Are You a Thinker or a Doer?

“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.

This article is from The One Minute Aquinas. Click to order.

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. 

image: Platslee / Shutterstock.com

Dr. Kevin Vost

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Kevin Vost, Psy.D., has taught psychology at Aquinas College in Nashville and at the University of Illinois at Springfield. The author of books including Memorize the Faith!, Memorize the Reasons!, and coming in March, 2014, The One-Minute Aquinas, Dr. Vost drinks great drafts of coffee while meditating mirthfully upon Thomistic tomes, in the company of his wife, two sons, and two dogs, in Springfield, Illiniois.

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  • JMC

    I wish someone had been able to explain this to my sister. She was the “active” type – actually, “activist” is closer to it. She could not understand how I could “sit back and let things happen” and was a firm believer in “part of the solution/part of the problem.” When I told her I had learned many years ago that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of work, she told me it was just a cop-out. Her first reaction to anything was to go out and do something about it; mine was – and still is – to go to my room and pray. She couldn’t understand that it isn’t a case of one being “better” than the other, but that each complements the other.
    And sometimes the “thinkers” would do well to quit trying to tell the “actives” to slow down. They’re not “cut out” to slow down, any more than we are to “get involved.”

  • noelfitz

    Dr Vost, thanks for this great article. I am afraid I am a bit (!!) picky, and so I hope you do not mind if I ask if thinkers are lovers. . When you wrote “I think of such people as thinkers
    and doers (and lovers as well)” do you mean that only doers
    are lovers?

  • Suz Lickteig

    I say, “let us be both” :) at least I feel led to do both, maybe not at the same time but find both areas so intertwined, happily so . I pray, that as we all are called, that we answer at least with one of these ways of living for God. Time to get off the fence and ” think and do”, with His help all is possible!

  • http://drvost.com Kevin Vost

    Thank you for the great question Noel, and the answer is — “No!” The article is an excerpt that does not include a footnote that fleshes out the threefold distinction more fully (actually two footnotes appear in the chapter. I also tell the story about about St. Pope Gregory the Great as a thinker called by God to become a doer). We are clearly all called to love, and ideally our thinking and doing will all be inspired by love.

    This threefold scheme borrows from St. Thomas’s writings on the active and contemplative life, as well as Catholic psychologist Henri Joly’s comments in his book, The Psychology of the Saints. Joly he describes two classes of saints, one class known for their “energetic action and spirit of eager propagandism,” and the other “who personify active love and tenderness.” With that scheme in mind, I further separate out the active life and think of doers as the first class who tend to operate on a large scale and thinkers as the second class more known for their interpersonal acts of mercy and kindness. It is the overarching theme in my book Three Irish Saints, in which Sts. Kevin, Patrick, and Brigid are used as models for the three “spiritual styles.”

    As for JMZ’s comment, I do believe we tend to glorify God best when we build within ourselves our strong suit and natural inclinations as thinkers or doers. As for Suz’s comment about being both, I also agree with being open in ourselves to both — all three in fact, if we include the lover as another classification, that might provide an additional way to look at how we can be contemplative, and or active. My Three Irish Saints book includes a self-test at the end that produces a separate score for all three scales — thinker, doers, and lover.

    St. Thomas was a master of addressing the things we all have in common as beings made in God’s image and likeness, as individuals with unique talents, and as members of groups with special callings like to the contemplative or active life. We are all called to all three to some extent, as we see in the prayer of the Dominican St. Richard of Chichester, to “know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly.” There is also a wonderful line from St. Thomas that incorporates the active and the contemplative lives in the spirit of love: “As it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so it is better to give to others the fruits of contemplation than merely to contemplate.” (ST, II-II, Q. 188, a. 6).

  • noelfitz

    Dr Vost,
    many thanks for your detailed and thoughtful reply to me.
    I regret not replyimg and thanking you before now, but I wanted to think more about your comments, as they are very sound.

    I wonder do John Paul II and John XXIII illustrate the two typed of saints considered by Henri Joly.

  • http://drvost.com Kevin Vost

    You are welcome, Noel, and I see your point how our two popes on the way to canonization do seem to embody the characteristics Joly was talking about. Two examples Joly himself used were St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi.

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