While traditional understandings of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa offer contrast between what were seen as the more lowly and fleeting appetitive machinations of the life of activity versus the higher realm of the life of contemplating the eternal (essentially a monastic life), here I shall attempt to modernize.
For our purposes, the vita activa indicates the life of practical action understood as engagement, whereas the vita contemplativa indicates the scholarly, dreaming, or otherwise philosophical life. To be sure, there is not a sharp line dividing the two, as scholarly activity, intellectual inquiry, is surely activity, and engagement in practical action and affairs is not always bereft of philosophy.
For simplicity’s sake though, what we will be trying to accomplish is the bridging of gaps between engagement and intellectual inquiry, especially insofar as that intellectual inquiry involves ethics and values.
One might argue that today the focus of education is overly pragmatic, that it works on means via technology much more so than it inquires into ethics, values, and aesthetics. In this case, the vita contemplativa has already been subsumed under the vita activa. Indeed I think this is largely so. However, in this fixation on finding solutions to practical problems, inquiry into desiderata (desired ends) has taken a backseat to the means. In other words, we have built an impressive array of technological means, but the ends toward which they reach pass as presumed and abide relatively unchallenged. The engineer doesn’t necessarily inquire into why it’s good to develop a “more efficient” means of mining or extracting or building this that or the other — she is only charged with doing it. It’s good because some people think it’s good (probably because it makes them money) and some of this “goodness” trickles down to the engineer.
In this article you will learn how to recognize your own abilities to contemplate/dream and to put your dreams into action.
1. Recognize Your Existence Within A Culture
Each and every one of us is part of a culture — we are makers of men, of ourselves and of others. As Jim Morrison belts out, “into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown”. We’re neither merely born nor merely thrown, but each of us is born into a specific place and thrown into a particular part of world history. We are all situated.
2. Recognize And Celebrate Your Contemplative Abilities
“We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” Many may recognize this quote from the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it was initially penned by 19th-century poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy. The life of the mind is a fabulous thing.
Willy Wonka and his poet-hero O’Shaughnessy speak rightfully to dreams. Think of how amazingly creative your dreams are during sleep. All of this is you, as you are not merely the 9-to-5 accountant nor the 24/7 stay-at-home mom. You are gifted with insights, and your dreams visit those upon you each night. Strictly speaking, these kinds of (literal) dreams are not the same thing as waking contemplation, however, the point is that your mind is much more able and fascinating than you may recognize yourself, and more so than you may show to the world.
Your waking contemplation of society, art, personal relationships, and the world as a whole can be as rich as your dream-life. Treasure your dreams and hold them up as vivid beacons compared to which waking life may pale, yet it doesn’t have to continue to pale if it aspires to the coloration of dream.
3. Recognize Your Ability To Affect Change Via Practical Action
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” (Henry David Thoreau). While dreams are grand and serve to help us realize our mental expansiveness, dreams alone seem somehow not enough. Thoreau laments this aspect of life, as I think we can consider that his usage of song is similar to O’Shaughnessy’s usage of dream.
In a perhaps more explanatory (if less poetic version of the same), Thoreau puts it thusly:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation . . . . A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind”. Here we have dreams confined to dream-land, resignation in the face of the “cruel world”, and a resorting to “bread and circuses”. This is the result of the contemplative life unrealized in practice, a lack of vitality, and ultimately the feeling of impotence culminating in what today we label apathy.
In order to shrug off apathy and feelings of impotence, recognize that you create your own life and that you contribute to the making of the lives of others by your actions, even if those actions don’t appear to be terribly “active” (such as writing).
4. Combine The Vita Activa With The Vita Contemplativa
“I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
While King’s various dreams addressed in his “I Have a Dream” speech (please see link under “Resources”) still have not been entirely realized, they have come a long way toward realization since 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a monumental piece of legislation that among other things outlawed racial discrimination in education and public places, was passed, changing the landscape of America and especially of the would-be Jim Crow South.
King had a dream and he put it into action by coalescing others around it. We’re not all MLKs, and most of us come up quite a bit short, but there’s a little bit of MLK in each of us — a little dreamer and a little activist, just enough of each that we can combine our contemplation of ethics and values with our will to make some noise about them.
Be careful that your contemplation and dreams are not acted upon in dogmatic and authoritarian fashion, as if your way is the only way, and it must be done