Skip to content

The Highest Human Activity

3 min

Aristotle and Bataille on the vita contemplativa.

Welcome to today's issue of Other Life. If you received this from a friend, subscribe here. Instead of paywalling posts, we'll give you a new sovereign computer.

Nota bene: We just announced cohort #3 of the René Girard Course with Geoff Shullenberger, starting March 20. If you'd like an email when enrollment opens, download the 18-page study guide.

Aristotle believed the highest activity possible for human beings is the contemplation of unchanging truth. It's better than being just, brave, or anything else.

Aristotle's insight is far from obvious today, in a world where we tend to feel that pure contemplation is "lazy" and for "losers." In fact, the exact opposite is true, but it takes some work to understand why.

First, consider that every type of being has a characteristic type of work or activity. Aristotle coined the term energeia to describe a being in the process of its characteristic activity. A plant functions or works differently than a human; what it means to live is different for each. The energeia of a being is nested in that being's way of life or bios.

One crucial way that activities differ is whether they are intrinsically good or only extrinsically good. Intrinsically good activities are their own reward, whereas extrinsically good activities are good because they cause or increase something else that is intrinsically good. Intrinsically good activities are naturally superior to extrinsically good activities. This is obvious when you consider that extrinsically good things are only good because of the intrinsically good things they point to.

Another way that activities differ is in their degree of self-sufficiency. The energeia of the sun is highly self-sufficient. It requires nothing other than itself. Plants, in contrast, require the sun to persist in their energeia. A self-sufficient good is better than a dependent good because a dependent good can be taken away. So the highest form of human activity is unlikely to be anything dependent: How good can it really be if it could possibly disappear tomorrow?

The contemplation of eternal truth is one of the only human activities that is intrinsically good and completely self-sufficient. It is through this activity—theoria—that human beings come closest to the complete actualization (entelechia) of their potential.

"For the self-sufficiency that is spoken of must belong most to contemplative activity... The just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly, and the temperate man, the brave man and so on, but the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; perhaps he can do so better if he has fellow workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient." —Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Interestingly, it is the unproductive nature of theoria that marks it as highly noble. Uselessness is often the proof of intrinsic value, a clear signal that something is not merely a means to something else.

When people say that purely abstract thinking is a waste of time, they don't understand what is ultimately valuable.

Re-reading Aristotle, I am reminded of Bataille's insight that "wasting" is, and always has been, the essence of nobility. As Bataille shows, all utilitarian optimization is ultimately derived from the intrinsic value of expenditure. And the purest form of expenditure is essentially wastage. We accumulate instrumentally only to spend recklessly. Pure thought or philosophy is the highest form of human activity not because it helps anyone or anything else (which would only prove its inferiority) but because it consumes recklessly—energeia only for the sake of energeia.

If you spend your entire life only doing things that "have a point," then by definition your life will be a failure. You'll die in media res, never having fully actualized as much as you could have.

This is why we think and read and write, I believe. Not for power, money, or status—though we might frequently err and become distracted by these things. We seek to know the unchanging truth because it is the highest activity possible.

If you received this from a friend, subscribe here. If you're working on something related to the above, become a member.


Subscribe to receive the latest posts in your inbox.