Describe and discuss the function of the concept of the telos

Bethany Stevens
Essay IV- Topic 1
December 10, 2003
Understanding the Telos
Through the writings of Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans the goal (telos)
of life is made apparent. For Aristotle the telos of life is achieved through the exercising
of rational and virtuous behavior to reach a sense of true happiness or pleasure
(eudemonia) within one’s soul. The Stoics suggest the telos of life is found by living
consistently and harmoniously with nature, and in doing so virtue tends to follow. The
Epicureans locate the telos in pure happiness or pleasure that is derived solely through the
absence of pain. Although the three differ quite a bit, they all expounded upon what
would be necessary to achieve the telos of life. Despite the striking difference in their
philosophies, they are all linked with the notion of exercising rational (logos) thought to
achieve a sense of happiness.
For Aristotle, the telos of life is located within happiness or pleasure (eudemonia)
of the soul. The final end or telos must be found in something that is always in virtue of
itself, something that stands on its own and does not exist for the sake of something else.
Aristotle explains that “happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the
end of action” (Aristotle I.7). He states that “happiness then is the best, noblest, and
most pleasant thing in the world, and these attributes are not severed” (Aristotle I.8). To
reach the full telos of life one must achieve a sense of happiness, which can be derived
through exercising virtue. The virtue that Aristotle refers to is not exclusively bestowed
by the gods or by chance as one is born, but instead is brought about by a “process of
learning and training” (Aristotle I.9) virtuous behavior. It is through the act of practicing
or exercising virtuous behavior in a rational method that Aristotle derives meaning and
purpose for our actions.
To understand how man would achieve happiness it would be necessary to
understand the function of man. Our purpose (ergon) or better worded as characteristic
activity, is to attain a life of virtue. As Aristotle suggests, the purpose of a carpenter is to
construct homes; so too man must have a purpose (ergon). Aristotle states that “for all
things that have a function or activity, the food and the ‘well’ is though to reside in the
function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function” (Aristotle I.7). He
suggests that the ergon of humanity is to be located within the acts in life that contain a
“rational element” (Aristotle I.7).
Aristotle argues that the rational element of the soul facilitates the achievement
and is found at the end of our actions that are done in a virtuous manner. Aristotle
suggests that “in every action and pursuit [of] the end; for it is for the sake of this that all
men do whatever else they do” (Aristotle I.5). He suggests that the good of activity can
found in its end; for art of the medicine, the good is found within health. The telos is
achieved through the “activity of the soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more
than one excellence in accordance with the best and most complete” (Aristotle I.7).
For Aristotle utilitarian value can be placed upon external goods, unlike the
Stoics, in the search for the ultimate end or telos of life. External goods, such as wealth
and beauty, may not be the ultimate source of eudaimonia but they certainly cannot hurt
one’s chances of attaining happiness. While the absence of such qualities or external
goods do not necessarily preclude one’s attainment of the ultimate telos of eudaimonia,
the lack of such qualities or goods can hinder the ability to achieve happiness. Aristotle
states that “the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is
not very likely to be happy” (Aristotle I.8).
In order for the Stoics to grasp the intrinsic purpose or goal (telos) of humanity
Cicero initially delineated a greater understanding of what exactly motivates us and
makes us happy. It is through this developmental understanding that the notion of selfpreservation and self-love are understood as providing the primary motivation of
humanity (Cicero 16). According to the Stoics, what is deemed to be of value (axia) for
humanity and our primary motivation in life is “whatever is either itself in accordance
with nature, or brings about something that is” (Cicero III.20). Actions that are deemed
in accordance with nature or appropriate (kathekon) are then divided into two groups: one
“is to preserve oneself in one’s natural constitution” and the other is “to take what is in
accordance with nature and reject the opposite” (Cicero III.20). According to the Stoics,
those of us who live in accordance with these ideals live a consistent and harmonious life
in accordance with nature, which is the final aim of humanity (Cicero III.26).
In order to live a harmonious life in accordance with nature one must strive to
form conceptions and act in such a manner that exerts rational control (Cicero III.33). It
is through this rational control that necessary choices and avoidances are made that
conform to the consistency with nature, and consequently conform to the idea of virtue.
All acts, choices and avoidances, are judged upon the completed action, including the
conclusion but not solely based on upon the outcome. As Cicero states “an act motivated
by virtue should be judged as right at its inception, not its completion” (Cicero III.32).
For the Stoics we must exert rational control in our lives and through this virtue is
derived. We seek “these virtues because they enable us to live without trouble or fear,
and to free our minds and body as much as possible from distress” (Cicero I.49).
Much like the Stoic idea of living virtuously to escape distress, the Epicureans
argued that the telos could be derived solely through the absence of pain and the
attainment of pleasure. While on the surface this hedonistic view may seem to lack any
sort of treatise for just behavior or action, but the Epicureans warn against overindulgence of pleasure. Epicurus states that “it is not the pleasure of extravagant people
we mean or those that consist in consumption. . . rather, we mean having no pain in the
body or disturbance in the soul” (Epicurus 132). To achieve a life free from disturbance
and filled with pleasure, one must execute practical wisdom. It is through the execution
of practical wisdom that “flow all the other virtues” (Epicurus 132). With the use of
practical wisdom one can use their “intellect and reason… to grasp that pleasure is to be
sought for its own sake, and likewise pain to be avoided” (Cicero I.31).
Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics are all arguing for different conceptions
of the meaning of telos, as well as differing methods of achieving this but they are all
united in the desire to exercise rationality in the execution of living.
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