Life Is Action, Not Contemplation Essay


  • Introduction
  • Struggle has its own reward
  • Too much thinking, a disease akin to melancholia
  • Progress in the amalgamation of theoretical and practical knowledge
  • A balanced attitude
  • Conclusion

This line has been taken from the collection of famous poet Goethe.
What is this life? A struggle or a dream? Perhaps both. If it is the one, life is action and if it is the other, life is contemplation. It is an old conception that life is a stage and men and women merely players. Rich or poor, all players must play their parts and act them well for in actin only is their life.

“The world’s theatre. The earth, a stage,

Placed in the midst: where both prince and page,

Rich and poor, fool, wise man, base and high,

All act their parts in life’s short tragedy.”

We can match these lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like it.

“All the world’s stage,

And all the men and women merely players,

They have their exists and their entrances,

The acts being seven ages.”

Action is recognized as vital even though its end is not clear. Whether we choose our actions or we are driven to do them from within it is all the same. Since death ends all, we travel towards death like the Lotus Eaters or like Ulysses? Macbeth says:

Out, out brief candle

Lives but a walking shadow, poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound or fury,

Signifying nothing

But what about these lines:

Your heads must come

To the cold tomb;

Only actions of the just

Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

[the_ad id=”17141″]The two aspects of action and contemplation constitute life; they are inseparable. Even in the mildest life of “simple live and high thinking” action has a part to play. But what about the mystery and complexity of the tragic element in life, will action solve it? No, we need contemplation. “the eye of solitude.”

“We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep”.

The riddle of life cannot be solved by action alone; contemplation and deep meditativeness are equally necessary to probe into it. Struggle makes us strong. Like virtue it has its own reward, it gives us character. We do not despair and undauntedly go in our fight or quest, call it what we may. We leap and don’t waste our precious time in looking before leaping. Conscience makes cowards of us all.

“And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sickled o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn away,

And lose the name of action”.


Too much thinking is a disease akin to melancholia. It keeps us depressed, gloomy, and dyspeptic. It gives us a distaste for action and life and accordingly we ruminate on the miseries of self. Life appears to be a cheat, a purposeless puzzle, a tragic – comedy at best but no more. We feel like Hamlet “that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than à foul and pestilent congregation of vagours,” and man, only “the quintessence of dust.” A gloomy mind has no men of action to escape the uglier aspects of life. A pessimist always concentrating on the seamy side of things jaundiced and loses all love and regard for the heroic. A spider working inward soon envelops him in a web; similarly, merely abstract thinking confuses the brain.

In Europe, the reaction against a life of static contemplation divorced from action began in the eighteenth century. In this century Voltaire vehemently condemned superstition and unreason. He was the negative genius of the age. Goethe was the positive genius of the nineteenth century and the age that followed. When he said, “Life is action, not contemplation,” by contemplation’ he meant sterile brooding and not that forward-looking and fruitful contemplation which was the motive-force behind all his own great achievements. A distinguished philosopher has truly observed that Goethe’s poetry and philosophy as civilization and culture. Iqbal’s ‘Piyam-i-Mashriq’ is in response to the message of Goethe in his poetry. When, therefore, Goethe, prefers a life of action to a life of contemplation, 6 merely puts on record the inward bent and temper of the modern mind.[the_ad id=”17142″]

How has the world progressed?

The world’s thinkers and the actors share honours equally. In the domain of theoretical knowledge thinkers are superior but in the sphere of practical knowledge, that is research or discovery, action counts. Contemplation suggests the way but action treads on it. The former sights are goal, the latter reaches it. Contemplators lie reclined like gods whereas actors marshal armies. We, the younger generation hardly know anything about the original dreamer but we champion the foot-sore and weary stragglers to buck up and complete the course.

“Play up, play up, play up the game.”

Let us by all means contemplate but let us not do so at the cost of energetic living. We have to conquer the “self” within us and the whole world around. Disease, hunger, and circumstance are our deadly enemies. We have to fight them in order to make our lives richer and fuller. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body; action gives us health. The way to Hell is paved with the best intentions. Thoughts, unless translated into actual shape, do not come to bloom but die in the embryo. “Oh, I had thought of this, this, this…” This is the regret of most of us. Alas! It is too late in the day to begin when the blood in our veins is cold, our bones are old and our flesh feels the creeps. Act and act in youth and manhood and relegate contemplation to old age.

“When youth’s presumptuousness is mellowed down,

And Manhood’s vain anxiety dismissed

When wisdom shows her seasonable fruit,

Upon the boughs of sheltering leisure hung

In sober plenty…”

Action leads us to blessedness and contemplation either to the Lotus Eater’s “dreamful, ease” or the philosopher’s “Nirvana.” Existence or isolation, we have to choose between the two. We would prefer perfection through action to self-annihilation through contemplation. Subcontinent’s past is rich in the fruits of contemplation but the present needs action. Let us be up and doing and yoke over country to the needs of the present.

Thought, to be complete, demands action, and action without thought has no lasting value. Contemplation and action are like the obverse and reverse of a medal. We can analyze them separately but never disassociate them in life. The best life is that which is lived both in thought and deeds.

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