Question of the Division of Life into the Active and the Contemplative
I. May Life be fittingly divided into the Active and the Contemplative?
S. Augustine, De Consensu Evangelistarum, I., iv.8 " Tractatus, cxxiv.5, in Joannem
II. Is this division of Life into the Active and the Contemplative a sufficient one?
S. Augustine, Of the Trinity, I., viii.17


May Life be fittingly divided into the Active and the Contemplative?

S. Gregory the Great says[291]: "There are two kinds of lives in which Almighty God instructs us by His Sacred Word -- namely, the active and the contemplative."

Those things are properly said to live which move or work from within themselves. But what especially accords with the innermost nature of a thing is that which is proper to it and towards which it is especially inclined; consequently every living thing shows that it is living by those very acts which are especially befitting it and towards which it is especially inclined. Thus the life of plants is said to consist in their growing and in their producing seed; the life of animals in their feeling and moving; while that of man consists in his understanding and in his acting according to reason.

Hence among men themselves each man's life appears to be that in which he takes special pleasure, that with which he is particularly occupied, that, in fine, in which each one wishes to live with a friend, as is said in the Ethics of Aristotle.[292]

Since, then, some men are especially occupied with the contemplation of the truth while others are especially-occupied with external things, man's life may be conveniently divided into the active and the contemplative.

* * * * *

Some, however, repudiate this division, thus:

1. The soul is by its essence the principle of life; thus the Philosopher says[293]: "For living things, to live is to be." But the same soul with its faculties is the principle both of action and of contemplation. Hence it would seem that life cannot be suitably divided into the active and the contemplative.

But the peculiar nature of every individual thing -- that which makes it actually be -- is the principle of its own proper action; consequently to live is said to be the very being of living things, and this because living things -- by the very fact that they exist through such a nature -- act in such a way.

2. Again, when one thing precedes another it is unfitting to divide the former by differences which find place in the latter. But action and contemplation, like speculation and practice, are distinctions in the intellect, as is laid down by the Philosopher.[294] But we live before we understand; for life is primarily in living things by their vegetative soul, as also the Philosopher says.[295] Therefore life is not fittingly divided according to contemplation and action.

But we do not say that life universally considered is divided into the active and the contemplative, but that man's life is so divided. For man derives his species from his intellect, hence the same divisions hold good for human life as hold good for the intellect.

3. Lastly, the word "life" implies motion, as is clear from Denis the Areopagite.[296] But contemplation more especially consists in repose, according to the words: When I go into my house I shall repose myself with her (Wisdom).[297]

But while contemplation implies a certain repose from external occupations, it is still a certain motion of the intellect in the sense that every operation is a motion; in this sense the Philosopher says that to feel and to understand are certain motions in the sense that motion is said to be the act of a perfect thing.[298] It is in this sense, too, that Denis[299] assigns three movements to the soul in contemplation: the direct, the circular, and the oblique.[300]

* * * * *

S. Augustine: Two virtues are set before the human soul, the one active, the other contemplative; the former shows the path, the latter shows the goal; in the one we toil that so the heart may be purified for the Vision of God, in the other we repose and we see God; the one is spent in the practice of the precepts of this temporal life, the other is occupied with the teachings of the life that is eternal. Hence it is that the one is a life of toil and the other a life of rest; for the former is engaged in purging away its sins, the latter already stands in the light of the purified. Hence, too, during this mortal life the former is occupied with the works of a good life, whereas the latter rather stands in faith, and, in the case of some few, sees through a mirror in a dark manner, and enjoys in part a certain glimpse of the Unchangeable Truth (De Consensu Evangelistarum, I., iv.8).

"The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup; it is Thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me. The lines are fallen unto me in goodly places; for my inheritance is goodly to me."[301]

S. Augustine: There is another life, the life of immortality, and in it there are no ills; there we shall see face to face what we now see through a glass and in a dark manner even when we have made great advance in our study of the Truth. The Church, then, knows of two kinds of life Divinely set before Her and commended to Her; in the one we walk by faith, in the other by sight; the one is the pilgrimage of time, the other is the mansion of eternity; the one is a life of toil, the other of repose; in the one we are on the way, in the other in Our Father's Home; the one is spent in the toil of action, the other in the reward of contemplation; the one turneth away from evil and doth good, the other hath no evil from which to turn away, but rather a Great Good Which it enjoys; the one is in conflict with the foe, the other reigns -- conscious that there is no foe; the one is strong in adversity, the other knows of no adversity; the one bridles the lusts of the flesh, the other is given up to the joys of the Spirit; the one is anxious to overcome, the other is tranquil in the peace of victory; the one is helped in temptations, the other, without temptation, rejoices in its Helper; the one succours the needy, the other dwells where none are needy; the one condones the sins of others that thereby its own sins may be condoned, the other suffers naught that it can pardon nor does ought that calls for pardon; the one is afflicted in sufferings lest it should be uplifted in good things, the other is steeped in such fulness of grace as to be free from all evil that so, without temptation to pride, it may cling to the Supreme Good; the one distinguishes between good and evil, the other sees naught save what is good; the one therefore is good -- yet still in miseries, the other is better -- and in Blessedness (Tractatus, cxxiv.5, in Joannem).

"Jesu nostra Redemptio
Amor et Desiderium!
Deus Creator omnium,
Homo in fine temporum!"


Is this division of Life into the Active and the Contemplative a sufficient one?

These two kinds of life are signified by the two wives of Jacob -- namely, the active life by Lia, the contemplative by Rachel. They are also signified by those two women who afforded hospitality to the Lord: the contemplative, namely, by Mary, the active by Martha, as S. Gregory says.[302] But if there were more than two kinds of life, these significations would not be fitting.

As we have said above, the division in question concerns human life regarded as intellectual. And the intellect itself is divided into the contemplative and the active, for the aim of intellectual knowledge is either the actual knowledge of the truth -- and this belongs to the contemplative intellect, or it is some external action -- and this concerns the practical or active intellect. Hence life is quite sufficiently divided into the active and the contemplative.

But some argue that this division is not a sufficient one, thus:

1. The Philosopher[303] says that there are three specially excellent kinds of life: the pleasurable, the civil -- which seems to be identified with the active -- and the contemplative.

But the pleasurable life makes its end consist in the pleasures of that body which we have in common with the brute creation. Hence, as the Philosopher says in the same place, this is a bestial life. Consequently it is not comprised in our division of life into the active and the contemplative.

2. Again, S. Augustine[304] speaks of three different kinds of life: the life of leisure, which is referred to the contemplative; the busy life, which is referred to the active life; and he adds a third composed of these two.

But things which hold a middle course are compounded of the extremes, and hence are virtually contained in them, as the tepid in the hot and the cold, the pallid in the white and the black. And similarly, under the active and the contemplative lives is comprised that kind of life which is compounded of them both. But just as in every mixture one of the simple elements predominates, so in this mixed kind of life now the contemplative, now the active predominates.

3. Lastly, men's lives are diversified according to their various occupations. But there are more than two classes of human occupations.

But all classes of human occupations are, if they are concerned with the necessities of this present life, and in accordance with right reason, comprised under the active life which, by properly regulated acts, takes heed for the needs of the present life. But if these actions minister to our concupiscences, then they fall under the voluptuous life which is not comprised in the active life. But human occupations which are directed to the consideration of the truth are comprised under the contemplative life.

* * * * *

S. Augustine: Your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, Who is your life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory;[305] but until that shall come to pass we see now through a glass in a dark manner -- that is, in images as it were -- but then face to face.[306] This, indeed, is the contemplation that is promised to us, the goal of all our actions, the eternal perfection of all our joys. For we are the sons of God, and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be; we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.[307] And as He said to His servant Moses: I am Who am ... thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He Who is hath sent me to you,[308] even that shall we contemplate when we live in eternity. Thus, too, He says: This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only True God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.[309] And this shall be when the Lord shall come and bring to light the hidden things of darkness,[310] when the gloom of our mortal corruption shall have passed away. Then will be our "morning," that "morning" of which the Psalmist says: In the morning I will stand before Thee and I will see.[311] ... Then, too, will come to pass that which is written: Thou shall fill me with joy with Thy countenance.[312] Beyond that joy we shall seek for nothing, for there is naught further to be sought. The Father will be shown to us, and that will suffice for us. Well did Philip understand this when he said to the Lord: Show us the Father, and it is enough for us![313] ... Such contemplation, indeed, is the reward of faith, and for this reward's sake are our hearts purified by faith, as it is written: Purifying their hearts by faith[314] (De Trinitate, I., viii.17).

"Remember, O Lord, Thy bowels of compassion; and Thy mercies that are from the beginning of the world. The sins of my youth and my ignorances do not remember. According to Thy mercy remember Thou me; for Thy goodness' sake, O Lord. The Lord is sweet and righteous; therefore He will give a law to sinners in the way. He will guide the mild in judgment; He will teach the meek His ways. All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth to them that seek after His covenant and His testimonies. For Thy Name's sake, O Lord, Thou wilt pardon my sin; for it is great."[315]


[291] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[292] IX., xii.21.

[293] De Anima, II., iv.4.

[294] De Anima, III., x.2.

[295] Ibid., II., iv.2.

[296] Of the Divine Names, vi.

[297] Wisd. viii.16.

[298] De Anima, III., vii.1.

[299] Of the Divine Names, IV., i.7.

[300] For a commentary on this passage of S. Denis, see Qu. CLXXX., Art.6, pp.203-210.

[301] Ps. xv.5-6.

[302] Moralia in Job, vi.18; and Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[303] Ethics, I., v.21.

[304] Of the City of God, xix.2 and 19.

[305] Col. iii.3-4.

[306] 1 Cor. xiii.12.

[307] 1 John iii.2.

[308] Exod. iii.14.

[309] S. John xvii.3.

[310] 1 Cor. iv.5.

[311] Ps. v.5.

[312] Ps. xv.11.

[313] S. John xiv.8.

[314] Acts xv.9.

[315] Ps. xxiv.6-11.

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