Wikipedia:Emerson and Wilde on consistency

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Ralph Waldo Emerson in one of his most colorful moods

Most of us are familiar with this phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

It is often even misquoted as simply "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (or even more sloppy approximations like "conformity 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.

Then the idea went Wilde[edit]

About 48 years later, Oscar Wilde – another professional writer entirely used to applying consistency in the use of the English of his era and conforming to the expectations of his publishers – wrote the following:

Oscar Wilde was always colorful, even in sepia.

It, too, is sometimes misquoted, e.g. as "conformity is ...." Wilde's sentence fragment, like Emerson's, has been taken entirely out of context, some of which we will restore here:

Nor do I feel quite sure that Mr. Whistler has been himself always true to the dogma he seems to lay down, that a painter should paint only the dress of his age and of his actual surroundings: far be it from me to burden a butterfly with the heavy responsibility of its past: I have always been of opinion that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative: but have we not all seen, and most of us admired, a picture from his hand of exquisite English girls strolling by an opal sea in the fantastic dresses of Japan? Has not Tite Street been thrilled with the tidings that the models of Chelsea were posing to the master, in peplums, for pastels? Whatever comes from Mr. Whistler's brush is far too perfect in its loveliness to stand or fall by any intellectual dogmas on art, even by his own: for Beauty is justified of all her children, and cares nothing for explanations: but it is impossible to look through any collection of modern pictures in London, from Burlington House to the Grosvenor Gallery, without feeling that the professional model is ruining painting and reducing it to a condition of mere pose and pastiche.
— Oscar Wilde, "The Relation of Dress to Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler's Lecture", Pall Mall Gazette, February 28, 1885.

If you read the entire short piece, you'll find that it is only about art (plus fashion, which Wilde took to be a vulgarization of art) and its relation to modernity. Wilde was wryly criticizing tonalist painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler's artistic output not being consistent with Whistler's own art-theory lecturing, in the same breath as Wilde decrying, as uncreative, a consistency between an artist's artworks themselves (and thereby praising Whistler's actual work if not theory).

However, Wikipedia is emphatically not the place for editors' own original work, new ideas, or creative self-expression (except maybe decorating your user page, a little).

If you paid attention to and thought about the Wilde material, you will have noticed something Wikipedia-important: He especially criticizes artists' use of models and any expectations artists or critics might have that art should depend on and closely mirror observed life. In other words, Wilde's stance on art is hostile to using and following sources, if this viewpoint is analogized to our writing of what we write on this site. The Wildean position obviously cannot be applied to writing an encyclopedia, which is entirely unlike a painting or a poem (or an unusual hat design).

If you didn't read it, don't quote it[edit]

The lesson here: If you haven't actually read a work, don't purport to quote from it, or your assumptions about what it meant (if you even get the out-of-context words right at all) 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."[a] He was being generously egalitarian in including the reader/listener along with the assumer.


  1. ^ The same sentiment in slightly different wording has also been attributed to Jerry Belson. This modern aphorism was popularized on the TV series The Odd Couple in 1973, and re-popularized much later by Ellen DeGeneres. It is well known enough now to appear as a succinct entry in Urban Dictionary, and to be the subject of a webcomic panel in xkcd (hover the cursor over the comic for secondary, related, joke pop-up). However, according to quoteinvestigator, the earliest appearance is in a 1957 advert, and it should only be attributed to anonymous.

See also[edit]