The drive towards excellence

maart 28th, 2019 · by John · Filosofie NL, Weblog EN

There are many questions people can ask themselves questions, the most fundamental and philosophical of which are: who am I, what can I know and how should I act? This last question will be answered in this article, and that will set the foundation for two other articles to follow. In the past, philosophers and other thinkers have already tried to formulate an answer. Let’s therefore, briefly review their ideas.

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge and values. Ethics is the branch of philosophy involved with concepts of right and wrong conduct. It investigates two questions:

  • What is the best way for people to live?
  • What actions are right or wrong in a particular circumstance?

There are three branches of Ethics:

  • Virtue ethics focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on specific actions.
  • Deontology argues that decisions should be made based on one’s duties and others’ rights.
  • Consequentialism argues that the morality of an action depends on its outcome or result.

The term virtue arises from the Latin term virtus, which means valor, merit and moral perfection. It is closely related to the Greek word arête. Virtue can thus be defined as moral excellence, it is a character trait or quality thought to be morally good.

Unlike deontology and consequentialism, virtue-based ethical theories place less emphasis on the rules people should follow. They focus on helping people develop good character traits, such as kindness and generosity. These character traits will allow a person to make the correct decisions in life. Virtue theorists also emphasize the need to learn how to break bad habits of character, like greed or anger. These are called vices and stand in the way of becoming a good person.

The ancient Greeks

Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BCE and continued throughout the Hellenistic period and the period in which Greece was part of the Roman Empire. Of the many philosophers in this era, three names stand out: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Central in ancient Greek ethical thought is the concept of eudaimonia. Eudemonism is a self-realization theory that makes personal well-being the chief good for man. It literally means “the state of having a good indwelling spirit, a good genius”. It is often translated as happiness, but a better translation would be human flourishing or “the best activities of which man is capable”.

  • For Socrates, the ultimate object of human activity is eudaimonia, and virtue is the necessary means to reach it. Since everybody necessarily seeks flourishing, no one is deliberately corrupt. All evil therefore arises from ignorance. Virtue for Socrates is wisdom and can therefore be taught.
  • Eudaimonia for Plato consists in the perfect imitation of the absolute good. Virtue enables man to order his conduct according to the dictates of reason. Plato considers virtue to consist in wisdom, justice, temperance and fortitude. These four carnal virtues constitute the proper harmony of man’s activities.
  • Also Aristotle holds that men tend to eudaimonia as the highest good. It is sought for its own sake and other goods serve as means to get to it. Flourishing can be reached through activities proper to human nature. Not in the lower activity of the vegetative and sensitive life as man has in common with plants and animals, but in the highest and most perfect activity of his reason, which springs from virtue. This activity has to be exercised in a perfect and enduring life.

The existentialists

Existentialism as a philosophy, concentrates on the study of human existence. It tries to understand how we realize our existence in this world. Its central idea is that we run through series of self-explorations to change our nature in accordance with our own choices. Existentialism is about the way we find our true meaning in life, which is achieved through our own choice, free will and self-responsibility.

Existentialism is the search for the true self and true personal meaning in life. Existentialists have faith in their own personal choice and responsibilities regardless of traditions, ethnic rules or laws. Among the great existentialists are Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The will to power (Wille zur Macht) is prominent in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). It describes the driving force in us: achievement, ambition and striving to reach the highest possible position in life. Through self-overcoming, the will to power is harnessed and directed toward self-mastery and self-transformation, guided by the principle that our real self lies not deep within us but high above us.

Maslow’s hierarchy

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) believes that we have an inborn desire to be self-actualized; to be all we can be. However, in order to achieve this ultimate goal, a number of more basic needs must be met first.

Maslow’s theory includes five motivational needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. The lowest levels are made up of the basic needs and the more complex needs are located at the top of the pyramid. Basic needs are the physical requirements we need in order to survive. Once a lower-level need has been met, we can move on to the next level of needs.

As we progress up the pyramid, our needs become more psychological and social. After the physiological and safety needs, the need for love, friendship and intimacy become important. Further up the pyramid, the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment takes priority. The need for self-actualization refers to our personal potential and to its realization. It is the desire to accomplish everything that we can, and to become the most that we can be.


We may focus very specifically on the need for self-actualization, for example having the desire to become an ideal parent. For others, the desire may be expressed athletically, or it may be expressed in terms of paintings, pictures or inventions

Variations may include the quest for knowledge, understanding, peace, self-fulfillment or beauty. The aesthetic person may feel physically ill when driving past an ugly array of fast-food restaurants. But the need for beauty is neither higher nor lower than the other needs at the top of the pyramid. Self-actualization needs aren’t hierarchically ordered.

For the ancient Greeks, eudaimonia (the best activities of which we are capable) is the central concept and ultimate goal to achieve. We can get at this stage of flourishing through the use of reason, and thereby reach a perfect and enduring life. The central idea of existentialism is finding the true meaning of life, which is achieved through our own choice, free will and self-responsibility. Our driving force is: achievement, ambition and striving to reach the highest possible position in life. Maslow holds that we have an inborn desire for self-actualization.

Looking back at more than two thousands of years of philosophizing, the answer on the question of how to act, is to reach a perfect and enduring life, to reach the highest possible position and to become the most that one can be. I will refer to this strive, as the “drive towards excellence”, which makes it possible for us to “become who we are”.

As we shall see this drive towards excellence is not only applicable to individuals. It is also valid for organizations, which in fact are communities of individuals.

John Greijmans

Rotterdam, March 2019

This article is the first in a series of three on de drive for excellence. The next two articles will be on personal excellence and business excellence respectively.

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