Obstinacy and contention are common qualities, most appearing in and best becoming a mean and illiterate soul. They arise not so much from a conscious defect of voluntary power, as foolhardiness is not seldom the disguise of conscious timidity. Obstinacy must not be confounded with perseverance; for obstinacy presumptuously declines to listen to reason, but perseverance only continues its exertion while satisfied that good judgment sustains its course. There are few things more singular than that obstinacy which, in matters of the highest importance to ourselves, often prevents us from acknowledging the truth that is perfectly plain to all.
There is something in obstinacy which differs from every other passion. Whenever it fails it never recovers, but either breaks like iron or crumbles sulkily away like a fractured arch. Most other passions have their periods of fatigue and rest, their suffering and their care; but obstinacy has no resources, and the first wound is mortal. Narrowness of mind is often the cause of obstinacy; we do not easily believe beyond what we see. Hence it is that the more extensive one’s knowledge of mankind becomes, the less inclined is he to the vice of obstinacy; and an obstinate disposition, instead of denoting a mind of superior ability, always denotes a dwarfed, ignorant, and selfish disposition. An obstinate, ungovernable self-sufficiency plainly points out to us that state of imperfect maturity at which the graceful levity of youth is lost and the solidity of experience not yet acquired.
Obstinacy is not only a result of a narrow, illiberal judgment, but it is a barrier to all improvements. It casts the mind in a mold, and as utterly prevents it from expanding as though it were a material substance encased in iron. A stubborn mind conduces as little to wisdom, or even to knowledge, as a stubborn temper to happiness. Whosoever perversely resolves to adhere to plans or opinions, be they right or be they wrong, because they have adopted them, raises an impassable bar to information. The wiser we are the more we are aware of the extent of our ignorance. Those who have but just entered the vestibule of the temple of knowledge invariably feel themselves much wiser than those who meekly worship in the inner sanctuary. Positiveness is much more apt to accompany the statement of the superficial observer than him whose experience has been vast and profound. Sir Isaac Newton, who might have spoken with authority, felt as a child on the shore of the great sea of human knowledge. Doubtless many of his followers feel as though far out on the tossing waves; for they act as if their opinion could by no possibility be wrong.
Sometimes obstinacy is confounded with firmness, and under this misnomer is practiced as a virtue. But the line between obstinacy and firmness is strong and decisive. Firmness of purpose is one of the most necessary sinews of character, and one of the best instruments of success. Without it, genius wastes its efforts in a maze of inconsistencies. Firmness, while not suffering itself to be easily driven from its course, recognizes the fact that it is only perfection that is immutable, but that for things imperfect change is the way to perfect them. It gets the name of obstinacy when it will not admit of a change for the better. Firmness without knowledge can not be always good. In things ill it is not virtue, but an absolute vice. It is a noble quality; but unguided by knowledge or humility, it falls into obstinacy, and so loses the traits whereby we before admired it.
Society is often dragged down to low standards by two or three who propose, in every case, to fight every thing and every idea of which they are not the instigators. There is nothing harder for a man with a strong will than to make up his mind not always to have his own way; to submit, in many cases, rather than to quarrel with his neighbors. One must certainly make up his mind to lose much of happiness who, is not willing to give way at times to the wishes of others. We must learn to turn sharp corners quietly, or we shall be constantly hurting ourselves.
But we must not, in decrying obstinacy, overlook the fact that, while it certainly is a great vice and frequently the cause of great mischief, yet it has closely allied with it the whole line of masculine virtues, constancy, fidelity, and fortitude, and that in their excess all the virtues easily fall into it. Yet it is ever easy to determine the line of demarkation where these virtues end and obstinacy begins. The smallest share of common sense will suffice to detect it, and there is little doubt that few people pass this boundary without being conscious of the fault. The business of constancy chiefly is bravely to stand by and stoutly to suffer those inconveniences which are not otherwise possible to be avoided. But constancy does not adhere to an opinion merely for the sake of having its own way, wherein it differs from obstinacy.
There are situations in which the proper opinions and modes of action are not evident. In such cases we must maturely reflect ere we decide; we must seek for the opinions of those wiser and better acquainted with the subject than ourselves; we must candidly hear all that can be said on both sides; then, and then only, can we in such cases hope to determine wisely. But the decision once so deliberately adopted we must firmly sustain, and never yield but to the most unbiased conviction of our former errors. But when such conviction is secured, it is the part of true manliness to acknowledge it, and of true wisdom to make the required change. There is no principle of constancy or of perseverance or of fortitude that requires us to continue in our former course when convinced that it is wrong.
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