A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

When I was a new mother, worried about colic and diet, diapers and the environment, my aunt suggested I look for the following passage in Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” and then “sleep the sleep of the just,” because I was following my heart and doing my best.

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

Twenty years later, a worn bit of scrap paper still marks that essay.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

Self Reliance

“Self Reliance” is the second essay in Emerson’s “First Series” of essays. Most of “First Series” was first published in 1841 as simply “Essays,” then re-worked and republished as “Essays: First Series” in 1847. In “Self Reliance,” Emerson encourages self-trust and nonconformity as character-builders, or perhaps as exercises of character-trust or character self-recognition.

“Self Reliance” contains other gems that hold up well out of their original context, such as “The force of character is cumulative,” and “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.”

Here is Emerson’s famous passage on hobgoblins and little minds, in context:

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. Self Reliance

Foolish Consistency

In case you’re wondering, in Emerson’s time and today’s, the term “hobgoblin” symbolizes the unknown. A hobgoblin is a mischievous or malicious little critter, most commonly from fairy tales. The significant term in this quote is in the “foolish consistency.” Emerson, above all, advocated self awareness and independent thought, sometimes challenging that authority should not be accepted unless validated by a brutally honest inner truth.

What is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.Self Reliance

Maybe Americans have always had that kind of independent spirit, but it was Transcendentalists like Emerson who helped crystallize those sentiments into literature.


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7 Responses to “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

  1. Daisy Says:

    A loose association, but it reminds me of something a mentor teacher once told me. “The small ideas of great minds are worth much more than the great ideas of small minds.” I don’t know the source, as he didn’t, either.

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