Aristotle Research Report #9: τέλος

by Peter Saint-Andre


Part of my goal in writing an epitome of Aristotle's writings on personal excellence is to get closer to their original meaning, which I do by reflecting deeply on how to render crucial Greek words into English. Consider this cluster: τέλος, τελεία, τελειώτατον. In his book Aristotle on the Human Good, Richard Kraut translates them with variations on the English word "perfection". In present-day English, "perfect" has connotations of being absolutely without blemish; thus something perfect seems static and cold and unchanging, not dynamic and warm and living. I get a distinctly unworldly (dare I say Platonic?) feeling from Kraut's translation. Yet in Greek τέλος is something much simpler: the end-marker or finish-line of a racecourse. A τέλος is a goal; you can achieve a goal or complete a race, but you don't perfect a goal or perfect a race. Similarly with τελεία: Aristotle speaks of τελεία ἀρετή, which I would render as complete excellence (not "perfect virtue"). So also with τελειώτατον: in his analysis of εὐδαιμονία or living well Aristotle mentions that the highest goal of human action needs to be the most complete (not "most perfect") because if you could add anything more to it then there would be a more valuable goal. In all of these instances, I am tempted to find the idea of "completing" or "most completing" behind the scenes; in Aristotle's philosophy, the concept of ἐντελέχεια (becoming complete, achieving a goal, completing a task) is always central. And note that the task (ἔργον) you're working at (ἐνέργεια) is not imposed from outside but grows organically from within; Aristotle's teleology (there's that τέλος again) is not universal but particular, individual, personal. Thus my working title: Complete Yourself.

(On a related note, I often find it tiresome to read the secondary literature on Aristotle because if the scholar in question interprets key terms in an utterly different way than I do, then I need to mentally translate everything back to my own conceptual space as I read; absorbing hundreds of pages in which ἀρεταί ἠθικαί comes through as "moral virtue" instead of "excellence of character" is a chore!)


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