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A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

The title of this post is a quote from American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and has been in my quotes list ever since I studied American history in 2006 when I first encountered him (thank you, Margarette). Emerson is a fascinating figure, inspiring and challenging, and high on my list of philosophers to study closer in a hypothetical future with lots of spare time. The quote is taken from a passage in his famous essay Self-Reliance, which reads as follows:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

It certainly sounds good, but what does it mean? I think Emerson originally meant that small minds lock themselves into modes of thought, and unable to break free, the can’t trancsend and become truly great. This is a valid point, but it’s fairly hard to discuss and relate to everyday life (you’re of course welcome to try if you like), so in this post I’m going to focus on the more hands-on aspects of Emerson’s quote, i.e. when a person foolishly repeats a pattern only because he or she is locked in a rigid, familiar mode and not because it’s the result of active, reflective thinking. Let me take a few personal examples of why I’m a little mind and not a great soul, things I do or have done simply because my mind is locked up.

Reviews on this website are the quintessence of a foolish persistency; I review everything, even though I sometimes don’t feel like it or don’t feel the product in question deserves a review. I go on doing this because that’s what I’ve been doing for more than five years. This consistency has obvious benefits, but I still think it’s foolish. Some reviews are written for the sake of consistency only.

Logging my activities is also exaggerated and sometimes doesn’t have much purpose beyond mere habit. I kept a diary over my exercises everyday for around two years. In the beginning, it was interesting, but after a while I did it because of that hobgoblin. Perhaps stopping made my soul grow a little bit, but I know I could do it again. Again, the pattern was repeated for its own sake.

Going to the same few restaurants regularly was something I did almost all the time when I lived in Taiwan last year. I was too lazy to experience new things, even though I can remember no serious examples of bad restaurants that should deter me from trying more. I had literally dozens of restaurants within five minutes walking distance that I never visited.

I think Emerson is onto something important in this quote, regardless if he’s interpreted in a concrete or more abstract manner, and that is why I think this quote is so brilliant (in fact, it is very close to the top of my list). It reminds us that we should try to raise our heads above the shroud of everyday life and try something new, let our minds roam freely. Being great means to explore uncharted waters and to reinvent oneself. Doing the same things, moving in the same realms of thought, required no greatness.

So, before I end this article with a promise to at least try to expel the hobgoblin, I’d like to know what kind of foolish consistencies you make yourselves guilty of? Do you have something you do simply because you’ve always done it, but when you stop for a minute to scrutinise what you’re really doing, all you find is an imaginary little creature laughing at you? If so, use Emerson’s words as a weapon to exorcise it and free your mind! I will try to do so more often from now on.

Additional reading
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Wikipedia)
Self-Reliance (full text)

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  1. Kalle’s avatar

    I interpret Emerson differently from you. You seem to read “consistencies” as “habits”, but let us recall that the greatest philosopher of the modern era, Immanuel Kant (the major influence on the transcendentalist movement of which Emerson was part), was also legendarily strict in his habits. We all know the anecdote about how the burghers of Königsberg could set their clocks after his morning walks.

    No, I would wish read “consistency” as consistency in [i]thought[/i], as that dreary fear of self-contradiction, of admitting oneself wrong, that keeps one shackled to small, easily-embraced ideas, and forbids one ever to dare the grand gesture, the conjecture, the speculation that, surely, might drive one into the pits of fiasco but that might also take one to the high peaks of profound understanding (high… profound… how’s that for a mixed metaphor?)


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      To be honest, I don’t think we disagree that much over the meaning, but I chose to focuse on what Xhakhal just called a more hands-on interpration. I admit that I was a bit unclear about the point you highlight, but I did say this (although it has been rewritten now, this is what the original post said):

      “Perhaps Emerson also meant this in a literal way, such as my restaurant example above, but I feel convinced he rather focused on abstract thought and ideas.”

      I’ll rewrite some parts of the post to show that I’m simply choosing to focus on a practical aspect because that’s easier to discuss. I’ll also try to expand a little bit on the aspect I left out.


      1. Kalle’s avatar

        Oh, hey, I didn’t mean it as a criticism of you or anything. I just saw a nice opportunity to talk a bit about my reaction to that quote, and the ideas I associate with it. Of course, you’re entirely free to interpret or use any old quote any old way you like ^^


        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          Yeah, I know that and I didn’t take it as criticism, but since I thought I did incorporate what you said, but obviously didn’t do it very well, I decided to change it to what I wanted to write in the first place. :)


        2. Xhakhal’s avatar

          I think Kalle has a point, but the interpretation of ‘consistencies’ as ‘habits’ is a useful interpretation – and it’s no less true than the one Kalle proposes, only somewhat more mundande, hands-on and no less relevant.

          I have a lot of hobgoblins, but then again I easily pick up habits. I always take my bag out for a walk, for example, filled with at least one sketchbook, some pens, my cellphone, wallet and maybe my DS if I think I’ll have to sit and wait for something (going to the bank, a rendez-vous, something like that), and this is highly unecessary since I seldom find use for any of them except for my cellphone.
          I always wear shoes while cleaning or doing dishes (this annoys my mother greatly), because I’ve been unable to get rid of some of the light trauma from living seven years in a house so infested with pests that I highly suspect it was a Zerg HQ in the making. I couldn’t even walk in my own room without seeing something small and with many legs trying to attack my feet, and so I used to take great leaps from the door to my bed to touch the floor as little as possible – and even the bed wasn’t always free from the little bugs. The result is that I often wore boots, especially when cleaning (and cleaning my room involved at least one can of RADAR insektsspray, although we did spray the house at least once a week) and if I don’t nowadays I feel phantom-bugs crawling under my skin whenever I try to do something so simple as vacuum clean xD
          And that, if anything, is a stupid dumb habit.


        3. Olle Linge’s avatar

          Okay. I’ve now rewritten some parts of the post, especially in the middle. I think you already know what I mean from my comments here, but it feels important that the post itself actually says what I want to say rather than what I thought it did just before I went to sleep yesterday. Neither of you will find anything new, I think, but perhaps it’s nice for other people (and perhaps also myself) that the content is, I hope, more accurate now.


        4. greg scott’s avatar

          Since the mass of beliefs and ideas you hold has been inculcated by other people during your early years when your capacity for independent thought was at its weakest, it might be worthwhile to begin a fresh examination of your beliefs toward government, state-controlled education, jobs, and your role in society. Emerson is easy reading, and most readers will not continue with deeper analysis of their “thoughts” and beliefs. Analyze your beliefs about democracy, education, and your role in society. Then read Lysander Spooner and Max Stirner.

          You will rarely hear any logical arguments against individualist
          . It is common to see dismissive remarks without logical content.

          Perhaps it is more comfortable to retain the constipated lump of conventional beliefs, than it is to subject component beliefs to rigorous analysis. Unless desire for freedom and real understanding is one of your fundamental motives, there is no payoff for breaking down the accumulated result of decades of socialization. So it may be better for you to retain a superficial understanding of Emerson, than to tackle Lysander Spooner and others who may lead you over rough ground – and to what end?


          1. Olle Linge’s avatar

            I think most people are to complacent to analyse anything at all, and analysing one’s own world view and beliefs is of course even more demanding than simply breaking down concrete habits and everyday life occurances.

            For my own part, I think I’ve two reasons why I haven’t gone further in this area (at least not in the direction you suggest). Firstly, fo some reason, there aren’t much philosophy and/or politics I enjoy reading. Secondly, I feel very satisfied with my life as it is right now. Being consciously complacent about this is perhaps worse than simply being ignorant, but that’s the way it is.

            That being said, I’ll try to look into what you suggented and I’ll get back if/when I find something interesting.


          2. greg scott’s avatar

            I would advise against looking for trouble. Your contentment with your life is rare and precious. The path I indicated could be disruptive, and would do you no good. You are more thoughtful than most, but pushing yourself to extremes of analysis may spoil a good thing.