Thursday, September 24, 2020


            This week I encountered a confluence of ideas:

·      Constantin Stanislavski, the founder of “method” acting, on desire as central to our human         condition,

·      Aristotle on telos, the purpose or end or goal inherent in a person or thing, and

·      a video celebrating Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year, sent to me by Rabbi Peter Rubinstein (“Best wishes for great 5781. (It either traces back to creation, or when Jews discovered Chinese food.”)) Here’s a link to the video:


            Is desire the driving force of character? Stanislavski thought so. He felt that desire is central to our human condition, whether or not we truly understand what we want. For this reason, desire is the key to great acting and great dramatic writing. Perhaps, but Is desire really central to our human condition? And can introspection lead you to understand your deepest desires? Can an analysis of your actual behavior – the choices you make – lead to an understanding of your deep desires, your central self? By the way, Stanislavski felt that the key to any relationship is to understand what the other person wants, and that strikes me as a useful insight. But what do we think of people who are driven by desire – a word that, unfortunately, brings to my Puritan-laced mind some negative connotations? On the other hand, sometimes it’s desire that gets me up in the morning.


            The concept of telos suggests another perspective. The term, as defined by Aristotle, means the full potential of a plant or animal – what it was made for. Trees, for example, seem to be made to grow, produce fruit/nuts/flowers, provide shade, and reproduce. Thus, these are all elements of trees' telos. That’s well enough for trees, but what about people? Do we all, as a species, have the same telos? Aristotle says our human telos is happiness (eudaimonia), which seems, if I may take issue with the world’s greatest philosopher, not very helpful. Yes, other goals (wealth, health, pleasure, generosity, service) are all means to the end of happiness, but really, “happiness,” unless the translation from Greek is lame, seems a bit shallow. And does my life have the same telos as others of my species, say, Donald Trump? Not to get too political, but is his inherent purpose or end or goal the same as mine? I beg to differ. I don’t see “happiness,” as we usually use the word, as a worthwhile telos. Sorry, but we can do better.


            As an American, with our probably unhealthy devotion to individuality, I choose to believe that we each have our own telos – the “best self” or “full potential” of which we are capable. We may have more than one: Kim as wife, Kim as mother, Kim as artist, as homemaker, as sage, to mention a few. These are, I suppose, all “desires,” and all ways to achieve Aristotle’s happiness. I suspect that Stanislavski’s “desire” or “want” often may be more an obstacle than a means to fulfilling our telos, which might be why it often leads to good drama, and we approach, and perhaps discover, our telos through conflict with our wants and desires. For some people, however, their wants and desires are their simple core. Desire often wins.


            This brings me to Yom Kippur, a holy day that I, as a goy, can only observe superficially from the outside. Peter’s video presents the Jewish New Year as an opportunity to make choices to help us commit to our full potential, our telos. The video uses the term “reset,” with encouragement to “wake up” (visually done in Starbucks green!) to your purpose, that which “cries out for your service.” What really strikes me is the invitation to make an active choice, something that an apple tree does not do when fulfilling its telos. And then there is a sense of joy, expressed through the music, associated with awakening and choosing. The video also presents the warmth and support from being part of a community making these choices. Happy New Year! Compare this with what I usually see associated with the arrival of the New Year – staying up late, drinking, kissing somebody, then watching football on television while starting to dump your resolutions. 


            This is the place in my essay where I should probably offer wise advice. Sorry – I’m not there yet. I welcome any advice you can offer. Perhaps the answer has to do with small daily moments rather than anything as grand and sweeping as telos. Maybe “wake up” is the most worthwhile goal.


            Kim “wants” rocks. From time to time I “wake up” to her desire and choose, as my telos, to help her achieve her eudaimonia (happiness) by driving to a local excavator to pick out a few for our yard. Then, after lunch, we found a few Petoskey stones on our beach. Then I took a brief nap, followed this afternoon by some reheated coffee – eudaimonia!


1 comment:

  1. I think "wake up" is a very important goal. It's my main goal today. Community is really important. We all need support from one another. Making active choices are really important to me. Some people like others to make choices for them. I definitely do not fall into that category. Jim can attest to that belief of mine. I think of well being as opposed to happiness. Being able to make choices that contribute to my well being bring about a degree of happiness. Your blog entry is making me think too hard. My brain might explode!