What the Lion Knows
He who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks.
—François de La Rochefoucauld
“Get going, then get good.”
There is a saying from Plutarch, “Where the lion’s skin will not reach, you must patch it out with the fox’s.” It is good advice: strength and courage may get you much of the way, but an ounce of cleverness is often necessary for success.
The trouble today is in the proportions. The world has become a little too fond of the fox. An overripe cleverness abounds, where it does not lead directly to folly, it leads one ever more to systematize, optimize some current state of affairs, or amass information in lieu of action. Especially among the technology-minded, a reliance on note-taking promotes collecting over doing. We should admire a certain amount of cleverness, but most people do not need to be more fox-like, instead they need to put on the skin of the lion.
Courage is the master of the virtues, because it makes the practice of all others possible. Inadvertently, we tend to think of courage as an attribute of the successful, but this is mistaken. We call Achilles brave not because we think he will win, but because we know he is going to die. It is the process, not the success, that deserves our respect. Courage then is best understood as a willingness to put failure on the line. To cultivate courage is to accept an absence of surety. It is meaningful mostly when you are unlikely to succeed, and try anyway. Try and fail at enough things, and it will dawn on you: Every difficult thing you try acts as a multiplier on the rest of your knowledge and experience. He who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks.
The too-clever world breeds critics, and laughs at failure. If you never try, you cannot fail, and in a clever sense it is an immense advantage to have done nothing. We praise the beast to remind ourselves that it would be foolish to want that advantage. Comparatively little advances with criticism or theory, instead those who become experts are the ones who took action when they knew nothing.
I love those who yearn for the impossible. I love more those who are willing to try.
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See also, What the Mouse Knows
The top image is an illustration by Bernard Willem Wierink, 1910.
Often misattributed as the Wright Brothers, including by myself, the second photo is actually Henri Farman piloting the Voisin-Farman I in France, 1908. The photograph is taken as the plane was descending, about to complete a circular course of more than one kilometer for the first time.