Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Of Aristotle, monks, gods, and beasts

It's summertime and the living, so they say, is easy. Or, it's easier than it is during the academic year. if it weren't for the stresses of (at least an attempt at) moving house, I wouldn't be having any anxiety dreams at all. At least they mostly aren't about teaching at the moment.
So, I have some time to read for pleasure. And, at the moment I am re-reading—apart from the four or five other books I'm in the middle of—Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, an account of a number of sojourns among monastics.
He is at pains to make his reader see some sense in the notion of a contemplative live as more than just a useless or slothful one. This is a hard thing to do in a world that has been so deeply influenced by the combination of our Reformation heritage, a utilitarian outlook, and secularism. The first tells us that monasteries are dens of iniquity and escapism. The second tells us that contemplation can only be of value if it is of use. And, the third tells us that it can be of no use, as the world to which it is directed does not exist.
I'm not going to defend monasticism here. But, there is something to say—or can it be said?—about contemplation.
When I teach Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, parts of which I discuss almost every semester, I take one standard approach to his account of the best life for humans.
He says that the ideal, the perfect, life for a human being would be one of pure, philosophical contemplation. This is the life that most fully engages the highest part of us, our reason. It is the activity that brings us closest to (the Aristotelian) God. It is, he says, a divine activity in which we participate in immortality. This is not, for him, because it makes us immortal but because we grasp undying truths. Or, this is what it seems he means, since immortality doesn't really seem to be on the table for Aristotle.
As I said, I take one standard approach to discussing this, which is to say that I tell students that Aristotle probably shouldn't have said what he says, since he then seems to take it back by devoting the rest of his account to the second-best life of practical reason. And, of course, he seems to set up the contemplative life as inaccessible for most people and inconsistent with their flourishing. It is both the most pleasant of all activities and one that would not be pleasant for most people. And, pure contemplation is valued, partly, because it is self-sufficient. Yet, this seems to set the contemplative up as someone who does not need society. But, without society, Aristotle tells us, we become either gods or beasts. And, the implication is that most of us become beasts. Finally, the contemplative life fully realizes our desire to understand, but seems to ignore our desire to be active.
So, I tend to treat this emphasis on the contemplative life as a throwaway comment, safely ignored in a text that is, after all, supposed to tell us about how to live. It is a work in ethics, after all.
But, I fear that I make a few pretty important mistakes in doing this. In the first place, I am telling students that unless they can find an application for something, unless they can find it practical, it has no value. In other words, I am playing into that good old American utilitarian pragmatism that is not so slowly strangling philosophy as a discipline.
More specifically, I am telling them that pure contemplation, thinking for the sake of thinking—and, by extension, reading for the sake of reading—is of no value. The mind is but a tool and never to be fed for its own sake.
And, I am telling them that there is no point is having an ideal that they may not be able to reach. That there is no value in aiming at something beyond themselves. This one may not be as clear, but if I am telling them that the contemplative life is to be devalued because not everyone can achieve it, that is an insidious sort of leveling.
Contemplation, pure thought, may just be valuable because it isn't intrinsically valuable, because it doesn't have an aim outside itself, because it is a practice that can only have value from the inside.  And, it's hard. Most people won't achieve it, but they get some good—one only they can see and one primarily for themselves—in trying, because what they are aiming at is a good in itself. And, after all, that fits with what Aristotle says about the goodness of any life. So maybe I need to start pushing the pointless precisely because it is pointless to anyone not engaged in it.

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