harry-potter-virtue-curiosity

I’m currently enjoying my biennial tradition of reading through the Harry Potter books. This is my fifth time through the books and I find that each time through I seem enjoy them at least as much as I did the last time I read them. I’m taking notes as I go through and am attempting to turn those notes into blogs.

If there is a signature sin of our day, you could easily argue that it is curiosity. Thanks to the internet we are inundated with cheap media, making it easier than ever to plunge ourselves into a well of information for no reason other than the lack of anything better to do.

In a post at Reformation 21 about lust, Brad Littlejohn wrote:

The “curiosity” that sends the bored or weary mind browsing for pornography is often little different from the impulse that has already sent the same mind back to Facebook ten times a day to look for new notifications, or rushing to your inbox every time you hear a chime.  In its digital form, pornography has united the age-old human desire for sex with our age-old propensity to seek diversion in the new and different, and offered almost unlimited and effortless “satisfaction” of both impulses.

This curiosity that Littlejohn is describing should be familiar to anyone who has ever begun mindlessly clicking on various links from social media only to discover that they’ve spent an hour online and have no lasting memory of any of it. And like all sin, this curiosity has a touch of madness about it. In Orthodoxy GK Chesterton notes that the mad man isn’t the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything except his reason. His mind moves in a perfect circle–an impossibly small one that offers no help to the man as far as accurately perceiving reality is concerned, but a perfect circle nonetheless. So it is with this digital-age version of curiosity. There is a sort of completeness to it–the archives of Wikipedia alone could occupy a person for a lifetime, let alone the many blogs, journals, and other forms of–forgive my use of this wretched word–“content” available on the web.

And yet this curiosity seldom extends beyond the web. Like Chesterton’s madness, it works in a perfect circle, but a circle far too small. As Littlejohn notes, it’s this very curiosity that often prevents us from taking up that book we’ve been meaning to read or calling that friend we’ve not spoken to in months. Thus the final problem with this vice of curiosity, as is the case with all vices, is not curiosity itself, but the way that it has been perverted.

As Lewis notes in Screwtape, Satan has not yet succeeded at creating a single pleasure. His only talent is for perversion, never creation. And so the curiosity Littlejohn describes is not true curiosity, but a perversion of it. Specifically it’s the reorientation of curiosity away from a defined and positive good toward nothing in particular. It’s the curving in of curiosity on itself and away from any sort of external good or object of affection. It’s a curiosity that can be sated by cat memes just as easily as by a beautiful piece of music or compelling bit of writing. Returning to Screwtape, Lewis writes that:

As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.

The right sort of curiosity can be seen in the earliest pages of the Harry Potter series. When we meet the series’ protagonist he is living in a cupboard under the stairs of his aunt and uncle’s home where he is, like one of the characters we’ll meet later in the series, “treated like vermin.” But the reason he is treated as such is what’s interesting. You might think that his aunt and uncle treat him poorly because they see him as a threat to their son Dudley. And in a way you’d be right. But they don’t see him as a threat for the rather obvious reason that he would take something from Dudley–the family’s time or money–or that he would be a rival to Dudley in school. Rather, they see him as a threat to Dudley because he comes from a world that is unpredictable, that cannot be contained within the safe confines of middle-class British respectability that they have worked so hard to construct around their family.

Rowling is not subtle on this point. The family’s income is provided by a drill company–a tool that cuts through things to show what is inside. Harry’s uncle is described as having no neck–the thing that enables us to turn our head either way so that we can see more than what is directly in front of us. Harry’s aunt, meanwhile, is described as having quite a long neck–which she uses for the disordered purpose of observing all her neighbors and fueling her lust for gossip. So one member of the family lacks the thing needed to help him see while the other has it but uses it improperly. Their son, meanwhile, is the embodiment of the very sort of digital captivity Littlejohn describes. In her characteristically heavy-handed way (Rowling’s touch does become gentler in later books, which is perhaps intentional as her audience aged with the books) Dudley is described as throwing laughable tantrums over missing TV shows or not being given a new video game system.

The antidote to the deadening narrowness of the Dursleys, whose name tells you as much about the characters as their actual choices and actions, is what we find at Hogwarts. It’s a place of endless fascination as no person has ever–or could ever–truly know all there is to know about the school. In a later book in the series, headmaster Albus Dumbledore tells another wizard that he would never dream of knowing all Hogwarts’ secrets. But this curiosity isn’t the project of idleness; it’s not simply a way of killing time. It’s a curiosity oriented toward creation. It’s a curiosity grounded in the simple faith that the world is worth knowing.

“You’re a wizard, Harry,” says Rubeus Hagrid in the first book’s most memorable scene. And those words create as many questions in Harry’s mind as they do in the readers–which is precisely the magic of the books. Curiosity, particularly in an age as rich in data as our own, can certainly take vicious forms. But the heroes of Rowling’s series offer us an alternative vision of curiosity, a curiosity “untroubled in [its] seeking” that simply assumes that the world is interesting, lovely, and worth exploring.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • samueljames

    Good stuff, Jake. Enjoyed this. I hope we’ll get more posts as you continue the read through.

  • Ciarán O’Ceileachair

    I really enjoyed this. I hope it becomes a regular feature. I’ve been back at home for the past few weeks and on one longer drive across the country (Ireland), I was listening to parts of the 6th book. Like you, I have worked my way through the book numerous times, more than I’d care to admit, and they really don’t seem to dim in their wonder and beauty. And the more I listen, the more I realise is there. And again, you have steered my gaze to something I hadn’t noticed. Thank you.

  • This was really great Jake — thanks for writing. Also thoroughly enjoyed the Ref21 article. Thanks!

  • Jim

    I couldn’t agree with the other comments more. Thank you for your insights. I look forward to more.