Question of the Active Life
I. Do all Acts of the Moral Virtues come under the Active Life? II. Does Prudence pertain to the Active Life?
III. Does Teaching belong to the Active or to the Contemplative Life?
IV. Does the Active Life continue after this Life?


Do all Acts of the Moral Virtues come under the Active Life?

S. Isidore says[407]: "In the active life all the vices are first of all to be removed by the practice of good works, so that in the contemplative life a man may, with now purified mental gaze, pass to the contemplation of the Divine Light." But all the vices can only be removed by the acts of the moral virtues. Consequently the acts of the moral virtues belong to the active life.

As we have said already,[408] the active and the contemplative lives are distinguished by the different occupations of men who are aiming at different ends, one being the consideration of Truth -- the goal of the contemplative life; the other external works with which the active life is occupied. But it is clear that the moral virtues are not especially concerned with the contemplation of truth but with action; thus the Philosopher says[409]: "For virtue, knowledge is of little or no avail." It is therefore manifest that the moral virtues essentially belong to the active life; and in accordance with this the Philosopher[410] refers the moral virtues to active happiness.

Some, however, maintain that all the acts of the moral virtues do not belong to the active life, thus:

1. The active life seems to consist solely in those things which have to do with our neighbour; for S. Gregory says[411]: "The active life means breaking bread to the hungry;" and at the close, after enumerating many things which have to do with our neighbour, he adds: "And to provide for each according as they have need." But not by all the acts of the moral virtues are we brought into contact with others, but only by justice and its divisions. Consequently all the acts of the moral virtues do not belong to the active life.

But the chief of the moral virtues is justice, and by it a man is brought into contact with his neighbour, as the Philosopher proves.[412] We describe, then, the active life by those things by means of which we are brought into contact with our neighbour; yet we do not thereby mean that the active life consists solely in these things, but chiefly in them.

2. Again, S. Gregory says[413]: "By Lia, who was blear-eyed but fruitful, is signified the active life which sees less clearly, since occupied with works; but when, now by word, now by example, it arouses its neighbour to imitation, it brings forth many children in good works." But all this seems rather to come under charity, by which we love our neighbour, than under the moral virtues. Consequently the acts of the moral virtues seem not to belong to the active life.

But a man can, by acts of all the moral virtues, lead his neighbour to good works by his example; and this S. Gregory here attributes to the active life.

3. Lastly, the moral virtues dispose us to the contemplative life. But disposition to a thing and the perfect attainment of that thing come under the same head. Consequently the moral virtues do not belong to the active life.

But just as a virtue which is directed towards the end of another virtue passes over, in some sort, into the species of that latter virtue, so also when a man uses those things which belong to the active life precisely as disposing him to contemplation, then those things which he so uses are comprised under the contemplative life. But for those who devote themselves to the works of the moral virtues as being good in themselves and not as dispositive towards the contemplative life, the moral virtues belong to the active life. Although at the same time it might be said that the active life is a disposition to the contemplative life.

"O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee to a man that hath peace in his possessions, to a man that is at rest, and whose ways are prosperous in all things, and that is yet able to take meat! O death, thy sentence is welcome to the man that is in need, and to him whose strength faileth, who is in a decrepit age, and that is in care about all things, and to the distrustful that loseth patience! Fear not the sentence of death. Remember what things have been before thee, and what shall come after thee: this sentence is from the Lord upon all flesh. And what shall come upon thee by the good pleasure of the Most High whether ten, or a hundred, or a thousand years."[414]


Does Prudence pertain to the Active Life?

The Philosopher says[415] that prudence pertains to active happiness, and to this pertain the moral virtues.

As we have said above, when one thing is directed towards the attainment of another thing as its end, it -- and this especially holds good in morals -- is, so to speak, drawn into the species of that towards which it is thus directed, thus: "He who commits adultery in order to steal" says the Philosopher,[416] "is rather a thief than an adulterer." Now it is clear that that knowledge which is prudence is directed to the acts of the moral virtues as its end, for prudence is "the right mode of procedure in our actions;"[417] hence, too, the ends of the moral virtues are the principles of prudence, as the Philosopher also says in the same work.[418] In the same way, then, as we said above that in the case of a man who directs them to the repose of contemplation, the moral virtues pertain to the contemplative life, so also the knowledge which is prudence, and which is by its very nature directed to the operations of the moral virtues, directly pertains to the active life -- that is, of course, on the supposition that prudence is understood in the strict sense in which the Philosopher speaks of it.

If, however, prudence be understood in a broad sense -- namely, as embracing all kinds of human knowledge -- then prudence pertains, at least in certain of its aspects, to the contemplative life; thus Cicero says[419]: "The man who can see a truth the most clearly and quickly, and explain the reason of it, is rightly regarded as most prudent and most wise."

But some maintain that prudence does not pertain to the active life, thus:

1. Just as the contemplative life pertains to the cognoscitive powers, so does the active life pertain to the appetitive powers. But prudence does not pertain to the appetitive powers but rather to the cognoscitive. Consequently it does not pertain to the active life.

But moral acts derive their character from the end towards which they are directed; consequently to the contemplative life belongs that kind of knowledge which makes its end consist in the very knowledge of truth. But the knowledge which is prudence, and which is rather directed to the acts of the appetitive powers, pertains to the active life.

2. Again, S. Gregory says[420] "The active life, occupied as it is with works, sees less clearly," and hence is typified by Lia, who was blear-eyed. But prudence demands clear vision, so that a man may judge what is to be done. Whence it would seem that prudence does not pertain to the active life.

But occupation with external things only makes a man see less clearly those intelligible truths which are not connected with the things of sense; the external occupations of the active life, however, make a man see more clearly in his judgment on a course of action -- and this is a question of prudence -- for he has experience, and his mind is attentive: "When you are attentive," says Sallust,[421] "then mental acumen avails."

3. Lastly, prudence comes midway betwixt the moral and the intellectual virtues. But just as the moral virtues pertain to the active life, so do the intellectual virtues pertain to the contemplative. Hence it would seem that prudence belongs neither to the active nor to the contemplative life, but, as S. Augustine says, to a kind of life which is betwixt and between.[422]

But prudence is said to come betwixt the intellectual and the moral virtues in the sense that, whereas it has the same subject as the intellectual virtues, it yet coincides as regards its object with the moral virtues. And that third species of life comes betwixt and between the active and the contemplative life as regards the things with which it is concerned, for at one time it is occupied with the contemplation of truth, at another time with external matters.

"For what shall I do when God shall rise to judge? and when He shall examine, what shall I answer Him? For I have always feared God as waves swelling over me, and His weight I was not able to bear."[423]


Does Teaching Belong to the Active or to the Contemplative Life?

S. Gregory says[424]: "The active life means breaking bread to the hungry; teaching words of wisdom to them that know them not."

The act of teaching has a twofold object: for teaching is by speaking, and speaking is the audible sign of an interior mental concept. One object, therefore, of our teaching is the matter to be taught, the object, that is, of our interior concepts; and in this sense teaching sometimes belongs to the active, sometimes to the contemplative life. It belongs to the active life if a man forms interiorly some concept of a truth with a view to thus directing his external acts; but it belongs to the contemplative life if a man interiorly conceives some intelligible truth and delights in the thought of it and the love of it. Whence S. Augustine says[425]: "Let them choose for themselves the better part -- that, namely, of the contemplative life; let them devote themselves to the Word of God; let them yearn for the sweetness of teaching; let them occupy themselves with the knowledge that leads to salvation" -- where he clearly says that teaching belongs to the contemplative life.

The second object of teaching arises from the fact that teaching is given through the medium of audible speech and thus the hearer himself is the object of the teaching; and from this point of view all teaching belongs to the active life to which pertain all external actions.

Some, however, regard teaching as rather belonging to the contemplative than to the active life, thus:

1. S. Gregory says[426]: "Perfect men declare to their brethren those good things of Heaven which they themselves have been able to contemplate at least 'through a glass,' and they thus kindle in their hearts the love of that hidden beauty." Yet what is this but teaching? To teach, therefore, is an act of the contemplative life.

But S. Gregory expressly speaks here of teaching from the point of view of the matter that is presented -- that is, of teaching as it is concerned with the consideration of and love of the truth.

2. Again, acts and habits seem to belong to the same kind of life. But to teach is an act of wisdom, for the Philosopher says: "The proof that a man knows is that he is able to teach."[427] Since, then, wisdom -- that is, knowledge -- pertains to the contemplative life, it would seem that teaching also must pertain to the contemplative life.

But habits and acts agree in their object, and consequently the argument just given is based upon the material of the interior concept. For the capacity for teaching is possessed by a wise or learned man just in proportion as he can express in outward words the concepts of his mind and so be able to bring home a truth to someone else.

3. Lastly, prayer is an act of the contemplative life just in the same way as is contemplation itself. But prayer, even when one man prays for another, belongs to the contemplative life. Hence it would seem that when one man brings to the knowledge of another some truth upon which he has meditated, such an act pertains to the contemplative life.

But he who prays for another in no way acts upon him for whom he prays; his acts are directed towards God alone, the Intelligible Truth. But he who teaches another does act upon him by some external action. Hence there is no parallel between the two cases.


Does the Active Life continue after this Life?

S. Gregory says[428]: "The active life passes away with this present world; the contemplative life begins here so as to be perfected in our heavenly home."

As already said, the active life makes its end consist in external actions, and these, if they are directed towards the repose of contemplation, already belong to the contemplative life. But in the future life of the blessed all occupation with external things will cease; or if there are any external acts they will be directed towards that end which is contemplation. Hence S. Augustine says, at the close of his Of the City of God: "There we shall be at rest from toil, we shall gaze, we shall love, we shall praise." And he had just previously said: "There will God be seen unendingly, be loved without wearying, be praised without fatigue; this duty, this disposition of soul, this act, will be the lot of all."[429]

Some, however, maintain that the active life will be continued after this life, thus:

1. To the active life belong the acts of the moral virtues. But the moral virtues remain after death, as S. Augustine says.[430]

But the acts of the moral virtues which are concerned with the means to the end will not remain after death, but only those which have to do with the end itself. Yet it is precisely these latter which go to form the repose of contemplation to which S. Augustine alludes in the above-quoted passage where he speaks of being "at rest from toil"; and this "rest" is not to be understood of freedom from merely external disturbances, but also from the internal conflict of the passions.

2. Again, to teach others pertains to the active life. But in the next life -- where we shall be as the Angels -- there can be teaching; for we see it in the case of the Angels of whom one illumines, clarifies, and perfects another, all of which refer to their reception of knowledge, as is clear from Denis the Areopagite.[431] Hence it seems that the active life is to be continued after this life.

But the contemplative life especially consists in the contemplation of God; and as regards this no Angel teaches another, for it is said of the Angels of the little ones[432] -- Angels who are of an inferior choir -- that they always see the face of the Father. And similarly in the future life: there no man will teach another about God, for we shall all see Him as He is.[433] And this agrees with the words of Jeremias[434]: And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour ... saying: Know the Lord; for all shall know Me from the least of them even to the greatest.

But when it is question of dispensing the mysteries of God, then one Angel can teach another by clarifying, illumining, and perfecting. And in this sense the Angels do in some sort share in the active life as long as this world lasts, for they are occupied with ministering to the inferior creation. This is what was signified by Jacob's vision of the Angels ascending the ladder -- whereby was meant the contemplative life -- and descending the ladder -- whereby was meant the active life. At the same time, as S. Gregory says[435]: "Not that they so went out from the Divine Vision as to be deprived of the joys of contemplation." And thus in their case the active life is not distinguished from the contemplative as it is in us who find the works of the active life an impediment to the contemplative life. Moreover, we are not promised a likeness to the Angels in their work of administering to the inferior creation, for this does not belong to us according to our nature, as is the case with the Angels, but according to our vision of God.

3. Lastly, the more durable a thing is the more capable it seems of lasting after this life. But the active life is more durable than the contemplative, for S. Gregory says[436]: "We can remain steadfast in the active life, but in nowise can we maintain the mind's fixed gaze in the contemplative life." Consequently the active life is much more capable of continuing after death than is the contemplative life.

But in our present state the durability of the active life as compared with the contemplative life does not arise from any feature of either of these kinds of life considered in themselves, but from a defect on our part; for we are dragged down from the heights of contemplation by the body's burden. And thus S. Gregory goes on to say that, "thrust back by its very weakness from those vast heights, the soul relapses into itself."

"O bless our God, ye Gentiles: and make the voice of His praise to be heard. Who hath set my soul to live: and hath not suffered my feet to be moved. For Thou, O God, hast proved us; Thou hast tried us by fire, as silver is tried. Thou hast brought us into a net, Thou hast laid afflictions on our back; Thou hast set men over our heads. We have passed through fire and water, and Thou hast brought us out into a refreshment."[437]


[407] Of the Supreme Good, III., xv.

[408] Qu. CLXXIX.1.

[409] Ethics, II., iv.3.

[410] Ibid., X., viii.1.

[411] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[412] Ethics, V., i.15.

[413] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[414] Ecclus. xli.1-6.

[415] Ethics., X., viii.2.

[416] Ibid., V., ii.4.

[417] Ethics, VI., v.4.

[418] Ibid., X., viii.2.

[419] De Officiis, I., v.

[420] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[421] Conjuratio Catilinae, li.

[422] Of the City of God, xix.2, 3, and 19.

[423] Job xxxi.14, 23.

[424] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[425] On the Words of the Lord, Sermon civ., alias xxvii.1.

[426] Hom. V., On Ezechiel.

[427] Metaphysics, I., i.9.

[428] Hom. XIV., On Ezechiel.

[429] xxii.30.

[430] On the Trinity, xiv.9.

[431] Of the Heavenly Hierarchy, vii.

[432] S. Matt. xviii.10.

[433] 1 John iii.2.

[434] xxxi.34.

[435] Moralia in Job, ii.2.

[436] Hom. V., On Ezechiel.

[437] Ps. lxv.8-12.

question clxxx of the contemplative
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