Telic vs atelic activities and the meaning of life
A good life results from a judicious mix of things we do for a purpose and things we do for their own sake
A few years ago I read an interesting review of a then new book by philosopher Kieran Setiya, entitled Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton University Press). Like me, Setiya is an academic philosopher who has rediscovered the ancient notion that philosophy ought to matter to people. It’s fine and dandy to publish abstruse but “fun” technical papers that will be read by a few dozen people and that will get you tenure and promotion, but are you making a difference in your own and other people’s lives? If the answer is negative (and it is for many academics, not just in philosophy) then you may want to reconsider what you are doing and why.
This essay is not about Setiya’s book, which begins with a premise—a personal midlife crisis—very much like my own How to Be a Stoic. Rather, the reviewer, Anil Gomes, reminded me of an all-important distinction among activities that make our life meaningful, one that in turn showed me once again just how much the Stoics got right about the human condition.
Said distinction was introduced by Aristotle, who I think got it exactly right. And yet, in my mind, the Stoics (and, to be fair, others, like the Epicureans) were the ones that actually put it into practice. Aristotle said that there are two broad categories of activities that may make life meaningful: telic and atelic.
Telos in Greek means purpose, or goal. Telic activities vary from fairly difficult and unusual ones, like making it into the Olympic squad for a particular sport or writing a book, to the more common ones of getting a college degree or obtaining a promotion at work. The problem with telic activities is that they generate a paradox: if you fail, you are unhappy because you failed. But if you succeed, then the pleasure you got from reaching your goal is extinguished right at the moment you do achieve it, or shortly thereafter.
When I moved to the United States in 1990 I remember vividly the satisfaction I got from obtaining my PhD in biology at the University of Connecticut. Even my (long divorced) parents made the cross-Atlantic trip (together!) to come and celebrate my achievement. But already a couple of days later, once the euphoria subsided, I found myself wondering what the next telos would be, and how to achieve it.
The case of professional athletes is still more stark. You work your entire early life to win the World Cup, the US Opens, or the Super Bowl. Very few people actually achieve that sort of telos. But once you have, you are staring at the rest of your life, during which you are unlikely to repeat that feat, and even if you did repeat it, it wouldn’t be the same thing. At any rate, pretty soon your body won’t be able to withstand that kind of treatment so you’ll have to “retire” at an age at which most people just begin to hit their stride.
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