Contemplation, Action, and the Good Life

Everyone is seeking knowledge, but is the knowledge they are seeking really worth the trade-off in terms of the life’s cost?  


 Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas

Everyone familiar with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition will recognize the topics in my title as familiar themes in a large body of literature. In approaching these issues I feel a little like Søren Kierkegaard who felt that in an area where there seemed to be so much agreement the only thing left to contribute would be difficulty. On the other hand, because of my respect for this tradition, and considering myself as basically an unregenerate Thomist, I also feel a little like the English philosopher, G.E. Moore, not in wondering why philosophers said the things that they did, but in wondering why they didn’t say some things which it seems to me they should have said. And this includes some of their commentators. But let me try to create some difficulty with the usual understanding of this tradition.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics opens with a thunderous challenge across the centuries: “all men by nature desire to know”. When we remember that for Aristotle what happens “by nature” happens either always, or for the most part, we understand that this is a challenge to the comprehensiveness of all the value theories to come. But it also seems to be somewhat contrary to our ordinary experience and our ordinary neighbors. The misapprehension comes, perhaps, from having too high a criterion for what Aristotle means by “knowing.” To dissuade us from thinking that this desire to know is some abstract intellectualism, Aristotle himself immediately adds: “An indication of this (natural desire to know) is the delight we take in our senses.” So the desire to know must seemingly be involved, at every level, from the most primitive sensations to the highest objects of theology. But wait, Bk. I, Ch.5 of Nicomachean Ethics makes a division of lives into the life of enjoyment, the political life, and the contemplative life. Doesn’t this involve a discrepancy between a unity of object of desire in the Metaphysics, namely “knowing,” with a plurality of objects in the Ethics?

It’s true that the various lives that people pursue are distinct as they involve different consciously pursued objects. However, they can also be seen as falling within the bands of a spectrum involving different modes and objects of knowing. Thus, the life of one who pursues a life of enjoyment—Kierkegaard’s aesthete, for example—is just a person who desires sensory knowing. The pursuer of wealth desires to know himself as richer than others, while the political life is pursued by those who desire to know themselves as honored by others, and so on. In short, all who desire a good, of whatever sort, desire to know themselves as possessing that good. Would anyone desire to be rich on the condition that he not know he is rich, nor would ever be capable of knowing it? The pursuer of the contemplative life also wants to know himself as possessing a good: the good of knowledge or wisdom. This reflective dimension of possessing a good is universally desired, although the particular good desired (e.g., wealth, honor, wisdom) may vary. One of the benefits of this aspect of the desire for knowledge, I believe, is that it tends to reduce the alien character of the contemplative life—even in the higher modes that we associate with Aristotle and Thomas—in relation to the lives that most people seem to live.

Everyone is seeking knowledge, but is the knowledge they are seeking really worth the trade-off in terms of the life’s cost?  Plato had already warned us, long ago, that the knowledge that the “couch potato” seeks is a poor substitute for wisdom.  Besides thinking of “knowing” in terms of a broad, analogical spectrum—perhaps, what I am recommending—is also to broaden the use of “contemplation” beyond its more familiar use as equivalent to speculative knowledge. But, Aquinas had already broadened the use of “speculative” knowledge to include objects of practical knowledge. For Thomas, an object which either exists or could be created, could just be the object of a knowledge which was speculative in its mode or end—as for example, when viewing a cathedral with no intentions of building one, nor interest in knowing how. To speak of contemplation in this same broadened sense of speculative knowledge does not seem to violate the tradition, though granted, it does not seem to be present explicitly in Aristotle, and this is a cause for my wonder.  But Aristotle, too, seems to include the objects of practical knowledge, or knowledge only. To the Christian philosopher, then, the desire for contemplation can be seen as part and parcel of every human life, and can only achieve ultimate satiation and fulfillment in the contemplation of God. (What does he not see who sees God, the very one who sees all things?)

Besides enabling us to understand contemplation as related to ordinary life, this spectrum of meanings approach also helps us to be clearer about a major problem in our lives and culture: the “man-woman thing.” The culture promotes sensory knowing as the ultimate human good, while bemoaning the high divorce rates, and disappearing fathers, etc… We all know better, in our more rational moments, but the allurement of sensory beauty and attractiveness still exercises its pull. The Platonic and Aristotelian pleas—that beauty of soul and character are of much more central importance in the achievement of the human good or happiness than pleasures of the body only—tends to fall on deaf ears. Partly because our culture is to blame, but also partly it is the limitations of our cognitive capacities. The problem is the hiddenness of the human soul. Thomas devoted several articles in his Summa Theologiae to this hiddenness. Our habits, our powers, and our soul are known only through our acts. It is not only the hiddenness of other souls which concerns him but also the hiddenness of our own soul.

No doubt, it would be wonderful to have a direct intuitive awareness of the essence of a human soul, whether our own or that of another, but as this would entail a knowledge of the habits and interior acts of that soul, who could bear it? Imagine walking down the sidewalk in a crowded city and seeing each soul as clearly as we see the faces passing by. As scripture teaches, “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). The thought that such knowledge is possessed and compatible with Divine Beatitude is somewhat staggering.

So, it is not easy to come to know the character of another soul; but our culture tells us to look only to the sensory for the appealing or unappealing. Since René Descartes (d. 1650), even most professionally trained philosophers refuse to talk seriously of the soul, the “ghost in the machine.” The brain, and brain processes, we can know empirically, and that’s all there is to know; though they give us no clue to the question of habits and character. But certainly the whole import of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in Books 8 and 9 of the Ethics is that the desire to know a person—which is most fully an integral part of happiness—is knowing a friend of high virtue. It used to seem to me that the “Treatise on Friendship” was like a square peg in the round hole of the corpus of the Ethics, but this is not so if we see it as a significantly higher level of the desire to know, or a higher level of contemplation. The person, when perfected by wisdom and/or virtue, is, indeed, a delight to know. For the Christian, this also engenders a fuller appreciation of the achievement of Aristotle as preparatory for a higher stage of contemplation through faith in the person of Christ. The journey of contemplation in this life is ultimately preparatory for the Beatific Vision. Contemplation then becomes not merely one among a complex of goods, albeit the highest, but even at the lowest level, an integral part of every humanly pursued and realized good. As the life becomes more spiritual, the contemplation becomes more detached from material goods, though, of course, never entirely separated. This then is a progressive, or evolutionary, view of contemplation which sees it as integral to all humanly achieved goods, and as progressively developed, becoming more dominant and occupied with higher objects (as Aristotle would say) in the achievement of the good life. Such an analogical view of contemplation would help to make Aristotle seem less like a self -satisfied intellectual, having little to say to the common man. Again, I believe it is consistent with his statement about the natural desire to know, even though he doesn’t seem to have actually said it.

There is a second aspect of this progression of contemplation, however, that I do not find clearly articulated in the tradition from Aristotle. We are all familiar with the traditional talk about the grandeur of the human soul, consisting in the fact that it can become all things.  As Aristotle teaches, the eye “becomes” blue when it gazes upon the blue waters of the seas.  Non-knowing beings can only exercise their own nature; but knowing beings, in knowing, become the known, and, thus, Aristotle says that the soul is, in a certain way, all things. The knower becomes the known according to an intentional mode of being, later thinkers said. But, there is an important difference that seems to depend on the nature of the object of knowledge. When the object of knowledge has some perfection in the order of person, the knower tends to become the known, not only according to the intentional mode of being, but according to the natural mode of being as well. In other words, we tend to imitate, but selectively. When the object of knowing is some being on the sub-human level, this imitation is generally not prevalent, although some have pointed out an eerie likeness, at times, between people and their pets. We thus become like the things with which we spend the most time and upon which we focus our attention. For example, infants naturally tend to become speakers, and speakers of the same language as their  parents and those around them. This whole idea is captured in the contemporary language of the role-model. The rattlesnake or the shark is not naturally a role model for us. With regard to these objects, we are content to become intentionally the known, to observe its movements and, perhaps, study its behavior; but, with humans it is quite different. Insofar as we know or judge something about them as a perfection, we tend to acquire that characteristic for ourselves, to make it part of our individual nature.

What I am getting at is the traditional dichotomy between contemplation and the practical life, at least, as it has often been presented with regard to the ancients. Thus, John Cooper, in his work Reason and Human Good in Aristotle, says: “Moral virtue only forms a part of the second life, and plays no role at all in the first. The intellectualist is beyond ordinary moral virtues…” Now, granted Cooper modified his view in a later article, and more recent writers have clarified much, but it seems to me that we are still left with too much of a gap between theoria (or contemplation), and action. If we consider what happens when the object of contemplation becomes the perfection of personhood, and the desire to know becomes the desire to be like the known, the contemplative life has a natural effect on the active life.

This seems to reverse the customary roles of the practical life as necessary for the contemplative life, in the provision of the necessities for general biological life, etc.  But isn’t the contemplative life of equal importance for the promotion of the moral life? Aristotle insisted on the importance of a good upbringing in becoming good, but Plato seems to have been more sensitive (at least explicitly) to the need for good role models in that upbringing. Later, Christian writers certainly stressed the transition from the desire to know, to intentionally becoming the known, to the desire to becoming like the known in one’s actual being. From St. Paul’s “I live now not I, but Christ lives in me,” to Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Transformation in Christ: the movement from knowing to being seems to characterize the focus of attention.

Without denying the distinction between contemplation and doing, the separation, or seeming desire to separate what has been distinguished, seems not to entirely suit the Christian mind. As Aquinas said: “the happiness that Aristotle is talking about in the Ethics is the imperfect happiness in this life.” On the question of speculative and practical science, it is worth noting a text of Aquinas at the beginning of the Summa. He asks whether theology is a practical science, because it treats of human acts. His answer is that it is primarily a speculative science, because it treats primarily of God, but includes, within the unity of the science, human acts, insofar as they relate to God—God as perfectly known in the Beatific Vision. If then the speculative science of theology includes knowledge of human acts, it would seem that the speculative science of philosophical psychology could include ethics, or human acts, as related to the fulfillment of that nature in the perfections of intellectual, moral, and theological virtue. The contemplative life then is not separated from the active life, but naturally issues from the desire and will to become the known, according to not merely the intentional order, but also the natural order and the order of grace; in other words, to issue in the desire to become as fully virtuous as possible. In respect to the person, then, contemplation and action would seem to be more closely related than is sometimes portrayed. In the order of acquired virtue, perhaps Aristotle’s language may have been somewhat responsible for this understanding, but we should also remember his criticism of those who resort to theory alone, and believe that they will thus become good. His insistence that good action requires a combination of intellect and character also speaks to the same active end, acknowledging, thereby, that the speculative character of ethics can only achieve its full nature as practical knowledge if it issues from the will and effort to become virtuous. Later, Christian writers certainly emphasized this practical and active consequence of contemplation with respect to the life of Christ and his followers. The relation of contemplation and action, then, is not merely a theoretical distinction with respect to human activity, but the focus of a dynamic tendency from the desire to become so intentionally—which is the desire to know—to the desire to become according to one’s nature. There is no equal dynamic connected with the desire to know beings less than, or other than, persons.

The third and last topic, that of the good life, also has some intriguing aspects which I think the tradition has ignored, or at least underplayed. They all, in a way, have to do with love and the good life. First of all, I would like to make a general comment about the transition from the ancient world to the Christian milieu. Certainly in Plato, and I think even somewhat in Aristotle, the good life is quite tightly tied to the life of the intellectual. For the Greeks, it would or the Greeks, it would seem that only philosophers can have a really good life. But what a depressing thought for the ordinary person! The right to the pursuit of happiness is a pretty empty right if the majority lack the natural aptitude, or financial means, to the realization of any significant excellence with regard to the intellectual life.

Now, perhaps, also the common man was not familiar with the classical view, but to anyone who was, it must have brought a tremendous sense of liberation to become aware of what the good life of the Christian entailed. Certainly, St. Francis, in the midst of the intense intellectual life of the high Middle Ages felt no such need for an academic life. St. Augustine, himself a prodigious intellectual, earlier expressed the sense of that liberation well with his famous line: “Love God and do what you will.” Augustine, like Aquinas, maintained that the ultimate attainment, union with God, would be by an act of the intellect, an act of vision. But in this life, what unites us to that end is love, charity. Even Aristotle seems to have tip-toed around that conclusion in two ways: One, with his scattered remarks about the best exercise of man’s highest power, with respect to the highest objects, and a little knowledge of such objects being more desirable than a great deal of knowledge of lesser things. This statement of Aristotle left open the possibility that, through his understanding of revelation, the country bumpkin might be living a more fulfilled life than the endowed professor. And in a second way, and even more directly, Aristotle’s view on practical truth seems to imply a more important role for love than his general theory would seem to contain. For practical truth is characterized as consisting in conformity with right appetite. The foundation of the practical truth in doing hangs on the status of the end loved, which is the first principle of action. The reason Aristotle was unable to carry this thought further was, I believe, because his psychology lacked an adequate theory of will, that is, a power of responding to whatever is intelligible as good. Possessing only an explicit theory of sense appetite, he could not see clearly that there are two modes of relation to the highest objects by humans: a cognitive union, and an affective union; and the latter is not necessarily causatively proportioned to the latter. And, of course, concerning the order of charity, he was necessarily silent.

Too many commentators have assimilated Aquinas too closely to Aristotle, I believe. He was not a Latin Averroist, he was not Boethius of Dacia. And while I’m at it, I would like to say that I believe it is misleading to characterize his ethics as a natural law ethics, or an ethics of right reason. His ethics is a Christian ethic and, as he says, the perfection of Christian life consists essentially in charity, and the life of the Holy Spirit indwelling in each of us; there is no way in which the most excellent life is that of the intellectual, as such. When Aquinas talks about happiness, or the good life, there are two lives that he has in mind—this earthly life, and the afterlife. Aristotle only has one life in mind. Though Aquinas characterizes the ultimate, eternal life as constituted basically by vision, in this life, vision or contemplation takes a secondary role to the union with God through love. His words are: “It is better to love God than to know Him.” It is by Love that we merit the vision.

Dr. Richard Becka, PhD About Dr. Richard Becka, PhD

Dr. Richard Becka is credited with writing the textbook Personal Being of Man in 1957 at the University of Detroit, and was formerly a member of the American Maritain Association and the Society of St. Thomas. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Ottawa in Canada, then went on to teach at Gonzaga University before moving to Texas. Dr. Becka was conferred with Emeritus status at Texas A&M University in 1996, where he continued to teach until summer 2006. He has the honor of being the TAMU Philosophy department's first Honorary Member for Life.


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