Jay Wood

Reflections on CACE Seminar Countercultural vs. Anti-cultural - Dr. Jay Wood

Jay Wood Mark Regnerus introduced the seminar to A. G. Sertillanges’s book, The Intellectual Life: It’s Spirit, Conditions, Methods, wherein Sertillanges expounds on various intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtue of studiousness on which he expounds is perhaps most in need of being recovered in an age of postmodernity. Sertillanges, following Aquinas, recognizes that our intellectual appetite for knowledge must be tempered and trained along with our other appetites.

St. Thomas placed studiousness under the heading of the controlling virtue of temperance, to indicate that of itself, knowledge is no doubt always to be welcomed, but that our life is so ordered as to require us to temper, that is, to adapt to circumstances and to reconcile with other duties, a thirst for knowing that may easily run to excess (Sertillanges, p. 25).

The very idea that our appetite for knowledge can be excessive or malformed sounds a discordant note in our contemporary ears. It certainly isn’t a part of our contemporary culture’s approach to knowledge, where the guiding principle is more along the lines of “if it can be known, it should be known, never mind how.” How can any knowledge be bad? Is not all truth God’s truth? Can we not say with Copernicus, that any time we successfully latch onto the truth, we are but thinking God’s thoughts after him? How could it possibly be wrong to increase our share in the mind of God?  

            Just as we can satisfy our bodily appetites for food, drink, sex, rest, and recreation in unhealthy ways, so too can our appetites for knowledge be misdirected, falling prey to what Augustine called curiositas, or vain curiosity, the vicious counterpart to virtuous studiousness.  Studiositas is the virtuous activity of a well-formed intellectual appetite that directs our natural cognitive powers to appropriate objects, in due measure, and by appropriate means. Curiositas is the vice of disordered intellectual appetites, prompting the curious to apply their intellectual powers either to knowledge of the world without reference to God, to inappropriate objects, by malicious means, or directed to wrongful ends, or some combination thereof.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by declaring “all men, by nature, have a desire to know” (Metaphysics 1).  That we are born inquisitive does not, however, guarantee that our efforts satisfy that appetite will healthy or even morally appropriate. How often do we settle for the intellectual life’s most vapid, low-lying fruit: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snap Chat, texts and texting, blogs and blogging, movies, TV, computer games, etc.? Yes, all truth is God’s truth, but some truths, while good in themselves, may not good for us, because they are detrimental to the person who pursues and acquires them. (God, of course, faces no such difficulties, as all divine knowledge is united within God’s perfectly integrated, morally impeccable nature.)  Knowledge sometimes causes the knower to become “puffed up” by his knowledge, so swelled with conceit he thinks himself a superior person. Curiositas may also tempt the seeker after knowledge to use immoral means to acquire knowledge. Today, the temptation to inappropriate means for gaining knowledge takes the form of corporate spying, data-mining, water-boarding prisoners, hacking and cyber-warfare, plagiarism, eavesdropping, and questionable human subject research, to name a few.

Augustine’s teaching on the ordo amoris, the right ordering of our loves, helps us to understand how our appetite for knowledge should be morally bounded. On Augustine’s view, the love of God should surpass all other loves, and everything we do, and every truth we acquire should be “referred to God,” that is to say, should be seen in the light of God as creator, sustainer, and end, and by extension to the things God loves. An inordinate appetite for knowledge has at some level become unhinged from moral and spiritual considerations.  Virtuous studiousness requires that we monitor our motives for seeking knowledge, the content we acquire, the methods we employ, the uses to which knowledge is put, and the relative importance of the truths we do obtain. Curiositas, by contrast, seeks knowledge as did our primordial parents in the garden, without due regard for one or more of these parameters.  

C. S. Lewis offers us examples of both the vice of curiositas and the virtue of studiositas, the first from his fiction, the second autobiographical. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy Pevensie and company land on the isle of the Dufflepuds, where Lucy must enter the house of the island’s magician, there to utter a spell from his magic book on the Dufflepuds’ behalf. Entranced by various spells, Lucy utters a spell that can reveal to her exactly what her friends think of her and, to her great regret, she finds out, spoiling forever the friendships she might have enjoyed. Lewis’s comments about writing the Screwtape Letters reveal his own admirable restraint characteristic of studiositas. Lewis comments autobiographically about the strain he experienced from duplicating in imagination the diabolical attitude the text expresses.

Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. …though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done.

For this reason, and despite numerous requests, Lewis refused to write another volume to his highly popular Screwtape book. His comment shows him to be no stranger to intellectual caution characteristic of studiositas. He was sufficiently aware of himself to see early on the psychic toll the book would exact, but he persisted so that his readers might benefit from his work. Yet he also knew that he should not do so again.

We devoted a significant amount of time in our seminar discussing current movie and television fare. I was impressed by Alissa Wilkinson’s intelligent insights about film and film criticism. For her, such intellectual content is undoubtedly part of what she considers her divine calling to think and write as a Christian about film and contemporary culture. I couldn’t help wondering, however, how many Christians who indulge in such fare successfully refer this intellectual content to God, as she does. By contrast, Read Schuchardt, of our own communications department, does not own a television, nor does he have a computer in his home. He is no Luddite; rather he is exercising for himself and his family what he considers due caution about the new information highway.  Each person must determine the sort of intellectual content to which one treats oneself. But my fear is that the very idea of doing so is completely foreign in our contemporary context.