The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016
It’s the itch to find out more. The temptation to glance at an open diary, or strain to decipher the hisses of an argument behind you on the bus. It’s the restless DESIRE that made Leonardo da Vinci fill his notebooks: What makes birds fly? How does the heart beat? Without curiosity, it’s hard to imagine creativity or invention at all.
Yet, even in the age historians have dubbed the “Age of Curiosity”—roughly between 1660 and 1820—people worried about its dangers. Most cultures have stories that warn against the urge to know more: Pandora couldn’t help peeking inside that intriguing box; Baba Yaga, the toothless crone of Slavic folklore, threatens to eat nosy children who ask too many questions; and then there’s that poor cat.… Curiosity can overreach. It stumbles into forbidden knowledge, not stopping to think whether what emerges will be hurtful. Most of all, curiosity can rub people—particularly those guardians of the status quo, parents, teachers, politicians—up the wrong way.
The seventeenth century witnessed the outpouring of a powerful defense of curiosity. In large part, this was due to a philosophical revolution. John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, argued that knowledge was not implanted in the mind by God, but was learned through the perception of the senses and rational thinking. This idea, known later as empiricism, put a premium on the evidence of one’s own eyes. It gave rise to the scientific method and, in turn, the pastimes of collecting, cataloguing and investigating became fashionable. Some writers celebrated curiosity, linking it to intellectual progress. Others emphasized its egalitarian nature—although in practice, to be a great virtuoso or curioso, the titles gentlemen scholars gave themselves, one needed considerable amounts of both money and leisure. Over the next 150 years insects were examined under microscopes. Experiments on birds and air pumps were conducted before intrigued audiences. Writers of encyclopedias—such as Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, who began work on theirs in 1746—attempted to impose order and coherence on the known world.
However, the virtuosi and curiosi were not always admired. It was on the seventeenth-century stage that their failings came into sharpest relief. The legendary German character of Faust, who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for the secrets of natural philosophy (the old word for science), epitomized the mistrust some felt for the curious scholars, with their narcissism and desire for prestige, their greediness and solitary working habits (see: LONELINESS). In contrast, the amateur experimenter Sir Nicholas Gimcrack of Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso (1676) was lampooned for his pointless and impractical endeavors. He collects bottles of air and learns to swim by stretching himself out on a trunk in his laboratory, interested only in “the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practice… knowledge is my ultimate end.” It was from these anti-heroes of the Age of Curiosity, the curious men who had become curiosities themselves, that our own mad scientists emerged—the Dr. Moreaus and Dr. Strangeloves, with their eyes gleaming and skin itching at the prospect of each new discovery.
Are we in the midst of another ambivalent “Age of Curiosity”? On the one hand, curiosity is celebrated for its questing spirit, its power to drive our intellectual evolution and bring rewards. “Curiosity,” the name of the NASA rover sent to explore the surface of Mars, or the emotion that teachers are supposed to foster in their pupils above all others, might appear to be an unquestioned good in our times. Yet, rapidly changing technology has also brought a fear of other people’s desire to find out about us into sharper relief. Curiosity about other people’s private lives is certainly not new. Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that our natural curiosity about one another—and its main vehicle, gossip—is one key to our evolutionary success. It allows ideas to travel and enhances a sense of community. But though curiosity might be crucial to our survival, that doesn’t make us any happier to be on the receiving end of someone else’s. Five centuries ago in England, eavesdropping (skulking around under the eaves to overhear private conversations) was illegal—in fact, it remained on the statute books as a common law offence until 1967. Today, it is the surreptitious accumulation of “intimate capital,” the photographs and snippets of information used for blackmail and by tabloid journalists to sell newspapers, that must be policed. That we suspect other people’s curiosity has less than honorable motives is nicely captured by the Swedish word for an eavesdropper: a tjuvlyssnare, a “listen-thief.” Lurking and snatching poorly guarded secrets, the listen-thief profits—with the titillations of forbidden knowledge or simply cold hard cash—from them too.
See also: MORBID CURIOSITY, SHAME.