Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why a Moral Society Should Put Limits on Unfettered Inquiry

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why a Moral Society Should Put Limits on Unfettered Inquiry

Article excerpt

Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

By Roger Shattuck.

St. Martin's Press 346 pp., $26.95. Modern civilization has been built upon the almost sanctified premise that social progress depends upon the unfettered pursuit of truth wherever it may lead. Those of us involved with higher education trumpet such an assumption as being virtually identical with our basic mission. But are there things that we should not uncover? Are there topics or activities that should not be disclosed? Can we know too much for our own good? Has the very notion of cultural taboos become taboo in this morally weightless postmodern world? Such profound questions animate this learned and illuminating book. Long recognized as one of the foremost interpreters of modern intellectual history, Roger Shattuck, professor of modern languages and literature at Boston University, has produced in "Forbidden Knowledge," the most ambitious and important work of his career. Its scope is enormous. Shattuck ranges effortlessly across the landscape of Western culture, past and present, using evocative examples from mythology, religion, and literature to show how people have been counseled to restrain their unfettered quest for knowledge. The danger of knowing too much and the need for prudent restrictions on human inquiry dominate the ancient stories of Prometheus and Pandora, Psyche and Cupid, Adam and Eve as well as most great religions. Shattuck notes that these same concerns emerge in the writings of Dante and Milton. In the "Paradiso," Dante seeks to uncover the secrets of Providence, only to be rebuked by God's messenger for his presumptuousness: The truth you seek to fathom lies so deep in the abyss of the eternal law, it is cut off from every creature's sight. And tell the mortal world when you return what I told you, so that no man presume to reach a goal as high as this. Such taboos rooted in the mystery of religion gradually gave way to the more open-ended investigations of modern science. By the onset of the Enlightenment during the 18th century, faith in rationalism and its abilities to unlock the secrets of nature led people to reject any limitations on human inquisitiveness. In celebrating the founding of the University of Virginia, for instance, Thomas Jefferson declared that the "institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead." Yet as Mary Shelley reminded readers of Frankenstein in 1818, unconstrained scientific experiments could unleash horrific evils. Shattuck recognizes the allure and the benefits of open-ended inquiry and free expression as well as its many practical benefits. He also acknowledges the dangers of any form of censorship. …

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