Consistency

Consistency can really turn some people into nutjobs. If that statement is too concise and idiomatic, there is always Emerson’s jingle: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

I have to wonder if the issue is one of means and ends. Is consistency a criterion which should not be pursued as an end in itself but rather as a tool for testing what you really want to keep? Here’s an illustration in search of the answer.

It begins with a boat at sea. Nets are cast and then drawn in, and they come back teeming with fish of varying kinds. Consistency is what you use to sort the fish, to make sure you discard what you can’t or shouldn’t keep. And so you have a ship carrying inconsistencies as you test what you’ve retrieved, and sort it, and fill your freezers with a consistent sort of fish. The water pours from the deck, the nets are emptied, the measure is applied, and afterward the sea receives again a good portion of the catch. The hold of the ship is full of the bounty of the sea.

The illustration ends with the man who insists above all on consistency. He goes to sea on a smaller boat. He shakes his head at the disorder of the volume of the aforementioned fishing. Instead of using a net, he dives into the water with his measure and carefully obtains his consistent catch. No inconsistent fish come on his little boat, and in his ice-chest three or four fish are laid out neatly, like a shop-window display and all perfectly consistent.

And that illustrates two things: the mode of operation and the yield. I think of this in connection with G. K. Chesterton’s logician and poet. When I think of nut-jobs hammering on consistency, the resulting absence of both sense and wonder is what I respond to worst.

I don’t want to say that consistency is something we dispense with, but I think dispensing with it is dispensing with a means to something, such as a tool is—something useful and therefore good. So I conclude that making it an end is what generates the anomalies.

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