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In Emerson's famous essay Self-Reliance there's this sentence:

Fear never but you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour.

I guess that this is a rather archaic and/or literary use of the word 'but', and that it's more or less similar to its use in 'It never rains but it pours'. (In which 'but' means 'without it being the case that'.) Is my hunch correct? If so, what does the sentence mean exactly? The combination of the imperative and 'but' makes this sentence difficult to follow.

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Some editions of this essay add the word that, making it easier to parse:

Fear never but that you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions. (source)

Fear never is a synonym for never fear or fear not, so a more understandable rendition might be:

Fear not but that you shall be consistent...

But serves to negate, so if we replace it with a different negation word—say, fail—we get:

Do not fear that you will fail to be consistent...

Other usage examples:

  • Time is precious—fear not but that you will be sustained. (source)
  • Sir Michael, fear not but that you have looked your last on me. I go never to cross your path again. (source)
  • @KimFierens Glad to help! – Nathaniel Nov 12 '15 at 20:51
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    You have dropped the 'but' (meaning?) along the way. Why is this justifiable? This doesn't really answer the question. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 12 '15 at 23:04
  • @EdwinAshworth Good point. I've made the connection more explicit. – Nathaniel Nov 12 '15 at 23:16
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But in this sense is used as a second negative to cancel an initial negative and so express a positive. The net positive sense here is Rest assured you will be consistent in any variety of actions, provided that each is honest and natural in its hour.

O.E.D. s.v. but, prep., adv., conj., n.3, adj., and pron. Sense 4:

So after a negative, expressed or implied. (Here but regularly translates Latin nisi, and may be explained as ‘unless, if not’. It has been treated as a conjunction from the earliest times.)

Curiously, the two idioms cannot but Verb and cannot help Verb-ing, each by itself the sort of double negative that expresses a positive, have largely merged into cannot help but, which illogically enough is used to express a positive (if I cannot help but laugh, I laugh) with a triple negative.

  • This makes far more sense. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 12 '15 at 23:07
  • Thanks for your answer! Although I have to say that your explanation does make the sentence a bit more puzzling to me than does Nathaniel's. I do not quite understand why Emerson should make one's being consistent (in the more generalized, unconventional sense that he intends to convey) conditional upon one's actions being honest etc. It would make more sense to me if it were the other way around. As in: 'Never be afraid to be inconsistent; if you're brave like that, your actions will be honest etc. (Because if you are afraid, then you might mess things up by trying too hard.)' – Kim Fierens Nov 13 '15 at 2:07

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