Brief discussion on the role and the nature of curiosity

Far from any willing to write about contentious topics, this article will have a softer approach, meant to relax the mind of the reader and offer a little bit of delight and reflection. The theme that I chose this time to analyze is indeed curiosity: a concept that is often discarded when talking about our educational system, but which in reality is the true drive of our desire to discover, a sort of Aristotelian “prime mover” that attracts to itself all the passions of the humans.

Raffaello Sanzio, Primo Moto – Vatican Museums, Vatican City

If you think just for a moment about it, curiosity is something innate in our nature, and something that is not only part of the human sphere, but instead it belongs to many species of animals as well. Watching it from a raw, materialistic perspective, it can be in a certain way associated to the survival instinct, main subconscious struggle of all the species. But if we look at it from a more poetical and emotional side, well, we realize that curiosity has been many times transfigured, in several different ways and both with positive and negative shades. The examples that literature, both ancient and modern, offers to us, are meaningful to understand how the concept of curiosity changed throughout the centuries and the different types of societies that inhabited this ambiguous shelter called “world”: a place often hostile to the desire of men to overcome their human limits, but which gives them the daily opportunity to disclose “endless spaces” and innovative aspects.

A painting representing Pandora, a Greek mythological figure, opening the box which contained all the evils previously absent in the world.

Related to this aspect is the fact that the world is also contingent, and contingent are all the things that are part of it, including us: curiosity, which is our thirst of the infinite, whispers to try to overcome our contingency limits and move towards something “superior”, quasi-metaphysical. And because of this, it happens that when our desire is too ambitious, we’re teared down by our same crave. In the Divine Comedy, and more precisely in the Canto XXVI of the Inferno, the author – Dante Alighieri – narrates about the quixotic desire of Ulysses to discover what was beyond the Pillars of Hercules – the modern Strait of Gibraltar -, at that time completely unknown: as described in the poem, the troupe of Greek soldiers manages to go beyond the “forbidden” limit and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but as soon as they spotted the mountain of the Purgatory, a swirling storm demolished their ship, together with their hopes, and caused the death of Ulysses and his fellows.

Florentine Anonymous, Shipwreck of Ulysses’ boat, 14th Century

This metaphor in a certain way reflects also my position on the matter: as much as our curiosity pushes us towards the ambition, we are chained to our finite, defective condition of human beings. The contrary, ontologically speaking, cannot exist; and thinking the opposite would be either utopic or an evident symptom of a not accurate analysis of the matter. The scientific progress, although its excellent discoveries are bringing incredible effects on the life of human beings, will never allow us to reach a full knowledge of everything, or to be able to control every aspect of life: this is the belief -and the hope- of many individuals and the product of our positivistic society, but there must be a limit out there – a “non plus ultra” – which, one day or another, will stop us from climbing the infinite mountain of curiosity. We’re trying to push this limit as far as possible, and it’s great because also this is part of our nature – to go always beyond -, but not understanding that everything will have an end is a fool utopia.

The Pillars of Hercules in Gibraltar

Of course, at the same time we must not overreach ourselves in the opposite direction, freezing our desire to know always more and immobilizing our condition. Indeed, a common mistake that all human beings make is “self-limitation”: putting rational constraints on our desires and dreams since we believe that those destinations are not reachable for us, because of an apparent lack of ability, intellect or… simple laziness of thought. This brings individuals to a constant unhappiness and in a certain sense kills our passions and irrational instincts. Moreover, also empirical factors such as negative experiences can play an adverse role, reducing our hope to succeed and our innate crave of discovering new things. In order to come out of this limbo, the desire has to be stronger than the intellect, pushing us out of our comfort zone: curiosity is therefore courage.

Best quote ever
The quote by Albert Einstein about Curiosity that is on the Global Governance t-shirt.

What is the solution then? I don’t know for sure, and probably a proper answer does not exist. The only aspect that has to be taken for granted, after this brief but intense evaluation of the topic, is that curiosity is an intrinsic tool which must be used in a savvy way, and fundamental is also the calibration of our expectation: where curiosity will bring us is for now only a mystery, a mystery that only the succession of the events will defuse.

Posterity will judge.

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