Can curiosity heal our divided moment?  

Read to the end to find out the winner of the biography on Petrarch!

Issue No. 13 

Don’t have the time to read this issue right now? No problem! View the video summary below. 

It’s no secret that we live in divided times. Many smart, thoughtful people and organizations are trying to offer explanations for how we got here, and how to heal our divides.   

On that score, I think a bit of curiosity could go a long way. 

Curiosity is a fundamental wonderment about the world around us. It is a zealous interest in questions related to the human condition: Who are we?  What is our purpose? What is our position amid the cosmos?

Curiosity requires the humility to recognize that different people have different answers to these questions. The promise of curiosity, both on a societal and personal level, is lavish.

On a societal level, curiosity can help bring about a cultural renaissance—and it has. Cross-pollination of culture, language, and ideas helped usher Greece into the Archaic period—an era of unprecedented artistic, philosophic, scientific and cultural achievement—from the “Dark Ages.” (The years 1100 to 750 BC are what scholars call the Greek Dark Ages, only because, in comparison to other centuries, they are “dark” to us today: there is very little we know about them.) 

As Ingrid Rossellini writes in her fabulous book Know Thyself, the first Greek city-states to enjoy cultural revival in the wake of the Dark Ages were those that re-invigorated trade and other contact with the outside world, including the Egyptians and Babylonians and Persians. The first school of philosophy in Greece was in Miletus, a well-trod port city on the Ionian coast that welcomed difference and newness in all of its forms.

On a personal level, curiosity is enormously fulfilling. One of my favorite monographs is How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Daywritten in 1908 by one Arnold Bennett. Writing to a middle-class, white-collared audience—which enjoyed newfound leisure time and disposable income—Bennett makes a powerful case for the intellectual, and curious, life. We must cultivate our minds to be fully alive, to become fully human, he says. To cultivate curiosity, we must treat our time with far more seriousness than we do our money—staying ever-mindful of how we spend it, and above all, not frittering it away mindlessly. We must take every moment captive in our day, getting rid of the waste, and creating “a day within a day” to tend to the care of our minds, as “the appetite for knowledge grows by what it feeds on.”

“Nothing in life is humdrum,” Bennett writes. Everything is interesting through curious eyes. 

Curiosity breeds curiosity, and curiosity fills our hearts and nourishes our soul. 

There are many self-help books that tell you they have the secret to winning friends and influencing people. They promise to teach you ways to be more likable and interesting. But as far as I’m concerned, the best way to be both likeable and interesting is to be curious—to have a disposition of wonder and humility that earnestly believes that every situation and person has something to teach us.  

If curiosity can lead to personal fulfillment and also social harmony—helping us better enjoy life, and even fostering bilateral harmony—this leaves us with an important question.

How can we get more of it? Do our educational, political, and culturally formative institutions promote it? If not, why? And if we want them to do so more effectively, how might we change them? 

Today, we have more access to information—more opportunities to nourish our minds and feed our curiosity—then ever before in history. What might the world look like if we optimized those features of modernity? 

How do you stay curious? I’d love to hear from you!

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Worth reading

  • My friend and fellow writer Monica Guzman is writing a book on staying curious called “I Never Thought of it That Way: A Guide to Building Bridges in Dangerously Divided Times.” Find more about her book and project here—and stay tuned for details about an event we are planning on curiosity! 

  • The joys of being an absolute beginner – for life. This gorgeous article from The Guardian reminds us of the beauty of lifelong learning. We crave novelty as human beings, yet being a beginner—starting something new from scratch—is often thought to be the sole province of the young. No matter our age, however, learning both fulfills us and prepares us to better adapt to new experiences and circumstances. We must reclaim the ability to laugh at ourselves in failure, to be wrong, and to look foolish in the pursuit of learning. 

  • Culinary curiosity: Inside a Michelin-Starred Chef's Revolutionary Quest to Harvest Rice From the Sea. Ángel León didn’t do well in school, and didn’t quite fit in. But he had a passionate curiosity about the world around him. He found his niche—an outlet for his curiosity—in the vastness and the mysteries of the sea. He now runs a world-famous, three-Michelin-star restaurant, and is innovating a new food sources that could save our planet: rice from seagrass. Curiosity can save our world. 

What I’ve been up to 

  • A field guide to a more civil 2021. For IndyPolitics, I offer some tips for how to revive civility this year. It is essential to remember what civility is and what it isn’t. What civility is: a disposition that fundamentally respects others. What it isn’t: purely performative politeness. 

  • On BOLD TV, I argued that despite all of the debates about “cancel culture” right now, they reveal something important: social norms are powerful. But at the same time, social norms lack the safeguards our criminal justice system uses to prevent injustice in the enforcement of formal laws (e.g., criminal laws are announced in advance and enforced by neutral judges). Because social norms lack these protections, we must be all the more careful when we enforce them ourselves. 

  • How can we revive civil society? Last month, I gave a talk to The Fund for American Studies on this question, which you can find here. I argued that the path to renewal starts with each of us in our everyday—which reminds me, thank you for being here! So glad to have you as part of this community J

  • Four Columns profile. It was fun to do an interview with about the life of the mind, the books I want to write one day, and my journey as writer with Four Columns, a popular lifestyle blog.

Housekeeping—apologies for the broken links from past issues!

  • Thanks to all of you who wrote to me to let me know that a number of links from the last issue did not work! The perils of moving newsletter platforms, alas. 

  • Last issue, I asked for you feedback about ways to make this place better. Please consider taking this survey and letting me know what you enjoy reading, what you might like to see from Civic Renaissance, and how you think we can foment a renaissance today! 

    Take the survey!

Thoughtful reflections from Civic Renaissance readers on past editions…

I’d be curious to dig deeper into what happens when leaders lack civility. When the “disposition” for civility – or lack of it, trickles down from the top. How the lack of modeling civility at our highest echelons of government affects and influences the citizenry to the detriment of an entire country. 

Lastly, whose duty is it to correct or protest the lack of civility that destroys the public and social disposition for respect and tone. Is there even a duty by the citizenry for the greater good? Or, is this an individual aspiration?

—C.A.

I will answer your question as to what to me is the vexing question of our times, prompted by the first sentence of your newsletter “For many of us 2020 certainly confirmed this lesson in humility.”

The problem is that for many others, too many others, it did not confirm or even offer any lesson in humility.  In fact, just the opposite, the times for these people have cemented not humility but malignant certitude in what by any objective standard are false beliefs, to the point of delusion – which teetered our republic on the verge collapse 6 Jan. 

How do people like you, me, Braver Angels, and other rational-thinking people on both right and left confront and overcome (mass) delusional thoughts and action, in this age of social media, and when all it takes so few people to bring us to the brink?

—M.E.

My eldest aunt, Nosrat, who was slightly older than your grandmother passed away during the COVID pandemic and she meant the world to me. I would visit her in Nashville, Tennessee every summer and we would dress up and attend all sorts of social gatherings and events! In Iran, before the Islamic revolution happened, her agenda was packed solid with social (royal) events as her husband was an educator for the Shah (the King) of Iran’s children. It was heartbreaking to not be able to jump on a plane and be present for her funeral but I will forever hold on to her vivid spirit and spread her dance of all things beautiful!

—S.K.

And the winner is… 

Congratulations to Oskar Örn, a Civic Renaissance reader in beautiful Stockholm, Sweden, on being the fortunate winner of Christopher Celenza’s amazing biography of Renaissance humanist Francesco Petrarch entitled Everywhere a Wanderer. I wish I could give each one of you this amazing book!

February’s book draw will be a new book about a few of my favorite things—Edmund Burke, political philosophy, manners, and commerce—by Gregory Collins, just published by Oxford University Press. Read more about Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke's Political Economy here.

Would you like a chance to win this book?

Consider becoming a subscriber below—or share this post either with a friend or on social media! Let me know when you’ve done so, and you’ll be entered into the draw.

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Civic Renaissance is a newsletter and community dedicated to ennobling our public discourse with the wisdom of the past, curated by award-winning writer Alexandra Hudson, whose forthcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s Press. Read more about Civic Renaissance here!

Read more about Civic Renaissance here!