Truth and beauty enable us to place and orient ourselves in a world that is larger and more full of things that are worthwhile and interesting than the closed system of resources, desires, technology and formal logic that modern thought presents. That’s why contemplation is basic to the good life.
That kind of statement sounds rather highfalutin. At bottom, though, contemplation is simply engagement with the reality and value of something other than ourself and our desires. To say that it’s part of a good life is to say that it’s part of a normal life. You can either be contemplative, at least to some degree, or you can be a psychopath.
If you want to sound sentimental instead of highfalutin, you can talk about love instead of contemplation. The change of terms has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that love suggests action as well as disinterested concern and attentive regard. A disadvantage is that it downplays the necessary connection to reality, so that people speak of blind love and love based on illusion.
In fact, people don’t know what to make of love or contemplation. That’s why both words sound funny today. The reason is that people accept modernity and so think of reality as a system of particles in space, or maybe sensations, desires, measurements, formulas and techniques. On such a view neither love nor contemplation makes much sense, and it’s impossible in good faith to take them seriously. The result is that contemplation disappears completely, except maybe self-contemplation, and love becomes a sort of illusion, obsession, intoxication, desire to dominate, ritual self-immolation, or self-contained justification for anything whatever.
For that reason it’s especially important just now to emphasize contemplation and the objective and reality-based side of love. Love is not a feeling that creates its own world but mind and emotion responding to reality. Rather than desire or impulse it’s recognition of the reality and value of a person or thing simply as such.
Love that is reality-based is hierarchical to the extent reality is hierarchical. I can love the beauty of a teapot but a human being is higher than a teapot, so human love outranks love of beautiful objects. Still, man is multi-leveled and social so human love is complex. It’s concerned with persons but also the things that make them what they are and make it possible for them to live well. “I could not love thee, dear, so much, / Loved I not honor more” makes an unavoidable point. So does—for example—indissoluble matrimony. Love doesn’t cheat.
To deal with such issues and put them in perspective the highest object of our contemplation and love has to be reality as an overall system, or perhaps the basic principle that gives rise to the system. To the extent that system or principle establishes a right direction for our lives—which we inevitably believe it does—our relation to it takes on a religious character. It follows that we are all religious. We all attribute authoritative moral directedness to the world. The to-do about “religious absolutism” is simple obfuscation. Everybody’s a religious absolutist, because everybody’s got some sort of final standard, you can’t think or function coherently otherwise, and everybody’s final standard has to do with what he thinks at bottom the world is like.