All Curls and Pearls

Lorraine Daston

  • The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany by Neil Kenny
    Oxford, 484 pp, £68.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 19 927136 4

There has probably never been a society that did not erect barriers to certain kinds of knowledge. Moralists since Greek and Roman antiquity have frowned on busybodies who pry into their neighbours’ private lives; medieval Christian theologians condemned necromancers who wanted to discover the secrets of demons; today we fret about state surveillance of citizens and certain kinds of scientific research on human subjects. Curiosity has never been allowed free rein: there has always been a distinction between good and bad curiosity, legitimate and illegitimate knowledge.

Rarely has the question of where to draw the line between them been as furiously and consequentially debated as in early modern Europe. The new geography, the new science, the new periodical press, the new religions, the new polities that shook Europe between 1500 and 1800 were propagated and absorbed in new sites – not just universities, courts and ecclesiastical councils, but also academies, coffee houses, printers’ shops, salons, marketplaces and battlefields. Who ought to know what and how were questions ventilated in Latin dissertations, novels, sermons, scientific treatises, Jesuit ballets, pornography, satirical poems, penny broadsides and presumably many conversations among learned and lay people alike. Curiosity became an object of intense, even obsessive attention.

Neil Kenny is not the first to note the early modern preoccupation with curiosity, but his book, though restricted to France and Germany, is the most comprehensive and careful study of it to date. The book’s appearance is timely, now that once again curiosity is being nudged into the cultural limelight, this time by clash-of-civilisations warriors such as Bernard Lewis, who proclaim curiosity to be the distinguishing feature of the West, in woeful contrast to the alleged indifference of Muslim societies to other ways of life. If the battle is to be joined for a second time, it would be helpful to know how it came out the first time around.

Curiosity didn’t always enjoy such a favourable press, even in Europe. Classical mythology as well as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles offer many examples of disastrous curiosity: Icarus, Pandora, Psyche, Semele, Orpheus, Eve and Lot’s wife are victims of their overweening will to know more than they should. Curiosity was always classified as a passion, a state which one suffered, as one suffered hunger and lust. St Augustine called it concupiscentia oculorum, the ‘lust of the eyes’, a phrase that still resonated in the sermons of the early 18th century. St Bernard of Clairvaux, writing in the early 12th century, promoted it to the status of one of the seven deadly sins, believing it closely related to sloth, a time-wasting tendency to attend too closely to the useless. It was also, Bernard thought, dangerously similar to pride, the sin of Lucifer, who is condemned to an eavesdropping version of the tortures of Tantalus: suspended in the air, he can see the angels, his former comrades, coming and going, but can’t make out their conversation, strain as he may. Classical sources, such as Plutarch’s essay on the subject, were equally disapproving. The damaging associations of curiosity with magic, an arrogant desire to probe nature’s secrets in order to augment human power, persisted through the Renaissance. Erasmus still used the word curiositas mostly in a pejorative sense, as the immoderate greed to know unnecessary things, the opposite of a simple, trusting faith in God.

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