On Subtlety and Complexity

What’s the difference between explaining something in a more complex way as opposed to a more subtle way? After all, both explanations will inevitably be longer, and more complicated. Isn’t subtlety therefore just as complex as complexity?


The example I’m going to use is that of of faith, hope and charity. At first, they all seem fairly similar. Having faith in someone can also be seen as having a strong hope in them; In this wikipedia article, faith is seen as being aligned with goodness (which is otherwise thought of as charity); what’s worse: a modern rendition of charity is the word “love” (which sounds more like trust/hope).

I think perhaps a way of disentangling this confusion is with three very fundamental concepts: Truth, beauty and goodness. Now if you think about it, these are actually really fundamental concepts. They run through everything we know, and anything can be described in terms of them, like a cup:

For example, in front of me, I have truly have a green cup, that because of it’s elegant (beautiful) design is good for holding water (or coffee, in the case of the picture). Something is truly described as what it really is; Something is beautiful when its form follows its function; And something is good when that function is fulfilled.

Now if we back up a bit and look at these two trios side-by side, things start to get interesting. Faith clearly maps with truth, independently of either hope or charity (something simply to be known). The next obvious connection is that of Charity and goodness (“it is in giving that we receive”). And last, but not least, we can see that Hope is left with beauty. This is the analogy that I find most fascinating. Does beauty make one hopeful? Is one who has not hope blind to beauty? I think perhaps simply pondering those questions will do the comparison more justice.

The point is, the ideas of faith hope and charity are clearly different, but they can be quite hard to clearly wrap one’s head round. However, one doesn’t need to break them down (complicate them) in order to understand them more, but instead try to squash and stretch them a bit, until the “shape” of the idea is just right.


The definition of complex is consisting of multiple parts. Subtlety, in contrast is any distinction made that does not break a thing down. As you can see, the distinction between Faith, Hope and Charity is therefore subtle (extremely so), but ironically, trying to explain how it is has proved to be somewhat complex!

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