4 Have We Forgotten about Happiness? Scientific Practice and the Contemplative and Active Life

Nathaniel A. Warne

In the Developing Virtues and the Practice of Science (DVPS) project, we have been asking: how does the development of virtues relate to one’s vocational practices—in our case, specifically laboratory scientists and musicians? The arguably more important question, however, is: what are the ends and goods of the virtues that we seek to know more about and understand in this project? Further, what is the relationship between particular practices and the achievement of those ends? Throughout the DVPS project the team has been concerned, as much as possible, with thinking about the virtues within a particular historical, theological, and philosophical framework that considers virtues not as ends in themselves but as means to something greater, namely happiness.

In this paper I attempt to bring our discussion back into the teleological frame of thinkers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who thought of happiness not as an activity or practice but as contemplation (theoria, contemplatio). Aristotle and Thomas have been two of the most important figures shaping the last half-century’s thinking on eudaimonistic and virtue ethics. What do these influential thinkers have to say about the relationship between happiness and activity? The first section of this paper will look at other prominent figures in the Western spiritual and moral tradition, along with Aristotle and Thomas. The second section will focus on the work of twentieth-century philosopher Josef Pieper, who engaged extensively with ancient and medieval figures, along with the psychology of his day, to address philosophical and theological questions. He is also partly credited with the twentieth century retrieval of “virtue ethics.” Pieper wrote extensively and influentially on the relationship between virtue, leisure, and work.

Drawing on these figures and ideas, I ask about the relationship between vocational practices and the classical eudaimonistic conception of happiness and the good life. Even if a person develops the virtues necessary to have excellence in practices and activities, would these lead to the good life and happiness that thinkers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would consider actual happiness? When we are discussing happiness, are we talking about the theologically rich ultimate end that is happiness with God in the beatific vision, or are we talking about penultimate ends? It is to these questions that I first turn.[1]

Contemplation and the Good Life

Aristotle and Thomas have different conceptions of happiness as theoria and contemplatio, but the idea of happiness as a particular kind of leisurely rational activity remains constant. Aristotle writes:

If happiness is activity in accordance with excellence, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest excellence; and this will be that of the best things in us. Whether it be intellect or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide and to take thought of things noble and divine or only the most divine elements in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper excellence will be complete happiness. That this activity is contemplative we have already said.[2]

Also,

Happiness extends, then, just as far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not accidentally, but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.[3]

Further, Thomas writes that happiness is not found in the moral virtues but

the activities of the intellect, which is contemplative…since man applies himself to it for its own sake so that he seeks no further end. This activity also contains a proper pleasure proceeding from itself and augmenting it. So then such contemplative activity of the intellect clearly provides for man the attributes customarily assigned to the happy person: self-sufficiency, leisureliness, and freedom from labor.[4]

Both Aristotle and Thomas frame their discussion of the virtues for the sake of the end that is happiness, which consists in contemplation.[5] How, if at all, does our work relate to happiness, even a penultimate version of it? For Thomas, in the first sense, happiness is a gift given to us by God in his providence and love. Nothing we do adds to our ability to achieve happiness through work. Infused grace is required for this happiness to be achieved in the most robust sense. This end has been decided for us by virtue of our being created by God. As Thomas puts it, we are incapable of not willing it.[6] Happiness and the good life are not for us to attain through the effort of virtue. The meaning of the active life is made through the possibility of contemplation,[7] a contemplation that is something divine,[8] eternal,[9] the attaining of which would fulfill our deepest and boundless thirst and desire. Not to attain it is to despair in the fullest and truest sense of this word.[10] What is being discussed by Thomas is clearly not something that can be possessed in its fullness in this life and requires divine assistance.

What can we say about the relationship between contemplation and our work, practices, and activities in this life? All practical activity, from gaining the means of a livelihood in a job to the practice of developing the virtues, is a means towards some other end outside itself. The end for which these activities and practices seek is non-practical. In this way the active life is fulfilled in the contemplative life.[11] This is not to deny that the active life cannot be incredibly fulfilling, and can even make us happy to a limited extent, but these penultimate happinesses rest in the practice of prudence and right conduct.

What, then, can we say about the relationship of earthly contemplation to vocational practices? There certainly seems to be a place for a conception of contemplation in this life. Thomas Merton notes that a totally escapist contemplation that rejects the sin of any age is a form of sin itself.[12] Josef Pieper, too, makes room for earthly contemplation.[13] Pieper, drawing significantly on ancient and medieval tradition, thought contemplation the purely receptive approach to, and receiving of, reality. This is independent of practical and utilitarian ends. Contemplation is devoted to “revealing, clarifying, and making manifest the reality which has been sighted.” These aim at “truth and nothing else. This is the first element of the concept of contemplation: silent perception of reality.”[14] What Pieper is emphasizing is the necessary visual component to human flourishing. Contemplation is a perfected non-propositional knowledge that is arrived at by vision.[15] It is not effortful or discursive.[16] Rather, it is restful, and is no longer moving towards its object. “The object is present—as a face or landscape is present to the eye when the gaze ‘rests upon it.’”[17]

What does the above description of contemplation have to do with the development of virtue? In Plato’s Symposium, it is contemplative seeing that makes life worth living.[18] Attaining the top of the ladder of love is to contemplate beauty, which is the end of our toil[19] and gives us detachment to realize the smallness of worldly and mortal things.[20] For Plato, it is in contemplation that we beget true virtue.[21] But this does not mean that we do not have social responsibilities and friendships. We come back down the ladder from our contemplation to the people just like the liberated prisoner in The Republic.[22] It is in teaching that we come back to our active lives from our place contemplating the good and find the end of earthly contemplation.

Given the above, what can we say about the relationship between virtue, contemplative activity, and activities associated with vocational practices like the practice of science? On the one hand, what is described above is the most robust sense of happiness. This is the ultimate happiness, to see and contemplate God. For the tradition seeing God—who is the good, the true, and the beautiful—is not effort; it is not work or activity. If it is an activity, it is one that requires no effort, has no end beyond itself, and still, in the richest way, engages our rational faculties. In this way practices are not related to happiness. On the other hand, there are certain practices and good work that can add to our ability to experience happiness in this life. Commenting on love in Plato’s Symposium, Gabriel Roxana Carone notes that the scientist “who contemplates the vastness of the universe comes to realize the narrow dimensions of his own life within it.”[23] Perhaps another way of saying this is that when we engage in contemplation we can see the empirical world better. Sixteenth-century theologian St. John of the Cross notes that just as the sun overwhelms the light of the candle, the light of faith possessed in contemplation overwhelms the light of the intellect, which extends only to natural knowledge.[24] Contemplation moves us beyond our senses, beyond the empirical and observable world, beyond science. In the Spiritual Canticle, John writes that to seek God you should “pay no attention, neither, partially nor entirely, to anything your faculties can grasp.”[25] Because of the weakness of our faculties, the closer we get to contemplation the more they do us little good. Thomas Merton, commenting on St. John, writes that the faith that is associated with the contemplative life is a turning away from God’s creatures and creation and towards God. It is a “blacking out of the visible in order to see the invisible.” Faith “is a light of such supreme brilliance that it dazzles the mind and darkens all its vision of other realities: but in the end, when we become used to the new light, we gain a new vision of all reality transfigured and elevated in the light of itself.”[26]

What has been shown above is that contemplation is what makes up happiness and the good life. This finds its most complete fulfillment in the next life in the vision of God, but there is room for a form of earthly contemplation. It is here that true virtue, which rightly orders our lives and priorities, can grow and develop. Earthly contemplation is, however, a seriously diminished form of happiness, and following Aristotle, we see that it is both hard to maintain and can be taken away. This point of view does not advocate a dualism between these kinds of lives. In fact, from Plato all the way through to Pieper, the Western philosophical tradition sees that contemplative and active life are intricately related. The active life comes to its fulfillment in the contemplative, and those who contemplate, at least in this life, are obligated to descend the ladder, now possessing true virtue so that they can teach those to whom they return. This view of contemplation also does not deny the importance of the created order, but rather takes it seriously, as creation is intimately connected to God. Earthly contemplation, for instance, takes the form of restful “looking” at the created order, a looking that can inform and sharpen one’s vocational practices.

Josef Pieper and Internal and External Activities

There is the potential for some further confusion here concerning the reasoning of both Aristotle and Thomas. In spite of the above summary of their overall thought, both seem to argue, at times explicitly, the position that happiness is an activity or practice. We can see that for Thomas, drawing on Aristotle, happiness is an activity. Thomas cites Aristotle’s statement that happiness is an “operation” (operatio).[27] This term, in Latin, has a semantic range that could include “activity.” Thomas continues on to note that “man’s happiness is something created, existing in him, we must needs say that it is an operation. For happiness is man’s supreme perfection.”[28] Happiness consists in the last “act” of humankind; this, again, he gets from Aristotle. We get a sense that within occidental tradition this particular activity is equated with happiness.

There are some “activities” that contribute, or are at least related to, happiness. What are these activities? According to Pieper, Thomas has in mind activities that are not external, but internal.[29] “Happiness consists in cognitive activity and nothing else.”[30] As an action, then, happiness is connected to a broader anthropology and view of reality. This can be seen in three propositions. The first is that “happiness means perfection.” There is “nothing left to wish for” the ultimate goal has been achieved. The whole of the person is happy and perfected.[31] The second proposition, building on the first, is that “perfection means full realization.” The person attains her full reality; she becomes “real.”[32] Finally, to becoming “real” is achieved through action. “‘Action is the ultimate realization of the person who acts.’ Only by acting does one realize the fullness of their reality.”[33] Happiness is a form of acting “which opens all the potentialities of man to fullest realization.”[34] It is not about external practices or worldly success. Activity which remains within the self yields results, but these do not show outwardly. “They are fruit which grows within—for example, the verbum cordis, the ‘heart’s word,’ the still unvoiced fruit of insight.”[35] It is in this kind of activity that the acting person actualizes themselves.[36] The kinds of actions that reach outward perfect the work and not the worker themselves. For Thomas, moral virtues are about external actions and thus strictly speaking not related to the contemplative life: “it is evident that the moral virtues are directed, not to the contemplation of truth but to operation.”[37] Moral virtues are subordinated to active happiness. For example, the chief moral virtue, justice, is external as it is directed towards the other.

When we make the above distinction between internal and external activities, this does not mean that one excludes the other. This is not to discourage completely the active life. It is rather the case that this conception of happiness is the “clue to the salvation and redemption of ordinary life.”[38] The hierarchical point of view that is assumed by thinkers like Aristotle and Thomas without question holds to the distinction of levels within the created order. But it is part of this hierarchy that the higher does not scorn the lower. Pieper writes:

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.[39]

External activity has the potential not only to affect the world, but in doing the work affect the actor.[40] Practice, though, does not become an end in and of itself; this would make it meaningless.

Some virtues relate to social goods here in this life. These political virtues contribute to better political structures and the achievement of penultimate goods. Further, virtues that one may possess as a practitioner of science can also affect the well-being of the larger society. Neither Aristotle, Thomas, nor Pieper denies this. However, infused virtues and contemplative internal activities function in both ends and are able to achieve both political and supernatural happiness. The contemplative life has encompassed within it the moral virtues without being reduced to just these character states. Those who contemplate possess the “true virtue” to be able to reenter the political realm and contribute to the social good life.

Conclusion

This paper has challenged a utilitarian conception of the good life that can only conceive of actions and practices that are for the sake of something outside themselves as contributing to the good life. These practices, and even the moral virtues, are not the good life because these things are not the perfecting activity which is sought after for its own sake, namely a contemplative happiness. This contemplative conception of the good life protects against a view of the world that only prioritizes work, servile activity, and what can be used and consumed. This paper also challenges a methodology that would distort this classical eudaimonist tradition by not representing the thought of these influential figures accurately. For the most part, it is my belief that good theology should be nearly indistinguishable from good history. It is important that we do not attempt to make these historical figures in our own image and attempt to impose on them our values without allowing them to first critique our own culture and assumptions. We should not distort the tradition to serve our agendas, but allow their voices to speak into our own biases. A constructive theology and philosophy that draws on authoritative texts and figures will need to be honest as to where ideas are in continuity with the tradition, and where we need to part ways based on the findings of contemporary scholarship from other fields.[41] The discerning of these moments is no doubt a difficult part of doing theology, but a necessary one. In a similar vein, theologians and philosophers do a disservice to other fields like sociology and psychology that at times draw upon these traditions in their own theoretical work when we do not represent them well.

NATHANIEL A. WARNE is a philosophical theologian and ethicist who works across a range of classic Christian doctrines with a special focus on the doctrine of humanity. This interest underlies his writing and teaching at the intersection of metaphysics, ethics, and political philosophy; the doctrine of creation; the theology of work and the doctrine of vocation; virtue ethics; and the role of friendship in moral and spiritual development. His current research is on the “contemplative and active life” in the thought of Josef Pieper.

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  • ——. Summa Contra Gentiles: God. Translated by Anton Pegis. Volume 1. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956.
  • ——. Summa Contra Gentiles: Providence Part I. Translated by Vernon J. Bourke. Volume 3. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956.
  • ——. Summa Contra Gentiles: Salvation. Translated by Charles J. O’Neil. Volume 5. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956.
  • ——. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of English Dominican Province. Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria Press, 1948.
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  • ——. Happiness and Contemplation. Translated by Clara Winston and Richard Winston. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998.
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  • ——. “Symposium.” In Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, 457–505. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.
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  1. There has been a growing literature in the field of psychology on happiness. These studies in psychology focus on happiness as “mindfulness” and “flow” and show that leisure and contemplation are important for human flourishing. See Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1990); Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (New York: Atria Books, 2012).
  2. Aristotle, “The Nicomachean Ethics,” in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, volume 2, edited by Jonathan Barnes, translated by W.D. Ross, revised by J.O. Urmson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1177a11-18.
  3. Ibid., 1178b27-31.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” translated by C. J. Litzinger (Notre Dame: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), §2102–4; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, translated by the Fathers of English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria Press, 1948), II–II, 180.
  5. There is a debate within Aristotle scholarship as to whether Aristotle’s conception of happiness is dominant or inclusive. As we have seen, at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle associates the good life and the final end with a life of contemplation. The inclusive view holds that happiness is made up of separate ends, where the dominant view holds that Aristotle conceives of happiness as the possession of one end, namely theoria. Because Aristotle’s medieval and early modern interpreters read him as holding the dominant view, I will assume that position in this paper. See Anthony Kenny, Aristotle on the Perfect Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 19; Julia Annas, “Aristotle on Virtue and Happiness,” in Aristotle’s Ethics: Critical Essays, edited by Nancy Sherman (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 35–56.
  6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Providence Part I, translated by Vernon J. Bourke (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), 3, 37; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Salvation, translated by Charles J. O’Neil (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), 4, 92; Aquinas, ST, I, 94, 1; 19, 10; 82, 1 ad 3; I–II, 69, 1; 3, 1; 10, 2;13, 6; Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, translated by Clara Winston and Richard Winston (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), 20–21.
  7. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 93–94.
  8. Aquinas, In Eth, 1, 14; no. 169.
  9. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 37.
  10. Ibid., 32, 40–41; Aquinas, ST, I–II, 2, 8.
  11. Aquinas, ST, II–II, 182, 4.
  12. Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004), 121.
  13. Josef Pieper, “Down-to-Earth Contemplation,” in Problems of Modern Faith: Essays and Addresses, translated by Jan Van Heurch (Chicago: Franciscan Press, 1986), 149–56.
  14. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 73.
  15. Ibid., 74; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: God, translated by Anton Pegis (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), I, 57 (8); Aquinas, ST, I, 59, 1 ad 1. What is meant by vision here is not limited to the eyes. It should rather be taken in a figurative way as encompassing all the human senses. For more on Pieper and his view of vision see Nathaniel A. Warne, “Learning to See Again: Josef Pieper on Philosophy, Prudence and the University,” Journal of Moral Education 47.3 (2018): 289–303.
  16. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 74; Aquinas, SCG: God, 1:I, 57 (8). Discursive reason is an imperfect form of the intellect.
  17. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 74.
  18. Plato, “Symposium,” in Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 211d2.
  19. Ibid., 210e.
  20. Ibid., 211e3.
  21. Ibid., 212a.
  22. Plato, “Republic,” in Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by G.M.A Grube and D.C.D. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), VII 520c.
  23. Gabriel Roxana Carone, “The Virtues of Platonic Love,” in Plato’s Symposium: Issues in Interpretation and Reception, edited by James Lesher, Debra Nails, and Frisbee Sheffield (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006), 219–20.
  24. St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent to Mount Carmel,” in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 3rd. ed., translated by Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D. and Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2017), ii, iii, 1.
  25. St. John of the Cross, “Spiritual Canticle,” in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 3rd ed., translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2017), I, 12; also see Merton, Inner Experience, 14ff, 71.
  26. Merton, Inner Experience, 15–16.
  27. For example see Aristotle, “EN,” 1102a5; also see Aquinas, In Eth, 224.
  28. Aquinas, ST, I–II, 3, 2.
  29. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 55; Aquinas, ST, I–II, 3, 2 ad 3.
  30. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 60.
  31. Aquinas, ST, I–II, 3, 2.
  32. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 54; Aquinas, ST, I–II, 3, 2.
  33. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 54.
  34. Ibid., 54.
  35. Ibid., 56.
  36. Ibid., 57.
  37. Aquinas, ST, II–II, 181, 1; 180, 2.
  38. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 94–95. See also Chenu’s connection between internal and external activities and their perfection, as well as his emphasis on a hylomorphic, over Cartesian, dualism for maintaining a dignity of ‘work,’ and the ‘worker.’ Chenu makes a closer connection between contemplative and productive reason than Pieper, but still considers productive reasoning’s rightful place to be “secondary.” See Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., The Theology of Work: An Exploration, translated by Lilian Soiron (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963), 26ff.
  39. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 95. For a discussion of the various views of hierarchy and a theological defenses for its importance see Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 320ff.
  40. Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 56–57. For more on the relationship between the intellect and activity see Bernard N. Schumacher, A Philosophy of Hope: Josef Pieper and the Contemporary Debate on Hope (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), 19–20.
  41. Theology is, at least in part, descriptive history. Or at least it starts there. One must consider the outdated cultural assumptions of past thinkers. Theology, however, cannot stay there. It must move from the descriptive to the constructive, but in a way that does not do violence to the heart of the thinker’s actual thought. One example of this would be Aristotle’s position on the naturalness of slavery. His conception of race has been proven by scientists of a variety of fields to be significantly outdated; see Susan Goldberg, ed., National Geographic Magazine: The Race Issue, April 2018. Rosalind Hursthouse has suggested that we need to identify which aspects of Aristotle’s thought, and the tradition that drew on him, are essential to his ethics and which can be set aside, like his elitism, sexism, and racism. These do not make up the very structure of his thought on human flourishing and virtue. See Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9.