Counter-Cultural Contemplation

by Peter Saint-Andre


We live in a culture that glorifies action, busy-ness, and constant activity. "Don't just stand there, do something." "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." "Pull your head out of the clouds." "Get real." "Think globally, act locally." "Knowledge is power."

This attitude has even bled into philosophy, that most abstract of humanistic disciplines. It was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who first insisted that knowledge is power. Philosophy as political activism is a more recent invention; we can perhaps date it to 1845, the year in which Karl Marx proclaimed that "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Yet Marx, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, should have known better. As Pierre Hadot has explained, in ancient times the purpose of philosophy as a way of life was never merely to interpret the world, and certainly not primarily to change it, but to change oneself.

"Be the change you want to see." That sounds like another form of activism, doesn't it? But what if the change you pursue is to withdraw from the hustle-bustle of activism in all its forms and instead to use your leisure time for the serious purpose of inquiry, awareness, and deep understanding of the causes of things?

In the context of 21st century society, could the vita contemplativa be the ultimate counter-culture and perhaps even a threat to those in authority, since it fundamentally repudiates the avaricious acquisition of power, wealth, status, and fame?

Something to ponder...

(Cross-posted at

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