“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 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.