Contemplating the Active Life

I thought myself into a slightly uncomfortable corner the other day. I was reading about the religious observances of Carthusian monks in the 15th century, and I was both a little inspired by their lifestyle and a little critical. They built their lives almost exclusively around prayer, reading, contemplation, meditation and reflection. For hours in the day, they would sit in the quiet of their cell and reflect on the love of Jesus Christ. They spent little time in the world, and instead emphasized the inner life above all else. Their austerity, their humility, their silence, and their constant devotion struck me as rather awe inspiring. But while I recognized many beautiful things about the tenants of this order, I immediately began to pass judgement on this lifestyle. As nice as it sounds to spend our hours in contemplation of our Savior, I felt that it was missing the vital point of life. What is the point of sitting in our cell and thinking about God if that is all we do? Shouldn’t we be out in the world doing good? And of course, we should spend some time thinking about God, but shouldn’t we do this to understand how we can better interact with others and do good? We should be helping people and forming relationships out there in the world. This is the best life, isn’t it? You can’t really do that in a cell.

And then I had to pause. I looked around at my own cell, a cell I had barely left in two weeks, because half of my classes are online, and I don’t have a social life. How long had I been sitting there reading about the Carthusians and contemplating their lives of contemplation? I was suddenly very uncomfortable, because I too effectively live a life of contemplation, but instead of spending hours contemplating the love of God, I spend hours contemplating things like the meaning of art or, irony of all ironies, the value of the active life.

The Active Life versus the Contemplative Life

From what I understand of the Medieval Age and the Renaissance, the active and the contemplative life were strictly demarcated, and the contemplative life was given priority.[i] In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas compares the active life and the contemplative life, saying that “the consideration of truth … is the end of the active life” while some “external activity” is the end of the contemplative life.[ii] Monks and nuns lived the contemplative life, spending their time in devotion to God, while merchants, farmers, and priests lived the active life because they spent their time in the world, dealing with secular affairs, politics, and the business of surviving. The active life interacts with the world, with other people, while the contemplative life only interacts with the abstract objects of the mind. Basically, the active life turns outward, the contemplative life turns inward. Not to say that monks and nuns spent their time exclusively in an empty cell meditating. Out of necessity, monks and nuns had to engage in some active pursuits, but these were limited as much as possible and transformed into tools for contemplation. For instance, gardening became a metaphor for cultivating the soul, so that even work became a catalyst for contemplation.

Theologians like Thomas Aquinas held that the contemplative life was better, pointing to the story of Mary and Martha as the biblical paradigm for the active and the contemplative. Martha bustles about with the household business, while Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to his word (Luke:10). While Christians viewed Martha’s activity as commendable, they held that Mary chose the better when she chose to contemplate God. But the story of Mary and Martha was not the first argument in favor of the contemplative life. When Thomas Aquinas argues that the contemplative life is better, he directly borrows from Aristotle.[iii] Aristotle argues in the Nichomachean Ethics that contemplation is the best, most continuous, self-sustaining, and desirable function of man. He declares that a life as much in accordance with reason will bring us the greatest happiness, since rational thought is the most fundamental characteristic of man and reason is “the best thing in us.” [iv] In fact, Aristotle calls reason “divine”, and identifies God as the epitome of reason, contemplation and thought.[v] Aristotle’s conception of God is as an unmoved mover, who incites the rest of the world to movement out of love for Him, but who Himself does not move at all, but is as a purely thinking thing, whose thought is directed at Itself.[vi] He says, “It must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking.” [vii] Aristotle’s God, accordingly, has the ultimate contemplative life, since He is pure contemplation itself. We are at our best, then, when we are being like God and contemplating.

As a student of philosophy, I should be squarely in the contemplative camp, right? Philosophers sit up in their ivory towers and contemplate, play with words, and invest themselves into the abstract realm of reason, right? Although some philosophers of the past have given truth to this stereotype, I do not believe all philosophers are committed to a contemplative life of the sort Aristotle imagines. On the contrary, I am thoroughly opposed to a life that emulates Aristotle’s unmoved mover, that vacuous being who is in essence a thinking thing thinking about its own thinking of itself. I mean, what? There is something ungrounded and circular about such a being, because all thinking is about something, and if God’s thinking is about thinking, what is this thinking about? Just more thinking… about thinking. I believe that at the bottom of that circle it turns out you have no being at all, just an empty concept. I think this is the inevitable result when we take the contemplative life to excess and ignore the active life.

Sure, I live a pretty contemplative life—spent reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally smiling at the merits of activity from a safe and sedentary distance. In my little cell, the active life is far away. But without that active life, without its presences somewhere, even if I rarely interact with it, I have a hard time seeing the point of my contemplation. So, I depend on the notion that an active life is out there.

A certain degree of dependency is not news to the contemplative life. From simple necessity, if a monk is going to devote his life purely to contemplation, he must depend on the patronage of the active world to sustain him. But the patron and monk only depend on each other because contingent mortal circumstances require it. The monk’s physical needs depend on the active life, but contemplation itself does not. I am not talking about this kind of dependency. My contemplative life depends on the active world in a more substantial way: as the content of my contemplation. It strikes me as rather pointless to discover a thousand true and objectively valid forms of thought without ever finding something to apply them to. If I discover the precise shape of our thoughts, what does it matter if I have nothing to think about? Nothing outside of myself to connect my thoughts and myself to? I refuse to be a thinker thinking only about my own thinking! I need a world of things, places, and people outside of myself—I need the presence of the active life. Meaningful contemplation requires it, be ye God or mortal.

What I’m trying to say, then, is that as nice as Aquinas and Aristotle make the pure, unsullied contemplative life sound, I just don’t believe in it. There is no contemplative life separate from the active life, or at least there shouldn’t be, because they depend on each other in an integral way. They are not separate lives, but two sides of the same coin. I’m not saying this in a philosophically rigorous way right now. I am not proving a point; I am expressing a feeling. I simply feel that without the active, the contemplative isn’t worth it. And I hope the reverse is also true, otherwise what am I doing with my life? But I do think it is true. Kant said, “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concept are blind.”[viii] [8] A complete and meaningful life requires the workings of both the inner world and the reception of the outer. Without the contemplative side of life, we are merely running around in the dark, and probably running in circles. Without the active side of life, we do not run at all. Either way, we don’t really get anywhere.

As I write this, I have a crick in my neck from bending over the computer and my books all day. This pain in my neck makes me acutely aware of how long it has been since I stood and stretched. How remarkably inactive I am! But the sharp pain draws me from my contemplation, reminds me that I am not only a thinking thing, but a porous human, with a thousand little receptacles designed to let the world in. With a neck and arms and legs and eyes, that can move about in this world, interact with it, feel it. Maybe the most important reality is out there. The stuff of life may be out there. People are out there. And I should probably climb down from my ivory tower every once in a while and get out there too.

This post was written by Brynna Gang, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[i] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 182, a. 1. All quotes from Aquinas are drawn from Summa Theologiae: Volume 47, The Pastoral and Religious Lives: 2a2ae. 183-189, translated and edited by Jordan Aumann, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[ii] Summa Thelogiae II-II, q. 181, a. 1, resp.

[iii] In fact, Aquinas specifically draws on Aristotle in his argument, see Summa Thelogiae II-II, q. 182, a. 1.

[iv] Nichomachean Ethics X7.1177b35. All quotes from Aristotle are drawn from The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon. Random House, 1941.

[v] Nichomachean Ethics X7.1177b.

[vi] Metaphysics 1072a.

[vii] Metaphysics 1074b.

[viii] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge University Press, 1998, B75.

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