Friday, March 15, 2013

Who Needs Consistency, Anyways?

Human Behaviour
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 (1841) 

We expect consistency in nature, and such is how science, by observation, formulates many of its laws. We also expect consistency in a nation's application of its laws, although such is not always the case. Do we, however, expect humans to always behave consistently in their thoughts, views and actions? Is it wise and necessary?

Now there is a wide difference between irrational and erratic behaviour, sometimes such being a definitive psychiatric disorder, and to what here Emerson is alluding. [You can read his essay, “Self-Reliance” here.] The essay, written after a lifetime of thought and reflection, calls for a thoughtful individuality. Instead of a "foolish consistency," which robs our souls of purpose and possible greatness, Emerson urges his readers to think and speak as individuals.

Now, individuality often is twinned with originality in thought, words and writing; there are original thinkers, artists, writers, but not many. Originality for its own sake will not immediately capture the public imagination; not then—and certainly not today when conformity is even more the accepted norm. When consistency is the accepted norm, it takes courage, especially for the young, to show views other than normative or traditional ones. Since I am way past my prime, at age 55, I can and do take more risks in what I say or write.

Consistency also speaks about conforming to tradition, whether religious, political or social. Consistency speaks about predictability. Consistency speaks about not changing one’s mind or views. Ever. Is this necessarily a good thing? Some, probably many, think so, and act accordingly. Quiet desperate lives; maybe even happy content ones. But not great ones.

I truly think that few great and notable thinking individuals hold the same views on important matters for their whole existence here on earth. New evidence and knowledge honestly demands a change in views. I have changed my mind a number of times on a few important issues. I have always been thankful and glad that I have done so. No regrets, other than I had wished I had done so sooner.

Humans, for the most part, are supposed to be thoughtful, insightful and rational beings. It would be possible to remain consistent only if humans were mere automatons.

In some cases this is tragically true.