dinsdag 11 augustus 2009


It is fairly common in the Western tradition to consider the vita activa and the vita contemplativa as two ultimate, opposing poles of the human world. In this scheme vita activa stands for the outgoing movement of man who enters the world for exploitation and conquest and vita contemplativa for the inward movement of the one who contemplates the world in his mind.

But the question is whether those two poles are really that far away from one another. Are they not two sides of the same coin indeed? This coin, then, is called: order or fascination for order.

Take for example the role played by the Benedictine monks over the centuries in Western Europe. With them the experience of order (vita contemplativa) and establishing order (vita activa) appear to lie in one line. And in saying so I am not primarily referring to the requirement of the Rule of Benedict that the monks should divide their time over prayer, study and manual work. Because by this work seems to be meant above all craft or agricultural work, which fits neatly within an ordered whole. It reinforces contemplation rather than that it imposes order onto the world.

No, by saying so I refer to a phenomenon that you may experience when you, being a Dutch tourist, travel to southern France and back again. You can observe then, that the Benedictine civilizators in those different regions were active in completely different fields.

In southern France, the focus was on agricultural and craft work indeed, and on the copying of sacred books. Work, thus, with a rather strong contemplative character.

In the Netherlands, on the contrary, the monks for a large part were concerned with the struggle against the water. The Benedictines of Egmond for example built dikes and conquered land from the sea. That seems to me to belong pre-eminently to the category of ‘conquering order out of chaos’, and thereby to the vita activa.

But all those monks in southern France and in Holland belonged to the same congregation with the same rule. Guarding and nurturing order, on which the focus was in the Christian heartland France, could therefore seamlessly shift to the establishing of order in the peripheral regions. It is not for nothing that modern managementauthors discovered the Benedictine practices as a model for management: the fascination for order penetrates deep into the earthly world and has exploitative power there.

Thus, in Christianity vita activa and vita contemplativa are not the pair of ultimate opposites that they are often considered to be. There is a connecting element between the two. Namely, the idea that there is a deeper, indeed objective, holy order in the world. That order manifests itself in the depth of study and prayer, but is also reflected in the orderliness of dry and safe plots of land. Anyway, order of the last kind is a condition for the contemplation of the order on a deeper level and thus the vita activa is related to the vita contemplativa.

If vita activa and vita contemplativa are no longer the prototypical pair of opposing poles, because they are both motivated by the motive of order, there would arise a new field of poles. Then the ultimate opposition would rather come to be found between what is within order and what breaks order because it is outside.

See also Things and People