Friday, September 24, 2010

Intellectual Cowardice

In his too often forgotten little book, The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly reminds us of "three faults, which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom" (20). He picks up the idea again later: "Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation" (30).

This week I've been talking about some of the risks of scholarly writing, and I think it is fitting to close that theme by emphasizing the importance of facing those risks resolutely. Academic writing is difficult and, as I've argued, perhaps even dangerous work. There is the risk of injury, both conceptual and emotional, of hurting yourself and others. There is also the risk of embarrassing yourself by "doing something badly" as Connolly puts it. All of these possibilities are ready arguments for not writing and not publishing your work.

When I was younger a combination of sloth, vanity, and cowardice prevented me from writing altogether because I assumed (or pretended to think) that, once written, I would have no argument for not publishing. So for the sake of my reputation, for the sake of others, and for any other reason I could think of, I kept my ideas not only to myself, but in my head. Actually, I usually didn't mind talking about my ideas.

Once we resolve to do the real work of writing, we face a number of risks but also begin to feel the rewards. The work is sometimes hard and sometimes forces us to strain. We sometimes work at the edge of our abilities. But as any craftsman and any athlete knows, we can't work on that edge indefinitely. Courage and recklessness are not the same thing.

Christopher Hitchens notes Orwell's suggestion that a writer must have "a power of facing unpleasant facts". You don't have to have the intellectual courage of George Orwell to be an academic writer, but you do have to face the difficulty of writing about the facts your research circles round. You have to have the courage to face your own limitations, and to accept them, as limits, long enough to overcome them.

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