom in how we pursue knowledge also protects us against ingratitude for knowledge. An atheist astrophysicist grasping at knowledge of the stars fails to know the true meaning of a galaxy. Seeking knowledge of created things without recognizing their Creator is a failure of gratitude.

For the Wrong Reasons

Such ungrateful grasping for knowledge also often reveals ungodly motives behind our desires to know. Some, for instance, might seek knowledge in order to sin. A straightforward example would be gossip. Others might pursue knowledge to feed pride. The apostle Paul warns that “knowledge puffs up” because pride often drives our desire to know (1 Corinthians 8:1). Pride often drives our curiosity to grasp at knowledge as if it could be possessed. It’s the chief culprit corrupting our desire to know.

We witness how destructive this self-aggrandizing quest for knowledge can become when we consider the theological student who tries to master the doctrine of God to build his own reputation.

The Gift of Curiosity

Disciplining our desire to know is not just about avoiding clickbait. It’s about cultivating our hearts such that we receive knowledge as a gift from God, rather than grasping at it as something to be possessed. And the greatest gift God gives through knowledge, of course, is himself.

God gave us the fundamental desire to know so that we could find ultimate satisfaction for our restless minds in God. Sin corrupted that desire, which is why we must discipline our curiosity by pursuing knowledge in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. Otherwise, we will bear the bitter fruit of curiositas, which at its most benign can habituate us to binge-watching Netflix and at its worst can lead us to worshiping demons.

God’s command in Psalm 46:10 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — requires that we cultivate his gift of curiosity. So let us steady our curiosity with the trellis of Scripture, and submit it to the pruning of the Spirit, so that we can know God as we were made to know him.