Some office at my highschool, perhaps the newspaper, had a poster “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I remember it without the first two words of the quote, A foolish consistency, and believe the error was on the poster, not in my memory. But I have written before about memory and I may have misread it at the time or later changed the memory. I recall also that it was attributed to some historical name of some repute, a triple, like Henry David Thoreau or Oliver Wendell Holmes, which I promptly forgot.
I disliked it immediately. If the qualification of a foolish consistency had been there I might have been have been more generous, but my initial reaction was Here is someone who has been caught out in a contradiction or hypocrisy and is trying to weasel out of it by insult. I was already growing fussy in my OCD fashion about imprecision of thought and delighting in taking down the supposed experts.
All this has remained unchanged over the years, the quote occasionally heard, then stored again in its unnoticed corner of an unused room, associated with some guy from the 19th or even late 18th Century – three names, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Evasive thinking. Nothing ever caused it to jump out and require examination. Had I ever thought that it was by a Christian or Jewish writer, or by a woman, or a military figure it would have prompted at least fifteen seconds of reconsideration in light of the new information. It seemed of a piece with Walt Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” I had acquired some understanding that the intent of both was to advocate for intellectual courage, to not be bound by what one said yesterday if one had new understanding today. Where I got this, I don’t know. It certainly was not from any research or concerted thought on my part. It must have crept in from bits of context over the decades. And still, the dominant thought was What, are ALL these 19th C guys defending this lack of rigor, this careless disregard?
The interviewee in the Great Books podcast about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, Brenda Wineapple, brought me up a bit short with her reminder of the exact quote – the sort of precision that gets my attention. It is good to have something like such podcasts as a straightforward corrective to the loose information we carry around in our heads. I got it hammered in that the quote was Emerson’s and heard the full quote, likely for the first time.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Emerson believed that truth might display only unevenly and in contradictions, like a vessel tacking into the wind to make its course. There is a great deal that is wise and good about the statement when taken in this context, and congenial to the thought of those who recognize that paradox is sometimes the closest we can get to meaning about difficult things. We all have the divine in us, he thought, and might see one thing today and another tomorrow, both true, as we proceeded on our journey to understanding. A nice enough thought, and comfortable in our time, however radical it was in his.
It may suffer more from narcissism, as anyone who believes
in the "divine in all" must necessarily believe in the divine in oneself. I have
long noticed that many – not all – such believers are easily affronted by
suggestions that a particular idea of theirs might not be a closer approach to the divine. Emerson was
accused in his day of an excessive confidence in his own thinking, and too high
a self-regard, but that may not be entirely just.
The ideas themselves bothered people yet he stood by them, which may
have led to the charges. He asserted that any common man also had this
divinity, and it was a foundation of his strong abolitionist beliefs. On the other, other hand, the characteristic of intellectuals of the era ran strongly to being full of oneself and one's ideas while romantising the common folk, and if Emerson stood out among that group...
he was able to follow through with this regard in practice I don’t know. He does seem to have thought his circle was
rather special, and some comments indicate he thought some were much farther
along on the perfectability scale than others. Believers of all sorts think there are
some who have got their lessons down better than others, I observe, and this is especially true of smaller movements.