Two Reasons Why Things Are Difficult to Understand

As has been thoroughly set forth and expounded by the inimitable philosopher, the late great Duane Berquist, in a beautiful succinct and brilliant paper on this very subject, there are seven times when we need to go wisely and slow in our path towards wisdom, that is in our attempt to increase our understanding, to wit:

  1. where many things must be considered before a judgment can be made
  2. where a thing is difficult to understand
  3. where there is a beginning small in size, but great in its power
  4. where there is knowledge over a road and knowledge of the road to follow
  5. where there is general knowledge and particular knowledge
  6. where there is a word equivocal by reason
  7. where there are the words of a wise man

To date we have discussed two of these times (which are in bold) here.

Today I propose that we tackle the second time that we need to go wisely and slow. We should go wisely and slow when a thing is difficult to understand.

What’s that? Do I hear an objection already?

Gentle Reader: Yes, I object on the ground that what you have proposed is already too obvious. We would prefer that you don’t assault our patience, in your usual way, by explaining the obvious! Why not tell us what your wise friend means by #3, #4 or #5. Those are incomprehensible. Instead you concentrate on the very one that appears to need no explanation at all!

Well, I do understand your concern and it is not my intention to protract this discussion unnecessarily. But there is something about difficulty that may not have occurred to you. Will you hear me out just a little longer?

Gentle Reader: Perhaps for a few more seconds. I hope you will not disappoint.

Thank you. I will try my best. Perhaps you could slip away into the background a bit and allow me to speak without further interruption.

Gentle Reader: I thought this was a discussion.

Well not quite. I admit that I use the word discussion often. But this is partly due to a marketing sense which helps to drive up my readership. Sometimes we need to play to our audience and take its interests into account. Nonetheless, we could probably cover the material that we propose to cover today faster if you were simply to  agree to sit back and take notes silently.

Gentle Reader: I don’t think I can agree to this. I have ideas and questions and I am not going to allow you to simply talk over me or at me without addressing these questions as they come up naturally. What good would that be? Are you interested in teaching me something or do you just want to talk and make speeches based on the borrowed wisdom of your so called wise man?

You leave me with no alternative other than to simply turn you out of the room. I am sorry to do this, but we will simply not be able to make any progress today with your frequent interjections and interruptions.

Gentle Reader: But wait! You can’t do that…. I have the right to….. (click…..dial tone…..)

Now let us return to our discussion. As I was saying before, we should go wisely and slow when there is a thing difficult to understand. The interesting question to consider here is:

‘When is a thing difficult to understand?’ or ‘What is it that makes something difficult?

There are two times when a thing is difficult to understand.

  1. When the difficulty occurs in the thing that we are trying to understand.
  2. When the difficulty occurs in ourselves, that is in our own reason.

Consider the first. Somethings are difficult to understand because there is something about the thing which is just plain difficult to understand. Take ‘motion’ for example.

Motion is difficult to understand. Why? Well simply because motion happens to belong to that class of things which barely exists.

Local motion is a good example. First a thing is here and then it is there and then it is there and then it is there and so on…. How is one able to understand something that is moving? Ordinarily our understanding is based on the fact that something stands still for at least a little while. What does the word understanding mean if there is nothing that stands, or  stands under? Do you see what I mean here?

Understanding is a thing which is based on some kind of rest. And that is why the great Heraclitus should be held up and revered by all thinking people.

It was Heraclitus who pointed out the problem of knowing things which do not rest when he famously uttered those immortal words:

We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.

Another example of a thing which is difficult to understand is time. Talk about something which doesn’t stand still, my goodness, time has got to be the most fluid thing there is!

It boggles the mind. The question really should be does time even exist? I think it does…but just barely!

Consider, what part of time exists at any given time? The past does not exist. The future does not exist. Only the present appears to exist and the present is not very long is it?

How long? well about as long as a point is long. And that is not very long!

At any rate, I think it is clear that time is one of those things that is very difficult to understand. Mind you I don’t say it is impossible to understand. But I would assert that it is impossible to understand without reading Aristotle’s 8 Books on Natural Hearing (otherwise known as Physics).

And so the first time when a thing is difficult appears to be when the difficulty occurs in the thing itself.

Now for the second. A thing is also difficult when there is a difficulty due to the weakness of our own reason.

This is evident especially when we consider things above our own reason, like God and His angels.

This accounts very well for the fact that there are very few homilies in our churches concerning the Holy Trinity or the distinction among the heavenly spirits.


Simply because the subject matter is so far above us that our own reason encounters great difficulty in thinking about these things. Immaterial things are tough to think about. It is not that these things barely exist, or have a slim hold on existence, no, quite the contrary!

These things are difficult to understand because there is a deficiency in our own ability to understand.

Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon us to think about them despite their difficulty. In fact, it turns out that God is really the only thing worth thinking about ultimately, The only reason why we should think about anything else is because of the light that these other things might shed upon our understanding of God. Right? Right!

That is the reason why we call Theology the Queen of the Sciences. Every other branch of learning has value or dignity as a handmaiden. And the more another field of thought enables us to think about God, the higher it is in the scale of worthwhileness or dignity.

That, among other things, is what Saint Paul was alluding to when he said,

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

And so we should go wisely and slow when trying to understand difficult things, bearing in mind where the difficulty lies.

We should first attempt to ascertain whether the difficulty is based in the thing or in us.

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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