“Whenever I feel bad,” Binx Bolling confesses, “I go to the library and read controversial periodicals.” Walker Percy’s professional moviegoer hasn’t concluded whether he’s a liberal or a conservative; nevertheless, he confesses to being “enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other.”
Binx, who fancies himself as being on an existential “search,” is plagued by a sick attraction to this hatred. Knowledge is not an end, but a means to a titillating wrath. Let’s say his dopamine has dipped: he “plunks” himself down with a liberal weekly and nods at each point the authors score. “Damn right, old son,” he says, shaking his chair in impassioned approval, “pour it on them.” But then he snatches a conservative monthly and drops down into a new chair. Soon he’s lost in the counter-attack, sure that the new points have sunk the opponents roundly. Eventually, he emerges from the library, his “neck prickling with satisfaction.”
Binx embodies an extreme case of the sin of curiositas, a kind of intellectual morbidity, or curiosity to the point of covetousness.
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“All men by nature desire to know,” argues Aristotle. Aquinas agrees, accepting knowledge as “strictly speaking, good.” But St. Thomas adds a qualification that admits the corruptibility of this natural desire: it may be evil “accidentally.” To take the most obvious example, our pride may rise in proportion to our amplified knowledge.
In our time, reading about a Church riddled with abuses, ambiguities, and apathies becomes a near occasion for curiositas. The controversy is real and pervasive, which may tempt us to gawk at the moral carnage beyond what’s healthy or productive. This, in turn, will lead us to yet another deadly sin: anger.
Like Binx, we can habituate ourselves to the pleasures that follow the discoveries of disorder in our world. Certainly, righteous anger often accompanies these discoveries. But we can sate ourselves on the thrill of uncovering wrongdoing only to find ourselves addicted to the titillating fury, and lost to the splendor of truth by which we saw what was wrong with the world in the first place.
St. Augustine spoke of this weakness as “concupiscence of the palate.” Just as the glutton relishes food for its taste apart from its power to alleviate hunger, Josef Pieper warns us not to lose sight of reality and merely “enjoy ‘seeing’.”
Why is it that we stall in the thrill of our intemperate senses, abandoning the search for truth? When he establishes the genealogy of the seven deadly sins, Aquinas calls curiositas the “first-born daughter” of acedia.
The philosopher gives acedia an almost mythological flourish, depicting it as the “roaming unrest of the spirit.” When this restless, roaming spirit resolves in the “insatiability of curiositas,” Pieper contends, “it may mean that a man has lost his capacity for living with himself; that, in flight from himself… he is seeking with selfish anxiety and on a thousand futile paths” that which can only be found in noble stillness. And, of course, if man is in flight from himself, all the more flagrantly is he a fugitive from God.
Pieper primarily worries that, in this curious capitulation of our nobler nature, we will surround ourselves with “a perpetual moving picture of meaningless shows.” This will only grow worse as the Church enters a prolonged state of true crisis.
Catholic “yellow journalism” presents a particularly daunting challenge. These outlets, led by a habituated hermeneutic of suspicion, do sometimes sniff out genuine corruptions that others, in celebrating their “moderation,” ignore. In these scenarios, it’s the sensationalist rhetoric, rather than our distempered appetites alone, that instigates the temptation to feel instead of know.
But what of the innumerable stories of scandal, promulgated confusion, and magisterial misguidance that threaten to mar our Holy Mother? We reel back in anger, or our spirits are unsettled. Is this not an instance of proportionate passions and of justly roused appetites? Possibly. But if we were to follow scandal after scandal with bated breath, somehow managing to maintain proportionate responses, we may yet be (to cite Aquinas) one who is “withdrawn by a less profitable study from a study that is an obligation incumbent upon him.”
Though the Church is passing through such formidable crises, it’s not in any way profitable to become preoccupied with the salacious and scandalous details. Rather, as so much of our Catholic inheritance has been forgotten—and, indeed, this mass forgetting is a major factor in the crisis—surely it’s more profitable at times to ignore the newspapers and instead enter more deeply into Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, exercising what Cardinal Newman called a “conservative action upon the past.”
If we do, occasions for curiositas will shrink. Our comprehension of the weightiness of a given crisis, relative to the whole, will grow. We’ll have eyes to see those crises that make more serious demands on our time and our lives. We’ll be less inclined to gawk and more inclined to act.
Seeing what is wrong with the world while focusing on the incomparable lodestar of the deposit of Faith, curiositas itself will give way to what Pieper calls an “asceticism of cognition.” We’ll achieve that temperate seeing which corresponds with reality, giving us substantial stars by which to be guided—in spite of the fact that, as Cardinal Burke so honestly conceded, “there is a strong sense that the Church is like a ship without a rudder.”