What Killed the Cat?

Most of us vacillate between healthy and unhealthy curiosity



What Killed the Cat?

Don’t blame the bloke who let the dogs out. Cats can run faster and climb higher.

There’s another suspect. “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.” So wrote Ben Jonson in his 1598 play Every Man in His Humour. But that’s a doubtful claim, isn’t it? Cats care, and care deeply, about mice, and no mouse ever ate a cat.

How about the conventional wisdom? Curiosity killed the cat, despite Puss having nine lives. Well, maybe. It pains me, though, to accept this charge. Many is the time, after all, that I’ve lamented my students’ remarkably reigned-in curiosity. After all, a little independent reading, or thinking, never killed anyone.

Let’s take stock. It’s not the dogs, it’s not care, and maybe it’s not curiosity that killed the cat. Curious and curiouser! Must we give up the quest to catch the culprit?

No, not so fast. Let’s take a closer look at curiosity, if only (for now) as an “inclination of interest.” Doing so is not without precedent, whether on our part or the part of the Fathers of the Church.

We’re all against “morbid curiosity.” We support Neighborhood Watch, but nobody likes a nosy neighbor. MYOB! One acronym deserves another. ADHD, we’re told, is a kind of curiosity on steroids. And full disclosure: in surfing the web I’ve too often, out of curiosity, fallen for “click bait.”

Let’s say, then, that there’s definitely an unhealthy curiosity. St. Thomas Aquinas, ready to call a spade a spade, indicted a vice of curiosity. Consider Matt McNerd. He’s keenly curious about all manner of trivia. Why? So that he can bask in the limelight at the pub’s Trivia Night. Then there’s Mitzi McNaughty. She’s ever so curious about the neighbors. Why? So that she can gossip with glee. Then there’s the curiosity that puts first things…dead last. St. Jerome wrote, “We see priests forsaking the gospels and prophets reading stage-plays and singing the love songs of pastoral idyls.” Augustine voiced a related imperative: “We must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity, but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.”

In contrast, Aquinas also teaches, there’s a healthy curiosity. Indeed, there’s a virtue that’s opposed to the vice of curiosity. This virtue, he says, is studiousness! After all, old Aristotle has it right: “All men have a natural desire for knowledge.” When we act from this desire, and wisely, with the right end in mind, then we act virtuously.

Now most of us, I suppose, vacillate between healthy and unhealthy curiosity. Our desire for knowledge sometimes betrays our need for order, but sometimes it can set a standard for others. Most of us, even on bad days, are educable. Most of us, on good days, can be educators.

Perhaps, gentle reader, our condition helps explain the delight that children find in the adventures of Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat.

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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