Vermigli on the Contemplative Life

MonksThe Reformers did not believe that true perfection, as it may be had in this life, comes by living the purely contemplative life. Rather they saw a necessity of living both a contemplative and an active life, a supposition that falls in the same vein as that of the Renaissance humanists who sought a more practical way of life in opposition to the life of the detached ascetic. James Hankins explains that the the humanists of the 14 – 16th centuries did not consider philosophy something to be contemplated in a cell but a science that should be implemented in everyday life in order to bring about improvements in the behavior of ordinary citizens.

The idea of a philosophical school, of disciples pursing an alternative life and vision under the guidance of a master, separate from the world around them, was foreign to humanism; even Ficino’s supposed “academy” now appears to be nothing more than a kind of secondary school. Indeed, beginning with the so-called “civic humanists” of the early fifteenth century, humanists insisted that philosophy should serve the city by inculcating prudence and other virtues into its citizens. Philosophy now had to address, not a professional caste of specially trained experts with its own technical language, but the ruling class of the city-state; men and women who had studied humanistic Latin but had no special qualifications for philosophical study. (Hankins, “Humanism, scholasticism, and Renaissance philosophy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosphy, pp. 45, 46.)

Thomas More's Utopia
Thomas More's Utopia

Calvin disapproves of the monastic culture of his day and even that of the early church, of which Augustine approved. His reasons for this disapproval may be traced to a humanistic Zeitgeist. Calvin refers to monks of various religious orders in his day as a “conventicle of schismatics,” since they followed a particular theologian, took the sacraments separately from the common folk, and considered themselves more perfect than the average citizen. Yet, his main objection to the ascetic way is that God calls all men to take charge of a household and to serve him  in a “definite calling” (obviously referring only to men). This does not mean that he considered contemplation trivial. On the contrary, he states, “It is a beautiful thing to philosophize in retirement, far from intercourse with men. But it is not part of Christian meekness, as if in hatred of the human race, to flee to the desert and the wilderness and at the same time forsake those duties which the Lord has especially commanded.” (Institutes, IV.13.xvi.) The Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, produces a more philosophical demonstration on the importance of living both a contemplative and active life. Commenting on Aristotle’s Ethics, Vermigli notes:

It is quite true that Aristotle deals separately with political life and activity, and also with the contemplative life; this is not with the intention, however, that someone should devote the whole of his life to one of these alone, but so that he may know that it is not possible for anyone who aspires to happiness to obtain it unless he participates fully in both aspects of life. There are two properties of our nature: for nature herself has made us both intelligent and social. For this reason we ought to accordingly take account of both conditions in our actions, and when either one occurs in our lives we should respond to them on the basis of the appropriate virtue. And when we have free time or are impeded from the action for some reason, we should occupy ourselves with great delight in the contemplation of human and divine things, with the result that these actions that seem to be different in kind are mutually beneficial. For anyone who has practiced the moral and civic virtues in the governance of a family or a state has a mind more composed and more prepared for assisting and supporting his associates, and the result is that he is better suited for contemplation. In turn, when someone has had the leisure granted to him to contemplate divine and human things in more depth, he is restored to the active life all the more ready to act. We know that Cicero, Cato, Pompey, Lucullus, and other outstanding men among the pagans did this. And we read in the holy scriptures that Christ our Savior sometimes retired into the mountains and woods in order to pray and meditate on divine matters, but soon he returned to the crowds and gave every kind of assistance to the human race. John the Baptist, Elijah, and the other prophets had the same practice. Indeed, Jesus our Lord first taught the apostles in solitude and then sent them forth throughout Judaea to preach and heal the sick. Certainly, there are two types of life, but one should not be exclusively devoted to either. (Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 179.)

For Vermigli, the contemplative and active life are the outcomes of two properties of human nature. Man is by nature both intelligent and social, and must bring both of these aspects of his nature to actualization in order to achieve happiness in this life. Therefore  these two ways of life should not be separated but are mutually beneficial. The contemplative life stirs one up for work within the civic sphere and working in the world with other people makes one better suited for the contemplation of things divine and human. Vermigli comes to this conclusion by the use of reason and the “ad fontes” spirit of humanism. Not only did pagans such as Cicero and Cato seek the good within the contemplative and active life but so did Jesus and his disciples. As I have already pointed out in a previous post, Vermigli chose a more humanist definition of Aristotle’s tagathon than had the Scholastics, because he believed that the common good of the civic sphere is the natural desire of the passions and thus the ultimate goal of man in this life. He delivered his lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics before a group of young students in the Strasbourg Academy, students aspiring to professions within the city and the church. Thus, he sought to educate the youth in a philosophy that spurred men and women on to work for the common good of neighbor and kingdom.


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