Hamlet: The Wisdom of Polonius
The disadvantage of the practical man's world is that it breaks down, and refuses to work, and then he finds out, at the cost of enormous distress and suffering, that he has been working on a theory all the time, but a wrong theory; and he wishes he had done a little more thinking before it was too late. Gradually it is becoming plain to a world which has always scoffed at the philosophers that a society run on the lines of Polonius, every man being true to himself or to his own class, will not in the long run work, but will infallibly explode, with hideous ruin and combustion, into chaos, and make way for a society which shall be less selfish.
In the play, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Polonius proclaims:
To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
This is often cited as a fine example of the noble wisdom of our sublime bard, and so forth; whereas any one who looks carefully at these lines can see that if our sublime bard had nothing wiser than this to say about the conduct of life, the less we talk about his wisdom the better. As a matter of fact, of course, the lines are nonsense, and Shakespeare was well aware that they are nonsense; he puts them in the mouth of a garrulous old gentleman who spends most of his time talking nonsense. Hamlet himself - who obviously comes nearer than anybody else to speaking Shakespeare's own mind - calls Polonius a "tedious old fool," and it is plain that a tedious old fool is exactly what Shakespeare is trying to portray. The rest of the speech, of which these famous lines are the conclusion, is made up partly of bits of cheap and shallow worldly wisdom, and partly of platitudes uttered with a heavy sententiousness. Has it never struck you as strange that Shakespeare should appear to have suddenly forgotten what manner of man he was portraying, and should have made this tedious old fool end a dull speech by dropping a pearl of profound wisdom? Of course he made no such mistake. He was painting an old humbug who uttered nonsense in a grave and even pontifical style, and he did it so well that he has pulled the legs of whole generations of persons who are ready to be taken in by the pontifical style. Such persons quote these lines, and will probably continue to quote them for centuries yet, in the most impressive manner.
That being true to yourself will automatically prevent you from being false to anybody else - this is plainly nonsense. It all depends on which self you are true to; if you are true to your higher self (an old-fashioned phrase, but I suppose we all admit that we have a higher and lower self), very well; but how about being true only to your lower self ? If you remember your Biglow Papers you will recall the picture of a politician of the baser sort –
But consistency still wuz a part of his plan -
He's ben true to one party...