April 03, 2013

A foolish consistency

I've been blogging the last stretch about the life and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who exerted a huge influence on American literature during and after the 19th century. I have to fess up to a love/hate relationship with old Waldo. Sometimes he seems like a pompous windbag. Sometimes I have no idea what he's talking about. But sometimes he's right on. One such case in point is a passage from Self Reliance about the dangers of consistency. Sometimes we stick to a bad opinion or course of action just because we don't want to seem to change. His advice: get over it.

Here's a great passage with one of his more famous lines:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. 
But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.
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.
SAD NEWS FROM WV. I'm in Vermont at the moment and was saddened and shocked by the news that Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum was gunned down outside the county courthouse.

STILL SAD THREE YEARS LATER. Here's Ken Ward at Coal Tattoo on how we continue to fail coal miners by not enacting tougher safety regulations.

No comments: