Curiosity: Did it Actually Kill the Cat?

Very few contemporary people would consider curiosity a vice. In fact, it’s considered a critical virtue. You want to hire people with curiosity for people and ideas. You want friends curious about your interests. You want a partner curious not only about your actions, but what you are thinking and where you want to go in life.

Oddly, Montaigne only seems to speak of curiosity in the most negative possible terms. At one point he says bluntly “curiosity is always a fault.” In another place he equates it with frivolity and sloth. When speaking of books, he recommends poetry to the literary curious, because he finds if frivolous, full of disguise and chatter. Here’s another attack:

The most gross and puerile of rhapsodies are to be found among thinkers who penetrate most deeply into the highest matters: they are engulfed by their curiosity and their arrogance.

This made me curious about the etymology of the word. Montaigne is using the Old French word curiosete, which derives from the Latin curiositatem, (a desire of knowledge or inquisitiveness,) but also from curiosus, which can mean meddlesome. That would make Montaigne’s aversion to it more understandable, but it doesn’t fit in context. The modern translators are correct to use the contemporary word curiosity as we speak and understand it now, it captures Montaigne’s intended meaning.

This made me think of the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” and it turns out it originated in Montaigne’s time, except it wasn’t worded that way. Both Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare used variations of the phrase “care killed the cat.” That proverb has a meaning closer to the meddlesomeness than care as we understand it now, so perhaps it makes sense that by the mid-19th Century, it had fully morphed into the phrase that carries us all the way to an Iggy Pop song from 1979.

We assume that curiosity kills the cat by inviting her to roam into trouble, unconcerned with all the risks she’s overlooking. That seems to me to evoke a different word — impulsivity. There’s no question that impulsivity can be a dangerous trait for any creature. But is it really the same as curiosity? The cat could ponder the bookcase, for example, and be curious without deciding to climb it, which is impulsive.

Which returns me to what Montaigne says about curiosity, because he is not attacking the trait for being impulsive and leading to a feline’s demise. He’s attacking its idleness, the fact that the cat could just sit there and ponder the bookcase. It is most specifically an attack on philosophers burrowing deeply into big ideas and never leaving the rabbit hole.

Which sounds a bit like self criticism to me. What is Montaigne if not a person endlessly curious about himself. I know this because he pushes me into the same space and it can be really uncomfortable to dwell there. Replaying the same life stories from multiple vantage points, either with or without a guide, can lead to tremendous personal insights, but at what cost and to what use? For Montaigne, the end result was literary immortality. It’s impossible to argue with his success. But for someone following his path, either through writing or just thought, that lottery number is not coming up again. You have to settle for different rewards.

One place this project has led me is an examination of who is curious about me. Through these essays and the original ones in the project, I have revealed an incredible amount of information about myself. Who attends to this knowledge is interesting to me, but even more interesting is who does not show any care about it.  Who appears to have absolutely no curiosity in what I am doing right now, what I’m thinking, and what I am describing from my recent past?

The line between meddlesomeness and curiosity has been there from the very beginning of the word. I can understand if someone has a difficult time calibrating between all-in interest and none at all. Perhaps it is easier to go through life with an on-off switch when your natural instincts are to become fully enmeshed when engaged.

I suppose what I’d like from some people, maybe only one in particular, is enough curiosity to ask what’s going on with me. Why have I been behaving differently over the past several months?

I once told a story about a fictional village that has the world’s slowest speed limit. Everyone is expected to drive no faster than 5 miles per hour through the town, and it is far enough away from the beaten path that few outsiders ever traverse their roads.

The town, though, has no radar guns and the police never actually enforce the suffocating speed trap. What holds everyone roughly in harmony are the knowing eyes of neighbors. They see you when you dart past them. They remember the time you raced hurriedly to drop your kids at school. And you remember all of their transgressions as well. It’s the memory of past abuses that keeps everyone in equilibrium and from driving too insanely, because everyone is a storehouse of past bad acts, neatly tucked away as cudgels to be used if your personal sins are ever put on public display.

If everything is a violation, but nothing punished, what is lost? Sure, the impulsivity is probably kept in check. But why isn’t anyone in the village curious about what would happen if, say, the speed limit were raised to 30. Or if people had conversations about the times they had to drive faster, and maybe learned a bit about each other along the way, instead of holding back the partial evidence for future attack.

Curiosity is the first step towards action and greater understanding. This is one way that modern people have created progress in the world, by encouraging free thought and openly dreaming about a better world. When you notice curiosity, be thankful for it.  When you see it disappear, be concerned.