Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

I understand the quote. But Wikipedia doesn't explain the origin of the following signification? It differs from the original that portrays hobgoblins as guileful. Was there some semantic shift?

The term "hobgoblin" is used sometimes to mean a superficial object that is a source of (often imagined) fear or trouble.

2 Answers 2


Sense 2 of "Hobgoblin" in my OED is

fig. An object which inspires superstitious dread or apprehension; a bogy, bugbear.

It gives citations dating from 1709 to 1841-2, the latter being the very Emerson quotation you ask about. Emerson (then aged in his late 30's, so hardly, as was insinuated in an earlier edit of the question, a whippersnapper) apparently used the word correctly in a way it had been used for more than a century.


Emerson's Essay

To get Emerson's full meaning, which the existing answer indicates was and could only be based upon the existing common usage of his time, you can do no better to start than by reading the full essay: https://emersoncentral.com/texts/essays-first-series/self-reliance/

Emerson's Quote

Emerson actually says:

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.

This in itself is a bit radical, and might suffer from a foolish inconsistency if taken to extreme, but that's not the usual affliction of "big" thinkers (and Emerson seems to imply the "big" thinkers are actually little ones).

From the Context

Digressing from the consistency itself, which is never-the-less relevant to what he means by hobgoblin, this is a tendency which hobbles (no pun intended) philosophers as they repeatedly attempt to apply Occam's Razor in order to formulate a complete and inviolable description of the causality of it all: a theory that is consistent for all circumstances under inspection.

In the real world this is seldom possible, because reality always exceeds men's minds in complexity, but the hobgoblin of these petty philosophers is to continually try. They become focused more on their own explanations than the practical application of them, and become entranced in their own egotism.

Thus we see the hobgoblin itself. A tendency, perhaps even an addiction, possibly associated with certain vices like pride, that will not let the philosopher go, but continually afflicts and diverts him.


Goblins themselves are usually pictured as small, fairly evil or at least perverse, supernatural beings, often living in caves or under the ground, and averse to sunlight. Just like this tendency. The philosopher likes to espouse that he's addressing the great questions of his time but really he's being dogged under the surface by vices of pride and irrelevance. A "goblin" is a fairy or a mischievous spirit.


Hobgoblins are obviously a variation on goblins. "Hob" itself means a clownish fellow, a rustic or a fairy. Most dictionaries describe "hobgoblin" and "goblin" almost identically, although it's clear that hobgoblins are worse than goblins, because they have an additional prefix, something like "arch". But I can also say from my own experience of the language and literature that to me a "hobgoblin" is harder to get rid of, there is a feeling there of a creature that won't let you go.

Goblins compared to Hobgoblins

Goblins can be dispensed with easily and are usually not a problem except in large numbers, whereas you have to pay attention to a hobgoblin properly because he's a problem all on his own and will take discipline and persistence to defeat him.

Emerson's pictoral meaning

Hence this hobgoblin Emerson speaks of seems to be the addiction of proud minds to spend their hours pontificating underground on how they can make their great theories more logically consistent while failing to address the practical realities in daylight. The hobgoblin is definitely a guileful spirit, but in Emerson's usage that guile is the deception of the fine arguments that the philosopher himself is creating. The hobgoblin is a part of you.

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