Visions of being human: Contemplation and action

I’ve been trying to understand what makes a certain joke funny. It is: “I’m a person. [pause] I get things done.”

The pause between personhood and the completion of actions allows for one to be surprised by the identification of a person with successful action. This joke is not too far afield from Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Action was not always the center of human life, the point around which life turned. Contemplation was. Thus Plotinus writing in the 3rd CE:

And indeed men, whenever they become too feeble to contemplate, undertake action as a shadow of contemplation and reason. For since the weakness of their souls does not make contemplating fit for them, not being able sufficiently to grasp the object of contemplation, and through this not being fulfilled, yet desiring to see it, they are brought to action, so as to see what they cannot grasp with intellect. Thus whenever they make, they themselves want to see it and they want others to contemplate and perceive whenever their intention as far as possible becomes action. We will find then in all cases that making and action are a weakness or a side-effect of contemplation, a weakness if one has nothing after the action, a side-effect if one has something else that is superior to the action to contemplate it. (Ennead IV.31-43)

How did we go from a conception of human beings as, at their best, contemplative animals to one in which they are creatures who act for the sake of getting things done?


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