From the fourth century B.C. to the 15th century, it was practically a given in the Western World that the best life for a person was the life of contemplation. And that was even more so in the East. In the modern world, however, the idea that the life of contemplation is the best of all lives can hardly be contemplated by the average person (bad pun).
Were the ancients just plain wrong about this belief, or are the moderns perhaps wrong? It certainly isn’t an either/or matter. Without question the modern world has provided wonderful benefits, and those benefits are very tangible and easy to quantify. But the life of contemplation also offers tremendous benefits, though they are not so easy to quantify. (Fortunately, we don't have to choose one or the other, we can have some of both.)
A key to the value of the life of contemplation is what I call “joy for free.” It is the rather amazing fact, reported by people throughout the ages and across the lands, that when by our inner effort we bring our life into focus and equilibrium, we find our self in a state of simple, pervasive joy. We need no other natural resource to obtain this joy than what is necessary for our basic metabolism.
Unfortunately, it is no simple ability to bring our life into equilibrium. We live in a world thoroughly out of equilibrium -- Koyaanisqatsi to use the Hopi term. There are few people around who can help us toward inner peace and equilibrium, but there is a massive army of marketers and advertisers out there whose singular goal is to arouse our desires so we feel a need for their product.
I have no interest in being evangelical, but I feel a kind of desire to keep the ancient notion alive: that the life of contemplation is the highest calling for humans. Partly because I would hope everyone could have share in "joy for free" and partly because we need to wean ourselves from our insatiable consumption of natural resources.
There is a notion in economics that new technologies will keep providing us with the means of maintaining our “lifestyle” even as we exhaust older forms of natural resources. But maybe the ultimate technology toward this end is the ancient one – relying on inner rather than natural resources.