Pascal, Anselm, and the State of Communicating Deep Ideas to an Unsuspecting Public

It has happened to all of us. We read the writings of a famously deep thinker and are forced to reread the words repeatedly to decipher their meaning. For the modern communicator it is vital to combine brilliance with eloquence. What good is a profound observation if no one can understand its meaning? Some of the most brilliant scholars struggle to communicate to young students because they cannot distill and simplify their thoughts well. As you might assume, this is not a new difficulty. The first pitfall is to avoid depth at the expense of value.

Historically great minds have wrestled with how to relay their ideas to a budding audience. The French mathematician, physicist, and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal once quipped that “true eloquence mocks eloquence” (« La vraie éloquence se moque de l’éloquence »). Politicians, religious leaders, and so many others deliver speeches and sermons that are widely praised yet have all the earmarks of a first-year undergraduate paper littered with cliches and borrowed ideas. High rhetoric is so woefully absent from most of our lives that we fail to even recognize its privation. In Pascal’s meaning, the work of the truly eloquent speaks for itself. The same can silence a room and make headlines with a few brief remarks while others wear out their drowsy audiences with hours of hot air in their quest to communicate identical information.[1] We must be careful to not deflate our ideas to a state of toothless refuse.

The second pitfall comes from the other extreme. Ideas that make sense in our heads fly over the tops of our audiences’. Anselm of Canterbury, the giant of medieval scholasticism, struggled with solving this issue in his own writings. In the opening paragraphs of his work Monologion. He writes: “Some of my brethren [Monks in the Abbey of Bec] have often and earnestly asked me to write down, as a kind of model meditation, some of the things I have said, in everyday language, on the subject of meditating upon the essence of the divine […] For a long time I declined even to try […] For the easier they wanted it to be to use, the harder they made it to produce.”[2]

Anselm knew that the real challenge was taking his deep musings on God and converting the ideas to transferable and understandable language that his fellow monks could actually comprehend and apply to their own spiritual development. In this struggle, we see our own quest to relay history and theology to students in both classroom and pew. We must not evacuate all deep thoughts and become shallow. To this end, we must value the simple not the simplistic. Further, the most eloquent tidbit of knowledge is nothing if left sitting in the corner of our academic minds. As Anselm’s students knew, his ideas had immense value if they could be taken out, dusted off, and made to see the light of day. In the same way, the most priceless antique is failing to pursue its purpose if left wrapped in the attic. The best ideas must be given eloquent legs that allow them to walk beyond their speaker and indwell the lives of future generations.

[1] For more on this topic, research Edward Everett’s response to the brevity and gravitas of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address after Everett spoke for over two hours prior to the president but failed to accomplish what Lincoln did in two minutes.
[2] Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5.

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