QA 12. (March 09) In defence of ego


“Struggle is ego.”

“All ambition is vanity.”

“I’ve been meeting my ego a lot recently.”

These three comments came my way over the course of a few days. They all seem to express some nervousness, disapproval or dislike of “ego”. Is that fair? Is ego simply a problem?

I experience ego as a mediator, an interface between me and the world. Or like a skin that keeps my innards in and provides a (more or less) permeable barrier to the world. It is how I appear in the world, how I present myself or am presented to others. In its outward motion, ego expresses intentionality, personality or character. In its inward movement, it filters and interprets my world of experience. Temporally, it creates a continuity of self and world over time. I recognise myself (more or less) in my ego. When I feel self-conscious, ego is one term of that reflexivity. Ego is myself qua (in the capacity of) conscious subject. None of this is a bad thing. On the contrary! I would be in trouble without egoic defences, and ineffectual without ego’s drive to action. A lost soul in the world of deed.

So how does it go – and we know it does – so terribly wrong? Misuse, I think, whether through misunderstanding or impropriety.

Misunderstanding here is a case of mistaken identity. I may experience ego as my identity, I relate to it and relate through it, but I am not identical with it. It is an object of my subjectivity or consciousness. If I am living cleanly, if I’m getting it right, “I” and “ego” work together harmoniously and are virtually indistinguishable.

But ego is a worldly creature; it carries some weight or gravity. If I am lazy or unmindful, seduced or bewitched or otherwise asleep at the switch, ego can take on a life of its own. The world, as it must, takes egos seriously. How terribly pleasant it is to be stroked and praised, to achieve some measure of success. Caught in this dream, ego expands and inflates and would dance in the clouds forever. But how terrible it is to be shamed and rejected – trapped in this nightmare, ego thumps back to earth, shrivels up and longs to disappear. (If we are lucky, someone may be nearby who will help us wake up. Hush. It’s all right.)

And so I see that the virtue of ego is propriety, and the virtue of a self is careful vigilance. And when someone speaks of “meeting their ego” with a wry smile, I recognise that vigilance at work, bringing ego to order. But when I hear that “all ambition is vanity”, I have to disagree. Ambition that feeds, and is fed by, ego’s insatiable desire for illusive rewards is certainly vain, but that’s not the nature of every ambition. “Struggle is ego”? Sure. But where struggle is necessary, ego is the soul’s champion.

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