Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance"

Essay by jordine March 2007

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In "Self-Reliance," Emerson writes,

"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 tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today." (153)

In this passage, Emerson appears to be contradicting his repetitive message of being true to yourself and standing firm behind your beliefs in the face of controversy. Instead, he seems to promote changing your mind from one day to the next. What does he mean by "foolish consistency?" I suggest, that this quote represents Emerson's views on the value of keeping an open mind. Digging in your heels and taking an opposing view with members of your community just for the sake of maintaining your independence destroys the intuitive search for the ultimate truth.

Emerson, instead, inspires individuals to fight against conformity and to listen to their own voice but to still keep an open mind to new information that may change their viewpoints.

Rebellious individualism and independence should not take the place of community. It is in our community that we find the ability to be with one another and still remain unique. It is within our community that our individualism, with all of its differences, also learns to respect the sincere perceptions of others without losing our self. Other people's perceptions make us vulnerable to influence, but it also challenges us to reform our own perceptions or to defend our strongly-held ideals.

Even though Emerson is an advocate for individualism and non-conformity, he is also saying that you should not be so convinced of your...