ON DEFINITIONS: The Consequence of ‘Purpose’ and ‘Nature’


One of the many important aspects of Natural Law that few of us ever stop to actually contemplate is the questions of how — exactly — a thing is defined?  What do we mean by the words we assign to describe or talk about a given thing?  And what makes that thing the thing we mean to discuss?  What is it that makes every member of that definition belong to that definition?  This can be confusing, so there is no wonder few people bother to think about it.  Still, it is important, so I’ll try to make this a little easier to understand by using a simple example to clarify the point I am trying to make.

If I say, ‘dog,’ you probably get an idea, or picture in your head of a dog.  But what makes that thing a dog?  What makes the real life creature a dog? What qualities apply to all members of the canine species that make them belong to the term, dog?  What we are trying to understand here is: what are the specific set of characteristics, qualities and traits that include all dogs, but only dogs?  Why isn’t a cat a dog, but all dogs are dogs?  These are not simple questions, but the implications of how we answer them are much more important than we might realize.  However, before we look at why these implications are so important, let’s take a quick history lesson on philosophy.

The Western mind has been heavily influenced by the work of the Greek philosophers who tried to tackle these questions.  I’ll just touch on the bare basics of the important ideas that were developed by two of the most famous of these philosophers.

Plato is well known for his work in developing the idea of Teleos (from the Greek word, telos, meaning ‘end,’ ‘goal,’ ‘purpose’ or ‘fulfillment’).  For Plato, the nature of a thing was defined by its ultimate goal or perfected purpose, toward which that thing naturally strives.  So, using our example of dog, the Teleos of a dog is the perfect ideal of what a dog is and does, toward which all dogs strive to achieve.  I know that can sound confusing, but stay with me — please.

After Plato, Aristotle added the notion of Essence to the idea of Teleos.  According to Aristotle, Essence is the inherent nature of a thing.  So, in the case of our dog, its Essence would include things such as having four legs, fur, a keen sense of smell, a wagging tail, a propensity to bark, etc.  Together this Essence (the inherent qualities and traits common to all dogs), plus the ultimate or perfect ideal of what a dog is supposed to be and do (the Teleos of a dog) combine to define dog.  Hopefully you are starting to get the idea.

Taken together, Essence and Teleos help to define things in a way that explains why certain things belong in certain categories.  In short, understanding the concepts of Teleos and Essence is how we not only define a specific group, but it is also how we recognize whether or not a specific thing belongs to that group.  In the case of our dog: by learning the Teleos and Essence common to every member of the canine species, we can assign the label of dog to every animal with that Essence and Teleos.  Likewise, if we know the Teleos and Essence of a dog, then, when we see  new animal for the first time, it will allow us to classify that animal as a dog or not a dog.

Now, before we go any farther with this discussion, let me state this once again: I have greatly simplified this issue (i.e. the Essence of this post) so that I can make my ultimate point (i.e. the Teleos of this post).

That said here is the point: the Essence and Teleos of a thing cannot be separated from that thing!  Plato and Aristotle both understood this, but — unfortunately — many of us today do not.  Going back to our example of a dog: the purpose of a dog, (its Teleos) and the essence of a dog (its inherent qualities and nature) cannot be separated from the creature without changing that creature into something else.  Therefore, a dog is going to be and act like a dog — period!


We just went through all that philosophy about Teleos and Essence just so that we can understand what follows: which is how to apply what we just learned in our daily lives.

A friend of mine recently lamented about how naive people can be — especially people who should know better.  In this case, my friend was talking about differences of political ideology.  Since the TRTC is essentially about the political ideology of individual rights and liberties, this is actually an excellent example and I am going to use it to illustrated how understanding Essence and Teleos can help us avoid mistakes in judgment.  The trick here is going to be to try and make this illustration as neutral as possible.  I beg the Reader’s indulgence if I fail in this effort.

Suppose you are talking to a person you know fairly well.  We’ll call him, Uncle Adolf.  Now, Uncle Adolf has political ideas that are 180 degrees opposed to yours.  You value individual rights and liberties, but Uncle Adolf is all about control by any means and at any cost.  However, Uncle Adolf likes to tell people he cares about them.  He wants to help them by giving them things they need without having to pay or work for them.  Uncle Adolf also swears that he cares deeply about the rule of law and about the rights and liberties of every individual.  However, you know that Uncle Adolf just wants control (i.e. his Teleos is to control everyone), and you know that Uncle Adolf will do anything to gain that control (his Essence is the use of deception and force).  Knowing these things about Uncle Adolf, why would you ever believe that Uncle Adolf cares about others, about their rights, their liberties or the rule of law?  And yet, all too often, we can find people who claim to support individual rights and liberties and the rule giving Uncle Adolf the benefit of the doubt.  Why?

This is what my friend was lamenting: acting contrary to what you know you should be doing.  In this case, you know and understand Uncle Adolf’s Teleos and Essence, yet, you will believe him when he swears he has changed, then wonder why you get burned by Uncle Adolf.  Worse, you will play Charlie Brown to Lucy’s football.  No matter how many times she swears she is going to let you kick the ball then pulls the ball away so she can laugh at you when you fall down, you keep trusting her to let you kick the ball.

There is another little story about this very thing, and I could have told it instead of using our political example. Now, I used the political example first for a reason, but I’ll hold off on tell you the reason for a moment.  First, let’s read the story (the short version):

A scorpion wants to get across a pond.  He sees a frog and asks the frog if he can ride on the frog’s back as the frog swims across the pond. 

The frog says, “No!  You’re a scorpion and you will sting me to death when I’m half way across the pond.” 

But the scorpion responds by telling the frog, “No, I won’t sting you because, if sting you, we’ll both drown.” 

So the frog agrees and lets the scorpion on his back.  Then, when they’re half way across the pond, the scorpion stings the frog.  Just before the frog dies, he asks the scorpion, “Why did you do that?  Now we’ll both drown.” 

To which the scorpion replies, “What did you expect? I’m a scorpion: it’s what I do.”

OK, hopefully, the point of the story is clear.  Well, here’s the point of the political example: the person whose political ideology is focused on control, and whose nature is to do whatever they need to do to seize that control is a scorpion.  If you ever agree to trust them, at some point, they will string you to death — even if it means they perish along with you!  Such people can’t help themselves: it’s just their Teleos and Essence (i.e. their purpose and nature).  Stinging people is what they do. So, why would you ever trust such a person?



After the Natural Law

By John Lawrence Hill

(The material discussed in this post can be found in Chapter 2, pages 34-54)


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