“Self-actualization,” which sounds dismal and pretentious, usually deserves well the abuse it commonly gets. Yet it needn’t always be crass, grasping, or stupid. For all the inanity achieved in its name, it continues to represent a high-minded longing for the democratic ideals of variety and freedom that were celebrated by John Stuart Mill and Walt Whitman. And for those many today unburdened by the demands of a soul, to become “one’s best self” might be the worthiest available ambition.

Maybe if one were to call self-actualization by another name, its stigma would be reduced. And if an exemplar more honorable than its typical advocates could be found, that would bolster its reputation. So call it self-perfection instead, and think of Goethe as its finest embodiment. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) devoted his life to perfecting himself, and...


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