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The debate over the perfect lifestyle has been a constant thread throughout Western philosophy from its ancient origins. Usually the debate centered on the relative merits of two opposing ideals: the vita activa, or active life, and the vita contemplativa, or the contemplative life. The former was a life lived in the world, active, productive, and engaging with others. It required a constant immersion in the affairs of the world and all the attendant pleasures and dangers. The latter was more passive, meditative, removed from worldly distractions of society to focus on the life of the mind or soul in order to access higher truths. Which life was the best, most fulfilling, most helpful to society? The debate has its origins in ancient Greek thought, particularly in the thought of Plato. Plato theorized that the material world, merely an imperfect copy of an ideal spiritual realm, blinded one to the truths of the metaphysical realm. This idea was most famously expressed in his Allegory of the Cave, in which prisoners mistake the shadows projected by a fire behind them as reality. When freed from the cave the prisoners can see these shadows for what they really are: corrupted reflections of a truer reality. The allegory is meant to suggest that, while imprisoned in the cave, or their earthly perceptions, reality remains unattainable. A proponent of the vita contemplativa, Plato believed that only by distancing oneself from the active life of the material realm could one gain access to the inner world of the mind for the contemplation of life’s greater questions.
The question was just as relevant to medieval philosophers and theologians, who expressed a range of views on the debate. Medieval writers saw man as a “social animal,” but they acknowledged that different stations in life required different lifestyles. Even within the church both lifestyles were advocated- bishops and priests were expected to be in the world, directly engaged with his flock and actively working to guide them towards salvation and the ultimate triumph of Christendom, while monastic men and women were supposed to shut themselves off from the material world and devote themselves to prayer and devotional work, thereby helping to maintain a good relationship between God and His people through their unending supplication.
At the very outset of the Dark Ages, the former Roman administrator turned Christian monastic Cassiodorus (c. 485-585) asked the question of himself as he watched the Roman Empire crumble. He himself opted for the vita contemplativa—after retiring from the secular world as an administrator in the administration of Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, he founded a monastery and school at his family estate by the Ionian Sea and invited his friends among the former Roman elite to join him in a life of religious contemplation and scholarly inquiry. He founded Vivarium as a retreat for those who had tired of the engaged political life and wished to live lives of seclusion of passive contemplation/study. Foundations like these were the first monasteries of early medieval Christendom, where one could withdraw from the chaotic world of the Dark Ages. But these early monks also found value in the active life- handing out food to the peasant victims of territorial warfare and violent invasion. Monasteries like these, along with castles, provided a stabilizing force across European society that helped bring Europe out of the Dark Ages and into an era of renewed expansion and growth.
Over half a millennium after Cassiodorus founded his monastery school to escape from the world, the French abbot and influential church reformer St. Bernard of Clairveux (1090-1153) experienced the same inner conflict over his conflicting aspirations; on the one hand Bernard longed for a life of monastic solitude, but also desired to improve the church and society through his direct involvement in worldly affairs. The debate was largely confined to the world of the Church until the late Middle Ages/early Renaissance, when the first secular and civic humanists dared to directly compare the ascetic, contemplative spiritual life in the cloister with the active life of the citizen engaged in the secular world of civic participation. Though the terms of the debate shifted the question was not settled, and philosophic writers today to continue to reflect on the ideal life and how one’s existence ought to reflect that ideal.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Lombardo, Paul A. “The Vita Activa Versus the Vita Contemplativa in Petrarch and Salutati.” Italica 59 (1982): 83-92.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.