Nov 192010

From Lorrain Daston, “All Curls and Pearls”, review of The Uses of Curiousity in Early Modern France and Germany by Neil Keeny. LRB 23 June 2005.

In the western tradition, curiousity was at one time treated as a passion – the equivalent of lust or hunger.

St. Bernard of Clairvoux treated as one of the seven deadly sins, closely related to sloth and pride.

St. Augustine called it concupiscentia oculorum, “the lust of the eyes.”

Examples of disastrous curiousity are rife throughout myth, religion and literature: Icarus, Pandora, Psyche, Semele, Orpheus, Eve, Lot’s wife are a few of many.

Plutarch’s essay in Morals “Of curiosity, or an over-busy inquisitiveness into things impertinent: Of Being a Busybody” was disapproving of curiousity.

Curiousity was associated with magic, “an arrogant desire to probe nature’s secrets in order to augment human power.”

Erasmus used the word curiositas in a pejorative sense “as the immoderate greed to know unnecessary things, the opposite of a simple, trusting faith in God.”

By the 16th and 17th centuries, curiousity was being redeemed and even praiseworthy. Curiosity became not only a term for the passion but also for its objects.

“The remarkable rise of curiousity and its transvaluation from vice to virtue” is a key to understanding the modernization of European culture, linked to voyages of exploration, new science, and the rise of capitalism.

The Enlightenment exhortation sapere aude, ‘dare to know’ captures the sentiment.

Considerations of good/bad curiousity hinged on “considerations of decorum and context” that “dictated who could legitimately know what: was the object of curiousity appropriate to the knower’s discipline, sex, age, station?”

There is a culture of curiousities with many different institutions participating: museums, coffee houses, academies, salons, newspapers, books. Textual “curiousities were notably presented as fragments, in the form of lists or disjointed descriptions.” Wunderkammers and printed miscellanies were FUN.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.