Deck (1991:149) – theoria

Apparently, the original meaning of “theoria,” (theoria), which came to mean “contemplation,” was the sending of state ambassadors (theoroi) to the oracles and games; theoros, in turn, has an uncertain derivation, but seems to be connected with then, “seeing, looking at.” A theoros would have been an official see-er, a looker-on at the games. Thea, for its part, has the same root as theasthai “gaze at, behold in awe or wonder,” which in turn is to be related to thauma “wonder.” “Theoria,” with its cognate verb, theorem, seems to have evolved in meaning from “sending an official see-er to the games,” to “being a spectator at the games,” to “being a spectator generally” (i.e., simply “seeing, viewing”), to “contemplating, contemplation.”

In Book X of Aristotle’s Ethics (the background of PlotinusEnnead III, 8,1-4: vide supra p. 127, n. 9) human beatitude is proved to consist in “theoria” or “theoretic activity” which is

. . . the best activity: for intellect (noûs) is the best in us, and the best of knowables are those with which intellect is concerned. Again, it is the most continuous. For we are able to contemplate (theorem) more continuously than to perform any practical activity whatsoever (prattein hotioun). And we think that pleasure is mingled with happiness; now, activity in accordance with wisdom is the most pleasant of the activities in accordance with virtues. For indeed the love of wisdom seems to have pleasures marvelous in purity and stability, but it is reasonable that those who know will pass their lives more pleasantly than those who seek. (Eth. Nic. X, 8,1177a19-27.)

Theoria is the activity of intellect, concerned with knowables; it is continuous and most pleasant. It is intellectual seeing, knowing, which is more pleasant than the search for knowing.

Similarly, for Aristotle in Metaph. Lambda, the life of a god, of an unmoved movent, is an act of knowing, a theoria, a contemplation (7, 1072b14-4). Therefore, when he says that a science “contemplates everything that is related to one physis,” when he remarks that “grammar contemplates all articulate sounds,” when he says that it is the province of one science “to contemplate opposites,” when he says that it belongs to one science to “contemplate being qua being,” etc., he is talking about knowing (Metaph. Gamma, 2,1003b13-14; ibid, lines 19-21; ibid. 1003b34-1004a1). The English translations given for “theoria” in these and similar statements are misleading. Ross, for example, has “investigation” (1003b13-14), “investigates” (1003b19-21), “investigate” (1003b34-1004a1), “examine” (1005a2-3). Tredennick in these same places has “investigation,” “studies,” “study,” “study.” A science, an episteme, is for Aristotle not a consideration, but a knowing.1

If we call the “theoria” which Aristotle describes in all these passages “contemplation,” we must use the word in a very exact sense. “Contemplation” can mean in English the act or state of considering, thinking over, mulling over—an act or state short of knowing. “Contemplation” of this sort is not Aristotle’s “theoria.”

In Plato also, “theoria” frequently appears to mean a permanent, stable knowing, an a-temporal “seeing” of an a-temporal object. (Cf. Rep. VI, 486 a; ibid. 517b-c)

  1. Cf. Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (Toronto, 1963), pp. 79-80. 

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