January 31: The Universality and Luxury of the Contemplative Life
Today I’m reflecting on what a pleasure it is to be able to have the time and space to contemplate — simply to sit back and think of things without acting or reacting.
We’ll begin with Aristotle, a font of practical wisdom. He believed that there were three basic modes of living.
The least desirable, or ennobling, was that of simple labor — something like being a farmer, a shoemaker, an metal worker, a miner, etc. Aristotle did not see these people or their labor as lacking in value; he saw them as absolutely necessary to human society. But he also believed that a person whose life was dominated overwhelmingly by these activities and concerns — especially from sun up to sun down every day of the week, as a person’s life often was in the ancient world — had a life that was less satisfying than those who lived in a one of the other “spheres” or “modes.”
The next “sphere” was what he called “public life.” This would be a person who was active as a businessperson, a member of a royal court, a military officer, a wealthy head-of-household, a city councilor, a diplomat, etc. Aristotle believed that this sort of life, which certainly relied on the use of the mind, was “richer” intellectually than that of the laborer. But he also saw it as a life beset by too many concerns and worries which often degraded the quality of one’s happiness.
For Aristotle, the best and richest life was one of contemplation and study unencumbered by practical and material concerns. He believed it was by reflecting quietly, diligently, and deliberately on the world and ourselves that we not only reached the highest wisdom but also our happiest and most satisfied inner state. In fact, he did not see wisdom and happiness as at all separate. He saw them as completely intertwined — one could not and would not exist without the other. It is important to note that he did not see this as laziness. Instead, he thought that concerted, concentrated, and deliberate study and reflection were the most ennobling forms of labor that a person can engage in.
In the ancient world, people lived much harder lives than we do today. Warfare, famine, disease, and early death often kept people from going very far outside the boundaries of their “sphere” or “station” in life: a farmer spent all of his time farming — hard, manual labor. A businessperson spent all of his time checking on his workers, his shop, his suppliers and products to the exclusion of all else. Time for contemplation was often only reserved for a tiny, wealthy elite, and it was only the wealthy who could afford to purchase books — such a luxury then — and send their children to school.
But today we are so, so much luckier! Our material conditions — even those of a person we would consider at the bottom of the “socio-economic scale” — are far better than those of the vast majority of people in the ancient world. We have things like vehicles, public transportation, infrastructure, effective health care, a minimum wage, a high degree of political stability, universal suffrage and guaranteed rights, privacy, education, printed books, and libraries which were nothing more than a fantasy for most people in the ancient world.
These amenities afford us all the ability to take part in Aristotle’s ideal life — that life of contemplation. Even if we have a job that includes hard physical work or a lot of people stress, even if we have families with young children, even if we have a boss who is a colossal asshole, we still have time and space to “get away from a it all” for a few minutes a day or for a few hours a week and do what Aristotle did: take pleasure in thinking about and studying life carefully and deliberately.
Also, the resources we have at our disposal for doing that are absolutely amazing! In the ancient Mediterranean they had one great library at Alexandria which included a few hundred thousand scrolls. In the modern world, we all have access to library systems which make available millions of titles and can put them — through our smart phones — literally in the palms of our hands. The intellectual treasures available to us today were nothing but a pipe dream to even the privileged elite in ancient times. We are indeed “living the the dream” of the kings and philosophers of old.
I say we should be very grateful for what we have and use it to our own advantage. Just the ability to think and contemplate these ideas is a great luxury that our times provide us. Don’t let is slip! Don’t miss the chance! (Now I really sound like a car salesman.)
Ask yourself : do you take advantage of this dream world? Or do you squander it and the opportunities for contemplation it affords us?
One of the great modern opportunities is to read and understand some of the wisest and greatest minds of ancient times. So, for today’s “reading,” we’ll contemplate a few quotes by or on the Stoics from the The Daily Stoic regarding how to take advantage of our contemplative time and use it to our own inner and outer advantage.
Quote #1: “Keep it simple”
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task and hand, as a Roman and a human being, doing it with strict and simply dignity, affection, freedom, and justice — giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life — for, if you keep watch over these things, the gods won’t ask for more.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.5
Quote #2: “You don’t have to stay on top of everything.”
“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to keep knowledgeable. And if some people regard you as important, distrust yourself.”
Quote #3: “Philosophy as a medicine of the soul.”
“Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in the treatment of sore eyes, or a bandage for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.9
Here is the comment from the authors of The Daily Stoic on the third quote:
“The busier we get, the more we work and learn and read, the further we may drift. We’re making money, being creative, and we’re stimulated and busy. It seems like everything is going well. but we drift further and further from philosophy.
Eventually this neglect will contribute to a problem — the stress builds up, or mind gets cloudy, and we forget what’s important — and result in an injury or problem of some kind. When that happens, it’s important that we tap the brakes — put aside all momentum and the moment. Return to the regimen and practices we know are rooted in clarity, good judgment, good principles, and good health.
Stoicism is designed as medicine to the soul. It relieves us of the vulnerabilities of modern life. It restores us with the vigor we need to thrive in life. Check in with it today, and let it do its healing.”
A bit of commentary from yours truly…
I think these quotes combine well with and supplement the earlier comments on Aristotle and the contemplative life. Whatever your station in life, we should always bring ourselves back to — and enjoy — contemplation. Not only is its advice there to help us heal our wounds, “like medicine,” but it is there as a constant source of pleasure whatever our conditions or concerns might be.
Learning, knowing, and contemplating truth are great pleasures always available to us, and they have many salutary practical applications as well.
What do you think? I’ll look forward to reading your comments.