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Action versus Contemplation

Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’sinability 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.

Author Information

Jennifer Summit is interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University and the author of Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England and Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History, 1380–1589.
Blakey Vermeule is professor of English at Stanford University and the author of The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?


"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

" 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

"A fascinating and inspiring tour of big ideas--worth both contemplating and acting on. "
— Sarah Bakewell, author of At the Existentialist Cafe

“Engaging. . . . Not guidance counselors but intellectual guides, Summit and Vermeule trace their students’ predicament to the origins of Western philosophy. ‘The rhetoric of action and contemplation,’ they proclaim, ‘is nothing less than the unacknowledged medium of self-understanding in the modern world.’ In their telling, it becomes a medium in which to understand, and criticize, not just the culture of fuzzies and techies at Stanford, but the nature of stress, the appeal of cowboy politicians, the point of education, and the search for meaningful work.”
— LA Review of Books

"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."
— Choice

“Summit and Vermeule taught a course at Stanford on this dichotomy between the cultivation of wisdom and the demonstration of skills. Action Versus Contemplation: Why an Ancient Debate Still Matters begins with an appeal for balance rather than conflict when these two realms are juxtaposed. . . . Activity without leisure proves meaningless; downtime without engagement turns purposelessness. Summit and Vermeule, trained as literary critics, aim this brief book towards those who seek to recover a wise balance while never dismissing the life of the mind.”
— PopMatters

— Phi Beta Kappa: Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

" Action Versus Contemplation grew out of an Introduction to Humanities course the authors co-taught at Stanford. They saw beneficial effects in both students’ lives and their own when that 'versus' gave way to an 'and.' They also see evidence—in student surveys, 'locavore' movements, and emerging workplace cultures—that people are searching for new syntheses of action and contemplation. They make keen suggestions throughout the study about how the university should facilitate that search."
— Commonweal

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