This was one of the final papers I wrote for my undergrad work in philosophy. It was written from beginning to end in several hours on the day of my last class after months of obsessive personal and academic research, mostly for other courses. I was at the height of my addiction and hopelessness; I feel that my subconscious was speaking to me that day. I went home and collapsed into bed, where I stayed for weeks. A month and a half later I emerged, ready to live by my own words. But first, I had to die.
Aristotle’s assertion that contemplative activity is the most complete human excellence may at first seem like a given or obvious statement coming from a philosopher. One might assume that endorsing intellectual pursuits as the ultimate form of existence would automatically rank people by their levels of raw intelligence, but the core support for Aristotle’s concept of contemplation as excellence is surprisingly egalitarian. What makes humans human at all is not a capacity for pure logic, but the more phenomenological idea of the ability to contemplate, or to switch between existing inside of given consensual, temporal reality and outside of it by – within the timeless space of the mind. In placing contemplative activity above all other human activities, Aristotle celebrates the uniquely human qualities of imagination, reason, empathy, trust, patience, and self-sufficiency. Ultimately the life of contemplation is less about this activity translating to competitive debate or groundbreaking invention and instead has more to do with conscious intent, acting in a consistent manner over a lifetime, and taking an existential ownership of the narrative of one’s life through choice. While social status or intellectual ability enhances the ability and probability of living in this manner, Aristotle says that the man who truly values contemplation does not need external validation or accumulation. Through an examination of Books X and III of the Nicomachean Ethics I will show how Aristotle’s concepts of contemplation and directed thought are similar to the existential ideas of authenticity, self-authorship, modal choice, and the responsibility of being free.
Before focusing on Aristotle’s account of the highest human good in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics it is important to examine Aristotle’s views on intention and directed thought in Book III. Human excellence is built upon contemplation, and an account of contemplation would be incomplete without an analysis of the components of thoughts themselves. Beyond this, Aristotle believes that virtue is habit, and habit is directed action made of individual mental choices – the way we do something is the way we do everything. Mental activity is the beginning and the end of happiness and good.
Aristotle’s discussion of thought is revealed through his distinctions between virtues and vice; vice is exempted when it is involuntary, or done because of force or ignorance. An act is ignorant but still voluntary if one feels a sense of regret afterwards. Intent is a step beyond a voluntary action associated with virtue as it involves having directed thought which leads to action. Intent is a distinctly human attribute. Animals response only to instinctual drives and thus do not have the ability to suspend instinct and reflect on it before acting. The Greek word Aristotle has chosen to represent intention is “proaireton,” which translates to “to choose before.” (Aristotle, __) This idea of “choosing before” brings to mind the later concept of phenomenological bracketing elaborated upon by Husserl in his analysis of rationality, _____. (Husserl, ___) Virtue is a uniquely human property because humans are the only animals capable of rational and premeditated thought, and therefore it seems that the act of choice is connected with the concept of virtue.
By definition choice involves calculating uncertain outcomes and assessing probability before action. When there is no need for deliberation, there is no choice. But there is always a choice, and within our temporal existence we are always playing whether we like it or not – the game is occurring and changing score all the time. Lack of choice is the choice to stay with the familiar or the activity or belief one is engaged with at the moment. Choice is dependent upon our ability to conceive of possibilities and then to reflect on these possibilities before taking action. Imagination and reason both cooperate and play an equal role in order to attain the result most attuned with desire.
With this freedom and ability to “choose before” humans take on a responsibility over their actions via the thoughts they conceive of before making choices. This is complicated because events based on past choices reflect back to the self, deeply instilling beliefs that then influence further choices. This dynamic feedback process between mind/choice and outcome creates habits that could be described as a solidification of patterns within strings of individual choice. Character is habit, and habit – through consistency of patterns and outcomes – is fate. Because humans can choose within each moment how they wish to act they have the miracle and curse of being able to create themselves and suffer judgment, either positive or negative, as a result of this self-creation. One would think that because choice and outcome exists in a circuit they are self-correcting and sympathetic toward the cultivation of virtue, but it is easy to see how interpersonal or societal positive feedback creates habits that are not necessarily chosen because of authentic desire but because of desire for more positive feedback in any way possible. Perhaps this kind of drive could illuminate the distinction between the positive and negative pleasures. Aristotle uses an example related to social feedback when describing the distinction himself:
“The fact too, that a friend is different from a flatterer, seems to make it plain that pleasure is not a good or that pleasures are different in kind; for the one is thought to consort with us with a view to the good, and the other with a view to our pleasure; one is reproached…the other is praised.” (Book X, Section III)
Inverting this line of thought describes the bad intention of the person knowingly being flattered or bending principles or beliefs in order to gain more flattery. This kind of behavior distorts the inherent self-correcting reward system between authentic virtuous choice and outcome upon action. The intention of this act is bad because it involves the drive to be rewarded without making choices or taking action. Approval seeking through others for its own sake is a distraction from the true self and the ability to build a true self at all. And a true self, an intentional self, is a prerequisite for virtue.
While Plato believes that vice only occurs because of ignorance (if all were educated properly it would cease to exist), Aristotle is certain that evil can be intentional. But Aristotle is also sympathetic toward ignorance as a result of an incorrect upbringing or education. Later, in Book X, he stresses the essentiality of conditioning children to associate pleasure with the things that should be enjoyed and pain with the things one should hate in order to form a mind that has even the capability to exist in harmony with virtue. This is a depressing thought very much in opposition to the existential ideal of freedom through conscious choice that we have just discussed. Is choice nothing more than an illusion then, a compounding algorithm emerging from first causes, an automatic decision making process based upon deeply ingrained structural patterns of mental and physical activity? Our ability (or lack thereof) to choose upon attaining the freedom to choose as a conscious adult is paradoxically dependent upon the circumstances of the time when we did not have the ability to choose in our pre-conscious life as young children. While an evil act could certainly be voluntary Aristotle contradicts himself when he says that the improperly educated are by definition incapable of virtuous action but still assigns intent to their actions. Perhaps we could classify the ignorant person’s evil actions as voluntary and intentional but note that the ability to formulate intent is severely clouded by a layer of cognitive dissonance stemming from the poor formulative conditioning that the individual had no choice in. In modern psychology internal cognitive dissonance as a consequence of trauma or invalidation results in stunted development reflecting the unresolved trauma or internal confusion. As a consequence these individuals who exist physically as adults are stuck at a childish emotional level. This psychic immaturity drives the pursuit of a hollow form of pleasure, as Aristotle also recognizes:
“The name self-indulgence is also applied to childish faults; these characteristics belong above all to appetite and to the child, since children in fact live at the beck and call of appetite, and it is in them that the desire for what is pleasant is strongest.” (Book III, Section XII)
We can now see that the assumed cyclical and self-correcting model:
subconscious imagination –> directed thought –> conscious choice in each moment –> outcome –> feedback –> habit –> character –> subconscious imagination
in a distilled form exists as the will. Will can be defined as informed conscious desire willing to sacrifice in order to attain an outcome, in opposition to instinctual passionate desire willing to compromise in order to attain an outcome. Choices informed by will are virtuous because they scan the totality of an identity juxtaposed with long-term desires in accordance with that identity in order to make a choice. Choices made when acting on instinctual or passionate drives are associated with vice because they are centered on what one wants immediately, and now without giving weight to the preservation of consistency of habit or how the choice may affect future choices. To have a developed will is to be mature.
But while the functioning of the will may lack the intensity of instinctual driven choices, this does not mean that it is upheld only for the sake of virtue itself or does not have self-generating and sustaining features of its own. A sense of where one comes from in the form of a narrative in conjunction with intended future or long-term goals and plans act as a sense of gravity that contains and prioritizes the preservation of the self-modeled identity. While the pleasure-driven person leaps from point to point at random in order to experience immediate and hollow validation or gratification without having to actually be or stand for anything, a person with a healthy and developed ego seeks this validation and pleasure as a result of the creative satisfaction that naturally follows with consistency of choice and action. Each action in accordance with the person s/he wants to be further empowers and streamlines the identity. The desire to find patterns and construct meanings from these observed patterns is a drive that is simultaneously human yet incredibly powerful and primal in its intensity. Braumbaugh, author of Unreality and Time, describes its operation:
“Narrative coherence is what we find or effect in much of our experience and action, and to the extend that we do not, we aim for it, try to produce it, and try to restore it when it goes missing for whatever reason. Life can be regarded as a constant effort, even a struggle, to maintain or restore narrative coherence in the face of an everthreatening, impending chaos at all levels, from the smallest project to the overall coherence of life.” (Braumbaugh, __ )
All people have a will driven by ego and a weight which counters this intended will, which is partially why deliberation before choice is essential to virtue. The struggle between instinct and will aligns with the process of imagination and reason that occurs during the phenomenological process involved in calculating choice. If we all operated on pure will all of the time, life would be mechanical, hypercalculated, and impersonal. All humans are constantly undergoing a process of choice between fleeting or simulated validation and the will to act in harmony with ones principles or authentic desires. Sometimes the resulting outcomes are good and sometimes they are bad, but regardless of the outcome this information is taken into account and integrated then applied to future choices. But the adult with an underdeveloped will as a result of an incorrect upbringing carries a heavy weight that sabotages the will time and time again. Because of his or her destructive unconscious beliefs that appear incomprehensible even to the self, s/he is virtually incapable of mature, long-term, and directed thought processes in accordance with the will. The “ontologically insecure” person receives, over time, feedback as a consequence of choices stemming from immature thought. This feedback creates a false self, which when removed suddenly results in psychosis. (Laing, 99) The inevitability that Aristotle predicted is represented in anti-psychiatrist Laing’s observation that “if there is anything the schizoid individual is likely to believe in, it is his own destructiveness.” (Laing, 93) In acting in a manner that is random and does not adhere to a central meaning, the narrative of life becomes unintelligible to the self itself that only drives this person into an even more obsessive need for gratification in any form to alleviate the pain. As legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl observed, “When man cannot find meaning he numbs himself with pleasure.” (Frankl, ___)
In separating instinctual passionate outburst from the calculated aim associated with courage, Aristotle says that “it is for facing what is painful, then, as has been said, that men are called brave.” (Book III, Section VIII) In this context Aristotle is referring to external situations such as war or other types of tragedy. But if applied to the mind, we find a prescription for the rehabilitation of the aforementioned “ontologically insecure” or poorly conditioned person. Fearlessly confronting one’s own instinctual thoughts and actively practicing re-directing them according to the will is an act of courage; every person has at least some sense of apprehension when engaging in honest dialogue with the self:
“My own death is not something I could ever experience as an event in the world, for it constitutes the limit of my world. Thus resistant to being thought or experienced, the reality of my own death is more likely to be brought home to me in a ‘disposition’ such as anxiety. Though this backdrop of non-being always looms at the edge of our consciousness, according to Heidegger, we resist what it reveals about ourselves. Immersed in our everyday concerns, ever on the look-out for the new and exciting, consumed with idle chatter and too busy to afford the sort of Besinnung which would address itself to the over-all sense of what we are doing.” (Braumbaugh, ___)
The first step toward rebuilding a self with the capacity for virtue is intent-driven choice to willingly experience the overwhelming anxiety that fearless contemplation of our own nonbeing brings in order to gain an understanding and an appreciation for what we want our being to be. Braumburgh describes how in facing our fear of aloneness through death we gain a sense of the power the acceptance of this aloneness brings us:
“What the confrontation of my death reveals, by contrast, if we only face it, is the radical my-own-ness of human existence. Death is that which utterly individualizes or isolates. Just as no one can die for me, no one can live my life either. Heidegger takes up Dilthey’s notion of autobiographical Besinnung on the whole of one’s life, though in more dramatic terms: it is occasioned by anxiety and the contemplation of one’s own death, and constitutes a “call of conscious.” If the closure of birth and death make problematic the integrity of my life-story, what counts for Heidegger, it seems, is whether I am composing it myself or drifting along according to a script of indeterminate or anonymous authorship. This drift is evasion of responsibility: I am, it seems, responsible for my own life only if I am its author.” (Braumbaugh, ___)
This means acknowledging that this anxiety will likely never go away completely but also being aware that insight one gains from willing the self to not look away and regress to numbing behavior is what gives a core sense of meaning itself to existence. Authentic continual contemplation, hesitation and reflection before acting or emoting in order to ensure alignment with intent, postponement of instant gratification, and acting in alignment with will in a consistent and creative way are the materials required to build virtuous choices, habit, and a stable yet individual identity. When the emotionally stunted adult or child-in-transition exercise their uniquely human ability to make identity-forming personal value judgments of how things should be, they create in the process a constantly actualizing image in alignment with this intent. The creation of an authentic and individual identity is structured in such a way that virtuous activity is a natural consequence. Virtue has been said to be equivalent to the abstract notion of harmony and the consistency (key of the song) within chaotic variation that is artfully crafted in temporal existence through individual choice (or keys on a piano) is an image that supports this idea. The pressing of individual notes with a premeditated awareness of the structural principles that combine to make chords creates harmony (virtue) through individual choice.
“Schapp compare the ego to the unity of a story, and music is invoked to explain: ‘It is like a chaos of chords and discords. Each is a structure of notes which fills a present but has no musical relation to the others. Only the category of meaning overcomes the chaos of this array and brings order. Under this category belongs the notion of the development of a life, its unfolding according to a pattern not imposed on it from above or outside but arising out of its own internal shaping of itself.” (Brambaugh, __)
With coherency comes a sense of peace akin to the relief that a reformed drug addict feels at not having to manically scramble and compromise in order to get the next fix despite the negating sense of self-loathing that pervades the entire process. In having confronted the true and shamefully empty nature of the former self and defined how s/he actually, honestly desires to be, intention is shaped and will grows in strength with the accumulation of coherent choices. The looming existential anxiety that used to be a constant presence is greatly reduced; in knowing oneself truly, a person can know how s/he will act in the future. As the mental calculus becomes optimized and automized through consistency, anxiety diminishes. But in order to begin this process first one must face the totality of the anxiety that has been suppressed and ignored through the distractions of novelty and pleasure and the validation of the formerly false self. In order to live, we must first die. Burroughs said it best:
“Earlier dream fantasy: I am in a Plane trying to make the Pass. There is a boy with me, and I turn to him and say: ‘Throw everything out.’
‘What! All the gold? All the guns? All the junk?’
I mean throw out all the excess baggage: anxiety, desire for approval, fear of authority, etc. Strip your psyche to the bare bones of spontaneous process, and you give yourself one change in a thousand to make the Pass. I am subject to continual routines, which tear me apart like a homeless curse. I feel myself drifting further and further out, over a bleak dream landscape of snow-covered mountains.” (Burroughs, 134)
Aristotle says that all beings aim at pleasure, but the kind aimed at in by both animals and humans is sensual pleasure. The rational abilities of humans give them a capacity to experience a different kind of pleasure, a pleasure of thought and the experience of contemplation. In this kind of pleasure the drive toward orgasm is instead a drive toward epiphany, the feeling of unity and understanding within a swirling halo of thought. The drive toward orgasm or epiphany shows that pleasure is not continuous, it is experienced in gradiations craving an ultimate sense of fulfillment or unity that is not directly experiencible in our temporal and oscillating existence. “How then,” Aristotle asks, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human things are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore, pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity.” (Book X, Section IV)
Contemplation itself is continuous, and within contemplation we have the capacity for pleasure that is self-generated and not dependent upon the external world while simultaneously enhancing the experience of the external world by affecting the unfolding of our personal reality. This state of superposed harmony within chaos generated by intent is the closest we can get to unity or completion in a perpetual state of becoming, and this directed creation gives the role one takes on in committing to the process of generating a harmonious life in alignment with first principles properties that resemble what is often considered divine or godly.
The qualifications for happiness and properties of contemplation share similar properties:
1. Continuity – mental activity is continuous. Even when we are asleep the mind is actively processing and visualizing information. Because happiness is gained through contemplation, we are never without the necessary instrument to make ourselves happy. Levels of happiness may fluctuate within individual frames of experience, but the dedication to a life project and the construction of an identity from scratch ensures that happiness experienced in the past will be revisited in future experience through the principle of harmony.
2. Pleasant – Once the mind/identity is engaged in a feedback loop with reality/outcome without the confusion and incoherency of unconscious destructive structures, pleasure becomes self-regulating and generating. Correct intention naturally generates the experience of pleasure and incorporates an even better sense of how to generate more pleasure in the future.
3. Self-sufficient – Happiness through contemplation is created by oneself, in oneself. Though Aristotle notes that without the basic comforts of life we would not be able to be happy, the act of contemplation guiding correct intention results in external security and pleasure as a byproduct.
4. Loved for its own sake – We do not love the activity of contemplation because it represents something else. Contemplation is the most direct experience we can have and the only thing we truly own. Contemplation and mental exploration can feel like heaven or hell depending on the quality and structure of the mind as a result of good or poor early conditioning. Loving to be happy and understanding what it means to be happy are to love ones life. Happiness is a reward for correct choices. A healthy emotional feedback circuit (existing as a result of either good early education or self re-conditioning) should respond to misery through the re-direction of thought and choice in order to regain happiness.
The mind is all that we actually have and are in control of. To have compassionate control over the mind is to have a sense of control through harmony over one’s own life. Paradoxically when we are actively engaged in ongoing contemplation the happiness generated from this internal act causes us to give less importance to the external qualities of life. Aristotle agrees that there is a simultaneously divine and accessible quality to the self-contained world of the mind ruled by individual intent or directedness. He asks “Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation?” (Book X, Section VIII) Sadhus, monks, and schizophrenics are united in their capacity for imagination to overshadow consensual reality, but it is the ability to draw strength and nourishment from internal sources rather than fear that differentiate the holy person from the insane.
While Aristotle understandably wants to judge the actions of the ignorant for the vices they engage in, perhaps Plato is accurate in saying that there is not evil, only ignorance as a result of an incorrect education. Ignorance and evil result not as the inability to understand or a lack of awareness concerning what we intellectually know to be right and wrong but instead as a result of a faulty emotional experience that is only known unconsciously and thus cannot be logically analyzed and instantaneously corrected in the traditional sense. The translated term “education” when referring to this process is misleading and contributes to a perception about Aristotle’s ideas about the goodness of intellectual activities.
Aristotle believes that a broken foundation results in a permanently broken person. While this sounds shocking and hopeless, it is unfortunately very accurate. The absurdity of modern existence only confirms this. But if we are aware of being broken and have a desire to change, then as long as we are alive we should aspire to do so even if it is impossible or never fully reconciled. While it may be very difficult to change oneself completely, a commitment to raising one’s children with a high level of awareness and responsiveness is a step that a person with a broken foundation could take to further heal the self and ensure that future suffering due to poor conditioning is decreased or eradicated.
Inconsistency or guilt resulting from cognitive dissonance as a way to cope with trauma or the incomprehensible clouds our natural instincts and alters the process of the happiness-driven feedback cycle that encourages consistency in one’s life. This results in the fixation on immediate and disjointed pleasures that, like the original feedback model, are self-generating and compound over time. If one is able to obliterate the past existence in the face of terror and anxiety in order to being a new and consistent life in alignment with contemplation the possibility of both virtue and happiness are available. Individual identity – far from being the divisive and destructive force evolutionary theorists paint it to be – generates virtuous behavior through aligning it in its rightful and natural place with pleasure. The individual properties of contemplation, desire, intent, and choice are both the necessary properties of authentic identity and of the process of virtuous action.
Aristotle’s theory on happiness as contemplation is egalitarian in that it is simple, selfsufficient, and available to all. But at the same time much of the ability to be happy is contingent upon choices that were not ours to make, and patterns of beliefs that linger and leave a psychic imprint despite intellectually disagreeing with them. This bizarre situation wherein identities meld and morph, integrate and separate themselves within one another at the intersections of sex, birth, and death is a reflection of the interconnectedness of the process-based and dynamic aspects of life itself. In understanding these spaces where we are simultaneously our most individual and our most entangled with others we can recognize individuality and interconnectedness as symmetrical, not opposed. Inner world and external world are different levels of abstraction of the same, unified process. Aristotle’s meaning of the contemplative or intellectual life is not exclusive or competitive. It is simply the process of thinking before acting and of being consistent and thorough in both thought and action. Consistency does not allow for vice, guilt, or cognitive dissonance. To live a contemplative life is to simultaneously know oneself and create oneself, knowing and creating more as life unfolds. To live a happy life through contemplation as Aristotle suggests means that happiness is not necessarily a thrilling, passionate existence so much as it is a state of internal serenity and completeness.