Monday, August 30, 2010

foolish consistency

I'm surprised by how few people know the full wording of Emerson's famous statement on consistency and the insight it contains.

As he wrote in his essay "Self-Reliance,"
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

It's quite true that diplomats and other officials often make a fetish of consistency, at least until they have to change their positions. Sometimes it's a virtue, sometimes a hindrance to wise policy.

This point came home to me as I read, in this twilight of summer reading for pleasure now that classes resume, a very informative book on Churchill's views of the British empire. Author Richard Toye cites private and public statements by Churchill that show his sometimes ambivalent and often changing views of imperial subjects and colonial wars. While he was consistent in supporting British conquest and imperium, Churchill was inconsistently racist, inconsistently in favor of brutal tactics, and inconsistently confident that the efforts to preserve the empire were worth the cost.

Biographers often note that the vices of great leaders are usually the extreme form of their virtues. Churchill's obstinacy was noble against Hitler, but less admirable or effective against other adversaries. What is interesting to me -- in general, a Churchill admirer -- is how less consistent he was on many imperial issues than I had realized.

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