The Greek’ attitude towards work, in general terms, was mainly negative. Because work seems to belong to the order of necessity, the Greeks associated it with animal nature. That is, work was understood in an instrumental sense where human beings had to work to live and satisfy their daily needs. This, in part, led to the Greek to overemphasize the contemplative life, a product of thinking and reflection, instead of labor work.Contemplative life, then, would be superior to the active life because it would allow human beings to achieve happiness and because it is precisely reason what distinguishes us from the rest of the creation such as animals and plants. Despite their differences on the contemplative life, we can affirm that both Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, had a similar view on work. In that regard, the relation between Aristotle’s view on work and Aquinas’s is that during the medieval period Aquinas renewed Aristotle’s position on the superiority of the contemplative life.
Aristotle arrives at his conclusion regarding the superiority of the contemplative life based on his reasoning that reason constitutes the best feature human beings possess. He then connects excellence — the best feature — with happiness. From this connection, Aristotle associates human reason with both excellence and happiness in contrast to the body which seems to be limited and inferior. Taking this into account, Aristotle tends to downplay the active life based on his belief that labor work focuses on the order of necessity. Aristotle favors the contemplative life which focuses on the intellectual work. That is, happy people tend to practice more contemplation and do less labor work. In this respect, there are some implications for vocation. Any work that does not lead people to contemplation is seen in negative terms. First, it will not lead them to a state of happiness and excellence (although Aristotle thought politics would lead to some happiness). Second, it will lead people to care more about temporal and natural things such as their body’s needs. Aristotle’s preference for the contemplative life calls us to pay attention to this side of life, especially in modern and developed societies where a significant percentage of mental illness are considered being caused by stress.
One important aspect to highlight regarding the Aristotelian notion of work is Aquinas’s retrieval during the medieval age. Aquinas compares the active vs. the contemplative life and we see there how he attempts to recover Aristotle’s emphasis of the contemplative life based on the biblical story of Mary and Martha found in the Gospel of Luke 10. For Aquinas, Martha represents the active life which focuses on labor work. She was more concerned about having ready the food than hearing Jesus. In contrast, Mary had understood that taking time off to pay attention to Jesus was more important than concentrating in preparing the food. From this text Aquinas concludes that Aristotle was right when he favors the contemplative life. Mary chose the good part, Jesus claimed. The contemplative life is not only better in quality, but it has also a higher end goal: experiencing God. Therefore, the contemplative life for Aquinas is inferior to the contemplative life. Unlike the former, the latter one focuses on the love of God. Aquinas, then, seems to present the active and the contemplative life in dualistic terms—one dimension versus another. From his perspective, both dimensions of life contrast each other and, therefore, the contemplative life should be favored by Christians.