Philosophy and Audacity

On the concept of τόλμα

Τόλμα πρήξιος αρχή, τύχη δε τέλεος κυρίη

Boldness is the beginning of action, but fortune controls how it ends.

 -Democritus

The Greek τόλμα (tólma) means as much as audacity, daring, courage or excessive boldness. It has both a positive meaning, as is clear in the famous proverb "Fortune favors the bold" and in Democritus' words, and a negative meaning as recklessness or daring to pursue what is better left alone. Audacity is needed for action, and acts as its beginning. To do something great or new, one has to first dare to do so. One has to be brave enough to take up the challenge, and leave behind what is familiar. On a negative note, it refers to that disposition of character that leads one to discard sound moral advice. It is safe to say that the concept plays a major role in the ancient spirit, as Félix Ravaisson said: "one of the most ancient doctrines of Greek philosophy is that evil resides in audacity." Yet as much as it is at the root of all evil, its presence in Homer also clearly suggests a positive connotation. Tolma can be applied to the heroic acts of the Iliad and Odyssey and designates acts of supreme courage, partaken in by those who dare to do what others won't.  

“My friends, is there then no man who would trust his own venturous spirit to go among the great-souled Trojans, if so be he might slay some straggler of the foemen, or haply hear some rumour among the Trojans, and what counsel they devise among themselves, whether to abide where they be by the ships afar, or to withdraw again to the city, seeing they have worsted the Achaeans? All this might he learn, and come back to us unscathed: great would his fame be under heaven among all men, and a goodly gift shall be his." (Illiad, X 205)

Both the positive and negative orientations of tolma can be found in Plato. In the Laches, tolma or boldness is condemned. It designates an attitude that violently opposes common opinions, and as such dishonors these established opinions. Yet precisely this opposition to common opinion, this fight against doxa, is an essential characteristic of philosophy as practiced by Socrates. His willingness to question the accepted opinions of his fellow men, and the daring to posit new theories that break with those of the masters of old. The beginning of the Parmenides, in which Socrates posits his own theory of Ideas can be seen as a superior example of tolma in the positive sense. The young Socrates is never content with what has been said before him, but dares to speak his own mind, to reason for himself. This audacity (tolma) thus characterizes the philosopher's attitude, which dares to discover new lines of thought that break with established doctrine. In the Theaetetus, Plato uses a form of tolma to designate an attitude that ventures to know that which is of yet not known. Socrates and Theaetetus, discussing the nature of knowledge, arrive at an aporia that seems impossible to get out of, when Socrates says:

"But still, since we must not shrink from any risk, what if we should try to do a shameless deed?" 

Ἀλλὰ μέντοι ἀμφότερά γε κινδυνεύει ὁ λόγος οὐκ ἐάσειν. ὅμως δέ, πάντα γὰρ τολμητέον, τί εἰ ἐπιχειρήσαιμεν ἀναισχυντεῖν;   (Plato, Theatetus, 196d)

They must dare to try a shameless deed. Shameless, for they are trying to know things, without even knowing what knowledge is.  

In the practice of philosophy, tolma designates both the emergence of the new, and the reckless attack on established doctrine. A certain audacity is needed to break with one's predecessors, yet this breaking away can also be seen as a bad characteristic. One can think of the young philosopher who is shamed for daring to critique the established authorities of the tradition. Yet if one doesn't display tolma, philosophy becomes nothing more than the stale rehearsal of what has already been said. All great philosophers express a certain audacity in coming up with new concepts, new ideas, new critiques, new problems. All these philosophers were bold enough to critique their predecessors, and dared to introduce new ideas.

An especially interesting case is Plotinus' system, in which tolma takes on an ontological sense. It designates not only a personal or moral attitude, but is used to explain the procession of Being out of the One. In Plotinus' Platonism, the One is entirely self-sufficient and lacking of nothing. The One is perfect in and of itself. If the One is like this, the question arises as to why there even is a procession, why does the universe come about, why does it even emanate? Plotinus states that Intellect dared (tolma) to look away from the One. Further down in the procession, vices of the soul arise from soul's daring to look at matter, and thus the soul eventually forgets about its own origin in the One. This daring is designated as tolma, a willingness to look away from what is most important, the One. In Plotinus, tolma is used primarily to designate a negative characteristic. But as Naguib Baladi states in his La Pensée de Plotin, Plotinus also uses tolma to designate the soul's daring to revert back to the one. From the philosopher's perspective, who is supposed to know about the reality and value of the One and its processions, it is bold and even evil to look away from the One. But from the common sense perspective of a person submerged in the sensible world, perhaps living in a society of which no one knows about higher realities, it requires great boldness to dare to revert back to the One. And even to dare speak about it, a daring not unlike the one that cost Socrates his life. On a further level, as Plotinus states, the flight to the One is a flight "of a solitary in the solitary." (Enn. VI.9.11.) One has to leave behind all things, all words, all ideas, all ties that bind oneself to the emanated universe. And it requires great courage to do so.

A certain audacity is characteristic of true thought. One has to be audacious enough to speak of those things most worth speaking about. One has to dare to think what has not been thought before, or what is believed to be unthinkable. Yet one should also possess a certain humility, without which, tolma becomes the root of evil that Ravaisson speaks about: a reckless arrogance that leads one away from that which is most worth thinking about.

Sources: 

Plato, Theaetetus - Sophist. Translated by Harold North Fowler. Loeb Classical Library.

Félix Ravaisson, Essai sur la métaphysique d'Aristote. Paris: 1953

Naguib Baladi, La Pensée de Plotin. Paris: PUF, 1970.

Plotinus, The Enneads. Edited by Lloyd P. Gerson. Cambridge University Press,    2018.

Homer, Illiad. Perseus Digital Library.