Friday, January 29, 2010

A foolish hobgoblin

I just came across one of my favorite quotes, and determined that I really don't understand it.

Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I have taken that to mean that only little minds concern themselves with being consistent.

But that doesn't seem to be what the quotation says. I noticed this when I read the quote and realized that I don't know what a hobgoblin is. So I looked it up on and found that a hobgoblin is "an object or a source of fear, dread, or harassment."

So, with that being the case, according to the quotation, little minds fear a foolish consistency. That doesn't seem to be what Emerson was trying to communicate; he was really trying to say that a foolish consistency is the preoccupation of little minds, and that expansive minds couldn't be troubled to worry about it.

So, unless my analysis is wrong, I think that quote that I've used so often literally means the opposite of what it was intended to mean.


MC said...

You got me thinking, because I love this quote as well. so I did a little research and you might find this link helpful:

It has the quote in context which might also help:

"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."

Then there's this commentary which I found illuminating:

Emerson's comments can be read more than one way. On one reading, one might say that he is simply advising against "foolish" consistency. For example, one should not pursue consistency with one's past statements for its own sake when new evidence suggests that your previous statements were wrong. Those who accuse Rand of misrepresenting Emerson presumably hold to this interpretation. If one assumes that his concern about consistency is strictly limited to cases where a person tries to stay consistent with his past statements out of concern for appearances to others, even disregarding new evidence, then Emerson is not saying something that Rand should find objectionable.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that Emerson's objections to consistency are so limited. Another plausible interpretation is available: Emerson may be saying that all efforts at consistency are "foolish." The sentence, "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do," is not qualified in any way. Nor is the next sentence: "He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall." These appear to be very sweeping dismissals of any concern with consistency.

The idea that Emerson means to condemn consistency in general is reinforced by the specific example he gives of inconsistency: denying personality to God and then ascribing it to Him. This example does not involve a change of mind based on new evidence or argument. Rather, Emerson advises indulging in such inconsistency based on "devout motions of the soul." Nor does he have any positive things to say about consistency, even indirectly. When giving his example, Emerson does not suggest that the contradiction between the statements will eventually be resolved in favor of one or the other, or even in a synthesis. He says nothing that implies one should be at all concerned about contradictions.

Eric said...

Pat, thanks for the interesting link to the analysis. It still does not take into account that, while Emerson was condemning consistency by saying that little minds are too concerned with it (or at least that's what we've always interpreted it to mean), he SAID that little minds are afraid of it.

I guess I'm just trying to figure out in what sense he was using the word "hobgoblin."