Meaning of Life: Telic vs Atelic Activities

Meaning of Life: Telic vs Atelic Activities July 2, 2020

I wrote a piece yesterday looking at happiness, the meaning of life, and the inherent desire in humans to do more meaningful activities in order to find drive and momentum in life. The idea as that atheism presents a challenge to humans in the fact that there is no ultimate purpose because there is no ultimate entity qua God.  Today, I will present a counter-argument.

Telos is the Greek for purpose. Telic activities are those which are purposeful, with meaning; atelic ones are not. Massimo Pigliucci (a philosopher who espouses Stoicism) gives an account that counter-intuitively argues for doing atelic activities in his piece “Telic vs atelic activities, and the meaning of life“:

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.

If you remember my previous piece, I talked about grinding away at a computer game to achieve the next stage, and the next, and so on; but staying at one stage just for the hedonic kicks only has a short-term joy that is difficult to sustain.

Here, Pigliucci argues that the longer, telic (grinding) activities are also unsustainable. Well, not quite. He argues that the utility you get from them is short-lived, so you go on to the next telic activity and the next one.

I didn’t mention the negative aspects of ailing at a given telic activity. This might be a useful “growth mindset” thing whereby it makes you a better, more skilled person who is in a better position to then achieve that initially failed goal. Pigliucci continues:

Or, my favorite example, think of Neil Armstrong. He was the first man to set foot on the Moon, in the historical landing of the Apollo 11 “Eagle” module, the night of 20 July 1969. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong famously. (Go see the new movie about that epic event, starring Ryan Gosling.) I’m sure that was an incredibly meaningful event for Armstrong, but I’m also sure he knew that nothing even remotely close to that would ever happen again in his life. He was 39 in 1969, and died at the age of 82.

So, the point is that telic activities may be very meaningful for people (personally, I certainly include writing this very blog among my list), but they cannot be sustained, and they generate the dissatisfaction paradox mentioned above. Then what?

Aristotle himself proposed the notion that atelic activities could then step in to provide a sort of solution. There is a seeming paradox or at least odd scenario of atelic activities giving you telos – meaning and purpose. What is crucial for Pigliucci is his Stoicism:

…,a key concept of Stoicism is that the chief good in life is the practice of virtue. And virtue is to be practiced not in order to make oneself look good, or to achieve a personal goal. It is to be practiced because it is good in itself, it is it’s own reward. Virtue, that is, is a fundamentally atelic activity, and it keeps providing us with meaning all the way to the moment we die.

The sort of atelic activities he discusses are seen as follows:

Atelic activities are done for their own sake, not in order to achieve a particular end. For instance, in case you go out for a walk just because you like walking. Or if you play a sport not because you want to become a professional, impress others, and the like, but because you like it. The activity is its own reward. And — unlike the telic case — it’s potentially endlessly renewable.

Arguably the most important atelic activities in a human being’s life are spending time with your partner, your children (if you have any), and your friends. These are things you do for their own sake, not because you are aiming at a distant goal. And they are pleasurable, meaningful, and potentially last a lifetime.

Pigliucci opines that whilst we may lose a partner or friend with whom we spend time in atelic activity, we don’t lose that ability to have such friendship and love, in the atelic sense. As he quotes Seneca saying:

The reward for all the virtues lies in the virtues themselves. For they are not practised with a view to recompense; the wages of a good deed is to have done it. (Letters LXXXI.19)

After which Pigliucci concludes:

A good life, in the end, is a judicious mix of telic and atelic pursuits. By all means, set yourself the goal of getting a promotion, writing a book, or competing in the Olympics. But don’t forget the here and now, the attention to be given to the people you love. For their own sake. Oh, and practice virtue, always.

So whilst I may have seemed nihilistic in my previous piece (I wasn’t being since I was proposing what theists often say of us atheists), Pigliucci presents a case for atelic activities being a necessary ingredient for living a virtuous life.

Both Pigliucci and David MacPherson (Virtue and Meaning: A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective) make reference to Kieran Setiya’s work on this (Midlife: A Philosophical Guide). Setiya talks about falling into existential crises when you over-invest in telic activities. He suggests that activities you should invest in should include ones with no terminal states:

Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic will not exhaust or destroy them…. An atelic end is realized in the present as much as it can ever be realized. What you want from it you have right now: to be going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, living a decent life…. In effect, I am urging a philosopher’s version of a self-help slogan: live in the present. (15-16)

We fill our lives with a useful blend of telic and atelic activities that can lead us to happy and fulfilled lives, irrespective as to whether God ultimately exists or not.

She doesn’t.


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