Aristotle has often been charged with indecision and sometimes with holding conflicting views about the relative merits of a comprehensive practical life and one devoted primarily to contemplation (i). He intimates that practical affairs might well be ordered so as to give the greatest opportunity for such theorizing (117a12-18) (ii). But he also regards growth, motion, perception scientific understanding, and political activity as essential to a fully developed human life.
I want to investigate a way of reading Aristotle which shows how the contemplative and the comprehensive practical lives need not be competitors for the best life. There is nothing about the practical life which prevents its also being contemplative, and even enhanced by being contemplated.

Indeed, Aristotle says (1140b7-11) that men like Pericles are thought to possess practical wisdom because they have contemplative understanding of what is good. This is, he adds, our conception of an expert of leader in politics. Properly conceived, theoria completes and perfects the practical life, in the technical sense of those terms. And while of course practical wisdom cannot ensure theoria, it can assure the political conditions that allow contemplators to discover and exercise their potentialities.

When he contemplates the divine, or the fixed stars, the contemplator is no more interested in explaining them—no more interested in constructing the science of theology or astronomy—than he is in his achieving nobility or serenity. While objects that do not change at all are exemplary cases of what is contemplated, it is also possible to contemplate the unchanging form of what does change. Species meet that requirement: they have no external telos: they are eternal and unchanging (11035-1036a1). Even when the definition of a species is a pattern of a temporal life, that pattern can be comprehended in one timeless whole.

In principle, then, the most general ends of human life, insofar as these are defined by the species, can be contemplated. For living creature the formal and the final causes coincide: our general ends are the actualization and the exercise of the basic activities that define us. If eternal objects can be contemplated, and if species are eternal objects, Humanity and its proper ends can be contemplated.

This sketch may have touched on some very interesting Aristotelian doctrines: but what does it tell us about what contemplation can add to the practical life? After all, the phronimos—man of practical wisdom—knows what to do and how to do it. Why isn’t practical wisdom in all its glory sufficient unto the day? This is just the difficulty: despite his knowledge of human ends the phronimos grasps those ends in the particular. His knowledge of the good is expressed in the appropriate action done in the right way, in the mean that fits each situation. It is in his actions that the phronimos specifies and articulates his knowledge of general human ends (1144b1-1145a11) (iii). There is nothing the phronimos lacks to carry on properly, except the self-conscious, explicitly articulated placing of his knowledge in a reasoned whole. The phronimos is presumably aware of his virtue: because his actions involve the actualization of natural hexeis, they are characteristically pleasurable (1153a14-15). His life is characteristically, although not necessarily, eudaimon. It is triply well-lived: its ends are characteristically realized. Either in properly prized consequences or in intrinsically valuable activities; it is well lived because these activities involve the exercise of potentialities whose actualization constitutes the ergon and the well-being of a human life; and it is well lived because the actions that constitute such a life are performed well even when for contingent reasons they do not succeed.

Even when the phronimos can give a wise account of the merits of a course of action, he need not necessarily have a reflective theoretical understanding of the connection between his virtues and the energeiai that constitute a well-lived life. The contemplative phronimos sees his ends as specifications of species-defining potentialities. Of course such contemplative reflection does not generate a more precise decision-procedure: contemplating humanity does not increase practical wisdom by a jot (iv).

It might be argued that this account gives too much scope to theoria and not enough to phronesis. After all, it is clear that the activities and decisions that constitute practical life are far too particular, too contingent, and insufficiently lofty to fall within the scope of Sophia, let alone theoria. And that is right: it is not political debate as such, or a decision to strengthen the walls of the city rather than invade a neutral polis, that is contemplated. The energeiai that compose the virtuous life are not contemplated by the essential properties of the species. It is our species-defined ends in action that are contemplated. In any case, no one engages in theoria in order to perfect the practical life. It has to be done for its own sake to be done at all.

It might be argued that this account gives too much scope to theoria and not enough to phronesis. After all, it is clear that the activities and decisions that constitute practical life are far too particular, too contingent, and insufficiently lofty to fall within the scope of Sophia, let alone theoria. And that is right: it is not political debate as such, or a decision to strengthen the walls of the city rather than invade a neutral polis, that is contemplated. The energeiai that compose the virtuous life are not contemplated by the essential properties of the species. It is our species-defined ends in action that are contemplated. In any case, no one engages in theoria in order to perfect the practical life. It has to be done for its own sake to be done at all.

It might be argued, however, that there is no need to make the phronimos quite as concentrated on the particular as I have suggested. After all, there are many situations in which being able to act well requires being able to reason well. There are many situations, especially those of rapid change or political instability, in which the phronimos must be able to calculate and even articulate the nestling of ends in order to determine the best course of action. Of course the calculations of determinate means to determinate ends, as that is standardly conceived, gives a poor model of Aristotelian practical reasoning, since it fails to capture the way in which ends come to be specified by the activities that contribute to them and sometimes compose them. Nevertheless, just because the phronimos is often required to exercise a large range of intellectual virtues, but as the clever vicious man and the intelligent akrates attest, more is necessary.

While this may tell us what contemplation can contribute to an understanding of the moral life, and even to its perfection, we have yet to see why the contemplative life is the more prizeworthy, the happiest—even the pleasantest—of lives. To see this we must sketch some of Aristotle’s more difficult views about thinking and the thinker.
When we are engaged in intellectual thought, no particular part of us is actualized as the sort of flesh it potentially is. Rather, the whole individual realizes his potentiality as Humanity by thinking (1166a17; 1169a2). This realization of an individual as thinker is not the becoming of ordinary change, the replacement of contrary predicates. It is the actualization of a potentiality in an activity, with the added and difficult characteristic that in thinking the mind becomes identical with the forms of its objects. For Aristotle the objects of thought are neither the efficient causes nor the products of a process.

The objects of contemplation are the best and most perfect substances. By and in contemplation one becomes actively identical with the formal character of those substances. As contemplative persons, thinking species, Humanity, and its essential energeiai, we realize those energeiai fully, being not only practically virtuous as the phronimos is—virtuous on each occasion as the occasion requires. As mind, we become identical with our lives as unified wholes, the eidos, or the form of, Humanity. Contemplating the essential energeiai that define the species realizes our formal identity as the species. The contemplator of Humanity becomes a unified whole, a self-contained, self-justified, actualized Humanity, his essential and perfected life. Such a contemplator not only lives his life, he is that life as an eternal and unified self-contained whole. His contemplation and his living become one, immutable and unchanging, because contemplating is the best human activity and because the mind is actualized as and in what it thinks.

One might think that if this has shown anything at all, it has shown too much. After all, the virtuous person need not be a sage, much less a contemplator of himself as Humanity; and even the most articulate sage and contemplator may not be very virtuous. Contemplating the species is not a necessary condition for virtue (1106b36-1107a3) (v). A person may by grace and good fortune have been so brought up that in the very rightness of his actions, and in their balancing, the fruits of contemplation are plucked without his ever having contemplated the human perfection. If thinking nobly makes the mind noble, it does not thereby make us act nobly.

And the contemplator has certain problems too: even if he is assured that he can contemplate while eating a peach, and contemplate eating a peach as the activity of nourishing, a basic energeia, there will be times when forwarding the leisure necessary to contemplation will thwart political participation, and vice versa. It is of course as a political problem that this emerges most sharply, and it is for this reason that the discussion of politics follows the discussion of contemplation in Book 10. Aristotle is quite clear that there are few contemplators among us; but he is also committed to the view that they are the best among us, their existence being the perfection of the species.

What place shall be given to those whose lives are not those of thinkers or contemplators? Their lives will either become unimportant (like pots a master potter might discard in his work of producing excellent pots) or be thought best organized, for their own sakes so as to develop their limited potentialities by following the model set by the life of the contemplator. I think that Aristotle genuinely does waver; he hopes that the two courses will coincide, that as decisions to promote peak exercise of human faculties are those that will also promote their continuous best exercise in the course of a whole life, so also political decisions to promote the best development of contemplators are also those that promote the flourishing of virtuous noncontemplators.

But sometimes, of course, the contemplative and the practical lives diverge, and the political system that supports one seems at odds with the other. Such conflict is a symptom of practical and perhaps also of scientific failure: the real nature and the proper definitions of human energeiai are misunderstood by common opinion and common practice. It is, after all, crucial to virtue that the basic human energeiai should be properly performed, that their ends should be seen in the right light, and that philosophy, friendship, and political activity should be understood for what they really are. The political and moral philosopher who determines the priorities of various activities begins with common opinion, with the lives of those who are taken to be virtuous, with the intentions that define and guide their actions. The most astute contemplator of the stars cannot completely transcend his origins. The most astute contemplator of the stars and triangles begins as a child of his time, begins with the common moral opinion. The contemplator of humanity inherits a kind of dialectical account of the basic political and practical energeiai.

It is one of the signs as well as one of the aims of a good polity that the activities of contemplation and the comprehensive practical life support each other. When they conflict, however, Aristotle favors the contemplative life, because the independence of the intellectual from the moral virtues allows contemplation to continue in the midst of political disaster and practical blindness. Because many of the moral virtues are interdependent and because their exercise often involves social and political activity, it is difficult to lead an excellent practical life when basic energeiai are misconceived. The stars and the divine remain unaffected by the absence of a phronesis; that we can contemplate them no matter what else is happening is, however, only an incidental benefit of contemplation. This wry sense of the independence of contemplation does not reveal its true power and superiority. The benefits assured by contemplation in the worst political times is unlike its excellence in the best political times.

Principle source: Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle.

(i) Thomas Nagel, “Aristotle on Eudaimonia,” Phronesis 17 (1972), p 252-259; Jaeger, Aristotle (Oxford, 1948).

(ii) Leon Olle-Laprune, “Aristotle,” Paris, 1881.

(iii) J.D. Monan, “Moral Knowledge and Methodology in Aristotle,” (Oxford, 1968.)

(iv) Ibid.

(v) Ackrill, “Aristotle on Eudaimonia,”