Counter-Cultural Contemplation

We live in a culture that glorifies action, busy-ness, and constant activity. “Don’t just stand there, do something.” “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” “Pull your head out of the clouds.” “Get real.” “Think globally, act locally.” “Knowledge is power.”

This attitude has even bled into philosophy, that most abstract of humanistic disciplines. It was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who first insisted that knowledge is power. Philosophy as political activism is a more recent invention; we can perhaps date it to 1845, the year in which Karl Marx proclaimed that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Yet Marx, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, should have known better. As Pierre Hadot has explained, in ancient times the purpose of philosophy as a way of life was never merely to interpret the world, and certainly not primarily to change it, but to change oneself.

“Be the change you want to see.” That sounds like another form of activism, doesn’t it? But what if the change you pursue is to withdraw from the hustle-bustle of activism in all its forms and instead to use your leisure time for the serious purpose of inquiry, awareness, and deep understanding of the causes of things?

In the context of 21st century society, could the vita contemplativa be the ultimate counter-culture and perhaps even a threat to those in authority, since it fundamentally repudiates the avaricious acquisition of power, wealth, status, and fame?

Something to ponder…

2 thoughts on “Counter-Cultural Contemplation

  1. I’m impressed at how effectively you distilled this concept into its essentials!

    I have to point out: “think globally, act locally” isn’t so at odds with self-change as may be presented. The phrase often gets used as a test that any behavior you enact locally should have the property that IF everyone else adopts it (if it goes global) that would still make for positive change. It’s the foundation of “the golden rule” and more than a few other moral codes.

    Moreover, acting on the desire to “withdraw” from the bustle may lead a person to conclude that it’s very difficult to accomplish that on his own. Hence, many forms of withdrawal actually lead one to connect in new, supportive ways with their peers. If not directly *political* change, changing oneself leads to *social* change.

    But I don’t mean to say that the framing doesn’t matter, quite the opposite! The view you present here leads to good alignment between means and ends: no longer am I fighting against others as a means to achieve good ends; now I’m overcoming my own limitations — both the ends and the means.


  2. Hi Colin, thank you for sharing these insights. I’ll want to reflect further on several of these topics, but on your final point I do think that oftentimes we’re our own worst enemy and in order to take effective action we need to get out of own way and overcome our limitations. Ironically, one of those limitations is the desire to “do something” without really thinking through what kind of action might be most effective for me to take given my context, skills, knowledge, and experience. As a result, I might do something that everyone else is doing at the moment (say, signing a petition against homelessness) whereas what’s most effective might be something quite different (say, volunteering at a local food bank). Which leads right back to “think globally, act locally” I suppose…


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