If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Friday 16 November 2012
Read gnomica 1-150 here!
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Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself;
I am large — I contain multitudes.
Walt Whitman (31 May 1819 – 26 Mar 1892)
This is actually one of my favorite quotes, one I picked up on — way back when — in eleventh-grade English [= American literature] class with Mr. Moore – where I also picked up on one along the same lines by Whitman’s older contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (25 May 1803 – 27 Apr 1882): “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” [An interesting little commentary on this epigram appears here.]
One could read both as approving or validating license to have no core beliefs or stands on things. Of course, that is not what I believe either author intended. Or one can take them to suggest an intellectual rigidity not open to modulation as modulation becomes necessary is a decided downer, and will not serve anyone profitably.
Either charge (viz., ‘flip-flopper’ or ‘uncompromising’) is freely leveled at politicians, as we have just recently observed in the presidential campaign just over. But given the legislative difficulties for current America’s D.C. solons in getting things done that need to get done – and soon – these pithy nano-directives from a former America strike me as more in the nature of minatory and monitory wake-up calls than mere historical curiosities. In short, they should be acted on!
The problem is that Washington no longer seems to give home to the capacious men and woman containing Whitman’s multitudes, and thus they prove sadly and shamefully incapable of letting go of Emerson’s foolish consistency that has found permanent place in their little minds. I remind you that Emerson presciently had appended a few more words to the original citation – words that now seem so prophetic — for he noted in addition that the ‘consistency’ whereof he spoke was “adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” And what is our capitol today but the refuge of ‘little statesmen’?
Is there any reader of these words who has not on more than one occasion ‘changed her mind’ about something, who has not come to appreciate that because of an unforeseen alteration in external circumstances simple prudence warrants an analogous make-over of the interior terrain? There is, after all, surely a difference between a lazy, unthinking aimlessness and principled adaptation to a rapidly changing world. You know as well as I do – because we have both experienced the need for it – that situational flexibility is not the same as a self-serving flip-flop.
In these parlous times — when tomorrow’s headlines may directly contradict today’s — does it make sense for anyone to cling protectively to his (often) illusory sense of certainty about how things “really are”? To protect one’s feet from external insult, does one encasing them in wire-mesh and cement before lumbering off the end of the pier?
Those nineteenth-century gentlemen still have something worthwhile to say to us.
Can it be harmful at least just to listen?