Friday, February 2, 2018

Two Comments on Curiosity

"...[O]ver and above that lust of the flesh...there can also be in the mind itself, through those same bodily senses, a certain vain desire and curiosity, not of taking delight in the body, but of making experiments with the body's aid, and cloaked under the name of learning and knowledge. Because this is in the appetite to know, and the yes are the chief of the senses we use for attaining knowledge, it is called in Scripture the lust of the eyes

...[I]t is easy to distinguish between the way in which the sense pleasure and the way in which they serve curiosity. Pleasure goes after objects that are beautiful to see, hear, smell, taste, touch; but curiosity for the sake of experiment can go after quite contrary things, not in order to experience their unpleasantness, but through a mere itch to experience and find out."

[Augustine, The Confessions, Book Ten, section 35, translated by Frank Sheed]



The simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is Curiosity. By curiosity, I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in, novelty. We see children perpetually running from place to place, to hunt out something new: they catch with great eagerness, and with very little choice, at whatever comes before them; their attention is engaged by everything, because everything has, in that stage of life, the charm of novelty to recommend it.

But as those things, which engage us merely by their novelty, cannot attach us for any length of time, curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied; and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety. Curiosity, from its nature, is a very active principle; it quickly runs over the greatest part of its objects, and soon exhausts the variety which is commonly to be met with in nature; the same things make frequent returns, and they return with less and less of any agreeable effect. 

In short, the occurrences of life, by the time we come to know it a little, would be incapable of affecting the mind with any other sensations than those of loathing and weariness, if many things were not adapted to affect the mind by means of other powers besides novelty in them, and of other passions besides curiosity in ourselves. These powers and passions shall be considered in their place. But whatever these powers are, or upon what principle soever they affect the mind, it is absolutely necessary that they should not be exerted in those things which a daily and vulgar use have brought into a stale unaffecting familiarity. Some degree of novelty must be one of the materials in every instrument which works upon the mind; and curiosity blends itself more or less with all our passions.

[Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part One, section 1]

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Note from May 21st, 2010

—Characteristic of small children: charming and superfluous explanation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pliny on the portents of the bees

"Bees provide signs of future events both private and public, when a cluster of them hangs down in houses and temples — portents that have often been presaged by momentous events. They settled on the mouth of Plato when he was a young child and foretold the charm of his very pleasing eloquence. They settled in Drusus' camp at the time of our great victory at Arbalo: indeed augurs, who always think the presence of bees is a bad omen, are not invariably correct."

[Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 11, section 55, translated by John F. Healy]

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Tower of Babel

"The Tower of Babel," Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1563.

— "And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 

And they said to each other, "Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard." And the brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth." 

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the Lord said, "As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, nothing they plot will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other's language." 

And the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building building the city. Therefore, it is called Babel, for there the Lord made the language of all the earth babble. And from there the Lord scattered them over the earth."

[Genesis 2:1-9, translated by Robert Alter]