Today I return to my word meditation series with a bit of a twist. Our word for today isn’t an English word. It comes from ancient Greek and is word that was once hugely important and influential in shaping classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Sadly, though, it has lost its potency with the rise of Christianity and modern science. It is, though, I think, a word and concept that we need to really look at and try to bring back.
“End” in English has a much simpler, and less rich meaning than telos does. This makes it hard to really get a sense of what telos is as an idea. At it’s simplest, telos is the idea that the end of something gives that thing its full purpose. And, it’s important to understand, that the telos has an influence: in Greek philosophy, the telos is one of the four causes that govern change.
This way of looking at ends is very different than we’re used to. In fact, it’s completely antithetical to our modern scientific view of cause and effect, because it runs counter to the flow of time. This is one reason why the idea of telos has been lost. And, in fact, poor thinking around causation is sometimes dismissed for being teleological.
Why is this idea of telos important? Because it gives an idea of directionality and purpose as we move through life. We humans, being story telling creatures, function best when we understand our life as a story. This is reflected in the oft-asked (to the point of cliche) question of “What’s the meaning of life”?
The psychologist James Hillman argued eloquently for the psychological need for telos in his book The Soul’s Code. In it he makes a powerful argument that this idea of telos gives people the focus and meaning that they need and helps them to better navigate life. Even if teleology may not be “true” in the scientific sense, he shows that it has utility and can fulfill a real purpose. To try and make clear what this really means, for me, when I read Hillman’s book, I realized that the teleological reason why my mother died and I found out that my father had died was because to be who I am now, I had to be made an orphan at 33. I know that need to be an orphan at 33 didn’t reach back in time and cause my mother to die of lung cancer and my father of suicide. But that framing of the events makes it easier for me to heal, cope, and make sense of it all.
One day, I was telling a friend about how I was watching the end of Kundun.
She remarked how I seem to like to watch the endings of movies. It’s an accurate obervation: I do. She didn’t ask explicitly why that is, but the observation set me to thinking on that question.
What I’ve figured out is that I like is not necessarily the endings of the films per se. Rather I like to see the telos. Especially teloi (Greek plural) that show people rising to heights that demonstrate the best things humans are capable of.
Whether it’s the flight of the Dalai Lama to India
the self-sacrifice of Batman to save Gotham City in The Dark Knight
a father’s sacrifice to save his son in Tron: Legacy
or the desperate charge of the Rohirrim before the gates of Minas Tirith into certain death to save the city in Return of the King
what moves me, gives me this curious expansive, tingly feeling is that sense that I’m witnessing a true, ennobling telos.
As I write this, I realize that part of what I’ve been going through with the Crucible has been a loss of my old sense of my telos. The telos that I thought I was moving towards is gone; it turns out my sense of what I thought it was was wrong. And that part of what I’m doing in posts like this and yesterday’s post Dream a big dream: Time to die is figure out what my true telos is. Granted, one doesn’t truly know until they reach their telos. But one can have a stronger or weaker sense of it. And humans fare better when they have a stronger sense of their telos, it gives them purpose. You can see how a strong sense of telos gives purpose in this scene from Babylon 5, when Jeffrey Sinclair reassures Delenn and explains how he is now like an arrow, sure of his purpose.
I don’t have that certitude yet myself. But every day is a step closer. In a way, that simple observation that my friend made has prompted this post, and that has brought more clarity and me another step closer.
That last certainly underscores one thing I know about my purpose: it isn’t one that is found or done in isolation. When I thought about paths when I was younger, I was afraid that some paths, like Buddhism, would require me to be alone and that kept me from exploring those paths. I’ve lost the fear of exploring those paths now.
Like I say: we shall see.