So you just graduated from college with a philosophy degree. Now what? You’ve been living in an educational bubble that has allowed you to live the life of the mind, but now practical concerns are pulling you away from the cherished task of contemplation.
The relationship between the contemplative life and the practical life has always been vexed. Aristotle describes the difficulty in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics:
“But [a contemplative] life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.”
The difficult that Aristotle finds is that our most natural desire (men by nature desire to understand) is strangely something of an unnatural desire, for fulfilling this desire seems to require that we be something that we are not – divine. In other words, to satisfy this natural desire we must needs go beyond our composite nature. This introduces a problem – how do I live a life that is both practical and contemplative? At the end of the day, I think Aristotle aims at some kind of a balance here, but it is not at all clear how to work that out. He goes on to contrast the “perfect happiness” of contemplation with the kind of practical happiness that “befits out human estate”, and seems to try to strike a balance but I don’t think ever quite manages to clearly negotiate the tension. Instead, Aristotle leaves us at the end of his great work on the practical life with a great argument for why contemplation is the best possible (or is it impossible?) life for man.
It is tempting to believe that one can live the “life of the mind” only in the academe. And so many liberal arts students graduate from college and think graduate school. You can’t imagine setting aside the life of the mind for the all-too-practical life of a business person or some such thing. But yet the prospects for a career after graduate school are exceptionally grim. So what should you do?
Well, this article suggests that it is just wrong-headed to think that a life of the mind cannot exist outside the academe. Is there a proper balance available out there? For those of you out there working in the “real world”, share your experiences. This is an issue that will face nearly all of our graduates.