For those facing another virus lockdown, the book “Action versus Contemplation” helps reframe the mind by revisiting the classic and ongoing dialectic between the contemplative life and the active life.
Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters, by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule (256 pages, University of Chicago Press, 2018)
“Action versus contemplation” is a subject which, heretofore, many Americans have likely not spent much time considering. Ironically, they were probably too busy. While Americans place low in the rankings of the average number of hours worked per year among OECD member countries, we also rank at the bottom of the number of vacation days. The U.S., surprisingly, is the only developed country which does not legally mandate a minimum number of days off for employees in a given year.
And, with the near-saturation of the internet in our daily lives, we are also arguably among the most distracted people in the world, even when we are not officially at work. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2020 Sleep in America poll found that 44% of Americans were sleepy two to four days of every week, while 28% felt sleepy five to seven days weekly. This is not surprising, because the average American watches more than five hours of television per day according to a Nielsen report, and spends no fewer than twelve hours staring at screens of some sort in a given day.
But then came 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has put economies worldwide on lockdown this year, forcing many Americans into a mode of, if not contemplation, then at least inaction. This has come at a dire cost, of course. Those whose jobs did not allow for teleworking—factory workers, for example, or janitors, or airline employees—faced economic devastation, even ruin. As bank account balances dwindled and the pandemic dragged on, out-of-work Americans have been so preoccupied with worry about how to pay the rent and the light bill that surely few have been able to devote much time to the kind of high-level contemplation that seems to have eluded our hyper-modern civilization even when it is thrown into idleness by the ravages of disease.
This may seem like an inopportune time to turn to a book about the tension in the Western tradition between action and contemplation. But perhaps now—as screen times skyrocket even higher during our stay-at-home experiment—is actually a perfect opportunity to read through Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule’s engaging sheaf of variations on the theme of whether it is better to think or to do. For, in trying to make sense of our frazzled present, when we flee contemplative solitude in a thousand distractions while dreaming of vacations on islands in the remote corners of the planet, we may find that what we are really wanting to know is what human beings are, and how they can best spend their mortal existence. Do we work hard to retire? Do we forego work altogether and devote our lives, like Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, to the tempering and expanding of the soul? Is there such thing as the touted “work-life balance,” and if so, how does one achieve it? For those who feel as though modern life has come unhinged in places and is not conducive toward a truly human existence, Drs. Summit and Vermeule’s Action versus Contemplation is a good place to begin mapping out an answer to the year 2020, shaped like a giant question mark.
Jennifer Summit is provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco University, and Blakey Vermeule, sister of Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule, is a professor of English at Stanford University a thirty-minute or so drive along San Francisco Bay. (Dr. Summit, who studies Medieval English literature, was chair of Vermeule’s department from 2008 to 2011.) Action versus Contemplation grew out of a course that Drs. Summit and Vermeule co-taught at Stanford for four years called “A Life of Action or a Life of Contemplation: Debates in Western Literature and Philosophy.” (3) The course, in turn, was an attempt by Drs. Vermeule and Summit to contextualize within the tradition of the humanities the “stress and relaxation” cycle—rooted, as Stanford education professor William Damon finds, in “meaninglessness”—which so many college students face today. (23-27) The contrast between theoria and praxis outlined by Plato and Aristotle, Drs. Summit and Vermeule write, has been recycled through various cultures—Roman, Medieval Christian, seventeenth-century English, twentieth-century American. But beneath the myriad of positions about whether to act or contemplate taken by thinkers as diverse as Cicero, St. Augustine, Hannah Arendt, and Henry David Thoreau, the same basic questions of what it means to live a good human life in an imperfect world abide. Finding a way out of the modern “rat race” by revisiting the classic and ongoing dialectic between the vita contemplativa and the vita activa is the heart of this delightful volume.
Action versus Contemplation is bookended by probably the most well-known story about leisure and industry in the West: the timeless fable, popularized by Aesop but a chestnut even in his day, about the loafing grasshopper and the hardworking ants. (109) (Many versions replace the grasshopper with a cicada.) We all know the plot: a community of ants spends the summer gathering stores for the impending winter, while an imperiously unbothered grasshopper makes fun of the ants for wasting their time working away the glorious summer days. (1) When the harsh weather comes, though, a chastened and hungry grasshopper turns to the ant colony for succor—and, depending on the version of the fable, sometimes the ants help, and sometimes they don’t. The moral of the story is work hard, don’t fritter and loaf.
Drs. Summit and Vermeule skillfully set the intellectual history of this fable against the backdrop of Western civilization, tracking down in various ages the kernel of the argument between the grasshopper and the ants. It is a question which pops up in surprising places: for example, in the Marxian calls for an eight-hour workday and in Henry Ford’s calls for a forty-hour workweek, with Saturdays and Sundays off to encourage consumption as a profitable by-product of regulated leisure. (67, 115) Everywhere one looks, it seems, people have been reprising the fable about toil and downtime. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s 1980s classic of business philosophy, In Search of Excellence, was about improving efficiency and productivity in the face of bureaucratic obstructionism (35-36), but in many ways it echoed the New Testament episode of Christ speaking with Martha and Mary, the latter of whom has taken time from her labors to sit at the feet of Jesus and contemplate His teachings. (142-150)
Likewise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72), which Drs. Summit and Vermeule term “an epic of contemplation” (162), as well as Herman Melville’s maddening do-nothing anti-hero from the 1853 tale “Bartleby the Scrivener” (162), picks up themes explored by Old Testament writers in the tension between Leah and Rachel (144-145). These themes are taken up again by Francis Bacon (90-91), and reprised for modern audiences in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible (152-159), Marie Kondō’s pop-ethos of minimalist housekeeping (135-140), and even Pixar’s 1998 film A Bug’s Life—a retelling, of course, of the time-honored ant-and-grasshopper fable, but with a contemporary twist which Drs. Summit and Vermeule very compellingly tease out. (123-134) From Thomas à Kempis’ ca. 1420 bestseller The Imitation of Christ (62, 141) to the management science of Peter Drucker (201) and Clark Kerr’s 1960 California Master Plan (197-200) for imposing a functional taxonymy on the scholarly leisure which Josef Pieper called “the basis of culture” (120-121), Drs. Summit and Vermeule have given readers an eclectic and engaging history of one of the most fundamental philosophical tensions in Western culture.
Action versus Contemplation is divided into six chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are arranged largely along thematic lines—for example, “Science and Humanities” and “Public and Private.” This enlivens the reading in many ways but also left me wondering at times where we were in the story, or what the through-line of the narrative was at a given point. There are a lot of examples pulled from the Western canon and it can be hard to keep up. Eventually, however, I adjusted my expectations and approached the book for what it is: a volume born of real-world pedagogy. As such, it flows very nicely, as from one lecture to another, with the teachers highlighting various swatches of the tapestry of the intellectual tradition here and there as they surely did in their classroom. Perhaps, ironically, I was too given, at first, to thinking of the book with a typically ultra-modern action mindset. I wanted to cut to the chase, and so I was not prepared to let the book unfold on its own terms, as one would give rein to an organically developing thought.
The structure of Action versus Contemplation is thus refreshingly non-linear, which makes for a book that does not quite fit into any genre I can think of. It is for that reason highly recommended. This book is not a must-read. It does not advance earth-shattering arguments or seek to overturn received wisdom. It simply enters a conversation and carries it forward while bringing lost threads of discourse back into play. It models contemplation—as one monastic to another, or a novelist speaking with a portraitist on a Jamesian afternoon—and that is something that, I would argue, our battered country needs much more of right now.
For those going into another virus lockdown, or those wondering, as I have been, just what human life is once the trappings of what John Horvat calls “frenetic intemperance”—the modern, manic pas de deux with deep-seated nihilism that trammels American life—have been cleared away by forced leisure, Action versus Contemplation may be what is needed to help reframe the mind and inspire the soul to aspire to a higher synthesis of the busy and the pensive than we have thus far been able to conceive.
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The featured image is “Nobleman between Active and Contemplative life” (c. 1575) by Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.