The Value of Spontaneity
Spontaneity isn’t usually considered a virtue in Western philosophies. Stoicism, like many other Western modes of thinking, is associated with rational analysis (or over-analysis), formal logic, and a style of discourse and cognition that carefully scrutinizes our intuitions. On the surface it seems that spontaneity doesn’t fit with Stoic ideals of rationality or prosoche (inner attention), or that it might even be in conflict with these ideals. So you might be wondering why we should bother thinking about spontaneity at all.
Before I explain, I’ll just mention that I’m an unlikely advocate for spontaneity, because I’ve traditionally been the poster child of over-analyzing my life. If you’re like me, you probably know that over-analysis can lead to paralysis; you start thinking about all the possibilities and where they could lead, and you forget to actually take action. You’re so worried about making the right choice—or at least not making the wrong one—that you end up stressed out about everything or not doing anything at all. This kind of overthinking is antithetical to wisdom and a good life. It often results from an obsessive focus on the self, which Stoicism helps us overcome by drawing us outside ourselves and thinking about the bigger picture (other people, nature, the world as a whole).
Over-analysis is a type of mental rigidity, the opposite of being flexible and responsive to a situation. If you are spontaneous, you’re able to react quickly and fluidly to whatever arises in front of you. Stoicism may not use the word “spontaneous,” but that is exactly what Stoics should be. Our goal of living in agreement itself implies that we will bend and mold ourselves to whatever comes along so that we may enjoy a smooth flow life—we must flow with the current, not against it. We prepare ourselves for any eventuality, and we develop confidence that no matter what life brings, we have the courage or self-control to face it.
If virtue is skill in the art of living, then a virtuoso will be able to perform without pausing to reflect. When we think about any kind of skilled performer (actor, musician, athlete), we think of fluid movements, not jerky hesitation or second-guessing. Accomplished performers lose self-consciousness and mentally fuse themselves with the task or experience. The virtuoso at life—the sage—would probably feel this way all the time. As Chris Gill points out in Stoic Magnanimity (p. 54), a virtuous person does not go around thinking, “I’m being virtuous right now.” Instead, she simply thinks, “This is what needs to be done right now.” She takes care of her sick child or defends the battle line because it’s the right thing for her to do. It simply doesn’t occur to her to do anything else.
So spontaneity is actually a hallmark of ideal wisdom. The Stoic sage, if she or he were to really exist, would be completely spontaneous in thought and action. He wouldn’t have to think about the appropriate thing to do in any situation; he would just know it and would just do it. He would have such a deep understanding of the world and his place in it that he wouldn’t need to hesitate or over-analyze. He would be one with the world and with his inner nature, and the proper action would simply flow out of this understanding.
Of course, when we talk about the value of spontaneity, we don’t mean it in the casual sense of “someone who does whatever pops into their head.” Philosophical spontaneity is principled and coherent, the result of long training and inner transformation. It can only occur when we’ve completely mastered our desires and aversions and are making good progress toward virtue. Epictetus, chastising one of his students for hesitating between virtue and vice, says we should be able to distinguish good and bad as easily as black and white.
If you truly imagined that shameful things were bad, and everything else is indifferent, you would surely never have come to hesitate in this way, or anything like it, but would have been able to settle the question at once, as though by direct view in your mind's eye. For when do you stop to consider whether black is white, or light is heavy? How is it, then, that you're now talking of examining whether one should avoid things that are indifferent more than those that are bad? (Discourses, 4.1, 134-137)
The student shouldn’t need to stop and analyze whether a given situation is worthy of choice or not. He’s been studying it for a while—he should already know. If someone asks us to distinguish between black and white, we don’t need to hesitate or over-analyze; we know it directly and clearly. We should be able to see it in our mind’s eye and act without hesitation. Our goal is to have such a visceral understanding of virtue that we don’t need to think about virtue at all.
Eastern philosophies, which place a much greater value on spontaneity than Western philosophies, can be a great help in illustrating how this philosophical spontaneity works. In Daoism and Confucianism, the principle of wuwei (or non-action) is quite similar to Stoic notions of acting with a reserve clause, but it also captures the kathorthoma or perfectly fitting actions that a Stoic sage would perform. I think in general wuwei is a helpful concept for understanding the spontaneous action of the wise. Here Philip Ivanhoe (a specialist in Asian philosophies) describes the relationship of spontaneity and virtue:
When one acts “spontaneously” or “naturally,” one's actions “flow” out of unpremeditated dispositions; one is not plagued or vexed by worries about whether or not one has chosen wisely or is doing the right things; and one feels organically connected to the rest of the world in mutually beneficial and satisfying ways. One is practicing wuwei and feels that what one does is the fitting, appropriate, and called-for response to the situation at hand. Nature acts through one, and so rather than feeling alienated from the world or from one's own desires, actions, and projects, one feels perfectly at home among them. Untutored spontaneity offers a way to avoid self-centeredness, transcend one's individual perspective by adopting a more expansive conception of oneself, and thereby to join and move in harmony with the greater patterns, processes, and purposes of Nature.
(Ivanhoe, 2017, p. 108-109)
The spontaneity of wuwei is the opposite of self-centered thinking. You feel connected to the world around you, and you are able to respond immediately and appropriately because you are an integral part of it. When we talk about being part of Nature, as the ancient Daoists and Stoics did, we don’t need to mean anything religious (although if you are religious, this can fit nicely with your beliefs). It’s simply about adjusting your perspective on life, the way you see yourself in relation to other people and things.
The irony you may have noticed is that in order for us to become more spontaneous, we must first become less spontaneous. In order to reach the spontaneous virtue of the wise, we need to think quite a lot about what we’re doing. We have to start out by logically analyzing our inner discourse, scrutinizing our thoughts, and exercising mental vigilance. Even so, I think there are some ways in which we can begin to practice spontaneity. I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions, but I also encourage you to think about some ways you can fit philosophical spontaneity into your life.
Think about spontaneity as valuable in itself. Most of the time Stoics are so focused on rationality that we don’t consider the value of spontaneity at all. I would encourage you to add spontaneity to your progress report as a Stoic. You’ll know you’re making progress if you’re able to do or think the right thing without stopping to think about it. This might require you to change the way you think about rationality. Rationality is a wonderful capacity we have as humans, but it does not mean that our goal is to subject every thought we have to rational analysis. On the contrary. Our goal is to reach a condition in which we simply are virtuous, so that we don’t have to monitor every thought we have. Scrutinizing our thoughts and second-guessing ourselves is just an intermediate step on the path to living in agreement.
Remember that living in agreement is about being flexible. Once again, we turn to Epictetus to understand how to adapt ourselves to the world:
We picture the work of the philosopher as being something like this, that he should adapt his will to what comes about so that nothing happens against our will, and so that nothing fails to happen when we want it to happen. It follows that those who have engaged properly in this task will never be disappointed in their desires, or fall into what they want to avoid, but will live a life free form pain, fear and distress, and will maintain, furthermore, in their social dealings, both their natural and their required relationships, as son, father, brother, citizen, man, woman, neighbor, fellow-traveller, ruler, and subject.
(Discourses, 2.14, 7-8)
When we start to want the life we have instead of wanting something—anything—else, we suddenly become more flexible and engaged in living. Unrequited desire drains a lot of energy and creates a lot of negativity. By adapting ourselves to the world instead of expecting the world to adapt itself to us, we become attentive and responsive to what is actually going on around us.
I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of spontaneity for those of us trying to live in agreement. Even if we are a long way from the spontaneity of true virtue, we can stop over-analyzing ourselves and begin to think in terms of a flexible and adaptable mentality.
Gill, C. (2019). "Stoic Magnanimity." In The Measure of Greatness: Philosophers on Magnanimity,
ed. Sophia Vasalou. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Ivanhoe, P. (2017). Oneness: East Asian Conceptions of Virtue, Happiness, and How We Are All
Connected. Oxford University Press: Oxford.