Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson, (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, and poet

Ralph Waldo Emerson Quote

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

Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Essays. First Series. "Self-Reliance," 1841

Ratings and Comments

Daiv Hemphill, Boulder City, NV

Here is the quote in context: " 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."

Waffler, Smith, Arkansas

Thanks Daiv you did good to give the extended quote. I recommend reading the entire essay. He goes on to say that the only thing that made those old dusty guys great is the fact that they wrote things down. Those of us who are beholden to natural law written down by somebody 100-s and 1000's of years ago (maybe small minds even) live under a form of dictatorship. Emerson said that each of us are just as great intrinsically (if not by actual accomplishment) as the prophets, and the sages etcetera. Intuitivelly we know this is true, for we are not Created Equal just to our contempoaries but to all who have ever lived.

Logan, Memphis, TN

Emerson is one of my heroes. Philosophy, in order to be philosophy, requires two voices: (1) the questioning voice that is continually pondering upon all aspects of the world around, and (2) the voice of limits that finds the rational bounds of the ideas proposed by the first voice. Should either of these two voices become silent then philosophy ceases to exist and ideology becomes present. Ideology merely proclaims that real truth is already absolutely found--or will never be found at all--and then seeks to convert the masses without any evidence to back up their side. Emerson is not an ideologist. Emerson, like Descartes, was frustrated at people who simply follow what society (or "little statesmen and philosophers and divines") tells them to follow -- Emerson is clearly speaking against ideologists who blindly follow the claims of historical giants, because they are considered as intellectual giants. A full reading of Emerson's works shows that he borrows from many philosophers, albeit he was able to understand the limits as proposed by these philosophers and then apply them to the world around him. A fundamental principle in understanding philosophy is the evolution of thought. Ideas are building blocks that borrow from history. Language defines these ideas; however, time is the universal solvent of language, whereas time indefinitely changes the definitions of words and phrases as people and culture encounter new situations and paradigms. The greatest philosophers built upon the thoughts, concepts, and ideas that preceded them. Each new thought required an old thought to be left behind. The ancient philosophers are vital to understanding our own culture, because the evolution of their influence is what has created our culture. Only little minds would define yesterday by today. Although pure objectivity is impossible, it is absolutely necessary to try as we gain a clearer look at who we are today by leaving our current understandings of the world around us to rest as we scope out the world that has proceeded us.

Dave Wilber, Saint Louis

One from Emerson, stuck in my mind almost 30 years: "The louder he spoke of honor, the faster we counted our spoons."

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RobertSRQ    2/1/08

Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow - Aesop - all forms are absolute as is is. All above shows a real love for enlightenment - but remember as Chuang Tzu said: "Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words." He went on to say: "Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I may talk with him."

Waffler, Smith, Arkansas

I like your tack Logan and wonder what you think it has to say about natural law discovered by someone 100's of years ago. Don't we have the same right to discover and expound natural law and to disagee with the meer human beings (just as meer as us anyway) who discovered it years ago?

Logan, Memphis, TN

Just like with science, simple principles are necessary to understanding more complex ideas. A physicist would not be able to properly define or speculate upon the characteristics of the universe if he disregarded the principle and natural law of gravity. Newton had to come before Einstein and Hawking, just as certain men had to lay the foundation in understanding for Newton to lend his own postulates. Gravity has been around since before man had language, but it wasn't until science had come so far that Newton was able to grasp the theories of gravity and advanced calculus. Language also had to evolve. As Robert said, words (language) exist because of meaning. Augustine wasn't a "greater" thinker because he came before Aquinas, nor was Machiavelli a greater thinker because he came before Locke; however, because of the evolution of thought, Locke could not cognate the "state of nature" had not Calvin, Luther, or Machiavelli set their limits with their own philosophies. Calvin, Luther, and Machiavelli could not have defined their limits if there hadn't been Augustine or Aquinas, and Augustine and Aquinas couldn't have set their limits without Jesus Christ, Socrates, Aristotle, or Plato, ad infinitum. The truth is, we CAN redefine the terms of the ancients and set them on our own terms, the problem does not lie in this fact. The problem is not in redefining terms for our understanding, but in using such redefined terms to rewrite history. It is only honest if we redefine terms to explain the meaning around us, so long as we remember what it once meant in its own understanding. It has been said that it is nearly mathematically impossible to reform the circumstances that brought about our American Revolutionary War, because the evolution of thought and the number of men who shared like ideas converged upon that one space and time to produce the results of this glorious nation. Such is the case with many ideas, as the evolution of thought converges upon one man to create a new theory, definition, or idea. As language evolves and as new ideas are presented to society there are portions of history that are always left behind. As per the notion of natural law, the fact is we don't exist upon those terms anymore--language and understanding have progressed to the point that such definitions and ideas have become antiquated in our society. This doesn't, however, necessarily mean that yesterday's definitions won't work in today's society, because man is not a result of merely natural pressures, but of choice. Man is a rational being that can choose its reality. While the evolution of thought converged upon the likes of Locke and Rousseau to purport the limits of the "state of nature", society, by choice, has chosen to redefine and subsequently leave those terms behind. Man, today, can think and reason--but the adage is the same, we ignore history's lessons at our peril. What has made men like Emerson, Locke, Machiavelli, Augustine, and Socrates great thinkers? It is their ability to adhere to the principles of history--they retained focus and established their theories on what HAD been, not what they WISHED had been. As I have personally talked with countless numbers of philosophers and political scientists, I search widely in vain to find such men who will accept history for what it WAS. While man retains the ability of properly building upon the postulates of Locke's theories of the state of nature and natural law, man has chosen to ignore Locke's limits and merely redefine the postulates on his own terms. This is his right to do, so long, as I have said, he does not try to rewrite history. It is absolutely accurate that man has the ability, right, and duty to disagree with the ancients or to build upon them towards greater ideas, after all, that's what they did themselves--this is what MADE them great. But, like Emerson says, the ancients have been misunderstood-- and I would add, regretfully, unduly, and unsubstantially, redefined.

Mike, Norwalk

Said very well Logan. All natural law existed before man's sojourn on this orb. It is up to man to discover what that natural law is or, as expressed contemporary to the founders, the God of Nature's laws. Some natural law is self gratifying or justifying. As Logan exampled, 'gravity'. Other natural laws such as pertain to the sanctity of life, and fiscal propensities (property ownership, theft, accounting, bankruptcy, etc.) are left to man's discovery through history's events and use. The realm of an individual's religion, philosophy, political science, government, etc. have all had a part in discovering and defining the founder's understanding of natural law. The closer and more accurate corporeal man defines natural law, the greater the liberty and freedom. Common law is a sub-category to natural law as it is practiced on as small a congregation as most closely defines any given set of events. There is no national or federal common law possible by definition. The further away or less accurate corporeal man's codes, rules, statutes are from natural law, the greater the tyranny. That is but one reason so many of the U.S. founders expressed their loathing for a Democracy. To live by law consistently brings happiness. To live by corporeal man's codes, rules, and statutes contrary to law, as adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines is a foolish consistency enforced by the hobgoblin of little minds.

E Archer, NYC

The point being that clinging to beliefs, no mattter how hypocritical it may be to do so, is simply foolish, and common among the government and church. Question authority and in particular, one's own long-hld beliefs. Blind faith leads but to the abyss.

Waffler, Smith, Arkansas

Natural law in science, like, biology, botany, geology, astronomy is a different thing than "natural law" in politcis, philosophy etcetera, What existentialism teaches basically is that the study of philosophy is a waste of time. I agree that everyone everywhere is often misunderstood. Thus when Nietsche said he disliked Christianity it was because he felt it was to other worldly and the expense of enjoyjing and living the present life to the full. Unfortunaltely he and many don't grasp the entire gospel. Paul or some body in the Bible said "Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly." If that is not a go for it statement I don't know what is. As far as Augusting (I don't pretend to be an expert) I perceive that he is a "Saint" because his philosophy at some point says "If you build it they will come" and the church should be the central influence on peoples lives. It seems that he was the father of modern church totalitarianism. Of course there were similar folks in the ancient world. I agree 100% that it is a joy to read and glean the thoughts of the ancients but I still like Emersons tack that hell yes WE ARE ALL SOMEBODIES TOO! Thus we are not slave to these old timers or their written in concrete quotes. Their quotes should be food to get our own brains working.

Logan, Memphis, TN

LOL, So, eh, Waffler... Can you explain to me how existentialism came to the conclusion that philosophy is a waste of time?! Sounds like a flight from philosophy. So funny how all the idiots who try to reason their departure from philosophy have to use philosophy to show their stupidity. Yes, Waffler, I'm sure you're a real boy and a somebody too...

Mike, Norwalk

Existentialism is a "philosophy" that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe. Existentialism regards the human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts. Waffler, by saying there are no natural laws in a political venue, are you saying there are no fiscal laws and that if there is no natural law concerning the sanctity of life, we should be able to kill whomever we like without any consequences? Are then individuals, or society as a whole, that are not effected by murder. A democracy has to deny natural law because if natural law existed, democracy could not legitimately create law. (larceny, murder, etc. are all lawful without consequence if the democracy says they are - NOT)

E Archer, NYC

Waffler couldn't get anyone to take the bait. He implies that we are "beholden to natural law written down by somebody 100-s and 1000's of years ago." No, we are beholden to natural law -- period. That's why it is called 'natural law' because it is inseparable from Nature, it cannot be 'broken.' Yes, people have been philosophizing about Nature and how it works since man could write, and yes, their interpretations can and do evolve as Logan has explained. That doesn't change the nature of the world, only our understanding of it. My sense is that there is something Waffler doesn't like that some old guy said 100s of years ago that doesn't jive with his own experience or teachings. The thing to do next is actually research the words, not just make a general statement about the words of wise men 1000 years ago, that just because they are old that they are wrong. Pick something and research it, then retell your findings. That is how discoveries are made.


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