It is probably true that at one time I’d have gotten along swimmingly with St. Augustine. In Confessions, Augustine maintained that among the major problems with curiosity was that it was pointless. As practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans, curiosity was something of its own reward, even a physical urge that could satisfy itself. But Augustine found curiosity to be nothing more than a distraction from the singularly noble vocation of contemplating God. Thomas Aquinas made more space for curiosity nearly a century later, but still limited to that which, as summarized by Ian Leslie, was a studious and serious pursuit of “knowledge of truth about the Creation.”
Such a purposeful, serious and studious approach to curiosity would have suited me just fine, and I’d have happily stood alongside Aquinas and Augustine in decrying the waste of following aimless, pointless rabbit trails of knowledge that did not apply itself to some worthy purpose. Of course, such a prohibitive stance didn’t actually stop me from pursuing knowledge. It just limited the field and kept me in a constant state of mental gymnastics to be able to justify the pursuit — energy that could have been better used for exploration and discovery.
It seems to me now that Augustine and Aquinas could serve as worthy scapegoats for my neglect of fiction reading until I was, well, not that much younger than I am now. In his book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Leslie notes the return of curiosity as a virtue during the Renaissance of the 15th century, after its drought during the medieval period. And centuries later, with the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press and literacy on the rise, he observes that Britain “embarked on a mass cognitive adventure.” The newfound access to literature made amateur scientists and inventors of ordinary people and epistemic curiosity became the “intellectual steampower of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.”
Not far behind this surge in epistemic curiosity was a growing curiosity about the thoughts and feelings of other people. Leslie reports that the major index of of the rise of empathic curiosity was literature itself, and asserts that if Galileo and Francis Bacon were the founders of epistemic curiosity, then surely Shakespeare was the founder of its empathic sibling, suggesting that Shakespeare “revolutionized the dramatic soliloquy, allowing ordinary men and women a glimpse inside the minds and hearts of kings.”
What novelist George Eliot knew — namely that “the greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies” — researchers like Raymond Mar at Canada’s York University are proving with fMRI technology. According to Leslie, such studies confirm a “substantial overlap between the neural networks we use to understand stories and the ones we use to navigate our relationships.
Novels offer us a kind of mental simulation of real-life encounters, giving us useful practice in how to interpret the intentions, motives, longings, and frustrations of friends, enemies, neighbors, and lovers.” Additional research done by the New School in New York found better performance on social and emotional intelligence tests when taken after the subjects read literary fiction.
Leslie reports in his book that philosopher Richard Rorty has called the novel the “characteristic genre of democracy.” In these times, when our social and political conventions are being tested in particularly focused ways, I find that many of my friends and associates, perhaps without even having knowledge of such research, say they are reading more books.
Some might consider that a diversion from the challenges of this reality, and perhaps it is that. But regardless of the motive, the act of reading more will bear fruit in our discourse, if we’re to believe people like Rorty, who argues that fiction does a better job than reason of bringing people together.
Leslie explains Rorty’s conclusions this way: two people on opposite ends of an ideological spectrum “might not be able to reason their way to common sympathy, and may well get into a fight, because the very methods of reasoning they relied on were parochial, born of the ‘epistemic communities’ of which they are are a part.”
Fiction, he tells us, uniquely has the “power to cross the mental barricades, to make strangers intelligible to each other, because it moves people’s hearts as well as engaging their minds.”
I’ll cut Augustine some slack. Shakespeare hadn’t published anything yet by the time he was promoting his anti-curiosity philosophies and so perhaps his heart had not been pricked in this way. But even now I’d like to think that Augustine would judge curiosity a noble pursuit if it would stimulate us to greater empathy.
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We’re reading Ian Leslie’s Curious together. Are you reading along? Perhaps you would share your thoughts in the comments. Do you consider yourself to be a curious person? What kinds of things make you curious? What kinds of things make your curiosity wane?
We’ll be reading reading together on the following schedule:
February 22 – Part One: How Curiosity Works
March 1 – Part Two: The Curiosity Divide
March 8 – Part Three: Staying Curious
Photo by Luz Adriana Villa, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.