Telos. It’s just one word, but it has a world of meaning.
Joseph Garner, who teaches “Sex, Death, and Sometimes Food: Introduction to Animal Behavior,” says it often. Even Garner, himself, acknowledged that “telos” appears to change meaning every time the class met.
For our weekly presentations in that class, we had to research an animal and use cues from its phylogeny, natural history, and general behavior to assign it a telos. The ones we came up with ranged from “the disco ball of the sea” to “sacred pinecone” to “killer communicators” — each attempts at describing both the animal and its essence in an illustrative few words.
Still, after the ten weeks of the class, I can’t give telos a one-word definition. Is it a niche? A role of some sort?
The second time I heard the word was with a friend, who suggested his own telos was “keeper of animals.” That was simple enough. A former zookeeper with pictures of animals hung all across his room — it made sense.
Up until that point, I hadn’t considered the idea that people can have a telos too. It made me think — how do we go about defining our own? Would giving ourselves a telos cross the line between identifying ourselves and confining ourselves to a label?
This, I think, reflects the flexibility of the word. Telos, I’m learning, is something active. It isn’t a noun as much as it is an action — a carving of sorts, a self-fashioning. It isn’t necessarily a role you have, but how you go about making it your role. A part of me also wonders if it’s something you need to outgrow in order to grow.
There’s a darker side to it, too. To understand our telos, we have to take a step away from the idealized versions of ourselves we have a tendency to project. We have to look inward. If only for a moment, we have to divorce ourselves from what we wish we were, or how wish we acted. Our hidden selves are often our truest ones — simultaneously dark and whole and beautiful because of it. However private, however concealed, what makes you, you?
“Every behavior we do has a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture,” Joseph Garner once said. What aspects of yourself are a result of your environment? Which ones are so “you” that they can’t be attributed to anything?
How do you define telos for yourself?
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.