Impassioned and (Im)pious Curiosity

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Image: Crop of a reproduction of ‘Bernard and the Devil’ by Hans Holbein in L’Eloge de la Folie (Paris, 1877).

By Kirk Essary, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Western Australia

In Cormac McCarthy’s 1979 novel Suttree, an unnamed ‘ragpicker’ offers to pay the protagonist (Suttree) in advance for throwing some coal oil on him and setting him alight should Suttree ever stop by to find him dead. Suttree agrees to carry out the deed but refuses payment, which leads to the following brief exchange:

You wont take no dollar?
I hold ye to your word now.
Whatever’s right, said Suttree.
I aint no infidel. Dont pay no mind to what they say.
I always figured they was a God.
I just never did like him.

This is, with a bit of imagination, a humorous form of misotheism—an antagonism towards, or hatred of, God. The sentiment features elsewhere in McCarthy’s work, and in stronger form. In The Sunset Limited, a 2006 play by McCarthy (and eventually a film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson), the character White, a learned professor and good nihilist, denounces the ‘village atheist whose single passion is to revile endlessly that which he denies the existence of in the first place’.[1] In this line we find expressed a characterisation (if not a caricature) of a paradoxical sort of misotheism—a hatred of, or antagonism towards, a dead God. But the nineteenth century was the true Golden Age of misotheism, where a silent God is rejected, reviled, and even subject to attempted deicide. Thus Ivan Karamazov asks for a refund on his ‘entrance ticket’ into the world, rejecting the rigged game of an ostensibly unjust and ‘non-Euclidean’ deity. And thus Captain Ahab in Moby Dick seeks to destroy the white whale that symbolises a similarly unfathomable God: ‘I see in him outrageous strength with an inscrutable malice sinewing it,’ Ahab says. ‘That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.’[2] This is a different attitude from the village atheist’s (and a more serious one than the ragpicker’s), one wherein God is recognised to exist and even to have some meaningful (perhaps total) control over the world, but is loathed for not revealing his purpose to man. Ahab’s disdain for inscrutability, indeed his megalomaniacal desire to slay it—ultimately, as we know, an unsuccessful venture—is a wonderfully twisted example of one of the myriad ways in which learning and the passions may be bound up with religious concerns (unless, perhaps, you abide Ron Swanson from Park and Rec’s reading).

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The desire for knowledge—that which makes us human in Aristotle and fallen in Adam—has a long and complicated history in the Christian tradition. There is a great deal of inconsistency in adjudicating the sorts of knowledge which ought to be sought after in a religious context. Ahab’s rage over God’s silence is perfectly sensible in the nineteenth century, a period obsessed with theodicy. A similar hatred of divine inscrutability isn’t found in the sixteenth century. Exploring the manner in which passions for learning (whether literary, theological, philosophical or scientific) comes to be variously endorsed, suppressed, tailored and circumscribed over 1500 years of European religious and intellectual history, was the theme of a recent conference convened at The University of Western Australia. There are, of course, myriad valences of ‘passion’ and ‘learning’, many of which were considered at the conference.[3] My own research focuses primarily on the situations where homo religiosus is repeatedly found attempting to negotiate between the Scylla of pious- and the Charybdis of impious curiosity. With seemingly rather different concerns from those raised by Melville, Dostoevsky and McCarthy, for example, anxieties over the usefulness of classical learning in a Christian context manifested themselves acutely during the Renaissance and Reformation, as the rediscovery of a lost world of texts instigated a widespread fervour for learning in an array of liberal disciplines. This eventually resulted in the introduction of new forms of textual analysis along with a rhetorical approach to theological and biblical texts that were pitted against scholastic modes of theological discourse.

An age-old tension between Athens and Jerusalem was revived in the form of biblical-humanist critiques of the overuse of Aristotelian philosophical categories by university theologians as foreign to the inherent ‘simplicity’ of the ‘heavenly philosophy’, as (highly learned) evangelicals from Erasmus to Tyndale to Calvin described their worldview. In both camps we find a fiery rhetorical zeal for one kind of learning, and a passionately argued denunciation of another. The dialectic is codified in the Erasmian ideal of docta pietas (learned piety), which permits (even demands) what Erasmus calls a pia curiositas (pious curiosity) reserved for useful theological studies, or, more specifically, studies in the liberal arts and natural philosophy that might serve biblical interpretation.[4] In 1520, Erasmus published a defence of humanistic learning, The Antibarbari. He recalls the beginnings of his own passion for this sort of learning:

‘There is a strange power and active force, as it were, in nature, my dear Witz; which I infer from this fact among others that, though in my boyhood the humanities were banished from our schools and there was no supply of books and teachers, and they had no prestige to spur on a gifted student … in spite of this, a sort of inspiration fired me with devotion to the Muses, sprung not from judgment (for I was then too young to judge) but from a kind of natural feeling. I developed a hatred for anyone I knew to be an enemy of humane studies.’[5]

Erasmus would carry this appreciation of the arts overtly into his lifelong endeavours to formulate a learned approach to Christian piety. Much later in life, in his massive preaching manual, the Ecclesiastes, Erasmus exhorts the prospective Christian preacher to cultivate a ‘learned tongue’ and a ‘fiery heart’, and not only to be trained Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Syriac, and Aramaic, but to read broadly the works of the Church Fathers, and also to learn poetry, history, arithmetic, cosmography and natural philosophy. If the kernel of the Gospel was simple, the Bible wasn’t, and Erasmus knew (as well as Monty Python) how difficult it often is to interpret divine revelation, and he sought to marshal a vast array of resources in his attempts to do so.[6]

St. Jerome in His Study
Image: Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in His Study (1514).

And yet, while this syllabus looks at first glance to be boundless, his endorsement of pious curiosity is in fact neatly circumscribed: tarrying over problems related to infinity, prime matter, Duns Scotus’ metaphysics and astrology, for example, is to be strenuously avoided. Too much imitation of Cicero undermines the superior (and divinely uttered) eloquence of the Bible. And (of course!) one needs be very careful with geometry so as to avoid being lured to destruction as if upon the Sirens’ rocks.[7] Erasmus’ influence was vast, and a number of thinkers attempted to walk the tightrope he stretched out in numerous of his works. John Calvin, for example, very much in the Erasmian vein, goes out of his way to consult the Greco-Roman historiographers in his attempts to sort out biblical chronology, and consults Pliny and Aristotle on animals in the Bible. He consults contemporary natural scientist and physician Guillaume Rondelet’s 1554 Libri de piscibus, hot off the press, in order to explain in a lecture what sort of creature swallowed Jonah up for three days and three nights.[8] Every effort is made to uncover the mysteries of Scripture.[9]

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Image: De Lamia, from Guillaume Rondelet’s Libri de piscibus (1554).

While it may seem at first blush that the sort of thing I mentioned from Melville and the sort of thing I’ve mentioned here have little to do with one another, they in fact converge at the nexus of concerns over the propriety of curiosity. Anxiety surrounding impia curiositas, first articulated so eloquently in Augustine’s Confessions, derives from and perpetuates the notion that certain disciplines are useless, frivolous, and frigid forms of learning not conducive to Christian piety.[10] This gives rise to a complex approach wherein ardent zeal for specific types of learning in service of pious understanding may be paired with a strict definition of the boundaries of religious knowledge. Calvin repeatedly excoriates the ‘Sorbonnist sophists’ for their abstruse philosophising, and warns against excessive speculation into matters concerning the divine will:

‘What good will it do you in your mad search to plunge into the “deep”, which your own reason tells you will be to your destruction? Why does not some fear at least restrain you because the history of Job, as well as the prophetic books, proclaim God’s incomprehensible wisdom and dreadful might?’

While the language of the ‘dreadful might’ of God holds a special and prominent place in Calvin’s writings, invoking the incomprehensibility of divine wisdom is a commonly found rhetorico-theological device in the history of Christian thought, which serves both as an epistemological foundation (or negation) as well as a kind of theodicy. Nor is Calvin novel in invoking fear as a virtue in this context. He cites a pithy line from Augustine in the same section of the Institutio: ‘Peter denies; the thief believes: O the depth! Thou seekest a reason? I tremble at the depth’.

The nuances of the relationship between passion for learning and religious thought may, in certain contexts, remain remarkably stable over quite a long period, if along a singular trajectory (from Jerome to Erasmus, say). Or they may undergo marked shifts not only from one context to the next in the same era (from the late medieval university to Erasmus’ study), but more drastically over the course of time even within a connected genealogy (from Calvin’s relationship to an unknown God to Melville’s [and onto McCarthy’s]). This is to point out nothing other than that these relationships may be historicised, analysed, and compared meaningfully, and it’s another fertile field in which emotions research allows us to get some purchase on shifting intellectual trends in the history of religions.

In trying to work our way back to where we began, it may be worth noting that the ways in which the passions and (the limits of) religious knowledge converge in Calvin’s Augustine above are precisely inverted in the attitudes of Captain Ahab and Ivan Karamazov. The silent God who demands fear and humility in the sixteenth century draws ire and hubris in the nineteenth. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” Ahab says. “For could the sun do that, then could I do the other.” This assumed apotheosis, which derives from God’s silence, is expressed in the context of enthusiastic curiosity in another of Cormac McCarthy’s characters, this time from his epic novel Blood Meridian:

‘Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent … The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will be the decision alone have taken charge of the world, and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own life.’[11]

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And yet elsewhere in McCarthy’s works we find characters with impetus to study just the sort of ineffable God rejected by Ahab and Ivan, and accepted by Calvin. For example, as the priest in the novel The Crossing, capping off a story of a wanderer who sought evidence of the ‘wrathful hand of God in the world’, explains: ‘Here was a God to study. A God who seemed a slave to his own selfordinated duties. A God with a fathomless capacity to bend all to an inscrutable purpose. Not chaos itself lay outside that matrix’. McCarthy’s works, like Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky’s, are poly- or hetero-glossic, and we find many early modern intellectual artefacts buried in the ideas of many thoughtful and eminently quotable characters. And, of course, rather than vehement passion we may find a kind of indifferent resignation; but even then there’s curiosity. To close, we pick up where the ragpicker and Suttree left off:

And what happens then?
After you’re dead?
Dont nothin happen. You’re dead.
You told me once you believed in God.
The old man waved his hand. Maybe, he said. I got no reason to think he believes in me. Oh I’d like to see him for a minute if I could.
What would you say to him?
Well, I think I’d just tell him. I’d say: Wait a minute. Wait just one minute before you start in on me. Before you say anything, there’s just one thing I’d like to know. And he’ll say: What’s that? And then I’m goin to ast him: What did you have me in that crapgame down there for anyway? I couldnt put any part of it together.
Suttree smiled. What do you think he’ll say?
The ragpicker spat and wiped his mouth. I dont believe he can answer it, he said. I dont believe there is a answer.[12]

Kirk Essary is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Meanings Program of the Centre at The University of Western Australia under the direction of Yasmin Haskell. His primary research interest is in epistemology and philosophical/theological anthropology, especially the relationship between the passions and the intellect, in the thought of early modern biblical humanists like Erasmus and John Calvin.


Some Further Reading

Everything ever written by Cormac McCarthy

Andrew D. Berns, The Bible and Natural Philosophy in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

John Corrigan (ed.), Religion and Emotion: Approaches and Interpretations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Brian Cummings, The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Darrin McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013)

Debora Shuger, The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010)

James Simpson, Burning to Read (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007)


[1] Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 137.

[2] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, 2nd edn (New York: Norton, 2002), 140.

[3] The melancholic scholar, for example, is basically a trope in the early modern period, whereas Erasmus suggests that those who are a little bit angry (subiracunda) had been created specially for the liberal arts. One might have passion for learning in a general sense, as Erasmus did when his ardent zeal for the study of Greek so as to aid his understanding of the biblical text led to his proverbial preference for books over clothes; or, as with Augustine, one might fervently desire to know God and to know oneself in relation to God; or an eighteenth-century suppressed Jesuit may demonstrate his passion for learning by writing didactic poetry; affectivity, moreover, was required of both the preacher and the congregant in the context of the early modern sermon, but the ultimate aim is to teach and be taught; and so on.

[4] This language is taken from Erasmus’ Ratio, a treatise on theological method published in 1518.

[5] Collected Works of Erasmus, 27:16.

[6] See James Simpson, Burning to Read (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), for a fiery account of what Simpson believes to be a problematic maintaining of the rhetoric of simplicity on the part of evangelicals in the face of interpreting a notoriously difficult text.

[7] For the Ecclesiastes, see the Collected Works of Erasmus, vols 67 and 68; for the Latin, ASD (Amsterdam series) V-4 and V-5.

[8] He thought it was a lamia, which is a Great White, a point I think the Aussies especially might appreciate.

[9] On the flip side, as has been painstakingly delineated in the recent work of Andrew Berns, The Bible and Natural Philosophy in Renaissance Italy, this attitude was not always one-directional, as Jewish and Christian Italian natural philosophers and medical men of the sixteenth century put their practical training to use in attempts to resolve riddles of natural philosophy that derive from biblical texts (and not in biblical commentaries, but in scientific treatises).

[10] For this history, see, e.g., Peter Harrison, ‘Curiosity, Forbidden Knowledge, and the Reformation of Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England,’ in Isis 92.2 (2001), 265–90.

[11] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 198.

[12] Cormac McCarthy, Suttree (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 257-58.

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