What Aristotle and Michael Scott Have in Common - Coffee with Jack and Tollers (Day 6)

Knowledge of the fact differs from the knowledge of the reason for the fact. - Aristotle

“Why are you the way that you are?” - Michael Scott to Toby Flenderson


Deconstruction is a popular buzzword in many circles today, especially those coming from strong religious or ideological persuasions. But the fact is, the concept and program of ‘deconstruction’ is nothing new. It started several hundred years ago with the Enlightenment* and with our culture's adoption of modernity. We live in what the sociologist Charles Taylor calls “a secular age.” And that secular age is obsessed with data, analytics, information, and reducing everything down to its most basic knowable parts. Why is something the way it is? Strip back the mythology, strip back the imagination, strip back the emotions--and you have data that you can see clearly. Data in its raw form. No illusions. Just information.

But in the ancient world, the question of “why” something is the way it is could be answered at a number of levels. Aristotle, for example, categorized causes in four ways: the efficient cause (what causes something to come into existence); the formal cause (“what something is”); the material cause (“what something was made of); and the teleological cause (“what something was made for”) or what we call the telos

(I’ll add as an aside the fact that our single word “cause” can be broken down into four “causes” by some guy wearing a bathrobe for his daily attire should be enough to probably make us think twice about our often supposed intellectual superiority to the past. Aristotle might call us a simple kind of people.)

Part of the problem we face today in the modern world is related to that simplification of the “why” question. When we ask the question “Why?” most of us are looking for answers that only answer the first kind of “cause”. Why am I in this job? Because I needed some work and I have a certain set of skills that this company could use. Why is the car dirty? Because the children threw stuff everywhere and didn’t clean it up. Why do I feel sick? Because I took a risk and ate that five day old thing in the fridge that winked at me.

For Aristotle the “causal” question (“the why is something the way it is” question) presupposed movement. This belief in the continual movement of things is why Aristotle is also known as the father of physics: he constantly fell back on the motion of everything from its potentiality to its actuality. For example, while we might answer the question “why does a tree sprout from a seed” with some dendrological explanation about the process of generation, Aristotle would have ultimately answered that “because the seed was meant to be a tree! A tall, flowering, hard wooden cherry tree that will provide shelter to generations of animals, shade to the weary, and resourcefulness those who use its limbs.” 

That’s a very different question. The fullest explanation of the tree lies not in the scientific cause but in its purposeful cause. 

Likewise, the fullest explanation of ourselves, our careers, and our relationships cannot be reduced to a simple cause and effect relationship! In an age which is constantly deconstructing from the imagination of the past, we are slowly moving away from the concept that any of us are teleologically oriented. There is no purpose. There is no sense of calling. There is no end that we are made for. 

This, of course, is the danger of deconstruction (I am not suggesting that there are not positives to deconstruction by the way). The danger of deconstruction is that everything becomes reduced to only what is visible and clear. And with that any sense of calling, any sense of purpose, and any sense of an end beyond what one can immediately see is lost. Either we move in circles because we are constantly deciding our own ends and purposes or we become stationary because there is nothing for us to move towards. 

But what if Aristotle is right. Everything is in motion; everything has potentiality. And this potentiality is something we don’t get to decide. It is ascribed to us and the degree to which we are successful is intricately connected with the degree to which we move towards that purpose. Every child is born to grow up to be the greatest version of itself it can be and that is why he or she was born. Every marriage has an end to make the other one better, to be self-giving, and to practice sacrificial love. Every father or mother is meant to raise children that are men and women of virtue and character in the world.

Let me offer another example. A coffee bean should not be plucked before it has shown its maximum potential. The degree to which the coffee bean is harvested within its potential and the degree to which the farmer has worked to give it the nutrients it needs to achieve its potential is correlated significantly with the degree to which that cup of coffee is a good cup of coffee (likewise, the degree to which the roaster understands how to maximize the results of the coffee in the roasting process and the degree to which the barista knows how to do their part ultimately work towards the potential of the cup!). The why of the coffee bean certainly has an efficient cause: because of germination. But the why of the coffee bean teleologically is to produce an incredible and flavorful cup of coffee. 

I recently stepped away from doing coffee full time and moved into a job where I am working with people passing away. The “why” I have this job can be answered in a lot of ways: because I had the credentials to do so; because I had a good interview; because they had an opening; because it worked with our schedule. But part of me believes there is another reason, a deeper reason that I am still not sure of. But I feel in my gut that it is a telos kind of reason. But the conviction that there is an actualization based upon my potential here that can be achieved is what we might call “calling.” And being “called to” this work rather than merely finding oneself within it because of efficient causes is a major difference maker in how one goes about that kind of work. It opens the door for a vocation to be sacred rather than merely happenstance. And that goes for just about everything: what is the why of your marriage? What is the why of your parenting? What is the why of everything you put yourself to today, tomorrow, and in the future? The why should be, if Aristotle is right, to move towards what we are supposed to be. 

Questions for Today:


  1. What does living with “purpose” mean for you today? 
  2. Do you have a sense of calling or potentiality in your life? If not, why? If so, what is it?
  3. What would happen if our culture started thinking of itself as having a calling or purpose to it? What would change? 

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