What does Emerson mean by "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"? How does it relate to individuality and resisting social conformity?

Emerson's quote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

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Emerson's phrase "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" in "Self-Reliance" criticizes those who rigidly adhere to their beliefs, unable to adapt or evolve their ideas. This concept promotes individuality and resistance to conformity, arguing that great minds—like Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, and Newton—embraced being misunderstood due to their unique thoughts and discoveries. Emerson encourages us to think independently and trust our insights, even when they challenge conventional wisdom or our own previous beliefs.

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The entire passage from "Self-Reliance" reads:

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.

Emerson states that to be an individual you must not think like other people: you must, above all, think for yourself and be true to yourself. This means your thoughts and ideas may evolve. What you think tomorrow may be the opposite of what you think today. Emerson asserts that is not only okay, but the proper way to live.

By saying that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Emerson means that people who lack the ability to imagine, be visionaries, and think for themselves get an idea into their heads and cling to it no matter what further information they learn. This is damaging, because whatever idea they won't give up might be entirely wrong—even if everyone you know believes it to be true.

Emerson states that the truly great people in history, such as Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, and Newton, thought for themselves. What they said seemed senseless to others, and they were misunderstood, but they didn't care. They knew what they were saying was true, and they stuck to what their inner voice told them.

Galileo is possibly the clearest example of this kind of far-thinking individualism and trusting in oneself. He knew from charting the position of the planets through his telescope that the earth must rotate around the sun. There simply was no other explanation for his data. However, even his closest friends, some of them university professors like him, thought he was crazy. They could gaze up into the sky and track what looked like the motion of the sun across the horizon. The sun moved around the earth: they could see it with their own eyes. Many thought Galileo was crazy to risk his reputation to publish his heliocentric theory, one that got him into deep trouble with the Inquisition.

Yet Galileo was right. He knew it seemed inconsistent with the senses--with sight--and also was inconsistent with what he grew up believing-- to say that the earth revolved around the sun, but he stuck with what he believed to be true (he did have to publicly recant it, but he never stopped believing it).

Emerson wants us to have that kind of courage and faith in ourselves. This is what brings positive changes and helps humanity to prosper.

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