Tolstoy on Difficulty, 1897

A timeless quote from Tolstoy: "The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him."


  1. Since I often lose hours trying to verify and locate quotations noted on the Net, I’ll note here that this seems to be from Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, chapter 3, fourth paragraph — but I’ll welcome a more precise bibliographic reference.

  2. Sounds like Tolstoy may have had some experience as a tech support/customer service operator.

  3. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Mark Twain. Both describe the confirmation bias, a psychological trap for all of us.

  4. “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. It’s the things we know that ain’t so.”Artemus Ward American Writer and Humorist, 1834-1867

  5. “Just because Shakespeare or Ben Franklin or Socrates said something that does not make it so,”  ~ Eark the Bunny 1995

  6. What amazes me is when people will quote things like this yet apparently not see how thoroughly it applies to themselves.

  7. Bumper Sticker corollary:  “People’s minds are like parachutes – they only function when they are open.”, James Dewar (NOT Thomas Dewar)

    1. As with any analogy, there are some major flaws to the parachute/mind one.  If you weren’t able to pack up and close a parachute, it wouldn’t be useful at all.  You would plummet to your death on jumping out of the plane since it would tangle and not deploy.  So should your brain be closed neatly until such time as you need it open?  Or is the idea that we’re constantly in freefall, never touching the ground, unless we have a parachute-like open mind, in which case we’re floating and never falling, forever?  It would be difficult to eat like that.

  8. A good narrative is even more powerful than an idea, in this regard.  Once you’ve convinced people there’s a pattern to events, they can’t help but see it and be reinforced in their conviction, over and over.

    Of course, politicians and marketers are the most advanced users of these bugs in our psyches, but they’re not the only ones!

  9. Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!””Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions
    and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your

    1. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.                                    Upton Sinclair

  10. Note the recent study showing that folks ignorant about an issue are more definite in their opinions about it than the experts in that field — because the ignorant don’t know how much they don’t know, while the experts know how much they still don’t know.

    (This one resonates with me due to a recent discussion with a young-earth biblical literalist who can’t accept any scientific evidence for evolution because it doesn’t fit his 4000-year timescale. If you start from a false premise, you can “prove” anything.”)

    Happler: Two zen masters, one cup?

  11. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” –Stephen Hawking

  12. @boingboing-3c5f649c852dd2623fc23d6baca7660a:disqus

    this is what you’re thinking of, also by Tolstoy:

    I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the
    greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most
    obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of
    conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues,
    which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven,
    thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

  13. Everyone regards this as a character flaw, but doesn’t it seem much more likely that it’s a physiological result of the way that our brains store information?

  14. Tolstoy may be confusing lack of disagreement with understanding.  Naive students won’t disagree with what they’re taught, but they won’t understand it very well either.  They sit quietly and hide their ignorance.  The obstreperous ones tend to eventually have the greatest understanding.

  15. “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”


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