Medieval theologians think that you should stop being curious.
This confuses us: Despite our common axiom that “curiosity killed the cat,” modern people typically see curiosity as a virtue. If a person does not ask questions and feel a drive to find answers, then he will never learn. No curiosity, no education. However, Christians in centuries past used the term quite differently than we do, teaching that curiosity was a terribly dangerous sin. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) argued that “the first step of pride is curiosity,” and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) listed it alongside major vices like gluttony and lust. While Medieval thinkers saw the pursuit of knowledge as a virtue, they also taught that curiosity twisted education away from its appointed end, instead centering it on the self.
Curiosity as Twisted Teleology
Medieval thinkers distinguished between the virtue of studiousness and the vice of curiosity. The difference between the two lay in teleology. Thomas explained that studiousness used education in accordance with its “due end,” which is “the knowledge of God.” In other words, studious individuals pursue knowledge in order to better know God, creation, and how to fulfill his duties to God and neighbor. Studiousness sees the pursuit of knowledge as a sacred duty, and all aspects of education are done for a holy purpose before the face of God. Curiosity, on the other hand, twists this pursuit of knowledge back towards one’s self. Thomas explains that “…those who study to know the truth that they may take pride in their knowledge” have committed the vice of curiosity. Whereas the virtue of studiousness pursues knowledge sacredly and theocentrically, the vice of curiosity forgets the telos of education, instead making education secular and self-serving.
From this, we might be tempted to conclude that theologians are off the hook. The discipline of theology is inherently focused on the person, work, and words of God. However, curiosity can pollute even this vocation. Francis of Assisi (1181/2–1226) feared that friars who pursued theological education would fall into curiosity’s snare. Many scholars have taken Francis to be something of an anti-academic, but this certainly is not the case. Like Thomas, Francis understood that knowledge was good if pursued rightly; however, he also knew with Paul that it could be misused (1 Cor 8:1).
Towards the end of his life, Francis wrote a letter to Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), a learned theologian who decided to join the Franciscan Order. After many of the friars asked him to teach them theology, Anthony sought Francis’ permission. Francis replied, “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as it is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.”
This letter puts Francis’ concerns about theological study in their proper context. Theology is good, granted that it increases students’ prayer lives and devotion. The telos of all education is knowledge of God; how much more, then, should the study of theology lead us to commune with and serve God! However, it was possible that students would lose sight of theology’s telos and become distracted from prayer and good works. Curiosity could twist even the study of God into an unfruitful and sinful enterprise, and Francis wanted his followers to be on their guards against this temptation.
Curiosity as Distraction from Duty
Knowing that our hearts are often deceptive (Jer 17:9), how can we know when we have fallen into the vice of curiosity? Thomas and Bernard give a couple of concrete examples of forms that curiosity might take. First, Thomas voices a concern similar to Francis’: Curiosity distracts from duty. He cites Jerome, who complained that priests read stage plays and sang love songs rather than doing their duty by studying and teaching the Scriptures. Curiosity often shifts our focus from what we should do to what we want to do. While recreation and rest are of course necessary and good, curiosity rejects temperance and flees from duty. In Jerome’s example, this is entirely negative: The priests reject the holy study of Scripture and instead study (probably impure) plays and songs.
Francis reminds us that curiosity’s distraction from duty might also replace duty with something seemingly good: A friar might study theology rather than doing good works. In many situations, studying theology would be good, but, if it distracts from a greater situational duty, it can be twisted into a vice. As a new father, a big step in my sanctification (which I credit to Thomas and Francis) was the realization that sometimes the most selfish thing I can do is sit down and read a theology book, while the most holy thing I can do is change a diaper, do the laundry, or cook dinner. For everything there is a time (Eccl 3:1-8), but curiosity distracts us from the time’s appointed duty. Studiousness, then, encourages us to focus on our momentary duties, fulfilling them at their appointed time.
Curiosity as Distraction from Self
Bernard of Clairvaux also noticed the distracting nature of curiosity, but he framed this differently than Francis and Thomas. In his treatise The Steps of Humility and Pride, Bernard argued that pride does not develop all at once. Rather, it gains a foothold in a person by steps. A prideful person believes he is better than others, but Bernard questions how an individual arrives at this point. His answer is that “curiosity is the first step of pride.” A prideful person has been distracted from his own sin and has instead paid attention to the faults of others. Bernard explains,
…his eyes are wandering, his glance darts right and left, his ears are cocked… He used to watch over his own conduct; now all his watchfulness is for others… My man! if you gave yourself the attention you ought, I do not think you would have much time to look after others.
Again, curiosity distracts from duty: Bernard cites Prov 4:23, which commands Christians to “guard your heart with care.” Yet the curious person distracts himself from looking inwardly at his own sins by looking outwardly at the sins of others. This allows pride to fester as personal faults are ignored and other’s faults are emphasized. Thomas notes that pride is the root of curiosity; Bernard compliments this by noticing that curiosity also continues to feed pride.
A Warning for Those Who Theologize
The Christian tradition reminds us that theology’s appointed end is the knowledge and service of God. Since “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14), theology necessarily leads to holiness. If our studies distract us from prayer, good works, and repentance, instead producing pride and distracting us from duty, then we must repent of curiosity.
Perhaps one problem is that we do not think theologically about theology. As Matthew Barrett has recently noted, the discipline of theology is a foretaste of the beatific vision believers will one day enjoy. As we now contemplate the glories of the Triune God, we anticipate the day when we will gaze on his face and our knowledge will be complete (1 Cor 13:9-12). The vision we will then enjoy will conform us to Christ’s image (1 John 3:2) as our minds are totally renewed by the knowledge of Christ (Rom 8:28-30; 12:1-2). Since the telos of the beatific vision is holiness, the telos of our education should likewise center on virtue. God is not pleased with curious theological study that is divorced from its proper end: “…love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). Studiousness seeks knowledge in order to bring the realities of our future beatific vision increasingly into the present, that we might be conformed to Christ’s image in order to serve God and neighbor dutifully in holy love.
- Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility and Pride, in Treatises II (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publishers, 1980), 57. ↑
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 141-170. All references to Thomas’ Summa Theologica come from NewAdvent.org. ↑
- Aquinas, ST II-II, 167, 1. Thomas argues that curiosity focuses on studying the creature without regard to the Creator. ↑
- For a discussion and critique of this position, see Neslihan Şenocak, “Voluntary simplicity: the attitude of Francis towards learning in the early biographies,” and Bert Roest, “Francis and the pursuit of learning,” in The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi, ed. Michael J. P. Robson (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 84-100; 161-177. ↑
- Francis of Assisi, “A Letter to Brother Anthony of Padua,” Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellman, William J. Short (New York, NY: New City Press, 1999), 107. ↑
- Thomas gives four examples in ST II-II, 167, 1. Bernard also has a long section on curiosity, even linking it to the angelic fall (see The Steps of Humility and Pride, 57-66). I have combined certain points both men made and focused only on what I deem the most important points they made. ↑
- Thomas believed temperance was a chief virtue which showed itself in a variety of other forms given the circumstance. Temperance is the ability to link created things to their appointed end (ST II-II, 141). Curiosity rejects education’s telos and throws off any sort of restraint by giving the passions of the mind free reign to do as they please. ↑
- Bernard, The Steps of Humility and Pride, 57. This is the text as Bernard gives it. ↑
- While editing this article, Jake Meador made the astute point that perhaps curiosity can run amok today because we have largely lost any sense of duty. As our culture embraces the ideal of individual autonomy, the idea that we have binding duties that supersede our own desires becomes increasingly foreign. Since we have largely rejected the duties which ought to guard us from curiosity, this vice gains free reign over our lives. However, re-embracing these duties will prove a remedy to the curiosity epidemic. ↑
- This position was especially emphasized by the early church. See Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Early Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 41-42. ↑
- Matthew Barrett, “Classical Theology: A Spiritual Exercise,” Journal of Classical Theology 1 (2022): 5-19. ↑
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I overheard one seminary professor say that theology is about the study of concepts. And though we might be using the same word, ‘curiosity,’ as the medieval theologians used, the concepts to which we attach to the word ‘curiosity’ are different are different from the concepts which those past theologians attached to the same word..
In some cases, the Medieval theologians were talking about the traps that come with gaining knowledge rather than curiosity per se. In other places, they seem to talk about curiosity going in the wrong direction. But I don’t see anything stated above that really states the curiosity per se is wrong. In fact, Proverbs constantly tells us to seek understanding. One can’t do that without starting with curiosity. Perhaps the warnings about curiosity by those Medieval Theologians served merely as a fence. And sometimes fences are made by those who are afraid and/or have a weak faith.