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Strange as it may seem, life becomes serene and enjoyable precisely when selfish pleasure and personal success are no longer the guiding goals. When the self loses itself in a transcendent purpose—be it to write great poetry, craft a beautiful piece of furniture, understand the movement of galaxies, or help children be happier—it becomes largely invulnerable to the fears and setbacks of ordinary existence. Psychic energy becomes focused on goals that are meaningful, that advance order and complexity, that will continue to have an effect in the consciousness of new generations long after our departure from this world, even after we are long forgotten.

The knowledge that we are not alone, that we don’t have to defend our isolated selves against the rest of the universe, results in an intoxicating feeling of relief. We can act with joyful abandon, trying with the strength of all our fibers to reach the goals we have set for ourselves, yet ready to face failure with serenity. After all, why should our own goals take precedence in the enormous complexity of the universal mosaic? If they work out, so much the better. But we cannot really lose as long as our ultimate goals are at one with those of the cosmos. It is not only while playing an exhilarating game of touch football, or singing a beautiful tune, or becoming lost in painting a canvas that we will experience flow; flow will become the normal experience of everyday life, permeating everything that we do.

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self: A Psychology For the Third Millenium, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc, New York, 1994, pp. 292-293

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[Ethics] is not something intelligible only in the context of religion. I shall treat ethics entirely independent of religion. Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad. Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?

— Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 3-4

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Those who claim for themselves to judge the truth are bound to possess a criterion of truth. This criterion, then, either is without a judge’s approval or has been approved. But if it is without approval, whence comes it that it is truthworthy? For no matter of dispute is to be trusted without judging. And, if it has been approved, that which approves it, in turn, either has been approved or has not been approved, and so on ad infinitum.


— Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, trans. R.G. Bury, Loeb edn, W. Heinemann, London, 1935 p. 179

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[Good] is not a mere value tag of the choosing will, and functional and casual uses of ‘good’ (a good knife, a good fellow) are not, as some philosophers have wished to argue, clues to the structure of the concept. The proper and serious use of the term refers us to a perfection which is perhaps never exemplified in the world we know (‘There is no good in us’) and which carries with it the ideas of hierarchy and transcendence. How do we know that the very great are not the perfect? We see differences, we sense directions, and we know that the Good is still somewhere beyond. The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. ‘Good is a transcendent reality’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.

— Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, Routledge & Kegan Paul PLC., 1970, pp. 93

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Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!” — that is the motto of enlightenment.

Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters. But on all sides I hear: “Do not argue!” The officer says, “Do not argue, drill!” The tax man says, “Do not argue, pay!” The pastor says, “Do not argue, believe!” (Only one ruler in the World says, “Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!”) In this we have examples of pervasive restrictions on freedom.

— Immanuel Kant, Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?, Konigsberg in Prussia, 30 September 1784 (source)

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[You] should accustom yourself to believing that death means nothing to us, since every good and every evil lies in sensation; but death is the privation of sensation. Hence a correct comprehension of the fact that death means nothing to us makes the mortal aspect of life pleasurable, not by conferring on us a boundless period of time but by removing the yearning for deathlessness.

So silly for a person to say that he dreads death — not because it will be painful when it arrives but because it pains him now as a future certainty; for that which makes no trouble for us when it arrives is a meaningless pain when we await it. This, the most horrifying of evils, means nothing to us, then, because so long as we are existent death is not present and whenever it is present we are nonexistent. Thus it is of no concern either to the living or to those who have completed their lives. For the former it is nonexistent, and the latter are themselves nonexistent.

— Epicurus, The Philosophy of Epicurus, trans. George K. Stroach, Northwestern University Press, London, 1963, pp. 179-180

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Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.

I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, trans. Philip Mairet, 6th edn, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1965, pp. 29-30