When most of us think of heroes, we are thinking of individuals who take spectacular risks, especially of death, in the performance of extraordinary acts in duty or service to others or a great cause. This includes military heroes such as Audie Murphy who personally killed or wounded 50 enemy troops in an astonishing battlefield action re-enacted in his movie To Hell and Back or Joan of Arc who turned the tide in the Hundred Years’ War. But it also includes those who engage in high risk adventures in the interests of humanity such as Charles Lindberg, the first man to fly across the Atlantic or Yuri Gagarin the first human to journey into outer space, and those who risk everything for social justice such as Martin Luther King who died in the fight for racial equality or Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani girl who survived a gunshot wound to her head after standing up to the Taliban for girls’ education.

There is a second form of supererogatory heroism, the person of great enterprise. These heroes generally do not risk danger to their person, but rather demonstrate heroic determination in achieving a grand purpose in their lifetime. Whether it is Henry Ford making the automobile available for the common man, Will and Ariel Durant compiling a multidimensional history of human civilization, or Elon Musk investing in SpaceX with the mission to revolutionize space transportation to allow life to expand to other planets, we recognize the heroic effort expended to change the world.

All these forms of heroism beyond the call of duty inspire those of us who are less bold, less courageous, or less capable, by serving as examples for us to follow in achieving our own meaningful lives.* Next we will take a closer look at heroism from a philosophical standpoint including pitfalls for the unwary.


*Two exceptional cases of supererogatory heroism that do not quite fit the above categories are worth remembering. On January 13, 1982, a Boeing 737-222 plunged into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., killing 73 people on impact leaving only six survivors in the freezing river. A police helicopter arrived and began assisting the survivors in a risky operation. Known as the “sixth passenger,” Arland Williams survived the crash, and passed lifelines on to others rather than take one for himself, drowning before the last line came. Williams received the Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medal posthumously and the bridge the plane struck was later renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge.

The second involves United Airlines Flight 93 which was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists as part of the September 11 attacks. It crashed into a field in Pennsylvania during an attempt by the passengers and crew to regain control. All 44 people on board were killed. The intended target was the U.S. Capitol Building. United Airlines Flight 93 was the only aircraft that did not reach the hijackers’ intended target, and only because the passengers rose up, in the face of certain death, and forced the hijackers to crash the plane in a field away from other innocents. The last words of one of the heroes, Todd Beamer, are a poignant statement of the human triumph of good over evil in the world, “Are you guys ready? Okay. Let’s roll.” A permanent Flight 93 National Memorial was dedicated on September 10, 2011.


“Heroism is the brilliant triumph of the soul over the flesh – that is to say, over fear of poverty, of suffering, of calumny, of sickness, of isolation, and of death. There is no serious piety without heroism. Heroism is the dazzling and glorious concentration of courage.” – Henri Frederic Amiel.

From propriety and justice, we move now to the first of two roles of exceptional virtue with an investigation of heroism, the outward manifestation of internal courage. While a meaningful life is possible without it, heroism offers an intense subjective meaning bordering on the tangible. It involves a dual benefit of both helping others and serving as an example. Heroism has three dimensions – everyday, occupational, and supererogatory.


The most immediate form of heroism is the subjective projection of the word “hero” onto the everyday actions of basically good individuals. A simple and common example occurs with parenting, where young children view their parents as heroes. I remember the excitement of my then young children rushing to me when I came home from work, their appreciation of my hard work and trust in my unerring knowledge. There are few times in life that one feels as intensely the subjective experience of being a “hero,” and it is indeed a great responsibility as all parents know.

The unquestionably higher level of heroism is the unexpected and gratuitous acts of ordinary people involving some personal risk or pain in the service of others. These can be incidental such as helping down a cat stranded in a tree, stopping to help a stranger change a tire on a freeway, or saving a drowning child, or deliberate such as donating blood, protesting nonviolently against tyranny and injustice, or even planting a tree in a public space. Everyday heroism originates from inner selflessness, courage, fortitude, and love for others and for nature. Individuals seeking greater meaning in their life may find it in frequent acts of such heroism or in more extreme acts such as anonymously donating a kidney.


Virtue and purpose merge in the choice of a heroic occupation.  Firefighters, law enforcement officers, military servicemen and women, and emergency service personnel are good examples. The threat of danger to the individual is traded for the opportunity to help others or to maintain a harmonious society. The inner drive for such employment is not primarily monetary, but virtuous for most of them. The final proof of the virtue of such professions is seen when they save a life and yet deny their act was heroic, but rather “just doing my job.”

In this time of pandemic, there is no need to explain the heroism of other occupations. Health care workers risk their lives in treating patients with certain infectious diseases. But other examples abound – food service workers, postal workers, transportation personnel, and other front line workers risk their own health or that of loved ones for the good of their patients or customers.

(continued next blog)


“Justice is the summary of all virtue.” – Aristotle,  Nichomachean Ethics.

On the scale of virtue in proximate reality, just beyond general behavior is the quality of our dealing with other people. Among ancient thinkers, Aristotle best develops notions of justice at the level of the individual (as opposed to societal justice and governance). “The just is the lawful and the fair,” and justice is “another’s good,” a duty or obligation one has to one’s neighbor. That duty requires us to give to each person what is their own or that which they merit. As in other aspects of virtue, Aristotle believe justice is a habit, but in this case one of action unlike courage and temperance which are habits of passion. Justice relies heavily on prudence which in turn is a function of three variables: deliberation, judgment and decisiveness.1 Aristotle further separates this virtue into two parts: liberality and justice.


Aristotle uses the term liberality for one’s attitude to one’s own property, where virtue is the mean between prodigality and greed or stinginess. Similarly magnificence is the mean between vulgarity and meanness in the conduct of great enterprises. Aristotle recognizes the value and obligation of riches. Giving is noble and good especially when to the right people, while taking implies only being treated well for which gratitude is due. The noble man “values wealth not for its own sake, but as offering him an opportunity of giving.”2 Likewise, spending must be on the right objects in the right amounts in matters both small and great; and wealth must be from the right source in the right amounts.


Justice in the general sense is voluntary obedience to law, which applies in many dimensions aimed at the interest of the community as a whole; the form Aristotle considers “complete virtue.” However for our purposes here, justice applies in a more limited sense – taking no more than one’s fair share of goods of fortune, while supporting proportionate distribution of goods and correction of injustices. The just man distributes by choice, not from coercion, between himself and another or between two others fairly that which is desirable or harmful.

Disproportionality then is the key measure of injustice in personal relationships. The doer of injustice ends up with too much of a good and the victim too little (and the reverse for an evil). In society proportionate returns occur by cross-exchange, meaning fair compensation for another’s labor or goods (the reason money was invented). The personal virtue of justice extends beyond material goods encompassing actions such as adultery and violence. Wrongs done to others may be due to accident, error, or malice with the latter being unjust and the others requiring correction via just compensation.

Finally Aristotle echoes Socrates when he says “it is worse to commit injustice than to suffer it, for the doing of injustice is blameworthy and implies wickedness…but the suffering of injustice implies neither wickedness nor injustice in oneself.”3 This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons of proximate virtue – that each of us ought to accept injustice to oneself at times in return for the knowledge that we have not committed injustice ourselves.


1Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 pages 853-856.

2Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics  in On Man in the Universe. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y. for The Classics Club, 1943. Page 135.

3Ibid., page 168.


“Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present” – George Washington, Rule of Civility & Decent Behavior.


Virtue arises internally, but is measured externally. Certainly the most important outward measurement is behavior to others with whom one makes contact (as opposed to society in a general sense). In fact I suspect most non-philosophers assume the words ethics, virtue, and morality refer principally to how we treat other people directly. In an earlier blog, I designated the realm of our immediate experience as  ‘proximate reality.’1 There are four basic facets of virtue at this level: propriety, justice, heroism, and charity. We will analyze them individually.


The most superficial facet of virtue with other people involves mere coexistence. The virtuous self seeks to optimize one’s external appearance such as to contribute to the happiness of others and to facilitate one’s purpose in the world. On the one hand is etiquette or prescribed conduct that eases tensions anticipated in social circumstances especially with unfamiliar persons, and on the other we have proper behavior expected in relation to close friends and family, that sustain pre-existing relationships.

Propriety is a mix of demeanor and manners; part inner calm and patience, part familiarity with social mores, and part practical wisdom in one’s conduct. The greatest ancient sage of propriety is unquestionably Confucius. In The Analects, his students tell us that virtue for Confucius consists of three key principles: Jen, benevolence to other men, Li, rules of propriety and socially acceptable behavior, and Hsiao, filial piety which broadly includes respect for one’s parents and teachers, and the law and order of society.  If ethical principles are placed above profit, and governance occurs by moral example and persuasion, an orderly and peaceful society ensues permitting the harmonious development of its members.

Another example is George Washington who patterned his life on list of 110 memorized principles of civil behavior (see epigram above) and became one of the most admired men in history. His propriety includes honor, trustworthiness, and consistently virtuous behavior – particularly the avoidance of appearance of ethical conflict in one’s actions. From this develops one’s reputation, a vital asset in achieving meaningful purpose in the world.

Jacques Barzun, a 20th century American scholar, also emphasized manners noting that while they appear  superficial, restrictive, and inconvenient, they are essential to others’ contentment and serve to protect the self`. Given contemporary American incivility, we could all take a lesson from Confucius, Washington, and Barzun.

Last propriety extends to one’s choice of friends. We must associate with others of virtue in order to avoid deviation form a virtuous course and in order to solidify a reputation of honor that others are drawn to and attempt to mimic. True friends will not draw us into evil situations or expose us to ethical conflicts.

To summarize, etiquette, respect for others, trustworthiness, consistently honorable behavior, and association with others of virtue are the key factors in the propriety required for a fully meaningful life. Next time we will address justice in our affairs with others.


“The archer can be taken as an analogy, in some respects, for the man of noble character. For when he fails to strike his target squarely, he turns his gaze inward and seeks the cause in his own individual capacity”Chung Yung.





You may be wondering why I devoted 17 blogs and over 6000 words of a book on practical philosophy to the subject of virtue and the self. The answer is quite simple; I believe self-mastery is the single most important prerequisite happiness and a meaningful life. At the end of the day, each of us must decide to make peace with the world and live meaningfully, and that decision comes from our ‘own individual capacity.’

Self-mastery underlies all the other aspects of Eudaimonia. It is a precondition for the other levels of virtue: ethical dealings with others, social duty, and responsible behavior towards nature. It informs the purposes of one’s existence and offers the means to complete them. It is the fundamental conduit to contentment and the equanimity and concentration required to make contact with the divine or being in its totality.

We have seen that self-mastery begins with self-discipline: the taming of passions and desires, control of thoughts, and freedom from troubledness. Next one must shed selfishness, commit to right action with others, impose reasonable self-denial, and learn humility. Third one must probe deeply into what it means to be human and understand oneself psychologically and ontologically – especially the primal or authentic self. Meanwhile self-improvement must occur in four dimensions: physical, intellectual, ethical, and spiritual. The ultimate prize occurs following recognition of one’s authentic being when one accepts one’s finitude, forgives s one’s imperfections, and affirm oneself as a participant in the greater universe of being. That prize is Abraham Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ – maturity, wisdom, fulfillment, and achievement of meaningful and virtuous goals.

The course to self-mastery starts at the moment you decide to seek it. Initial efforts will likely involve self-denial such as limiting food intake or type, technologies (television, internet, electronic games, etc.), or other recreations. Withdrawal craving is countered with meditation and physical exertion. Reading the great spiritual texts such as the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching or the works of great thinkers such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Montaigne facilitates growth and tranquility. Self-denial, meditation, and philosophic study give one a new perspective on one’s place in the cosmos. Selfishness eases and humility increases. Solitude permits expanded self-knowledge and greater self-improvement. A mentor or even a good friend may help one understand one’s total potentialities and galvanize self-actualization. If you remember only one piece of advice from me let it be this: never surrender the ultimate goal of self-mastery.

Having completed our discussion of virtue at the level of the self, we are ready to look at the other levels which thankfully require fewer essays. Join me next time for virtue at the level of interaction with others.


“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” – e.e. cummings



At one time, when I alluded to self-actualization in the presence of my high school age niece, she pointed out that contemporary thinking is mixed or negative on the concept. Her concern related to whether emphasis on fulfillment of one’s authentic self invariably devolves into selfishness, self-promotion, or excess competitiveness. In my opinion, these concerns are valid but define contrasts to sincere self-actualization. It seems to me such diversions on the road to self-actualization can be repurposed into guardrails for genuine success. The following are the possible errant paths and the responses it seems we need to pursue.

Errant path­                                            Response

Selfishness                                           Concern for others, supererogatory duty

Arrogance                                             Modesty

Pride                                                        Recognition of good fortune and help of others

Self-promotion                                    Understatement and self-reliance

Self-aggrandizement                        Unpretentiousness

Self-importance                                    Humility

Over-competitiveness                       Support for others’ valid purposes

Danger of evil intention                      Study of ethics

Ambiguity of potentiality                   Self-reflection, mentor

Yielding to social hindrances            Persistence, fortitude

Self-actualization takes place on the stage of real life; itself unpredictable, overtly unfair, and abounding in obstacles to our success. Marcus Aurelius offers some sympathetic comfort:  “In this world there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.” Self-actualization must follow on and occur in parallel with unselfishness, humility, co-operation with others, and a strict moral compass. For the uncertain, seek a mentor-  a willing person of meaningful accomplishments and high ethical standards. Each of us has a unique aggregate of traits and beliefs that make up our authentic self. The most basic virtue underlying a fully functional life and inner happiness is located at the Archimedean point of mastery and actualization of the authentic self.



Philosophy and psychology intersect at the final stage of self-actualization, a term used extensively by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist. He tells us that we have an essential inner nature which includes capacities, talents, temperament, and inclinations, that amount to potentiality. Authentic selfhood is hearing one’s inner voice, which is to say, identifying what one really wants and for what one is fit. It is self-creative, the individual as his own project. It springs from a balance of gratification of needs (e.g. safety, belonging, esteem, and freedom) with frustration-tolerance (e.g. encountering challenges and dealing with failure).  Self-realization is the realm of dichotomy where selfishness and unselfishness merge as do work and play and duty and pleasure. We need not fear an intrinsically evil personality, which emerges rather from a stifling of one’s inner nature. Self-actualization entails acceptance and expression of the authentic self and escape from the evil tendencies of self-negation. Sadly, he estimates less than 1% of population ever becomes self-actualized.9

Maslow is not alone in these beliefs although most thinkers use different terminology. Aristotle’s teaching on Eudaimonia clearly establishes the need for self-development and a unique contemplative or active life for each of us. Augustine’s Confessions are a virtual autobiography of self-actualization through his path to Christianity. Nietzsche, Sartre, and other existentialists emphasize our ability to define ourselves and the total freedom (and responsibility) we have to realize our destiny. But in my opinion, Ernest Becker says it the most forcefully: “Probably in the last analysis…all men are here to use themselves up and the problem of ideal illusion doesn’t spare any man from that. It only addresses the question of the best quality of work and life that men can achieve depending on the beliefs they have and the powers they lean on.”10

Before me move on, next time  we will pause to consider criticisms of Maslow’s theory of self-actualization.


9Maslow, Abraham, Towards a Psychology of Being. D. Van Nostrand Company, 1968. Pages 189-207.

10Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death. The Free Press, 1973. ISBN 0-02-902310-6, page 207.



After identifying one’s authentic self, the next step is self-affirmation which has two parts. The first is acceptance of the recognized self. Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, offers a path, seemingly picking up where Heidegger left off. Recognition of the authentic self is intricately tied up with feelings of guilt; especially regarding our inauthentic past and the imperfection of our finitude. Traditionally we seek forgiveness from others or from God – both worthy actions –  but in fact, it is self-forgiveness and acceptance of our self as a finite being (what he calls the ‘courage of confidence’) which opens the door to our actualization. Tillich writes: “…the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”4,5

But Tillich warns us self-acceptance is only a half-measure. Affirmation of the self follows via participation in that which is greater than the self. Nonbeing (death) and finitude threaten our self- affirmation, but we can overcome this when we live creatively in ‘spheres of meaning.’ Here he is not referring to creative arts or science per se, but to creative participation in all aspects of reality.6 In an ontological sense, “the ultimate power of self-affirmation can only be the power of being-itself.”7 Being-itself is Tillich’s concept of the divine; thus self-affirmation occurs through the courage to be, and faith (a state, not a belief) is the experience of the power of this courage.8 In short, we come upon an existential paradox; self-affirmation is, unexpectedly, the courage to accept our finitude and align our being with ultimate reality.

(further continued next post)


4Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957, page 164

5If by chance you do not feel guilt or understand the concern on reaching this point, perhaps you should reflect longer and deeper and return to the sections on selflessness (posts this site 11/25/20 and 11/27/20) and self-knowledge (posts this site 11/30/20 and 12/2/20).

6Ibid., page 46.

7Ibid., page 167.

8Ibid., page 172-3.


“A human being is never what he is but the self he seeks.” – Octavio Paz, Nobel Laureate, Literature, 1990.



In our analysis of self-mastery, we have traversed self-discipline, selflessness, self-knowledge, and self-improvement. In one sense, all of these are processes extending throughout life, but in another sense they coalesce as rungs on a ladder to the authentic, fully functional person even while ongoing; i.e. human becoming and human being. There are three stages of this self-actualization: (1) Recognition of the authentic self, (2) Self-affirmation, and (3) Self-perfection –that is, realizing one’s full potential and apotheosis. Mathematically savvy readers may detect an analogy with integrals in calculus; the final stage is the limit, perhaps never quite achieved, but pursued relentlessly until death (or enlightenment?). Let’s examine the three stages in turn.


If you are like most people, you emerged from childhood as a person whose identity was largely created by others. In Eckard Tolle’s Gateways to Now,1 he elegantly explains that each of us carries within our name a metaphorical basket with eggs representing the labels and attributes assigned to us by our parents and others. In adolescence and young adulthood we begin to recognize that the characteristics which compose our self-image after years of filling this basket are arbitrary, accidental, or artificial.

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger seeks to understand the ultimate metaphysical reality – Being – by engaging in intense contemplation of the inner self, which he calls dasein or ‘being-there.’ Dasein is that fundamental entity that precedes and underlies the artificial self. He discovers that dasein finds itself “being-in-the-world’ (a world into which it is or was thrown), subject to inexplicable moods, inescapable fallenness (mere presence in the world), and boundless care. Guilt and anxiety are inevitable particularly because of the opinions of others and the ambiguities of existence. But the deepest self is found through anxiety where one encounters nothingness, personal finitude, and the necessity of death. Through a process Heidegger calls ‘resolution,’ one “moves in time from past to future through the present, appraises himself, chooses with the whole of his being, and thereby achieves authentic existence.”2

Ernest Becker notes the humanist psychologists use the term ‘authentic self’ for “what is left when the artificial social self has been stripped away.” He however prefers the term ‘total individual’ for that which he sees as greater than the artificial self.3 Which ever term you prefer, self-actualization begins when you recognize that the identity you assume under your name and social circumstance are not your ultimate self. Once you recognize this, you are ready to advance on the path to self-actualization.

(continued next post)



The last major area for self-improvement effort is the spiritual realm. Recent Western philosophy neglects or even denies a spiritual realm and thus exertion to transcendence. It is not the purpose of this section to argue for the divine of supernatural, nor to act as a spiritual guide. But if we accept there is an ultimate reality, even if just the cosmos, it makes sense to investigate the possibility of human interface with it. Ernst Cassirer hints of the value of  spirituality when he says, “He who lives in harmony with his own self, his demon, lives in harmony with the universe; for both the universal order and personal order are nothing but different expressions and manifestations of a common underlying principle.”4 These could just as easily be the words of Marcus Aurelius or a Hindu mystic.

The most powerful example of spirituality in Western philosophy is Neoplatonism, and specifically the  Enneads of Plotinus. In Frank Magill’s summary, Plotinus teaches one to transcend the body and follow the path upwards from soul (self) to the Intellectual Principle to the One (the Good). In order to escape evil, multiplicity, and materiality for the unitary source “one must study and discipline himself for metaphysical insight.”5 How? “The philosopher is stirred by love and moved by beauty; both of these experiences teach him to discern the higher from the lower in nature’s sphere.”6 “To read Plotinus is to “stretch the mind’s natural habits and to learn to think and visualize in new ways. Contrast is the proper method: bodes are exclusively many; the Supreme is exclusively one.”7

Western religion of course also emphasizes spiritual self-improvement in the form of prayer, biblical study, or sacraments. However a deeper level is reflected in the rich body of mystical literature such as works by Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, and more recently Thomas Merton. Eckhardt’s writings are particularly instructive; key priorities are obedience to God, freedom of mind, self-denial, detachment, diligence, and love. “One must learn to cultivate an inward solitude wherever and with whomsoever one may be. One must learn to break through things and to grasp one’s God in them and to be able to picture Him powerfully to oneself in an essential manner.”8

Likewise, most Eastern philosophy and religion emphasizes spirituality. An excellent example of an Eastern spiritual practice  is outlined in the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali. The 195 “threads” that make up this text fall into four sections:  (1) exercises that lead one to pure contemplation, (2) eight systematic steps in the practice of spiritual development, (3) three final steps in the process to hyperconsicousness and perfect discipline, and (4) lessons on the nature of absolute freedom. This absolute freedom or ‘enlightenment’ then is the ultimate reality at the end of Patanjali’s teaching.

It may seem dubious, even wasteful to spend time in disciplines aimed at spiritual self-improvement, but none of us can afford to be so parochial as to ignore the benefits voiced by the great masters. Whether one seeks God, the One, enlightenment, or simply a full understanding of the cosmos, spirituality is a vital element.


1 Adler, Mortimer, The Time of Our Lives. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. ISBN 03-081836-2.  Chapter 4, pages 29-37.

2Hutchins, Robert Maynard, The Great Conversation. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, IL, 1952. Page 53.

3See Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, Lecture 9 by Philip Cary.

4Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1972. ISBN 0-300-00034-0, page 7.

5Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961. Page 250.

6Ibid. Page 251


8Eckhart, Meister, Selected Treatises and Sermons. Fount Paperbacks, Great Britain, 1994. Page 54.

9Miller, Barbara Stoler (translator), Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. Bantam Books, New York, 1998. ISBN 978-0-553-37428-5, pages 18-25