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What is more important vita activa or vita contemplativa?

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What is more important to man vita activa or vita contemplativa?
The importance of asking such a question lies not in answering who has the better life, one of an active citizen such a politician or a priest who lives in divine contemplation. Doing so would be futile and impossible. The question is necessary for man to understand who he is – if he is more inclined as a political animal or if he is more in touched with the sacred. In learning so, we learn that both are important, for the lack of one only leads to man’s inability to grasp the fuller sense of what it means to be human.
Although contemplation was said to be the philosopher’s way of life, Hannah Arendt, one of the greatest thinkers of her time, had an inclination to promote vita activa over vita contemplativa because she was grounded on the time of modernity. She claims that what distinguished the modern age from other periods was, ‘contemplation itself had become meaningless.’ 1Even Pieper would agree to her in which modernity brought out a leisure-less culture that only lives on the total world of work. 2Arendt distinguishes three components of active life that is labor, work and action. In these different views, it is evident how active life is important not only to the individual but more so to humanity in general. Firstly, in immersing in labor, men produce goods for consumption; thus, fulfilling our biological needs. Secondly, our work provides durable objects that give stability to the ever-changing natures of human life. Lastly, action in which man, in beginning something new, asserts his freedom and discloses himself to the world.
Arendt asserts that the confusion between labor and work rendered man to be bound to the whole process of usefulness. When work turns into a cycle of fabrication and durable objects become objects of consumption, the need to work causes man to be functionary. Pieper critiqued modernity precisely because the world of work equated the value of man to his usefulness in society. Thus, in modernity’s inability to distinguish these factors of active life, man is reduced to mere utility and the consequence comes the undermining of human dignity. Pieper may not have regarded the distinctions of vita activa in problematizing the value of work in man’s life, but nonetheless, we consider his claim on leisure in uplifting the vita contemplativa.
We pose a criticism to Arendt in her claim that happiness only comes in a cycle with toil. As men swing contently in nature’s prescribed cycle of toiling and resting, the ‘reward of toil is more real than any form of happiness.’3 It is true that in these moments of joy in labor, we experience immediate gratification, an accompanied bliss, which happens after consumption. However, the fleeting satisfaction of eating, drinking and regeneration only goes beyond a decent meal and disappears when one is again troubled with the need to eat. We contest her notion in which she says, “There is no lasting happiness and contentment for the human beings outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration.”
Arendt did not doubt that ‘it is possible for human beings to go through life without ever indulging in contemplation.’4 Her notion may come from the fact that most human beings die without being contended with their lives. Men, as described by Pieper, who are bound to the total world of work, and live in a leisure less society where happiness is only the fulfillment of animalistic needs of man’s biological life. They are the people who only live partaking in the pleasures of labor but not in the higher form of vita contemplativa.
One of the striking stories told in our philosophy class was when an American priest visited a Filipino community in Rome. As we know, Filipinos always have this enthusiasm for salu-salo or get-togethers especially when welcoming guests. So, the community prepared a feast. The visitor, however, was disturbed because he knew how these Filipinos left their families in the Philippines to make a living. That is, to engage in labor so their families have something to eat. To use their money on such festivities was seen a waste since it was not worth the trouble. When the priest told his apprehension to his companion, who was another priest, his response was, “Don’t ever take away their time for celebration.”5 With this view, we see how happiness does not only come in being able to provide for our biological needs. There is another form of happiness that does not relate to us being slaves of nature but comes when we are one with it. Active life only makes sense of happiness that is the result of labor; however, there is also another form of happiness that is only given by leisure.
Leisure is a condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit.6 Like in a festival, we affirm harmony not only with one’s self but ultimately, with nature. Happiness, that is not mere satisfaction but a higher form of contentment and acceptance with the world around. A state in which we may not have everything we wanted, such as the comfort of being with our families, but we learn to enjoy all the things in our hands. Thus, in our leisure we exhibit serenity that is not found in the cycle of labor as it may be achieved even without any form of consumption. Leisure, in it’s festive character, is seen as not only effortless but the very opposite of toil or trouble.7
In partaking in the contemplative life, we immerse ourselves in leisure. A form of ‘non-activity – an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet. A kind of moving away that is more difficult than extreme active effort, ‘a super-human condition.’ As Aristotle said, ”man cannot live this way insofar as he is man, but only insofar as something divine dwells in him.” 8 This is why ancient philosophers who engaged in vita contemplativa were exactly in higher natures. In contemplation, they had understood and enjoyed the truth the world holds. This is seen in Plato’s story of the Allegory of The Cave,9 as the enlightened man dwells in divine contemplation of the truth and of the good. However, although he was already in a higher nature of divine contemplation, he went down, back to those who live in the struggle of human affairs. Plato explains that the philosopher must not stay in the world of the divine but should return to the world of man. “I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not.”10 Contemplation is a trap in which the philosophers would want to remain but must not be confined because, as Plato believes, the just state will only be formed when philosophers are kings. Thus, it is evident that Plato invites the philosophers to go down so that they can engage in the political activity of active life.
In indulging in vita contemplativa, we attain the lasting happiness and contentment of divine beings; however, this should not lead us to undermine the essence of vita ativa, which is participating in the plurality of human affairs. Aristotle claims that man is a political animal in which among other animals, only he has the capacity of speech. He believes that ‘speech serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust. For the real difference between man and other animals is that humans alone have perception of good and evil, just and unjust.11 In going down from divine contemplation, the philosophers become useful as they affirm their human capacity of speech and make use of their knowledge of the good. As such, they engage in the truly human activity of action, of beginning something new. For as long as these philosophers are separated from the public, that is, if they remain in the state of divine contemplation, they are deemed to be useless to the rest of society. Only in beginning something new, do men exercise the freedom of creativity and thus, participate in the unfolding of the world.
But the Gods, taking pity on human beings - a race born to labor - gave them regularly recurring divine festivals, as a means of refreshment from their fatigue…to the end that, after refreshing themselves in the company of the Gods, they might return to an upright posture.12 This message from Plato supports the fact that in leisure, man has the power to come in contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work.13 Believing that active life serves the ends of contemplation, Aristotle also claims that ‘we work in order to be at leisure.’14 These statements served to uplift the value of vita contemplativa but still emphasized that leisure is counterpoised to vita activa – may it be labor, work and action.
Therefore, to answer the question, what is more important to man vita activa or vita contemplativa? We answer that both are important since immersing in both enables us to grasp the fullest sense of what it means to be human. We are political animals. Essentially, we are political beings that respond to human plurality through speech and action. Our animalistic needs are fulfilled in the cycle of toil and consumption in our labor. Our humanness comes from the need for stability only given by our work. Ultimately, we are also sacred beings. Through contemplation, we not only receive divine contentment but also refreshment for our active lives.

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