On 'The discovery of abstruse truths' 


In The Rambler for Tuesday, July 2, 1751, Samuel Johnson remarked: "Very few have abilities requisite for the discovery of abstruse truth; and of those few some want leisure and others resolution."

Plato speaking with Aristotle
by Raphael

On reading this passage, the word "abstruse" struck me. Its Latin origin means "to conceal." More recently it means difficult to comprehend or recondite. What is abstruse is not unknowable, but it is not immediately obvious. We have to study it, work out what it means. The OED cites Isaac Watts in 1741: "Let not young Students apply themselves to search out deep, dark, and abstruse Matters, far above their Reach."

Both Aristotle and Aquinas remarked that the most difficult truths are known only "to the wise." Such things take time, discipline, and, yes, virtue. The first principles of reasoning are known to everyone. Aquinas wrote: "Certain axioms or propositions are universally self-evident to all; and such are those propositions whose terms are known to all, as, 'Every whole is greater than its part….' But some propositions are self-evident only to the wise, who understand the meaning of the terms of such propositions" (I-II, 94, 2). Most intellectual controversy takes place in this latter "wisdom" area long before it reaches public discussion or action. In most polities, both wise and unwise propositions can reach practice.

An "abstruse" truth is not an unimportant one. Indeed, it may be the most important thing of all. The fact may be that few are capable of knowing it. We often hear that things difficult to know, things requiring devotion, time, and discipline, are somehow undemocratic and, therefore, insignificant. If a thing cannot be easily known by everyone with a minimum of effort, it is assumed that it must be unimportant.

Everyone knows certain basic truths, even if someone denies knowing them. In this regard, the title of University of Texas Professor Jay Budziszewski's book, What We Can't Not Know, hits home. We cannot not know that we exist. We cannot give a reason if we think that reason is not reasonable.

Aristotle warned us: "A small error in the beginning will lead to a huge error in the end." This oft-cited observation implies that we need someone about to detect the "small errors" and the "abstruse truths." In fact, in our time and place, we may not find living minds capable of knowing these things. Thus, it is quite possible to find, much to our astonishment, that the most original thinker present in our university is Plato, who died in 347 B. C.

We might think, moreover, that discovering "abstruse truth" is simply a thing of intelligence, brain-power. We soon, however, run into what I call "the Lucifer question." The most intelligent of the angels was the one who fell. The human parallel to this fall is that that the greatest crimes often, not always as Jean Bethke Elshtain rightly notes, originate with the most intelligent. Indeed, in the Platonic corpus, the difference between the philosopher king and the tyrant is not one of raw intelligence. The most dangerous tyrants are always very intelligent. Rather, the question concerns a chosen purpose that directs our intelligence to a proper or improper end.

Thus, it is quite possible to find, much to our astonishment, that the most original thinker present in our university is Plato, who died in 347 B. C.

Translated to Augustinian terms, the greatest of the vices is pride. The greatest evil comes from a self-centered source. Pride means that we attribute all of reality, especially the actions of other human beings, to ourselves. We choose to use them in order to minister to ourselves as the most important thing in the universe.

Johnson added that even the few who might have the talents sufficient to understand abstruse truths do not discover them because they lack either "leisure or resolution." Due to many other reasons such as sickness, work, politics, or no formal training, someone may never develop the talents that he possesses. Others may be just too lazy or distracted ever to do the work necessary to penetrate to the truths that require considerably effort and diligence.

Aristotle has one more thing of importance to say about why it is that "abstruse truths" are not seen. Basically, it is because we lack virtue or, to say the same thing in a different way, we practice vice of some sort. We only see such truths if we are not using our minds to justify what we are doing that is contrary to reason.

In this sense, morality is related to intelligence. We use our minds to justify what we are actually doing, when what we are doing is, whether we like it or not, objectively wrong. Unless something shocking happens to us, we will not see what is true because we do not want to see it lest it demand that we live differently. Such is an "abstruse truth" that stems from a "small error."




Father James V. Schall, S.J. "On 'The discovery of abstruse truths.'" The Hoya (March 16, 2012).

This article is reprinted with permission of the author. The Hoya has been Georgetown University's newspaper of record since 1920.


Father James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 2012 Father James V. Schall, S.J.

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