Curiosity, Wonder, and Wisdom

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In a short but provocative reflection, Prof. J. Budziszewski calls curiosity the enemy of wonder. In so doing, he is drawing a distinction between the desire for knowledge—itself a good thing—and the elevation of that desire to the highest good, one which can then seek fulfillment at all costs:

The problem is that the curiosity-as-holiness line is carelessly undiscriminating, and at best half-true.

Here is the true half: In itself, the knowledge of truth is good. Aristotle says philosophy begins in wonder. John Paul II says everyone wonders, and in that sense everyone is a philosopher. Thomas Aquinas says it is man’s natural vocation to seek truth, especially the truth about God. We are made, among other things, to know, as no other animal is made to know.

But the way one goes about pursuing knowledge may be right or wrong….

Mere curiosity is to the tender love of truth as voyeurism is to marital love. That is why the ancients made distinctions. They accounted wonder a natural inclination, and the humble pursuit of knowledge to be a high virtue. But they reserved the word curiositas for seeking knowledge in ways it never should be sought.

At most universities—and especially in most science departments—the party line is that education should be about awakening a person’s natural curiosity, that is, their desire for knowledge []. There is not, in principle, anything wrong with awakening a desire to know in a person, and indeed, the actual desire to know itself is a good thing. Indeed, knowing may be counted among the highest human goods (along with loving).

However, although knowing itself is among the highest goods of man, it cannot be the final end of education. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of knowledge, one which is theoretical and one which is practical. The former should lead to understanding and then to contemplation and at last to loving; the latter should lead to right action. Therefore, inculcation of virtue is an important part of a true education, yet this is at best ignored entirely, but more often outright contradicted (as being old fashioned, or as forcing morality on others) or otherwise undermined (e.g. by being replaced with some other moral system) in many of the hallowed halls of education.

Curiosity itself cannot therefore form a sound basis for education, since it elevates the search for knowledge above the actual ends of knowledge. Worse still, knowledge can be sought licitly or illicitly, morally or immorally: it may be sought through good means or evil.

A few extreme examples should suffice. The experiments of the Nazis on their prisoners are fairly well known and documented. Closer to home, it is well known that there are “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) which have been in use by the US against Islamic militants as an attempt to gain knowledge about possible future terrorist attacks (or even to attempt to find other militants); if this is not sufficient as an example of “badly gained” knowledge, then one could easily imagine such techniques being used by a more corrupt regime to obtain less vital information, that is, to gain knowledge which is frivolous as a military matter: torturing men to learn answers to less pressing questions []. Finally, there are the various nuclear bomb tests which were conducted during the Cold War without concern as to the . All of this is to show that there is, in other words, such a thing as “morbid curiosity” in a very literal sense.

What, then, is the cure to curiosity, that is, the antidote to the desire to seek knowledge at all costs? Professor Budziszewski calls curiosity the enemy of wonder, and states that wonder—which leads to “the humble pursuit of knowledge”—is a high virtue. In his discussion of wonder as the basis for philosophy [], Josef Pieper wrote that

In wonder, there is something negative and something positive. The negative aspect is that the person who feels wonder does not know something, does not grasp something–he does not know, “What is behind it all”; as Thomas puts it, “The cause of our wonder is hidden to us.” He who feels wonder does not know, or does not know completely, does not comprehend. He who knows does not feel wonder. It could not be said that God experiences wonder, for God knows in the most absolute and perfect way. And, further: the one who wonders not only does not know, he is intimately sure that he does not know, and he understands himself as being in a position of not-knowing. But this un-knowing is not the kind that brings resignation. The one who wonders is one who sets out on a journey, and this journey goes along with the wonder: not only that he stops short for a moment, and is silent, but also that he persists in searching. Wonder is defined by Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, as the desiderium sciendi, the desire for knowledge, active longing to know.

But along with not-knowing, and not-giving-up, wonder is also… joy, as Aristotle said, and the Middle Ages agreed with him: omnia admirabilia sunt delectabilia–the source of joy and the source of wonder are the same thing. One might even venture to say that wherever spiritual joy is to be met with, the wonderful is also there, and where there is a capacity to feel joy, there is also a capacity to feel wonder. The joy of one who is astounded is the joy of a soul that is beginning something, of a soul that is always ready and alert for something new, for something unheard of.

Pieper continues by noting that the one who wonders and does philosophy has hope and so is superior the the one who doubts all knowledge, but yet he is inferior to the one who finally knows (or “understands”). Wonder is thus a counter to both curiosity—the insatiable desire for knowledge at all costs—and to doubt of all knowledge, which the epistemological despair which likewise ruins philosophy [].

So far, I have limited my discussion to the merely secular considerations of wonder or curiosity as opposing bases for the pursuit of knowledge. By this I mean that everything which has been said so far can be accessed by the light of human reasoning alone. However, as Catholics we can go a step further and look to the light of revelation. A good Catholic education will include a beginning with wonder, just as a good secular education would—but we must go beyond only wonder at not knowing. The end of a good secular education must be increase in knowledge and understanding, and hopefully the development of virtue. A good Catholic education also means a growth in wisdom with the hope of developing saintliness.

Therefore, a good Catholic education has an additional basis, a theological basis which aims it towards wisdom. Wisdom is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit (as are knowledge and understanding in the theological sense), and means desiring heaven and heavenly things above earth and earthly things. We are told, moreover, that the beginning of wisdom is another of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; we read in Sirach [] that

“All wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him for ever….The fear of the Lord delights the heart, and gives gladness and joy and long life. With him who fears the Lord it will go well at the end; on the day of his death he will be blessed. To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…To fear the Lord is wisdom’s full measure…The fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom” (Sirach 1:1, 12-14, 16, 18).

This, then, is a basis for the specifically Christian mode of education. If it is the more difficult basis, it is also the more important. Curiosity might be excited and wonder inspired, but fear of the Lord is a gift which can only be inculcated with the help of grace. Still, we must try and we must pray, and in the meantime we might wait in wonder.


[] Prof. Budziszewski has apparently observed this “curiosity as the highest aim of education” in the liberal arts (he is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin). I have likewise noticed its prevalence in the various physics departments of which I have been a member as student, instructor, or guest, and have heard it in conversations with other instructors.

[] Perhaps this latter scenario is not too far-fetched, as it is debatable whether “enhanced interrogation” has been used with much success. On the other hand, one could easily imagine a criminal torturing an innocent person to gain access to something of value.

[] From Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pp. 106-107, translated by Gerald Malsbary. Italics and ellipsis both appear in the original.

[] The main discussion of wonder is in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pp. 100-110, but he follows this up with a brief discussion of the specifically Christian mode (or modes) of philosophy as opposed to non-Christian philosophy. He counters the claim that Christian philosophy is content with simple (and therefore implicitly dismissable) answers to philosophical questions. He notes that good Christian philosophy possesses mysteries, which are in turn both true and yet not fully knowable by man, and which are hence a uniquely Christian source of wonder.

[] We read something similar in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction….The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10).

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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27 thoughts on “Curiosity, Wonder, and Wisdom”

  1. Pingback: Cardinal Dolan Considering Closing a Thriving Parish -BigPulpt

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    As the good sisters taught – doing deeds out of fear is an imperfect form of love.
    Doing deeds out of love for God is the highest form of Wisdom

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      Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and love is its completion. But What should we make of your closing line about God and fear being two opposed masters? Fear of the lord is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; as such it is not opposed to love.

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        Good catch on the gifts, Hope ! I do concede your point. However, to demonstrate the mystical number 7 and how
        it shaped Catholic theology, gifts in this case; how there HAD
        to be 7 sacraments even though baptism and confirmation are closely related, 7 corporeal and spiritual works of mercy even though feeding the hungry would include a drink and bearing wrongs and forgiving them are almost one in the same. If I attempt a simple sequence test to try and show how some gifts were added as appendages to reach that mystical number it would go something like this: which word or concept is not synonymous to this group -Wisdom,Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, Fear. The last gift listed belongs in another category, perhaps the 7 warnings of the Holy Spirit.
        In any case, thank you for pointing out my error even as I still contend that fear has no place in the pantheon of virtues.

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        You’re not from the Pacific Northwest, are you?

        “I do concede your point. However, to demonstrate the mystical number 7 and how it shaped Catholic theology, gifts in this case; how there HAD to be 7 sacraments even though baptism and confirmation are closely related, 7 corporeal and spiritual works of mercy even though feeding the hungry would include a drink and bearing wrongs and forgiving them are almost one in the same.”


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        I would hope to never be forced to live in a rain forest.
        And i seldom re-respond to people who spell question
        like you do.

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        Actually, these gifts of the Holy Spirit (and their enumeration) predate the Church. They appear in Isaiah 11:2-3. Oddly enough, the one which isn’t explicitly named in most of the English translations which I have encountered is piety (though this is in fact the sixth one listed, since the Latin often renders it pietas in the second verse, as opposed to “spiritus timoris Deum” in the third verse).

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        Actually, these gifts of the Holy Spirit (and their enumeration) predate the Church.

        And the OT was all about fear.

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        To reduce the entire message of the OT to being “all about fear” is to profoundly miss the point.

        As our host points out below, “fear of the Lord” has several meanings. One of these is meanings is essentially fearing to offend, or (more accurately) fearing to disappoint. Fearing to disappoint essentially means being mindful of the possibility of disappointing, and at the same time desiring to avoid the possibility, while being furthermore aware that this avoidance is not entirely possible. Or, in other words, when we love a person greatly enough, a real concern (fear) is that we will not do enough to please them, and (as love grows) to make them finally happy. Of course, as Peter Kreeft notes, God is a Father Whom it is easy to please but hard to satisfy. This is because no matter how good we are, no matter how much we love, we can always be better, and we can always love more. God is satisfied ultimately with our perfection (Matthew 5:48, which would be a New Testament passage), a thing which we cannot attain in this lifetime. Thus, we always fall short, and can always strive to be better–and we always have that holy fear which reminds us to strive for more.

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        ” and we always have that holy fear which reminds us to strive for more.”

        Not when I say the serenity prayer

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        This is starting to look suspiciously like it will devolve into an argument rather than a discussion if we keep pressing our respective points. I would prefer to bow out before it reaches that point. If I may offer a parting thought, it occurs to me that the second line of the serenity prayer asks for the courage to change what needs to be changed: which presumably also means changing those thing about oneself that one has the ability to change, and which need to be changed. Then, the closing line of the serenity prayer asks for wisdom, the beginning of which is the fear of the Lord (rightly understood).

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        Nope. God did not put us here to fear. Wisdom is gained
        by grace, time, and a million cause-effect lessons that one will either learn or not.. Fear is a threat not a virtue.

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        james, I’ll say this for the last time: you’re dealing with the word “fear” from a largely modern context, seeing it as irrational.

        Within the biblical context of the fear of the Lord, that fear is very rational. It is only from being captured by a modern notion of fear, that fear would be viewed primarily as a threat . . . rational fear, which is what fear of the Lord is, is not a threat. In fact, it is absolutely necessary for us to right ourselves from our sinful nature. As noted in footnote 5 of this article, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom . . .” (Proverbs 9:10, RSV-CE).

        One could even say that the refusal to acknowledge that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom is a form of human pride, which is one of the seven deadly sins.

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        ” .. you’re dealing with the word “fear” from a largely modern context, seeing it as irrational.”

        Forgive me if I live in the 21st century.

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        James, your instincts are on the right track, but I think you should consider these points which may help you reevaluate your understanding of fear.

        1. Prudence. A virtue which entails right action in the circumstances one is in. For example, if your house is on fire and you are inside it, it is prudent to fear the fire as a threat for your life and to flee it. Likewise, it’s not prudent to not fear a wild animal and to act in accordance with that fear.

        2. Without fear, how can we ever practice Courage?

        3. Probably the most helpful theological distinction I can think of in regards to fear is by St. Augustine of Hippo. He distinguishes the concept of “servile fear” of God (the fear you so rightly reject) and the “filial fear” of God, which is the beginning of wisdom. It would be well worth your time to check out Augustine’s reasoning on this issue and why he thinks one “fear” is good, while the other is bad.

        4. “I live in the 21 century.” While it’s true we live in this day and age, to neglect the teachings of the past is foolhardy and, honestly, short changes us of the riches of the tradition we’ve inherited as Catholics. There are many beliefs and concepts from this century that are deeply flawed, anthropological, psychological, philosophically, and theologically. It takes discernment to recognize the fruitful ideas of our time from the garbage. The modern understanding of “fear” may well be deeply flawed and in need of rehabilitation with concepts from the medievals or late antiquity (Church Fathers).

        5. To reject the OT and say it is solely based on fear is to flirt with Marcionism. Again, I think Augustine’s reading of the OT, his vision of the Spirit working in all those strange and even violent “BC events”, would be beneficial to your interests. The Bible is much more holistic, and to replace the OT with the NT is an incorrect interpretive approach.

        A few more comments on this thread:

        1. As Hope-Filled Pessimist pointed out, it seems some tensions are bristling based on the language its participants are using. Please remember patience and charity.

        2. “Fear” is being used without distinction here. Perhaps it would be better to explicitly define what each commentator means by “fear” before moving on to their own opinion and analysis.

        3. It occurs to me that the two definitions of fear that are up for debate in this thread are very similar in respect to this article’s discussion of curiosity and wisdom. I’m reminded of the Thomistic distinction between “curiositas” (a sin, as described above) and “studiositas”, a virtue which looks suspiciously like the more common and genial understanding of what we would call curiosity today.

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        Thanks for taking the time to reiterate what JC has so
        adequately explained. To take your points by the horns –
        the fire in Prudence is a metaphor for God. My premise is that to fear God in any sense, must have at its root, servile fear. I don’t take the notion that the creator of galaxies and quarks has as His intention, a reason to threaten the divine spark (His creation) that my gross body is part and parcel of. Courage is doing right for rights sake. The freedom fighters in Selma feared death not damnation. In so far as the OT goes I like to compare it to a 1901 electrical manual that details how to wire a home. We’ve come a long way and the denouement implied in the NT far exceeds the blunt visions of the OT.

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        St. Thomas Aquinas basically answers this in his discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in particular fear of the Lord:
        “In relation to God the evil of fault can come to us, if we be separated from Him: and in this way God can and ought to be feared….
        “Accordingly if a man turn to God and adhere to Him, through fear of punishment, it will be servile fear; but if it be on account of fear of committing a fault, it will be filial fear, for it becomes a child to fear offending its father” (Summa Theologica, II.II.19.1-2)

        The basic gist of what he is saying here is that there are four types of fear: worldly, servile, initial, and filial (or chaste). The first of these is always evil (ST II.II.19.3), and is how james appears to be using it. The fourth is always good, and is specifically the one which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (ST II.II.19.9). Both servile and filial fear are the beginning of wisdom (ST II.II.19.7), but in different manners–the former by predisposing a man for wisdom from without, the latter as being the first effect of wisdom from within (initial fear, by the way, is a state of being between servile and filial fear).

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        Semantics play a crucial role in our world. Another way to
        say Fear of the Lord would be to use the term Respect,
        which would complete the synonymous sequence.I had
        referenced. We don’t fear fire but respect its properties.

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        Part of the confusion with respect to meaning (semantics) stems from the fact that the modern notion of fear is that its origins are largely irrational . . . while the Fear of the Lord, the truly biblical fear, is very, very rational, and includes aspects that go way beyond mere “respect.”

        Modern semantics, particularly with respect to religion and faith, often ignores the proper context in which words are, or have been, used, instead preferring a modern frame of reference, which at best misrepresents the reality of meaning.

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        ” stems from the fact that the modern notion of fear is that its origins are largely irrational ”

        Tell that to the cowards who wrap their heads in order to prevent their identify from being known by the super
        power(s) they RESPECT. Fear is implied.. . .

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        “Tell that to the cowards who wrap their heads in order to prevent their identify from being known by the superpower(s) they RESPECT. Fear is implied.”

        Oooh! And he’s a comparative religions major too!

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        Even semantically, calling it “fear” works out. We use the word–and its derivative, “afraid,”–in a similar manner today. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are no true synonyms, and certainly the task of translation is never easy. Fear is, I presume, the closest thing the the right word which exists in the English language, at least as far as a single word might go. “Love of the Lord” word be a good choice, but there are some points where even this falls short: for example, in the fact that this is the end of wisdom (the thing to which wisdom is ultimately ordered), rather than its beginning.

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