ALL practical activity, from the practice of the ethical virtues to gaining the means of livelihood, serves something other than itself. And this other thing is not practical activity. It is having what is sought after, while we rest content in the results of our active efforts. Precisely that is the meaning of the old adage that the vita activa is fulfilled in the vita contemplativa. To be sure, the active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Thomas, principally in the practice of prudence, in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity. Vita activa est dispositio ad contemplativam; the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation.
In the commentary Thomas wrote on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics there is a sentence which expresses this idea in so challenging a fashion that I hesitate to cite it here. Thomas is speaking of politics, which is the summation of all man’s active cares about securing his existence. The sentence sounds almost utopian. But it is based upon a wholly illusion-free estimate of what is commonly called “political life”; it contain the insight that politics must inevitably become empty agitation if it does not aim at something which is not political. “The whole of political life seems to be ordered with a view to attaining the happiness of contemplation. For peace, which is established and preserved by virtue of political activity, places man in a position to devote himself to contemplation of the truth.” Such is the magnificent simplicity and keenness of this dictum that we scarcely dare lean on it. Yet it is nothing but an extension of the idea that contemplation is “the goal of man’s whole life.”
We do not mean by this to scorn or decry practical life. On the contrary, we may well say that here is the clue to salvation and redemption of ordinary life. And here it seems proper to put in a word about the nature of hierarchical thinking. The hierarchical point of view admits no doubt about differences in levels and their location; but it also never despises lower levels in the hierarchy. Thus the inherent dignity of practice (as opposed to theoria) is in no way denied. It is taken for granted that practice is not only meaningful but indispensable; that it rightly fills out man’s weekday life; that without it a truly human existence is inconceivable. Without it, indeed, the vita contemplativa is unthinkable.
But practice does become meaningless the moment it sees itself as an end in itself. For this means converting what is by nature a servant into a master—with the inevitable result that it no longer serves any useful purpose. The absurdity and the profound dangers of this procedure cannot, in the long run, remain hidden. André Gide writes in his Journals: “The truth is that as soon as we are no longer obliged to earn out living, we no longer know what to do with our life and recklessly squander it.” Here, with his usual acuteness, Gide has described the deadly emptiness and the endless ennui which bounds the realm of the exclusively practical like a belt of lunar landscape. This is the desert which results from destruction of the vita contemplativa. In the light of such a recognition we suddenly see new and forceful validity in the old principle: “It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.” For it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end insight, gives meaning to every practical act of life.
─Selected from Josef Pieper: An Anthology