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|This page in a nutshell: Emerson's consistency hobgoblin does not refer to what so many people seem to think it does.|
Most of us are familiar with this phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
|“||A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds||”|
It is often even misquoted as simply "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (or even more sloppy approximations like "consistency is a bugbear of small-minded people", etc.).
Here's the quotation in longer form, with more of its original context. It becomes immediately apparent that it has nothing to do with writing style, and everything to do with inflexible mentality:
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. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance", Essays: First Series, 1841
Most people who quote or misquote the famous part of this passage do so to criticize an argument for textual, stylistic, or other presentational consistency, and are usually doing so to advance some alternative style in a mentally inflexible way. In doing so, they're foolishly displaying an ironic ignorance of Emerson's actual meaning and intent, which was criticism of refusal to change one's mind or adjust one's position in light of new facts or different situations.
Emerson was a professional writer, with a consistent style, and he was entirely used to formal writing that followed strict conventions (stricter then than today), and without difficulty complying with the house style of whatever publication he was writing for. Misquoting him as some kind of authority against stylistic consistency is like somehow arriving at the idea that Karl Marx's out-of-context partial quotation "In bourgeois society, capital is independent and has individuality" is Marx strongly defending capitalism, or that the one by Charles Darwin that goes "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us" is an argument in favor of creationism. It's a completely mistaken read.
If you haven't actually read something, don't quote it, or your assumptions about what it meant are apt to be embarrassingly incorrect. As Robert Anton Wilson put it: "Never assume, for when you do, you make an ass out of u and me." He was being generously egalitarian in including the reader/listener along with the assumer.
The Emerson quotation is often theoretically pertinent in regard to WP:Consensus can change arguments, as when status-quo stonewalling is getting in the way of common sense adjustments to an outmoded approach to how we do something around here. However, many editors are apt to interpret likening their arguments to small-mindedness to be a civility lapse, if not an outright personal attack. Expect to be questioned as to your motive for quoting Emerson insulting people he disagrees with. Emerson wasn't subject to our behavioral guidelines; you are.
- WP:SYNTH – on the misuse of source materials
- WP:CIVILPOV – on the misuse of superficially clever-seeming debate to push nonsense
- WP:NOT#ADVOCACY – on the abuse of Wikipedia for campaigning (including against inter-article consistency)
- WP:Specialized-style fallacy – why most arguments against WP's house style are wrong-headed
- WP:Common-style fallacy – why the rest of the arguments against WP's house style are wrong-headed
- WP:Don't teach the controversy – essay on another misused phrase