A Foolish Consistency : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 017

Continuing our discussion of “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“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.”

There it is – possibly the most famous line that Emerson ever wrote:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

One thing that I’ve always thought about this quote is that he’s talking about a “foolish” consistency. Consistency can be good – consistency in brushing our teeth, taking showers, getting to work, being kind to others… that’s the good kind of consistency.

But if we are being consistent just because we have bought into the idea that others know better for us than we do ourselves, so we go along with the herd… not so good. Foolish, even. If going to work at a particular job is destroying your health (mentally or physically) – STOP IT. A few bucks a week isn’t worth it.

I know from personal experience – easier said than done. I’ve had jobs like that.  I would soldier on because I thought it was the right thing to do (“be a man and harden the fuck up!”) and/or because I thought I should be grateful to even have a job (“so many people don’t – count your blessings!”)

So I’d continue until I’d collapse. And I’d lose the job anyway because I couldn’t physically and mentally do it anymore.

And after recovering – I’d get another job. What??? Why didn’t I just quit and get another job before collapsing???

Because I was afraid of what others would think. I’d be a quitter, less of a man in their eyes. I’d be misunderstood.

Never again. Screw society’s consistency. I’m not comparing my mental health issues with the achievements of any of the giants he mentions… but I want to be great in my own way, on my own terms. Not in the eyes of others, but so that I can look in the mirror and honestly say “You done good, Lyman.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please drop them in the comments.


2 thoughts on “A Foolish Consistency : Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson : 017

  1. Jorah Lavin

    Lyman, I really like this series, and this is one of the best so far. I haven’t always had anything to say about each one, but I’ve been reading all of them.

    I agree about the emphasis on ‘foolish’ consistency; it seems to me that he didn’t make mistakes in his writing, and he wouldn’t have specified this if he didn’t mean to. I’ve seen people interpret this line as being against any sort of consistency, and I like that you pointed out this error.

    Anyway, nothing deep to say. Keep doing what you’re doing; it’s working.

  2. Lyman Reed Post author

    Thank you, Jorah. While Emerson talks about your own opinion of yourself being the most important thing, and to disregard the judgement of the masses, the thoughts of those who I think highly of *is* important to me. And you are one of those people.


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