Adler On


In Book X of his Ethics, Aristotle compares the life of action with the contemplative life, and declares the life of the philosopher to be higher because it is contemplative.

This declaration, it seems to me, is a Platonic error on Aristotle's part. For Aristotle the final end is happiness, the totum bonum or complete good -- all the things that are really good for human beings. The telos or final end must be the same for all members of the species. The bonum commune hominis must be achievable in different degrees by all human being. It cannot be an end that ought to be pursued by some, but not by all.

If the final end is the same for all human beings, what is the highest of the goods that comprise it? In the totum bonum, what is the summum bonum -- the highest good among all the real goods that comprise the totum bonum?

The answer cannot be contemplation in the first place because only God is the proper object of contemplation and in the second place because being able to contemplate God is itself a gift of divine grace.

In this life and apart from religion, the secular form of contemplation occurs when human beings contemplate things of beauty, either in nature or in works of art. The contemplation of the beautiful is, by analogy, the secular counterpart of religious contemplation on earth and of the beatific vision in heaven.

The good use of the intellect is learning, and all the activities by which we learn and grow intellectually are acts of pure leisuring -- not toil, not subsistence work of any kind unless it is admixed with leisure, not play or amusement, but work that is genuinely creative. A life that does not involve leisuring is not a good life. It is leisuring, not contemplation, that is the highest good.

Fundamental Errors in Moral Philosophy
Desires, Right & Wrong (1991), Chapter 5, 88-95

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000