Writing in The New Statesman Steven Poole takes the full measure of the modern cult to spontaneity.
He describes the ethos well:
Live for the moment. Be spontaneous. Be free and happy. Don’t worry about the future. Act as though it’s your last day on earth. Such is one modern conception of the good life. Adverts encourage us to drop everything and jet off for a city break at the last moment, or to walk at random into a bar where we are sure to meet a new gang of stock-photo besties, all ostentatiously sipping the same brand of transparent liquor. People are reluctant to make concrete social arrangements, so just say, “Text me.” Serendipity is our friend; planning is for losers. “Spontaneity” is rhetorically offered as the reason to celebrate both online social media and last-minute travel bucket shops.
What’s wrong with this immensely appealing set of unprincipled principles? For one, Poole says, anyone who follows it to the letter will likely become a sociopath:
It hardly seems to matter that anyone who really acted according to this ideology would be a kind of sociopath. Truly living in the moment and embracing utter spontaneity would render you, for instance, unable to make and keep promises, or to formulate any kind of plan for helping yourself or others.
In the hands of behavioral economists the cult to spontaneity promotes impulse buys. It tells you to allow yourself to be influenced by your marketing masters. It assumes that behavioral economists and government bureaucrats know what is best for you and that, if only you will think less and act more impulsively you will act as they want you to act.
If this feels like mind control, perhaps we need to examine the motivations of the behavioral economists.
Of course, the issue is more complex. And Poole grasps the complexity well. The problem is not that spontaneous action is always wrong or that you should always think before acting. The problem is that the proponents of spontaneity have misunderstood what is at issue.
One might well thrill to Wordsworth’s statement that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but surely writing good poetry is more perspiration than inspiration.
Behavioral economists err when they promote the virtue of actions that arise from the unconscious part of the brain, unmolested by conscious interference. In that they are closer to Freud than they imagine.
With a slight exception. Freud believed that leaving the unconscious to act as it wished would produce depravity and villainy. The behavioral economists believe that the unconscious knows what is best for us… especially when they can control it.
What matters, of course, is whether, when you act spontaneously, you do the right thing or the wrong thing.
Poole offers some instances where we normally believe that spontaneity is a virtue:
This [spontaneity] is certainly desirable for a tennis player facing a 130mph serve, or a martial artist, or an improvising musician….
If you practice martial arts you must learn to act automatically, without thinking. The time that it takes to think about the blow that is coming toward you and to think about what you should do to parry will consign you to an early end.
Poole explains that it takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice in order to learn how to act spontaneously, to reduce the distance between the will and the act:
It turns out, as you might guess, that in the opinion of all the tradition’s eminences, such grace can be achieved only through rationally deliberate practice. The true and valuable kind of spontaneity … must, paradoxically, be the result of long, conscious training. This is as true of graceful behaviour as it is of mastery in tennis or jazz – no musician becomes a brilliantly “spontaneous” improviser without spending thousands of unobserved hours running through scales.
We certainly know people who do the right thing habitually, who sit down and write the thank-you note without having to think about it. This form of seemingly automatic behavior is not an indulgence of impulse or a lust after living in the present. It does not seem to relate to mindfulness either.
Poole prefers not to class it in the category of “spontaneity,” so he calls it the basis of good character:
In the matter of respectable behaviour, moreover, the result – desirable though it surely is – is not really “spontaneity” at all but good character, formed through habitual virtuous action, as Aristotle was arguing in another ancient philosophical culture altogether. “The Way of Heaven”, according to one Chinese sage, even excels in “planning for the future, though it is always relaxed”. It doesn’t sound very spontaneous, does it? Wu-wei leads to gracefully appropriate action, but not thoughtlessly random action.
Spontaneity cannot be a good in itself, yet we feel that it somehow makes a good action better. The obvious explanation for this would be to say that an action performed this way implies a history of doing similar things, which is how it became spontaneous in the first place.
There is nothing intrinsically good about spontaneous actions. Yet, someone who does the right thing “automatically” is showing that he has made a habit of doing the right thing. Thus, his actions seems natural and appear to be really his.
Those who were trained in psychoanalysis and those who have hitched themselves to the wagon of behavioral economics seem to believe that the conscious mind is inimical to spontaneity. They seem to have bought Prince Hamlet’s notion that: “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
If you are a melancholic Dane, that might be true. It might also be true that such thinking is symptomatic of melancholy.
Yet, it is wrong, Poole reminds us, to disparage the conscious mind. Without it we would not be able to do the tedious and boring exercises that produce the kind of mastery that yields actions that appear to be spontaneous.
As I noted in a post two days ago, self-control is essential to making and implementing plans. If you spontaneously yield to temptation, you will be consigning yourself to perfectly postmodern misery.