Change of Mind

A quote (from James Russell Lowell) in The New York Times crossword yesterday: “The foolish and the dead alone never change their minds.” And that leads to the popular Emerson aphorism: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Among the many places you can find that is The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. The “foolish” part of the Emerson soundbite has always bothered me; it’s sort of a rhetorical wild card that says, “My constancy to an ideal or belief is wise and brave; yours is short-sighted and cowardly.”

Just now, someone I know who has a brand-new Emerson book pointed out that the quotation, as given, is stripped of its surrounding context (in the essay “Self-Reliance“). Here’s the whole “consistency” passage.”

“… 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. …”

“Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again. …” That’s the tough part.

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