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Why a Moral Society Should Put Limits on Unfettered Inquiry

Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

By Roger Shattuck.

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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.

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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. But he expresses grave concerns about totally free expression and the unfettered pursuit of scientific knowledge and its applications.

In some cases, limits are necessary. Those limits might be derived from civil laws, traditional morality, the individual conscience, or professional standards. Whatever the source or standard, he argues, limits on human inquiry and expression are often warranted for the benefit of the larger society.

Take, for example, the issue of violent pornography. Shattuck devotes an entire chapter to the problematic case of the Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century Frenchman whose outrageous pursuit of pleasure by inflicting pain on himself and others gave birth to the term sadism.

In 1777, Sade was arrested for, among other things, various sexual perversions with men, women, and children, whippings and mutilations of prostitutes, and making death threats. Imprisoned, he produced several novels stippled with references to what Shattuck describes as "bestial tortures."

While Sade was excoriated during his own lifetime for his celebration of torturing, humiliating, and mutilating other people, in recent years postmodern cultural theorists such as Roland Barthes and Camille Paglia have sought to elevate Sade's prison fiction to the status of literary classics. In her book "Sexual Personae" (1981), Paglia portrayed Sade as "a great writer and philosopher whose absence from university curricula illustrates the timidity and hypocrisy of the liberal humanities." To Shattuck such a stance is indefensible.

Paglia, he writes, represents those hollow intellectuals for whom "art entails no responsibilities; it escapes judgment." Shattuck is not sanctioning book burning; instead he is justifiably criticizing trendy efforts to "rehabilitate" Sade's reputation. "The divine marquis represents forbidden knowledge that we may not forbid. Consequently, we should label his writings carefully: potential poison, polluting to our moral and intellectual environment."

In this vein, Shattuck goes on to note that ethical and legal concerns led molecular biologists themselves to enact guidelines delimiting DNA research. Later, in discussing vexing issues such as atomic weapons research, eugenics, and the Human Genome Project, Shattuck asserts that "there are times when we should consider imposing some limits on scientific activity." Otherwise, recombinant DNA experiments could unwittingly manipulate the evolutionary process and produce Frankenstein-like monsters.

"Forbidden Knowledge" is not a book for the unsophisticated or the squeamish, but for those who appreciate elegant expression and refreshing common sense from a literary scholar. It is a book to be savored.

*David Emory Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

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