What was Emerson's opinion on consistency and conformity?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.

gmuss25's profile pic

gmuss25 | Elementary School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

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. 

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