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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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