Sunday, February 10, 2008

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

So wrote Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance."

"With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do....speak what you think to-day in words as hard as cannon-balls, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day."

I was thinking of this because I had promised myself that I would write in this blog every day, but I had nothing to say today. At first this bothered me. I like to be consistent; at least I like to live up to my commitments--even if only to myself. Then I thought of Emerson's quote. That relieved me of the need to write in this blog. It also, however, gave me something I could write about.

I was thinking about how we make commitments to ourselves to do one thing or another, or we make a commitment to others. And then sometimes circumstances dictate that we do otherwise. Maybe writing in this blog everyday isn't necessary. At least, if there is some reason that I cannot write in it, then that commitment should not force me into a foolish consistency.

But Emerson's quote does not suggest that all consistency is useless. Only a "foolish consistency." I imagine that by this he means that we should be able to learn or to decide, for whatever reason that we were wrong. In my case, writing in this blog could become a foolish consistency. But I do not deem the attempt to be consistent foolish if the only obstacle is that I have nothing to say. As it happens, I usually have something to say if I put myself to find something. It is not a foolish consistency to commit oneself to working on a project consistently, even in the face of some obstacles to such work. But by the same token, it is a foolish consistency to force a writing project if a real conflict comes up.

As we learn, we may discover that we have committed to things that we should not have committed to. In such a case we must relinquish consistency in order to satisfy wisdom.

Emerson's full sentence is "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." I usually refrain from political commentary, but in this context, I will note something that amazed me: John Kerry, in the 2004 US presidential election, was vilified for "flip-flopping" and "waffling". It seems to me absurd to assume that all statesmen and all politicians hold to the position that they initially take and express publicly. One would hope that politicians are smart enough to learn. For example, one would hope that politicians, on learning that they had been relying on bad information (whether through failure to find the truth or intention to mislead), would be able to admit the mistake and plot a new path.

There is a difficult conundrum, however. To persist in any course of action that is obviously failing seems like a truly foolish consistency, but how do we know that a course of action is failing? As writers, or as politicians, or in any other role we may take, we are faced with complex situations and assessing whether the courses of action we have chosen are failing can be quite difficult. As writers we may write and write and write and feel that our product is not up to the standards we hold. Is that a sign that we will never get there and that our chosen course of action is not working? Or is it possible that the breakthrough that might be expected from putting in hard work is just around the corner? How many light bulbs did Edison test before he made one that worked? What if he had given up sooner? Persistence and consistency are both blessing and curse; they may lead to success or they may lead us to doom. It is not easy to know which. And that, I suppose, is where wisdom comes in: we wish for the wisdom to make the right choice and to know when consistency is serving us and when it is not. Paired with a foolish consistency is a foolish inconsistency: we are liable to both.

But perhaps the foolishness lies in attempting to adhere simply to a principle without being sensitive to different situations: we ought not be consistent just for the sake of being consistent, just as we should not change simply for the sake of changing. We should have reasons beyond such simplistic principles to guide and inform us.


jimjam_AmericanLit said...

im writing a take home midterm for american literature, and i googled this quote in order to get a better grasping of its meaning. i was suprised and thankful that i came across your blog becuase it put forth a contemporary outlook upon something that is hundreds of years old. your examples were helpful and now i think ill be able to manage an insightful response to Emerson. thanks

Anonymous said...

An excellent and informative interpretation and explanation of this very universally applicable quote.

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James Chong said...

very detailed and good explanation of what Emerson has stated.
Like the part about Edison as the example, "What if he had given up sooner?"
We still need consistency, just not foolish one. :)

Jim said...

It is remarkable that this truth is not more widely understood. I suggest that Krishnamurti's teachings have, at their heart, the natural tendency for humans to be foolishly consistent, even when it is so plainly harmful. I believe this is also an observation of a specific case of self-inflicted suffering. The Buddhist notion of "clinging/grasping" is another observation that we are naturally inclined to be consistent, often, foolishly. The second-arrow parable is an extended examination of the same. But being consistent is a convenient optimization to living in many ways. I dare not think what the roads would be like if we chose to choose our approach to auto navigation in real-time at all times. So it further seems that wise consistency is broadly beneficial. So at the heart of the challenge is the need to be ever vigilant, ever ready to leave the beaten path. To do this wisely is a lot of work to be consistently aware. And I think that recognizing the level of challenge must lead to compassion for all who, like myself, are consistently imperfectly consistent.

Anon said...

Thank you for your well-balanced and thoughtful essay. You have expressed a well-rounded, thought-provoking, multi-layered examination of the quotation and of what Emerson did not say. Hurrah for such clear thinking. Thank you.