Image of Earth from Mars (100 Million Miles Away): What Would Augustine Say?

Image source: NASA (of course). The rover? Curiosity.


The fact that this image was taken by Curiosity raises a question: Given that Augustine included curiosity among the vices in his Confessions (Book 10, section 35), would he have approved the contemplation of this image?

Perhaps not.

Mentioning the attending of theatre performances, the charting of “the courses of the stars,” and the consulting of ghosts (presumably through trance mediums) among his examples of the vice of curiosity, here’s Augustine (in Edward Pusey’s translation, The Encyclopedia Brittanica Great Books series, vol. 18, 1952, p. 85):

True, the theatres do not now carry me away, nor care I to know the courses of the stars, nor did my soul ever consult ghosts departed; all sacriligious mysteries I detest.

Some have argued that this sentence, in referencing star-charting, is dismissive of astrology, not astronomy. But given the context (curiosity as a vice), it seems Augustine’s target is both astrology and astronomy–and perhaps only astronomy, for barely 200 words prior to this sentence, Augustine quite unambiguously singles out inquiry qua inquiry as sinful. Most specifically, he singles out research on cadavers as a damnable behavior (all medical school students, take note), counting looking into the human body among the temptations to which “the lust of the eyes” is prone:

To this is added another form of temptation [of the eye] more manifoldly dangerous. […] [It is] a certain vain and curious desire, veiled under the title of knowledge and learning, not of delighting in the flesh, but of making experiments through the flesh. The seat whereof being in the appetite of knowledge, and sight being the sense chiefly used for attaining knowledge, it is in Divine language called “the lust of the eyes.” (Ibid.)

Most telling here is Augustine’s condemning of “making experiments through the flesh”–that is, cutting into the skin to discover and map the otherwise unseen parts of the body. Like surgeons, astronomers too cut through a skin-like medium (Earth’s atmosphere) to probe and map things what would otherwise be left for God’s eyes only.

Augustine thus would probably hate telescopes and search engines, for to make too insistent a search of things displays a lust for novelty and runs the danger of upending the hierarchy of being (who gets to see what). It is a stealing of fire from heaven; a Promethean hubris.

And probing the stars and probing the body aren’t the only things that Augustine links together as vanity. He also, rather brilliantly, links science with tragic theatre. Both, by Augustine’s reckoning, feed a vain curiosity to know strange and extreme states of being. Augustine builds this argument by first distinguishing curiosity for pleasure from curiosity for the purpose of making trials (experiments). In one, the search is for such things as beauty; in the other, the search is for the knowledge that can be gained from enacting an ordeal:

But by this may more evidently be discerned wherein pleasure and wherein curiosity is the object of the senses; for pleasure seeketh objects beautiful, melodious, fragrant, savoury, soft; but curiosity, for trial’s sake, the contrary as well, not for the sake of suffering annoyance, but out of the lust of making trial and knowing them. For what pleasure hath it to see, in a mangled carcase [carcass], what will make you shudder? (Ibid.)

In other words, the lust of the eyes can be toward pleasurable things or toward scientific knowledge (“the lust of making trial and knowing them”), and this trial-making is akin to tragic theatre–as when one looks upon a dead body lying on the stage (think, for example, of decapitated King Pentheus at the end of Euripides’s Bacchae, and his mother hysterically trying to piece together his remains).

For to imaginatively enact a trial–an ordeal–and thereby know it is what the tragic playwright does. The playwright experiments with logically possible states of being, feeling his or her way emotionally and psychologically into the body of another’s suffering. This is the connection that Augustine makes between Greek tragic theatre and science. Both are Dionysian. Scientific knowledge, observes Augustine, gives one the same lust-driven satisfaction as is derived from going to the performance of a tragic play. Both science and tragic plays enact trials in extremis, pushing Nature–wild or human–to its limits, probing it, taking it apart for observation and revelation–either by the scientist’s experiment or by the playwright’s imagination:

From this disease of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence men go on to search out the hidden powers of nature (which is beside our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know. (Ibid.)

In other words, the only trial enactments that Augustine thinks are profitable are ones that lead a person to God (this might include, for example, the enacting of a passion play of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection at Easter). But all other forms of passionate experimentation–via pagan or secular theatre or science–make for vanity. They provide knowledge, but to no godly end (purpose). Such knowledge “profits not.”

Augustine is thus making a natural law argument here. Just as the penis’s end qua penis is to be an organ of reproduction (thus excluding homosexual behavior and contraception from the highest scheme of things), so man’s end qua man is to know God (thus excluding the pursuit of worldly gnosis from the highest scheme of things). Scientific inquiry, like tragic theatre–and like homosexuality–is a distraction from our highest ends as human beings; our chief purposes, which are all religious.

And science, like theatre, even draws a crowd–a morbid and curious crowd, as when people are attracted to a corpse:

If it [a corpse] be lying near, they flock thither, to be made sad, and to turn pale. (Ibid.)

This description of corpse-gazing by Augustine sounds very much like Aristotle’s description of tragic theatre as catharsis (the emptying out–evacuation–of emotions through pity and fear). If it is not attended by religious purposes, this is something of which Augustine does not approve.

So the conclusion seems pretty clear. Augustine would have hated the 21st century, from Google search to modern medicine to Hollywood to NASA’s Curiosity rover. It would all constitute the vain and morbid probing of Nature to him, distracting humanity from its highest end, to know God. Augustine would have been distraught to see that the pagans, in the end, won the world; that it has been turned into Vanity Fair, not the City of God; a world of commerce, vain theatre, and science; a world driven on to no obvious purpose by a wandering curiosity.

And I wonder if it would have been too much for Augustine to learn all this. If he were forced to live in the 21st century, would he ultimately just give up on religion? Being highly intelligent, he surely would perceive the writing on the wall. There’s no going back from here to the social and religious models of his day. (Edward Feser, are you listening?) As humans, we are on track to becoming cyborgs (human-machine hybrids), directing our own evolution–and then we’re headed for the stars. On the way there, would Augustine join the mass of humanity in distracting pursuits? Would he have a Facebook page? Would he off himself? Or would he double-down with God?



NOTE: All Augustine quotes above are taken from his Confessions (Book 10, section 35, in Edward Pusey’s translation, The Encyclopedia Brittanica Great Books series, vol. 18, 1952, p. 85). They are in close proximity to one another, and I believe I’m contextualizing them properly. But if you think I’ve in any way misrepresented Augustine’s position on curiosity–or misread him in some other manner–let me know. I generated this post as a response to my own astonishment at reading this section of the Confessions. I was surprised at just how closed off Augustine was, psychologically, from vulnerable engagement with the world’s multiplicity; how incurious he seemed to be in spite of his famous prayer, “God, let me know myself.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Image of Earth from Mars (100 Million Miles Away): What Would Augustine Say?

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Gosh, what a strange post.
    I rather doubt that excellent, careful and insightful philosopher, Edward Feser, would pay the slightest attention to your words.

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