Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.58 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.58

Joseph Torchia, Restless Mind: Curiositas and the Scope of Inquiry in St. Augustine's Psychology. Marquette studies in philosophy, 83.   Milwaukee, WI:  Marquette University Press, 2013.  Pp. 312.  ISBN 9780874627190.  $29.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Cristiana Sogno, Fordham University (

The aptly chosen title of this monograph well captures Augustine's view of the disposition of the curious mind with its elegant allusion to Confessions 1.1 (11). By contrast, the very specific subtitle seems to suggest a rather focused (if not downright narrow) scope of the inquiry. Such an assumption, however, is put to rest in the Preface, which underscores the importance of this in-depth investigation of all aspects of curiositas for understanding Augustine's "distinctive worldview".

The book is a model of clarity and organization. Following a brief Preface, the Introduction offers a concise overview of the book's structure, which is articulated into three parts, a Conclusion, and an Epilogue. The balance of Torchia's construction is remarkable. Each of the three parts of the book is divided into three chapters of roughly equal length, and each part ends with an assessment that summarizes the main points developed in the chapters and provides segues to what follows (19). Individual chapters are subdivided in shorter sections of similar length, and one suspects that Torchia shares with Augustine a deep-seated distrust in the attention span of the human restless mind.

Torchia's approach to the study of Augustinian curiosity is laid out in the Introduction, where the author maintains that "Augustine's indictments of curiosity" need to be studied "within the framework of conceptual history", so that both Augustine's debt to past authors and his relevance to contemporary debates might be fully appreciated (18).

Because of the semantic complexity of the word curiositas with its instability of meaning and the "patchwork of connotations" that surround the concept, the first part of the book offers an in-depth investigation of the "philosophical and theological roots of Augustine's treatment of this notion" (20). Accordingly, the three chapters of Part I are devoted respectively to Greek, Latin, and scriptural/patristic sources. Torchia does a very good job in summarizing and explaining the philosophical pedigree of the two (mostly interchangeable) words (periergeia and polypragmosyne) that denote curiosity in Greek (Chapter1), and his outline of the curious (no pun intended!) history of the Latin word curiositas is equally informative (Chapter 2, especially 50-52).

It is, however, clear that Torchia is more interested in the philosophical rather than the philological aspect of the Augustinian Quellenforschung, and Part I can indeed stand on its own as a lucid and concise account of the "conceptual history of curiosity" (20). Because of the "conceptual" emphasis of his approach, however, Torchia pays little attention to the question of which texts in particular had a direct influence on Augustine with the (partial) exception of Plotinus in Part II (149-172). The main aim of Part I is to identify "some salient trends that suggest a hypothetical line of descent" between Augustine and his sources, and Torchia discerns "three branches of this kind of descent", namely, the "moral, epistemological, and metaphysical" (82). The (potential) "blameworthiness of the curious disposition", which is emphasized in both Classical and Patristic sources, explains the dominance of the moral branch in both traditions. But, because an evaluation of curiositas on moral grounds presupposes a key distinction between true and false knowledge, the moral dimension of curiositas is closely aligned with an epistemological one. Torchia proposes a "third branch", the metaphysical, in order to focus more explicitely "on the relation between the inquisitive and the restless disposition and one's place in the overall scheme of reality". In this regard, he argues, Augustine could find a "compelling source of creative adaptation in Neoplatonism" (83).

The strengths and limitations of Torchia's "conceptual" approach become apparent in Part II of the book. This section traces the development of Augustine's triad of vices (superbia, curiositas, voluptas) by focusing on the central role that curiositas plays in this schematization. Once again, Torchia's account of the conceptual evolution of the triad in Augustine's works is remarkable for clarity and organization, but a more truly philological approach to the question of sources might have offered a richer picture of this complicated issue, as I argue in what follows.

The first two chapters of Part II (Ch. 4 and 5) follow closely the chronology of Augustine's works from the Cassiciacum dialogues to the Confessions. Chapter 4 begins with an overview of Augustine's earliest writings, which do not employ the triad as a "formal organizing principle", but are crucial for understanding why Augustine came to regard curiositas as one of the primal vices (96). The chapter ends with a meticulous analysis of the full-fledged triadic interpretation of sin elaborated in four key works (De Genesi contra Manichaeos, De Musica, De Vera Religione, and Book II of De libero arbitrio) and provides a solid framework for a thorough investigation of the sin of curiositas in the Confessions (Chapter 5). This chapter is especially successful in showing how tightly integrated the moral and epistemological dimensions of curiositas are in the Confessions, and how the moral disorder prompted by curiositas carries important metaphysical implications (141). In particular, Torchia sees the inextricable link that Augustine establishes between curiositas and the motif of the fallen soul as a clear indication of the influence of Plotinus' work, to which Chapter 6 is devoted.

As I already mentioned, this is the one chapter in the book that comes closest to addressing the question of direct influence of a particular author or text on the work of Augustine. Torchia, however, skirts the (problematic) issue of Augustine's first hand knowledge of Greek sources, and his discussion of Plotinus' influence is heavily indebted to the work of O'Connell—a debt that Torchia fully acknowledges, especially when refuting another scholar's claim that "Augustine merely extracted the triad from a Porphyrian source" (160). I am persuaded by Torchia's general remark that "Augustine's triadic analysis of sin. . . reveals a careful grafting of Plotinian imagery onto scriptural teaching". However, given the importance of the triad of vices for a correct understanding of Augustinian curiositas, the omission of a discussion of Latin sources is especially disappointing. I am thinking in particular of Cicero, whose work was greatly influential on Augustine, as Augustine himself acknowledges.1

The first two chapters of the last part of the monograph focus on two major late works of Augustine, namely De Trinitate (Chapter 7) and De civitate Dei (Chapter 8). The last chapter of Part III (Chapter 9) turns to a different context by exploring Augustine's discussion of the sin of curiositas in his pastoral writings, but follows the same analytical framework outlined in Chapter 4 (96).

By contrast, the two final chapters (Conclusion and Epilogue) mark a real departure from the rest of the book. Both chapters aim at broadening the scope of the study by discussing the relevance of Augustine for a "contemporary rethinking of the meaning of scientia" (Conclusion) and by evaluating Augustine's influence on Western thought (Epilogue). In the Conclusion, Torchia repeatedly emphasis the importance of Augustine's views for contemporary discussions about scientific values, but the analysis is undermined by an unrelentingly apologetic tone and is, in my opinion, the weakest chapter in the book.

Another criticism that can be made of the book as a whole is that of a certain lack of care in editing. There are a number of spelling errors especially in the Latin citations, which seem to recur with some frequency. But these criticisms should not detract from the overall usefulness of this lucid and elegant book.


1.   For the influence of Latin sources on the development of Augustine's triad of vices, see N. Cipriani, "Lo schema dei tria vitia (voluptas, superbia, curiositas) nel De Vera Religione: antropologia soggiacente e fonti", Augustinianum 38 (1): 157-199 (1998).

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