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Themes: Contribution and Community - Ideas

Philia Being and Doing

Citizenship involves participation and contribution to the community.  There is a tendency to equate contribution with doing, as opposed to being, and to further equate doing with a specific form of action, that of producing a good or performing a service.  In other words, contribution is equated with the production of economic value, with the result that persons whose presence or activity, for whatever reason, does not result in measurable economic output are not considered as active contributing members of the community.  I believe this perception is wrong.  It turns away from active citizenship an increasing number of people whose talents, energies and participation are important to us all.

Perhaps this narrow view of contribution is influenced by a faulty association of doing with action and of being with passivity.  A contrasting vision can be found in Jacques Dufresne's entry for the concept ACTION in the Encyclop‚die de l'Agora [note].  Dufresne does not oppose being and doing but, drawing on the Aristotelian categories of action and quoting from philosopher Maurice Blondel, shows that most actions involve a transformation of the self, a becoming, so that being and doing are in fact intimately tied together. When they are bound, both are active; separated, both are passive. It is one of the tragedies of our times that we hold doing to be about production, and leave aside the becoming that can infuse our actions with the depth of meaning we seek in our lives.

Action, says Dufresne, involves an act of the will, a choice, an alignment of soul and body for a purpose and it should be distinguished from automatic or unthinking behavior which can be said to be passive. We recognize this intuitively in the greater admiration we have for people whose achievements are less what they have made or done than what they have become as a result of their activity : what they have made of themselves.

Doing and becoming correspond to the first two levels of action described by Aristotle : poiein and prattein.  Poiein is the creative act of producing. Prattein is the becoming, the transformation of self through action, that is present, in varying degree, in all forms of poiein. It leads to a third level, theorein, also called contemplation, which is the exact reverse of passive behavior. Passive behavior is all doing and no being; theorein is almost all being : a state of concentrated presence and attention, with little or no apparent movement.  Doing, thinks Aristotle, only has meaning when poiein involves a concern for prattein, and when it is nurtured and illuminated by theorein.

Industrial society is only concerned with the material and mechanical aspects of doing as measured by the usefulness of the output.  Becoming and contemplation are divorced from serious work and relegated to times of leisure.  But leisure is most often spent in the agitated passivity of spectator activity, with little effective difference between travel tour sightseeing and watching the same landscapes and monuments on television.  The fact is that while poiein has no meaning without prattein and theorein, the latter are not possible without poiein.  This is why leisure and rest are no remedy to the fatigue and the lack of meaning of our working lives.  Energy and regeneration, Blondel says, only come with the exertion of purposeful action.

Most important and perhaps most neglected today is the illuminating power of theorein.  Through the power of photosynthesis, plants transform the energy of the sun into nourishment for all forms of life.  We could say that there is a form of spiritual photosynthesis that enables great thinkers and artists who are attuned to sources of spiritual energy to fill their works with the meaning we need for spiritual nourishment, the meaning that can help us bring together our being and our doing and thereby facilitate our participation and contribution to community. 

by Dominique Collin
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click here to access the original Agora Encyclopedia entry on ACTION 

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