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Did Ayn Rand Misrepresent Emerson?

by Richard Lawrence

One common criticism of Ayn Rand is that she does not fairly represent those with whom she disagrees. A specific example that is sometimes cited is a reference she makes to Ralph Waldo Emerson in her lecture "Philosophy: Who Needs It." In this reference, it is claimed, Rand misquotes and/or misrepresents Emerson. Without going into the broader issue of how Rand presents views contrary to her own, this specific instance regarding Emerson does not involve any misquoting. Moreover, Rand may have represented Emerson's views more accurately than do those who criticize her for supposedly misrepresenting him.

The quote from Rand is as follows:

You might claim -- as most people do -- that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? "Don't be so sure -- nobody can be certain of anything." You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. [Several other examples omitted.]

Some people might answer: "Sure, I've said those things at different times, but I don't have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it's not true today." They got it from Hegel. They might say: "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: "But can't one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?"

They got it from Richard Nixon -- who got it from William James.

("Philosophy: Who Needs It," as published in Philosophy: Who Needs It, pp. 4-5, emphasis in original)

The first thing to recognize is that Rand does not quote Emerson. Rather, she says that "you" (or "some people") might say various things, and then presents examples of trite philosophical sayings. For each saying, a person is named who serves as a source for the idea expressed in that saying. Rand never claims that these people are the source of the specific wording of the saying. In the instance at issue, the source is Emerson, but she never claims that Emerson (or any of the other sources) used the exact words that she uses.

As it turns out, Emerson did use the very words that Rand does in the "consistency" saying that she claims he is the source for, although these words are part of a longer sentence in Emerson's original text. This coincidence of phrasing naturally leads many people to believe that she was quoting Emerson, and perhaps misquoting him, since she does not quote the entire sentence. But the evidence of the other examples indicates that she was not attempting to quote him directly at all.

Although she isn't quoting Emerson directly, she does cite him as the source of the saying. Therefore, some readers might raise an issue of possible misrepresentation. It is fair to ask: does the saying she quotes accurately reflect what Emerson meant in his original statement? To find an answer to this question, let us turn to the original, and give a fuller context for Emerson's words.

The quote from Emerson comes from "Self-Reliance," an essay about intellectual independence. Emerson summarizes his own theme in the statement, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." In keeping with this theme, Emerson introduces the issue of consistency by discussing how a concern with consistency (and with appearing consistent to others) can interfere with intellectual independence:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in acts of pure memory, but to bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity: yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

It is in this context that Emerson places his famous statement, which starts the very next paragraph:

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.

Emerson's comments can be read more than one way. On one reading, one might say that he is simply advising against "foolish" consistency. For example, one should not pursue consistency with one's past statements for its own sake when new evidence suggests that your previous statements were wrong. Those who accuse Rand of misrepresenting Emerson presumably hold to this interpretation. If one assumes that his concern about consistency is strictly limited to cases where a person tries to stay consistent with his past statements out of concern for appearances to others, even disregarding new evidence, then Emerson is not saying something that Rand should find objectionable.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that Emerson's objections to consistency are so limited. Another plausible interpretation is available: Emerson may be saying that all efforts at consistency are "foolish." The sentence, "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do," is not qualified in any way. Nor is the next sentence: "He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall." These appear to be very sweeping dismissals of any concern with consistency.

The idea that Emerson means to condemn consistency in general is reinforced by the specific example he gives of inconsistency: denying personality to God and then ascribing it to Him. This example does not involve a change of mind based on new evidence or argument. Rather, Emerson advises indulging in such inconsistency based on "devout motions of the soul." Nor does he have any positive things to say about consistency, even indirectly. When giving his example, Emerson does not suggest that the contradiction between the statements will eventually be resolved in favor of one or the other, or even in a synthesis. He says nothing that implies one should be at all concerned about contradictions.

On this understanding of Emerson's meaning, Rand has not misrepresented him at all. It would be those who place emphasis on the modifier "foolish" who misrepresent him, while Rand would have correctly captured the essence of his meaning.

To sum up the analysis of Emerson's comments: On one interpretation, Emerson could be seen as arguing that consistency can be good, but excessive concern for consistency is bad when it interferes with our intellectual independence. On the other interpretation, he would be saying that concern with consistency interferes with our intellectual independence, but we need not be concerned with consistency because consistency is a bad thing. Both of these interpretations maintain a connection to the fundamental theme of the essay, but they are very different in their view of consistency.

From the text itself, the latter interpretation seems more likely to me, although I cannot claim it is definitive. In any case the point is surely arguable enough that one cannot justly dismiss Rand's identification of Emerson as the source of the saying as an obvious misrepresentation. And, as discussed above, it is not a misquotation because it is not a direct quotation in the first place.


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