The second part of selflessness is externally directed – the impartial love of others classically called agape in ancient Christianity (as opposed to eros or carnal love and philia or friendship). Here we need only think of Christ’s categorical imperative: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”4  Love of others entails three dimensions: empathy, charity, and forgiveness.

Empathy, it turns out, is an intrinsic human trait. Just as human self-consciousness evolved to allow one to put oneself in another’s shoes in order to thrive in complex groups, so are we capable of and compelled to feel the hurt of others. Empathy is the foundation for compassion and caring of others and thus for virtuous behavior towards them.

Caritas or charity transforms our fruitless self-love and unconcern for others into the virtue of beneficence. We have seen that self-denial is a tool to control our wants in the section on self-discipline. But self-denial has dual value; it also allows us to forsake goods for the benefit of others. These interlocking benefits reinforce this component of self-mastery. Reinhold Niebuhr explains it thusly; excessive concern for the self or self-love inevitably leads to a narrower self while the highest level of self-realization, that is, the true self, is the fruit of love of others.5

Mahayana Buddhism, the start of which interestingly coincides with the beginning of the Christian era, similarly emphasizes loving kindness and compassion. The self-sacrificing zeal of the saintly Bodhisattvas extends to the suffering not only of other humans, but of all living things. Such sacrifice makes one worthy of the ‘perfection of wisdom.’ Compassion is defined as the selfless desire to make others happy based on a pure heart, meaning one’s final motive is to do good, not to relieve one guilt. This extension of caring to nonhuman creatures also appears in Jainism and is echoed by Albert Schweitzer in his book, Reverence for Life.6

Forgiveness is the third facet of agape. Our lives are full of hurts, real and imagined, which are initiated by others. Inner calm requires the letting go of anger and resentment, two emotions that inevitably conflict with virtue. The ability to forgive others is the practice needed for another ultimate goal, self-forgiveness. As imperfect beings, each of us has been the source of hurts to others and even ourselves. Paul Tillich believes self-forgiveness is key to overcoming the crushing burden of guilt when he says, “One could say that the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.” 7 But Jesus warns us of a mystical truth in the Lord’s prayer, “…forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…”  We can only expect forgiveness to the extent we learn to forgive others.


For the religious person, perhaps the most important step towards self-mastery is to abandon the centrality of the ego in favor of the centrality of the divine. Humility is achieved in part by crediting one’s well-being and abilities as gifts of deity or nature. A wise individual accepts that one’s existence and purpose is subordinate to a greater entity meaning God, nature, or the universe. This involves understanding ourselves as finite and recognizing something greater, within which we are an infinitesimal part.


1Talmud; ‘Sayings of the Fathers’.

2The Nun’s Story (chapter 8).

3Tao Te Ching, XXVIII.

4Matthew 22:39

5Niebuhr, Reinhold, Faith and History. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1949. Pages 171-179.

6Zaehner, R.C., Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions. Barnes &Noble Books, New York, 1997. ISBN0-76070-712-X,  pages 293-317.

7Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957, page 164.


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“Unless the mind be trained to selflessness and infinite compassion, one is apt to fall into the error of seeking liberation for self alone.” – Gampopa



After self-discipline, the next component of self-mastery is selflessness (or unselfishness) meaning the unconcern for or de-emphasis of the needs, wealth, or fame for oneself. Of course its opposite is selfishness, seemingly derived from the instinctual drive of life to comply with the first command of evolution – survival of the individual.  Self-preservation in nonhuman animals is mitigated by natural checks that kick in once needs for survival are satisfied. Obviously human history and our own personal experience reveal that such limits are not innate to our species. We alone engage in gluttony to the point of obesity or kill for reasons other than survival. However, ironically, we alone of species have sufficient intelligence to transcend mere instincts when they conflict with reason.

Like self-discipline, selflessness is recognized as essential to self-mastery by most ancient thinkers, although it appears most fully developed in Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism. There are three basic parts: (1) humility, (2) caritas or love and caring for others, and (3) deference to deity or the ultimate. We will investigate these individually and reference some articulate proponents.


Humility is the internally directed portion of selflessness wherein one overcomes the illusion of one’s own greatness and importance by embracing one’s finitude and limited significance. Humility offers four powerful values for a meaningful life. First it creates an openness to the knowledge and wisdom of others. Consider Charles Caleb Colton’s view: “The greatest friend of truth is Time, her greatest enemy is Prejudice, and her constant companion is Humility.” Hebrew scholars are even more direct: “Who is wise? He who learns from all men.”1 Learning and intellectual growth it seems are dependent on a rational humility with regard to one’s own limited knowledge.

Three other values of humility derive from is its role in removing oneself psychologically from the center or existence. It allows us to participate in something greater than ourselves as Kathryn Hulme observes when she writes: “You must never lose the awareness that in yourself you are nothing, you are only an instrument. An instrument is nothing until it is lifted.”2 This non-centrality of ego is also fundamental to virtue as pointed out by the Cure D’Arts: “Take away humility, and all the virtues disappear.” Last  suppression of the ego turns out being necessary for spirituality especially as a counterbalance to the sin of pride.

These four values of humility – openness, uncentering, virtue, and spirituality are formulated with particular beauty in the East in the words of Lao Tze:

        “He who knows honor and yet keeps to humility

         Will become a valley that receives all the world into it.”3

Humility then is a strength worthy of our ceaseless cultivation.

(continued next post)

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My last post on November 13, 2020 began our discussion on the three parts of self-discipline by examining the conquest of instincts, emotions, and desire. The second part is the need to control one’s thought.

The oversized human brain is an entity of ceaseless thinking, especially repetitive, rambling, and often negative thoughts. In addition humans alone of animals can translate these thoughts into speech. The ancients perceived that thoughts and speech required control, again an incredible psychological insight in a prescientific age.

Perhaps of all the ancient sages, Buddha most emphasizes the importance of mastering one’s thoughts and speech, even integrating these into his eight-fold path. While Buddha left no written record, his disciples retained his teachings through an oral tradition, although with some discrepancies. The orthodox from of Buddhism known as Theravada seems to provide the best presentation of Buddha’s eight-fold path. Right thinking and speech are in fact further expanded to right views, right speech, right endeavors, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Briefly right views are knowledge of dharma or Buddha’s four noble truths and other teachings.2 Right speech means abstaining from lying, slanderous or harsh speech, or frivolous chatter. Right endeavor includes (1) preventing unskilled mental states from arising and eliminating those that happen to arise, and (2) causing skilled mental states to arise and maintaining and increasing them after they arise. Right mindfulness means abiding with contemplation of the body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, and mental states as mental states. Right concentration involves the four jhana or meditations.3 Obviously further study and practice will be needed for readers interested in adopting the Buddhist program.

Thus control of thought and speech are the key second item integral to self-discipline, a fact recognized not only by Buddha who developed it explicitly, but by most ancient sages. For example, the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations (Book 4:33) writes, “So where should a man direct his endeavor? Here only – a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies…”




As instincts, emotions, desires, and negative thoughts are brought under control the self acquires increasing equanimity, and poise. Unconcern for bodily whims, fleeting passions, and trivial social turbulence combined with the control of thought and the development of concentration in purpose leads to mindful calm -‘a luminous mind’ – the great secret of the Eastern philosophers. The last factor in equanimity is the elimination of fear and anxiety, which results from a correct understanding of reality, exemplified by Epicurus who teaches us not to fear the gods or death. In this way the wise person comes to a state called ataraxia or serenity of the soul. The luminous mind and ataraxia represents the highest accomplishment in self-discipline which overflow into another component of the meaningful life, contentment.


1See posts on this website category Suffering on asceticism dated 4/1/20 – 4/6/20 and 4/ 27/20 – 5/6/20.

2Note the use of the word dharma is different in Buddhism than in Hinduism where it refers to the traditional life of the Hindu.

3Zaehner, R.C., Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions. Barnes &Noble Books, New York, 1997. ISBN0-76070-712-X,  pages 284-288.

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 “The mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau.



The first of the five components of self-mastery is self-discipline, arguably the most basic element in the mastery of the self. It is logically first as one must have sufficient discipline to undertake the other elements of the virtuous self while also confronting the turbulent changes of daily living. The subparts of self-discipline include: (1) control of instincts, emotions, and desires, (2) right speech and thoughts, and (3) development of equanimity, poise, and mindfulness.


Most philosophical and religious traditions recognize that humans intrinsically have instincts, desires, and emotions that arise unconsciously or subconsciously and need restraining. Of these three, instincts seem the most natural, serving to preserve the self in order to propagate the species. For other animals then instinct serves and assures their main function. However homo sapiens can transcend this limited formula of function = survival for reproduction – although paradoxically only by suppressing, at least in part, the very instincts that permit nature’s implicit goal for living things. Non-instinctual desires and emotions are more subtle, perhaps affecting other species, but heightened in humans. This likely is the result of the biology of a more complex brain and from the multifaceted relationships arising from our prolonged dependence in childhood and continuing interdependence in adulthood essential for group survival.

This seems obvious now, but take a step back and consider the spiritual depth required to see behind the veil of human nature in a prescientific world. Ancient sages grasped directly the destabilizing effect of uncontrolled drives and passion, and the importance of conquering these as a prelude to a fully meaningful existence. Many great thinkers come to the same remedy; control of instincts and desires requires withdrawal and self-denial, usually in the form of a conscious ascetic practice.1 Epictetus offers a Stoic example when he says “Fast, drink water only, abstain altogether from desire, that thou mayest hereafter conform thy desire to reason.”

(to be continued November 23)

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“Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,

These three alone lead life to sovereign power.”

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oenone.


After distinguishing virtue from similar terms and analyzing its categories, we return to the five levels of ethics discussed early in this site’s history.1 The first of these is the level of the self which I discussed in detail in that section.2 Virtue at the level of the self is often called self-mastery and I concluded that its comprehensive form includes five surprisingly elusive components:

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

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

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 or authenticity.

These five components prepare us for a virtuous and meaningful life that benefits not only ourselves, but our fellow men and nature. They are the means to transcend the merely physical creature we are in the vast universe. Self-mastery it turns out is the foundation of all virtuous living as it affects all of our actions.

We can draw on many traditions for guidance on self-mastery – at a minimum: Taoism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Classical Greek philosophy, Stoicism, Christianity, Existentialism, science (psychology), and common sense philosophy. It is impossible to undertake a complete analysis of these systems with respect to the five components listed above in the span of the book unfolding on this site. Therefore I will attempt to extract potent elements of some of them as samples of the rich literature covering guidance on internal excellence available to the reader. But at the end of the day, it is up to the reader to consult these texts for more detailed direction.


1See posts on this website category Ethics dated 12/5/18 – 12/12/18 and 12/17/18 – 1/4/19.

2See posts on this website  Self-Mastery Parts I-111 dated 12/7/18, 12/10/18 and 12/12/18.

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“The superior man thinks of virtue; the small man thinks of comfort.” – Confucius



Having distinguished ethics, virtue, and morality last time, today we address the categories of virtue. Of course there are many traditions of ethics each with its own categories of virtue, but I will address the four most influential systems: Confucian, Buddhist, Classical (Greco-Roman), and Christian.

Confucius identifies three critical virtues that identify the superior man: Jen, benevolence to other men, Li, rules of propriety and socially acceptable behavior (including etiquette), and Hsiao, filial piety which includes not only respect for one’s parents and teachers, but also the law and order of society. He also teaches that the superior man places virtue above venal self-interest.

Buddha’s eightfold path encompasses his categories of virtue: Right Views (Buddha’s teachings), Right Thoughts (aspiration to purity and charity), Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort (avoid lapses and frailty), Right Mindfulness (awareness of the truth of the doctrine), and Right Concentration (spiritual exercises leading to awakening).

More familiar to Western readers are the Classical moral virtues – courage, justice, temperance, and prudence.* Socrates sees these as distilling down to knowledge or wisdom. Aristotle sees the first three as the mean between two vices (for example courage is the middle course between recklessness and cowardice). Throughout this tradition courage is at times reworked as fortitude, and by the Romans even more bluntly as strength. Prudence is likewise often renamed practical wisdom.

The three famous Christian virtues as stated by St. Paul are faith, hope, and charity (love of others). Aquinas merges these with the four classical virtues into the seven cardinal virtues. An eighth Christian virtue worth mentioning, because of its critical importance, is humility. Christianity is more exacting than other traditions in asserting seven vices: envy, gluttony, greed (avarice), lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.

A virtuous life seems unlikely unless one adopts at least one of these traditional approaches or follows the tenets of another established tradition. However it seems to me that combining these four assures one the greatest likelihood of a level of virtue compatible with a meaningful life and eventual happiness even if that sets the bar quite high. In that case, comprehensive (secular) virtue includes: (1) benevolence to others or charity, (2) propriety and etiquette, (3) respect of others and social institutions, (4) aspirations to purity, (5) disciplined speech, (6) ethical livelihood, (7) mindfulness, (8) courage or fortitude, (9) justice, (10) temperance, (11) prudence or practical wisdom, and (12) humility. I intend to apply these twelve categories in delineating a virtuous life as we evaluate the multiple levels of ethics.


* Aristotle distinguishes these from the intellectual virtues: scientific knowledge (episteme), artistic or technical knowledge (techne), intuitive reason (nous), and philosophical wisdom (sophia).

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“Blessedness is not the reword of virtue, but is virtue itself.” – Baruch Spinoza

In the course of doing philosophy, invariably one comes to the tedious issue of defining terms and trying to parse out differences in meaning or connotation as a preface to a serious discussion, and now we take on this thorny task for ethics, virtue, and morality.

Ethics, according to Dagobert Runes, is the discipline concerning judgment of approval and disapproval, rightness or wrongness, good or bad, virtue or vice, desirability or wisdom of actions. It can be based on a psychological or sociological analysis of judgment or an attempt to establish courses of action (guidance).1 So Ethics refers to the general discipline and theories of judgments involved in human action – what I prefer to designate as the philosophy of human conduct.

According to Runes, virtue is a more limited term. Following Aristotle, he sees virtue or arete as the state of a thing which constitutes its particular excellence and enables it to perform its function well. For Aristotle, man’s function is reason and rationally ordered habits. But Runes notes that virtue can in theory vary by considerations of human function; for instance the Romans see virility and strength of character as that function while Machiavelli emphasizes prudence.2 In this section I will align with the ancient Greeks – that is, virtue will refer to excellence in human conduct as opposed to mere strength or intellectual prowess.

The word ‘morals’ is sometimes used as equivalent to ‘ethics,’ but among philosophers is more often more circumscribed. It refers to codes of conduct and customs of individuals or of a group. It is a more relative word and seems to involve traditional and legal expectations of human behavior. It is equal to the ancient Greek ethos and the Latin moresTherefore I will use the word morality selectively in our discussion to mean society-approved modes of conduct.

So to summarize: (1) Ethics is a general term referring to the theoretical discipline or philosophy of human conduct, (2) Virtue is specific as excellence in human conduct, and (3) Morality is subjective or relative as modes or rules of conduct approved by a group or society. As an example, with regard to truthfulness, ethics examines what honesty is and how decisions in its use are made in general, virtue is prudence in the appropriate speaking or withholding of truth, and morality is compliance with societal expectations which may permit “white lies” yet requiring truthfulness under oath in legal matters.


1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.98.

2Ibid, page 332.

3Ibid, page 202.

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“The happiness of mankind is the end of virtue, and truth is the knowledge of the means.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



Virtue is the first of the four fundamental prerequisites of happiness and the meaningful life. Some ancient philosophers, such as the Stoics equate virtue and happiness, and although this seems too simplistic, nearly all philosophers of every era agree happiness and a meaningful life are elusive in the absence of virtue.

The next series of posts will examine virtue in some detail as an essential element of human flourishing following this outline:

[1]  Definitions and distinctions

[2]  Categories of virtue

[3]  Virtue and the self

[4]  Virtue and others

[5]  Societal virtue

[6]  Cosmic and ultimate virtue

[7]  Supererogatory duty and virtue

[8]  Virtue at different stages of life

[9]  Historical paradigms

[10]  Apotheosis

[11]  Summary

For observant readers this may appear to repeat the earlier discussion of Ethics,1 and there is significant overlap, but the focus now is on practical aspects of ethical conduct which must be addressed in a similar fashion, although this time interwoven with concepts of good and evil discussed in that special section.2

I will begin with clarification of various terms that make up the field of ethics at which time the difference in denotation of virtue and ethics will be addressed. Then I will move to traditional categories of virtue and suggestions for modifications or additions. This will be followed by discussion on the five levels of virtue where is found the reason for discrepancy among philosophers on the nature of virtue – that is,  virtue manifests differently at the various levels of reality and in different contexts. I will propose that a hierarchy of obligations solves the equation of how to act in complex situations.

Next we will see that the pursuit of virtue varies over our lifetime even if the basic tenets are fixed. Then we will turn to the historian for distinguished models of flourishing lives. From this progression we will be ready to attempt to establish the defining features of moral apotheosis. Finally  I will close with a summary from which we can begin to assemble an integrated system with the other three components of a meaningful life: contentment, purpose, and relationship to the ultimate.


1See posts on this website category Ethics dated 12/5/18 – 12/12/18 and 12/17/18 – 1/4/19.

2 See posts on this website category Good and Evil dated 1/6/19 – 2/16/19.

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Last time we saw how Susan Wolf considers a meaningful life as one that includes enthusiastic involvement in objectively worthwhile projects though she drops the word ‘project’ in her slogan: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” Her examples include creating, promoting or protecting things of value, helping others, achieving a skill, even “communing with or actively appreciating what is there to be appreciated.”2

She proposes and responds to likely objections to her thesis. First is the question of philosophical justification of the designation ‘worthwhile.’ Her response is that no proof is possible, but clearly most of us believe in varying worth of projects or activities – for example counting blades of grass versus seeking a cure for cancer. Second she responds to the existential objections of human mortality, lack of divine origin of morality, and cosmic indifference. She thinks these positions represents an irrational obsession with permanence and grand significance. She admits assumption as her basis for worthwhile, but notes most skeptics concede there are better and worse ways to live, and the difference between their positions and hers may be primarily semantic. Third she responds to Richard Taylor’s description of subjectivity of self-interest raised in Good and Evil, where he suggests the subjective account of meaning is just that a meaningful life is one perceived by the individual as meaningful. Wolf does not like the circularity this entails so proposes an alternate account of subjectivity; the sense of ‘fulfillment’ as a particular kind of pleasure that confirms meaning via objectively worthwhile “cognitive content,’ even when not “best for me.”3

Wolf also concedes she is unable to prove that self-interest includes belief in the meaningfulness of one’s life through worthwhile activities, but contend most people intuitively agree once it is explained to them. In fact, Wolf claims the desire for meaningfulness is a defining feature of humanity vis-a-vis the brutes. It may even be considered self-evident.

Still meaningfulness, in her opinion, is not an instrumental good or merely the path to fulfillment, rather fulfillment is the confirmation of the meaningfulness of an activity. In her deconstruction of self-interest she crystalizes her position: much of what we do is neither out of duty nor fun, but instead meaningfulness. Nonetheless from a practical standpoint, meaning is inexact; we cannot and need not aspire to finding activities of the “greatest” meaning. At the end of the day meaningfulness often trumps self-interest.

I find Wolf’s thesis intriguing, first because I see few philosophers who challenge Aristotle’s belief that all human motivation distills down to the quest for happiness, and second because her method involves less logical proof and more intuition, consensus, reasonable argument, and human experience – the very building blocks of practical philosophy. But most importantly I detect in her theory of self-interest an affirmation that summum bonum for us is happiness and meaning.


1Bonjour, Laurence and Baker, Ann (Editors), Philosophical Problems. Pearson Education, Inc., New York, 2005. ISBN 0-321-23659-9, pages 834-848.

2It seems this is operative in the case of relationship to ultimate reality, whether cosmic or divine.

3I discussed a comparable thesis in the post The Meaning of Life- Non-Physical Pleasure, on 9/14/20.

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“Self-interest is but the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for man with self-surrender.” – Henri Frederick Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.

In the continuing search for the definitive philosophical library, I have come across some remarkable books, but one of the most unusual was an unopened cellophane–wrapped textbook, with the intriguing title, Philosophical Problems. It is rare for me to purchase a book without at least looking through the table of contents, but I could not pass this one up because of its pristine condition and because on the front it says “instructor’s use only” and on the back it says “NOT FOR SALE.” That made me wonder what secrets it might contain, and I won’t deny I hesitated to open its packaging for several years. When I finally opened it, I found it really was simply an anthology, albeit of some truly great philosophical essays, with frequent teacher annotations. I suppose “NOT FOR SALE” meant not for sale to students, though this seems silly – what harm is done by giving students help in understanding complicated philosophical theses; and why should college professors require such help – seems oxymoronic to me.

Be that as it may, the 86 essays are superbly chosen. Examples include some of our old friends – Aquinas’ The Five Ways from Summa Theologica, William James’ The Will to Believe, selections from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and portions of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. But there are also many less familiar works such as Thomas Reid’s Direct Realism, Thomas Nagel’s What It Is Like to Be a Bat, and Robert Nozich’s The Experience Machine.

However, the most compelling one for me was Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life1 by Susan Wolf examining the relationship of happiness and meaning, what I identify as the summum bonum, to the good life.2 Wolf’s essay is complex, so I can only incompletely address her main insights. Her launching point for the discussion is the concept of self-interest, i.e. motivation by what is good for or minimizes bad for oneself. Her general thesis is that meaningfulness is an important element of a good life, hence ‘enlightened self-interest’ entails securing meaning in one’s life.

She starts with Derek Parfit’s theories of motivations of self-interest; (1) Hedonistic – felt quality of one’s experience, (2) Preference – good as our wants (e.g. posthumous fame), and (3) Objective List – items valued for neither positive experience nor mere preference, but as good in themselves. Her argument is that meaningfulness is of the last type. She then defines  a meaningful life as one with active engagement in worthwhile projects, where active means excited or gripped involvement (as opposed to boredom or alienation) and worthwhile implies at least partial independence of subjective preferences.

(continued next post)

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