The word wandering connotes purposelessness; if I wander I neither remember nor expect—I drift. Wandering, for Bernard of Clairvaux, became a central metaphor for what he understood to be the first and most destructive step towards pride: “curiosity” (ltn. curiositas). While in the present it is nearly valorized, in Bernard’s thought, and Augustine before him, curiosity is most often wedded to sin. To the post-modern westerner this condemnation of curiosity sounds fascist, or at very least passé. This paper proposes a pursuit towards understanding the Bernardian idea of curiosity, lest we become liable to our own condemnation.
There are other reasons, however, for this pursuit— besides escaping the fascist stamp ourselves—I believe that Bernard’s understanding of curiosity could potentially be, not only the stumbling block mentioned above, but also a balm to a lost and wandering western culture. In demonstrating this, I will define Bernard’s specific definition of curiosity, primarily as it appears in his treatise On the Steps Towards Humility and Pride (now on HP). Further, I will argue that Bernard’s low view of curiosity did not require that he also have a low view of either the mind or the human person. Indeed, I hope to demonstrate that Bernard himself is enmeshed in a medieval humanism. Lastly, I will retract the historical telescope so that we can take note of our cultural landscape, proposing that Bernard’s understanding of curiosity might provide an interesting alternative to the wandering post-modern-mind.
Images of Curiosity in Bernard’s On The Steps Towards Humility and Pride
“Wandering,” “lift[ing] up your eyes,” and “prying”—the prominent images Bernard uses to describe curiosity in HP—all connote a departure from a given station. Bernard, near the beginning of his exposition on curiosity, explains that a “Wherever [a curious monk] stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander.” The source of this curiosity is apathy with regard to “the condition he has left himself within.” Bernard, in the above passage, describes the “eyes as wandering”—evidence of curiosity—this shows the close link he sees between the senses and the person’s movement towards either virtue or vice. But the act of wandering need not be limited to the senses proper, “curiosity” itself can go about “wandering,” as he mentions a few paragraphs later. This, rather than demonstrating a different meaning, offers another shade of interpretation to Bernard’s use of wandering as an image for curiosity.
The image of wandering surfaces throughout Bernard’s writings; Bernard pleas in a letter to Pope Calixtus to order a run-away Abbot to return as Bernard fears this might allow for “anyone wanting to wander […] without danger to find the same way of life observed as he had professed at home.” Bernard also declares that this Abbot left his home monastery “Morimund […] impelled by a spirit of frivolity.” Here again wandering connotes a departure from a station, which Bernard names “home.” The parallels are evident; the monastery at Morimund offers a place of self-knowledge, where one may live under a common rule; the road to Jerusalem is novel and leads away from self-knowledge to knowledge of the world. The wandering Abbot exchanges the inward pilgrimage for the outward pilgrimage. In another letter about the same incident Bernard calls the aforementioned Abbot’s journey “vagabondage” and in yet another letter declares that the Abbot is “wandering abroad against the rule.” For Bernard, wandering as an image of curiosity, suggests a departure from something of primary importance—that being either self-knowledge proper or a station by which one might further in self-knowledge.
Bernard’s second image for curiosity is the action of “lift[ing one’s] eyes to heaven.” In this particular image Bernard alludes to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector; the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men […],” while the self-aware tax-collector “[…] not even look[ing] up to heaven […] said, God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Bernard saw the tax-collector as a type of what the devout should resemble, “lifting [the]eyes” should be avoided so that one may remember that they still bear the marks of original sin: “look at the earth and know yourself” for “dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Here, like the image of “wandering,” there is a departure from self-knowledge with the “lifting [of the] eyes.”
Yet, Bernard clearly does not believe that a state of perpetual contrition is advisable. This is most evident in his third sermon on the Song of Songs where he maintains that the Christian move from earth gazing contrition, articulated in the image of kissing the Christ’s feet, to receiving the hand of the Christ so that we may kiss his hand and rise to be “joined with him in a holy kiss.” However, here it is important to remember that HP is warning of the dangers of pride, where a call to contrition and deep self-knowledge is appropriate, and in his third sermon he is seeking to provide biblical stages of spiritual growth. That aside, again Bernard argues that curiosity draws one’s self away from profitable reflection and towards that which is not within reach.
The third image—both in prominence and place—that Bernard employs to describe curiosity is the act of prying. He writes with Satan in mind, “You want to pry with your curiosity.” In the larger context Bernard has quickly described the curiosity of both Dinah and Eve, and is now articulating how Satan’s fall was also rooted in a failure to not “stand in [the] proper place,” and while “everyone else in heaven is standing. [Satan] alone affects to sit.” Again we see the fundamental root of curiosity is a departure from a given station. In this context the image of “pry[ing]” becomes more vivid as Bernard depicts Satan as departing from his station “to pry” into the glory that belongs to God alone. Curiosity is, as articulated by the image of prying, much more purposely malignant. Unlike “wandering,” which implies “frivolity” but not an all out maliciousness, and “lifting [of the] eyes,” which—more than wandering—evokes a sense of troublesome self-agnosticism; “pry[ing]” shows a willful and purposive malignancy. While the three images differ in malevolence they all—as aforementioned—connote a fundamental departure from self-knowledge; there are for Bernard “two ways, one leading to salvation by way of self-knowledge, the other to perdition by way of curiosity.”
The School and the Monastery
In a letter “To the Bishops and Cardinals in Curia” Bernard describes Abelard’s thought as “prying into things to strong for it.” Prying is employed in the same manner as it is in HP—it represents a lack of self-knowledge as the “things” are “too strong” for Abelard the prier. However, the comparison is deeper than similar usage; surrounding the description of Abelard’s prying are comments that more fully evoke the above description of curiosity. Bernard contends that the “Fathers are being derided because they held that such matters are better allowed to be tasted than solved.” This is important for when Bernard received questions coming from the potentially curious he “applied his principles in the light of Scripture and the Fathers.” The tension between Abelard and Bernard exists with regard to authority. Abelard in Sic et Non shows the Fathers as contradictory and therefore proposes himself as an authority; while Bernard upon receiving seemingly superfluous questions, such as “why the Maccabees, […] have been accorded by the Fathers […] an annual feast,” replies—apparently after a period of silence, “I did not answer […] at once as I have been hoping to find something bearing on the subject in the Fathers, which I would rather have sent […] than anything new of my own.” While Bernard strived for humilitas, living under the authorities of Scripture and the Fathers, Abelard “[sought] to understand in a spirit of Curiositas,” by prying open the bulwarks of orthodoxy.
However, to fully equate Bernard with humilitas and Abelard with curiositas is unhelpful as it ignores both the flaws in Bernard and the genius and tragedy of Abelard. Rather, it is more fruitful to see them both representing different types of learning. As is noted above, for Bernard, learning is rooted in the double knowledge of God and self. This does not mean that Bernard and his contemporaries were “anti-humanists” but were rather against “trivium as resulting from a reassessment of [their] monastic life.” To Bernard all forms of learning that fix their trajectory outside the double knowledge of God and man are “superfluous,” because “they do not make the monks weep.” In this self-imposed restriction Bernard shows the seriousness with which he regarded the monastic life, indeed—for Bernard—to move on in learning, past the double-knowledge, is to forget the sin and creatureliness of the self, and to wander past boundaries laid out by the Apostles and Fathers.
Abelard, however, worked in the context of the university where liberal learning was growing and theology was a discipline among others, though still the most favorable. In the medieval university differing disciplines held a relative independent authority. Indeed, the university had the potential for “[…] conflict, disagreement, or dispute […] within the university […] among the various faculties or between secular and mendicant masters.” This parallels Abelard’s dialectical epistemology which arrived at truth through argument and contrasted positions. Bernard, however, embraced the “schola Christi,” and submission to the Abbot and Benedict’s rule. While, it is important to not reduce the Bernard-Abelard conflict to a “clash between innovation and tradition” alone, it seems equally important to not see any other mode of explanation as primary. As we have seen Abelard, in many ways, epitomizes Bernard’s depiction of curiositas.
Bernard’s Medieval Humanism
Nevertheless, Bernard was anything but a frigid despot in the perpetual posture of condemnation. As Gilson has articulated, “[…] each and all of these hardy ascetics carried in his bosom a humanist who by no means wanted to die.” And as Bernard explained, “In itself […] the study of letters is good, for it adorns the soul, instructs the man, and makes him capable of instructing others. But it is good only on condition that two things precede it: fear of God and charity.” In this we see the tension that existed for Bernard; it was not that liberal learning was bad, rather it was the schola christi was to be privileged as it dealt with humankind’s most significant problems and therefore prepared the student for liberal learning.
This shows, therefore, that fundamental to Bernard’s humanism was, in his mind, the correct place of the human. Because humankind has both “greatness” and has “lost […] uprightness” seriousness is demanded, one which assumes the posture of double-knowledge and condemns vain curiosity. To this end, and again reflecting Bernard’s humanism, he employs imaginative exegesis to spur the soul onto love, indeed, “Bernard’s ascetism [is in relation] to his doctrine of love.” Bernard’s imaginative exegesis can be seen throughout his sermons and treatises as his rhetorical method of portraying both the “greatness” and “lost uprightness” of humankind, so that the monks might be moved to strive more deeply for this double-knowledge of God and self. It is precisely because, for Bernard, “in the very construction of the soul there is a natural drive to God and a capacity for him […]” that Bernard uses imaginative exegesis, so to win the soul’s ‘neutrality’ over to God’s love and the soul’s love for God. If we are to understand Bernard on his own terms we see that he is more affirming of humanity than the most decadently curious hedonist, it is only that for Bernard, affirmation moves through ascesis.
The Wandering Bazaar and Curiosity Bridled
The late-modern westerner most likely recoils at such seemingly dated ideas as the prevention of curiosity. Curiosity, and the progress it implies, is a battle cry that is heard resounding in newspapers and magazines. Alternately, those of a conservative vein are perhaps tempted to look out onto the cultural backdrop and only see “lonely travails across a landscape so perilous no one could traverse it unscarred.” Harper’s Magazine, while most often offering up a vision of progress, at times also expresses bleak visions, particularly in the column “Findings,” where it gives a discursive prose-poem of sorts which describes the latest discoveries in the sciences. One month’s column begins,
A team of scientists at Newcastle University created human embryos by combining the genetic material of one man and two women, […] and Brazilian scientists created egg cells from the embryonic stem cells of male mice. […] Female yellow baboons with supportive fathers were observed to reach menarche earlier, to begin having children earlier, and to have more children than female baboons whose fathers were not involved in their lives […]
The “findings” go on to include “studies,” which “calculated that harvesting grass for fuel creates 93 times more carbon emissions than are saved by the production of cleaner fuel,” and, “Mercury was observed to be shrinking and acquiring wrinkles as it ages,” the article concludes with, “Haystacks in Australia were suffering a high rate of spontaneous combustion. The world’s dirt was disappearing faster than ever before.” The tone throughout offers sardonic chuckles at the bazaar of useless “findings,” this is aptly demonstrated by the concluding line bespeaking regress, not the progress one would expect with the latest “findings.” This, as a Bernardian might argue—oddly enough in near agreement with the editors at Harper’s—is frivolity’s wandering quest for vana curiositas, the journey which most often leads away from God and the self.
Contrastingly, what is central for Bernard, and to offer a prescription for our current western cultural climate, is the discipline of biblical-theological anthropology. In such a discipline we most readily assume the posture of creature in relation to Creator. All other anthropologies set the sail off a different direction. The anthropology of the curious is an untamed romanticism with regard to the limitlessness of human ingenuity and progress—it shirks off its creatureliness and assumes to be creator. Yet the solution is not a bleak conservatism that stamps out any flame of progress, this anthropology fails to see what humanity was made for. Bernard, here seems to be a fine model, for he maintained a biblical anthropology which allowed him to see the importance of both, kissing the feet, and the lips of God.
Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. G.R. Evans, Selected Works: Classics in Western Spirituality, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987, 122,5 (“wandering”); 123 (“lift[ing] up your eyes”); 126 (“pry[ing]”). I am using “station” in a very broad sense, to include a sense of given-ness and the departure there from.
For more on this see: Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Conversion” in Selected Works, 65-99.
It may also suggest that Bernard is more concerned with rhetorical force than he is with rhetorical finish, as there is a minor conflation of the senses and “curiosity” (curiosity directs senses producing wandering, and curiosity itself wanders).
Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. Bruno Scott James, The Letters of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, London, England: Burns Oates, 1953, 24.
Ibid, 24, 5.
Bernard also uses “wander” in relation to Abelard’s attempt to defy faith, he writes, “[…] it is not allowed you in our faith, to suppose or oppose at your pleasure, nor to wander hither and thither amongst empty opinions […].” Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. Samuel J. Eales, The Letters of S. Bernard, London, England: Ballantyne, 1904, 273. One also is led to see Bernard’s use of wandering as alluding to the exile from Eden as his second use of wandering in HP is enveloped in a conversation on the tasting of the forbidden fruit.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Works, 124.
This observation is made in the footnotes in Bernard’s Selected Works edition. For the biblical passage see: Luke 18:11,13
Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, 223.
Again an Edenic allusion seems probable, given the context. “Lifting up the eyes” seems to suggest a grasping for something out of reach, as Adam and Eve forgot their status as creatures hoping that they would “be like God” (Gen. 3:5), the monk who “lifts up the eyes” with Luke’s Pharisee hopes to see God despite his sin.
Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of Bernard of Clairvaux, New York, NY: Shedd & Ward, 1955, 156.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Letters, 315, 6.
The pun was at first not intended, then upon further reflection the subtleties were irresistible as “prier” and “Prior” are both homonyms and antonyms, that is, they are similar in appearance but are antithetical in reality.
G.R. Evans, The Mind of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1983, 142.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Letters, 144.
Evans, Mind, 163.
Thomas Renna, “St. Bernard and the Pagan Classics” in The Chimera of His Age: Studies on Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. E. Rozanne Elder and John R. Sommerfeldt, Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1980, 124.
For an helpful paper on the growth of the secular university in Medieval times see: Stephan Fernando, ‘“Quid dant artes nisi luctum?” Learning, Ambition, and Careers in the Medieval University,’ History of Education Quarterly, 28:1, 1988, 1-22.
Gilson, Mystical Theology, 60-1.
Constant J. Mews, “The Council of Sens (1141): Abelard, Bernard, and the Fear of Social Upheaval,”
Speculum, 77.2, 2002, 343.
Gilson, Mystical Theology, 63.ll
Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, 37:1-2; quoted in Gilson, Mystical Theology, 229.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, 261.
Emero Stiegman, “Humanism in Bernard of Clairvaux” in Chimera, 27. I realize that one might contend that though Bernard’s exegesis actually invokes very little ‘free-wielding’ imagination, rather it is the common ecclesial exegesis, first employed by Origen. This, however, misses Bernard’s great desire to see monks move towards a deeper love for Christ. For example there is, I think, a parallel in our culture which would help illustrate the above; evangelicals employ nearly every form of technology imaginable for purpose of evangelism. One might argue that it simply because they live in a technological age, this however—as is immediately obvious to those familiar with evangelicalism—misses the fact that evangelicals, when it comes to evangelism, have a fairly utilitarian approach to technology. Bernard, I believe, as it relates to his exegesis, is similar.
There are other current areas to explore, however, in the following I hope to provide a brief example of how curiosity has manifested itself in post-modern western culture.
Mary Karr, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Sinner’s Welcome, San Francisco, CA: Harpers, 84.
Ed. Roger D. Hodge, “Findings,” Harper’s Magazine, April 2008, 104.