The Contemplative Life

Praise of the quiet and contemplative life of contentment with one’s lot is a consistent theme that runs throughout the works of philosophers considering the ideally happy life. Ancient authors of both the Greek and the biblical tradition as well as more recent thinkers on the subject affirm the positive good of a life of peaceful contentment. Such a disposition is frequently extolled as surpassing the active life. In spite of the frequent and widespread admonitions to the life of repose in literature of substantial wisdom, however, there does seem to be an extreme of quietism toward which such admonitions tend which comes dangerously near acceptance of injustice and inferiority for the sake of personal inner peace.

The preference for the quiet life is expressed in both the Greek philosophical tradition and in the biblical tradition. Aristotle, for example, claims a certain godlikeness of those who live a life of repose, as, says Aristotle, “God always enjoys a single and simple pleasure . . . and pleasure is found more in rest than in movement.” The tendency away from the pleasures of rest, Aristotle continues, is in fact itself a vice because “the nature that needs change is vicious; for it is not simple nor good.” Similarly, in the biblical tradition, the author of Ecclesiastes advises contentment with one’s lot as a key to happiness (Eccl 5:18). And in the New Testament, St. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tm 6:8).

More recently, Blaise Pascal and Michel Montaigne offer similar admonitions toward a life of rest. In his essay “Of the Inequality Which is Between Us,” Montaigne concludes with the dialogue between King Pyrrhus and his advisor Cyneas, the moral of which is the advice to cease striving for greater acquisitions in favor of repose. Pascal also references this story and draws from it a condemnation of those who would endeavor to increase their estaste “as if the possession of the objects of their quest would make them really happy.” Pascal finds in such endeavors, in fact, a peculiar sort of illness universal among mankind in which people pursue such endeavors in order to avoid having to face the self in quiet contemplation.

There is, no doubt, a great deal of wisdom in all of these admonitions. One who is constantly seeking an increase in wealth, power, or glory is one who is never satisfied and therefore perpetually unhappy. And, importantly, as Pascal notes, such a person persistently but futily evades the terrifying but essential moment of silence in which one must face the facts of self, of meaning, and of death. The need for constant acquisition, then, is a symptom of a greater attempt at evasion of the existential questions of human life.

Such admonitions, however, can be seen from another perspective as potentially problematic. The sort of quietude urged can easily be understood—even if only mistakenly so—as a commandment to keep in one’s place and to settle for acceptance of poverty and injustice. St. Paul’s advice to slaves to respect and obey their masters in 1 Timothy 6:1–2, for example, has a great deal of potential—potential which was indeed historically exploited—to discourage the enslaved from seeking their freedom.

Also problematic is the potential for the perversion of the idea of rest inherent in some of these admonitions. Rest, including sleep, is, as it is typically experienced, a period of relative inactivity in preparation for activity. If a life of quiet rest were indeed the best life, the idler would be the most virtuous man alive. This is not so, however, unless excessive sleep is the greatest virtue of all.

Rather, Cicero’s thought on rest as preparation for activity as he describes it in the Pro Archia Poeta seems be a balanced and insightful view of the place of rest in human life. The meaningful rest of engagement in poetry, study, and liberal learning, writes Cicero, is a rest that prepares one properly for engagement in political and social life. The rest alone is insufficient as it is unbalanced; without activity, it is preparation for preparation. It is partaking of the active life in community with other people that grants to rest its meaning. The restful life, then, is only half of the full life.

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