In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that, ‘Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation’. Furthermore, several of history’s greatest thinkers on the subject of scholé appear to have some degree of disdain for the body in favour of thought and the numinous. On the contrary, this paper will ground itself ontologically in metaphysical realism – the idea that objects exist independently of our thoughts – in order to set out a materialist, Darwinian argument that all experiential phenomena are embodied states – that it’s dopamine all the way down – and that therefore bodily pleasure is at least on a par with the pleasure gained through contemplation. However, the paper will then argue that even though thought is rooted in a biological foundation this does not make it base in any way: the pleasure of thought does not need to come from some metaphysical outside in order to assert its edifying and noble characteristics. Indeed, the fact that human beings as evolved creatures can create wonderful artefacts of the mind and body, such as beautiful artwork and incredible works of fiction, alongside feats of engineering and sporting achievement, is consolation enough.
In taking this stance, this paper does not seek to arrogantly confront some of the greatest philosophers in history, more, that it attempts to work through some of the author’s own thoughts on this issue as they have arisen during the Idleness with Dignity seminars, and to present them for your constructive critique. I am quite happy to play the materialist secular-humanist fall guy here in order to learn where my thinking may have gone wrong, in the hope that perhaps mistakes can be interesting too.
And so, on to the argument…
For Aristotle, contemplation is the highest form of virtue because it is the purest and most self-sufficient. The pleasure of thinking is not contingent on anything but itself. It does not require any props or outside tools. The thinker derives pleasure from the contemplation of pure thought itself. Thought is itself the raw material upon which the thinker ruminates (P.248-249). Furthermore, for Aristotle, thought is to be exalted because it is the most human faculty, whereas the body is animalistic.
This does not mean that Aristotle has total disdain for the body. Indeed, he states that what he calls ‘practical wisdom’ (p.251) – which we might called skilled labour - is indeed a type of virtue, but, nonetheless, it is a virtue of a lesser type because it requires other contingencies in order to be fulfilled; tools, construction materials, etcetera, whereas thought is superior because it is entirely self-sufficient. This is why, Oliva Blanchette argues, ‘Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had so little to say about 'labor', since they were concerned much more with political activity where men were more truly men, and less animal.’ (Taggart, 2020). The ancient Greek world of Aristotle and Plato also had a pejorative word for those who worked with their hands, the banausos (Taggart, 2020). Manual work was looked down upon precisely because it involved the articulation of the body and was therefore more animal, whereas the articulation of the mind was truly human. As two of the greatest philosophers in history, it makes sense that for Aristotle and Plato the life of the mind was their highest goal. After all, thinking was their greatest talent, they were singularly univocal individuals whom took great pleasure in thought. However, despite their greatness, something seems awry with Aristotle and Plato’s thinking here, namely, that the difference between the pleasure derived from thinking and more bodily pleasures such as eating and drinking is more of a difference in degree rather than kind.
Yet, in order to make such an argument, an alternative framework must be put forward. Here, the paper now draws on metaphysical realism – the precept that ‘things’ exist independently of our thoughts – and naturalism on top of that, to make the Darwinism case that all our experiences are natural phenomena, therefore the pleasure we gain from thinking springs from the same biological circuitry as the pleasure we gain from drinking.
Before we can make this case, however, we need to confront the age-old stumbling block of the ‘hard problem of consciousness’: how do mere atoms with the physical properties of mass, spin and charge, generate the phenomenal experiences of coldness and warmth, love and disappointment? (Kastrup, 2018, p.126). We are left with Kant’s conundrum on the gap between the thing-in-itself and the idea-of-the-thing in our minds. Whilst Darwinism cannot get to the root of the mind/body problem, it can offer a short-circuit of sorts. As the evolutionary theorist Donald Hoffman puts it, ‘Most perceptual theorists propose that the brain creates internal representations of the outside world, and that these internal representations are responsible for our perceptual experiences. They claim that our experiences are veridical, meaning that the structure of these internal representations and therefore our experiences, matches the structure of the objective world’ (p.48). Creatures whose brains did not do this died, others with brains that did, were more likely to survive. Therefore, if the brain’s internal representation of the outside world is more or less accurate, then thought and consciousness, just like sight, taste, hearing and touch, are an emergent property of biological evolution, not something otherworldly (Dennett, 2004).
However, perhaps in its attempt to draw the pleasures of thinking back towards the flesh, the deployment of a Darwinian argument here is too reductive and takes us too low, ‘lower than any ape’, to paraphrase Nietsche, and a corrective in the other direction is required. How can we hang onto the truly edifying nature of thinking while also recognising the guts of thinking, as Nietzche might put it? Perhaps the Dionysian reconnects us to our bodies and physical pleasure; eat, drink, and be merry, whilst balancing this with Apollonian rationality (Weinack). Maybe, too, we can draw on Heidegger’s thinking on tools; we can use our bodies as a tool, both as a representational vehicle for communicating social truths (drama), and as a tool in itself to create wonderful works of art. The physical and the mental are different but complementary forms of beauty. Embodied beauty is beautiful because it is ephemeral, whereas written beauty is beautiful because it lasts (Walker, 2020).
This is not to put forward a kind of humanity falling in love with itself. A nihilistic humanism where humanity becomes the narcissistic obsession of its own reflection. Yes, by its own standards, the collective endeavour of the human race has achieved many feats of art, engineering, science and bodily endurance, but forget about humanity as such for a moment and remember individuals. What about friendship, family, an act of kindness between strangers? The happiness and engagement we feel from such interactions isn’t just some cheap trick because it has its basis in oxytocin. We feel that something very real is taking place in such moments; they are more than enough to bring meaning to several lifetimes, let alone one.
Aristotle (2018) The Nicomachean Ethics. GlobalGrey: London.
Dennett, D. C. (2004) Freedom Evolves. Penguin: London.
Hoffman, D. D. (2019) The Case Against Reality: How evolution hid the truth from our eyes. Allen Lane: London.
Kastrup, B. (2018) The Universe in Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25(5-6), pp.125-55.
Taggart, A. (2020) Total Work Manifesto #7: Chattel Slavery, Manual Labor, And Tragic Beauty In Classical Athens [Online] [Accessed 20 June 2020]. Available from: https://andrewjtaggart.substack.com/
Walker, R. (2020) Conversation with James Simpkin, May 2020.
Weineck, S. M. (2006) Digesting the nineteenth century: Nietzche and the stomach of modernity. Romanticism, 12(1), pp.35-43.