Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Reflection on Self-Contradiction

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. [Emerson]

No doubt you’ve heard this quote before, although some people seem to miss the “foolish” part.  Emerson isn’t bagging on consistency here.  What he’s talking about is dogma: getting stuck on an idea and refusing to let go, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  Perhaps it would help to look at the context of the quote:

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 today in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.

‘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, from Self-Reliance (1841)

What Emerson is advising is to admit when you’re wrong.  To embrace change, even in your own mind, and to refuse to look back and second-guess yourself.  To be completely comfortable with contradicting yourself.

I especially love how he says that a foolish consistency is “adored by little statesmen.”  If you follow politics even casually (which is about all I can stand to follow it, myself), you know that if a politician today dares to change their mind, their opponents will leap on them instantaneously.  “Flip-flopper!” is the typical epithet.  Refusal to compromise one’s principles has become a virtue, although refusal to compromise should probably not be a virtue in politics no matter what exactly one is refusing to compromise.  But, if we look back to Emerson, we see that those who do not “flip-flop” are employing a foolish consistency, which then speaks volumes about the volume of their brainpower.

Of course, the smart guys aren’t typically the ones we elect.  Adlai Stevenson is a great example.  He’s famous for two things: being intelligent, articulate and erudite, and failing to get elected to the presidency despite trying 3 times in a row.  Stevenson once said to reporters:

Isn’t it conceivable to you that an intelligent person could harbor two opposing ideas in his mind?

Stevenson here goes a bit beyond Emerson, who talked about believing something today that was the opposite of what you believed yesterday.  Stevenson takes the next step and is perfectly willing to believe two opposite things at the same time.  For a Baladocian such as myself, this is an attractive proposition.

Of course, we needn’t limit ourselves to politicians—poets have weighed in as well.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

— Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself” (51)

In just a few words, Whitman takes aim at why we contradict ourselves, and why it’s perfectly acceptable to do so.  The landscape of the human mind is vast, Whitman says.  Just as one vista may contain both mountains and canyons, both ocean and desert, so too does a person contain many ideas which are antithetical to each other.  This often leads us to feel conflicted.  We should not.  We should embrace the paradoxes in our nature.  Stephen Fry (who is neither a politician nor a poet, but easily as eloquent as either) puts it thus:

So we have first and foremost to grow up and recognise that to be human and to be adult means constantly to be in the grip of opposing emotions, to have daily to reconcile apparently conflicting tensions.  I want this, but need that.  I cherish this, but I adore its opposite too.  I’m maddened by this institution yet I prize it above all others.

— Stephen Fry, BAFTA speech, 2010

Oscar Wilde (once portrayed by Stephen Fry, perhaps not coincidentally) was, as usual, more succinct:

The well bred contradict other people.  The wise contradict themselves.

And now we’ve progressed from self-contradiction being acceptable, through it being something to embrace, and ended up with it being a sign of wisdom.  Sort of makes you want to start contradicting yourself right away.

Or maybe not.

At the bottom, I think all of these great speakers were saying something about the human condition.  Which is perhaps all that any writer—whether of essays, plays, poems, speeches, or merely witticisms—wants to do.  You can write things that sound pretty, but unless there is some Truth in it, it won’t have much lasting impact.  We all search for insight, both internally and externally, and the thing we most wish to be revealed is ourselves.  It’s difficult to understand ourselves from within ourselves, just as the classic fishbowl analogy teaches us.  Those folks outside the fishbowl have a much different perspective than those of us for whom 115.5 cubic inches of water are our entire world.  So we want those people who have the ability to express themselves with some flair to express something about ourselves that we can’t see from inside.

Of course, we also hate to be criticized, for other people to point out our flaws.  Yet I think we crave it at the same time.  Just another example of our inherent tendency toward self-contradiction.

I know personally that I hate to be wrong.  Sometimes I’m accused of hating to admit that I’m wrong.  But that’s not the same thing at all, and I don’t believe I have the latter problem.  To work hard not to be wrong—to attempt to forge the future in such a way as to be as good and right as you can manage—is admirable.  To refuse to admit you’re wrong—to deny the immutable past in which everyone already recognizes your folly—is just self-delusional.  So is it self-contradictory to work overtime to prevent the future mistake, while simultaneously being completely comfortable with those in the past?  Perhaps.  If so, I don’t particularly care.  I’ve been wrong many times in the past, and I know I’ll be wrong many more times in the future.  That doesn’t mean I have to accept it meekly.

Willingness to accept your mistakes is also part of being human.  To consult one last great orator:

I am human, and I make mistakes.  Therefore my commitment must be to truth and not to consistency.

— Gandhi

Mohandas K.Gandhi often changed his mind publicly.  An aide once asked him how he could so freely contradict this week what he had said just last week.  The great man replied that it was because this week he knew better.

— a Detroit News editorial

Indeed.  This week, I’m ever so much smarter than I was last week.  Last week I was a moron.  By next week, I shall be a genius.  I’ll be different, but I’ll still be me.  Misunderstood, multitudinous, opposing, conflicted, occasionally wise, always human.

No comments:

Post a Comment