Contemplative Life in Aristotle, Aquinas, and Josef Pieper

In book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes the contemplative life as the life which is the most fulfilling and consequently the happiest. Contemplation, Aristotle goes on, is the only activity that brings about happiness. There are numerous questions that are raised by Aristotle’s description. What do we mean, precisely, by contemplation? How does it relate to other human activities? What does a contemplative life consist in? In this course we will address some of these questions as they present themselves in Aristotle, Aquinas, and Josef Pieper. We will also discuss some interpretative issues relating to these thinkers, and compare their overall approach in answering the question of what makes a life the best possible life.

2018 Fall syllabus

Class Schedule, 2018 Fall

(updated: 9/4/2018)

Aug. 21, Introduction
Aug. 28, The Greek background
Sep. 4, Some excerpts from Plato and Aristotle
Sep. 11, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X.
Sep. 18–25, Inclusive and dominant-end interpretations of Aristotle
Oct. 2, Augustine
Oct. 9, Aquinas, selections from the Summa theologiae
Oct. 16, Aquinas’s commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics
Oct. 23, Aquinas on the contemplative and teaching orders
Oct. 30, Aquinas: some interpretative questions
Nov. 6, Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, chs. 1–4
Nov. 13, Pieper, continued
Nov. 20, Pieper, continued
Nov. 27, Pieper, Leisure
Dec. 4, Review


A list of books, related to the course material, available in the library. These are by no means mandatory readings, but might help with a deeper understanding of the thinkers we discuss in class.

(updated: 9/4/2018)


D. Z. Phillips. Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gerd van Riel. Pleasure and the Good Life: Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Thomas Benatouil and Mauro Bonazzi (eds.). Theoria, Praxis, and the Contemplative Life after Plato and Aristotle. Leiden: Brill, 2012.


F Rosen. “Contemplation and Virtue in Plato.” Religious Studies 16 (1980):85–95.

Martha Nussbaum. “‘This story isn’t true’: Madness, Reason, and Recantation in the Phaedrus.” In: Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Presss (1986), 200–233.

Suzanne Obdrzalek. “Contemplation and self-mastery in Plato’s Phaedrus.” In Brad Inwood (ed.), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Kevin Hart. “Contemplation: Beyond and behind.” Sophia 48 (2009):435–459.


W. F. R. Hardie. “The Final Good in Aristotle’s Ethics.” Philosophy 40 (1965):277–295.

Matthew D. Walker. Aristotle on the Uses of Contemplation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Michael Wiitala. “Contemplation and Action within the Context of the Kalon: A Reading of the Nicomachean Ethics.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 83 (2009):173–182.

Richard Kraut. Aristotle on the Human Good. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Gabriel Richardson Lear. Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Wei Liu. “An all-inclusive Interpretation of Aristotle’s Contemplative Life.” Sophia 50 (2011):57–71.

John M. Cooper. “Contemplation and happiness: A reconsideration.” Synthese 72 (1987):187–216.

Neo-Platonism and Early Christianity

John Peter Kenney. “Mysticism and Contemplation in the Enneads.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 71 (1997):315–337.

John Peter Kenney. Contemplation and Classical Christianity: A Study in Augustine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Medieval Philosophy

Luisa Valente. “Happiness, Contemplative Life, and the tria genera hominum in Twelfth-century Philosophy: Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury.” Quaestio 15 (2015):73–98.

Suzanne LaVere. “From Contemplation to Action: The Role of the Active Life in the “Glossa ordinaria” on the Song of Songs.” Speculum 82 (2007):54–69.

Gerald Cresta. “Bonaventure: Intellectual Contemplation, Sapiential Contemplation and beatitudo.” Quaestio 15 (2015):507–515.

Mary Catherine Sommers. “Imaging the Contemplative Life in Thomas Aquinas.” Semiotics 2000: 40–53.

Adriano Oliva. “La contemplation des philosophers selon Thomas d’Aquin.” Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques 96 (2012):585–662.

Later Developments

Bede McGreggor. “Thomas Merton on the Contemplative Life.” New Blackfriars 53 (1972):470–476.