Does the student who enjoys all their homework even seem plausible? Can the process of thinking in every assignment truly excite more joy than pain?
Fascinatingly, if a student said they found none of their assignments worthwhile or enjoyable, this would be no shock. We might even expect it in some academic disciplines. Pointless readings, long papers, annoying quizzes—these add up into a thought-life that no one can enjoy. For such a student, finding some pleasure in the thought-life should include contemplation. Contemplation may be understood as the essentially pleasurable receptive and perceptive simple vision of the highest and best things. Although some use “contemplation” synonymously with “thinking really hard,” contemplation here means something much more specific and profound.
Josef Pieper, a 20th century Christian philosopher, seeks to get at the ancient idea of contemplation through contrasting it with what he calls discursive reasoning. In Leisure: the Basis of Culture, He claims that we have an understanding as ratio and an understanding as intellectus:
Ratio is the power of discursive, logical thought, or searching and examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitis, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye.
When you take a passage and break it down into its premises and conclusions, analyze what type of argument it is, and evaluate its validity based on the rules for that argument—that is the use of the ratio. Literary analysis, mathematical proofs, the scientific method, historical research—all are modes of the ratio. Some enjoyment may accrue from these processes, but by nature they are effortful. They may become easy by practice, but they are, by definition, work. Any “ratio-pleasure” comes from the result. We dissect the argument to get the truth in it. We analyze novels to have an accurate picture of their themes. This process may be pleasurable because it gets us those things, but the process is not typically pleasurable in itself.
By contrast, the intellectus is receptive and perceptive. It is receptive because in using it, we do not labor for the truth—we simply experience it. We are given a vision of it. Simplex intuitis (Latin for “simple vision”) describes that rare occurrence that many of us have experienced from time to time: the sudden and clear sight of some truth.
The intellectus also perceives. When you see a tree, you do not normally stop to prove to yourself that the object you see before you is a tree. You may not even think the word “tree.” WIthout extended thought, you plainly perceive that it is a tree. The intellectus is similarly perceptive but perceptive of spiritual knowledge.
Because of the intellectus, we can contemplate. It is the power which enables the activity of contemplation. Legs make us able to walk; the intellectus is the tool or faculty that makes us able to contemplate.
Recalling that contemplation is about the highest and best of all things, Aquinas says in Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 188, Art. 4 that we can contemplate two things essentially — divine truth and divine effects. Our ultimate end, what will make us completely happy, is God. So if contemplation is about the highest and best things, and God is the highest and best thing, contemplation will be primarily about God. God is not just another thing. Yet when we compare anything to God in terms of goodness, clearly the Creator of all things surpasses all other things.
Furthermore, as the intellectus aims us at spiritual knowledge, we progress in it, seeing spiritual realities more and more in themselves and less through visible things. Though we will always think of God in analogies in some way (for example the Door or the Vine-branch) we come by spiritual contemplation to know Him more and more as He is. He is the end of contemplation.
And this process will obviously be pleasurable, as Aquinas maintains in Summa Theologica. First, knowing is a delight on its own. We have a natural curiosity — an engaged desire to know — that contemplation uniquely satisfies. Everyone wants to know what is really the case about what is truly the best. Contemplation provides for this desire in a simple vision of the truth. Second, we look upon things we love in contemplation. For the Christian, to look upon God and His effects is not a disaffected process of description and knowing. It is not an experiment or book report; it is a vision of the Beloved, the One we love, God. How can you not take pleasure in the sight of someone you love?
Now this is where the person of practical wisdom might push back — the sight of the beloved friend might be painful right as the time for homework begins, or on the way to an important event. I have stuff to do, places to go, people to see! The vision of God is good, but time limits it severely. Just as I cannot go to church every night or pray without ceasing, I cannot contemplate God every night.
Our lives are so filled with immediately relevant concerns like friends, activities, classes, and all other problems and concerns of health, money, pleasure, religion, and morals. On Sunday mornings and evenings the pulpit reverberates with exhortations to live out our faith, but do we live it out contemplatively? How do we receive and use this gift of contemplation?
The first thing to do would be to truly appreciate the value of contemplation. Only the small-minded boyfriend says he is too busy for the girlfriend he loves very much. He ought to make time for her because of how wonderful she herself is, how wonderful he sees her as, and how wonderful she is to him. We ought, then, to make time for contemplation of our ultimate Beloved.
Read Aquinas and Pieper on contemplation; find real philosophers among you who can show you how deeply valuable contemplation is. The more good that you see in the contemplation of God, the more time you will make for it. Maybe you don’t need another extracurricular — maybe you need more time thinking about God with your intellectus.
Second, see if you can find opportunities within the rest of your life to contemplate. Maybe when you pray, try praying in the appreciation and adoration of God rather than asking God for more stuff. Asking God for stuff is good (ask and ye shall receive). But contemplating Him is just as good and deserves as much (or more!) attention. We love Him, do we not?
Find friends who want to contemplate with you; if you are a student, take a class where you could contemplate. Whether it be a theology or a philosophy class, or a class that reads philosophical and theological texts (history and English courses fit this bill, too!), take them as an elective.
This is controversial — contemplation of God is “out of date” by some standards. I myself do not do it enough. But if we want to seek after that which is best in life, we must seek our Lord. For who is better than God?