Friday, January 21, 2011

How Much Study Does a Person Need? (Aristotle & Contemplation)

In the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics (Book X), Aristotle notoriously advances the view that the happiest human life--in his sense of happiness which means to be living and faring well--will necessarily include the activity of contemplation (also translated by T. Irwin as "study"). This is because:

1. Human happiness (flourishing) must consist in virtuous (excellent) activity of the distinctively human capacities--which are the rational capacities.

2. While there are several different excellent uses to which we can put our rational capacities (politics, social justice action, and perhaps also--I would suggest--various creative activities, as well as raising good children, etc.), contemplation is the most complete and self-sufficient of these activities, because it has no further end (like the aim toward happiness itself), requires only modest external fortune, and unlike some of the other virtues, does not require an object (or other agent) which is the recipient of one's virtuous acts (you need social trouble for the practice of the social virtues, children to practice the virtues of parenting, etc.).

3. In addition to being the most complete and self-sufficient of rational activities, contemplation is also divine (a point that becomes hugely important for Aquinas). While we have all sorts of human needs, and so can only participate in divine activities to a limited extent, it's still good to strive in the direction of transcendent activity.

The last point sounds a lot like things Plato says about philosophy--that it is training that prepares one for death (and the separation of the soul from the body, and so a transition, in that respect, to a more godly state). (I just note this because Aristotle tends to give Plato a hard time in the NE.) But putting that aside, I want to reflect a little on the oft-noted observation that it's tempting to see Aristotle's move here as a typical self-congratulatory universalization of one's own preferred dominant activity as the best one. Aristotle's a philosopher, so of course he's going to think that the best life is the philosopher's life--or more specifically, the life of the philosopher who has found some truth.

(That is an important point. As Irwin notes in his translation, "study" (or contemplation) should not be confused with inquiry, or any sort of attempt to figure things out. The person who is able to engage in study has already discovered some truth and is now gazing upon it. The Greek root of the term translated as "study" (and contemplation) has this visual meaning. Thus, the wise person is something more than just any aspiring philosopher or intellectual, and such people, too, might fail to reach a point where study is possible.)

It's usually pointed out that not many people have the intelligence, formal training, or resources (including free time) to engage in contemplation of complex deductive systems. Aristotle leaves it unclear, too, just how much of our lives should be devoted to study--the point about it's divine nature would suggest that the ideal answer is, "as much as possible, and the more the better," so that the happiest person would be something like a sage living in a hole somewhere, with no interruption and near-constant attention to the beauty and magnificence of the truth, with a couple potty breaks and some modest Wittgensteinian meals. ("Hot ziggety!") The alternate picture, less austere, would be basically a rich dude with servants (or better, slaves) to cook stuff for him and so on, and a nice cozy library into which he confines himself to do the serious activity of contemplation. Either way, and so for possibly varying reasons, this has got to be where a lot of people, would get off the least if the suggestion is that this is the happiest life even in Aristotle's sense of living and faring well. Not to say that the sage isn't, but since Aristotle's apparent ideal contemplative would, by the nature of his or her activity, become withdrawn from society, it becomes a rather peculiar life.

However, given the importance of friendship for Aristotle, and also given that he allows that even the contemplative must possess the moral virtues in order to deal well with others (like his or her friends), it's probably very wrong to see the disengaged sage as Aristotle's happiest person. Importantly, this would seem to mean--since we are not gods--that there will often be very good reasons to STOP contemplating and, say, help our friends move to a new house. So, it appears--and Irwin also reads Aristotle this way--that the important thing is to MAKE TIME for contemplation/study. So, like most issues in the NE, there's not a tidy answer at all to the question, "How much contemplation?"

There are other things worth exploring here. One is whether we might challenge the (snobbish) idea that acquiring wisdom requires lots of technical training rather than something else like the experience of age and an attuned and sensitive mind. If there are ways to widen the potential objects of contemplation/study, then perhaps Aristotle's ideas can be made to seem more appealing. (The point isn't to democratize the idea, but at least to make it seem like other things besides formal logic and mathematics and analytic metaphysics can get you to the right place...)

Second, I think of Wittgenstein's claim from the Philosophical Investigations: "The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question." Once Aristotle's contemplation is understood not to be inquiry but something else, I wonder whether there might be some resonance with W's point about what a "real discovery" is. One might then combine this with a suggestion that Thomas Nagel made in his early paper, "Aristotle on Eudaimonia" in which he suggests (if I recall correctly), that contemplation of wisdom might actually be the sort of thing one can couple with many kinds of lives and maybe even do (if you're really good) while doing other things like sweeping the floor. Which often seems like the kind of thing W wanted to do instead of philosophy. (There are a lot of differences here, too, so I don't want to overstate the extent of this comparison.)

Lastly, to the extent that the objects of contemplation (or how we navigate our way to them) can be widened or reconceptualized, it would appear that unless one has the silly idea that only philosophers (or physicists or mathematicians, etc.) discover truths worth gazing upon, then a lot of "rational activities"--perhaps all of them--will be conducive to the sorts of discoveries that make contemplation a possibility: including various aesthetic and literary activities (both the creating and the consuming) and perhaps also our very relationships with others.

Thoughts? (Sorry that's a bit long for a blog.)


  1. I tend to think of Aristotle as thinking that one's main occupation should be contemplation or study, but that this still leaves plenty of time in the day for friends, family, community, etc. Basically I think he believed that he was living a great life. This isn't just self-congratulation. He might have been aware of various ways in which he could have come closer to the ideal. And if he had recommended some other kind of life but not lived it, that would seem pretty strange.

    Since this study includes something like contemplation of, or meditation on, the wonders of the universe, it's interesting to consider whether this could be combined with other work. There is a form of yoga, I think, that involves dedicating everything you do to God. That might be both Wittgensteinian and Aristotelian. Except that Aristotle didn't have much respect for manual labor.

  2. "And if he had recommended some other kind of life but not lived it, that would seem pretty strange."

    Good point. Of course, it's not just an issue of recommending but of claiming that it is the happiest life. And that's where I think it's worth thinking about how contemplation can be incorporated into (or alongside) other activities in ways that don't make the happiest life contingent (in multiple ways) upon having a life in other ways like Aristotle's...

  3. True. I wonder whether there is any such thing as the happiest life, or any point in sketching it in order to come as close as possible to achieving it. But it can't hurt.