Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Error of Cowards

The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence--even mental. That is to say, as Aristotle points out, such men must make themselves vegetables. No doubt reason often errs, especially in the highest matters, and, as Cicero said long ago, there is no nonsense in the world which has not found some philosopher to maintain it, so difficult is it to attain truth. But it is the error of cowards to mistake a difficulty for an impossibility.

Jacques Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy, Sheed and Ward (New York: 1933) p. 181.


  1. That quote seems like nonsense to me (unless the word "doubt" is replaced with "deny"). Doubt that something is possible is not the same as certainty that it is not possible and nothing prevents one from proceeding with a task for which one doubts the possibility of success.

    To assert as truth the impossibility of truth may be incoherent, and to assert the impossibility of any task may be the escape of a coward. But to acknowledge the possibility (or even the likelihood) that one may have undertaken the impossible, and to continue in the face of that is an act of courage.

  2. branemrys9:03 PM

    Nothing prevents one from proceeding with a task for which one doubts the possibility of success; but it is indeed incoherent to doubt the possibility of truth; one would have to doubt as well the possibility of doubting; and doubt the possibility of having tasks; and doubt the possibility of proceeding with them.

    As to your second paragraph, I can make no sense of it. To undertake the impossible is an act of stupidity, not an act of courage.

  3. Itinérante11:47 PM

    Sir, maybe put it in the affirmative: the courage of the courageous is that he believes that there is a truth and searches for it. And there is a Truth!!!

  4. Trying something known to be impossible can in fact provide useful information from the mode of failure, but that is not what I was referring to in my second paragraph. If you read it more carefully you would have seen that it was about proceeding in the absence of certainty that the goal is achievable not in the presence of certainty that it is not.

  5. branemrys6:20 AM

    Trying something known to be impossible is again irrational; there is simply no way to do it, because if it is known to be impossible it follows necessarily that there are known to be no means for doing it. The closest one could get is to try things known to be possible that are in some way posited to be similar to what is impossible.

    But I get your point -- you were using the term figuratively. I don't think there's anything necessarily courageous about it, but you are right that trying to do something when not knowing that one can succeed is under the right conditions courageous. As Itinerante notes, though, such cases could equally be said to involve not taking a difficulty for an impossibility.

  6. You are right! I agree completely with Maritain's final sentence there, but not that it applies to the "doubt" mentioned in his first sentence.

  7. It is certainly possible to be courageous in the search for something one knows is there, but in my experience it requires more courage to invest oneself in the search for something which may not actually exist.


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