The Apostolate of Friendship

This is the transcript of a talk that I delivered on 8 Jan 2011 in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to a group of students as part of a workshop in preparation for the new semester. I hope that you will take the time to read and be inspired by this.

Water is the very stuff of our bodies. Without it, we shrivel up and die. The slightest of thirst is usually worse than the greatest hunger pangs that we could possibly experience. When I am thirsty, I cannot concentrate nor sit still. My mouth is not the only part of my body that is affected by thirst. Almost the entire body is afflicted when thirst arises. This is probably something that many of us experience when we become very thirsty and are unable to get a drink. Physical thirst for water is enough to drive us crazy.

Love is like water. Who we are – our essence – are like tea leaves. In an empty cup, there is nothing but tea leaves. Yet, when you add hot water – you get tea. Love is what gives us our existence. A tea lover delights in a particular type of tea, he adds hot water into a pot with that kind of tea leaves and tea comes into existence. In the same way, God thinks about us – our strengths and our weaknesses, our hopes and our failures – and delights in the very idea of who we are. And in that delight, He pours out the warmth of His love and loves us into existence. Love is thus the very stuff of our being:

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. (Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 10)

There are two reasons why people commit suicide: One of them is the lost of hope where one ceases to see any meaning or potential for happiness anymore. The other is to be unloved. Like tea, to be unloved is to have its water evaporated away. When we do not feel loved in a group, we tend to fade away from that group. When we do not feel loved in life, we tend to fade away from life. And just as how God loved us into existence, some of us are unloved into oblivion. Man cannot live without love. We need love.

Mother Teresa commented that the greatest poverty that the world faces today is not material poverty but loneliness. In the society which we live in, the people who suffer from material poverty is less as compared to the number of people who suffer from loneliness, from the lack of love. Such poverty is so rampant that even now, there is someone near you silently suffering from the lack of love. We may have friends, but how many friends are we really close to (and I don’t just mean the buddies that you hang out with for fun and laughter)?

Christmas and the New Year are the two days in the year where many gather with their friends and family to celebrate. Yet, those two days are the two days with the highest suicide rates because the loneliness of people who do not have anyone becomes accentuated so greatly that they are unloved to the point of oblivion.

Though we may be surrounded by people in our lives, many of us may still be unloved, unnoticed. It is like being in a crowd. We pass by so many people, yet we notice no one, nor are we noticed. We celebrate with people, but we are not really celebrating it with anyone in particular. Close friendships seem hard to find these days, and true friends are rarer still. Even the family is not spared from this. One may feel like a stranger who does not belong to the home, having been neglected by the ones who should truly love and care for us.

But how did this come about?

We are living in a culture which believes that the pursuit of one’s self-interest will resolve all human matters, and most importantly, matters of the economy. With the rise of technological advancements, our thinking has been shaped by our use of technology, and so we think of things in terms of efficiency and value. The rise of utilitarianism in our culture shapes our outlook of life to value only the things that give rise to utility, to some form of benefit.

And with the lost of God in our culture, love makes no sense. Love is absurd without God. Why should I love you? Do you have anything of value to offer me? If you do, then I may love you. But that really isn’t love. In reality, it is not you that I love: what I love is the benefit that you give. To love someone for who he is, is an absurd idea! Why should I bother loving you if you have nothing to offer me? It makes no sense. It is even crazier to love someone who is unlovable, who instead of providing any utility, burdens us as a liability. Such a love seems senseless.

Shaped by these cultural factors, we end up working very hard to make ourselves loved. If I do not have the looks, or the credentials, or the right people in my social network, I am a nobody, unfit to be loved. If I do not have lots of money, or if I am unable to make myself useful, or if I am unable to stand out as a fun or unique person, I am a nobody, unfit to be loved. We are so in need of love that we become insecure (and sometimes even obsessed) about being loved by others.

And so we determine how loved we are by the number of friends on Facebook, the number of followers on Tumblr, the number of Twitter followers, and maybe, even the kind of friends and the amount of time spent with them. Sometimes, this insecurity compels us to find a partner, somebody whom we can call our boyfriend or girlfriend. How much we love each other is secondary. What is more important is that I have this person to guarantee and make me feel the security of being loved.

But it is important for us to stop in the midst of this mad search for love, so as to ask what love is really about. If I truly care for myself and want the best for myself, shouldn’t I go after true love and true friendships, and not settle for second best as a way of putting my insecurities at ease?

Many of us desire to be loved. We may not be bothered about why someone loves us, and has offered us friendship: but what if one day, you discover that the person is a friend to you only because of what you can do, and not because of who you are? What if you discover that your friends only enjoy hanging out with you only because you crack the best jokes, but apart from that, they do not really like the person that you are? What if you discover that this good friend only loves you for your status and is making use of your status for personal gain?

I don’t mean to make you feel paranoid, but in asking these questions, I hope to demonstrate one thing: We do not like to be used. Deep within ourselves, what we really want is somebody who loves us for who we are, and does not love us only for what we do. What we really want is someone who can love us even when we are unlovable.

This is what love really is. Perhaps the best definition of love is this: to love is to delight in the existence of the other. No reason is needed in order to delight in something or someone. I love you, I delight in you, simply because you are you. I love you for who you are and not for what you do, and even when you are unlovable, I still delight in you because it is you.

If I love you because of the benefits you bring to me, then I am not delighting in you, but rather, I am taking delight in your benefits. When those benefits disappear, I have nothing to delight in, and the friendship ceases. Or, if you become an annoyance that greatly outweighs my delight in your benefits, the friendship ceases too. More often than not, a friendship of this kind reduces the dignity of the person to that of a mere object, into a tool or a toy, since that person is valued based on the benefits.

This allows us to make a distinction between an authentic friendship which delights in the person himself, from a non-authentic friendship which delights in the benefits.

Nonetheless, the beauty of true friendship is this: that a friend is regarded as another self (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX). When I love you as a friend, I do not just regard you as a separate being, but as a part of my own being. And so, when I love you, I love you just as how I love myself. This is why the love of one’s self is important, for without it, we will not know how to love others well.

Perhaps one thing that we tend to take for granted in our friendships is this: Just as how I love myself and wish the best for myself so that I may flourish to be the best person possible, I desire you, who are a part of me, to flourish as best as you can, just like me.

Yet the sad part is this: since I have regarded you to be a part of me, a part of my life, a part of my heart, losing you (either because of an unfortunate breakup or through death) becomes a painful experience. It feels as if I have lost a huge part of myself. The heart that was once made whole now experiences a hole within itself.

Such a love of a friend draws us so closely together that our hearts seem to become one. This experience is called communion, where heart speaks to heart. This is where two parties feel as if they have really understood each other, and the friendship ascends to a deeper level. This is perhaps why people say that the best of friends tend to become like each other. And if a misunderstanding were to occur, such that an argument (or even a fight) erupts, we yearn for forgiveness because I consider you to be a part of me that I cannot bare to lose you. I want to be reunited with you once again.

Such is the beauty of an authentic friendship. And yet, God allows us to elevate our friendships to a supernatural level. If we allow God to do it, He will infuse our friendships with divine grace, like infusing jasmine into green tea. The jasmine does not destroy the tea. The tea is still present, but the infusion of the jasmine flowers enhances the tea on every level – its taste, fragrance, and the overall experience of drinking the tea. What God’s grace does to our friendships is that He enables us to love the other as He loves us, transforming the whole experience of friendship to a supernatural level, enabling us to love as God the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, through the Holy Spirit, and to love as He himself loves us. To experience such supernatural friendships, such supernatural love is to taste the friendship of God, and to savour the sweetness of His love.

God knows that the two most essential elements in a relationship are communion and forgiveness. And so He imparts to us the Sacrament of Communion so that we may first experience God’s communion with us: His heart speaking to our hearts and growing closer to become one of heart; and the Sacrament of Penance to experience His mercy and forgiveness: His loving embrace, and His giving us a fresh new start. In experiencing these human experiences in a divine manner, God imparts to us the graces to love as He loves, to communicate as He communicates, and to forgive as He forgives.

In turn, when we pass this on to our friends by loving them as God loves, they too come to experience the love of God, not by analogy (i.e. it feels like), but actually (i.e. it really is). Through the aid of divine grace, we participate in God’s divine act of loving whenever we love. When I love you, it is not just I who am loving you, God too is loving you. When I communicate with you, it is God too who communicates. When I forgive, it is God too who forgives.

This is precisely the kind of love that each and every single human person seeks deep within himself. We have experienced this kind of divine love when God loved us into existence and put us into the womb of our mothers. When you have tasted the best of the best, everything else will not suffice to satisfy you. Indeed, each of us seek to be loved, but deep in our hearts, we seek to be loved as God has been loving us from the beginning of our existence. This is the reason for our restlessness. Yet, as we are ignorant on how to satisfy this thirst for love, we settle for second best.

Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

It is when we begin to recognise the humanity in the people around us that we cease to treat them as objects. We begin to recognise that these people belong to a family. They have their own dreams and aspirations; their joys and hopes; their sorrows and anxieties. It is then that we begin to recognise that these people are loved by those close to them, but most importantly, they are loved and cherished as God’s little ones. When we begin to recognise this humanity within them, we begin to see how lovable they are, and how they are often unloved and treated daily as objects that live to fulfil a useful function in society.

When we begin to treat them with the dignity of a human person, and love them as human persons, it is at that very moment that their lives begin to change. The scales from their eyes are shed and they begin to see light. They begin to see the humanity that is properly theirs – a humanity long forgotten because they have never been loved in such a way in a very long time or never before. They begin to recognise that they are someone and not something. Once they have received our love for them as a human person, they begin to understand that their humanity is something lovable, something that one and all can take delight in. They begin to embrace this humanity with arms wide open, for they recognised that part of being human is to be loved for who they are – a human person – and not just for what they do. The meaning of life begins to unveil itself to them.

It is at this very moment when they have received our love that they experience the love of God, a love as refreshing as the morning dew that revitalises and quenches. That love, which is a participation in God’s divine love, is the living water which we have been thirsting for in every waking moment of our lives.
When we offer this divine love through the gift of friendship to others, people will begin to experience the love of God. This supernatural love is a love which the world cannot give. This is the love which non-Christians exclaimed when they witnessed the love which the early Christians shared with one another: “See how they love!” (Tertullian, Apology, 39)

This is the love that many of us Christians are trying to emulate. Often, in our Churches or in our ministries, we hear this being said: “We must try to love like the early Christians.” However, the problem is that we often do this without even trying to first deepen our own spiritual lives, doing our best to grow closer to God. Instead, we often try to do the divine without God. This is something we must keep in mind:

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

This is the apostolate of friendship, the apostolate which makes Christ known by our love. We tend to cringe when we hear the words, “apostolate” or “evangelisation”. But we cringe only because we dread the thought of having to go about telling people about God only to receive difficult questions, insults, and even rejection.

But we do not have to purposely go about talking about God. Mother Teresa herself said: “Always preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.” As the famous saying goes, “Action speaks louder than words.”

As lay people, the mission of the apostolate is not as difficult as we may have imagined. All we have to do is to offer the gift of an authentic friendship and love as divinely as we can. To do this, we must first develop our friendship with God, receiving the sacraments regularly and doing our best to draw closer to Christ.

It is important for us to keep in mind that no amount of argument will ever convert anyone. You can argue until Kingdom comes, but the person will not move. Only love moves the heart. When people see how loving we are, when they see something divine in the way we live, work, act and love, curiosity will develop within them, and they will want to know what it is that makes us tick. They do not yet realise it, but what they see is Christ in us whenever and wherever we act and love in that divine manner. Like the woman at the well who thirsts for Living Water (see John 4), they will taste that Living Water whenever they come into contact with us, they will eventually ask us for more of that Living Water and how they can get it.

This is what it means to be Christian. Perhaps this is why we call ourselves Roman Catholics – because we are called to do our best to be as Romantic as we can, loving passionately, deeply, and truly, as God loves.

This is what the world needs today – the experience of true authentic love, the experience of authentic friendships. Today, families are breaking apart, relationships are form and too easily and quickly dismantled. An increasing number of people are not privileged with the blessings of a true friendship, and having picked up the utilitarian values of today’s culture, not knowing what it really means to love, not knowing how to love. Many of us do not even know how to love ourselves!

We are living in a world that is fast losing its faith and hope in love. Few will dare to open themselves up to love in such a way, fearful of being used, fearful of losing out in the race of maximising utility, getting the most pleasure and benefit from as many people as quickly as possible. Instead, many despair and give up their hopes on love and replace it with lust and greed, seeking pleasure and material goods to fill that deep and empty void within their hearts. Deep down, they are still searching for true love, but they ignore it because they believe it is an impossible wish. But still their hearts are restless, and they are plagued by a loneliness which is the cry of their soul’s thirst for love. Just as physical thirst afflicts the entire body, spiritual thirst afflicts our entire being, both body and soul, driving us insane – sometimes insane enough to harm ourselves or to indulge more deeply in self-gratification in an attempt to forget about that thirst.

All of us are searching for true love – true divine love – thirsting every moment of our lives for it till we taste that Living Water.

As Christians, we have been blessed with the Living Water. And so, let us heed the call of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to quench the thirst of the masses and to make Him known: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est. Where love is true, there is God. (Hymn: Ubi Caritas)

The Consistency of the Life of Contemplation with the Rest of the “Nicomachean Ethics” and its Usefulness in Morality

This paper was written for my philosophy module on Aristotle. It concerns my favourite activity – contemplation. I hope that you will find this paper enriching.

Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is more excellent than the life of political excellence. Yet, in doing so, he appears to be inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics. In this paper, I argue that this apparent inconsistency arises because of interpretative issues related to the meaning of happiness (eudaimonia). Aristotle maintains an ambiguity over the term “happiness” so as to preserve two notions of the word: (1) happiness as living well, and (2) happiness as acting well. The apparent inconsistency comes about when these two notions of happiness are collapsed into one.

In Section I, I will summarise Aristotle’s argument in favour of the contemplative life over the political life. In Section II, I will then elaborate on the dual notions of happiness which Aristotle uses, and, in Section III, demonstrate how the use of only a single notion will result in inconsistencies. Using the dual notions of happiness, I shall then clarify what Aristotle meant in his discussion of contemplation, by highlighting a distinction between the contemplative life and contemplative activity, in Section IV. Last but not least, in Section V, I shall then anticipate an objection against the consistency of contemplation with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, on the grounds that contemplation has nothing to do with morality, and respond to it by showing that contemplation is useful to morality, thereby maintaining its consistency. This will be done by showing how contemplation enriches the life of the contemplative person in a way useful to morality, and that it can lead the individual to right action.

I. The Excellence of the Life of Contemplation

It is necessary to first understand the reasons why Aristotle argues that the life of contemplation is more excellent than the life of political excellence.
Aristotle defines happiness as consisting in (1) “action conformable to virtue, and if there are a number of virtues, action conformable to the best and most perfect of them.” [1] As the end of all human actions, happiness is (2) the “perfect self-sufficient good” [2], that is (3) “always desirable for itself and never for anything beyond itself.” [3]

Contemplation fits this definition perfectly as it is (1) “the highest operation, since the intellect is the best element in us and the objects of the intellect are the best of the things that can be known.” [4] It is also (2) self-sufficient as the contemplative man can contemplate by himself [5], since contemplation requires no external goods for its practice. On the other hand, external goods are needed for the life of political excellence for such a man will need them for the exercise of morally virtuous activity. Contemplation is also (3) desired for its own sake since “nothing is produced by it apart from the act of contemplation”, while practical activities (which pertain primarily to the life of political excellence) are pursued instrumentally for something apart from the action itself [6]. Furthermore, contemplation is the perfect activity as it is also the most continuous activity for “we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can carry on any other activity.” [7]

It is for these reasons that Aristotle considers the life of contemplation the happiest life, while the life of political excellence is “happy only in a secondary degree.” [8]

II. The Dual Notions of Happiness (Eudaimonia)

Throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle switches between two notions of happiness as (1) living well and (2) acting well. Though they may be the “popular sense of happiness” [9] as understood by the “common people and the educated” [10], these two notions of happiness are nonetheless closely related to each other since “happiness as living well is characterised by acting well.” [11]

Happiness, according to Aristotle, is “the activity of the soul according to reason” [12], which is to say that happiness consists in acting well. Yet, it is interesting that Aristotle arrives at this conclusion even though he sets out at the beginning to investigate happiness as the best life to live (living well). Aristotle did not forget about happiness as living well. In fact, his investigation of happiness from living well to acting well was meant to show that happiness (in the form of living well) consists in virtuous activities [13]. And so, a well-performed activity according to reason (virtuous activity) is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but also happiness itself (as acting well).

III. The Inconsistencies that Result from using a Single Notion of Happiness

Unfortunately, Aristotle fails to explicitly spell out these two notions of happiness [14]. As such, confusion arises especially with regards to his discussion on the life of contemplation, as most people would read it understanding happiness as either living well only or acting well only. In this section, I will show how using only one of the two notions will result in consistencies with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics, when used to interpret a portion of the discussion on contemplation:

Contemplation seems to have self-sufficiency, leisureliness, freedom from labour (as far as humanly possible), and all other activities usually assigned to the happy man. Therefore, man’s perfect happiness will consist in this activity of the intellect, is a long span of life be added (as nothing belonging to happiness should be incomplete). Such a life is higher than the human level; and it is not lived by man according to the human mode but according to something divine in him. [15]

If one were to interpret this passage using the notion of happiness as living well only, the inconsistency arises as it seems that since the life of contemplation is so self-sufficient, there is no need for practical wisdom and the moral virtues, external goods, and even friendship. Such a life is so self-sufficient that a well-lived life of happiness can simply be attained by engaging only in contemplation. This seems to be inconsistent with so many portions of the Nicomachean Ethics, namely the areas that deal with practical wisdom, the moral virtues, external goods, and even friendship. This interpretation, therefore, leaves many protesting that this life of contemplation is a life that “humans cannot live” [16].

Or if one were to interpret this passage using the notion of happiness as acting well only, the inconsistency arises as such a reading seems to suggest that contemplation is the best and most perfect activity of the soul, such that all other activities (especially morally virtuous activities) need not be pursued. If happiness consists of only acting well, then one can be happy simply by engaging in only contemplation. Were this really the case, the earlier books of the Nicomachean Ethics can be forgotten since one does not need to cultivate moral virtues within him.

IV. Clarifications on the Contemplative Life and Contemplative Activity

The problems of inconsistency do not arise if one was aware of the dual notions of happiness employed by Aristotle. In fact, he makes a distinction between the contemplative life and contemplative activity:

For action, many things are required and the more so the greater and nobler the deeds are; but for the activity of the contemplative man, nothing of the kind is needed. In fact, it can be said that external goods are obstacles to contemplation. But the contemplative person, insofar as he is man and lives with others chooses to perform virtuous acts. Hence he will need external goods to live a human life. [17]

In describing contemplation as having “self-sufficiency, leisureliness, freedom from labour, and all other activities usually assigned to the happy man” [18], Aristotle meant to describe contemplative activity as the best activity that any human person can pursue. As mentioned in Section II, virtuous activity is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but also happiness itself (as acting well). Likewise, contemplative activity is not just an ingredient for happiness (as living well), but it is also happiness itself (as acting well). Though the activity of contemplation is central to the contemplative life, the contemplative life does not consist in contemplative activity alone. While contemplation is the best activity, it cannot be the only activity of a human life. Aristotle recognised that it is not possible to live a life which consists solely in contemplation. Anaxagoras and Thales are cited as examples of people who sought to do nothing but engage in contemplation, but they are criticised for their lack of practical wisdom because they did not “seek human goods” [19].

Therefore, the person who wishes to embrace the contemplative life must not only seek to act well by engaging in the highest activity of contemplation, he must not forget the other aspect of happiness, which is the notion of living well. As it was mentioned earlier, happiness (as living well) consists in virtuous activities (contemplation being the best amongst them) and external goods. Since happiness (living well) is an end “altogether perfect in every respect” [20], insofar as the contemplative person is a human being and lives with others [21]; he cannot neglect his biological needs nor neglect his nature as a social animal [22]. As such, he must not be lacking in virtue nor must he be lacking in the external goods necessary for his survival and for the exercise of virtue. The contemplative person will also need friends as “what is desirable for the happy man, he must have, or else he will be in want” [23]. Since happiness is an end perfect in every respect, the contemplative person must not be left in want, or he will not be fully happy.

It has thus been demonstrated that a correct reading of the discussion on contemplation will reveal that there is no inconsistency with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

V. Objection and Response

However, one way in which the discussion of contemplation seems to be inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics is that contemplation does not seem relevant to morality at all. Many contemporary virtue ethicists “embrace Aristotle’s theory of moral virtue and practical wisdom”, but they do “not judge the theory of contemplation well.” [24] Because of this, contemplation is left out of their moral theories.

Contemplation is an “activity in accordance with theoretical wisdom (sophia)” [25], which involves science (episteme) which is the theoretical knowledge of unchanging demonstrable principles [26]; and rational intuition (nous) which is the knowledge of undemonstrable first principles [27]. Practical wisdom (phronesis), on the other hand, deals with “human goods which we deliberate”, as it considers universals and knows particulars (since action is concerned with particulars) [28]. Matters of morality are particular matters which are dealt with by practical wisdom. As such, it appears that contemplation has nothing to do with matters of morality, and is thus inconsistent with the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Nevertheless, Rorty argues that since wisdom is able to contemplate “the unchanging form of what does change” [29], wisdom should be able to contemplate on “humanity and its proper ends” [30] since it is “a pattern of temporal life” which “can be comprehended in one timeless whole” [31], so as to come to a deeper knowledge of “our general ends” which “are the actualisation and exercise of the basic activities that define us.” [32]

Rorty speaks of the prudent man (phronimos) who “knows what to do and how to do it” as he has an “implicit knowledge of human ends” [33]. The prudent man possesses practical wisdom which is able to “grasp the general ends of actions” [34], and therefore “virtue and knowledge are fused” within him [35]. But he “does not necessarily know why his virtues are virtues” [36], since he lacks the theoretical wisdom to understand the purpose and meaning of his actions in the grand scheme of human life.

When Aristotle argued that theoretical wisdom is not applicable to practical matters [37], his intention was to resist its assimilation into practical wisdom, so as to clearly distinguish one from the other. Though theoretical wisdom does not deal with particulars, nor substitute for the development of virtue, it can nonetheless contemplate on “humanity and its proper ends” [38], thereby analysing the ends of human life so as to determine the activities and processes that constitute a well-lived life. Though contemplation does not help to create a “better decision procedure” for the prudent man, it would nonetheless “perfect his knowledge” [39].

Earlier, it was mentioned that the prudent man “knows what to do and how to do it” [40] but not the reasons for it, for he lacks the theoretical wisdom to understand “humanity and its proper ends” [41]. Because of this, he does not understand why he acts virtuously, nor is he aware of how he should order his life, nor be able to fully actualise his potential as a human person for he is unaware of these things. While such a person may indeed be happy (acting well) from the exercise of virtuous activity, he would not be able to achieve the fullness of happiness (in terms of living well), for Aristotle describes happiness (living well) as an end that is “altogether perfect in every respect” [42].

The greatest benefit that contemplation brings is that by contemplating on one’s actualities, the individual comes to realise his formal identity as a human person. This paves the way for the individual to realise his potential as a human person, and to recognise his actions in relation to the larger whole.

It was also mentioned earlier that Aristotle argued that theoretical wisdom is not applicable to practical matters [43] so as to resist its assimilation into practical wisdom. This however, does not mean that theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom cannot communicate with each other. The contemplation of “humanity and its proper ends” [44] provides clarity on the potentialities of a human person that wait to be actualise, and his actions with regards to a larger whole. Such insight into life is able to direct the contemplative man to action, for it allows him to order his life and actions towards that greater end. This way, every virtuous activity is not just a random act of goodness, but is ordered towards a grand scheme of things. Moreover, as contemplation has made clear his ends, the individual is therefore able to deliberate on the means to attain it.

It is here that one finds practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom working together. The principles that have been made clear to theoretical wisdom, through contemplation, are applied by practical wisdom to the daily necessities of life. It is also applied to the overall ordering of one’s life, as one would require practical wisdom in order to deliberate on the means to attain his ends in life, now made clear to him through contemplation.

This is hugely significant for morality, because it gives meaning and order to each and every single moral act. As such, one does not do acts of goodness and avoid acts of evil simply because morality requires it, but one can perform moral actions in a way that is part of a larger “plan”, and which will guide the individual to fully actualise his potentialities as a human person (in addition to the exercise of virtuous activities) in such a way that he may come to live the good life, and not neglect any aspect of his life out of ignorance. Furthermore, because the end of humanity is the same for all people, a person may, as a politician, teacher, or parent, guide others in a way that will enable them to fully actualise their potentialities as human persons, so as to live a rich and meaningful life, rather than merely doing good and avoiding evil without knowing the reasons why.

And so, contemplation is useful to morality for it not only enriches the life of the contemplative person, but it provides him with clearer principles on his end as a human person, which practical wisdom uses for the deliberation of the means for action. Contemplation, therefore, is not inconsistent with the rest of Aristotle’s account of morality in the Nicomachean Ethics, since it provides an enriched account of morality, endowing it with purpose and meaning in the grand scheme of life and of the end of humanity.

VI. Concluding Remarks

Throughout this paper, it has been demonstrated that contemplation does not conflict with the Nicomachean Ethics in any way. The life of contemplation is hailed as the most choiceworthy, excellent life, because it involves the activity of contemplation – the best and highest activity of the human soul – and every other virtuous activity and external goods which a person requires as a human being living with others. It is more excellent than the political life because the contemplative life can incorporate elements of the political life, such as the practice of virtuous activity and external goods, in a far richer way since contemplation helps to provide clarity on humanity and its proper ends, thereby enabling one to attain happiness (both living well and acting well) in a manner that fully actualises one’s potentiality that is in line with his proper end.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a17-20
[2] Ibid., 1097b20-21
[3] Ibid., 1097a32-35
[4] Ibid., 1177a19-21. The soul can be divided into two parts – the rational part and the irrational part. The rational part is superior to the irrational part is the excellence of the irrational part is to be subordinate to the rational part, i.e. obeying reason. Within the rational part, the two intellectual virtues are theoretical wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronesis). Theoretical wisdom deals with necessary things that are unchanging, while practical wisdom deals with contingent things. Aristotle concludes that theoretical wisdom is superior and the best. Therefore, the activity of theoretical wisdom, contemplation, is the highest operation of the human person and the best activity of the soul.
[5] Ibid., 1177a27-b1
[6] Ibid., 1177b1-4
[7] Ibid., 1177a21-22
[8] Ibid., 1178a8
[9] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a19-20
[11] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[12] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a16-17
[13] Cf. Ibid., 1099a30-31
[14] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.173
[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b22-28
[16] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.197
[17] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b1-7. Emphasis mine
[18] Ibid., 1177b22-24
[19] Ibid., 1141b3-7
[20] Ibid., 1101a19-20
[21] Cf. Ibid., 1178b5-6
[22] Aristotle, Politics, 1253a9
[23] Ibid., 1170b17-19
[24] Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue, p.219
[25] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a25-26
[26] Cf. Ibid., 1139b18-36
[27] Cf. Ibid., 1140b31-1141a8
[28] Ibid., 1141b14-15
[29] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.344
[30] Ibid., p.346
[31] Ibid., p.345
[32] Ibid., p.346
[33] Ibid., p.349
[34] Ibid., p.349
[35] Ibid., p.347
[36] Ibid., p.350
[37] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a31-b4
[38] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.346
[39] Ibid., p.350
[40] Ibid., p.349
[41] Ibid., p.346
[42] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a19-20
[43] Ibid., 1140a31-b4
[44] Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p.346


Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, The Place of Contemplation in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Mind, New Series 87 (Jul. 1978): pp.343-368

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C. J. Litzinger, O.P. (Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993)

Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: Introductory Readings, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996)

Jiyuan Yu, The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue. (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp.169-221