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OF CURIOSITY, OR AN OVER-BUSY INQUISITIVENESS INTO THINGS IMPERTINENT. - Plutarch, The Morals, vol. 2 
Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by Several Hands. Corrected and Revised by William W. Goodwin, with an Introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 5 Volumes. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878). Vol. 2.
Part of: Plutarch’s Morals, 5 vols.
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OF CURIOSITY, OR AN OVER-BUSY INQUISITIVENESS INTO THINGS IMPERTINENT.
1. If a dwelling-house, by reason of its ill situation or contrivance, be not commodiously light and airy, or too much exposed to ill weather and unhealthy, it is most advisable entirely to quit such a habitation, unless perhaps, through continuance of time, neighborhood of friends, or any other endearing circumstance, a man should become much wedded to the place; in which case it may be possible, by the alteration of windows and new placing of doors and staircases, either to remove or to lessen these inconveniences. By such like remedies, even whole cities have been much amended and improved both as to health and pleasantness; and it is said of the place of my nativity particularly, that, while it once lay open to the western winds, and to the beams of the declining sun streaming over the top of Parnassus, it was by Chaeron turned toward the east; but it is thought that Empedocles the naturalist secured that whole region round about from the pestilence, by closing up the rift of a certain mountain, from whence a contagious southerly damp breathed forth upon the flat of that country. And now, since there are several noxious qualities and distempered passions that lurk within the body too, which is the more immediate habitation of the soul, — and which, like the dark and tempestuous weather that is with out, do cloud and disturb it, — therefore the like method which has been observed in curing the defects and annoyances of an ill-contrived and unhealthy dwelling may be followed here, in rendering the body a more commodious, serviceable, and delightful mansion for the soul. Wherein that it may enjoy its desired calmness and serenity, it will conduce beyond all other expedients whatsoever, that those blind, tumultuous, and extravagant passions should be expelled or extinguished utterly; or, if that cannot be, yet that they be so far reduced and moderated, and so prudently applied and accommodated to their proper objects, that the mischief and disorder of them (at least) may be removed.
Among these may deservedly be accounted that sort of curiosity, which, by its studious prying into the evils of mankind, seems to be a distemper of envy and ill-nature.
If the knowledge of ill can reward the industrious search with so much delight and pleasure, turn the point of thy curiosity upon thyself and thine own affairs, and thou shalt within doors find matter enough for the most laborious enquiries, plentiful as
Water in Aliso’s stream, or leaves about the oak.
So vast a heap of offences shalt thou find in thy own conversation, such variety of perturbations in thy soul, and manifold failures in thy duty. To take a distinct and orderly survey of all which, that of Xenophon will be good direction, who said, that it was the manner of discreet housekeepers to place their weapons of war, utensils for the kitchen, instruments of husbandry, and furniture for religious and sacred services, each in several and proper repositories. So every man that would make an exact enquiry into and take a just account of himself, should first make a particular search into the several mischiefs that proceed from each passion within him, whether it be envy or jealousy, covetousness or cowardice, or any other vicious inclination; and then distribute and range them all (as it were) into distinct apartments.
This done, make thy reviews upon them with the most accurate inspection, so that nothing may divert thee from the severest scrutiny; obstruct every prospect that looks towards thy neighbors’ quarters, and close up all those avenues which may lead thee to any foreign curiosity; become an eavesdropper to thine own house, listen to the whispers of thine own walls, and observe those secret arts of the female closet, the close intrigues of the parlor, and the treacherous practices of thy servants, which thy own windows will discover to thee. Here this inquisitive and busy disposition may find an employment that will be of use and advantage, and is neither ill-natured nor impertinent; while every man shall call himself to this strict examination:
2. But now, as the poets feign concerning Lamia, that upon her going to bed she lays aside her eyes among the attirements of her dressing-box, and is at home for the most part blind and drowsy too, and puts on her eyes only when she goes abroad a gadding; so it is with most men, who, through a kind of an affected ignorance and artificial blindness, commonly blunder and stumble at their own threshold, are the greatest strangers to their own personal defects, and of all others least familiarly acquainted with their own domestic ills and follies. But when they look abroad, their sight is sharpened with all the watchful and laborious curiosity imaginable, which serves as deforming spectacles to an evil eye, that is already envenomed by the malignity of a worse nature.
And hence it is, that a person of this busy meddlesome disposition is a greater friend to them he hates than to himself; for overlooking his own concerns, through his being so heedfully intent on those of other men, he reproves and exposes their miscarriages, admonishes them of the errors and follies they ought to correct, and affrights them into greater caution for the future; so that not only the careless and unwary, but even the more sober and prudent persons, may gain no small advantage from the impertinence and ill-nature of inquisitive people.
It was a remarkable instance of the prudence of Ulysses, that, going into the regions of departed souls, he would not exchange so much as one word with his mother there till he had first obtained an answer from the oracle and despatched the business he came about; and then, turning to her, he afforded some small time for a few impertinent questions about the other women upon the place, asking which was Tyro, and which the fair Chloris, and concerning the unfortunate Epicasta, why,
Noosed to a lofty beam, she would suspended die.*
But we through extreme sloth and ignorance, being stupidly careless of our own affairs, must be idly spending our time and talk either about our neighbor’s pedigree, how that such a one had a tapster for his grandfather, and that his grandmother was a laundress; or that another owes three or four talents, and is not able to pay the interest. Nay, and such trivial stuff as this we busy ourselves about, — where such a man’s wife has been all this while; and what it was, that this and the other fellow have been talking of in a corner. But the wise Socrates employed his curiosity to better purpose, when he went about enquiring by what excellent precepts Pythagoras obtained so great authority among his followers; and Aristippus, meeting Ischomachus at the Olympic games, asked him what those notions were with which Socrates had so powerfully charmed the minds of his young scholars; upon the slight information whereof, he was so passionately inflamed with a desire of going to Athens, that he grew pale and lean, and almost languished till he came to drink of the fountain itself, and had been acquainted with the person of Socrates, and more fully learned that philosophy of his, the design of which was to teach men how to discover their own ills and apply proper remedies to them.
3. But to some sort of men their own life and actions would appear the most unpleasant spectacle in the world, and therefore they fly from the light of their conscience, and cannot bear the torture of one reflecting thought upon themselves; for when the soul, being once defiled with all manner of wickedness, is scared at its own hideous deformity, it endeavors to run from itself, and ranging here and there, it pampers its own malignity with malicious speculations on the ills of others.
It is observed of the hen that, loathing the plenty of meat that is cast before her on a clean floor, she will be scratching in a hole or spurning the dunghill, in search of one single musty grain. So these over-busy people, neglecting such obvious and common things into which any man may enquire and talk of without offence, cannot be satisfied unless they rake into the private and concealed evils of every family in the neighborhood. It was smartly said by the Egyptian, who, being asked what it was he carried so closely, replied, it was therefore covered that it might be secret. Which answer will serve to check the curiosity of those impertinent men who will be always peeping into the privacies of others; for assuredly there is nothing usually more concealed than what is too foul to be seen; nor would it be kept so close, were it either fit or safe it should be known. Without knocking at the door, it is great rudeness to enter another’s house, and therefore in former times were rappers fitted to the gates, that by the noise thereof notice might be given to the family; for the same purpose are porters appointed now, lest, a stranger coming in unawares, the mistress or daughter of the family might be surprised busy or undressed, or a servant be seen under correction, or the maids be overheard in the heat of their scolding. But a person of this prying busy temper, who would disdain the being invited to a sober and well-governed house, will yet even forcibly intrude himself as a spy into the indecencies of private families; and he pries into those very things which locks, bolts, and doors were intended to secure from common view, for no other end but to discover them to all the world. Aristo said that those winds were the most troublesome which blew up one’s garments and exposed one’s nakedness; but these inquisitive people deprive us of all the shelter or security of walls and doors, and like the wanton air, which pervades the veil and steals through the closest guards of virgin modesty, they insinuate into those divertisements which are hidden in the retirements of the night, and strip men even to their very skin.
4. So that — as it is merrily said by the comedian concerning Cleon, that “his hands were in Aetolia, and his soul in Thieftown”* — the hands and feet, eyes and thoughts of inquisitive persons are straggling about in many places at once. Neither the mansions of the great, nor the cottages of the poor, nor the privy chambers of princes, nor the recesses of the nuptial alcove, can escape the search of their curiosity; they are familiar to the affairs of strangers, and will be prying into the darkest mysteries of state, although it be to the manifest peril of their being ruined by it. For as to him that will be curiously examining the virtues of medicinal herbs, the unwary taste of a venomous plant conveys a deleterious impression upon the brain, before its noxious quality can be discerned by the palate; so they that boldly pry into the ills of great persons usually meet with their own destruction, sooner than they can discover the dangerous secret they enquire after. And so it happens that, when the rashly curious eye, not contented to expatiate in the free and boundless region of reflected light, will be gazing at the imperial seat of brightness, it becomes a sacrifice to the burning rays, and straight sinks down in penal darkness.
It was therefore well said by Philippides the comedian, who, being asked by King Lysimachus what he desired might be imparted to him, replied, Any thing but a secret. And indeed, those things in the courts of princes that are most pleasant in themselves and most delightful to be known, — such as balls, magnificent entertainments, and all the shows of pomp and greatness, — are exposed to common view, nor do they ever hide those divertisements and enjoyments which are the attendants of a prosperous estate; but in what cases soever they seem reserved, — as when they are conceiving some high displeasure, or contriving the methods of a revenge, or raging under a fit of jealousy, or suspicious of the disloyal practices of their children, or dubious concerning the treachery of a favorite, — come not near nor intermeddle, for every thing is of a dreadful aspect and of very dangerous access that is thus concealed. Fly from so black a cloud, whose darkness condenses into a tempest; and it will be time enough, when its fury breaks forth with flash and thunder, for thee to observe upon whose head the mischief falls.
5. But to avoid the danger of this curiosity, divert thy thoughts to more safe and delightful enquiries; survey the wonders of nature in the heavens, earth, the sea, and air; in which thou hast a copious choice of materials for the more sublime, as well as the more easy and obvious contemplations. If thy more piercing wit aspires to the noblest enquiries, consider the greater luminary in its diurnal motion, in what part of heaven its morning beams are kindled, and where those chambers of the night are placed which entertain its declining lustre. View the moon in all her changes, the just representation of human vicissitudes, and learn the causes that destroy and then restore her brightness: —
These are indeed the great secrets of Nature, whose depth may perhaps amaze and discourage thy enquiries. Search therefore into things more obvious, — why the fruits of plants are shaped into such variety of figures; why some are clothed with the verdure of a perennial spring, and others, which sometime were no less fresh and fair, like hasty spendthrifts, lavish away the bounty of Heaven in one summer’s gayety, and stand naked to the succeeding frosts. But such harmless speculations will perchance affect thee little, and it may be thou hast that malignity in thy temper which, like venomous beasts that cannot live out of stink and putrefaction, must be ever preying upon the follies and miseries of mankind. Peruse therefore the histories of the world, wherein thou shalt find such vast heaps of wickedness and mischiefs, made up of the downfalls and sudden deaths of great men,† the rapes and defilements of women, the treacheries of servants, the falseness of friends, the arts of poisoning, the fatal effects of envy and jealousy, the ruin of families, dethroning of princes, with many other such direful occurrences as may not only delight and satisfy, but even cloy and nauseate thy ill-natured curiosity.
6. But neither (as it appears) are such antiquated evils any agreeable entertainment to people of this perverse disposition; they hearken most to modern tragedies, and such doleful accidents as may be grateful as well for the novelty as the horror of the relation. All pleasant and cheerful converse is irksome to them; so that if they happen into a company that are talking of weddings, the solemnities of sacred rites, or pompous processions, they make as though they heard not, or, to divert and shorten the discourse, will pretend they knew as much before. Yet, if any one should relate how such a wench had a child before the time, or that a fellow was caught with another man’s wife, or that certain people were at law with each other, or that there was an unhappy difference between near relations, he no longer sits unconcerned or minds other things, but
And indeed, that proverbial saying, “Ill news goes quick and far,” was occasioned chiefly by these busy ill-natured men, who very unwillingly hear or talk of any thing else. For their ears, like cupping-glasses that attract the most noxious humors in the body, are ever sucking in the most spiteful and malicious reports; and, as in some cities there are certain ominous gates through which nothing passes but scavenger’s carts or the sledges of malefactors, so nothing goes in at their ears or out of their mouths but obscene, tragical, and horrid relations.
This noise is to them like the Sirens’ song and the sweetest melody, the most pleasant hearing in the world.
Now this curiosity, being an affectation of knowledge in things concealed, must needs proceed from a great degree of spite and envy. For men do not usually hide, but ambitiously proclaim whatever is for their honor or interest to be known; and therefore to pry into what is industriously covered can be for no other purpose than that secret delight curious persons enjoy in the discovery of other men’s ills, — which is spite, — and the relief they gather thence, to ease themselves under their tormenting resentment at another’s prosperity, — which is envy; — both which spring from that savage and brutal disposition which we call ill-nature.
7. But how ungrateful it is to mankind to have their evils enquired into appears from hence; that some have chosen rather to die than disclose a secret disease to their physician. Suppose then that Herophilus or Erasistratus, or Aesculapius himself when he was upon earth, should have gone about from house to house, enquiring whether any there had a fistula in ano or cancer in utero to be cured. Although such a curiosity as this might in them seem much more tolerable, from the charity of their design and the benefit intended by their art; yet who would not rebuke the saucy officiousness of that quack who should, unsent for, thus impudently pry into those privy distempers which the modesty or perhaps the guilt of the patient would blush or abhor to discover, though it were for the sake of a cure? But those that are of this curious and busy humor cannot forbear searching into these, and other ills too that are of a more secret nature; and — what makes the practice the more exceedingly odious and detestable — the intent is not to remedy, but expose them to the world. It is not ill taken, if the searchers and officers of the customs do inspect goods openly imported, but only when, with a design of being vexatious and troublesome, they rip up the unsuspected packets of private passengers; and yet even this they are by law authorized to do, and it is sometimes to their loss, if they do not. But curious and meddlesome people will be ever enquiring into other men’s affairs, without leave or commission, though it be to the great neglect and damage of their own.
It is farther observable concerning this sort of men, how averse they are to living long in the country, as being not able to endure the quiet and calm of a retired solitude. But if by chance they take a short ramble to their countryhouse, the main of their business there is more to enquire into their neighbors’ concerns than their own; that they may know how other men’s fruit-trees are blasted, the number of cattle they have lost, and what a scanty harvest they are like to have, and how well their wine keeps; with which impertinent remarks having filled their giddy brains, the worm wags, and away they must to the town again. Now a true bred rustic, if he by chance meet with any news from the city, presently turns his head another way, and in his blunt language thus reflects upon the impertinence of it:
8. But the busy cit hates the country, as a dull unfashionable thing, and void of mischief; and therefore keeps himself to the town, that he may be among the crowds that throng the courts, exchange, and wharfs, and pick up all the idle stories. Here he goes about pumping, What news d’ye hear? Were not you upon the exchange to-day, sir? The city’s in a very ticklish posture, what d’ye think on’t? In two or three hours’ time we may be altogether by the ears. If he’s riding post, he will light off his horse, and even hug and kiss a fellow that has a story to tell him; and stay never so long, till he hears it out. But if any one upon demand shall answer, No news! he replies, as in a passion, What, have you been neither at the exchange or market to-day? Have you not been towards the court lately? Have you not heard any thing from those gentlemen that newly came out of Italy? It was (methinks) a good piece of policy among the Locrians, that if any person coming from abroad but once asked concerning news, he was presently confined for his curiosity; for as cooks and fishmongers wish for plenty in the commodities they trade with, so inquisitive people that deal much in news are ever longing for innovations, alterations, variety of action, or any thing that is mischievous and unlucky, that they may find store of game for their restless ill-nature to hunt and prey upon. Charondas also did well in prohibiting comedians by law from exposing any citizen upon the stage, unless it were for adultery or this malignant sort of curiosity. And indeed there is a near affinity between these two vices, for adultery is nothing else but the curiosity of discovering another man’s secret pleasures, and the itch of knowing what is hidden; and curiosity is (as it were) a rape and violence committed upon other people’s privacies.
9. And now as the accumulation of notions in the head usually begets multiplicity of words, — for which reason Pythagoras thought fit to check the too early loquacity of his scholars, by imposing on them five years’ silence from their first admission, — so the same curiosity that is thus inquisitive to know is no less intemperate in talking too, and must needs be as ill-spoken as it is ill-natured. And hence it is that curiosity does not only become a restraint to the vices and follies of others, but is a disappointment also to itself. For all mankind are exceeding shy of inquisitive persons: no serious business is consulted of where they are; and if they chance to surprise men in the negotiation of any affair, it is presently laid aside as carefully as the housewife locks up her fish from the cat; nor (if it be possible to avoid it) is any thing of moment said or done in their company. But whatever is freely permitted to any other people to see, hear, or talk of, is kept as a great secret from persons of this busy impertinent disposition; and there is no man but would commit his letters, papers, and writings to the care of a servant or a stranger, rather than to an acquaintance or relation of this busy and blabbing humor.
By the great command which Bellerophon had over his curiosity, he resisted the solicitations of a lustful woman, and (though it were to the hazard of his life) abstained from opening the letters wherein he was designed to be the messenger of his own destruction. For curiosity and adultery (as was intimated before) are both vices of incontinence; only they are aggravated by a peculiar degree of madness and folly, beyond what is found in most other vices of this nature. And can there any thing be more sottish, than for a man to pass by the doors of so many common prostitutes that are ready to seize him in the streets, and to beleaguer the lodgings of some coy and recluse female that is far more costly, and perhaps far less comely too, than a hackney three-penny strumpet? But such is plainly the frensy of curious persons, who, despising all those things that are of easy access and unenvied enjoyment, — such as are the divertisements of the theatre, the conversation of the ingenious, and the discourses of the learned, — must be breaking open other men’s letters, listening at their neighbors’ doors, peeping in at their windows, or whispering with their servants; a practice which (as it deserves) is commonly dangerous, but ever extremely base and ignominious.
10. Now to dissuade inquisitive persons (as much as possible) from this sneaking and most despicable humor, it would contribute much, if they would but recollect and review all their past observations. For as Simonides, using at certain times to open two chests he kept by him, found that wherein he put rewards ever full, and the other appointed for thanks always empty; so, if inquisitive people did but now and then look into their bag of news, they would certainly be ashamed of that vain and foolish curiosity which, with so much hazard and trouble to themselves, had been gathering together such a confused heap of worthless and loathsome trash. If a man, in reading over the writings of the ancients, should rake together all the dross he could meet with, and collect into one volume all the unfinished scraps of verse in Homer, the incongruous expressions in the tragedians, or those obscenities of smutty Archilochus for which he was scorned and pointed at, would not such a filthy scavenger of books well deserve that curse of the tragedian,
But without this imprecation, the practice itself becomes its own punishment, in the dishonest and unprofitable drudgery of amassing together such a noisome heap of other men’s vices and follies; a treasure much resembling the city Poneropolis (or Rogue-town), so called by King Philip after he had peopled it with a crew of rogues and vagabonds. For curious people do so load their dirty brains with the ribaldry and solecisms of other men’s writings, as well as the defects and blemishes of their lives, that there is not the least room left in their heads for one witty, graceful, or ingenious thought.
There is a sort of people at Rome who, being unaffected with any thing that is beautiful and pretty, either in the works of art or nature, despise the most curious pieces in painting or sculpture, and the fairest boys and girls that are there exposed to sale, as not worth their money; therefore they much frequent the monster-market, looking after people of distorted limbs and preternatural shapes, of three eyes and pointed heads, and mongrels
All which are sights so loathsome, that they themselves would abhor them were they compelled often to behold them. And if they who curiously enquire into those vicious deformities and unlucky accidents that may be observed in the lives of other men would only bind themselves to a frequent recollection of what they had seen and heard, there would be found very little delight or advantage in such ungrateful and melancholy reflections.
11. Now since it is from the use and custom of intermeddling in the affairs of other men that this perverse practice grows up into such a vicious habit, therefore the best remedy thereof is, that beginning (as it were) at a distance, and with such things as do less excite the itch of our curiosity, we gradually bring ourselves to an utter desuetude of enquiring into or being concerned at any of those things that do not pertain unto us. Therefore let men first make trial of themselves in smaller and less considerable matters. As for the purpose, why should it be thought such a severe piece of self-denial for any man, as he passes by, to forbear reading the inscriptions that are upon a monument or gravestone, or the letters that are drawn on walls and sign-posts, if it were but considered that there is nothing more, either for delight or benefit, to be learned thereby, but that certain people had a desire to preserve the memory of their friends and relations by engraving their names on brass or marble, or that some impudent quack or rooking tradesman wants money, and knows no other way to draw men to their shop or lodgings, but by decoying billets and the invitation of a showboard? The taking notice of which and such like things may seem for the present harmless; yet there is really a secret mischief wrought by it, while men, suffering their minds to rove so inconsiderately at every thing they see, are inured to a foolish curiosity in busying themselves about things impertinent. For as skilful huntsmen do not permit their beagles to fling or change, but lead them forth in couples, that their noses may be kept sharp for their proper game,
so ought persons of an inquisitive temper to restrain the wanton excursions of their curiosity, and confine it to observations of prudence and sobriety. Thus the lion and eagle, which walk with their claws sheathed to keep them always pointed for their prey, are an example of that discretion which curious persons should imitate, by carefully preserving those noble faculties of wit and understanding, which were made for useful and excellent enquiries, from being dulled and debauched with low and sottish speculations.
12. The second remedy of this curiosity is that we accustom ourselves in passing by not to peep in at other men’s doors or windows, for in this case the hand and eye are much alike guilty; and Xenocrates said, “One may as well go as look into another man’s house,” because the eye may reach what the hand cannot, and wander where the foot does not come. And besides, it is neither genteel nor civil thus to gaze about. A well-bred person will commonly discover very little that is either meet or delightful to look on; but foul dishes perhaps lying about the floor, or wenches in lazy or immodest postures, and nothing that is decent or in good order; but as one said upon this occasion,
And yet laying aside this consideration of uncomely sights, this very staring and glancing of the eyes to and fro implies such a levity of mind and so great a defect in good manners, as must needs render the practice in itself very clownish and contemptible. When Diogenes observed Dioxippus, a victor in the Olympic games, twisting his neck as he sat in his chariot, that he might take the better view of a fair damsel that came to see the sport, Look (says he) what a worthy gamester goes there, that even a woman can turn him which way she lists. But these busy-brained people do so twist and turn themselves to every frivolous show, as if they had acquired a verticity in their heads by their custom of gazing at all things round about them. Now (methinks) it is by no means seemly, that the sense which ought to behave itself as a handmaid to the soul (in doing its errands faithfully, returning speedily, and keeping at home with submissive and reserved modesty) should be suffered, like a wanton and ungovernable servant, to be gadding abroad from her mistress, and straying about at her pleasure. But this happens according to that of Sophocles,
For so the senses, not exercised and well managed, will at every turn break loose into wild excursions, and hurry reason along with them into the same extravagance.
It is said of Democritus, that he voluntarily put out his eyes by the reflection of a burning-glass, that (as by the darkening of windows, sometimes done for the same purpose) he might not by the allurements of sense be called off from attending to his purely intellectual contemplations. Although the story be false, yet this at least is true, that those men who are most addicted to profound speculations do least of all converse with impressions of sense. And therefore, to prevent that interruption and disturbance which either noise or impertinent visits might be to their philosophical enquiries, they placed their studies at some distance from cities, and called the night Euphrone (from εὔφϱων, of good understanding), thinking that its quiet and stillness from all disturbances made it the fittest season for meditation.
13. Farther, to forbear mixing with a crowd of fellows that are quarrelling in the market-place, or to sit still while the mad rabble are rioting in the streets, or at least to get out of hearing of it, will not be very difficult to any man that considers how little there is to be gained by intermeddling with busy and unquiet people, and how great the certain advantage is of bridling our curiosity, and bringing it under subjection to the commands of reason. And thus, when by this more easy discipline a man hath acquired some power over himself, exercises of greater difficulty are to be attempted; as, for instance, to forbear the theatre upon the tempting fame of some new and much applauded play; to resist the importunity of a friend that invites thee to a ball, an entertainment at the tavern, or a concert of music; and not to be transported if thou chance at a distance to hear the din at a race-course, or the noise at the circus. For as Socrates advises well, that men should abstain from tasting those meats and drinks which, by their exquisite pleasantness, tempt the palate to exceed the sober measures of thirst and hunger, so are all those oblectations of the ear and eye to be avoided which are apt to entice men into impertinence or extravagance. When Araspes had commended the fair Panthea to Cyrus, as a beauty worth his admiration, he replied: For that very reason I will not see her, lest, if by thy persuasion I should see her but once, she herself might persuade me to see her often, and spend more time with her than would be for the advantage of my own affairs. So Alexander, upon like consideration, would not trust his eyes in the presence of the beautiful queen of Persia, but kept himself out of the reach of her charms, and treated only with her aged mother. But we, alas! (that no opportunity may be lost of doing ourselves all the mischief we can by our curiosity) cannot forbear prying into sedans and coaches, or gazing at the windows or peeping under the balconies, where women are; nay, we must be staring about from the house-top, to spy out all occasions of our ruin, and are all the while so sottishly inconsiderate as to apprehend no danger from giving such a boundless license to our wandering eyes.
14. Now as, in point of justice and honesty, it conduces much to prevent our defrauding and overreaching other men if we now and then in smaller matters voluntarily abate somewhat of our strict dues, and as it is a means to keep men chaste and continent to all other women if they sometimes forbear the lawful enjoyment of their own wives, so will these excesses of curiosity be cured by the same restraints, if, instead of enquiring into what concerns other men, we can prevail with ourselves so far as not to hear or see all that is done in our own houses, nor to listen to every thing that may be told us concerning ourselves or our private affairs. Oedipus by his curiosity fell into great mischief; for, being of a parentage to himself unknown and now at Corinth where he was a stranger, he went about asking questions concerning himself, and lighting on Laius he slew him; and then by the marriage of the queen, who was his own mother, he obtained the government. Not contented with the thoughts of being thus happy, he must needs once more (against all the persuasions of his wife) be enquiring concerning himself; when, meeting with an old man that was privy to the whole contrivance, he pressed him earnestly to reveal the secret. And when he now began to suspect the worst, the old man cried out,
Alas! So sad a tale to tell I dread;
but he, burning with impatience of knowing all, replied,
And I to hear ’t: but yet it must be said.*
Thus oddly mixed with pain and pleasure is this restless itch of curiosity, that, like a healing wound, will hazard the loss of blood rather than want the seeming ease of being rubbed and scratched. But such as either by good nature or good discipline are free from this disease, and have experienced the invaluable felicity of a calm and undisturbed spirit, will rather rejoice in being ignorant than desire to be informed of the wickedness and the miseries that are in the world, and will sit down well satisfied in this opinion,
How sage and wise art thou, oblivion!*
15. Wherefore, as a farther help to check the impatience of our curiosity, it will contribute much to practise such acts of abstinence as these. If a letter be brought thee, lay it aside for some time before thou read it; and do not (as many do) eagerly fall upon the seal with tooth and nail, as soon as ever it comes to thy hands, as if it were scarce possible to open it with sufficient speed; when a messenger returns, do not hastily rise up and run towards him, as if thou couldst not hear what he had to say time enough; and if any one makes an offer to tell thee something that is new, say that thou hadst rather it were good and useful.
When, at a public dissertation I sometime made at Rome, Rusticus (who afterwards perished by the mere envy of Domitian) was one of my auditors, a messenger comes suddenly in with an express from Caesar; upon which, when I offered to be silent till he had perused the paper, he desired me to proceed, nor would so much as look into it till the discourse was ended and the audience dismissed; all that were present much admiring the gravity of the man In great persons, whose power encourages them to greater licentiousness, this vicious curiosity is hardly curable; for when it is arrived in them to the consistence of an inveterate habit, they will never undergo those previous restraints upon their outward actions which are necessary to destroy the evil habit within them. For such as are thus inured will be breaking up other men’s letters, intruding upon the privacies of their friends, making bold enquiries into the unfathomable mysteries of religion, profaning sacred places and holy offices by their coming where and doing what they ought not, and even prying into the most secret acts and discourses of princes; all or any of which odious practices it will be hard for any one after long custom to forbear, but especially for great persons.
16. And indeed princes themselves — who are concerned to have as particular knowledge of all things as they can, and to whom it is in some sort necessary for the ends of government to maintain spies and intelligencers about them — are yet usually hated for nothing more than their retaining this lewd sort of people in quality of eavesdroppers of state and public informers. The first that employed this kind of officers was Darius in his younger years, when he could not confide in himself nor durst trust any one else. The Sicilian tyrants afterwards planted them in Syracuse; but upon a revolution that happened there, the people first fell upon these informers, and destroyed them without mercy. Of near affinity with these are common accusers, which, from a particular occasion imported in the word, were called sycophants, fig-blabbers; because, upon the prohibited exportation of that fruit, they became informers against those that broke this order. Much the like sort of people were those at Athens, where a dearth of grain happened and the corn-sellers were commanded to bring out their stores for public sale; and those that went about listening at the mills and prying into granaries, that they might find matter of information against offenders, were thence called aliterians or (if you please) mill-clackers. Which consideration, superadded to the rest that has been said, is enough to render this sort of malignant curiosity extremely execrable, and to be highly abhorred and most carefully avoided by every man who would desire, for mere reputation’s sake, not to be ranked among that profligate crew of villains which are looked upon as the most detestable of all mankind.
[* ]Odyss. XI. 278.
[* ]Aristophanes, Knights, 79.
[* ]From Sophocles, Frag. 786.
[† ]See Aeschylus, Suppliants, 937.
[* ]From the Theseus of Euripides, Frag. 383.
[* ]Soph. Electra, 724.
[* ]Soph. Oed. Tyr. 1169 and 1170.
[* ]Eurip. Orestes, 213.