In the July 2, 1751 issue of the Rambler, Samuel Johnson remarked, “Very few have abilities requisite for the discovery of abstruse truth; and of those few some want leisure and others, resolution.” When reading this passage, the word “abstruse” struck me. Its Latin origin means “to conceal.” Today, it means “difficult to comprehend or recondite.” What is abstruse is not unknowable; it is just not immediately obvious. We have to study it, work out what it means.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites Isaac Watts, a prominent theologian and hymn writer, in 1741: “Let not young students apply themselves to search out deep, dark and abstruse matters far above their reach.”
Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas remarked that the most difficult truths are known only “to thewise.” Such things take time, discipline and 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.”
Most intellectual controversy takes place 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 truth of all, though the fact may be that few are capable of knowing it. We often hear that things difficult to understand — things requiring devotion, time and discipline — are somehow undemocratic, and by the same logic, insignificant.
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 to detect the small errors and the abstruse truths.
In our time and place, there may not be someone to fulfill this role. Thus, it may be 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 andbrainpower. We soon, however, run into what I call “the Lucifer question.”
Lucifer, the most intelligent of the angels, was the one who fell. The human parallel to this fall is that the greatest crimes often, not always, 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. In fact, 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.
Turning once again to the quote from The Rambler, 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 lack of formal training, someone may never develop the talents that he inherently possesses. Others may be just too lazy or distracted to ever do the work necessary to penetrate the truths requiring considerable 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 we practice vice of some sort. We only see such truths if we are not using our minds to justify the things we are doing that are contrary to reason.
In this way, morality is related to intelligence.
We use our minds to justify what we are actually doing when what we are doing – whether we like it or not – is 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.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor in the government department. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternate as the writers of As This Jesuit Sees It … , which appears every other Friday.