Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In Praise of Consistency

"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. "--Ralph Waldo Emerson

With all due respect to Emerson, we have always been mystified by this quote. It seems to us that true consistency is something to be admired, as it speaks to a unified vision of the world, one not swayed this way or that by events and emotion.

Let us be clear. We are not talking of someone who is (for example) a consistent Republican. It is not consistent to resist government intervention in your bank account but welcome it in your bedroom. (Indeed, we find the rampant inconsistency of most people's political views more than passing strange. But this is not a political column.) We define consistency as a worldview that does not differentiate based on race or creed, wealth or poverty, educated or illiterate. It is the practice of looking at things broadly, not (as is often assumed) to incorporate multiple points of view, but rather to view people and events with true objectivity.

We admit this is a tall order. Indeed, the list of those we consider truly consistent is short indeed. Krishnamurti and the Buddha jump to mind, as does Thich Nhat Hanh. Others we have quoted in this blog (Bemelmens, Bukowski, Mencken, Henry Miller) are close enough for government work. And surely a number of individuals have lived their life according to a stable vision yet never come to be widely known.

All the individuals cited, of course, would also be considered absurd. But this is not the only way to be consistent. For example, we recently had a visitor post several comments attacking us and our philosophy. After a bit of back and forth, we discovered he is (in his words) "a believer." He added that he has"always felt that a true Christian has much in common with an atheist: the urgent need to disbelieve in a thousand false gods."

We found this an interesting way of putting it. In fact, religious fundamentalism is no less consistent than being absurd. We may (and do) feel it is incorrect, but it is a consistent belief system. It is indeed possible that God, or Allah, or some other deity is in fact the creator of the known universe, and thus our assumption that life is meaningless is simply...wrong.

However, such a statement applies only to fundamentalist beliefs. Indeed, we shudder when we hear people praise religious "moderates" for embracing a "practical" worldview. We have little patience for those who attend church out of some vague "duty," or say they believe in most scripture, but are willing to give a pass to evolution. This is not consistent. If your religion says God created the world in six days a few thousand years ago, then either this happened or it did not happen. There is no in-between. You can't claim to believe in a God who created man in his own image, and also believe man evolved from single-celled organisms. These views are simply not compatible. Thus, while we do not agree with religious fundamentalists, we do respect the consistency of their belief systems. (It is true, of course, that religions may have internal contradictions, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)

Consistency is not, we should mention, what drew us to the absurd. But it was a vital factor in our accepting its premises. Indeed, we have always marveled at the wonderfully simple consistency of the absurd. Even its seeming contradictions turn out to be illusory. (The most significant of these is the question, explored by Camus in The Rebel, of whether the absurd man should be opposed to murder given that life is meaningless anyway. Camus' elegant solution was to point out that by not committing suicide, the absurd man has, whether consciously or not, imposed a belief system on his worldview [i.e., it is better to live than not live]. Thus, it is not consistent to take the life of another.) We also find it interesting (and a bit sad) that so many understand the basic premise of the absurd, but shrink from the broad implications of fully accepting the meaninglessness of life. (They are, in a word, inconsistent.)

It may well be that the consistent individual has "nothing to do." But in contrast to Emerson, we find this something to be celebrated rather than derided. Indeed, the absurd man by definition has nothing he must "do," and yet it is through this release, this unlocking of chains, that he finds true peace and contentment.


  1. Bomstein said: It seems to us that true consistency is something to be admired, as it speaks to a unified vision of the world, one not swayed this way or that by events and emotion.

    Well... Emerson's deeper point, at least it seems to me, is that too much emphasis on consistency leads to calfication -- a mindset that becomes rigid and obtuse.

    Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Emerson's "little philosophers and statemen" might be the equivalent of table-pounding blind men, angrily declaring that THEIR perception of the elephant is the only truth. "I'm telling you damn it, it's like a tree trunk! No, you damned fool, it's like a fan! No no, both of you idiots are wrong..."

    Cap'n Jack would also argue that Emerson's observation is profoundly valuable because of the overwhelming presence of "foolish" consistency in the world. The concept of worthy consistency is a noble ideal. But in reality, most of the consistency out there is fool's gold... individuals who do not see the whole picture, but swear by god that they absolutely do.

    I also found this statement of yours mildly alarming:

    We also find it interesting (and a bit sad) that so many understand the basic premise of the absurd, but shrink from the broad implications of fully accepting the meaninglessness of life. (They are, in a word, inconsistent.)

    Judge not lest ye be judged, eh? If you would castigate another man's happiness and peace of mind because his path does not match yours, such would make you little better than a TV televangelist espousing the "one true way." In a world in which there is no absolute truth and meaning is self-created, the only true way comes from within... and it may well be different for every individual.

    In other words, the closer one moves to proselyting for the "true" point of view, the closer one becomes to appearing as a pompous blind man, declaring that HIS section of the elephant presides above all... it is all too easy for any of us to do this, especially those of us with strongly held opinions. But this is where absurdity should be a help, not a hindrance... because none of this shit really matters except in the context of personal experience. Right?

    Furthermore, Jack would argue that the apparent contradictions in absurdity are NOT 'illusory' and so easily brushed away as you suggest. This is not because absurdity is uniquely or fatally flawed as a worldview, but because countless facets of reality itself wind up being paradoxical in the extreme.

    And thus we wind up in a strange place... the purported wise man who says "I have figured it all out" makes strong case that there is still a hell of a lot he does not know. Whereas the humbler, more experienced wise man who says "There is much I do not know, but perhaps I have learned a few things" is likely farther along the enlightenment path.

    And so we come back round to Emerson again... consistency when warranted is to be applauded. But premature consistency or overly myopic consistency is more a function of ego and naivete than true wisdom (in Jack's most humble opinion, of course).

    I would speculate that the "great soul" Emerson refers to counts as the individual who recognizes that reality itself is elegantly, beautifully paradoxical in certain key ways... and that the exploring of such is a lifelong journey in which ego is best put aside.

    Or, as Socrates suggested, the more we learn, the less we know -- at least in relation to the vastness and deepness of understanding yet left to be uncovered.

  2. p.s. calcification, not calfication

  3. p.p.s. Here is another illuminating example (which just sprang to mind) of why consistency can be dangerous and why I enjoy posting on this blog.

    In another thread I said something along the lines of, "My way is not the only way, but I think it is the best way."

    I retract what I said about my way being the "best" way in any type of blanket form. It is, I believe, the best way for me, and may well be the choice of certain others who see the profound attraction. But it was foolish of me to imply a one size fits all "best" notion for everyone. There is no single recipe for living the best life just as there is no single recipe for cooking the best meal. As with self-created meaning, the proof is in the palate.

    And so, in retracting my previous statement here, I avoid a "foolish consistency" in the Emerson sense by pursuing my realizations where they lead, rather than feeling forced to stay consistent with something I said a few days ago. The "hobgoblin" Emerson referred to thus may also refer, Jack speculates, to an unwillingness to bend and flex as new evidence or insight comes to light.

  4. I'm curious how the author of this post would feel about Buddhist monks who learn about Western science.

    For them to be "consistent," they would probably continue practicing their belief in Buddha and not explore the possible reasons why their believed practice works. And yet, science is teaching them exactly that. The Dalai Lama is notorious for opening the doors to science for the monks of Tibet. While this is somewhat inconsistent, I don't see that as necessarily a bad thing.

    This is not as sharp an example as evolution versus creationism, but it is a matter of belief versus scientific fact.

  5. I do think that Camus (sophistry aside) was inconsistent in rejecting murder. Authentic meaninglessness values neither life nor death, one's own or another's. By his logic, the truly consistent expression of absurdity is found in the murder-suicide rampages that we hear about all too often these days.


  6. Re, Tibetan monks and science -- if the below quote attributed to Sid G. is accurate, perhaps the inconsistent thing was their long held reliance on tradition and resistance to scientific discovery in the first place:

    "Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
    - Buddha

    Paradox, paradox...

  7. Matt-

    This is a valid point, particularly if Buddhist scripture is at odds with scientific evidence. However, it is important to ask whether (and we claim ignorance on this point) the beliefs that are in conflict with science are integral to (and necessary for) the belief system as a whole (such as is the case with creationism). From the Buddha quote posted by Sparrow it sounds as if this is not the case, which would mean there is no inherent conflict.

  8. Stanley-

    Glad to see you're still here!

    We don't agree that Camus was inconsistent on this point. Your description of "authentic meaningless" sounds more like nihilism than absurdity, and there is a world of difference.

    The absurdity of man is that he knows he is mortal, yet can do nothing to prevent it. It is this knowledge that sets him apart from other animals. Now, it is true that under this viewpoint all is material, and thus nothing "matters." However, as referenced in our post, Camus pointed out that by the act of not committing suicide, the absurd man imposes a belief system on his worldview. For such a man, therefore, it is not consistent to kill, since through his act of living he has expressed a preference for living over not living.

  9. Sparrow-

    We may regret asking this, but how do you resolve the contradiction between your posts here (which reference "self-created" meaning and what is best for "you") and the post under Montoya's creativity post (where you discuss being detached from one's ego)?

  10. Stanley-

    Also, take a look at this passage from Camus - the entire speech is under the Absurd Man post...

    There can be no question of holding forth on ethics. I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules. There is but one moral code that the absurd man can accept, the one that is not separated from God: the one that is dictated. But it so happens that he lives outside that God. As for the others (I mean also immoralism), the absurd man sees nothing in them but justifications and he has nothing to justify. I start out here from the principle of his innocence.

    That innocence is to be feared. "Everything is permitted," exclaims Ivan Karamazov. That, too, smacks of the absurd. But on condition that it not be taken in a vulgar sense. I don't know whether or not it has been sufficiently pointed out that it is not an outburst of relief or of joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact. The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity. The choice would not be hard to make. But there is no choice, and that is where the bitterness comes in. The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. "Everything is permitted" does not mean that nothing is forbidden..

    The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.

    All systems of mortality are based on the idea that an action has consequences that legitimize or cancel it. A mind imbued with the absurd merely judges that those consequences must be considered calmly. It is ready to pay up. In other words, there may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones, in its opinion. At very most, such a mind will consent to use past experience as a basis for its future actions.

  11. Bomstein said: We may regret asking this, but how do you resolve the contradiction between your posts here (which reference "self-created" meaning and what is best for "you") and the post under Montoya's creativity post (where you discuss being detached from one's ego)?

    Ha! Preemptive cringing, I like it. (j/k)

    As I have reiterated many, many times now, self-created meaning is not some exceptional gift accorded to exceptional individuals. All conscious beings create their own meaning by way of personal experience.

    Regarding what is best for "me"... my point there was actually one of withdrawing a statement that may have been misconstrued as arrogant. My "best life" -- the worldview and philosophical embrace that I deem best -- will not necessarily be the best for everyone else.

    As for what I said regarding ego and detachment... what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

    References to "I" and "me" and personal points of view are not necessarily ego-centric, especially in a discussion centered on personal philosophy and the subtle question of whether there is such a thing as one-size-fits-all or whether every individual's optimal world view is something of a custom fit.

    The ego that I referred to in the creativity post was the negative sense of ego -- which I believe I pointed out. The needy ego, the childlike ego, which craves validation and attention and protection.

    Giving personal examples and using first-person pronouns in a philosophy discussion has nothing to do with the indulgences of needy ego, old chap. They aren't even in the same ballpark.

    A creative sense of inquiry is one that can fully explore the self, as well as other subjects, without thought or concern for protecting the parochial interests of the self.

    Though I speak of "I" and "me" and what I personally believe, I am ego-free to the extent that I have no aversion to being proven wrong. In fact I rather enjoy being proven wrong, or having my viewpoint enhanced by an additional layer of nuance and subtlety I was not previously aware of, because such instances increase my understanding. In terms of prime directives and hidden objectives, developing a deeper and fuller understanding of reality takes precedent. Guarding the ego -- the childish needs of ego -- is less than an afterthought, ideally a zero concern.

    Perhaps consider it like a scientist who conducts experiments on himself. Because it is the self that is being measured and discussed, there are plenty of first person references. But the truly committed scientists will disregard all temptations to let personal desire (or worse yet personal pride) dilute the genuine spirit of inquiry, in which all hidden trails are followed without corruption by the need to reject or ignore some aspect of a displeasing conclusion.

    Did you really see a contradiction there? I find that rather amusing... to some small extent I am a hypocrite, of course, but then, upon honest assessment we are all hypocrites when it comes to pursuit of platonic ideals. The whole idea is to asymptote closer to purity over time, while recognizing that the guiding ideal in actuality can never be reached. And here we circle back round to Emersonian 'foolish consistency' again... the wise traveler should not be afraid (in Jack's view) of appearing inconsistent as he recovers old ground with new knowledge, working out kinks and snags and impurities.

  12. The capacity to hold potentially conflicting 'truths' in my head simultaneously and accept that I am not wise enough to know which of them, if any, might be the 'real' ones; that is about as close to this consistency I am able to (or care to) get. I am old enough (and have been foolishly naive and idealistic enough) to have gotten more than my fill of the absurdity of life; I do not embrace it, no longer have the energy to fight it, but realize that it is a condition with which I must contend if I am to continue to exist in the world. If that is inconsistent, then so be it.

  13. Rick:

    I can't see the difference between nihilism and absurdism. After all, what does meaninglessness mean?

    Camus' consistency, at least for those who accept the burden of reciprocity, is that after he adopted an ethic with respect to himself (I won't commit suicide), he applied it to others as well (I therefore won't commit murder). Isn't it his inconsistency to adopt an ethic in the first place -- to assert values in the face of his doctrine? This is to be human (thank God) but not to be consistent.

    Your last post above sounds like a defense of existential ethics, but even in Sartre's formulation it suffers from the impossibility of deriving "ought" from "is".

    (I double-dog promise you I am not trying to prove God's existence via the necessity of morality.)


  14. Stanley-

    This is an interesting point (and one that Camus also addressed). Basically, Camus said the act of suicide is simply an attempt to escape the absurdity of life (much the same, in other words, as trying to create meaning where there is none). Thus, he argued the true absurd man would instead rebel against absurdity by continuing to live, but with full knowledge that life is meaningless.

    As Camus put it, the absurd man is "He who, without negating it, does nothing for the eternal...Assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his revolt devoid of future, and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime. That is his field, that is his action, which he shields from any judgment but his own."

    We would argue this is indeed consistent, but at this point we may be splitting hairs. Perhaps you are right that one who believes in meaninglessness cannot have values, but seems to us that suicide would also be a value judgment of a sort - that life was not worth living. In that case there would be no avoiding values no matter what one did...

    Camus rejected nihilism not because it was inconsistent (in fact, it may well be consistent), but rather because it did not seem a particularly attractive way to go through life. We agree with this. Indeed, our point with regard to consistency was certainly not that absurdity is the only consistent value system, but rather that we find it helpful AND we also believe it is consistent.

  15. Stanley -

    Perhaps we do not know enough about nihilism to make an intelligent comparison, but the absurd clearly believes in value judgments. Nihilism does not.

    The absurd begins with a very big value judgment: Life is worth living, even in a meaningless world.

    Is that inconsistent? Could be. To us, though, there is a difference between "meaning" and "value".

    We always like sports or gaming analogies to illustrate the absurd. For instance, we know baseball is meaningless, but we play it anyway. And to decide to play baseball means to value getting a hit. It is better to get a hit than not in the game of baseball.

    So, too, in life. We agree to play, even though we know it has no meaning. And by agreeing to play the game of life, it means (by logical deduction) that you value certain things. For instance, the absurd man values experiences. After all, what is life but a series of experiences?

    Another point: Some of the objections you raise put us in some deep philosophical weeds that are challenges for all of philosophy, not just the absurd. We don't pretend to have all of the answers to questions that thousands of years of inquiry have not settled.

    Finally, we don't intend to be, as you put it somewhere, like the Ayn Rand libertarians who say that a capitalist would never lie and cheat to gain wealth. If everybody in the world were absurd, there would still be murder in the same way that if everybody in the world were devout Christians there were still be murder. There is something about human nature that no philosophy can tame or answer for.

    We focus on the practical aspects of the absurd here because we've found it helpful and liberating. And we are looking to share and explore those ideas with others.

  16. Montoya said: So, too, in life. We agree to play, even though we know it has no meaning. And by agreeing to play the game of life, it means (by logical deduction) that you value certain things. For instance, the absurd man values experiences. After all, what is life but a series of experiences?

    Yes! And value equates to self-created meaning... and self-created meaning derived from personal experience is no different than the joys derived from playing baseball, or golf, or any other game which has no place in the universal but a central role in the personal...

    Some of the objections you raise put us in some deep philosophical weeds that are challenges for all of philosophy, not just the absurd. We don't pretend to have all of the answers to questions that thousands of years of inquiry have not settled.

    Bravo!! And ye shall know the paradox, and the paradox shall set you free...

  17. As for Krishnamurti being consistent, may i refer you to:


  18. I love this site. It is brilliant. You guys are great writers, but this post is hands down the worst one that youve done.