“This is the culminating gift of God, this is the supreme and marvelous felicity of man…that he can be that which he wills to be.” – Pico de Mandrola



The last component of self-mastery is self-actualization, determining and aiming for your unique purpose in life. This is a later concept perhaps born in Friedrich Nietzsche’s will to power and  the uberman and echoed by Heidegger’s resoluteness to exceed the ordinary self and become authentic. It is carefully explored and refined by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow who characterizes self-actualization as (1) actualization of one’s potential, (2) fulfillment of a mission, and (3) self-integration. According to Maslow, successful efforts involve spontaneity, problem-centering, detachment, autonomy, creativeness, and perhaps most importantly enjoyment of the process (the means becomes the end).2

It is important to point out that none of the components of self-mastery is intended to permit selfishness or self-aggrandizement, and it seems unlikely that anyone truly devoted to self-mastery will become misdirected and end up there, but that concern is one reason most spiritual, religious, and even philosophical traditions deploy a master to guide the novice and the apprentice.

In summary, the components of self-mastery are:

1.   Self-discipline – mastery of instincts, desires, emotions – development of equanimity and poise.

2.   Selflessness- the commitment to right action with others, society, and nature –fortitude, virtue, and humility.

3.   Self-knowledge – psychological and ontological understanding of the self.

4.   Self-improvement – lifelong dedication to acquiring new skills and increasing knowledge.

5.   Self-actualization –determining and aiming for one’s unique purpose.

When combined these five components prepare each of us for an ethical and meaningful life that benefits ourselves, society and nature, and allows us to transcend the merely physical creature we are in the universe. Self-mastery is in many ways the most vital tier of virtuous living, as it affects all of our actions. It is also likely to be the most difficult to achieve. It is what Socrates calls ‘care of the soul’ and relies on wisdom and the desire to live in accordance with moral excellence.


1 Adler, Mortimer, The Time of Our Lives. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. ISBN 03-081836-2.  Chapter 4, pages 29-37. In this chapter, Adler divides human time into five parts – (1) biologically compulsory (e.g. sleep), (2) subsistence-work (not always compulsory), (3) pleasure-play, (4) idling (doing nothing), and (5) leisure-work (self-improvement, creation, personal growth). He argues that a good life requires a balance of these components, with leisure-work as a particularly important, but underappreciated component.  

2 Maslow, Abraham, Towards a Psychology of Being. D. Van Nostrand Company, 1968. Chapter 3, pages 21-43.

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