Read time: 3 minutes
Back in high school, my classmates and I were energized by philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," especially the famous line "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds .... "
Being typical sophomoric teenagers, we processed the quote without the "foolish." Instead, we read Emerson's statement as an endorsement of flighty behavior, lack of focus, and moodiness -- classically the domains of adolescents.
As we interpreted the passage, Emerson told readers it was okay to dump a belief or practice when something else appeared more interesting or entertaining. With this endorsement, we imagined ourselves coltish, uninhibited, and unpredictable, especially compared to adults.
In fact, we didn’t extend this rejection of burdensome consistency to parents and teachers. We expected them to be ramrod-straight in all things. If the rules of the house or the classroom weren’t being enforced fairly, they would certainly hear from us -or not, depending on whether we figured whining or the silent treatment would work better. Whatever the case, grown-ups were to be judicious, always, even while, as youngsters, we chased our whims.
Most of us eventually grew out of this self-centeredness and broadened our understanding of Emerson's dictum, considering for the first time the often-omitted second part of the statement, "... adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines."
Reflecting on the essay today, I see that the passage might raise questions 16-year-olds were not prepared to consider. How were statesmen, philosophers, and divines alike, and what was it that made them more prone to “foolish consistency” than anyone else?
Perhaps Emerson was proposing that petty politicians, squirrely intellectuals, and cagey ministers believed certainty about their opinions and actions was a sign of authenticity. Granted, strong convictions may come easy in fields where one can champion a viewpoint without empirical evidence.
Emerson urged being prepared to make room for change. As the poet and author Maya Angelou would say centuries later, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Emerson was not advocating a mealy-mouthed stance however. In fact, he wrote in the same passage: “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day” (The Project Gutenberg eBook of Essays, by Ralph Waldo Emerson).
A lot has changed in the nearly 200 years since Emerson wrote "Self-Reliance," but I feel his views of politicians, public intellectuals, and preachers are still true – maybe truer today.
At one time, the common view was that statespersons were stalwart, principled, and resolute but willing to confer, bend, and find what was best.
Philosophers focused on discovering rhyme and reason within the cacophony of life, wrestled with what was known and what was knowable, and understood that any individual’s point of view was incomplete and imperfect.
Similarly, the divine (an old term for “clergy”) sermonized passionately but would lose their grips on certainty in response to more thorough and compelling exegesis.
All of this was as it should be, I think.
The statesman/philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations (167 A.C.E.), “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” ("Meditations". Book by Marcus Aurelius (Book VI, Chapter 21), circa 170.)
But Emerson charged “little statesmen, philosophers and divines” with “little minds,” adoring foolish consistency and not the pursuit of truth.
I would argue that today, the commercialization of policy, inquiry, and faith threatens to shift the paradigm from seeking truth to seeking dominance in an “attention economy” where one’s extrinsic value is measured by followers and clicks (Paying Attention: The Attention Economy – Berkeley Economic Review).
Evidence of this shift can be seen in the number of daily (or hourly) social media postings and exchanges that are devoted to politics, comment, and religion. Plus, the number of social media platforms serving as homes for candidates, opinionators, and evangelicals. This traffic was growing steadily before COVID-19 moved public gatherings and interactions online, but some observers say internet activity increased between 50 and 70 percent during the pandemic [COVID-19 Pushes Up Internet Use 70% And Streaming More Than 12%, First Figures Reveal (forbes.com)].
For those for whom politics, opinion, and religion are commodities, the coin of the realm is a steady, predictable message that connects with an audience whose attention can be turned into dollars. It’s unlikely that once a candidate, commentator, or cleric has tasted the sweetness of commercial success they will do anything to disrupt their “foolish consistency.”
© National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.