“Accordingly, since certain men are especially intent on the contemplation of truth, while others are especially intent on external actions, it follows that man’s life is fittingly divided into active and contemplative.”
— St. Thomas Aquinas, ST, II-II, Q. 179, art. 1
After having considered differences among people in terms of the special graces some receive, Thomas examines differences in the types of lives that Christians may be called to live. These primary callings are to the contemplative life, where a person focuses on the inward contemplation of truth, and the active life, where he focuses on external actions and affairs in the world. I think of such people as thinkers and doers (and lovers as well).
These categories derive from the very nature of the human intellectual soul. “The life of plants consists of nourishment and generation; the life of animals of sensation and movement; and the life of men in their understanding and acting according to reason.” God gave us the capacities to know truth and to act for good We see this in the two main functions of our reasoning powers. By the workings of our speculative intellect, we contemplate truths and are perfected by the intellectual virtues of understanding, science, and reason. By the workings of our practical intellect, we get things done and are perfected by the virtues of art and prudence.
What do holy thinkers think?
Christian contemplatives are thinkers indeed, but they are far from professional academics or cool “Mr Spock” types who analyze the world with reason alone in detachment from the truths they seek. Indeed, contemplatives seek the highest truths of God, and their wills are fired by their love for him. As Thomas notes, “There is delight in the contemplative life, not only by reason of the contemplation itself, but also by reason of the Divine love.” Citing St Gregory the Great, he expands on this theme: “The contemplative life is sweetness exceedingly lovable; for it carries the soul away above itself, it opens heaven and discovers the spiritual world to the eyes of the mind.” Contemplation of God is a foretaste of the eternal bliss of the beatific vision of God, although in a very imperfect form here on earth—“for the contemplation of wayfarers is imperfect, according to 1 Cor 13:12, We see now through a glass in a dark manner. ” It will be perfect in heaven when we see God “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).
Four things necessary to the contemplative life are obtained in this order:
1) moral virtues, which must be attained so we will not be disturbed by our passions or outward events and will be free to focus on truth.
2) intellectual preparation in the form of acts such as focusing our attention, studying, and reasoning, to set the stage for contemplation.
3) contemplation of divine effects, that is, of creatures and the workings of the world God created, which paves the way toward the final step.
4) contemplation of the divine truth of God, the origin and sustainer of all of creation. A contemplative soul sees the goodness and beauty of God in even the least of his creatures, and when his eye sees the creature, his mind and his heart rise to the Creator.
What do holy doers do?
God has given us the capacity not only to know the truth, but to do the good In Aristotle’s terms, he has made us not only “rational animals,” but “political animals” too. We live together in communities and are called to look after each other’s welfare. As Christ told us, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and this suggests that we take actions for our neighbors’ good. This is particularly the stuff of the moral virtues.
The moral virtues are geared toward action, and as Thomas notes: “The chief of the moral virtues is justice, by which one man is directed in his relations towards another. ” So then, “when we practice the works of the moral virtues as being good in themselves, and not as dispositions to the contemplative life, the moral virtues belong to the active life .” Prudence, that blend of intellectual and moral virtue that gets things done, is “right reason applied to action” and is therefore a quintessential virtue of the active life
For a sample of the kinds of actions that those of the active life are called to do, I direct readers to St. Thomas’s excellent consideration of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in his article “Of Almsdeeds,” in question 32 of the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologica. In this part of the Summa, Thomas focuses attention on one particular act of the active life that might at first glance seem contemplative; this is the act of teaching The teacher must indeed contemplate truths and acquire wisdom. Indeed, a sure sign that someone possesses wisdom and knowledge is his ability to teach others Even when he shares those fruits of his contemplation, it is the work of the active life as well.
Thinking vs. doing: which one wins?
In one sense it is a false match-up to pit the two kinds of life against each other, since, although some of us are especially disposed to one or the other, we are all called to some extent to think about God and to do good things Thomas draws heavily on the writings of St Gregory the Great in his comparisons of the contemplative and active lives. In using an example from the Old Testament, Gregory wrote that Jacob’s wife Leah, who was “blear-eyed” (Gen 29:17) but fruitful, “signifies the active life; which being occupied with work, sees less, and yet since it urges one’s neighbor both by word and example to its imitation, begets a number of offspring of good deeds. ” Gregory adds, “The contemplative life gives beauty to the soul, wherefore it is signified by Rachel, of whom it is said (Gen 29:17) that she was of a beautiful countenance.”
The most famous biblical example is that of Martha, representing the active life, and her sister Mary, the contemplative Jesus declared, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41–42). Here we see Christ’s acknowledgment of the value of contemplation. Gregory would say: “Great are the merits of the active life, but greater still those of the contemplative.” Thomas would note as well that the contemplative part will not be taken away, since our eternal bliss will consist in the beatific vision of God himself.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Vost’s The One Minute Aquinas which is available from Sophia Institute Press.