Voice of the Past: Emerson on Procedures

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’ve all been there; a situation where someone in authority over our work, day or life relies upon a procedure, codicil or regulation to snap things back into bureaucratic harmony. Nothing is more infuriating than procedure getting in the way of common sense. (An aside, I have always found common sense to be an oxymoron for reasons that become obvious upon an appeal to it.)

Among many of his Bon mots, this particular gem by Emerson offers a retort:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

The challenge, of course, is that a reader looking to massage their own ego may think that being inconsistent in all things is somehow a stroke of genius. I’d contend that the difference between those who are inconsistent and brilliant against those who are inconsistent and neurotic is in their productivity. Put another way by the screenwriter Bruce Feirstein in his version of 007:

“The distance between genius and insanity is measured only by success.” –Super villain Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).


Emerson is saying more than to be an iconoclast, he means that small minded people cannot shake the feeling that being consistent is a virtue. Or perhaps feigning consistency to impress those who think consistency is a virtue is somehow good in its own right. There are cases in life where consistency has its purpose, building a house, the scientific method and responding to a fire come to mind. But those are not small-minded endeavors.

Sometimes to resolve a problem or to focus on what matters, the old way will not suffice, as the old way will end up creating the same result. Einstein said as much too, in his reflections in trying to solve a problem with the same failing solution with the expectation of differing results.

Like a lot of quotes, cutting off the explanation leaves the real meaning lost, denuded. Here is the full quote:

“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.”– Emerson, Self-Reliance

Emerson Books18 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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