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Exploring the history & concept of curiosity throughout the ages

'Know thyself is the beginning of wisdom', said Socrates in the 5th century BC in Athens. In reflecting on this quote from 2500 years ago, one might think that curiosity has been celebrated in society all the way to the present day. The truth actually reveals that the way we think about curiosity has been anything but stable throughout the ages. Indeed, in some eras curiosity was regarded as a vice, in others as a virtue. 


Already from the texts of the Old testament, we learn that Adam and Eve were kicked out from the Garden of Eden for yielding to their curiosity (incited by the crafty serpent), for wanting to know more than they should and for eating the forbidden fruit. Further in the book of Genesis, when God decided to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he nevertheless decided to spare the lives of Lot, his wife and their two daughters. God urged Lot to immediately leave the city and not look back under any circumstance. Lot's wife however succumbed to her curiosity and glanced back, only to be instantly turned into a pillar of salt.  

While the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and 'ídle' Curiosity is celebrated in the Greek and Roman era, in the subsequent Christian era however curiosity is regarded as a sinful, perverted and arrogant diversion from the only object worthy of contemplation: God. This was broadly the common thinking till the 15th Century. One of the most important church fathers, St. Augustine in the 5th century proclaimed that 'God fashioned hell for the inquisitive'. He also referred to curiosity as 'lust for the eyes'. Later thinkers elevated curiosity to the status of a deadly sin, situated between sloth and pride.

The Church's single monopoly on society was challenged with the revival of lost knowledge of the past, the discovery of the new world, the development of cities and trade, and the invention of the printing press. All these developments contributed to the fact that curiosity became respectable again in the Renaissance. We often refer to Leonardo da Vince as the ultimate example of the curious intellectual, artist and overall seeker of knowledge of the unknown, the unexamined and prohibited. Indeed, the church's grip on society came into conflict with the secular impetus to investigate, explore, understand and ultimately gain dominion over the natural world. This tension came clearly to a climax in the trial of Galileo Galilei, who went against the Church's belief that the sun was turning around the earth. Curiosity during the renaissance however was reserved for the elite few: e.g. Erasmus of Rotterdam insisted that curiosity represents a greed to know unnecessary things and that therefore it must be the province of the few.

During the following era of the Enlightenment, the increase in the number of world travelers and people interested in nature made that worldly curiosity was adopted by broader sections of intellectual society. As literacy rates rose, the demand for books, pamphlets and newspapers skyrocket and the world embarked on a mass cognitive adventure. Curiosity about the world was clearly fueled by the discoveries in sciences. However the meaning of curiosity also had a dark side: in those days for humans to be curious also meant that they were prying into affairs that were none of their business. 

The last 200 years saw an continued expansion of curiosity towards a more collective and egalitarian status. In spite of the positive reception of curiosity in the light of progress of society and the sciences, many people remained wary of it. Frederick Taylor, inventor of 'scientific management' expounded that thinking (and thus curiosity) should be only reserved for managers in organisations. During this time, the word curiosity also came to characterize not just the human thirst for information, it also kept its darker meaning: the brothers Grimm included an ambiguous message about curiosity and the drive for exploration e.g. Sleeping Beauty being punished for her curiosity in touching the hidden spinning wheel. The underlying message of this (and other stories e.g. Hansel and Gretel nibbling at the witch's house) is that curiosity is dangerous and hazardous. This thinking is well encapsulated in the common proverb 'curiosity killed the cat'. 

The last 50 years see a continuation of a positive trend yet as we are coming closer to our own time, things get more complex. One the one hand, societies that believe in progress, innovation and creativity actively cultivate it, recognizing that curiosity in the minds of its citizens constitutes it's most valuable assets. On the other hand, more narrow-minded societies that value order, adherence to the ruling ideology still attempt forcibly to put an end to curiosity even today. One clear example is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban In Pakistan in 2012 for the simple reason that she was advocating the right to education for girls. Luckily she survived and became an activist and role model advocating female education.

On the corporate front, a number of companies have started to call out curiosity as a key ingredient for their strategy and continued growth e.g. Microsoft, Merck, Novartis, 3M and Google to name a few.

2020 was and is dominated by Covid-19. This crisis has taught us that things can change really quickly and that the world, our societies, our families are more precious than ever before in a potentially fragile environment. Many individuals, organisations and societies have tapped into their natural curiosity capability in the face of this crisis. At the same time, many others are struggling. Again: the positive is overshadowing the negative. The next generations will judge as to the merits of our current definition of curiosity. One definition is already off to a good start: NASA baptized their exploration vehicle for the Planet Mars 'curiosity'.


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