On Curiosity and Studiousness

Are you curious or studious? You might think the two are synonymous. Most, like me, probably have taken the term “curious” to mean to be eager to learn or know something. However, the Christian tradition has, for quite some time, considered curiosity as a dangerous vice. To be clear, the Christian tradition hasn’t thought learning is bad nor is it anti-intellectual. Indeed, having knowledge is good and is required for eternal life (e.g., John 17:3). So, then, what is curiosity and why is it a vice? On the flipside, if curiosity is a vice, how is studiousness a virtue?

Like most of my articles, to understand curiosity, we shall look to John Webster’s little essay “Curiosity,”[1] who builds a lot off of Thomas Aquinas.[2] In fact, this article is basically a summary of Webster’s quotes on curiosity. It also certainly is indebted to Rishmawy’s synthesisof Webster’s essay on curiosity. In other words, this article is far from novel. The first way we start off with this article is to ask, “Why should we even consider this worthy of our time?” After this, we shall turn to understand what studiousness is; then, in turn, we shall define and explain curiosity.

Why Talk About Studiousness and Curiosity?

The question of “why” here is an important one. As said above, knowledge is essential for salvation. And as saints progressively learn (new things) about the one true God and one Lord Jesus Christ, our minds and hearts are faced with a virtue and vice: studiousness and curiosity. And how we learn affects our holiness and understanding of God and his works.

This isn’t a matter simply about how we come to know (epistemology), nor is this article simply for those who would consider themselves “intellectuals”; rather, the “conflict between the virtue of studiousness and the vice of curiosity”[3] is simply a matter regarding every Christian’s knowledge and learning of God, and therefore, it is about every Christian’s holiness. The act of learning is not some smart thing that academics do in the university. It concerns the attitude and holiness of the mind and action of every Christian.[4]

Studiousness and Curiosity: Their Relation, Similarity, and Difference

If we are to understand curiosity, we are first required to understand its counterpart, the virtue: studiousness. Why is this so? Well, to jump ahead a bit, a vice “lack[s] any positive independent reality apart from the virtues they are opposed.”[5] In other words, curiosity is like a privation or a defect of something already existing. Given this, we might also say something brief on the studiousness-curiosity relation. 

According to Webster, studiousness and curiosity are similar in the sense that they pertain to a coming to know of “that which is not known.”[6] In other words, they both pertain to the movement or gaining of knowledge of things previously unknown. However, Webster continues to say that though they are similar they are different because they “participate in this movement in differing ways, the one being well-ordered, temperate enactment, the other its deformation.”[7] With this in mind, we can turn to describe studiousness.

Studiousness: The Virtue

We might begin with what everyone is asking at this point: What is studiousness? According to Webster, “Studiousness is a strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known.”[8] With this in mind, we might say three additional, clarifying statements about studiousness.

(1) Studiousness belongs only to creatures because God knows all things without any process or sequence or accumulation, since, after all, he is simple, immutable, and wholly realized as Father, Son, and Spirit. Hence, God’s knowledge is identical with his being. On the other hand, creatures are always “coming-to-know.”[9] If studiousness belongs to creatures, it is “not self-derived or purely spontaneous, but the exercise of given powers.”[10] Thus, “God . . . knows as the uncreated one, creatures know as creatures.”[11]

(2) We might further characterize studiousness as such: it “refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect in coming-to-know.”[12] In other words, studiousness is the way of coming-to-know that is properly proportioned to things that ought to be and can be known in their proper distribution and weight. Webster says this activity involves two elements.

(a) “Studiousness involves earnest, arduous application of the mind; it is not passive or indolent or unfocused but eager, concentrated, taking pains to acquire knowledge.”[13]

(b) “Studiousness is a reflective activity, one whose application is subject to appraisal because governed by standards of excellence.”[14] This means that these standards, “both intellectual and moral,”[15] are to follow the requirement that this reflective activity is governed by the inquiry’s object (i.e., what is being studied) and “that the integrity of the object is respected as it comes to be known.”[16] As such, studiousness unleashes its object to speak for itself, the practitioner does not corner it in a cage and determine its reality; hence, studiousness is not rash nor does it act with haste, but is characterized by intellectual patience and careful study.

(3) Finally, “studiousness is inseparable from desire; it is an activity ‘commanded by appetitive power.’”[17] However, according to Webster and Aquinas, this inseparability “introduces an element of ambivalence into studiousness, because ‘the studious appetite to discover truth may be either straight or crooked.’”[18] But before we can get into this and curiosity, we would do well to explain why there is good in studiousness.

Studiousness: As Virtue

Studiousness is indeed a virtue—it really is good because it uses the created intellect, which was meant to know and love God. It certainly is an appropriate employment of the gift of the mind. It is natural for human creatures to do so, and it is a delight to use this mind to study the works of the Lord (Ps 111:2). Additionally, because studiousness attends to fitting objects with intellectual patience and proportion, it brings about essential reflection and fitting ends. And so, “studiousness” belongs “within the sphere of moral, not just intellectual, virtue.”[19] However, due to our sin and fallen minds, which are futile and hostile to God (Rom 1:21; 8:7), studiousness becomes corrupted with curiosity.

Curiosity: The Vice

Once more, we should begin with the question: What is curiosity? Curiosity is a “corruption of intellectual appetite.”[20] Rather than patiently learning, curiosity “hankers” or yearns for knowledge.[21] We might describe curiosity in four different, yet similar elements.

(1) Curiosity extends and transgresses the scope and boundaries of the created intellect. Rather than being satisfied with what God allows or permits us to know, it is restless and verbal in areas creatures are not meant to know. In other words, curiosity refuses “to consent to the given order, shape and therefore limitation of created intelligence.”[22] Hence, curiosity rejects its creatureliness and listens to the lie of the ancient serpent “You will be [or know] like God.”

(2) Curiosity is fixed on learning new things in the created realm without referencing them back to their Creator.[23] In other words, curiosity, though desiring to know things it perhaps should not or cannot know, often terminates on means, not the ends. It misses the point of things and thus “terminates on surfaces.”[24] 

(3) “Curiosity is a deformation of the manner or mode of intelligence, when the movement of coming-to-know takes place inordinately, indiscriminately and pridefully.”[25] Curiosity is driven by an inordinate craving of the satisfaction of learning new things, which results in the neglect of other goods that really deserve study. Hence, curiosity’s fatal and futile fuel is pride and intellectual greed. It comes to know for the sake of becoming important. As Griffiths puts it: “curious people want to know what they do not yet know, ideally, what no one else knows.”[26] 

(4) Very related to the previous element, curiosity aims (consciously or unconsciously) for evil ends, namely, “self-esteem.”[27] In other words, contrary to Christian theology, “curiosity odes not desire to know for the purpose of doing good—to others in charity, to oneself in prudence.”[28] And so, curiosity puffs up, unlike love. Put differently, curiosity is the unordered practice of rashly learning new things and does not terminate in love for neighbor or for God.

Curiosity in Theology

With the four main ingredients of curiosity, we can turn to see what curiosity looks like in Christian theology.

(1) Curiosity forgets and rejects the domain of studiousness and salvation. In this history, God created, sustained, redeemed, perfects, and will glorify his people unto living joy in him. This domain is going somewhere, and theology’s practitioners study in this context of learning from divine instruction unto fellowship with their Lord. Curiosity thus inquires not in response to divine instruction, but in self-reliance and independence in intellectual “acquisition.”[29]

(2) Curiosity forgets the given task and manner of theology and “neglects the particular object of theology . . . Curiosity gives itself to whatever sources of fascination present themselves, especially if they are novel.”[30] And so, curious theology becomes restless instead of restful.

(3) As said above, curiosity “stops short at surfaces.”[31] There are many topics in Christian dogmatics and there are many veins of disciplines in Christian theology: Greek syntax, Paul’s ethics, textual criticism, typology, have your pick. However, all of these are subservient to and find their termination in the contemplation and adoration of God. If theology stops short of thinking about God, it no longer is theological—and curiosity is certainly not theological.[32] Curiosity burns to know about things apart from their principium or finis—their source and end. Hence, curiosity fixes itself on making novel finds in biblical-theological connections, grammatical insights, and the like while simply never connecting those to and forgetting that Scripture and the studies of theology are all meant to point us to God.

(4) Theology is the activity of redeemed intelligence of the saints in the Christian community. Curiosity puts theology’s practitioner against this community, setting him up in pride, seeking to know things ultimately for himself and not the church. Curiosity is “vicious individualism” that “isolates from the common life of the church and impedes the rule of charity.”[33]

(5) Theology is contemplative in that it is an “activity of the mind which seeks out and clings to God with intense delight.”[34] Theology is apostolic in that its “truth is spoken to others, to edify the church, correct error or persuade unbelief.”[35] Curiosity simply does neither—it does not delight in God, it is not self-sacrificial, but rather, it sacrifices to the self and is not a participant of love of God or neighbor.

Conclusion: How to Combat Curiosity

We might end by how we began: Are you curious or studious? Certainly, as I have presented (or simply followed Webster and the classical sense), curiosity and studiousness are two very different modes of intellectual activity and condition: one a vice, the other a virtue. So which one are you? It is surely a serious question. We all at some level are curious. So, how do we combat curiosity to as to avoid its corruption of the intellectual appetite?

Killing curiosity comes by a fruit of the Spirit: patience. And so, any attempt to ward off curiosity is wholly dependent upon the Holy Spirit and his work of regeneration. Hence, we must be born again into a new creation in Christ, which is from God (2 Cor 5:17–18). In this regenerating work, which is secured by the Son’s redeeming work in his life, death, and resurrection, our minds are redeemed and renewed—the mind, not just the body and soul, is part of the new creation. Fallen reason is one of the things brought to nothing at the cross. The Spirit “directs” the intellect “on its true course.”[36] This gift of God is and brings about real creaturely action.

Redeemed and renewed creatures are ready to learn from divine instruction—they are docile and deferent.[37] And so, “saints lack curiosity; but they are eagerly studious, devoted to acquiring the knowledge proffered by divine revelation. In theology, the affections, will and intellect are ‘fixed’ on the ‘ways’ of God (Ps. 119.15), ‘delighting in’ and ‘cleaving to’ the divine testimonies (Ps. 119.24), turned from ‘vanities’ (Ps. 119.37) in order to ‘meditate’ on the divine law (Ps. 119.48), eager to be taught knowledge (Ps. 119.66). Such is the studious theological intellect sanctified and schooled by divine grace.”[38]

Also, we kill curiosity in theology by attending to theology’s “singular matter with a definite interest.”[39] This is not to say theology is only concerned with God, the cross, or the end times, but rather, theology’s principal object is God, and it must speak about everything else too, and it speaks about everything else in their relation to God; that is, it treats things as they are: God is, and everything else is from, through, for, and to him.   

Finally, “mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know. Theological coming-to-know does not terminate in the acquisition and storing of knowledge but in exercise, in adoration of God and edification of others. Curiosity is selfish: like other forms of promiscuity, it is preoccupied with satisfying the appetite for new objects to be consumed or hoarded. The end of studious, however, lies beyond itself, in contemplation of God and engagement of apostolic tasks.”[40]

[1] John Webster, “Curiosity,” in The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012). However, we’ll naturally turn to other passages of Webster’s matured (i.e., more recent) thoughts on curiosity and studiousness in later essays like “What Makes Theology Theological?” and “On the Theology of the Intellectual Life.”

[2] If you look at Webster’s footnotes in “Curiosity,” you’ll see the majority is from Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae IIaIIae, but Augustine often appears in the footnotes too.

[3] Webster, “Curiosity,” 193.

[4] Consider reading the lay-friendly book John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010) for free at DesiringGod.org.

[5] Webster, “Curiosity,” 193.

[6] Ibid., 194.

[7] Ibid., 194.

[8] Ibid., 194.

[9] Ibid., 194.

[10] Ibid., 194.

[11] Ibid., 194.

[12] Ibid., 194. Emphasis added.

[13] Ibid., 194; cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIaIIae.166.1.

[14] Ibid., 194.

[15] Ibid., 194.

[16] Ibid., 194.

[17] Ibid., 195, quote of Aquinas, ST IIaIIae.166.1 ad. 1.

[18] Ibid., 195, quote of Aquinas, ST IIaIIae 167.1.

[19] Ibid., 195.

[20] Ibid., 195; cf. P.J. Griffiths Intellectual Appetite. A Theological Grammar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2009).

[21] Ibid., 195; cf. Aquinas, ST IIaIIae.167.1.

[22] Ibid., 195.

[23] Ibid., 196.

[24] Ibid., 196; cf. Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?” in God Without Measure, I:214.

[25] Ibid., 196.

[26] Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite, 22.

[27] Webster, “Curiosity,” 197.

[28] Ibid., 197.

[29] Ibid., 198.

[30] Ibid., 198.

[31] Ibid., 198.

[32] Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?” I:214.

[33] Webster, “Curiosity,” 199.

[34] Ibid., 199.

[35] Ibid., 199.

[36] Ibid., 199.

[37] Ibid., 200.

[38] Ibid., 201.

[39] Ibid., 201.

[40] Ibid., 201–202.