It is not so easy to draw a meaningful distinction between the active life and the contemplative life. Too strict and a way of life becomes suffocating. Too broad and it seems no difficult thing to shuttle back and forth between one and the other when, in reality, it seems rare that an individual can lead both ways of life and lead them well. Too much weighting and you beg the question that the active must be preferable to the contemplative or vice versa.
With these cautionary notes sounded, I will venture a provisional distinction. These are two non-overlapping orientations to ‘the world.’ One cannot both be active and contemplative in the same respect at one and the same time.
The contemplative life, I’ll say, is concerned with the question, ‘How do I transform my overall perception of the world so that I can accord myself with it?’ The active life is concerned with a very different question: ‘How do I engage with the world to change some aspect of the world so that it accords with some aim I have?’ Understanding something in the most basic sense differs categorially and absolutely from changing something in some basic sense.
To illustrate and test this distinction, I could imagine a philosopher and a craftsman looking at a tree. The first wonders, ‘What can be said about the significance of this tree in this environment?’ The second queries, ‘Could this tree, were it to be cut down, provide me with good wood out of which I could make a fine table?’
A note: I’m not at all sure that one can lead both an active life and a contemplative life well. It seems to me that most of us (excluding in this accounting the rarest of persons) can only hope to lead one way of life well.