Why does Emerson believe that "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"?Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson believed strongly in individualism; it is important, Emerson held, for each individual to follow whatever his conscience dictated at any particular time. Earlier in his essay, Emerson writes, 

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.

People who are afraid to alter others' perceptions of themselves are of "little minds" because they limit themselves to the past perception that others have of them.  For, they fear contradicting their previous thoughts lest they be judged unfavorably.  This fear Emerson calls a "hobgoblin," a troublesome creature, because it limits their minds and souls.  Individuals should have greater minds that allow them to think each day, and if their thoughts contradict what they have previously thought, then they must freely express these new ideas of theirs.

In another of his essays, "Education," Emerson writes of "the opium of custom" as people blindly follow traditional thought and action.  In "Self-Reliance" as in "Education," Emerson rails against imitation, the "hobglobin" that prevents men from being the individuals that they must strive to be, individuals who are open to intuition that transcends reason. 

One critic's interpretation of Emerson's famous line is this:

Be true not to what was done yesterday, Emerson urges, but to what is clearly the right course today, and the right destination will be reached.

The new thoughts of an individual are in keeping with what he has previously thought though they be different; for, they are but the varied but unified mental activity of that individual.



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