I’ve talked about intellectual courage before, and mostly, I’ve defined it as the opposite of intellectual cowardice. We all know what an intellectual coward is. It’s someone who avoids and attacks ideas that make them uncomfortable, who refuses to consider anything that threatens or conflicts with their preferred models, frameworks, perspectives and philosophy.
Another element to the intellectually courageous-cowardly spectrum is the response to uncertainty and chaos. The intellectual coward fears it, avoids it, and spends his time on a fruitless quest for certainty and order. The intellectually courageous seeks out the uncertainty in the world. He finds the rough edges and the question marks and tries to get closer to them, to explore them.
Now, for a long time, these ideas concerning intellectual courage have been aimlessly drifting in my mind. They’ve been a haze of disconnected fragments, just waiting to be unified. Well, a few weeks ago, I came across the thing that has united them, that has become the peg which all these disparate thoughts can hang upon.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions there’s a beautiful line that completely captures what a world, a society, of intellectually courageous individuals would look like. It would be a culture with a single imperative: “Every man should be capable of all ideas.” Even—especially—those that he would shudder to call his own.