The Ascetic Life of the Philosopher and the Search for Meaning

Alojz Ćubelić (University of Zagreb)

1. Introduction

Maybe the title of this article is a bit offensive, pretentious, and also intrusive. Thus, I will immediately try to arrive at an objective and fertile ground, at least concerning my own expectations and those of the potential readers. It is therefore necessary to emphasize all the fragmentation and relativity of seeing what asceticism, philosophy, and meaning are, and what these concepts usually mean. In this article, I will focus on a few points that seem important to me so we could profit as much as possible from the given framework of thought. Aristotle, especially in Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics,[1] problematized different degrees of knowledge on which the division of science depends. According to him, sensuousness and experience form the beginnings of knowledge. The degrees of true knowledge appear as “five ways in which the soul grasps the truth”: craft, science, prudence, rationality, and wisdom.

2. The Degrees of Knowledge According to Aristotle

Craft is the beginning of science. Science is a purely theoretical procedure by which one starts from a general, well-known principle and, through reasoning, knows an individual case, or starts from the individual to arrive to the general by way of induction. Scientific methods are therefore syllogistics in general as a science of reasoning, and especially apodictics, a science of argumentation or scientific reasoning. Here, it is always a matter of intermediate knowledge from the principles already known in some other way, and they themselves can never be acquired in a scientific way.

Prudence is the power of sober or smart deliberation, a means of practical knowledge, and a source of practical sciences. Its generality is conditional because it cannot be prescribed as scientific, but consists in the valid application of a general rule or principle in a concrete situation, each time differently given the varying individual circumstances. The truth of “practical syllogism” is also not necessary, but, according to the character of practical knowledge, only probable, since it is a matter of man and his varying, and not eternal things, and in the way of Being of such a being – man as potentiality, i.e. Freedom and the power of alternative decision-making. Thus, this way of knowing in practice and practical sciences will be “harder” because besides knowing the principles, it also demands one’s own irreplaceable life experience.

Rationality is, furthermore, the ability to know the principles themselves by direct insight, from where science indirectly through reasoning performs its knowledge. Principles, here categories, definitions, axioms, theorems, and postulates of every knowledge and science, the basis of all explaining, is the reason itself. Finally, wisdom is the culmination of knowledge, because in itself it unites all other forms of knowledge: craft and science, principles and performance, theory, practice and production (technology), and appropriate sciences – theoretical, practical, and poietical (technical) into a harmonious whole, and thus it concerns “the highest objects”.[2]

Such a model of philosophy and science founded in this way by Aristotle with his first philosophy remained a classic example of philosophical thinking and scientific knowledge for centuries until the overthrow of science and technology of the modern age. But things have changed greatly in this area. Particularly the relation to philosophy and contemplation.[3] However, the nature of reason is precisely such that it does not rest, and that it is not really satisfied with the “achieved”.

3. Asceticism and Philosophy

The word asceticism signifies a certain type of exercise, austerity, and renunciation regularly associated with Christianity that always took under its wing those who tried to spiritually perfect and enrich themselves with new knowledge by way of various mortifications. Asceticism here goes hand in hand with the attempts to see and reach what is truly important, i.e. to look away from superfluous and trivial things to those that really deserve our attention, vigilance, and contemplation. Today, contrary to such tendencies, almost everyone struggles for a better standard, better life and work conditions, so the word asceticism in that context gains a negative connotation. If, however, we look at it through the prism of choosing what is most valuable in man, then it can once again become important as an essential prerequisite for the contemplative life, i.e. to revive interest in speculation and spirituality.

If we want to briefly say something about the philosophical life, then we somehow naturally place ourselves in the perspective in which thought and rationality reign. Thought, in spite of all its limitations and dangers of not being considered as such, wants to meet what was already considered or what is yet to be considered. Although not all philosophers would agree, it seems that everyone in a certain way assumes some philosophy. Thus, every definition is in a certain sense evaluative, especially when it comes to defining human activities, their classification, and drawing the boundaries. This is particularly evident for intellectual activities. Philosophy lays claim to investigation of a truly vast area, so its boundaries can barely be noticed and specified. An incentive, however, always remains, to encourage everyone to use their ability of resolution in building their own thinking and argumentation.[4] Besides, the title of “the philosopher”, of leading “the philosophical life” which lacks no asceticism, puts all those who exhibited rich reflections, but did not ask for such a title, in an awkward position. Therefore, a good method would be to distinguish the “creators of philosophy”, i.e. those who proposed various concepts or offered critical analyses, from the sort of “consumers of philosophy” who feed off of them. So the focus of research moves toward personal reflection rather than rationalization, sometimes too pettily about the theories of manifold philosophical schools.[5]

In any case, we are witnessing the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century marked by the deepest “revival” and “earthquakes”. Almost all of the concepts used to describe the universe are redefined (space, time, matter, determinism), which requires reconsideration of those concepts that describe relationships among humans, such as life, freedom, and hierarchy. This exposition of new concepts is the work of researchers belonging to the world of scientists, but at the same time they are headed towards philosophy and theology. That is why it would be good to get to work again and together with Descartes and Kant dare to think that some “allowed thinking” has no basis. This “no” does not firstly mean the claim of the opposite, but rather a question. It is important to expose what is in the accepted opinion solely based on conviction, and not on evidence. Today, especially because of the future generations, we have to ask ourselves what do we leave as a sort of spiritual heritage or how did we actually situate ourselves in this world? How much is it really necessary to be man in order to remain or become man? Everything depends on the answer to that question. If it is enough to become a producer and a consumer in a society in which everyone has their assigned role, without being overly marked by it, then the very concept of freedom is devoid of meaning. It is enough to give the individual the necessary information about his role. He simply incorporates himself into the given model of thought and action, and functions as such. However, another answer must be more desirable. To belong to the human species means to be a treasurer of questions, answers, fears, and accumulated projects of those before us. It means to participate in the way of the human community toward the structure which enables everyone to be given and set as a gift and responsibility. The goal of each community is to weave an atmosphere in which we enrich each other and give our contribution. As we already form the culture of permanent education, then this should be the goal of every educational system. Everyone has the right to the knowledge and reflection that will help them in the task of life as a whole, to become the one they choose to be. To create an elitist, atomized, and intellectual group of those who “earned their place in the sun” from philosophy and theology is really a disintegration into higher and lower castes, which once again lead to divisions, injustices, and wars. Thus, once again they should become aware that they never entered into a finished society in which there is nothing more to build. Such a society would once again be a sign of a totalitarian cover which excludes all that is against the generally accepted matrix of thought. In this context, both philosophy and theology have something to offer, especially if it represents a permanent learning to live and die. Philosophy and theology actually help us to save soul and skin. Of course, one can think of the world without philosophy and theology, but in this conception to philosophise actually means to live. One can live, certainly, as someone ironically said, on life support, but we should profit from the awareness that we have being so that we would become persons. Without the presence of our kind, our planet would still be a witness of “life”, but this life does not deserve such a huge admiration, despite the fact that there are researchers who were thrilled by such analyses and observations. Such a life is the outcome of a permanent process that is more and more complex. People have followed this process to get to know the natural laws and predict future actions as much as possible.

4. Rehabilitation of Metaphysics

August Comte saw the “metaphysical age” as the one in which we satisfy ourselves with especially verbal interpretations. In that way he actually announced death to metaphysics because it is supposedly concerned with empty and useless research. Consistent with that, a speculation is metaphysical if one wants to say it is complex, inconceivable, and unverifiable. By contrast, we should approach the “real” with a “positive” method. In the tradition of the Dominican Order to which I belong, no matter how disputed by some, contemplation is a constituent part of the preaching project, so study, deliberation, and, as a result of this active participation, meeting and transferring what was actually generated in that struggle is highly regarded.[6] It therefore seems important for us to occasionally phenomenologically address certain issues which affect participation or resignation in the face of these different approaches and ideas. It is a matter of some ideas that are almost spontaneously accepted and applied by a wide range of distinguished intellectuals, starting with philosophers. These ideas play a huge role in the design and development of literature and art, and leave a mark on the institutions and the behaviour of individuals and the collective. Sometimes there are different philosophical ideas or orientations in the beginning of such relationships. In this perspective, for example, we can talk about rationalism and naturalism in the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophy and sometimes ideology can be the main bearers of intellectual development in a certain period. The flood of Marxism and existentialism after the Second World War confirms this. Some ideas, such as those in the Enlightenment, have some kind of connection even with different and opposing ideas. What unites them is a simple affiliation with the same period, i.e. it is a matter of the same spiritual content, of qualitative importance. So, in the Age of Enlightenment, autonomy and the power of reason, security in an immense development based on the conviction of science and happiness were completely crystallized, the freedom of the individual was confirmed, and in this way, every tragic feeling of existence was really erased. The life of our spirit is addressed to and relies on temporality. That is one of the implications of our historicity.

The second implication is sociability. Sociability presupposes the effectiveness of communication and spreading the guiding ideas that form its basis. Thus we can interpret the importance of literature in shaping this position. This horizon of the phenomenon can make us believe that the truthfulness of an idea is “measured” with the “success” of its extent. Truth is in this sense really a verification of an idea. But we must immediately notice that the vitality of an idea is not equal to the success in the quantitative sense. An idea is not true because it has succeeded in imposing. This needs to be said clearly despite the fact that there are attempts to make some ideas into idols that need to be worshipped. Besides, it is not irrelevant to mention that “forgotten ideas” can be clearly expounded regardless of the fact that they do not perform a prevailing or a directing role concerning appearance.

The question therefore arises: can the philosophical analysis go beyond the mere descriptive level? For philosophers who are simultaneously Christians, philosophy in its essence rests on rational knowledge of the natural order. They differentiate between the order of revelation and grace, although these two orders are inseparably connected. It is normal that such a philosopher will seek for the yields given in the light of faith. For them, human history as such is guided by divine providence, and because of that it is endowed with meaning. Its duration is not a mere recurring succession of events, like a void in which the fate of men is inscribed. Every period of human history has a distinct meaning. But in this as well we have to remain humble so that we do not fall into the trap of some kind of rationalism that sees transparent theodicy in world history. Such a meaning greatly eludes us because it is hidden in the secrets of divine wisdom. If we strive to completely uncover it, then we distort credible knowledge. In the end, what does it really mean for the philosopher to “contemplate absolute knowledge” but an attempt to offer sacrifices to the idol?

This leads us to the anthropological foundation of a historical time. Our knowledge begins with experience and is developed according to the discursive mode of explanation. But it is by no means about an autonomous and equivalent development of the reason closed in its interior. The progress of historical time is by no means a projection of logical discourse. There are sudden turns, slowdown and stagnation, and fast development. There are also mistakes, as well as intellectual laziness and routine. The fact is that history is in a certain sense life’s teacher, i.e. it is necessary for mankind to struggle in acquiring knowledge, starting with happy and unhappy experiences, sublime creativity and painful mistakes. Nothing guarantees us that the progress of reason is always and unmistakably towards the truth.[7] Namely, in some kind of dialectical conception it is often considered that error is an element of the truth itself, or that error consists of some kind of optical illusion, so only those parts need to be isolated in order for the completeness of truth to surface. It is obviously a matter of a “smooth” way of removing the error. Namely, the rational aspiration to possess the truth as a totality actually rests on a relativistic and sceptical perception of truth and error. This point needs to be developed in more detail. The Christian philosopher is aware of the fact that wounds of the sin, no matter how deep, are not able to destroy nature and its active sources of truth, goodness, and beauty. Our mind naturally strives for the truth. This fundamental fact illuminates the meaning of error. Since our spirit does not look for error for her own sake or as such, it befits to ask, every time we are faced with it, what truth the error in question relates to. It can be said that all that is wrong is an illusion of the truth, and in that sense conceals the truth, but it is therefore necessary and important to find the truth again. If the diagnosis wants to be accurate, it will be strict and demanding. This accuracy actually reveals the original orientation of our mind toward the truth. We have to apply this orientation in everything and everywhere.

In this way, the pervasion and markedness by the “spirit of the time” actually signifies an uncritical acceptance of a certain number of assumptions and prejudices. There is a previous passivity of the spirit which happens at the fundamental level and which renounces mind vigilance. The spirit accepts a fact without discussing it. Such a phenomenon was noted by many philosophers, so Descartes opens a new period of philosophy or after Kant it is difficult to talk about metaphysics, and even more so about natural theology.[8]

These two thinkers marked philosophy permanently and deeply. However, it is not enough to say that after these two philosophers one cannot philosophise as before, in the sense that their contribution has to be taken in account, but it is a matter of something completely different. Namely, what Descartes and Kant founded on thought order seems to be acquired, and this new order is regarded as superior to all that preceded. Their contribution actually makes for an irreversible circle, so it is almost mandatory to think starting from them. This confirms that we consider their postulates and issues to be true without previously examining the quality of their first principles. Ultimately it is recognized that the boundaries between philosophy, some conception of the world, and ideology are not always clearly defined. They differ in the importance of the unconscious. Accordingly, some philosophical ideas can be evaluated with the ability to notice assumptions and discuss them. In this sense, philosophical thought is vital when it can be, in Nietzsche’s words, “inconvenient”, when it does not allow to be “infected” with the spirit of the time, when in itself it has the strength to understand and judge that “spirit of the time”. That is what matters. Being able to portray the diagnosis of one’s time, to go to the roots, to get to the bottom of things by joining the fears and questions of one’s time, to sketch the answers to accumulated questions. This proves the vitality of some thought. By this we are placed on the metaphysical level.[9]

5. Hesitation Between Contemplation and Action

There is a wavering here especially after Kant and the possibility of speaking about the thing in itself, i.e. about the level of intelligible order. This is the level at which only the mind operates. An interesting approach to this issue is given by Béla Weissmahr in his handbook Ontology.[10] In addition, he remarks that “to be just to Kant, we have to mention that his goal was not destruction, but a new foundation of metaphysics”.[11] This level is particularly noticeable in relation to contemplation and action. The former superiority of contemplation over action, of mind work over manual work was often interpreted in that sense since for years, according to the aforementioned Aristotle’s categorization of knowledge, it was a kind of axiom. An extraordinary illustration of this relationship is shown in the biblical example of Martha and Mary who choose, each in her own way, the primacy of one over the other. Martha is fully engaged in the housekeeping and preparation of what is required, even necessary for life, while Mary still selects the better part, i.e. she opts for contemplation. At the beginning of the Summa contra Gentiles, in the fourth chapter, Saint Thomas Aquinas discusses the question that it makes sense to propose to people to believe those truths about God that natural reason can reach. He deals with this question also in the Summa Theologiae. Among the troubles that impede the one and only rational research, he states that “Others are cut off from pursuing this truth by the necessities imposed upon them by their daily lives. For some men must devote themselves to taking care of temporal matters. Such men would not be able to give so much time to the leisure of contemplative inquiry as to reach the highest peak at which human investigation can arrive, namely, the knowledge of God.”[12] This is where we actually come to the key questions concerning the understanding of time and what is really important, if it relates to the scale of values or certain choices. In that sense, I will list several significant approaches. The first one certainly belongs to Joseph Pieper who, so to speak, restored the meaning of leisure for philosophising. “Philosophising for Pieper is not a daily activity, nor a practical activity that someone can learn, but is far more similar to poetry, religion, music experience which simply happens, which is received as a gift, which contemplates the meaning as such and the meaning of reality in its totality.”[13] Beside Pieper, it is also important to mention Hannah Arendt’s work, which opposes private and public realms. She also notes that for the ancient people vita contemplativa (Greek philosophers’ contemplation of truth and medieval Christian theologians’ contemplation of God) had a priority over vita activa, and in it political activity prevailed over creation and work. For Arendt, economy is a part of the private sphere, the same as with Aristotle. In modern times, there is a turn of traditional hierarchy that leads to the confusion of private and public life.[14] Today’s hyper-productivity actually sets man free and supplies him with leisure which was once a privilege of the minority. However, leisure is less and less experienced as an indispensable time for reflection, creative culture, and more and more as idling and the vanity of parties that the great Blaise Pascal has already warned about.[15] Leisure is only and exclusively in that sense an opportunity for consumption. The criterion for judgment is the freshness of goods, the same as when you are buying fish at the market and checking out whether it is fresh or ʻon sale’ already for a few days. Leisure thus serves only to the biological process of individuals.

6. Meditation on Time and “Time Fulfilled”

In this context, it seems worthwhile to briefly look at some of Marijan Cipra’s analyses of time. He belongs to the group of philosophers who represent the so-called idea of the eternal philosophy, or philosophia perennis. In a sense, this idea is taken over also by Leibniz, and was discussed by Karl Jaspers, for example, in his work The Spiritual Condition of the Age.[16] He actually starts from the question asked by Aurelius Augustinus in his own way in Confessions,[17] which shows all the complexity of a seemingly simple question. “In Aristotle’s analysis of time we find out how time is the measure of movement or change. Time is not the same as movement or change because movement is only in what is in motion and in the place of movement, and time is everywhere and equally in everything. More precisely, this measure is a number, a number in respect of the before and after so the famous definition reads: time is the number of movement in respect of the before and after.

However, this seemingly clear and unambiguous definition really covers a whole set of time-related controversies. First of all, it seems there is no time at all because it consists of the past, which is no longer, and of the future, which is not yet. If, furthermore, time has parts, then, if not the whole, at least one of its parts would have to exist. That part, however, can only be a moment of the “now” between the past and the future. But the moment “now”, on the other hand, is not a part of time because the moment now is like a point – however, no whole can be derived from a point as a part because the point, as part-less, cannot at all be a part of anything. Besides, what is “now”, is it always the same or always different? It seems it is not always different because “now” can never become former, when it is exactly now, nor it can in the same way become different in a former now or a future now. But it also seems that it is not always the same. The beginning and the end of some time cannot be the same, and what happened a thousand years ago does not happen at the same time as what is happening today. The moment “now” is at the same time same and different. “Now” is the same and different as a time compound and a time division – in the service of the compound “now” is always the same as a fixed point measuring time in respect of the before and after; in the service of the division it is a point, if possible, always another. In the service of the unification of time “now” is always the same and real, in the service of its division it is if possible also always different. This tripartite paradox of time i.e. that which is only in time is – the moment of “now” – was noted for the first time in Aristotle, and from then it remained authoritative for the entire philosophical tradition.

“Now” is the same and is not the same, although it is not a part of time, yet nothing really exists as time except “now” because the past is no longer, and the future is not yet. But the real secret of this paradox remained undiscovered for Aristotle. Aristotle himself came close to a possible solution to the riddle of time when, arguing further on the essence of time, he came to a confusing question on whether there would even be time if there was no soul. Time, which is the number of movements (in respect of the before and after) needs to be understood as the counted, not what is counted with. The counted can never be without the soul if only the soul has the ability to count.

Since before and after is understood in respect of the distance from “now”, it is clear that without the soul which in the possession of the moment of “now” counts the distance of this now from the now before and the now after there is no time at all. Without the soul, therefore, which counts on the basis of the moment of now its distance from before and after, the concept of time would not even exist”.[18] From this lengthy chapter one finds out that it is a matter of an eminently philosophical problem which leads to a number of other questions such as the question of the soul, consciousness, the self, the subject, the cogito, and what closely and inseparably relates to time categories and deliberation. But I found a condensed formula which can invite us for a deeper thinking from a different perspective, and it is about the phrase ʻtime fulfilled’. We find it at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark.

A statement like ʻtime is fulfilled’ cannot be directly understood nor is it easy to understand. Time for us can really take on different strokes. We would say it is a kind of subjective category. It often means a kind of repetition, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same, or it is perceived as some progress or decadence. We see, therefore, different commensurabilities not easy to understand. So a question arises: how do we really cope with time and history? Time is for us something we have experienced, something we live now, the time of hope, joy or sorrow. Time actually dawns from ourselves and finds the source and the measure in man. However, when it is said that some time is fulfilled, what does it mean? Does it mean that time stops, that it has come to an end? Does it mean that time is definitely defined? When it comes to time fulfilled, it is obviously about the meaning of man and his stay on earth. It is about a deep transformation of boundaries which define our human history. It is about an offer of meaning presented and interpreted by philosophy and theology in their own way.

7. Conclusion

We cannot be indifferent to the things happening in and around us. It all concerns us. Thinking and prayer are necessary to adequately respond to the challenges we face today. It seems in this contex that the art equal to wisdom is in combining everyday activity and contemplation. Contemplation enables us to define the goals and purposes of human life. Activites enable us to get closer to the goals or, sometimes, to achieve the purpose and meaning of human life. According to the circumstances, we are sometimes more contemplative and sometimes more active, but we cannot allow that either one fades in us. It is very dangerous to emphasize only theory or only practice as if some people were predetermined for one or the other. The more we feel the need for action, the more effort we have to put in reflection. The more we are challenged by the comfort of contemplation, the more we have to deliver ourselves to activity. Man is a mysterious being standing in front of the mystery of the other being and who is capable of observing the universe even though it is external to him.

Today’s sciences as astrophysics and particle physics show that the universe is a unique city in which everything is interdependent. We participate in this interdependence. We cannot get rid of that. This city, the universe, contains by definition the totality of everything that exists, and it cannot be at war with person because there is no ʻrest of the world’. We are citizens of the universe. But our imagination has considerable problems in accommodating itself in this immense city. It is practical to restrain our view to the neighbourhood we live in, to earth. To the house complex a part of which is ours, Europe and the Mediterranean. To our apartment, Croatia. To our small room, our province. Sensing our embedded affiliation allows us to make our projects compatible with other people’s projects.


  1. Cf. Aristotel, Metafizika, Nikomahova etika, Zagreb 1988.
  2. Aristotle, Eth. Nic. VI 3-7, 1139b-1121a.
  3. Cf. A. Ćubelić, Istina i mudrost na kušnji, the proceedings Veritas vitae et doctrinae, Zagreb 2012, especially pp. 58-62.
  4. In the proceedings Povijest i sistem: Treba li filozofiji njezina povijest? there are nine works by the authors from the philosophical conference Treba li filozofiji njezina povijest?, held at the Institute of Philosophy in Zagreb on 5 and 6 December 2013.
  5. There is a kind of revolt in the face of this immense production, so we can also come across numerous critical editions according to the ‘classic approaches of philosophising’. Cf. P. Sloterdijk, Kritika ciničkoga uma, Zagreb 1992.
  6. Cf. for example Fr. P. Murray OP’s interesting and original thinking, Ponovno otkrivanje kontemplativne dimenzije. Akti opće izborne skupštine Reda propovjednika, Providence 2001, pp. 225-238.
  7. Željko Mardešić writes about these questions systematically and clearly in his book Rascjep u svetome, Zagreb 2007, p. 891.
  8. We find inspirational thoughts on Descartes, Kant, and other philosophers in M. Cipra, Spoznajna teorija, Zagreb 2007, p. 147.
  9. We rely heavily here on the type of philosophising promoted in the works of Jacques Maritain.
  10. B. Weissmahr, Ontologija, Zagreb 2013, p. 206.
  11. Ivi, p. 16.
  12. Cf. Suma protiv pogana, A. Pavlović (tr.), Kršćanska sadašnjost, Zagreb 1993, I, cap. 4, p. 17.
  13. Cf. F. Mijatović, Smisao i značenje filozofiranja kod Josefa Piepera, Rijeka 2012, p. 97.
  14. Compare the great analyses of the modern time in H. Arendt, Vita activa, Zagreb 1991.
  15. B. Pascal, Misli, Mediteran, 1991, pp. 29-30 and other similar thoughts.
  16. K. Jaspers, Duhovna situacija vremena, Matica hrvatska, Zagreb 1988.
  17. Aurelije Augustin, Ispovijesti, Zagreb 1991, especially book XI.
  18. M. Cipra, Uvod u filozofiju, Zagreb 2007, pp. 11-13.


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