Intellectual Cowardice – An Unexpected Discussion of Virtue


Intellectual cowardice | Features | Times Higher Education.

Chris Walsh has written a book on cowardice.  He admits that he had to face his own fears to finish the book.  This brief article about the book and journey was a fun read. It was also full of irony. He was driven to finish the book out of fear of being a coward

“What a bitter note to find in my obituary – couldn’t finish his book on cowardice! The thought had a way of concentrating the mind and fortifying the will.”

He talks about the fact that there hasn’t been a scholarly academic work on the topic, which caused him some fear. “Am I wasting my time?”

Something helpful (and searching!) for me was the idea that cowardice and fear can manifest itself in many ways:

  • Failing to stand up and take a side or express an opinion when we should.
  • Failing to finish a book or project out of concern about what others will think.
  • Being driven by fear to a neutral life that does neither good nor evil.
  • Fear of being found out that you are a fraud. This is especially true in higher education. So many wannabe academics are impressed by academic accomplishments and the intellect of their heroes.  They  pretend that they are brilliant,  but writing a book tells the truth.  Nothing will humble you like putting your mind on paper for all to read! Our hearts may whisper words of fear to us, “If I write a book then everyone will know who I am! I won’t be able to keep up the rouse!”
  • Too much revising before you ship or print. This can be fear-driven.
  • Too much qualifying of your claims and acknowledging the opinions of others.

“At a certain point, then, proper understanding of cowardice became not only the goal of the book but also its motive force. Cowardice and cowards have something to teach us, I kept telling myself. Let us speak of them!”

Perhaps most useful to me was his discussion of the place of cowardice in the realm of the writer/thinker.

 “Timidity may be especially characteristic of the scholar. As Peter Elbow notes in his essay “Being a writer vs. being an academic: a conflict in goals”, the writer comes to the reader exclaiming, “Listen to me, I have something to tell you!”, while the academic asks meekly, “Is this okay?”. The bespectacled professor citing great thinkers, hedging with “perhapses” and “I would suggests”, and lining the bottom of the page with footnotes to pad against a hard fall: he makes a fine figure of a coward.”