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Father Torchia Tackles St. Augustine’s Notion of ‘Curiosity’ in New Book

Rev. N. Joseph Torchia, O.P., professor of philosophy, recently completed his fourth book, Restless Mind: Curiositas & The Scope of Inquiry in St. Augustine’s Psychology (Marquette University Press, 2013).

In this book, Father Joseph Torchia, O.P. (who has taught at Providence College since 2001) explores the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral implications of the notion of “curiosity” in St. Augustine’s writings.

Father Torchia has been engaged in a scholarly investigation of various aspects of Augustine’s thought for over 30 years. In broad terms, his latest book assesses how Augustine’s analyses of the dynamics of cognitive desire say something significant about intellectual inquiry, particularly in the context of scientific investigation.

In what follows, Father Torchia discusses the parameters of his book and how Augustine’s deliberations on “curiosity” can assume a contemporary relevance. 

Why did you want to write this book?

I began my research for the book during my last sabbatical year (2007-2008), when I was a Visiting Scholar at the School of Philosophy of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Its main title “Restless Mind” highlights the fact that Augustine perceived the human desire to know as one of our fundamental drives as human beings. Students of Augustine tend to focus exclusively on the theme of the “restless heart” and Augustine’s emphasis on volition and affectivity as pivotal factors in shaping the quality of our lives. But Augustine was also attuned to the intellectual restlessness, which provides the stimulus to intellectual discovery on all levels. From this standpoint, the restlessness of mind and heart are highly complementary in Augustine’s psychology of the human person. Together, they bespeak what we are about as “knowers” and “willers.”

Accordingly, one of my major motives in writing the book was to address the charge that Augustine embraced (and fostered) a negative attitude toward the intellectual life, and by implication, the scientific enterprise. Indeed, Augustine did link “curiosity” with the “lust of the eyes” condemned in Scripture, designating it as one of the major vices. However, we cannot overlook the fact that Augustine also recognizes a good and a bad expression of curiosity, depending upon the context in which it manifests itself and the objects toward which it is directed. Accordingly, when Augustine condemned curiosity as a vice, he was really focusing upon an all-consuming preoccupation with a world of images, which he considered mere semblances of the really and truly real. Augustine’s own vibrant intellectual life and his fascination with the variety and diversity of nature falsify any claim that he sought to restrict our innate desire to know.  By the same token, he would also affirm that a superficial curiosity that confines our range of intellectual interests to factual information alone is no substitute for a studious habit of inquiry which opens our minds to the mystery of being and the search for genuine wisdom.

restless mind.pngTell us a little about the book?

The book is multi-dimensional in scope, bridging the gaps between late antiquity, the Christian Patristic era, and contemporary thought. The book actually moves on three complementary levels. At the outset, I investigate the conceptual sources of Augustine’s interpretations of the notion of “curiosity,” focusing upon its classical Greek origins, its eventual incorporation into the classical Latin tradition, and its significance in the Bible and in early Christian writings. On the basis of this historical background, I move to the heart of the study: an exploration of the diverse meanings of “curiosity” in Augustine’s psychology of the human person, with a special attentiveness to his creative adaptation of insights drawn from classical and late antiquity in service of his own distinctive Christian Neoplatonic outlook. Finally, I attempt to put Augustine in conversation with later intellectual currents, particularly that strain of contemporary thought, which has rediscovered the appeal of contemplative or meditative ways of knowing, over against the widespread assumption that science provides the veritable paradigm of knowledge.

While conducting research for the book, was there anything that surprised you or that you found particularly interesting?

Overall, I have been intrigued by the extent to which a late antique/early Christian thinker like St. Augustine of Hippo can share a common ground with contemporary thinkers so far removed from him in time and ideological commitments. It is remarkable how someone like Martin Heidegger [philosopher] was influenced by what Augustine has to say about the potential cultural dangers posed by an undisciplined, “free-floating” curiosity. In this respect, Heidegger allows Augustine to speak in a new voice to the present century with force and clarity. Augustine thus finds kindred spirits in those who are still attuned to the mystery inherent in reality, recognizing that there are things which simply cannot be reduced to an exhaustive empirical analysis. In the face of the deeper mystery of being, curiosity must give way to a more penetrating sense of wonder, which prompts us to stop and behold things with an attitude of reverence, rather than with the cold, calculating eyes of ratiocination alone. Such a stance is crucial in the face of technological challenges to the integrity and very survival of our planet and its all too fragile ecosystem.

What do you want readers to take from the book?

I hope to communicate to my readers the richness of cognitive desire in our lives and its role in expanding our intellectual horizons in ways beyond our immediate reckoning. I am especially interested in the role of curiosity in scientific discovery. In this respect, however, Augustine’s critical assessment of “curiosity” assumes an admonitory message for our own age: a time when people are increasingly enamored with technology for its own sake in place of an openness to the toil and risks that accompany genuine thinking. Accordingly, Augustine issues something of a “wake-up call” to us all, that is, the challenge to be humble enough to acknowledge the limits of what we can know, the value-ladenness of scientific investigation,  and the ability to gaze in wonder at the richness of creation.

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