I begin this inquiry into the contrast of studiousness vs. curiosity by quoting from a perspicacious essay of the literary theorist Allen Tate, penned in 1945, titled, “The New Provincialism”. Tate writes:
The provincial attitude is limited in time but not in space. When the regional man, in his ignorance, often an intensive and creative ignorance, of the world, extends his own immediate necessities into the world, and assumes that the present moment is unique, he becomes the provincial man. He cuts himself off from the past, and without benefit of the fund of traditional wisdom approaches the simplest problems of life as if nobody had ever heard of them before. A society without arts, said Plato, lives by chance. The provincial man, locked in the present, lives by chance.Allen Tate, 1945: “The New Provincialism” in Essays of Four Decades, 539.
Perhaps, at first glance, this passage seems only tangentially related to the theme of our inquiry. What does study, or studiousness, have to do with provincialism? There are, in fact, many good answers to this question: for provincialism, in essence, consists in the belief that me and mine (whether of a “here” or a “now”) need neither study nor the humility which makes genuine learning possible.
Today our culture suffers a temporal provincialism—“It’s 2023!”; “Your model is outdated”; “What does the latest research say?”—that doubtless pains any person not captured by it. That is, to approach the works and words of tradition with humility reveals how small our knowledge and weak our understanding. But the provincialism of the present mangles the wisdom of the past through superficial readings and anachronistic interpretations.
What imposed this provincialist perspective upon us? One can, as so often is the case, point fingers at the moderns, the Enlightenment, the adulation of innovation and progress and so on and on. And one would be correct in doing so. But we must note that human beings tend toward provincialism regardless of time or place. The human mind, given license, will slide eagerly towards adopting the easiest of perspectives—that is, whichever requires the least effort to attain the most-immediately pleasant results.
Is it easier to dismiss the Scholastics as backwards-thinking theocratic sophists, or to read the millions of pages of subtle argumentation through which their studies and disputes were crafted?
Should we wrestle with the enigmatic thinking of Martin Heidegger—itself a complex compound of efforts at originality and hidden borrowing from the tradition—or can we just call him a Nazi and be done with it?
Can we bypass close study of Aristotle’s Physics by pointing out that he misunderstood the structure of the cosmos, or that he had no knowledge of quantum physics (as though the average person today understands what it means that bosons have an integer spin while fermions have a half-integer spin)?
The questions are, of course, rhetorical. Given the choice, most people will ignore or vilify whatever might challenge their beliefs. This dismissiveness produces a host of vicious qualities: most especially that of acedia—a despair of spiritual good, as Thomas Aquinas says. Such despair discourages real and meaningful inquiry. Correlatively, it encourages curiosity: which is the vice opposed to studiousness.
Likely this sounds a bit odd to our modern ears (suffered as they have at that provincialism!). What is wrong, what could be wrong, with being curious? While it may incidentally get someone into trouble—finding out some truth that others would rather we not—it seems to designate a search for knowledge.
Historically, however, the term was used to specify an inordinate seeking of knowledge. In other words, while knowledge is certainly good in its own right, it does not come to us in a vacuum. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes a multitude of ways, therefore, in which we can be ordered incorrectly to the good of knowledge.
First, he says, we can have some evil annexed to our study: as someone who might wish to learn medicine that he might poison more effectively, or—far more commonly—that someone might take pride in being educated. (I think here of every social media post that begins, “As a PhD/sociologist/philosopher/super smart person”.) In such cases, the growth in knowledge and therefore goodness is not the end of one’s inquiries, but, rather, some malicious purpose. Second, he goes on, the desire to learn the truth itself can be inordinate, even if knowledge is the end of one’s study. This disordered pursuit happens in four ways:
- By being drawn from a better study (which is an obligation or true good) into a lesser pursuit: as the student who, rather than study, watches interesting documentaries on YouTube.
- Through superstition, when one wishes to learn by illegitimate and supernatural forces (divination, astrology, seances, etc.).
- Without a due order of that knowledge: that is, if we wish to catalogue the facts of the world without recognition of the order to which they belong (and thus the ultimate truths and goods which they reveal).
- Finally, when we seek to know things above our own capacity and thereby fall into error.
The first and the last, I think, are the most difficult today for us to understand. But why? Why are we so easily drawn to lesser things? How do we err by trying to know things “above our own capacity”? Are things truly “above our capacity” to know?
By contrast, the virtue of studiousness is, as Aquinas defines it, “vigorous application of the mind in relation to something.” But this virtue, despite its vigor, belongs as Aquinas says to the cardinal virtue of temperance. Despite being concerned with discovery and understanding of the truth, that is, studiousness is not an intellectual but rather a moral virtue, for it concerns our appetite for knowledge. But all goods may be inordinately desired—as in the above instances of curiosity. Thus, our appetite for knowledge needs to be rightly disposed, not only with respect to the things we experience in sensation (where there are many particulars we should not seek) but also with regard to intellectual knowledge.
Virtues, of course, consist always in the mean. What, then, is the mean of studiousness—where does it lie between the extremes, between the excess and the deficiency? What is this vigor—this vehemens—of the virtue? More pertinently, I believe, we may be hindered today by societal ills in our pursuit of this virtue. Is this hindrance truly the case? Why? What can we do about it?
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, secunda secundae, q.166-167.
- James V. Schall, “Why Do Minds Exist?” in The Universe We Think In.
This week we’ll be discussing these questions and more at our Philosophical Happy Hour – and you’re invited to join us!
Philosophical Happy Hour
Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.