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.

3 thoughts on “Tell Us, O Tell Us of Your Telos

  1. akred

    This post and your post on the death cult of driving reminds me of ‘the unbearable lightness of being.’ The unbearable lightness of being, the ephemeral existence, the fragility of life makes it so sweet to savor. But we might lose the ability to know what the telos is.

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