Is there a philosophy that suggests a motive to achieve great things which is deeper than one's feeling, emotions, oersonal benefit, desires, etc?

I have always wanted to do huge things. Be the best at something. Be remembered as a "great". And I'm attracted to the fundamental idea of doing incredibly difficult things in order to push one's self to the edge of his or her capability as a human being. I feel like it would be a waste if I didn't create the biggest possible good change in the world that I'm humanly capable of. And I see that good change happening in two different ways:

  1. What I physically contribute, whether it be an invention, a company, a product, a book, etc.

  2. The inspiration that I contribute through the act of persevering to do that incredible thing, against all odds.

But so far, all of this is based on my feelings. What I want, what feels good to me, and those seem like shallow and shortsighted motives for what I'm doing.

A motivational speaker I listen to poses this great question: "What is your Why?"

And my "Why" seems to be:

  • I like making things.

  • Because it feels bad to me personally to know that I'm going to die, and I haven't reached my maximum potential as a human being.

  • I want to live on by being remembered. Like Einstein, Plato, Da Vinci, Steve Jobs. To live on through history is the best way to be immortal, in a sense.

  • I want the financial freedom to live the way I choose.

The problem is, none of these "Why"s are beyond myself. They're all based on me, my feelings, my emotions, my personal wants, and I'm not satisfied with that, I feel there must be a deeper motive that I can find philisophically which is bigger than me.

Is there a philosophy that suggests a motive to achieve great things which is deeper than one's feeling, emotions, oersonal benefit, desires, etc?

  • 1
    Yes, it is called theology and involves god(s). – Conifold Oct 13 '15 at 17:26
  • @conifold what I don't believe in theology? – J.Todd Oct 13 '15 at 17:33
  • 1
    Moral duty, civic duty, common good, etc. But arguably it is all your idea of duty, good, and even with god(s) still your idea of god(s). – Conifold Oct 13 '15 at 19:29
  • Neo's answer in the 3rd Matrix movie was, "Because I choose to." It was a good reply to the me me me of the Smith program. – user32096 Apr 2 '18 at 22:43

There are many, many philosophical approaches to this issue, from the Homeric valor to Christian transcendence, from Nietzschean will to power to Dawkins' selfish genes, as well as social scientific theories on the nature of "altruism." All of philosophy is, at some level, an approach to human questions that aims above the level of the "self."

One problem lies in the definition of the "self." Even if you behave in a self-denying way, aren't you still carrying out some desire on behalf of "yourself." In the Medieval Church and in later Protestantism, there were many debates about whether or not the desire to please God could be "selfish" and heaven a kind of bribe. This carries over somewhat into Freud where we can always do "good" deeds out of some pernicious subconscious desire.

Since "self-motivation" partially defines a human being, how can we have motives that ever truly transcend the self? One famous answer to this is Kant's "deontic" approach to morality, to act out of duty in a "universal" way, basically a rationalized version of the golden rule. Thus your actions are not to be based on personal or utilitarian motives. They are not even based on outcomes or consequences, which you cannot assume to predict.

In regard to your present dilemma, much "wisdom literature" also suggested that you cannot fully control the outcomes, and you are most likely to succeed best at what makes you happy in practice, what you'd keep doing even if no one is telling you to. And you can only succeed to "give form" to the block of marble by eliminating excess possibilities. Kierkegaard describes a despair of the "lack of possibilities" and a despair of the "excess of possibilities," which sounds like the more relevant obstacle for you.

On the other hand, I'm sure Trump and Madonna might have some opposing advice about "having it all," a pathology of consumerism. Unfortunately, our spurious "universality" of television gives too many young men, in particular, an easy, negative way to "make a difference" and be "remembered." They kill a few bystanders and sublimate briefly into the next news cycle. In the end, they lived and died for... our panoptic god, The Evening News.

  • So, is the answer, put simply, that one cannot find absolutely selfless logical motivation for achieving great things because one's own motivation defines one self and therefore such logic would be a circular argument? – J.Todd Oct 14 '15 at 19:24
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    Yes, at a glance, I think that sounds right. Yet we can, in some sense, "transcend" ourselves so as to act upon some part of our identity as if from "outside." And allow ourselves to be directed by some "impersonal" rules, as with Kant. – Nelson Alexander Oct 14 '15 at 19:33

Motivation, for Kant is not based upon sentiments, but upon the universal autonomy due all intelligence. You are obligated to find or create personal motivation to perform your already-established abstract duties. (Of course we routinely fail to do so, but the obligation remains.)

So in a Kantian sense there are things that simply must be done if the world is to be adequately open to all its citizens. One has a duty to do them, and the only reason others may not do them is that they are not capable or they are not convinced of the duty. These kinds of duties, which ordinary people routinely fail to meet, are great things.

For instance, many civil rights workers in many societies have worked, generally against their own personal advantage and in secrecy, over long periods of time to enable those we eventually acknowledge, and whom we see as changing the world, to come forward. Their motivations are often simply about how right action should look, and the fact that it does not look that way in their local situation.

If they can make that motivation into something that appeals to their sentiments, they may be more effective. But the duty is not related to these sentiments, only to the fact things are imperfect, their awareness of the situation, and their ability to act.

  • This is intriguing. I wonder... What does kant base this obligation on to begin with? What is it about intelligence that obligates us to empower/enable/assist eachother? – J.Todd Oct 13 '15 at 19:23
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    Kant is a Christian, with a predisposition to presume God has a Plan... But the abstract notion of purpose, itself, also leads there. Either there is some underlying purpose in all of our individual purposes, or there is no logic to anything animals do except to replicate and consume, and the human need for structure is broken. If we are broken, just give up and die. Otherwise purpose itself is a real thing, and not a side effect of the process of replication. But then there is no good reason any specific instance of purpose is better than any other, or there is. Ergo: Kant or Nietzsche. – user9166 Oct 13 '15 at 19:43
  • @jobernark any explanation as to why someone downvoted your answer and my question? should my wuestion be more focused or refined? – J.Todd Oct 13 '15 at 23:04
  • Well, I up-voted both. The question is a good one, but perhaps sounds "naively" framed for a philosophical question, where no one says "I want a high-class lifestyle," even if they do. To refer again to Kant, humans are "auto-nomous" from the Greek, making their own laws. Humans are "ends in themselves" not "means" to some other end. Thus, a human life is like an "artwork." An end, not a means. So why not be a self-liberating "libertine"? Answer: "life," "lives" and "my life" are not separable. We all begin in utero as two "lives." And end being re-membered by other "lives." Selves delude. – Nelson Alexander Oct 14 '15 at 1:10
  • @NelsonAlexander well doesn't everyone? I was simply writing my motives honestly. I've rephrased a bit more conservatively. – J.Todd Oct 14 '15 at 3:28

I am kind of sad you chose my first answer, and did not contest it. So I am going to give another answer as well.

I agree with @NelsonAlexander that there are actually a huge range of answers.

But, as the comment on my first post on the nature of purpose indicates, I think they fall along a continuum between two stable positions (three if you include simply being a happy animal.) Kant represents one of these quite clearly. The other is best expressed by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's answer would be to diagnose the question as the symptom of an ailment. Why is it difficult for you to accept that whatever choices you make, they will ultimately be for your own self-interest? Some fragment of the wider sense of purpose that we feel as a race is embedded specifically in you. And it has its own agenda. Why not pursue that agenda? Who are you, to question you, when it is pretty obvious the 'other you' is eventually going to get his way, anyway?

His answer is that you are under the influence of the will not to be dominated, which has overdeveloped to such an extreme that it has become a will to constantly be dominated by something higher and higher. So, you don't want to be a slave of your body, or of your culture? Be the slave of this religious principle instead? Don't want to be dominated by some silly tenet? Derive an abstract theory of tenets, and be a slave to that! But then isn't there something even better out there?

It is an endless tower, and yes, we see better outcomes for everyone when we see more people working from the higher than from the lower tiers of it. But it is not ultimately a solution to the weird yearning to be both subject to and dominant over some imaginary being made of thoughts and impulses. We are all basically religious, in a way that is really hard to escape.

That does not mean you have to fall back on what is comfortable for your body, or your society, or that you should just take up a religion at random and ignore this very central human motive. But you, in a greater sense, are already one of these beings made of thoughts and impulses. Why not contrive some way to consciously and conscientiously be a slave to and a dominator over yourself.

He refers to this choice as the drive to "Make Art of the Self", and it starts with attempting to derive what inclinations of your own are rare, or complex, and considering what those might mean for everyone else.

We see from a succession of Great Creators (Plato, Christ, Einstein...) how clearly divining and expressing those unique qualities, and putting them out into the world, becomes a source of power, and how, even if it does not allow you to control those around you in the present, it might guide multitudes for generations. Even if it is only an inflection on one of these powerful streams, (Luther, Calvin, Wesley...) it may easily play itself out in a way that saves and destroys lives.

Since we readily see how much we are already driven by power, even when we distort it into a paradoxical form, we should accept that impulse, taking into consideration these new potential dimensions of power. Our current dependency upon the gifts of the great creators of history shows us how much that developing trend is really not about ourselves, but adds to the lives of the rest of society.

  • Simplicity is the ultimate complexity, wouldn't you agree? da Vinci certainly would. I understand that you are trying to express the range of possible answers that exist for my question, and you're trying to express complex ideas, but perhaps you can simplify your points to be easier to understand. Slaves, dominators, religious principles, you speak of aren't making sense to me. I believe only in logic, so any motive that would drive me must purely be rooted in what makes sense logically. – J.Todd Oct 14 '15 at 19:17
  • I don't want a religion, just the opposite - And I don't want to create my own religion and motivate myself through some obscure set of ideas. I'm looking for existing logic in life, described by philosophers, which explains a reason for achieving great things - the philosophy, I suppose, would also have to define its own sense of greatness. Perhaps you understand this, but I fail to see an answer in what you've written. I think I sort of understand, but as I said, you may need to simplify the way you're describing things, or at least clarify. – J.Todd Oct 14 '15 at 19:20
  • Some things simply are not that easy. Nietzsche's logic escapes a lot of people. But ultimately no one can tell you what particular great thing you would create, and without knowing that, no one can tell you why you would create it. So you can take the generalist solution, typified by Kant, or the specialist solution, which will not be as specific. – user9166 Oct 14 '15 at 19:29
  • I guess one main difference is whether you see yourself as creating, or seeking out, your own specific motivation. Kant says, find a goal via abstract logic, and create the emotional motivation ad hoc. Nietzsche says, trust nature to have provided the motive, find it, and build outward into something reasonable. The problem is that the former ultimately ends up being the latter. So the second path is shorter if harder. – user9166 Oct 14 '15 at 19:36
  • (And all of that assumes I even understand them correctly.) – user9166 Oct 14 '15 at 19:41

How to find 'Why' that is beyond yourself:

  1. Become able to see beyond yourself
  2. See the evident reason

My experience is that it comes down to a single statement, which you either understand and agree with, or you do not. I came to this statement after decades of questioning, within religion, in a spiritual quest, and beyond it.

"The collective enterprise is worthwhile."

If that makes sense to you, done. If it seems appealing but you don't quite get it, persist. It is, as best I can tell, necessary and sufficient.


the answer to this is well put I think in clark's bible commentary

Ecclesiastes 3:11 Beautiful in his time - God’s works are well done; there are order, harmony, and beauty in them all. Even the caterpillar is a finished beauty in all the changes through which it passes, when its structure is properly examined, and the ends kept in view in which each change is to issue. Nothing of this kind can be said of the works of man. The most finished works of art are bungling jobs, when compared with the meanest operation of nature. He hath set the world in their heart - העולם haolam, that hidden time - the period beyond the present, - Eternity. The proper translation of this clause is the following: “Also that eternity hath he placed in their heart, without which man could not find out the work which God hath made from the commencement to the end.” God has deeply rooted the idea of eternity in every human heart; and every considerate man sees, that all the operations of God refer to that endless duration. See Ecc_3:14. And it is only in eternity that man will be able to discover what God has designed by the various works he has formed.


  • First: avoid CAPS LOCK in text. Second: is a religious teaching really "a philosophy"? – MichaelK Apr 3 '18 at 13:55

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