“Only a development of thought achieved through self-education of the whole man can prevent any body of thought whatsoever from becoming a poison; can prevent enlightenment from becoming an agent of death.” – Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom.

Last time we discussed self-knowledge as the third portion of self-mastery. Of course the greater knowledge of yourself you have, the more attuned you become to opportunities for self-improvement. In his book The Time of Our Lives,1 Mortimer Adler develops a ‘common sense’ philosophy wherein he identifies five categories of activities in a human life: (1) biologically-necessary such as eating, sleeping, hygiene and the like, (2) subsistence work, meaning work essential to survive in life (not always compulsory), (3) idling or inactivity,    (4) play or activities done for pure pleasure, and (5) leisure-work or activity directed at personal growth or social improvement. Since leisure time allows either play and pleasure or work-like activities, the crux of making a good life for oneself, according to Adler is the correct balance of these two categories. Thus the first issue in self-improvement is finding that balance that will lead to maximum meaning and happiness in life.

You are likely to identify four areas for self-improvement or personal growth: physical, intellectual, ethical, and spiritual. Let’s take these in turn.


It is not usually the province of a philosophical guide to discuss physical improvement or issues of health, and perhaps it is the physician in me that refuses to omit this area. However it is not unprecedented; HIndu spirituality includes the practice of postures or hatha-yoga, universally acknowledged as having physical benefits. Likewise Tai Chi is a component of Chinese spiritual disciplines. In the West, Aristotle recognizes  good  health  as contributing to human flourishing and happiness. The practical philosopher recognizes that healthy diet and regular exercise improve physical function and extend longevity, both instrumental in fulfilling one’s purpose and attaining contentment and enlightenment.

A second form of physical self-improvement is the addition of skills and abilities such as use of tools, artistic endeavors, or mastering an instrument. I took up piano in the last four years and have found endless hours of contentment in its practice whatever my actual skill level may appear to others. Mindful use of such skills offers tranquility of mind and new opportunities to help or enhance the lives of others especially in our proximate world. With good luck some of us may achieve an elite ability that can result in enduring benefit to others – or  ‘metaphorical immortality’ – for example an unexpected invention, the creation of a great work of art or the composition of a timeless musical piece.

(continued next post)

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