Sunday, 25 March 2018

Notes on "Rigidity" and "Spontaneity"

The Lesson of The Merchant of Venice: "Rigidity, thou art a heartless wench!!!"

In the histories of science, philosophy, theology, ethics, politics, social work, and liturgy, one may observe many instances of oscillation between various kinds of rigidity and spontaneity - two tendencies which sometimes complement and support each other, and sometimes seem to war against each other. It is difficult to describe the essential elements of these two tendencies. Rigidity is often a derogatory term used by the spontaneous to denote persons who appear close-minded, adverse to the surprise of life, insistent on rules and letter of the law, legalistic, reductionistic and rationalistic, "goody-two-shoes," unwilling to change, inattentive to the personal and subjective dimensions of human life, stoic and robotically unemotional, etc... There are all kind of characterizations of this tendency, which, for lack of a better term, I will be content (for now) to denominate as rigid. On the other hand, spontaneity is likewise sometimes condemned by the rigid as indiscriminate, unintentional, inattentive to unchanging truths and moral norms, lovers of novelty, adverse to tradition and custom, agents of ambiguity, "loosey-goosey," etc. Again, there are an infinity of ways to characterize this tendency in a likewise derogatory way.

So many avenues of thought and practice are characterized by the tension between these two tendencies. It is almost impossible to know where to begin in listing the examples of this tension. One example, in philosophy and theology, is the tension between scholasticism and the proponents of the nouvelle theologie. In philosophy, many proponents of a kind of phenomenology or personalism also view scholastic philosophy in this way, as a system that is overly-rigid and closed off to the rich ambiguities of the personal experience of reality. On the other hand, scholastics can view phenomenology and personalism as nothing more than a way of thought that is merely afraid of rationality and logical rigor. 

In morality, there are so many varieties and degrees of extremity on both sides of this spectrum, often characterized as a matter of the letter versus the spirit. Those who insist upon the letter of the law are, once again, often seen - sometimes quite rightly - as rigid and close-minded, judgmental and pharisaical, often even cruel and unmerciful and inconsiderate of the more complex and fluid workings of human subjectivity. Whereas those who insist upon the spirit of the law, in contradistinction to the letter, are often perceived - sometimes rightly - as effectively destroying morality itself, reducing it to a matter of sentimentality, ignoring unchanging principles and the reality of objective good and evil, adverse to any sort of punishment, relativistic, etc. Noticeably, the tension between justice and mercy often appears in this context, as does the debate over situation ethics (e.g. Veritatis Splendor versus Amoris Laetitia).

Liturgy likewise furnishes particularly interesting examples of this tension, in Catholic circles. Traditionalists are sometimes viewed as de facto rigid and legalistic, as though tradition itself were something constricting, unopen to the rich ambiguities and complexities involved in a truly personal, heartfelt, and expressive manner of worship. Tradition is merely formulaic and rubricist, an impediment to the spontaneous expression of the spirit. The opposite perception is also directed, by  liturgical traditionalists, towards the "agents of spontaneity," who are seen again as relativistic, subjectivistic, sentimental, adverse to law and the submission to law, etc. 

It is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the tensions between "rigidity" and "spontaneity." It shows up in so many forms that it is quite hopeless to try and systematize or classify it. It is also difficult to know how to express the virtuous mean between these two extremes. The agents of spontaneity may, indeed, heartily affirm that such an effort is besides the point to the begin with; one cannot put such things into a neat formula, after all. Whereas the agents of rigidity will insist that it is necessary to have a grasp of the universal principles, which are "rigid" and unchanging, in order to really be able to arrive at a balance and equilibrium on the prudential and particular level, in matters of morality, for example. 

But the difficulty of discovering this equilibrium remains vexing and frustrating, to those who, coming from either tendency, genuinely see the need for balance with the other. There are the "rigid traditionalists" who nonetheless deplore reductionism in all its forms, and have a desire for the infinite complexities of a more human experience and encounter with the world, and with persons... And there are "spontaneous" persons, who yet desire a solid ground for their thought, their morals, their lifestyles, their spirituality. How to discover this balance?


  1. Whereas those who insist upon the spirit of the law, in contradistinction to the spirit,

    I believe you meant "letter", no?

  2. Coleridge thought that everyone is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian from birth...perhaps it could be thought of in terms of what kind of doubt one tends to privilege: one could be like Hamann, looking upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks on a billet-doux—a witty way to say that the more complex a system, the easier it is to doubt its ultimate coherence. Both sensibilities can degenerate into wooly-headed credulity on one hand, radical empiricism on the other. Myself, I do wish that all philosophical discourse could be conducted in luminous 17th-century English verse—an aestheticizing veneer over my intellectual impatience, no doubt. Anyhow. I wonder too if Wm. James' distinction between healthy-minded and morbid-minded religious attitudes applies here.