Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, sometimes without having been asked

Abstract and Concrete

by John Ziegler

"All men naturally desire to know, so that consequently they delight in the knowledge of truth." (Summ. Theol. IIa IIae, q.180, a. 7). "From the very fact that truth is the end of contemplation, it has the aspect of an appetible good" (ad 1). In this "delighting in the knowledge of truth" consists the contemplative life. On the other hand "It belongs to the active life when a man conceives a truth inwardly so as to be directed thereby in his outward action."(q. 181, a. 3)

Thus it is in knowing truth that St. Thomas reposes the source of both the life of contemplation and the life of action.

There are two aspects to delighting in the knowledge of truth of the contemplative life: first, it "becomes more delightful still to one who has the habit of wisdom and knowledge, the result of which is that he contemplates without difficulty"; and secondly "contemplation may be delightful on the part of its object, in so far as one contemplates that which one loves". (q. 180, a. 7)

This second aspect of loving contemplation, then, is one end of the contemplative: thus does one who loves wisdom contemplate truth; and this is found not only in the love of the mystics but also in the natural order: in sciences and arts, and also in human friendship.

That first aspect of contemplation, exercising the habit of wisdom and knowledge, "the result of which is that he contemplates without difficulty", is found in the adept. This is notably true in the mystical proficient, those advanced in the spiritual life. But it is true also in the case of those adept in contemplation in the natural order: there is an attraction to contemplate in science or art to those who understand them well.

Contemplation is not the same as abstract thought, the mental isolating of an essence. For all that, abstract thought is a necessary tool of contemplation of some things, particularly in science and art.

St. Thomas, speaking of the contemplative life and the active life, says: "the subject of the active life is temporal affairs, with which human acts are concerned, but the intelligible natures of things, on which the one contemplating meditates, are the subject of the contemplative life." (de Verit., q. 11, a. 4). He adds: "just as the good disposal of our life leads us to try to pass from the active life to the contemplative, in like manner the minds of many can usefully turn back from the contemplative to the active life so that the flame which the contemplative life has enkindled in their minds may lead them to live the active life more perfectly. Still, we must bear in mind that the active life precedes the contemplative in regard to those acts which have a subject in which the contemplative life has no part at all, but the active life must follow the contemplative in those acts which receive their subject from the contemplative life." (ad 2)

Man is no angel. His understanding is done from self evident principles which he sees with a simple vision, and indeed in this he is like the angels. But from those principles he must patiently piece together in reasonings his judgments; and indeed in judgments his apprehensions: all multifarious and prone to error. It is the penalty of being animal while being intellectual: so that Aristotle had noted that man is not properly intellectual, as are what we call the angels, who understand everything, even conclusions, with that same simple vision: but ‘rational’, the name for understanding in our piecemeal fashion.

St. Thomas remarks: "Since the speculative reason is busied chiefly with necessary things, which cannot be otherwise than they are, its proper conclusions, like the universal principles, contain the truth without fail. The practical reason, on the other hand, is busied with contingent matters, about which human actions are concerned: and consequently, although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail the more frequently we encounter defects." (Ia IIae, q. 94, a. 4)

Thus people who are more speculative of mind view the realities they consider with a steady gaze, "secure from all the winds that blow": yet nobody can fail to act at the practical level, whether that be human affairs or the internal affair of conquest of one’s own self. Maritain considers somewhere the qualities required for a good metaphysical mind. It must contact real life and be equipped with good senses, so that it can experience being to aid contemplation of it: for being is the professional business of the metaphysician. He goes on to say that the ‘ivory tower’ professor is the ‘domestic adversary’ of the metaphysician. In other words, the chief pitfall of a contemplative is exercise of abstract thought to the exclusion of experience. Whilst it may not be fatal to other sciences like mathematics, the penalty for so conducting oneself is to become an ‘essentialist’: strong on essences, weak on being.

On the other side, practical matters keep one in touch with real life, and this can be like ballast to a ship: but the peculiar foe of someone immersed in the practical life is to become so distracted by the many particular considerations that he cannot give due consideration to some of them. Contemplation is not foreign to the life of practical affairs: only to a life excessively given to it. It is not a matter of time, but of importance. A life too much given to affairs is one seeing nothing beyond them. The excess of this is to be shallow in spite of being deeply engaged or else to be quick and facile: ‘bird brained’.

Thus each inclination is to be tempered with the other.

We speak of the ‘speculative intellect’ and the ‘practical intellect’, when what is really meant is knowing for the sake of knowing and knowing for the sake of doing. In turn, knowing for the sake of doing is divided into knowing for the sake of perfecting a product (art) and knowing for the sake of perfecting the agent (prudence). Now, prudence, simply speaking, concerns action where it is question of perfecting the agent, and in this case prudence has to discover the moral rule in the circumstances (what should I do here and now?) and also to judge well (this is what I should do, and I may not refrain from acting without compromise to the moral rule). On the other hand, in art, it is question of (not discovering, but) selecting the rule given the circumstances (which rule of the art applies here?) and also to judge artistically well (this is what is to be done, but I may refrain from acting without compromise to the art).

There are minds which are chiefly speculative by inclination and sometimes by genius. There are others chiefly practical by inclination and sometimes genius, and this applies to prudence simply as well as all sorts of arts from the fine arts to the useful arts (like management ability or generalship) to sport (most sports have their genius). However, prudence simply makes someone be good simply. Those who display genius in this are those we call saints.

Those of more speculative bent are inclined more to think abstractly, and those generally of more practical mind are inclined more to think concretely. The former habitually abstract more completely from present circumstances, the latter habitually think of things taken in their concrete circumstances. The more abstract thinkers generally speaking can more easily ascend to more universal things and so are more apt for the act of science: the more concrete thinkers are generally speaking more apt to think of the particular circumstances in which a thing is, and so are more apt for action here and now. Since part of concrete circumstances are the circumstances of the one who thinks, then the more abstract thinkers can more easily dissociate their emotional life, which tends to attach one to the here and now, from their intellective life, which is about what is necessary: the more concrete thinkers tend more to integrate their emotional life with their intellective life.

There is a tendency for these two inclinations to be found differently in the sexes. Speaking very generally, men tend to be more ‘abstract’, women more ‘concrete’, although indeed there is a spectrum in this respect, with degrees and exceptions. It would seem that nature has fitted us thus for biological reasons, since the rearing and upbringing of a family requires sometimes action here and now, sometimes action for the future without distraction by the here and now. Evidently one parent is more fitted for the one, one more fitted for the other.

Thus we find differences, accidental indeed to ‘rational animal’, but not superficial either, in the way men and women behave. Is it not the mother who is more easily wakened by the child’s cry at night? Is it not the father who can, for a time, upon knowing about it, ignore it? Are not men given to calling women ‘unreasonable’, and women to calling men ‘unfeeling’, although neither accusation is true? Is there not a patent falsity to those men who would act after the fashion of women, and to women who would act like men?

Young Freddy turns bad and is likely to corrupt the rest of the family. It is his father who openly sends him from the house; and it is his mother who secretly welcomes him back. And both are right to do what they do. Again, when reason indicates its futility, men will relinquish support of something: but women will hang on in spite of what reason indicates. And again: think of little boys and little girls going into a church. The little boys nudge one another and are boisterous. The little girls – as they say, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth. But the little girls are not quite as good as they seem, nor the little boys as careless. Or again, men can genuinely love their wives with a love of friendship and yet have a sexual love of a mistress at the same time – history has shown over and over that this is psychologically possible: but its counterpart is much rarer among women. And again, as a matter of common observation, there are more good women than good men, although indeed among the heroically virtuous, those acknowledged by being ‘raised to the altars of the Church’, there are more men.

Those who think more abstractly can the more divorce their emotional life from their intellective life. Those who think more concretely do not tend to do this, but to integrate the two. But more abstract thinkers (and I mean regardless of whether we speak of men or of women) are more easily able to divorce the two, and the more abstract the thinker, the more this tends to be so.

There is a stronger temptation to the carnal, for these psychological reasons, among those who think more abstractly. Brilliant minds who might lead one to think they are not tempted – they are not to be believed in this. It is the more concrete thinkers who are thus less tempted since they more integrate the life of intellect and the life of sense. These, if they are sound morally, are less apt to be drawn aside by the sense order, since their sense life tends to be more firmly anchored to their intellective and therefore moral life; although if they are not sound morally, then the intellective life is drawn down so that the whole is corrupted, which we see when a woman turns bad. As St. Thomas says, the corruption of the best is the worst.

It is historically evident that it is when the women of a nation sink morally that the nation is doomed. Not merely vicariously, but in its own right, does "the hand that rocks the cradle" rule the world.

- JZ


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 2 (1998), No. 2.
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