The Virtue of Inconsistency

Hobgoblin sketchMy favorite quotation of all time was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I loved it the first time I read it, back when I was a literature major in college:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I always thought “hobgoblin” was a fun-to-say word – almost onomatopoeic – the sound it makes suggests the meaning of the word. A hobgoblin is a mischievous elf in English folk tales, a hairy little man who plays tricks on you. Nothing mean, just pranks.

When I was a high school English teacher, I usually tried to work the quote into at least one lesson plan each year. Most of the kids were surprised by the quote. Consistency is what’s normally considered to be good, not inconsistency. The quote prompted some fresh thinking, I think.

I still throw the quote into discussions on occasion when someone is struggling for the courage to try a different approach to solving a problem, or just simply trying out something new.

AbrahamLincolnLast week I read something about being afraid to contradict yourself, afraid that someone might say to you, “But that’s not what you said yesterday.” The writer gave me a new favorite quotation. He quoted Abraham Lincoln’s response to the accusation of being inconsistent in what he says, “Yes, that is what I said yesterday, but I hope that I’m smarter today than I was yesterday.”

As I was thinking about these quotes, I decided to google “consistency quotes,” and came across one by Bernard Berenson, an art historian of the past century. “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.”

Hmm. Is he suggesting that if I am totally consistent today with what I believed and what I said a year ago, that I am just as ignorant as I was a year ago?

Abraham Lincoln - wiser - brownI keep thinking that I’m learning new things and am actually becoming a little bit wiser every year of my life. The natural result of the learning process is that I should be recognizing some inconsistencies within myself. That’s good, and nothing to be afraid of. That’s progress. That’s something to pray for. Edward Hays wrote the prayer, “Daily may I grow smarter and change my mind, and so contradict myself…”


A closing thought… One of the best parts of the learning process for me is exploring new ideas on the Internet. However, Abraham Lincoln warned us to be careful with that.


Abraham Lincoln - Internet Quote - brown

6 responses to “The Virtue of Inconsistency”

  1. Betsy Bruce Henning Avatar
    Betsy Bruce Henning

    This is just the kind of writing I love…I learned some things, pondered some things, and I laughed. Thank you for a delightful post.

    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the post. This one was fun to write.

  2. Loved the ending!

  3. Yes for sure, this week’s blog is one of your best so far. I echo Betsy’s and Mary’s comments. Never thought of inconsistency in this light, and it’s very freeing. I am copying all of Abraham Lincoln’s quotes from the blog, (especially the last one 🙂 to keep in front of me till they become a part of who I am. Might even share this blog on my timeline….

  4. Terry Kornelsen Avatar
    Terry Kornelsen

    I loved the first Lincoln quote. 🙂

  5. Terry Kornelsen Avatar
    Terry Kornelsen

    I agree with the premise of the blog. Only God can be truly consistent. His consistency is our best foundation. All we can do is our best based on his teaching (i.e. the 10 commandments, the golden rule…). These do not change. If what you said and believed a year ago is based firmly on these, you are not “ignorant”. Thought provoking blog. Thanks!

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