“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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)

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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

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We leave our school years as unfinished learners; with age we appreciate the limits of that learning and face the reality of our obsolescence as human knowledge continues its relentless advance. The solution of course is a commitment to lifelong learning. Robert Hutchins in the introductory volume to The Great Books speaks of John Dewey’s belief that continued growth is essential to intellectual life. Hutchins expresses his sublime thought: “The twin aims that have animated mankind since the dawn of history are the conquest of nature and the conquest of drudgery…It is impossible to believe that men can long be satisfied with the kind of recreations that now occupy the bulk of their free time…A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.”2 It seems to me intellectual growth requires a mixture of the great books of the past, texts on history, contemporary literature, current news (multiple sources), and study of science.

Two millennia earlier Seneca says much the same as Hutchins:  “Leisure without study is death; a tomb for the living man.” But Seneca adds to reading and study a further task – writing: “We ought not confine ourselves either to writing or to reading; the one, continuous writing, will cast a gloom over our strength and exhaust it; the other will make our strength flabby and watery. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one’s reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen.” Full intellectual self-improvement then appears to be a blend of reading and writing. (In fact this web site is my effort to fulfill Seneca’s imperative.)


Of course this entire section and the earlier one on Ethics all entail ethical self-improvement, but it seems reasonable to pause for some ancient wisdom on the process of ethical self-perfection. Aristotle thinks the goal of human life is to be ‘good at’ being human. The Greek term for this is arête meaning human excellence or virtue. He thinks virtue is a habit or learned capacity; as one practices virtue, it becomes easier, even pleasant, much as when learning to play an instrument. Moreover, like playing an instrument, it is a capacity we always have even when not using it.3

Seneca echoes Aristotle: ” Learning virtue means unlearning vice. We should therefore proceed to the task of freeing ourselves from faults with all the more courage because when once committed to us the good is the everlasting possession. Virtue is not unlearned.” The person who wishes to have self-mastery and excel as a human must thus continually perfect virtue.

(further continued next post)

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“Only a development of thought achieved through self-education of the whole man can prevent any body o 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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The last level of self-understanding is the ontological or structural level. This is a bit more illusive, but well within one’s grasp with effort. We can identify the three parts of that entity we call the self: external, internal, and ontological.5 Most superficial is the external self, the persona the world encounters and attributes to your name. This is not only the physical body, but also the actions, speech, and countenance emerging from within you. This is also the participatory self. Self-knowledge here is an objective assessment of your external appearance and the appraisal of the effect of your actions, speech, mood, and emotions on those around you. Self-control and unselfishness are the key means to alter your outer image.

The internal self is the more complex private, inner personality and lifelong train of thought that overlaps with the psychological self we addressed above. It is our separate side and the seat of contemplation. However self-knowledge at this level expands beyond the psychological to the spirituality of the mystics or what Abraham Maslow calls ‘peak experiences.’ It also offers another priceless opportunity, essential to full self-knowing: the almost magical ability to be the observer of oneself, a higher level of self-consciousness.  What this means is when the external or internal self experiences something or acts , the inner self can be its own observer, stepping back to witness and even interpret that experience or action, what Eckhart Tolle calls the ‘silent watcher.’

Last is the ontological self, that primal, non-egoic, non-verbal being which underlies and precedes personality and intellect. This is the most illusive of all facets of self and a source of continuing disagreement. Martin Heidegger in his deeply contemplative Being and Time, sees our inner being or dasein as the contact point for our understanding of all being. Paul Tillich seems to agree. Alternatively Buddha teaches that deep meditation reveals nothing beneath the personality, a ‘non-self,’ although there is some contradiction implicit in his other belief of reincarnation. Richard Taylor seems to agree with Buddha that underneath the layers of the self lies nothing. Only through contemplation or meditation on yourself can you hope to discern which or if both positions are correct.


It is quite easy to live one’s entire life without honing self-knowledge, but the price is likely to be a narrowed meaning and value of that life. The practical philosopher must devote significant effort to understand his fundamental constitution, the source of his feelings and thoughts, and what if anything lies at the root of his being. The reward of highly refined self-knowledge is the door it opens to contentment, meaningful purpose, and contact with ultimate reality that constitute the other parts of a meaningful and happy life. Think about it!


1Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1972. ISBN 0-300-00034-0, page 1.

2Ibid, pa

3Ibid, pages 21.

4Irvine, William B., A Guide to the Good Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2009. ISBN978-0-19-537461-2, page 119.

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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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