Friday, April 11, 2008

The Vita Activa and the Vita Contemplativa

Today, I was told I have excellent leadership experience, and the attitudinal commitments necessary to professionally work canvassing for the Demorats this Summer. The offer to do such work comes at a point in my life where offers are shy. Working and paying off my indentured servitude to attend grad school thus far is another reason for taking the job. I am defintely going to take the job; I can only say that philosophy has been fun, and that to have a job reflective of one's values is another reward not common amongst many that have to transition from the contemplative life, the vita contemplativa, to the practical life, vita activa. In this post, I reflect on my experiences of living abroad the the immortal tension between a life of action, that is the philosophical life, and life yet to be lived by my recent hiring, the active political life.

First, a rehashing of Hannah Arendt is in order. The distinction really is explained in her Human Condition. For her and the tradition of political thought, there has always been a tension between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa since the active life requires a constant immersion into practical affairs whereas the contemplative life is one best characterized by Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In the story, the philosopher is pulled from the shackles of opinion, those that dwell within doxa are the mass of individual incapable of retreating inward into the mind for contemplation. The unshackled philosopher is brought out of the cave pulled upward to see the world for what it truly is, its pure essence or eidos. From then on, the philosopher knows that the common ordinary understanding of the appearing world where politics occurs is not how the world truly is. The joy that comes along with retreating inward and contemplating the universe far outweighs the burdensome life of action necessary for the human world. I am leaving that joy behind. Eventually, I will come back. For now, though, I have to "make this happen."

Part of me is deeply saddened. I cannot believe I must leave Canada. Living abroad (as far as any American wants to admit "living abroad" is 20 minutes north of Blaine, Washington.) has shaped me. The weather is not that different from other Pacific Northwesterners in WA and OR, and the land to my North is filled with rigid mountains crowned in a coniferous treeline. The sky is gloomy often, but when the sun peaks through densely dire clouds of grey, the land illuminates, manifesting the sublime in everyone's appreciation for everything green. The tolerance and multiculturalism of Vancouver is unrivaled, although the lacking of good Tex-Mex restaurants makes me water for more familar American dining options. Vancouver is a beautiful city, a city of glass and tears from the sky. Its beauty has fostered in me an appreciation for the literary and analytic tradition of philosophy I once mocked for its singular obsession with the natural sciences. Still, I mock it, but less so. The people I have met have moved me, molded me, and now I must depart for the United States in less than two months time.

Living in Canada has always taught me that no matter what it is imperative that the United States get back on track. The United States is the most targeted country for abhorrence and satire in the Canadian experience. They view us as a hungry desperate people, lacking a government that funds wars but not health care. They mock us at every turn, and make it clear how Canadian they truly are, even in situations where they clearly are "like us." It is a deeply ingrained pathology to deny one's close relationship with anything remotely American. Of course, this paragraph may be guilty of slight hyperbole. However, one must recognize the source of the Canadian disagreement. The disagreement lies that at the heart of the Canadian mentality--there is a sense of collective responsibility for the welfare of one's countrymen, an attitude uncommon in the United States.

Our obsessant individualism makes it hard to convince others of the morally and politically necessary intuitions of collective welfare. As a people, the United States is fragmented, divided into clear oppositions that blind us to these intuitions. These divisions are between have and have-nots, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Collective welfare is the talk of pinko-commies, socialists and the way left that are skeptical of private enterprise and capitalism. Yet, private businesses and capitalism still occur in Canada. The fact that they know they either sink or swim as a people together might be a result of having the population of 33 million people (approximately, the population of Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania), and a greater social anxiety comes when one realizes that 300 million people can rarely assent to anything in common. The point is to do just that. By going from door to door, we must make the change, and I'll be damned if I am going to sit by watching America descend into another unstoppable quagmire with Iraq, or conservative (of any stripe moderate or Neo-con) raise the instrumental concerns of profit before collective welfare.


Ryan said...

Dear Vancouver Philosopher,

I have been thinking about this a lot myself lately – too much, perhaps, too much contemplation and not enough action. I moved to Melbourne, Australia from Adelaide a couple of years ago, thinking I was apolitical. I moved there to work in the arts, for a community I understood was misrepresented in the mainstream media, and someone had to mention it before I realised that such an act was inherently political. My vita activa collided with a vita contemplativa I hadn't even known existed. I am now far more interested in actively cultivating this collision.

I think the resistance to move away from the contemplativa – the temptation to use contemplation to avoid action – is the result of an illusion that we need comprehensive belief systems before we can act well. Which is why I wondered (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a pinko-lefty Commie), ‘What is this pinko-lefty Democrat on about? What does he know to be going around knocking on doors, preaching politics?’ and then realised that you’re simply acting on beliefs and values you think are right, and I take my hat off to you.

Reconciling the one with the other is easy if you do it without realising it, but actively deciding to do something based on one’s principles is admirable behaviour.

Pre-Carbondale Philosopher said...

Dear Ryan,

I'm sorry it has been a very long time since I got back to you. Google analytics has revealed an interest in this thread.

Needless to say, this post was the result of speculation as my career being an academic waned. Gladly, I never did take the job. However, I want to answer you in the hopes that the future will result in you finding this answer.

While I might admit it is possible to use contemplation to avoid action, the moral philosopher is not interested in the theoretical reach of theoretical reason, but practical reasoning. Moral concerns are the type that require action, and the motive to act on well-developed belief systems is something the philosopher aims for. It is a virtue that after long effort reaps the reward of acting on beliefs and knowing the limit of whether one is morally justified. Thus, while someone might be moral by chance without a comprehensive belief system, one could not hope to foster a consistency in one's willing if logical consistency of those beliefs that inform our acting were not somehow grounded in a comprehensive system to begin with. In this way, I do not see why eschewing the effort to aim at consistency in belief structure is undermining of acting. It would only help.

Now, I'll leave it open how comprehensive such belief systems are. Belief systems tend to be the talk of relativized frameworks, and that is your problem with thinking that one is simply preaching one's perspective, as if all communication is just an exercise of competing wills to achieve domination over another. While that type of relativism may be popular to the masses, it presents several real problems that seem philosophically satisfying for a number of reasons beyond the power of this post to answer--see James Rachels arguments against relativism for a good starting point on that one alone.