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)

Advertisements

Voices of the Past: Gore Vidal and Abe on Jealousy and Patience

GoreVidalVanVechten1

“Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

Vidal, one of the great craftsman of written English, was probably not being facetious in his quip, above. He was as erudite as he was vain. But in this bon mot, he is truth telling–it is hard not to feel a bit of defeat in the success of others. By our very nature, humans in are in a constant state of making comparisons. The best of us can shelve that proto-behavior. And in many cases, we outgrow the comparison behavior (at the basest level) once the wild oats are sewn. Or at least, we learn not to take things so very personally, thus why only a little something dies instead of a big something. Vidal had his own victories in life of course, very early success in literature set up a life of being the public intellectual–a sort of philosopher-king of the chattering class. But for those whose triumphs are small and hidden, or a long way off, Vidal doesn’t offer much solace. For that, we turn away from Lincoln’s biographer to Young Abe Lincoln himself, who for many is the ur-American, the undefeatable and the persistent, who said:

“I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come.”

Some people in life are prodigious, like an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Salinger. Their success comes very early in life. Others must prepare, and develop their craft over time. They pay dues. They pay forward. They build up the reserves. They are the Mark Twain’s of the world. Vidal seemed to have Fitzgerald’s wunderkind success but Twain’s long view. Lincoln would have to face many more defeats than victories before his chance came. Where do you fall? Prodigy or Sage, or somewhere in between?

Young Abe by Torrey

Photo Credit Gore Vidal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GoreVidalVanVechten1.jpg Photo Credit Young Abe Lincoln: Photo credit: TV19 – DD Meighen / Foter / CC BY-SA

Voice of the Past: Confucius on Success and Failure

Confucius in Tokyo

A friend of mine in Chicago has always reveled in the balance and interdependence between success and failure. A musician by vocation, he has taken honest jobs by day to perform his art on his own terms by night. His zen-like ability to knock down those conventions has always been inspiring to me.

In recent weeks, I have discovered a kindred spirit in another dialectical thinker, the ancient master Kong Fu Zi, know in the West as Confucius. Most Americans have heard of him, the guy who came up with the Golden Rule some 500 years before Christ. The official biography lists Confucius as a real polymath–a genius at government, music, literature, and philosophy among others.

Put another way, he was a smarty pants. He was the type of bureaucrat who had seen it all. He knew how to do it better than his boss and he had no problem saying so. And so, Confucius spent a lot of time on the outside of the governments of his communities looking in. While on the outside, he managed to mentor students seeking to understand how government works. And in those interactions, Confucius became famous as a teacher first and foremost.

When it comes to the balance between success and failure, Confucius observed a few things:

  •  “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
  • “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.”
  • “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”
  • “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.”
  • “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”
  • “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
  • “If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.”
  • “Things that are done, it is needless to speak about … things that are past, it is needless to blame.”
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf

“When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/page=2/#sthash.eJsz2gP1.dpuf

Time proved Confucius right. After his death, his Analects became de rigueur for Chinese bureaucrats, and his concepts about people, their roles in society and respect inform much of the Chinese ethos to the present day (despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress it). Balanced with the Taoist system of Lao Tsu, Chinese philosophy is comprehensive about life, its meaning, and its lack of meaning. In my own experience, I have often found the most genuine, the most sincere and the most commendable of people to be those who can admit mistakes, learn from them, and not be ashamed of their ignorance. All too often, the drive for and the displays of “success” without the acknowledgement of failure seem to me, hollow.

Or, as my Chicago philosopher-muse friend might say:

“Failing to succeed or succeeding to fail. This encompasses all my beliefs and values.”

Photo Credits:
Confucius: Tim_Arai / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Norman Rockwell. The Golden Rule. Mosaic located at Thanksgiving Square, Dallas. http://idtmi.blogspot.com/2011/07/little-thanksgiving.html