instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, October 07, 2005

Speaking of hobgoblins

I am, on the whole, insufferable, which is one reason many people who meet me socially get the impression that I am quiet and reserved. I know from experience that, once I start talking, no good will come of it.

I am, though, a rank piker compared to Emerson:
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.
Let us pass the content by without a word, out of charity toward a man who can do no further harm. I think it's the confluence of an aphoristic writing style and the theme of the "great soul" that really grates.

I knew a college professor who, when he reached a key point in his lecture (i.e., something that would be on the test), would say, "No need to write this down. Just memorize as I go along." There's something of a "memorize this" attitude in aphoristic writing, by which I mean something like a series of general and categorical statements: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.... With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do... Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again.... To be great is to be misunderstood."

Such writing gives the reader no foothold or purchase, no place to brace himself against the onslaught of the writer's ideas, or to rest while he weighs the previous general and categorical statement. It's forceful writing, yes, but who wants to be forced into accepting something merely because he reads it? And of course, once the reader steps out of the direction of the force -- as, in this example, by saying, "Well of course 'foolish consistency' is bad, but that's because it's foolish, not because it's consistent." -- the whole rest of the piece slides on by without effect, like a train passing a car that stopped in time at a crossing.

This "memorize this" impression is only exacerbated by the fact that Emerson is writing categorically about greatness of soul. It's hard to do that without implying that one is oneself a Great Soul, or at least greater than the majority of one's readers are likely to be, and that one's greatness is proved by the fact that one lives according to one's aphorisms. If he stuck to the alleged foibles of little statesmen, well, who but little statesmen would begrudge him his bit of grandstanding on that theme?

Of course, it isn't just that one is a Great Soul, as tiresome as that is, but that one's very greatness inevitably causes suffering. Poor dear! The one source of consolation in this, apart from one's own greatness, is that Jesus knows just how one feels.