If you want to win murmurs of approval, quote Anatole France:  “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”  If you would like to evoke little gasps of admiration, follow up with Albert Einstein:  “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.  It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”

The problem is that the curiosity-as-holiness line is carelessly undiscriminating, and at best half-true.

Here is the true half: In itself, the knowledge of truth is good.  Aristotle says philosophy begins in wonder.  John Paul II says everyone wonders, and in that sense everyone is a philosopher.  Thomas Aquinas says it is man’s natural vocation to seek truth, especially the truth about God.  We are made, among other things, to know, as no other animal is made to know.

But the way one goes about pursuing knowledge may be right or wrong.

For example, some seek knowledge for the sake of doing evil, like the military scientists who study how to “hack” the brains of soldiers so they will be unable to disobey orders.

Some seek it for the sake of pride, like the clever fellows at the company Biotransplant who implanted the nuclei of cells from a human fetus into the enucleated ovum of a sow.

Some even seek it for the sake of morbid pleasure, like the witty biologists some years ago who cut off the heads and tails of centipedes and stitched the stumps together to see if the hapless creatures would run in circles.

If you would rather not pick on scientists, pick another profession, say, journalism.  There is plenty of guilt to go around.

Mere curiosity is to the tender love of truth as voyeurism is to marital love.  That is why the ancients made distinctions.  They accounted wonder a natural inclination, and the humble pursuit of knowledge to be a high virtue.  But they reserved the word curiositas for seeking knowledge in ways it never should be sought.