The Soul of Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet

il_fullxfull.340648227Man possesses many attributes and abilities in common with other living things, but the attribute distinguishing man from all other things, and which he shares in common with god, is a rational principle. We will endeavor to state in detail the connection between Aristotle’s postulate of a rational principle in man and why the life lived in accord with the highest virtue, theoria, is the most elevated expression of this faculty of rationality.

Aristotelian man has within him the capacity to strive for and achieve virtue in his own life. Man’s nature is not entirely fixed or determined by outside forces, and so he necessarily has the capacity to alter his nature; man is not born ‘stuffed with all honorable virtues,’ to use Shakespeare’s phrase, but must be habituated to the life of virtue. Man can either be habituated into activities that go against his nature, or excise from himself habits that are beneath his nature. It is possible for man to form fresh habits in accord with what is most dominant in man, that being logos, for man possesses, in varying degrees of efficacy, the faculty of reason (cf. NE 1296),1 which makes this alteration possible. To speak of alterations in man’s behavior is to speak of the progress of virtue, and Aristotle treats this progression at length in the Nicomachean Ethics. Yet Aristotle disarmingly concludes the Nicomachean Ethics with a discussion of virtue in its totality by crowning the project of the life of practical virtue with the conception of the contemplative life, which, at first pass, is a palpably strange way to conclude, since the life of contemplation stands outside the realm of everyday action (i.e., practical virtue), and is, in a sense, virtue sans action.

What is commonly required for the implementation of the cardinal virtues, things such as ready money, power, opportunity, &c., are viewed not as a means to the man who would contemplate truth, but rather as hindrances. Why is this so? Aristotle tells us, ‘the man who is contemplating the truth’ (NE 1106) may only do so once he has put aside virtuous deeds and the many things needed to carry out such deeds. He may choose to do virtuous deeds, or he may not, and the choice is occasioned by the presence or absence of other men in the life of a philosopher. When the man who desires to contemplate truth excises himself from the diversions of his affairs, or the houses of his friends, or, hypothetically, when the possibility for action and production are taken away from him, all that remains for him is thought—logical being (for the only logical entity is thought).

The life of contemplation is not a life of dainty indolence and languor, but is necessarily very difficult and solitary, and Aristotle sums up his conception authoritatively:

[W]e…must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything…[i]t would be strange, then, if he [man in a broad sense] were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else (NE 1105).

The rigors of the contemplative life resolve themselves into the rigors of logic. Aristotle demands indisputability from his first principles and seeks indemonstrable premises on which to found his rational investigation of the world. Therefore, the method of rational contemplation must be an enumeration of logical inferences if the results are to be meaningful. Intuition, or some other species of mental instinct, will not do for Aristotle, since intuition is derived from particular and individual thought processes, and is most likely contingent on the individual thinker. For Aristotle, the form of the syllogism is the form taken by the activity of contemplation. The syllogism presupposes a rational ordering of the kosmos, and one contemplates this rational order with the instrument of logic as the nimble instrument of the human mind wields it. There is no mistake in Aristotle’s decision to name his logical treatises the Organon. The logical treatises, it can be said, epitomize his conception of what is produced by, and gained through, the life of contemplation:

[F]or if the gods have any care for human affairs…it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e., reason) and that they should reward those who love and honor this most (NE 1108).

The character of the unmoved mover in Aristotle’s writings both initiates and completes the human life of contemplation. For, taking god as the archetype of thought, the contemplator of truth endeavors to imitate the divine by exercising in himself what is divine. The Greek concept of mimesis, I believe, is entirely applicable to how Aristotle conceives the method and the means of the contemplative life. To call the contemplator a mimic of god is to call a spade a spade, since god is the ultimate exemplar of such an existence. In examining the attributes god possesses, Aristotle is seeking a template for the life of contemplation that other like-minded people can understand and apply. Some of the attributes of god mimicked in the human activity of contemplation are as follows: god as the ergon (function) of theoria—the intelligible striving to appreciate the intelligible, or god taking god as the object of thought; further, god neither suffers nor undergoes affection, but is unmoved, impervious, insusceptible, &c. All of these qualities of god are commensurate with the activity of god, which, as Aristotle points out, is contemplative (NE 1107). Therefore, just as god, and the activity of god, is entirely self-sufficient and self-contained, so too is the activity of contemplation, in which there is no need for ready money, power, or opportunity. The human activity of contemplation is akin to this divine apathae, and, as Aristotle explains, this imperviousness to affection is appropriate to the degree to which humans participate in nous, viz., the understanding and grasping of eternal truths.

In Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle of man in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics, the germ of his later discussions of happiness and the contemplative life can be seen in the brief allusion he makes to the human good. This human good he calls ‘an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete’ (NE. 943, emphasis added). The aim of Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle is the way in which it is implicitly linked to the highest good, viz., the activity of god, which, as we have seen, is thought. The link between the activities of man and god is forged by the principle of self-sufficiency, which Aristotle defines as ‘that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be…’ (NE 942). Aristotle goes on to point out that,

[W]e think it [self-sufficiency] the most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods…[h]appiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action (Ibid).

An important addition to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, and with which he concludes the passage just cited, is the claim that happiness entails an end of action. This only makes sense if the life of practical virtue is crowned by the contemplative life. In the life of practical virtue, the improvement of man’s actions and behaviors is the goal; but the final aim of the project is one of inactivity and solitude. The end of action expressed and carried out in the contemplative life is singular to the rest of Aristotle’s virtues, all of which all presuppose some means, some action, to the fulfillment of its end, be it power, ready money, or opportunity. All of the virtues are discursive, save for the activity of contemplation, which is self-contained, and for this reason is the highest good, as Aristotle calls it. Yet we should take notice that the contemplative life is, nevertheless, co-constitutive with the life of practical virtue, and is not possible outside of a specific type of social environment, viz., an environment in which excellence of soul amongst citizens is not the exception but, more likely, the rule. The contemplative life is a product of the highest forms of human society, but no society is built, conversely, from such a foundation as the type of individual who is a scholar or philosopher.

The source for this criterion of self-sufficiency as the highest good is found in Aristotle’s conception of the divine, which only the life of contemplation among the virtues approximates. Only objects of thought and desire are unmoved movers—they are the motivating force behind the multiplicity of activities in the world. God is the primary and ultimate object of thought and desire. God moves (but is himself unmoved) because he is loved: man ceases to move and becomes like god when he reasons. This, then, is why the activity that most nearly approximates the activity of the divine is itself called the highest good and naturally puts an end to action. Recall what Aristotle writes regarding the activity of god, the semblance of which is reflected in man:

Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of god, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness (NE 1107).

The man who contemplates the truth is nevertheless not self-sufficient to the same degree as god, but needs, in addition, what Aristotle refers to as ‘external prosperity.’ The extent to which a man must be prosperous to live the life of contemplation necessarily involves possessing the necessary resources to maintain health, &c. Aristotle points out that virtuous activity, especially the act of contemplation, is possible with a minimum of the accoutrements needed to continue in existence:

[W]e must not think the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess (Ibid).

It is reasonable to conclude from this that self-sufficiency belongs more properly to the life of contemplation then to the virtues (the life of action)—but in either case excess has no part in the modifying and building up of what is best or most dominant in man’s nature, i.e., reason. Now recall what was mentioned earlier regarding the trait Aristotle assigns to god’s nature, namely, neither suffering nor undergoing any affection. What place can such a quality occupy in the life lived according to practical virtue, which is necessarily one of action? Indeed, Aristotle celebrates the wide variety of qualities present in man, and qualities of which man is capable of achieving through practical virtue, but nevertheless, what is most prominent in man’s nature is the rational principle, and the exercise of this attribute tends toward one thing, and that is the unmoved, self-sufficient divine.

Thus far we have but articulated a skeleton of what the contemplative life involves, in that it approximates the nature of god—perhaps this rudimentary anatomy can be fleshed out further if we deck it in the raiment of poetry. Examining Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet, we get a sense of what the life of contemplation participating in the divine means. Certain philosophic commentators have claimed this 94th sonnet to be a sort of reflecting-pool for quasi-Nietzschian ideas of self-sufficiency and the experience of life as an end in itself.2 Be that as it may, it can be argued that the poem is more fittingly read as a compliment to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, especially since the poem is demonstrably Aristotelian in its vocabulary and thoroughly Elizabethan, rather than Nietzschian, in its poetic conceits. Here, then, is the piece itself:

They that have the power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense,

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.3

Shakespeare’s sonnet is best understood when set beside Aristotle’s conception of the life of contemplation. In not doing the thing he most does show, or is most capable of doing, the philosopher deliberately puts an end to the life he has led in the realm of practical virtue—a life he is entirely able to continue pursuing, were he to choose to do so. Yet he does not choose that life, but rather, another, the life of contemplation. In doing so, and doing so excellently, he rightly inherits heaven’s graces and moves others while remaining himself as stone. The man who would contemplate the truth, the philosopher, is the man ‘dearest to the gods;’ and insofar as he approaches god through the exercise of the faculty of reason (which in its utmost purity and enduringness neither suffers nor undergoes affection), does he give ‘delight’ to god for honoring ‘what is most akin’ to god’s nature. Further, the philosopher husbands the riches of nature from expense, viz., he rightly manages, through the practice of the highest virtue, the rewards of contemplative activity garnered from nature; viz., nature in the sense of the first principles underlying the accidents, not the accidents themselves (recall that Aristotle requires indemonstrable premises as a basis for scientific knowledge). Occupying this unique position, which Aristotle affirms is not available to every man, earns the philosopher the title of lord and owner of his face, or the rightful possessor of the enduring intellectual and virtuous qualities akin to the nature of god, and subsequently ‘most of the nature of happiness.’

That this kind of life is not inhuman or even superhuman, but as Aristotle writes, simply not available to every man, is our premise, and we must search the works of the past for examples of those who voluntarily adopted this life, having first been habituated into the excellences of virtue in a manner similar to what is described by Aristotle, then take flight from the world of deeds and affairs and actions like so many thieves, carrying off with them the rich spoils of their excellent characters, into the cloistered cell or lavish home, wherewith the retiring life of a solitary and studious existence is taken up. Indeed, such individuals are uncommon, but every age has a few in it that, through the pains and discomforts of study and seclusion, truly advance not only their own knowledge, but move and advance, so to speak, the entire age in a way similar to the movement of vast armies conquering lands and territories; save for the fact that the philosopher’s achievement is not subject to the vicissitudes of states or rulers, and so endures, resting on its own laurels, and always regarded as an amazement and wonder to the inhabitants of posterity, who see in the greatest of the philosopher’s thought both newness and evidence of what the best men are capable of, should the times be so generous and forgiving as to let such men come into being.

1 All citations in parentheses are from Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, 1941).

2 Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Princeton University Press, 1959), cf. pp 5-8.

3 Alfred Harbage, ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Viking Penguin, 1969), p. 1468.


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