The work of William Shakespeare persists through time because it is dense with truths of human nature. Intentionally or unintentionally, he weaved some profound realities into the fabric of his plays. One is the oft-quoted idea that “a coward dies a thousand deaths.” What Shakespeare actually said in Act 2, Scene 2 of Julius Caesar was:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
Of course, on some levels, that’s true. I don’t need to explain why. But what is less clear is why this is also, in one significant way, wrong.
My definition of intellectual courage is derived from an idea in Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions: “Every man should be capable of all ideas.” Specifically, every man or woman should entertain ideas that conflict and contrast with those he or she most cherishes. But why? What advantage does that yield? Simple. By deliberately considering ideas which oppose your own, you are making your sense of reality stronger, more concrete. By challenging foundational beliefs, you are strengthening your understanding of the world.
So, in the realest sense, the intellectually courageous try to kill their selves and the ideas that such a construct is built upon. Which means that, when applied to the domain of intellectual cowardice and courage, Shakespeare is wrong. The roles are reversed. The intellectually courageous dies thousands of times, willingly, in order to grow stronger. The intellectual coward never dies. He shields his assumptions and ideas from all assaults, never permitting them to be altered or changed in any way.