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The Altruist’s Dilemma

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Throughout my work, I have argued that humans need an ideal toward which to strive – the preponderance of all our highest values. But it can sometimes be difficult to get clarity on these values and how we should be living. Luckily, a number of psychitectural visionaries have done much of this work for us, plumbing into the depths of human nature to determine what type of beings we tend to hold in highest regard.

To help build our vision, I want to go through a few different psychitectural ideals throughout the history of philosophy and religion. I will draw from the ideal of the ancient Greek Sage, the Buddha or Boddhisatva, the Christian ideal of Christ, Nietzsche’s overman, and Maslow’s self-actualizing individual. And my hope is that these diverse ideals will both give you a more refined idea of our highest collective values, and serve as an imaginary council to which you can compare yourself and consult in your decisions.

We should ‘withdraw to the society of the good and excellent men’ and compare our conduct with the ideal standard of the Sage or what we consider praiseworthy in others. When such passions arise in the future, if we’re ready to confront our initial impressions with the ‘beautiful and noble’ examples set by exemplary people, we will weaken and not be ‘carried away’ by them.

—Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

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Now I have always been fascinated by ideals – I remember the feeling of excitement I got when I discovered Nietzsche’s Ubermensch or read Maslow’s description of the self-actualizing individual. Part of that is because I always saw a lot of myself in these descriptions, but maybe that was just my adolescent grandiosity talking.

It’s important to note that all of these ideals are ultimately fictional, in the sense that they embody a kind of perfection that no human can fully attain. But this is also why they make for the best models to strive to emulate. Anytime you come across these descriptions of the human ideal, I encourage you to take notes, and ask how you can incorporate more of these values into your life.

The Sage

For the ancient Greek philosophers, the ideal individual was usually referred to as a sage. The sage was someone who had attained perfect wisdom and virtue, and hence could not be disturbed by any circumstances. He could maintain complete tranquility at all times, always acted in accordance with nature, and could not be deterred from this path, even when faced with the threat of death or the temptation of glory.

Socrates is often cited by the Stoics as a sage, or at least the closest example of one we could point to. Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for questioning religion and supposedly corrupting the youth with his philosophical inquiries. But it is said that when given the opportunity to escape, Socrates chose to die in accordance with his principles.

He held that a good person could not be harmed by another, arguing that even death had no bearing on his character. Damage to his mind, or soul, was far worse than any damage that could be done to his body, and only his own actions and decisions could affect the quality of his soul.

Epictetus said that progress toward sagehood occurs when you fully learn what is in your power and what is not, and remove all attachments to external outcomes. And Marcus Aurelius defines the sage as one “who has knowledge of the beginning and the end, and of that all-pervading Reason which orders the universe in its determinate cycles to the end of time.”

Equanimity was the ultimate good for a Stoic, and the Sage was the hypothetical living epitome of equanimity, living in a state of completely unshakable peace. In order to near this state, one had to practice reason to domesticate his unruly passions and nobly bear the realities of nature.

Along similar lines, Aristotle’s sage was called megalopsychos, which, contrary to its pathological-sounding name, was a magnanimous person who had transcended ordinary struggles and vanity. He says:

The ideal individual bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of his circumstances, like a skillful general who marshals his limited forces with all the strategy of war… He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy, whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The Buddha and Boddhisatva

In Buddhism, a Buddha is someone who has attained complete awakening and nirvana. Though the name the Buddha is often used for the religion’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhahood is a state that could be achieved by anyone who gained enough insight to release their cravings and transcend their limited notion of self.

Nirvana was a transcendent state characterized by the extinguishment of the fire of craving and desire. A total detachment from preference and outcome. The full annihilation of the distorted views of permanence and self, and the ability to see things as they truly are. And the path prescribed for achieving this state can tell us much about this Buddhist ideal.

One core component of this path consisted in ethical behavior, which involved treating other people compassionately in one’s actions and speech, and refraining from a list of unethical acts like murder and theft. A second component was mental discipline, which entailed the cultivation of wholesome mental states, and the diligent practice of exercises for cultivating mindfulness. The final factor of the path was wisdom, which had to do with transcending one’s ego and the illusions, suffering, and selfishness that come with it.

There is another, related ideal in Buddhism known as the bodhisattva. This was someone who had developed a spontaneous wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. A bodhisattva had practiced metta, or loving-kindness meditation extensively, and had developed, not only perfect wisdom and deep equanimity, but also extreme compassion and loving-kindness for all beings.

This ideal was not just focused on the peace achieved by one individual, but on the enlightenment of all people. Though the bodhisattva had transcended external attachment, she was deeply motivated by universal love and benevolence to end the suffering of all sentient beings. Having transcended the limited sense of self, the bodhisattva’s consciousness was merged with all life, and wished tranquility and liberation equally for all.


The Christian ideal of Christ was understood as God in human form. And given that God has been understood by many as an archetype, containing our unconscious, collective values, there is much we can learn from its personification.

The positive traits and virtues in Christianity were referred to as the Fruit of the Spirit, and the Apostle Paul lists the following attributes:

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control

Jesus embodied a number of virtuous traits found in other philosophies, that are often overlooked, such as wisdom and equanimity. Like Socrates, he is thought to have peacefully accepted his own execution, and even endured torture with grace. And like many other great philosophies, Christianity prized self-mastery over mastery of the external.

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.

– Proverbs 16:32, Holy Bible, New King James Version

But the core of Christian teachings are rooted in love. Christ was conceptualized as a shepherd, lovingly sharing his guidance with his flock. One of his core messages was that love was not only to be given to one’s close friends and family, but to one’s neighbor, the poor, and even one’s enemies.

Given that humans evolved with a tribal mindset, the idea of universal love and compassion is counterintuitive and powerful, and Christ was considered radical for extolling it. Like the Buddha, Jesus argued that we should give up our worldly attachments, transcend our limited view of ourselves, and love others as ourselves.

Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid.

– Jesus Christ, Luke 6:35 NL

It can be easy to turn our eyes away from those less fortunate than us, but Christ represents a willingness to look unflinchingly at suffering, poverty, and illness, and treat all humans with dignity, generosity, and respect. Cultivating a sense of universal love and compassion is thought to have brought a person benefits, not only in the afterlife, but in one’s present emotions. The Bible says:

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.

– 1 John 4:18, Holy Bible, New King James Version

The Overman

Friedrich Nietzsche’s overman may seem to be a complete contrast from the ideal of Christ, as Nietzsche was one of Christianity’s most vocal opponents. But even this self-proclaimed anti-Christ couldn’t paint a compelling picture of the ideal being without appealing to universal human values.

For Nietzsche, the great life was one characterized by the affirmation of life. He thought it was possible and desirable for a person to learn to truly love life, not just the seemingly pleasant parts of it. This person could live cheerfully even while enduring adversity and pain, and could embrace who he was with unapologetic pride. He could say “yes” to life, even to the point of willing that he should relive it the exact same way for all of eternity.

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

He spoke powerfully about self-mastery and self-overcoming. He thought a kind of autonomy could be achieved by the individual who could develop control and coherence among the many forces within herself. This kind of self-mastery would not necessarily result in forced order and restraint, but could allow for the energetic expression of one’s passions.

By achieving an integration of the parts of the psyche, he could develop autonomy over his own actions and direct them toward his highest goals. He could be the architect of his own character and live in a way that affirmed his own nature and promoted his growth.

The most intelligent men, like the strongest, find their happiness where others would find only disaster: in the labyrinth… their delight is in self-mastery… They regard a difficult task as a privilege; it is to them a recreation to play with burdens that would crush all others.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

His famous ideal of the overman points to a hypothetical ideal being who represented the peak of self-mastery and life-affirmation. This being was not susceptible to the beliefs and values of the herd as most people were, but was capable of thinking for himself and rejecting the norm. He was in control of himself and not at the mercy of the forces inside or outside himself which seek to enslave him. The overman was an individual who had come to fully embrace life as it was and learned to master the chaos within himself.

I teach you the overman… Who has organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative. Aware of life’s terrors, he affirms life without resentment.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Though Nietzsche was known only for attacking traditional values, it isn’t hard to find the values he cherished and believed were characteristic of the overman. He praised the virtues of self-determination, creativity, self-overcoming, self-mastery, self-confidence, zest, honesty, and courage.

The overman was not the barbaric and egocentric being it is sometimes interpreted to be. Nietzsche shows that a focus on oneself needn’t come at the expense of others. He says that the highest virtue of the overman was what he called the gift-giving virtue.

Although pity and a contracted kind of selfishness were harmful for everyone, the gift-giving virtue represented a healthy kind of generosity in which “you force all things to and into yourself that they may flow back out of your well as the gifts of your love.” In this virtue, he demonstrated that a focus on individual flourishing can overflow to the benefit of all.

[The modern] individual focuses too narrowly on his own short lifespan… and wants to pluck the fruit himself from the tree he plants, and so no longer likes to plant those trees that demand a century of constant tending and are intended to provide shade for long successions of generations.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

In line with my views on self-transcendence, Nietzsche believed that serving one’s own health was conducive to altruism, and not something to feel guilty about. When you picture a modern-day Übermensch, don’t think Putin – think Parton (as in Dolly Parton). Picture someone striving for the actualization of their own potential, and benefiting the world with their gifts and generosity in the process.

The Self-Actualizing, and Self-Transcending Individual

For Maslow, one of the most prominent qualities of his ideal – the self-actualizer – was a tendency to be motivated by intrinsically rewarding processes, such as growth, inquiry, and creativity, rather than by “flattery, applause, popularity, status, prestige, money, honors…” The more highly evolved person could be less reliant on external rewards because a higher degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency allowed him to internalize his sources of satisfaction.

The motivation of ordinary men is a striving for the basic need gratifications that they lack. [Self-actualizing individuals] no longer strive in the ordinary sense, but rather develop. They attempt to grow to perfection and to develop more and more fully in their own style.

– Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

Here are the core qualities Maslow used to describe the self-actualizing individual:

Truth Seeking Acceptance Purpose Authenticity Continued Freshness of Appreciation Peak Experiences Humanitarianism Good Moral Intuition Creative Spirit Equanimity

Maslow found that the autonomy self-actualizers had developed often came with an unconditional acceptance of what is. The self-actualizing individual was less motivated by the need to be right or to maintain comfortable illusions, and this allowed her to perceive reality with greater clarity, detachment, and courage.

She could be highly accepting of herself, including her weaknesses, and had a firm and integrated sense of identity. She could remain true to her core values and resist social pressure and enculturation. And she could accept her life circumstances, even when they were not ideal, showing great equanimity through adversity.

Not highly reliant on moral rules and order, these people were also able to be highly open to experience and spontaneous because a strong sense of who they were and what they valued made it unnecessary to rigidly micro-manage their own actions. They could be maturely expressive and effortlessly creative.

He found that these individuals lived their life with a constant, almost childlike appreciation and awe for the world. And they frequently had what he called “peak experiences,” moments of ecstasy which could be found in love, aesthetic appreciation, intellectual awe, creative epiphany, social connection, and self-transcendence.

Now while they aren’t all identical, it’s hard not to notice parallels between these different conceptions of the ideal individual, despite the fact that they emerged from dramatically different cultures, eras, and individual minds.

All of these ideals had a great capacity for wisdom and intuition over the strict adherence to rules. They had high degrees of self-control and self-mastery. They had deep compassion, benevolence, and love toward all beings. And they had the gift of acceptance – to handle adversity with equanimity.

These beings were all intrinsically motivated, and moved beyond the need for external rewards like profit, flattery, and simple desire-gratification. And they were able to transcend the dichotomy between selfishness and selflessness, serving one’s own growth and the world simultaneously.

So what does this all mean for you? There is not just one path up the mountain of well-being. In fact, the path is inherently different for each person. That’s because we each have a different virtue fingerprint, unique only to us.

But you wouldn’t want to climb a mountain without any view of where you’re headed. We want to look up to the peak so that we can make sure we’re headed in the right direction, and be prepared for the terrain we’re likely to encounter.

Ultimately, your ideal self is about who you want to become, and what aligns with your personal values. I can’t speak specifically to who that is for you. But I can tell you that at the highest level, that ideal ends up looking eerily similar for a lot of people.

So in conceptualizing your ideal self, continue to focus on your real-life role models and values. But also contemplate the cross-culture ideals that have stood the test of time, and converged on a common embodiment of our deepest values.

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