Activa / Contemplativa

Can we be active and contemplative, instead of either/or?

Doing, but not mindlessly rushing, contemplative but not getting lost in thoughts. The industrial society has been living on the idea of Vita Activa. Doing doing doing. Life is work. The old Greek philosophers, on the other hand, looked at work as something to be avoided. „Are you working or are you someone?“. Easy for them of course, as work was done by slaves, and from our perspective today an unethical argument. Slaves do the work while the „real“ citizens can relax, contemplate and wander through the streets in joy. A time when philosophers didn’t come from the middle or bottom of society, because this class couldn’t write and therefore its ideas couldn’t be transferred into other centuries. Fortunately, we have evolved a bit from this class structure, although we are still abusing the work of people from different regions of the world, at least in Germany almost everyone can write today and everyone has fundamental human rights. In his landmark work about Protestantism and its role as the ideological father industrialisation and capitalism, Max Weber has pointed out the deeply rooted belief in work as a high pursuit in our society. In Germany the gap of the Vita Contemplative to Vita Activa might also be a gap between Catholicism and Protestantism, as indeed protestants eradicated a lot of the Catholic public holidays. John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 that in a century we would have a 15h workweek. Indeed we could have such a work week. We live in a time with the absurd situation that technology has made so many things so much more comfortable, but still, we work so much.

Right now on the other side of the road a new house gets built. How many people work there? Three, sometimes four. And they are building up this house extremely fast. Within days. Construction today goes super quick and much easier with fewer people than ever due to technology. Same goes not just for manual labour but also a lot of other work. Take all the stuff that the computer made easier for example. I haven‘t been in a bank for years; I can publish this text directly on the internet, etc. etc.

I use a washing machine for my clothes; I use a vacuum cleaner to clean.

This is all time that is made available. Read a book by Dostoyevsky and you will see that the average life of the middle class in the 19th century was to employ someone full time for housekeeping.

Now ask yourself how many people you know that work in food production. How many people do you know that work on a farm? One hundred years ago one farmer was making food for four people in Germany. Today one farmer is farming the food for 130 people. So what are all these farmers doing today, who are not needed anymore?

Still, with all the technological help, we are working a lot. We just always invent new jobs. David Graeber has written an account of this comic inventiveness in his book „Bullshit Jobs“.

The thing seems to be this:

Indeed we work less than 100 years ago, but if you think it through that in 100 years, a farmer that has been producing food for four people is now providing food for 130 people, then it is clear that we must have invented a lot of new things to do.

Many jobs, of course, have not changed much in the amount of time and staff it needs, like medical doctors or police officers for example, other jobs are new and necessary like IT Security jobs. But many people today are left with the knowledge that they hang around at work longer than what is needed. Office workers sit around in their office, artificially lengthening what they need to do. Manual labour workers go home early and write down more hours because they work efficiently, but get paid by the hour, not by the work done.

But if we look more closely we see actually that in the field of manual labour and crafting more people are needed than are „available“, which is probably due to three things:

We are in a funny situation, where we could work less as a society today, if we would settle for less consumption, abandon the thinking of growth and abandon the mentality that only people that work are of value. At the same time, some jobs have become so unpopular that no one wants to do them at the moment. The formulae might be this: we need no people in „bullshit jobs“ and fewer on computers, more people in manual labour and caring jobs and we need to consume less and „be“ more.

So can we do and contemplate instead of either/or?

What does that mean for the „physical & cognitive“ practices? It means to balance doing and not doing, acting and contemplating. It means that you have times where you sit on a chair doing nothing, and it means that there is the time where you work like a horse, entirely focused without stopping. And everything in between the whole scale of these two poles. Watch the leaves falling in the autumn wind, slowly to the ground, as well as sweat and push doing things of value. The non-contemplative unresting doing is devaluing the doing. Do with thought. And think with doing.

Joseph Bartz