“There is an order that reason does not establish but only beholds, such is the order of things in nature.”

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

What do we spend our time and energy thinking about? For most of us, living what is traditionally called the ‘active life,’ practical issues require most of our attention. The danger is that the demands of life funnel our thoughts into well-worn tracks, from which like a luge sled they do not emerge.

One of the great and most overlooked distinctions about human life is between practical thinking and ‘speculative’ thinking. The very name of the latter has the connotation of the unsure and superfluous. It has been largely expunged from our lives. This has serious consequences.

Practical thinking always moves in the ‘order’ or realm of what we can enact, or make. How can we get this done, how can we solve this problem, how can we make this work? These are central, practical questions of human life.

Yet in what can seem a paradox, they can only be well addressed when seen as stemming from and leading back to a richer, deeper ‘order’: an order human reason cannot originate but rather must discover. And behold.

The order of things in nature. This is nature in the richest of senses: yes, it is birds, mountains, trees, and stars. And it is human nature, in its origins and ends. It is the moral order. And it is what transcends human life, and transcends our full comprehension. Even the divine. The order of ‘nature!’—the foundation, the context, the point. Of everything we do.

And so it can and should be the object of our thinking: the object of study, reading, meditation, observation. Contemplation.

Somehow this kind of thinking must be integrated into our daily lives.

Practical thinking unhinged from such ‘speculative’ thinking is precisely that: unhinged. It is the bane of truly human existence; it is the bane of our age. We insist on addressing the ‘practical’ in abstraction from the order that is its only true beginning and end. Or in any case we refuse to step back, and invest in a different kind of thinking.

There are certain truths, to quote again Thomas Aquinas, that we must behold, and savor. These are written-in to things, in a hierarchy starting with the lowest and climbing—and always pointing—higher. It is not ultimately about the plants, birds and stars. But these are speaking of what it is about.

Human life demands the practical considerations—and all the hard thinking this requires of us. But a great secret discovered by the wise is that the person who only thinks practically—about what we will do and make today—enters a rut that leads nowhere. There is something more, an order woven harmoniously from end to end and bottom to top. And our giving time to thinking about it, in various ways in even just little corners of our day, makes all the difference.

 

Related reading:

 

Action item:

Check out this contemplation video to help you do a different kind of thinking, every day. Then, watch the other two in the contemplation mini-series section of Concepts Made Clear.

 

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