Telos, Contigent or Unconditional

Sweet Talk hasn’t been around for very long and already I’ve offended someone as famous as Heraclitus. We are living the dream, achieving our telos over here.

After reading this interesting post on process vs substance philosophies and the role of each in biology, I came back around to thinking about David’s post.

I would never think to know of a telos (mine or anyone else’s) in some complete, universal sense of the word. But it does seem to me that we can grasp at something more contingent, historical; of the moment and the circumstances, in short.

Process philosophies, of which Heraclitus is the great grandfather (but don’t call him a philosopher, he doesn’t like that) seem to me to be true in some universal, unconditional way. There are these grand processes of which everything about us merely constitute a moment or sum of moments in time. But substance philosophies are more useful within the window of those moments. Within that time window, I have been equipped with eyes which observe things that my brain interprets as discrete things that I need to make decisions in relation to. Taxonomies of these things can be useful for informing those decisions, but we needn’t fall into essentialism and think there is something like a Platonic form behind the categories in these taxonomies.

Purpose, or purposes, for a human life, can be substantive in that sense and that sense only. And as with everything human we do not look upon such a thing without filters; something like a telos does not exist in any concrete way without an ethical framework within which it is coherent. And such frameworks are themselves merely eddies in Heraclitus’ river.

If by Feminism

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about feminism. All right, here is how I feel about feminism:

If when you say feminism you mean the legions of man-haters, the bra burners, the wreckers of free enterprise, that usurps the simple right to association freely given, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the little children from the custody of their natural fathers; if you mean the evil ideology that topples the Christian family from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of #FULLCOMMUNISM, dependency and misanthropy, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say feminism you mean the end of mundane daily street harassment, the cease-and-desist order sent to the stormtroopers of discouragement who prey on the developing minds of young girls, the simple dignity that women be free from discrimination or dominion, that tips the female chin upwards in pride, free from belittlement or badgering from both men and fellow women alike; if you mean the cheer of equality in the eyes of the law; if you mean the commonplace observation that your sisters, your mothers, and your daughters too are all, each and every one human beings due no more and no less the dignity afforded to their brothers, their fathers, their sons; if you mean the rigorous analytical task of isolating, identifying, and curing the many structural and institutional barriers to the natural liberties of women to seek the best ways to flourish in this world we all share; if you mean that grand project, the pursuit of which pours into our hearts and minds untold truths of the complex, often subtle ways in which the vagaries of sex and gender shape and mold both expectations and outcomes, which are used to oppress, dismiss, discount, and ignore, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

The Passion of the Stubbart

There is a reading of the Narcissus cycle out there which is counterintuitive to the one commonly read, which results in the epithet for so many of today’s youth (or yesterday’s, or the day before yesterday’s): “You’re a narcissistic, self-absorbed, selfish jerk!” The common reading reveals a great deal about human nature; this alternative is a reading which reveals a great deal about human interaction.

Narcissus was a particularly nasty fellow, hurting poor Echo to such a degree that she became nothing but a voice repeating what was said to her. This detail, as I recall, is a key component to the interpretation of the Narcissus cycle. Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely. In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing. Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.*


Family systems theory, which is starting to wend its way into the vernacular, loves this alternative reading. “Modernity As An Overlearning of Christianity,” a nice piece by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, called this to my mind today, where  he writes,

Very often, one finds that if the parent had listened more carefully to the child, a lot of bad blood might have been avoided–and we also very often find that the parent and teenager, even as they reject and antagonize each other are, from the outside perspective, like mirror images of each other.

Indeed, the closer we are in a familial circle, the more we see ourselves in each other. A mother who hates herself, for example, will probably hate her daughters, and her daughters will waste away into nothingness, with no sense of the self apart from the opinion, be it ever so low, of Mom. Mom may be carrying forward her own mother’s self-hatred, or she may be expressing her husband’s self-hatred. He may gaze upon flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, and seeing himself, a despicable, unlovable human being, tell himself as much to his mirror, i.e., his own wife. In this way, this system is pre-flower narcissistic. No one has lured any of them to the reflecting pool. In this system, participants have specific roles to play, and those roles are generally assigned by the matriarch. Those who differentiate themselves, showing love to the self apart from the will or approval of the matriarch, are summarily destroyed, or failing that, cast out.

This dynamic extends itself (it also works with healthy systems, too, but those aren’t very fun) into larger circles: extended family (duh), neighborhood, school, community, etc., even into government, where government is dominated by family (see Queen Victoria, WWI; confluences).

Pamela J. Stubbart, who is acquainted, by my reckoning, with a handful of the other bloggers here at Sweet Talk Conversation, recently differentiated herself, with an act of self-love, revealing itself in personal integrity, and the reaction was instructive. When she differentiated herself from the system’s mother, the mother gazed upon herself in Pamela, and she hated Pamela, i.e., hated herself. Choosing not to see something beautiful in differentiation, she rushed upon Pamela, with a cadre armed with rhetorical swords and clubs.

The battleground, as you know, was what Pamela wrote about the porn star posing as a libertarian, or whatever. The battle, on the other hand, had little to do with the ground it was being fought upon, much the same as two enemy kings parlaying where they might decide who inherits the throne of Northumbria. They can fight in the field, in the city gates, or in a van down by the river, for that concern; it doesn’t matter. What matters is which one of them emerges differentiated as King. In a social setting, what matters is which one of them emerges with personal integrity. Integrity comes at the price of something in the way of a battle. Does she love herself or hate herself? Will this battle protract itself to no end, or will one emerge as the victor, with integrity?

Nemesis surely blanched to watch Narcissus transform, developing a lovely soft neck, filled with humility and sweetness, a gift to us all.

*So help me, I looked, and I cannot find the reference for where I read this. I’ll be glad to attribute properly if someone knows its whereabouts.

Tell Us, O Tell Us of Your Telos

See, this is just the kind of thing to get Heraclitus foaming at the mouth so that we think of him as irascible, melancholy, misanthropic and altogether grumpy, along with being a warmonger, this thing from Adam Gurri. How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust. There’s yer telos, right there.

This, I submit in behalf of Heraclitus, is the great genius of the Declaration of Independence (despite its revolutionary fomentation, pace Adam Blackstone): the Americans stood astride the Enlightenment, shouting “Stop!”, inscribing their property, their lives, and their John Hancocks on those three concepts, the most debatable of which is the last, that is, and the pursuit of happiness. I do believe that this revolutionary idea, coupled with life and liberty, was a fundamental moment, a convergence of history, perhaps the telos of history, in the sense that they rejected the common notion of telos (qualified here as knowable, and therefore pliable) and set the world free to pursue happiness.

You would take up arms to pursue happiness?

Come to think of it, this most ethereal (ephemeral?) of concepts is the least abstract of the three. We can’t concretize life nor liberty to the same extent nor with the same categories as we can the pursuit of happiness. “The pursuing of happiness.” It is the story of a mother running after her toddler while grandma and grandpa gander at the image of their own tender youth, when they were pursuing. It is the story of a driven businessman raising up corporation after corporation for sale to the public. It is the story of [you fill in this space].

This is why the American experiment is mostly a story, a collection of stories, of episodes, whereas other experiments are epochs, eras, and dynasties. Heraclitus would approve. Even our wars (until the middle of the 20th Century) were Heraclitian in their character, the American people demurring on things such as revolution, slavery, European misery, fascism and Communism, until they couldn’t stand no more (again, pace Adam Blackstone), and then a wrath unleashing, which, among all its debatable effects, brought a fire upon the earth, which, in and of itself, is the telos of war, of existence.*

Being caught up in war, of course gives one a sense of personal telos, but not without the lingering doubt that the battle, even for the victorious soldier, is for nothing, considering the grand sweep of history, that great abstraction. Many WWII veterans died in their old age bitter towards their own children for a betrayal of all the things they fought and were wounded for and their closest comrades died for. “Of course it’s for nothing!” Heraclitus the Wise exclaims.

Other wise people nod their heads in agreement. It is enough, they say, to have at the end of the day someone to talk to and the knowledge that at least you had something to do while the sun traversed the sky from horizon to horizon.

*I contend that Heraclitus would have approved most heartily of the practical American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. I agree with some of his reasoning, but not entirely with his moral outlook.

Do You Even Telos, Bro?

So I’m reading After Virtue, surprisingly (shamefully?) late in my virtue ethics reading list. It’s living up to its reputation so far; I think it’s safe to say that there’s something in it for everyone here; history, philosophy, and social science.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the fall of virtue goes something like this:

  1. Aristotle and the ancients set up the virtue framework in which there is man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be, the latter defined by man’s telos, his purpose. The gap is bridged with practical reason.
  2. The scholastics came along, though this framework was pretty awesome, but added that man-as-he-ought-to-be is man acting in accordance with divine law. Despite later claims to the contrary, these guys are still all about reason.
  3. The Calvinists comes along and ruin everything (note: MacIntyre is Catholic). OK, not everything, but they set the stage for the decline: they reject the idea that reason can bridge the gap between man-as-he-is and man-as-he-ought-to-be. But they still believe the gap can be bridged—it’s just that only divine grace can get us there.
  4. The Enlightenment philosophers inherited the Calvinist-influenced version of this framework and agree with the notion that reason can’t bridge the gap. Only they’re a bunch of secularists, so they don’t think divine grace has any place either. The gap can no longer be bridged.
  5. Eventually, man-as-he-ought-to-be is forgotten altogether, and the idea of telos is rejected in basically all and any contexts.
  6. Enlightenment philosophers begin the work of constructing a framework in which moral law (inherited from the notion of divine law) is grounded in “human nature” (which is basically just man-as-he-is) without reference to a telos.
  7. Despite investing the greatest minds of the era, perhaps of any era, they fail miserably.

As a result, we’re stuck with a bunch of fragments of the old framework that don’t work well on their own, and attempts to make them stand on their own that simply don’t pass muster.

That’s all very interesting, and you don’t have to have MacIntyre’s point of view to agree that there’s at least something to that characterization of how events unfolded.

But my question, as a concerned virtue ethicist, is: can we resurrect a human telos?

Telos gets a bum rap because a lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear about a human “purpose”. They think religion. But we needn’t have a religious notion of telos and Aristotle certainly didn’t.

The idea, explored at length by Philippa Foot in Natural Goodness, is sort of functional. When we speak of “a good sailor”, we think of someone who performs a specific role well. When we speak of “a good wolf” or perhaps “a good example of a wolf”, we think of a wolf that is able to operate with its pack effectively, that isn’t self-destructive or likely to get the rest of its pack and its kin killed, and so on.

The crucial question for ethics is whether it is meaningful to speak of “a good human”. Foot and MacIntyre think so, as do most virtue ethicists in general. And it’s hard for me to disagree when I read, for instance, Daniel Russell’s Happiness for Humans:

So here’s a piece of advice: the person with the best chance for a happy life is the one who can cope with change, finds people to love, and then loves them as if his happiness, his very identity, depended on them. On my view, doing all of that wisely is just what happiness is.

Let’s taken as a given, for the sake of argument, that this quote describes the parameters of an ideal life. If this is the sort of life that “a good human” lives, it is also clearly not the life that all people are living. Let’s tentatively bring man-as-he-ought-to-be back into the picture then.

But where does this telos come from? A popular argument circulating on behalf of things like the paleo diet is that we evolved in one environment and since then have moved on to ways of life that are drastically different from that. I’m skeptical of the particular application (you can pry my processed sugar and carbs from my cold, dead fingers) but clearly the line of thought involves man-as-he-ought-to-be and an evolutionary story to justify it.

Certainly psychology, self-help, and happiness studies all have an implicit telos of the healthy, happy, fulfilled human in mind. There are plenty of problems with particular instances of each of these areas but all I’m attempting to demonstrate here is that telos need not seem so remote and ancient to us as it is often presented as being.

MacIntyre argues that the is-ought divide is an artifact of a specific history rather than an intrinsic gap. I’m inclined to agree. But that’s a much longer conversation, to be returned to at a later time.

Heraclitus The Happy

“They call you the Weeping Philosopher,” I said sometime during the wee hours that first night I got there.

“Nincompoops!” he said. “I’m one of the happiest people I know.”

The map is deceiving, how far east you must travel to get to Ephesus. Rome is right there, with Athens a hoplite’s skip away, and then, it seems, there’s Ephesus, where Heraclitus makes his home, which, by the way, is situated along the Mediterranean facing west, due west. He has a lovely cedar patio for a roof, complete with a fireplace surrounded by cedar furniture with down-padded cushions and a servant always in attendance to fetch us more wine and the occasional morsel of cheese and bread. Nevertheless, when you deplane in Athens, Ephesus is still a long way to the east, especially once you board the oxcart that gets you through the mists of time. The names are all Greek, but the land is all Anatolia. Moreover, there’s a distinctive gilding to everything, every road, every building, every conversation. The din of the Mediterranean West gives way to something more polite, measured, neighborly.

We propped our feet up on the railing while we listened to the ocean wash the rocks below, and I said, “Happy people don’t hate Athens like you do.”

Without looking at me, he put down his skin of wine, took his station at the railing, lifted his chiton, and urinated into the ocean. “I think ‘hatred’ is a rather weak attempt at capturing my utter contempt for those Athenian scum-sucking pigs,” he said. “Did you see how the wind pushed my golden river a few degrees to the south? Follow that river, and you’ll find Athens, where you’ll agree that micturition is only the smallest font of their many and varied stenches.” Then he added, “Besides, I’m not a philosopher. Philosophers have to know too much. Moreover, you’ve had too much to drink, and you’ve become a terrible guest. By sleeping you may help work out those things coming to pass in the world. So do us both a favor, all right?”

The next morning came at midday, and I had a headache. I was in no mood to eat, talk, or drink, so I sat under the sun, watching the ocean roll in from Athens.

“Wet soul?!?” I heard him shout, to my great discomfort. “The soul needs to be dried out by wine, as I told you, but it has a saturation point, whereupon it becomes wet again.”

“I feel like death,” I croaked.

“Perhaps your soul is not as wet as I thought,” he said. “You’re in good shape, then.” And he sat down, eating a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and, I think, grass. Between bites, he pontificated. “Cyrus brought friendship, you see, not conquest. There was virtually no war. The Haxamanis literally says, in Persian, ‘Having a friend’s mind,’ and that’s what they were all about. They settled affairs in their own country, working their way west while folding nations into their friendship like folding whipped goat’s milk into honey-beaten egg yolks.”

Cyrus the Great Standard
The standard of Cyrus the Great

He paused for a moment. “Grated nutmeg on top. Can you taste it? Delicious.” Whatever it was I was tasting at the moment was bilious, so I bade him continue.

“When they arrived here, in these parts, they met their first real resistance.”

“Because Hellas is hella!” I said. He ignored me, scraping the bottom of his bowl of grass-yogurt with his spoon.

“Athens, in the meantime, was having one bacchanal after another, their noble aristocracy dancing before their idols upon the backs of the farmers their families enslaved only two generations hence. Cyrus desired to set them free and end usury.”

“End usury? How would business get done?”

“Usury, the Haxamanis say, is the Lie. Debt is a force pushing forward deception, both on the part of the lender and the borrower, and the Lie, when it comes to property, creates slavery and imprisons innocent men. How can a man pursue arete when he is imprisoned by the Lie? How can he be human when he is on a leash?”

Very sobering, I thought to myself. I asked, “How did the resistance go?”

“We here, thankfully, are Persian, but only for the moment. Ionians are as witless as Atticans, driving off anyone with any sense at all. My teacher Xenophanes has made himself naked with them, to my great shame. We Greeks want our slaves. Darius will spill much Greek blood to set them free, but we will spill much Persian blood to keep them. Those Dionysian feasts are something to behold; and they call him ‘The Liberator.'”

“Haven’t you said that ‘all things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself’?”

“Something like that,” he replied. “But who wants that?”

“I thought you would.”

“Perhaps I do. So it comes, the injustice of war to make the injustice of slavery come to an end, and then we will have justice for a time, while they grapple with one another, intertwined, for mastery.”

For some time while Heraclitus was lecturing I felt in my belly a compassion that had sprung for the farmers who had been enslaved, and it rose. There it was again, much higher, manifesting itself next to the beating within my breast. It was hatred.


 Fragments Consulted


It needs be that by having inquired well of very many things men are philosophers —On Nature, Fragment XLIX

Those who sleep are laborers and co-laborers of the things coming to pass in the world —Fragment XC

Stupidity is better to conceal, but it’s quite the labor when relaxing also with some wine. —Fragment CVIII

A dry soul is wisest and best —Fragment LXXIV

All things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself. —Fragment XXVI