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I recently came across this quote by G. K. Chesterton.

The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it.

(Note that the version I initially saw stated, "The paradox of courage is that one must be a little careless of life to keep it.”)

Originally, I had difficulty interpreting this quote as the phrasing is a little archaic. After a brief period of contemplation, I interpreted it as "one must be a little careless of one's life to keep courage."

Later, I found an excerpt from his book Orthodoxy which addresses a similar idea. With this context, my new interpretation is that "having courage means being able to risk their life in order to survive." I think "even" in the quote emphasises that this is the minimal effort they have to make in order to live.


Firstly, I would like to know if my interpretation is correct or read others' interpretations.

Secondly, I would like to understand how I would interpret similar sentences in the future. I primarily had difficulty understanding what "it" referred to and how "courage" had anything to do with what followed. I was also confused by the inclusion of "even" in the sentence. I was reading it in two possible ways: "his life even, in order to keep it" and "his life, even in order to keep it." I am not an expert in grammar so I do not know if this makes sense, but I could not understand if "even" was associated with the expression before or the expression after.

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    This is a run-of-the-mill case of ambiguity as to what the antecedent of a pronoun is. Posting a formal answer about its intended meaning would illuminate this particular text but not provide any new insight into English language and usage.
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 16:23
  • @jsw29 That was certainly part of the question, but I think the second part of my question asked a bit more. I think an answer to this part would not be dependent on this particular text. Also, if I were to require the meaning of a particular text, is this not the right place? Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 16:35
  • I don't know what "even" means in either of the following phrases: "even in order to keep his life" or "even in order to keep his courage" I don't know what it means to be "a little careless of [one's] life".
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 16:38
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    You need the context. A vigorous Googling shows that this quote is widely shared and seldom properly cited. Chesterton had a habit of setting up an argument with several paragraphs and then summing it up with a single, pithy, quotable sentence, but these don't always survive outside their host bodies. This comes from a short piece called "The Methuselahite," collected in the volume All Things Considered. Chesterton doesn't fully flesh out his implication here, but it would be that those who prioritize longevity over Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 23:26
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    over other worthwhile priorities like courage and duty, might in fact shorten or simply cheapen their life. His construction about "keeping one's life" is almost certainly a conscious echo of the biblical passage Matthew 16:25; Chesterton loved these kinds of constructions of apparent paradox: "Whoever wants to X must -X, and whoever -Xs will X." Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 23:33

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The passage asserts Chesterton’s perceived incongruity, that keeping one’s life sometimes requires risking it. The even highlights that the reasons for carelessness extend so far as to include protecting one’s life, the very object that the carelessness puts at risk. Thus the even emphasizes the paradoxical nature of the situation.

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  • Is "even" a synonym there for "merely" or "just"?
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 17:00
  • Are you parsing it as "in order even to keep it"? Or "even must risk his life"? It feels to me like even is in the wrong place.
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 17:03
  • Or is it the Snagglepuss "even", "his life, even". google.com/…
    – TimR
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 17:05
  • @TimR, from among your choices, “in order even to keep it.” Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 19:54
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    @PaulTanenbaum, philosophical writings are often difficult to understand, but philosophers normally strive to be as clear and precise as their subject matter allows, unlike poets, novelists, etc., who often deliberately create ambiguities and puzzles for their readers (and are praised for doing so).
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 17:31

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