Spontaneity and the Search for Meaning: Erich Fromm on the Wellspring of Individuality, Creativity, and Love
“Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness… for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.”
By Maria Popova
Those of us accustomed to making life livable by superimposing over its inherent chaos various control mechanisms — habit, routine, structure, discipline — are always haunted by the disquieting awareness that something essential is lost in the clutch of control, some effervescent liveliness and loveliness elemental to what makes life not merely livable but worth living. Perhaps the most succinct shorthand for that counterpoint and counterpart to control is spontaneity. Ancient Eastern philosophy held it at the center of the enlightened life through the concept of wu wei, loosely translated as “spontaneous action.” The Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century recognized its vital antidote to the self-limiting compulsion for control in Emerson’s assertion that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
In my own push-pull struggle with spontaneity — the longing for its unloosing of joy, the terror of its loss of control — I was reminded of some immensely insightful and encouraging passages by the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) from his first major work, Escape from Freedom (public library) — his classic 1941 inquiry into how to cope with our moral aloneness.
A capacity and willingness for spontaneity, Fromm argues, is the railroad switch that shifts our life-track away from what he terms negative freedom — our impulse to escape from freedom rather than to it, overwhelmed by the tyranny of possibility — and toward its opposite, positive freedom. He writes:
The realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.
In a sentiment that has only swelled in relevance in the near-century since, Fromm observes that ours is a culture so predicated on control and the compulsions of achievement that it has rendered spontaneity a rarity. And yet among spontaneity’s scarce practitioners we find the model for the life most worth achieving:
While spontaneity is a relatively rare phenomenon in our culture, we are not entirely devoid of it… We know of individuals who are — or have been — spontaneous, whose thinking, feeling, and acting were the expression of their selves and not of an automaton. These individuals are mostly known to us as artists. As a matter of fact, the artist can be defined as an individual who can express himself spontaneously. If this were the definition of an artist — Balzac defined him just in that way — then certain philosophers and scientists have to be called artists too, while others are as different from them as an old-fashioned photographer from a creative painter. There are other individuals who, though lacking the ability — or perhaps merely the training — for expressing themselves in an objective medium as the artist does, possess the same spontaneity. The position of the artist is vulnerable, though, for it is really only the successful artist whose individuality or spontaneity is respected; if he does not succeed in selling the art, he remains to his contemporaries a crank, a “neurotic.” The artist in this matter is in a similar position to that of the revolutionary throughout history. The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.
Fromm argues that we recognize spontaneity as a supreme existential art and are drawn to its electric allure on some primal level, beneath the surface of our culturally conditioned evaluations:
There is nothing more attractive and convincing than spontaneity whether it is to be found in a child, in an artist, or in those individuals who cannot thus be grouped according to age or profession.
Most of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person — in these moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.
In this spontaneous activity, Fromm insists, lies the answer to the paradox of freedom — our longing for it and our terror of it, expressed in his dichotomy of positive and negative freedom. Decades before contemporary chronopsychologists uncovered how the interplay between spontaneity and self-control mediates our psychological experience of time and our capacity for presence, he writes:
Negative freedom by itself makes the individual an isolated being, whose relationship to the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world — with man, nature, and himself.
Spontaneity, Fromm suggests, is both the prerequisite and the proof of the most universal yearning of the human heart — the yearning for meaning, manifested in the two core experiences of love and work:
Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, that it leads to oneness — and yet that individuality is not eliminated. Work is the other component; not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man’s hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation. What holds true of love and work holds true of all spontaneous action, whether it be the realization of sensuous pleasure or participation in the political life of the community. It affirms the individuality of the self and at the same time it unites the self with man and nature. The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom — the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness — is dissolved on a higher plane by man’s spontaneous action.
Ours is only that to which we are genuinely related by our creative activity, be it a person or an inanimate object. Only those qualities that result from our spontaneous activity give strength to the self and thereby form the basis of its integrity.
Escape from Freedom remains a superb read in its totality. For more of Fromm’s uncommon and enduring insight into the human experience, revisit his wisdom on the art of living, the art of loving, the superior alternative to the laziness of optimism and pessimism, the six rules of listening and unselfish understanding, and the key to a sane society.
Published May 7, 2018