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An Augustinian Aphorism

December 11, 2013

“The intellect…generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty.”

So wrote St. Augustine of Hippo in On Christian Doctrine (Book II, Chapter 6).

A few bits of commentary on the quote:

1. In context of Augustine’s text this quote seemed to me to be more a commentary on *attitudes* about knowledge rather than the *accessibility* of knowledge. In other words, we’re weak for not holding in higher esteem those truths that are easily seen. The difficulty of attainment does not guarantee the higher value of any truth.

2. In the context of today’s information ecology, I’m not sure the statement is valid—at all. The general run of people today seem (yes, this is impressionistic) to hold what’s easily accessible as most valuable. Because time is precious, no one wants to take the time to ask deeper questions. We want to assume the work has been done, and the nugget we see is a useful distillation.

3. Though the source makes this aphorism appear useful only to the religious, the book itself is about exegesis and interpretation, and therefore applicable in a much broader context.

What say you?

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  1. Paul Kern permalink

    This is an interesting quote because leaves open that the inverse is also true?
    The aphorism could be interpreted in two opposing ways. First as you did by giving importance to easily grasped ideas (inferring from Augustine some sense of regret for under estimating its value) and secondly by giving greater value to those concepts that are harder to grasp but once achieved finding it more satisfying. As you suggest in your comments the opinion my lie in the context of the individual and his/her time.
    This statement is posed as an observation for the individual to consider, is it also a social question? Do we as individuals gain as much satisfaction in group achievement as we do as individuals? Certainly a complex solution to a problem is more satisfying to a group than one that is simply achieved. What’s the need for the group if the solution is readily apparent? Does Augustine privilege the individual over the group in this aphorism?


    • I most certainly extrapolated it to the social, but Augustine doesn’t indicate individual v. group work in terms of satisfaction or difficulty of attainment. But the latter is a most interesting topic in light of Andrew Hartman’s recent post at USIH about individual v. group work in history! – TL


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