The Hobgoblin

As we age, we grow disillusioned. The man who has seen the world has misplaced his trust time and again, and becomes calloused about relationships.  But perhaps it is not only our trust in men that is misplaced; perhaps it is also our faith in reason and rationality.

Are our worldviews coherent and consistent? Or do we pose as rational beings while behaving in a way that, as author Dan Ariely says, is “predictably irrational”? 

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, the narrator is shocked to discover that an urbane older friend cannot hold her pose; she tells the narrator that she hopes her estranged husband will “rot with some loathsome disease.”  The narrator describes his reaction to her pettiness:

I think I was a little disappointed in her.  I expected then people to be more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature.  I did not realize how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being.  Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.1 

Idealistic youth expects adults to abide by the stances they take; our maturation inevitably includes small epiphanies about how “motley” men and women are.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A very few philosophers laud the irrationality of humans.  New Age thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson downplay logical coherence and make a virtue of our inconsistent worldviews: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”2  As Emerson expounds his jumble of Eastern and Western philosophy, including his disdain for absolutes and thesis/antithesis, one is tempted to point out his breakdowns in logic; by his definition, however, it is only the small-minded, the provincial, who expect consistency.  The great thinkers, in his view, learn to live with worldviews that are more like chameleons and less like impregnable fortresses.

 If you embrace Eastern mysticism, you find comfort in Emerson—but most Western thinkers still feel embarrassment when they consider how slippery our basic principles can be.  It’s disturbing to learn, for example, that in a particular study cited by cognitive psychologist Dan Ariely most women who were asked to choose between four pairs of stockings based on their quality still insisted that there was a difference in quality after being told that the four pairs were exact duplicates.  How can people claim to be rational when they are willing to defend untenable positions based on earlier convictions or prejudices?

. . . all men, left to their own devices, are far less consistent than they want to believe—even you, and even me.

Or consider this story, also told by Ariely:

Along with two other professors, he opened an “impromptu coffee shop” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  They gave a free cup of coffee to any student, and then offered them sugar, cream, and some more exotic ingredients (cloves, nutmeg, sweet paprika) to add to their drinks.  Sometimes these fancier ingredients were in rather pedestrian containers (white styrofoam cups); sometimes they were displayed in “beautiful glass-and-metal containers . . . set on a brushed metal tray will small silver spoons and nicely printed labels.”  No one chose the exotic condiments, regardless of their containers, but when the odd condiments were offered in the fancy containers, the coffee drinkers were much more likely to tell us that they liked the coffee a lot, that they would be willing to pay well for it, and that they would recommend that we should start serving this new blend in the cafeteria.  When the coffee ambience looked upscale, in other words, the coffee tasted upscale as well.3

Put another way: how many Starbucks coffee shops could trick their customers into drinking Folgers, as long as they maintained their current level of ambiance?

The typical response to such examples of irrationality is to think, Not me.  Other coffee drinkers may be fooled by fancy amenities, but my taste in coffee is discerning and unimpeachable.  We can admit that other people are “motley” while clinging to the belief that I am the exception that proves the rule.  But we can’t all be the exception!

Translation: Taking “Worldview” to Bulgaria
Check out Dana Ray’s article about her experience teaching the concepts of Worldview Academy in Bulgaria:
 Read here.

It’s much more likely, it seems, that all men, left to their own devices, are far less consistent than they want to believe—even you, and even me.  As we grow older, we encounter more instances of inconsistency, not fewer.

Does this mean that Emerson was right?  Are thinkers doomed to find more and more inconsistencies in the people around them, and in their own worldviews?  Should we just learn to live with it?

Or should you just go on hoping blindly that you are the exception that proves the rule?

Perhaps there is a third way.  Is it possible that men are motley unless they despair of their own devices and stand firm on an unchanging foundation?  That our human reason is naturally untrustworthy until it is redeemed?

That’s right: silk stockings and coffee have led us directly to the old Protestant concept of total depravity.  According to the Reformers, the fall of Adam means that every one of his descendants is corrupted, not only physically but also with regard to will and intellect.  To be “totally” depraved does not mean that you will always choose the worst possible action—it simply means that the sum total of you is fallen (no part of the human remains uncorrupted).  Including your reason! 

Is it possible that men are motley unless they despair of their own devices and stand firm on an unchanging foundation?

“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).  The  verses immediately following do not offer any exceptions for the eminently “reasonable” man.  Left to our own devices, scripture says, we will lose our way.

Other passages put it even more bluntly: 

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:18-20).

Such an idea is naturally offensive to the intelligent man seeking to order his life on the principles of reason.  This passage calls for him to throw in the towel—to realize that he can never create a consistent worldview under his own steam.  Try saying this to an atheist who believes he is more logical than you! 

But in light of the motley people we encounter every day, perhaps it is better to offend than to hold out false hope.  Perhaps our only true hope lies in despairing about our own abilities and clinging desperately to the Word, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).  Perhaps the best way to avoid inconsistency and folly is to see the folly of believing children of Adam can make themselves whole.

In Search of an Honest Atheist – thegospelcoalition.org

Signs or Symptoms – rzim.org

The Pains of Life-Long Learning – circeinstitute.org

 

J.F. Baldwin
Jeff Baldwin is the Research Director and a founder of Worldview Academy. He has served as the humanities chair for Providence Classical School in Spring, Texas as well as Headmaster at Steadfast Classical Academy in Colorado. Jeff also served as the creative editor for Understanding the Times by David A. Noebel, and co-authored the Understanding the Times curriculum. He is the author of numerous books including "The Deadliest Monster" and "Twelve Trademarks of Great Literature." Jeff is also the general editor for Worldview Academy’s website, TheGreatBooks.com, providing guides that help educators teach a classic work from the Christian perspective; works range from Homer’s Odyssey to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Jeff’s articles have appeared in World, Teachers in Focus, and New Attitude, and have been broadcast on Charles Colson’s radio program, Breakpoint. Jeff and his wife, Linda, and their three children live in Colorado.

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