Thursday, July 04, 2019

Spontaneity Is Overrated

Happy Independence Day to our American readers!

I sometimes involuntarily overhear snippets of podcasts by Ben Shapiro, a lawyer, columnist, and author on the political right. He impresses me as relatively rational and less inclined to sarcasm and name-calling than many partisan podcasters. Don't worry, this isn't a political post; my emphasis will be linguistic and philosophical. I was dismayed by one of his recent comments because it seems like a symptom of a much larger problem. After the Democratic presidential hopefuls' debates, I was surprised to hear Shapiro, a staunch champion of classical and Enlightenment values, flippantly dismiss a particular candidate's "food fight" zinger as blatantly "rehearsed."

So a remark carefully prepared in advance is somehow suspect and prima facie inferior to one blurted out on the spur of the moment? An impulsive comment is automatically assumed to be a more reliable indication of the speaker's true feelings or beliefs than one that she thought over and shaped to express her opinions in a coherent, articulate style? I'm reminded, tangentially, of a past presidential candidate who was challenged on the subject of criminal justice and asked what punishment he'd want for someone who'd raped his wife. The aspiring candidate fell out of public favor partly because he gave a rational, ethical response to that hypothetical scenario instead of an emotional one.

This faith in the value of spontaneity is relatively modern and would have sounded absurd before the Romantic era. C. S. Lewis addresses the subject in a chapter of his book A PREFACE TO PARADISE LOST, where he defends Milton's style and tackles the charge of "stock responses" in traditional poetry. Lewis frames the issue so well that I'll quote him at length rather than trying to paraphrase:

"By a Stock Response Dr. I. A. Richards [a distinguished literary critic contemporary with Lewis] means a deliberately organized attitude which is substituted for ‘the direct free play of experience.’ In my opinion such deliberate organization is one of the first necessities of human life, and one of the main functions of art is to assist it. All that we describe as constancy in love or friendship, as loyalty in political life, or, in general, as perseverance—all solid virtue and stable pleasure—depends on organizing chosen attitudes and maintaining them against the eternal flux (or ‘direct free play’) of mere immediate experience…."

He observes that our culture has suffered "a loss of the old conviction (once shared by Hindoo, Platonist, Stoic, Christian, and ‘humanist’ alike) that simple ‘experience,’ so far from being something venerable, is in itself mere raw material, to be mastered, shaped, and worked up by the will…."

The modern tendency to mistake any well-crafted statement of opinion or emotion for insincerity, Lewis attributes to "confusion (arising from the fact that both are voluntary) between the organization of a response and the pretence of a response."

The old saying "in vino veritas" (truth in wine) expresses the same kind of attitude. It's taken for granted that the character, manners, and opinions a person displays when alcohol has destroyed his inhibitions are more authentic signs of his "real" self than the reflective, carefully considered speech and behavior of his sober periods. Why do we tend to assume that an individual's lower nature shows what he's "really like" and his higher nature doesn't?

The prioritizing of emotion and spontaneity over reason probably springs from the philosophical shift generated by the Romantic movement in the early 19th century. I suspect the current prevalence of the idea that reduced inhibitions reveal a person's "real" self comes (at least in part) from the popular influence of Freud's theories of the unconscious and the id.

This issue, by the way, contributes to my preference for e-mail over oral conversations—whether by phone or face-to-face—on serious subjects. When I talk off the top of my head, half the things I say come out awkwardly phrased and easily misunderstood, or I impulsively blurt out remarks I regret later (sometimes only seconds later). With e-mail or an old-fashioned letter, I can think over what I want to say and deliberately craft sentences to express it accurately and clearly. This kind of forethought doesn't mean my remarks are insincere, but just the opposite.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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