‘Entelequi’ is derived from the word entelechy — a philosophical concept dating back to Aristotle (entelecheia in Ancient Greek) that concerns the realisation of something’s fullest potential.
For any person or organisation engaged in such a profound pursuit, understanding how the concept has changed over time has some interesting and practical implications.
Recurring themes in Aristotle’s work are the principles of potentiality and actuality, which were applied across subject matters as varied as physiology, metaphysics and ethics.
Potentiality refers to the things that something has the capability of becoming. Of these possibilities, Aristotle emphasised the ‘strong’ sense of potentiality – that which arises from a natural tendency and is unstoppable under the right conditions, rather than the ‘weak’ sense – fleeting and occurring by chance.
Actuality is the realisation of potential through motion or change. It is dependent upon action, rather than being a passive state. Aristotle created two terms with convergent meanings to describe actuality:
Energeia is a basic state of activity or ‘being-at-work’ that achieves some form of actuality.
Entelecheia is a more advanced energeia, which is able to realise the ultimate potential or purpose of something (referred to as telos).
An illustration of the role of activity or motion in actuality is the sound that can be made by circling a finger around the rim of a wine glass. If the rotation reaches just the right speed, the glass will sing – but continued effort is required to maintain it; if the motion stops, so does the sound.
The beauty of this notion is that actualisation is not a destination but a state of being. Realising one’s ultimate potential is not a case of having ‘made it’ but is instead dependent upon sustained effort.
However, the original concept of entelechy has mostly been neglected by modern philosophy in the western world.*
Whilst Aristotle’s creation of entelecheia primarily related to his work on metaphysics, it was also referenced in his analysis ‘On the Soul’, which stated that the soul is the entelechy of a living being.
It is this reference that became most prominent in modern philosophy, albeit under a different interpretation. After surfacing in the work of seventeenth-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz, it was then applied by Hans Driesch to the field of vitalism.
Driesch conflated Aristotle’s concept of entelechy with the vitalist belief that life cannot be explained by physical mechanics and is instead dependent upon a ‘vital spark’ – often equated with the soul – and he hence used the word entelechy to refer to this life-giving force.
So, rather than Aristotle’s view that the soul represents the ultimate actuality of a living being – the highest form achievable from the potentiality of basic organic matter – the soul (or ‘entelechy’) has instead been interpreted as the essence or driving force that transforms the potentiality of matter into the actuality of a living being.
Whilst vitalism has been rejected by contemporary science, the current definition of entelechy – “that which realises potential” – stems from Driesch’s interpretation.
This changed the meaning of the word entelechy. Whilst the difference with the original Aristotelian concept is subtle, it has profound implications for those seeking to fulfil their maximum potential.
The current definition of entelechy as the thing that enables potential to be realised (rather than the state of actualisation itself) alludes to a magical ingredient that can suddenly bring about everything one desires.
Rather than needing to be in a constant state of effort per Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, just needing to find or acquire that one thing is an alluring proposition.
This reflects a present-day fixation on overnight success stories and get-rich-quick schemes, quick fixes and ‘hacks’.
However, rather than being a contemporary phenomenon such a predisposition is perhaps something deeply-rooted in human nature.
The definition of entelechy as “that which realises potential” has echoes of the philosophers’ stone – a mythical substance capable of turning base metals into gold and granting immortality – and an obsession that dates back to antiquity.
This puts the emphasis on externalities and it either results in a passive state of waiting to stumble upon a winning lottery ticket, or it fuels the accumulation of material items believed to be capable of alchemy.
Passive reliance on externalities (“once I have this one thing”) is fodder for consumerism — buy this gadget / perfume / watch / car and live the life you always dreamed of — and this ruthless force of contemporary culture is perhaps why the original meaning of entelechy has been left behind.
Revisiting Aristotle’s construction of the word entelecheia helps to further explain its meaning and reveal how it may be found.
According to J. Sachs (1995, p.245):
“Aristotle invents the word by combining entelēs (ἐντελής, ‘complete, full-grown’) with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (ἐνδελέχεια, ‘persistence’) by inserting telos (τέλος, ‘completion’). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking, including the definition of motion.”
In summary, attaining actuality requires continued effort — it is not a destination but a state of being. And only out of persistence can something’s ultimate purpose be realised.
But how or where should this effort be directed?
Perhaps the most explicit clue comes from Abraham Maslow, who leaned on Aristotle’s principles in the hierarchy of needs; the pinnacle of which is self-actualisation, considered by Maslow as a desire for becoming all that one is capable of being.
Reflecting Aristotle’s emphasis on the strong sense of potentiality – that which arises from a natural tendency – Maslow stated that self-actualisation is dependent upon “intrinsic growth of what is already inside the organism”.
So rather than a passive reliance on externalities as the present definition of entelechy implies, the original concept instead indicates that active introspection is the path to realising one’s full potential.
The magical ingredients are already within – but persistence, continual development and effort are required to access and actualise them.
* FOOTNOTE: THE REDISCOVERY OF ARISTOTLE
Most of Aristotle’s works were lost to the latin west during the Middle Ages, the scrolls moving eastwards following the expulsion of Nestorians from Constantinople in the fifth century, triggering a gradual intellectual decline.
Whilst Aristotle was a central influence of Islamic intellectual culture through the post-classical period (known as ‘the Philosopher’), his works did not fully resurface in the west until the 12th century.
The ossification of Christian doctrine during the dark ages meant that his work represented a radical departure from tradition and it was not widely accepted until the efforts of St. Thomas Aquinas, who synthesised an interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy that was compatible with Christian teaching.