Aristotle’s question endures: Which is better, the active or the contemplative life? The one wrapped up in doing things, or the one absorbed in gazing on the truth?
Recently, when a few of my students brought up the question, I reflected on an epigram of Bernard of Clairvaux of which I am very fond, “Some seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. Others seek knowledge that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. But there are still others who seek knowledge in order to serve and edify others, and that is charity.”
It may seem that someone who speaks like Bernard is siding for practical activity against contemplation, viewing knowledge as intrinsically worthless -- good only as a means to serving others. This view can’t be right, for unless it were good in itself, how could it serve them? Besides, Bernard is a contemplative: The author of the epigram is a man who has given his life to the contemplation of God, who is identical with Truth.
Here is the solution to the riddle. Aristotle’s God is a solitary monad, “thought thinking itself.” Bernard’s is a burning unity of three Persons, their love His very being. The God whom Aristotle admires has no reason to be interested in us. The God whom Bernard adores made us in His image, woos us like a bridegroom, and suffered for us before all worlds.
It follows that the action of charity is not in competition with the contemplative life, but at its heart. To contemplate God is to know Him not just as the theorem is known by the demonstrator, but as the Lover is known by the Beloved.