We Must Reintroduce the Via Contemplativa

Existential Politics should organize investments into new support struct­ures for personal growth. I would like to suggest that we reintroduce—on a wide, socie­tal level—the medieval notion of the via contemplativa, the contempla­tive life path. The term vita contemplativa (vita, with a “t”) is more comm­only used —most famously in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition from 1958—and means “the contemplative life”. But here I’d like to stay with discus­sing the contemplative path and how it could be made part and parcel of day-to-day society and politics. The issue is not that society needs us to become monks and nuns, but that more of us are supported through the inner journeys of life.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. 

First of all, let’s not get carried away by nostalgia. I am not claiming medieval times were “better” than modern times, or that everyone walked around being super-spiritual back then, concerning themselves with high-minded things like life’s inner journey all the time. And I am not claiming every­thing from early modernity—the Renaissance and its via activa (or vita activa) which broke off with the medieval scholastic and monastic tradition—and onwards repre­sents a mistake.[i]

As you probably know from my books and other writings, Hanzi Frei­nacht is a dev­elopmentalist. I don’t think present society has “fallen from grace”, from any primordial state of innocence, wisdom or bliss—but that modern soc­iety directly follows from the principles of traditional soc­iety: Once people have agreed to the idea that one highest principle of truth should guide society (“God” or any other highest prin­ciple in trad­itional or what I call “post­faustian” societies), sooner or later people will also ha­ve to agree that this abso­lute truth must be subject to open inquiry and to inter­subjective veri­fica­tion—which is the essence of modernity. Modern life is born from the dialectics inherent to post­faust­ian society. Develop­ment sometimes runs into dead ends, tying knots on itself, like in Nazi Germany. But it would be a mistake to think that mod­ernity itself is such a dead end.

And yet, it would be conceited to believe nothing could ever be lear­ned from earlier stages of society, from the rich varieties of historical exper­ience. Even if modernity is an “attractor point” towards which postfaust­ian society ultimately points, that there is always a price to be paid for development; there are always “beau­ties lost”.

The via contemplativa may be such a beauty lost. The medieval system was basic­ally de­signed to produce good monks (and, to a lesser extent, nuns). To be a learn­ed person was to be versed in biblical studies, theo­logy, phil­osophy, con­templative practice and prayer, and some practical skills per­taining to mon­astic life, such as being a good scribe. Theoretical subjects were highly estee­med. In the medieval scholastic system, people entered education and were taught the first three liberal arts, trivium (grammar, logic and rhet­oric), then advancing to the four “higher” liberal arts, quad­rivium (arith­metic, geometry, music and astronomy). Only after versing oneself in these seven arts could one partake in lectures on philo­sophy and theo­logy. This created an impressive pan-European network of Latin-speaking scholars who could converse about the nature of God and reality.

As the intellectual mission of the late Middle Ages was all about trying to find the highest principle of truth and align society with it, its educati­onal system aimed to produce people who could refine their hearts and minds so as to find God and to serve Him. In short: The system of learn­ing and teaching prepared people for the via con­templativa.

The Renai­ssance—the period of cultural blossoming that heralded mo­dernity—changed the me­di­eval edu­cat­ional system around considerably. Casting an eye on the proto-modern societies of high antiquity (Hellenic and Rom­an), and building on vital Islamic influences, the few thousand peo­ple who made the Renai­ssance happen re­designed edu­cation to better fit a via activa. It pre­pared people for be­com­ing politicians, merch­ants, mil­itary leaders and—to some extent—artists and engineers.[ii] Rhet­orics, politics and history be­came important, and trivium was seen as much more “trivial” (from which we have derived the word “trivial”). Since that time, as mod­ernity has pro­gressed and disclosed its radically trans­form­ative pow­ers, accelera­ting over the centuries, greater portions of the popu­lation have been edu­cat­ed for longer periods of time, and more of us have been offered a via activa as citizens, entrepreneurs, scientists and so forth.

Religion, reflection, self-knowledge and contemplation have—even if they still exist—undeni­ably taken a back seat in modern society as a who­le. Via contemplativa is thought of as something exceptional, some­thing for the few rather than the many. Sky­scrapers have dwarfed the once do­minant cathedrals in their taller sha­dows. Skiing resorts, exotic safaris and wet summer fuck­fests on Ibiza have replaced pil­gri­mages and periods of mon­astic seclusion. People such as myself, who like spending time alone walking in the Alps for no other reason than to contemplate existence, are often seen as ecce­ntric, dis­connected or even frivolous.

During the emergence of modern­ity, this “life-affirming” attitude may very well have made sense: With so much to do, so much to be achieved, and yet no major risks of systemic and civi­lizational collapse on the hori­zon, it may be a good thing that people primarily focus on creating world­ly things. Useful things. And then you may just as well savor the hedonic, Dionysian richness of what modern life has to offer while you’re at it. After all, what good is staring at a wall (to come to terms with the blissful but terrifying mean­inglessness of Emptiness) when you could be out there making sure more kids get polio vaccine, or take part in any other of the seemingly infinite growth potentials of the modern world?

We are, however, now reaching a point in history where our very sur­vival depends upon our collective inner development. In today’s late mod­ern society, in which the pot­entials of our tech­no­logies are so incompre­hensively vast, the con­sump­tion of one single human so stagger­ingly im­pactful, the con­sequen­ces of our actions so global, the possibility of ecolo­gical collapse so present, the acc­eleration of our chan­ging life con­ditions so dizzying—we may need to reintroduce the via con­tem­pla­tiva, an updat­ed and recyc­led version of monastic practices. On a very serious, collecti­ve—yet deeply personal—level we may have to stop and think.

And breathe. And reflect.

Consider. Reconsider. Doubt.

Rest. Concentrate. Heal. Suffer. Digest. Grow.


We may have to take the issue of life as a contemplative path very seri­ously, meaning that we, as a society, should be prepared to expend con­siderable time and economic resources on inner growth.

Inner growth. Being with oneself. Introspection. These act­ivities may come off as less manifest, tangible or visible than “going to work”, “play­ing foot­ball” or “winning”. But they are verbs nonethe­less: breathe, reflect and so on—they are actions, flows, processes and events. The inner jour­ney is some­thing that really happens, something that counts for some­thing, a difference that makes a difference. Tectonic shifts of our lives may occur, shifts of our perspect­ives, of our beings, aspirations, motives and life-goals. Such inner shifts of the heart reverberate across the larger patt­erns of our life-spans, and thus they affect the world in a thousand subtle ways.

This way of thinking is not only counterintuitive to the modern mind. It is downright offensive:

“Should people spend more time in idle solitu­de? But what about the growth of the economy! What about climate chan­ge, an issue that requires action, now! What about all the social pro­blems! And you want people to meditate and contemplate in the stillness of their minds? And how could we afford such a thing!”

But it is a simple fact—despite the pervading sense that we are bu­sier than ever—that many or most of our daily activities and life goals are quite poor­­ly thought-out, rather shallow, and often quite unneces­sary. We pur­sue shall­ow life goals, because we get stuck on relati­vely sim­ple and basic inner needs that still “have us by the balls”.[iii] The goals of our actions are themselves “ineffective” (transrationally speaking), our motivations and drives hardly con­ducive to sustainable human flourish­ing, development, love and last­ing happi­ness. And in these days of expo­nentially growing human power, the failure to pursue deeply worthwhile goals in as many people’s lives as poss­ible, can and will be nothing short of catastrophic. And the only way to get many more of us to develop much more global and worth­while goals is to support our genuine inner development. Global scale calamities are likely to follow pretty soon, un­less we start looking inwards.

In other words, it may be a very sound investment—in terms of “the eco­nomy of happiness”—to put much, much more of society’s time, ef­f­ort, resources and attention to people’s inner worlds, to the existen­tial journey of each of us.

Take a moment to consider this: All that really “is” and all that we genuinely care about revolves around the conscious, inner experience of humans—and ani­mals for that matter. What is a theme park without the ability to have fun? What is ice cream without the ability to enjoy? What is music with­out the bewon­dered list­ener? What, indeed, are family and friendship without love? What is even truth and enlightenment without the pro­found recog­nition of the observing mind?

The vast inner landscapes of subjective experience are not a fringe issue, not a small detail.

They are everything.

They are all that we will ever have. Inner experience is all that society ultimately produces and all it ultimately relies upon. It’s what all of it ulti­mately is about.

What madness, then, to build a civilization that does not work actively and seriously with the development of inner experience! Whatever else we change or build or create or develop, it all has zero value without the eye, the mind, the heart and the soul of the observer, of the experiencer, of the participating co-creator. We’re always-already here, cast into being, meet­ing the universe half-way.

Nothing explains more about what humanity creates than her inner­­most relatedness to existence. Will we create prisons, conflicts and collap­se, or will we manage to respond productively to the great challen­ges ahead of us—a struggle reborn as play?

Contemporary commentators like to point out that this is an exist­ential quest­ion: “Will we fall on our own sword, or rise to the challenge?” What they generally fail to mention, however, is that this exist­ential quest­ion itself depends upon how the inner path of each human being is supp­orted and scaff­olded—or thwarted and undermined—by the struct­ures of soci­ety. They fail to see the political and transpersonal nature of the exist­ential questions, and they fail to offer bids for a renewed via contem­pla­tiva.

A metamodern politics would need to reintegrate key aspects of all the former value memes, which means that even some aspects of post­faustian society and its traditional religions should be re-examined and judiciously reinvented. We may need to co-create a more existential civi­lization, one that values inner growth and earnest spiritual exploration considerably higher than today’s late modern society.

Life Crisis and Development

How, then, could a via contemplativa be properly reintroduced in a meta­modern context, in the context of an advanced welfare system we call the “listening society”?

One way to go about this is to endow all citizens with the “right” or “posi­tive freedom” to, once or twice in a lifetime, take a longer time off from work (or whatever they’re doing)—for half a year, maybe a year—in order to go through a supported period of prac­tice, learn­ing, contempla­tion and self-scrutiny.

It is safe to assume there is much to be won, in a myriad of non-linear ways, if a large part of the pop­ulation successfully and productively mana­ges to deal with one or more of the different “crises” that pertain to a nor­mal life course: the existential crisis of early adulthood (which has been growing in recent years), the major stress breakdowns many of us suffer during our professionally active years, or the crises of death, ill­ness and ber­ea­vement that all of us must face to­wards the end of our lives.[iv]

Add to this the fact that people can have all sorts of other crises that don’t pertain directly to one of the Eriksonian life phase tran­sitions: there are family crises, fail­ures in life, crises due to unemployment and other struc­tural shifts in society. Then add the fact that we coll­ectively respond to crises at a societal level in more or less composed and productive (ver­sus reactive and destructive) manners. Each of all these mentioned instan­ces of crisis can either lead to tragic collapse, painful stagnation, or to higher stages of dev­elopment and flou­r­ish­ing.

We all have such turning points in our lives, and our ability to manage them largely determine our adult personal develop­ment, which in turn collectively determines how our lead­ers govern socie­ty and how society collectively responds to challenges.

As things currently stand, most of us respond only so-so to the crises that inevitably show up in our lives. And then we walk on, wounded, hurt, numbed and stunted in our growth as adult human beings. And that sha­pes all of our lives, the lives of those around us, our children, and society at large.

The word “crisis”—as so many like to point out these days—is both a mom­ent of great difficulty and an opportunity for “purification”, for re­solv­ing long-standing issues or tensions, or for transitioning to new stages of development. In scientific terms, crisis only ever shows up in “complex systems”, never in non-complex ones; so you have an “economic crisis” or an “identity crisis”, but never a “crisis of the car engine”. Etymologi­cally, the word goes back to the ancient Greek word for “decision”. The crisis is the moment of decision. It’s when the shit hits the fan—and the whole thing either collapses or pays the painful price to reorganize and grow.

When it comes to existential issues such as handling the deep crises of life, it is common to think in terms of moral purity and innate character. Some people, we like to tell ourselves, are the ones who really have the courage and heart to muddle through, the composure and self-con­trol to see clearly in stormy weather, the faith in our… blah, blah, blah. And then we like to assume that we are those people and people we don’t parti­cularly like or who don’t share our values are weaker and less wo­rthy at the innermost level. We must recognize this line of reason­ing for what it is—namely moralism: i.e. the judgmental and self-congratula­tory bullshit of our habitual minds.

Truly metamodern Existential Politics departs from a very diffe­rent start­ing point: Whether or not a person pulls through during a mo­ment of crisis is not a matter of God-given moral character, but simply a question of behavioral psychology and the extent to which she has the nec­essary resources available.

So the issue becomes, not to judge or congratulate, but to soberly and effectively strengthen those inner resour­ces and societal support structu­res available through­out the popula­tion.

Just as a society will have a certain GDP growth over a period of years, and just as every society repro­duces its murder and suicide rates with frightening precision from year to year—so must every society have a spe­c­ific number of shattered dreams, a number of broken hearts, a percen­tage of lifetime spent in subtle self-doubt, a number of crises suc­cess­fully passed (or not), a num­ber of psychological stage transitions that occur harmon­i­ously or in wren­ching agony. Is it unreasonable to ask how each of these num­bers can be studied and improved upon?

That’s Existential Politics: reducing the number of shattered minds and broken souls while increasing the number of inner phoenixes rising.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. Such nostalg­ic arguments have been made by “integral tradition­alists”, such as Frithjof Schuon and Réné Gué­non, and they are not entirely without merit. They point out that, in the med­ieval period, the Church was at the center of society, and the greatest crystall­ization of human activity was cathed­ral build­ing: a spi­ritual endeav­or. God was at the pinn­acle of everything, and reli­gion was an important and unavoid­able aspect of everyone’s life; the church and temple spires tower­ing at the highest points of all settle­ments for centu­ries.

[ii]. Of course, artists at this point in time were still not out on the “free market”, first producing their art and then finding the highest bidder, or turning to a “general audience” with their personal expression. That happened only at the end of the 1700s with Mozart’s revolt against the court-based structure of art benefactors, as discussed in Norbert Elias’ book Mozart: Sociological Portrait of a Genius. But still, the Renaissance did produce a class of people who were supported by rich people and who had considerable artistic freedom, Leonardo da Vinci perhaps being the emblematic example.

[iii]. Excuse the male-centric expression, “by the balls”, and feel free to invent a gender neutral one.

[iv]. At least until human enhancement reaches a point where the biological process of aging can be reversed, but that’s another story.