Curiosity, as we all know, killed the cat. It is also responsible for humankind’s fall from paradise (thanks, Eve), for the spread of evil all over the world (great job, Pandora), and for the humiliations suffered by Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Our culture and vernacular are full of ancient warnings against inquisitiveness, but most of us no longer believe in them. On the contrary: Over the past few hundred years, curiosity has gone from an affliction born, supposedly, of vanity and lack of piousness, to a virtue that is celebrated in everything from space exploration to family movies (Hotel Transylvania, The Croods).
British author Philip Ball chronicles this journey of liberation in his 2013 book, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything.
Ball doesn’t hesitate to remind us that religion-inspired fear and false notions of humility-before-God contributed to keeping humankind in the dark much longer than we should have been:
The central problem with curiosity was that it was thought to be motivated by excessive pride. The accumulation of pointless learning ran the risk not that one would become another Lucifer, but that one would primp and preen rather than bow one’s head before the Lord. …
The imperative of pious humility was what commended wonder to Augustine at the same time as it indicted curiosity. There was nothing frivolous or hedonistic about wonder. It instilled awe, reminding us of our powerlessness and insignificance before the glory of God. That is why wonder in the face of nature’s splendour was seen as the educated response, and a willingness to believe in marvels and prodigies was not only praiseworthy but virtually a religious duty. Curiosity, like scepticism, was a sign that you lacked devotion and faith.
I can’t help but think that this attitude, while no longer nearly as popular today, still carries over in the way that believers often talk about atheists. We are still seen as “arrogant” and “hedonistic” for being openly curious and challenging about how the world works — rather than, hat in hand, praising a Creator for the existence of the firmaments and everything within them.
Ball’s witty book, which celebrates the investigative spirit of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and other heretics, is both an eye-opener and a page-turner. I liked it so much that we’ll be giving away three brand new copies, offered at my request by the good folks at the University of Chicago Press.
If you want one, all you need to do is leave a comment of fewer than 200 words below, truthfully describing an episode from your life (good or bad, profound or funny) in which curiosity played a major part. Please tag your submission with #curiosity. Other comments are welcome too, but they won’t qualify for a free book. Winners will be chosen using scrupulously scientific criteria — namely, my own oddball tastes. I’ll announce the winners later this week.