Aristotle opens up his Metaphysics with a simple but arresting observation:
“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not doing anything, we prefer seeing to everything else.”
For readers unfamiliar with his corpus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is his great work on sophia or philosophical wisdom. For Aristotle, metaphysics is the science of being qua being. The wise person doesn’t simply see reality, her vision includes a grasp of its essential structure, its fundamental principles and causes. The wise person knows where to direct her vision and attention; she knows how to occupy her mind well, so as to find joy in the truth. For Aristotle, only contemplation of God can perfect or complete our most fundamental tendencies as a rational person.
All of this raises an obvious question: In a treatise on universal knowledge of causes, why does Aristotle privilege the senses, and vision in particular? Why does he emphasize the delight we take in seeing and beholding?
I want to turn to Marilyn Robinson’s stunningly beautiful Pulitzer prize winning novel, Gilead, to try to get a better grip on this Aristotelian idea . I read Robinson’s novel as a testament to the joy of contemplation: of seeing the wonder of existence.
The main protagonist, the Reverend John Ames, is a man who models the life of contemplation, a man who understands well that certain moments, which he calls visions, are occasions for the kind of contemplation in which true happiness consists.
John Ames is a taciturn congregationalist minister in a small and inconsequential town in the plains of Iowa. The novel takes place sometime in the 1950’s, and at that point Reverend Ames is an old man (seventy six) dying from heart disease, who has a young son (about seven) and a young wife (perhaps she is in her late twenties). Reverend Ames’s voice is the sole narrator of events, but there is no linear progression or even a story that he tells us. We come to know him as the author of letters to his young son, letters that make up the entirety of the novel. He is writing these letters in the hope that he can share what small measure of wisdom he has managed to attain in his long life, and in so doing, reveal himself to his son, who otherwise would barely know him at all.
The letters, while often about nothing of obvious importance, are achingly beautiful. We learn from them that Reverand Ames is a writer; he tells us that his attic is full of boxes that contain every sermon he has ever preached to his congregation. It is through writing that he has tried to understand the human person, God, creation, and of course, himself. As he describes his prolific life work to his son (warning him that it is surely useless), he remarks:
“I write in a small hand,too, as you know by now. Say three hundred pages make a volume. Then I’ve written two hundred twenty five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity. That’s amazing. I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting through my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true. And I’ll tell you frankly, that was wonderful.”
From his letters we see that Ames is a serious man, one who is striving to live in accordance with what he believes is true. We also learn that Ames is grateful for his wife and his son, for his vocation as a preacher, for his quiet life, and for existence itself. But most of all what one sees in John Ames is a man who knows how to pay attention, and who is able to see a glimpse of eternal truths in quiet, ordinary moments. Of such a moment, he writes:
“There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.” (53)
For Ames, writing to his son and to his congregation is a labor of love. Ames sees an essential link between writing and praying. He confesses to his son that,
“writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever than can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it, that’s the truth.” (19)
The link that Ames draws between the intimacy of writing and praying is the link between our love and our attention. We pay attention to what we love, and that is why we must love the right things in order to occupy our minds well. It is because Ames loves his son that he is able to meditate on the shimmer in his hair in the sunlight and see the beauty of his existence in it. It is because Ames desires to know and love God that he studies theology, preaches, and prays, and through this work his vision of ordinary, everyday life is transfigured into the work of grace. For Ames, ordinary moments become occasions for deep contemplative joy. The novel is replete with examples of these visionary moments, such as the following scene he encounters on the way to Church:
“There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something out of a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that just now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables and doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really? This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” (28)
Ames wants his son to know how to pay attention, to cultivate a contemplative vision of the world around him. He speaks of “the visionary aspect of any particular day” that might reveal its meaning over time, through contemplation of it. Ames tells his son not to lose these moments, that he may understand his whole life and even existence itself in them, if he makes an effort to see what relationship our present reality has to an ultimate reality. And we should make an effort, as “it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether you yourself happen to have seen them or not.” (97)
For Reverend Ames, his contemplative vision of the world is a foretaste of the beatified vision of God that he hopes awaits him at his death. But that does not detract from the wonder and joy of this life, which he clearly savors and wishes to impart to his son:
“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” (57)
John Ames wants to teach his son to behold the world, to celebrate it, and to be grateful for it. To return to it in memory and to try to find the meaning and beauty of our experience of it. In short, he wants him to love and embrace the world, to see why it commands our attention.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and host of a philosophy podcast titled, Sacred and Profane Love.