Symposium on Vice: Part IV
Knowledge brings delight. A friend recently related, to my great satisfaction, the curious history of the Venetian dish baccalà mantecato - creamed cod. The story involves a 15th century merchant voyage from Crete bound for Flanders, a shipwreck in Norway, a return to Venice, a century’s lapse until the Council of Trent, and the birth of a delicacy out of the need to adhere to severer requirements of abstinence from meat. The story has a certain mythical quality - especially in the years after Pietro Querini and his sailors came back with their Nordic culinary discovery but before baccalà really took off - but I believe every word of it.
Just as the waterways of the world connect far-distant places, knowledge connects us with the past and with one another.
At the same time, it is perfectly clear that not everything knowable is worth knowing.
There are times when I regret the sheer quantity of trivia I’ve managed to accumulate, most of which does not even rise to the level of pub quiz material. To be sure, some of my fine-grained knowledge is connected to larger scale pursuits. I’m glad to be able to track down a half-remembered passage of Plato readily when I need it for my scholarly work, for instance. But it does me very little good to know that the north American beaver’s taxonomic name is Castor canadensis.
The delight that knowledge brings is not an idiosyncrasy, even as what each person likes to know differs. Aristotle’s Metaphysics begins with this important observation - “All human beings desire by nature to know” - much quoted and once misspelled, in Greek, on the gleaming glass doors of an extension to the Cambridge Classics faculty, unveiled around the time I visited as a prospective student (I went anyway).
Less often noted are the words that follow: “Evidence of this is our liking our senses, since even apart from their utility we like them for themselves, and sight most of all. [...] The reason for this is that, among the senses, it [sight] makes us know things most and makes clear many differences between things”. Aristotle’s point is that experiencing the world is not only a necessity but also a joy, something we take an interest in. And that experience, often, takes the form of learning what there is and what it is like, just for its own sake.
Aristotle goes on to describe the loftiest abstract knowledge - the ultimate aim of the highest kind of philosophy - as the greatest fulfilment of this natural impulse. But his initial remarks about the ordinariness of a great deal of our knowledge and our enjoyment of it can help us make out a question that is infrequently discussed and yet urgent: can it be positively bad for us to know certain things? Can knowledge itself be dangerous?
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A tradition of thought that goes back to Augustine, though it has classical roots, emphasizes, not the danger of knowledge itself, but the possibility that our desire for it may be warped. Augustine calls this error curiosity (curiositas), illustrating it with his own example in the Confessions, where his profession as a teacher of rhetoric steeped in classical learning brings him only anxiety (how relatable!). Augustine also singles out theater-maniacs, following the lead of Plato’s Socrates in the Republic, and astrologers for criticism.
It is easy to hear these remarks and dismiss Augustine as a censor and a prig, so it is important to realize that, for him, happiness - what we ultimately want that will satisfy our basic desires - centrally consists in having a kind of knowledge, namely the knowledge of God that puts us in His presence. Such knowledge belongs properly to another life than we presently enjoy, but it also creates a hierarchy of knowledge in this life. There are better and worse things to direct our desire for knowledge toward, and the goodness of this desire can be measured by its conducing to our ultimate good, the knowledge and love of God.
One way of putting Aristotle’s observation at the start of the Metaphysics, then, is this: we are naturally curious creatures, drawn to knowing like magpies are to what gleams. (Here we must mean ‘curious’ in a relatively neutral or ambivalent sense.) How, then, can this natural impulse be led astray?
One difference between the premodern world and our own is our seemingly limitless and unmediated access to what there is for human beings to know. This transformation is generally taken to be salubrious, but there remain intimations of what we have lost thereby: I regularly witness conversations where one party is trying to recall a fact but rejects another’s well-meant offer to look it up online. Perhaps we do this because memory is not purely a repository of information but also a mode of self-knowledge.
These vast possibilities of knowing make curiosity - in Augustine’s negative sense - a pressing problem for us.
My own tendency toward curiosity found full expression in the early months of the pandemic. During New York City’s lockdown, our lives become strangely digital - work, worship, and social life all happening via video-conference. I kept odd hours, partly to pass the time, partly because my dim apartment disconnected me from a sense of day and night, and the unending ambulance sirens made sleep difficult for me.
I kept vigil reading news articles from around the world, tracking public health dashboards, and even reading some of the early scientific reports and case studies on databases like PubMed. I immersed myself in a sense of what was happening because nothing really made sense. Yet knowing more meant that I understood less.
Later on, as the city and the world reopened, I was grateful not to be reliant on US news sources that parroted certain expert judgments about “the science” that were simply educated guesses or policy preferences, which, as I could see, differed from the educated guesses and policy preferences of public health experts elsewhere. (Let us remember how long it took for the expert consensus to settle on COVID being airborne, even when the evidence was clear!) But what I really wanted out of my late night reading was not simply an accurate picture of events but an explanation for why this was all happening in the way it was - an explanation that did not exist.
Why couldn’t we contain the pandemic with a proper regime of testing, contact tracing, and isolation? Why weren’t the experts more honest about the fact that our grasp of the pandemic was continually changing? Why were well-intentioned people hostile to schools reopening when it became clear that children were, generally, safer from the virus?
I asked these questions, but even more basically what I wanted was an answer to the problem of evil. Why was there so much suffering? Why were so many people falling ill and dying? What was it for? In the absence of such an answer, I comforted myself with statistics and reports.
It took a long time for me to break the habit of looking at the City’s case, hospitalization, and death counts first thing in the morning. My browser tells me it’s been six weeks since I last checked and that I’ve looked four times so far this year; I used to do so four times a day.
On balance, I have found that my unrelenting insistence on knowing left me with more anxiety and uncertainty rather than less. No amount of knowledge gives us control over the circumstances of our lives.
That is not to say that ignorance is superior. But the temptation toward curiosity - the disordered desire for knowledge - turns up in many places in our lives. Do we really know our friends better for knowing the minutiae of their lives via social media? I doubt it. Yet we continue to scroll in order to keep up. Similarly, we may find ourselves wanting to learn the latest gossip about people we happen to know, especially those we know only tangentially.
These desires, like my yearning to know as much about the progress of the pandemic as I could, are essentially anxious ones, desires that know no real fulfillment. Yet they exist in the penumbra of real human needs - the need for genuine communion with the friends we see on our screens, the need to be sure of our own social location or even our own goodness in relation to the vicissitudes of others’ lives.
What, then, is the good counterpart to such disordered curiosity?
My starting example can offer us some insight. When an openness to learning about the world leads us toward wonder and not anxiety, we can be confident of the value of knowledge. Now when I see baccalà mantecato served on a wedge of polenta, I am brought to marvel at the mercantile history of Venice, the courage of its sailors, and the city’s simultaneous - and paradoxical - openness to the world and cloistered atmosphere.
There seems to be, then, a kind of desire for knowledge, a form of intellectual openness, that refuses finality yet is unanxious. This openness strikes me as the proper stance to take in seeking to know people and places and even works of art, which inevitably superexceed our full comprehension, and points the way, more generally, to a pursuit of knowledge that disavows mastery and control.