What was Emerson's opinion on consistency and conformity?
While the title of Emerson's famous essay "Self-Reliance" might lead one to believe that his purpose was to encourage people to be self-supporting, rather than relying on charity or a handout, his intent was different. He was encouraging young men to follow the dictates of their conscience, of the voice of God speaking within their souls. He was encouraging them to be nonconformists in accepting whatever God-given task they had been assigned, even if it flew in the face of convention. "Imitation is suicide," he wrote. He also declared, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string."
His friend, Henry David Thoreau, exemplified this sort of non-conformity. Thoreau wanted to "front life" and to really live fully before he died. He therefore followed an unconventional path, existing for a time as simply as he could in a small cabin, writing about his experiences there.
Emerson felt that society as a whole, not just the individual, benefitted if each person followed the dictates of his own soul. Becoming a lawyer, for instance, just because it was safe and acceptable, dragged down not only the person doing it, but the entire society by depriving it of richer benefits. Emerson wanted people to become completely alive to their deepest selves, believing this would make the world a more vibrant place.
Emerson also believed that people should have the courage to change their minds. There is no shame in this, he said. He wrote, instead, that
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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was vehemently opposed to consistency and conformity. In his famous essay, "Self-Reliance," Emerson writes that in order to be a man, one must be a nonconformist. He states that self-reliance is considered conformity's aversion and encourages the reader to form their own opinions instead of conforming to the status quo. Emerson valued originality, authenticity, and independent thought. He wrote that conformity scatters one's force and blurs the impression of one's character. Emerson believed that a person should look within themselves for direction and inspiration as opposed to imitating others and conforming to society.
In regards to consistency, Emerson believed that individuals should act upon whatever their conscience dictates at any particular time. He felt that as long as an individual's tendencies were natural and honest, their actions would be genuine. Emerson wrote,
"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" (6).
He comments that individuals should not worry about contradicting themselves and being viewed as hypocrites for their new thoughts. Emerson encourages us to accept our new ideas and embrace our inconsistent nature. Emerson refers to consistency as a "hobgoblin of little minds" and believes that our overall inconsistencies are actually symmetrical when viewed from a different perspective. He writes,
"The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency" (7).
Emerson encourages individuals to focus on the present and reject the idea of maintaining a consistent nature.
The answer to this question can be easily seen in two very famous quotes.
When it comes to conformity, Emerson says "whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." When it comes to consistency, he says "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
What Emerson is saying in both these quotes is that people must follow the dictates of their own consciences. In the first, he is saying that they must not conform to what other people believe is right.
In the second, he is also saying that they should not bow to peer pressure. The idea in this second quote is that people should not feel like they have to be consistent just because others will make fun of them if they are not consistent. Instead, Emerson says you have to say what you believe today even if it is the opposite of what you said yesterday.