|OK, Waldo was in need of a makeover, hair-wise anyway. But damn it Jim, he wasn't a fashion plate, he was a philosopher! You know, with one of them thar great minds.|
Often we read Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous quotation trotted out to supply some, usually small and unimportant, rhetorical need. Seldom is it explained—why is consistency a bad thing?—and almost never is it offered in a fuller context of what Emerson was getting at.
After all, Emerson—a guy named WALDO!—was some kind of philosopher. You don't want to read much of that sort of thing. It could give you ideas. And next thing you know, you might start getting one of those on your own. And—want to change something.
Well, admittedly, small minds let loose in the philosophical china-shop can wreak havoc. Poor Nietzsche is maybe the best example of what goes wrong when small hobgoblin minds mash up philosophical metaphors with Wagnerian soundtracks and package it as worthy and necessary Götterdämmerung performance art—or World War II.
But, unfortunately, if you want to move up from the bubblegum wrappers of profundity and punditry, if you want to engage the thinky world with something more reliable than Glenn Beck's chalkboards, you just might have to read more than a soundbite of some guy named Waldo.
Here is what Ralph Waldo Emerson has to say about our nation's debt ceiling crisis, via his comments of long ago on the general problem of small minds and their security-blanket consistencies.
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.
Now, if you wish to test yourself for small-mindedness, if you read that quotation and took from it that Emerson is saying consistency is bullshit, and you should just say anything you feel like, every day a new theory, just to spite the people who might be depending upon you to have a sincere or reliable bone in your soul—you should probably not aspire to run for great person, at least not based on your philosophical apprehension.
Which is to say, if John Boehner were to read Emerson's words about hobgoblins and consistency, he would likely say that Emerson was supporting the rigidly consistent Republican message of no-spend, no-tax, no-government-except-rich-people-bailouts&subsidies. And also, Emerson would undoubtedly favor eliminating all government regulatory obstacles to our energy independence and small-business success. And also, Emerson would probably have been completely overwhelmed with the incomparable greatness of mind presently powering the GOP, especially in the Tea Party faction.
In fact, you might need a microscope to locate Boehner's grasp of Emerson, or his concern about the welfare of the USA.