“Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters”

Date(s) - 02/15/19
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

University of Chicago

Hosted by
Lumen Christi Institute

“Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters”

Lumen Christi Institute

Feb 15 3–5pm


A symposium on the recent book Action versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters (University of Chicago Press, 2018) by Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule. Free and open to the public.

Cosponsored by the English Department, the Seminary Coop Bookstore, the University of Chicago Press, and Our Sunday Visitor. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654. But then there’s Walt Whitman, in 1856: “Whoever you are, come forth! Or man or woman come forth! / You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house.”

It is truly an ancient debate: Is it better to be active or contemplative? To do or to think? To make an impact, or to understand the world more deeply? Aristotle argued for contemplation as the highest state of human flourishing. But it was through action that his student Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Which should we aim at? Centuries later, this argument underlies a surprising number of the questions we face in contemporary life. Should students study the humanities, or train for a job? Should adults work for money or for meaning? And in tumultuous times, should any of us sit on the sidelines, pondering great books, or throw ourselves into protests and petition drives?

With Action versus Contemplation, Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule address the question in a refreshingly unexpected way: by refusing to take sides. Rather, they argue for a rethinking of the very opposition. The active and the contemplative can—and should—be vibrantly alive in each of us, fused rather than sundered. Writing in a personable, accessible style, Summit and Vermeule guide readers through the long history of this debate from Plato to Pixar, drawing compelling connections to the questions and problems of today. Rather than playing one against the other, they argue, we can discover how the two can nourish, invigorate, and give meaning to each other, as they have for the many writers, artists, and thinkers, past and present, whose examples give the book its rich, lively texture of interplay and reference.

This is not a self-help book. It won’t give you instructions on how to live your life. Instead, it will do something better: it will remind you of the richness of a life that embraces action and contemplation, company and solitude, living in the moment and planning for the future. Which is better? Readers of this book will discover the answer: both.

“Though the book will be valuable to a wide readership, the recurring theme of current trends in education makes it particularly important within the academy. This engaging and clever book will generate important conversations. Highly recommended.”
“A fascinating and inspiring tour of big ideas–worth both contemplating and acting on.
Sarah Bakewell, author of At the Existentialist Cafe
Action versus Contemplation brings a cooling sense of balance to a whole range of important and often highly polarized arguments about technology, work, education, and more. How liberating to discover that we don’t need to choose between nostalgia and philistinism, Captain Ludd and Dr. Pangloss. Even better, the authors give us not just historical elaborations of the theoretical complementarity of action and contemplation, but actual, already-existing examples of the middle position at work today. They show us that, no matter how ‘soulless’ society seems to become, meaning-seeking behavior does and always will continue.”
William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep
“This is a very subtle and surprising book that nevertheless goes down easy because you expect it to take a side in a binary (i.e., to take your side), but instead it seeks to transcend that binary. There’s great generosity of spirit in their writing and thinking, and that generosity will have a salutary effect on all those whose thinking this book will touch. Action versus Contemplation is itself a contemplative document meant to intervene in the world it addresses, to get us to rethink practical matters, and to act in ways that will promote thinking. It urges action as a way of thinking, and thinking as a way of acting, and is a model of what it advocates for.”
William Flesch, Brandeis University

Robert Inchausti is Professor of English at California Polytechnic State University. Born in Sacramento, California, he attended Sacramento State University and got his Ph. D. in English from The University of Chicago. He is the author of five books including The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary Peoplel, which was nominated for a National Book Award by his publisher SUNY Press, Spitwad Sutras, which is taught in teacher education programs across the country, and most recently, Hard to Be a Saint in the City: the Spiritual Vision of the Beats. He is also editor of two volumes of Thomas Merton’s writings.

Lisa Ruddick is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD from Harvard University, and has taught at the University of Chicago since 1981. Her teaching and research focus on modern British fiction, literature and psychoanalysis, and poetry and poetics; and more specifically the question of the feeling of aliveness, especialy among scholars in the humanities. She is author of numerous scholarly works, including Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis.