New thoughts on Consistency while reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

I hesitate to write anything until I’m done with the 12 pages in my printed out copy of “Self-Reliance,” but I decided to say this much about Consistency and how I relate to what (I think) he’s saying.  Here’s a section I read last night:

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 monstrous 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. …

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. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with pockthread, do. Else if you would be a man speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. Ah, then, exclaim the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood! Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. 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.

I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of the Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found to be symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.

Fear never but you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions, so they each be honest and natural in their hour. For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of when seen at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. This is only microscopic criticism. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now. Greatness always appeals to the future. If I can be great enough now to do right and scorn eyes, I must have done so much right before as to defend me now. Be it how it will, do right now. Always scorn appearances and you always may. The force of character is cumulative…

There’s much I’m sure that believers would have problems with in what Emerson says in this essay, but I think that what he says here has to fit no matter who or what you believe is leading you and what you must rely on.  And the core is Honesty.  How often has fear that people will notice that what I speak today is different than what I spoke yesterday led me to not be absolutely truthful about what I’m believing in this moment?  I’ve had these thoughts when considering making posts at this blog.  How can I write down this belief today?  What if I learn something new about it tomorrow and change my mind?  How stupid that is to be led that way.  Truth and honesty is suppressed in the name of being consistent — and perhaps avoiding being mocked by others.

I like what he says about the overall arch of our life will show the virtue of truthfulness in our life.  “…so they each be honest and natural in their hour.  For of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem.”  And one of the shortest and simplest sentence is a favorite — “Be it how it will, do right now.”  The thing that should be consistent is truth.

The point isn’t to be wishy-washy and inconsistent on purpose.  The point is to not let fear of being seen as inconsistent keep you from being honest in the moment.

“With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”  Why bother continuing to read and learn and observe and ponder if you will not allow yourself to express the new learning in some way for fear of it being criticized and belittled for being different from yesterday or last year?  I understand Emerson to be talking not about consistency in ways that are good, but talking about Consistency as an idol or god that keeps us from being honest and learning and growing.

And with that I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite thinkers.

Is there any better reason than yesterday’s momentum for us to carry on along this path today?

~Jack Pelham

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