Someone sent an interesting question the other day in an email: What is the most logical reason why the ego exists?
Why do people ask me only the easy questions?
Here is a thumbnail sketch. The answer to this question probably depends on how one wants to define the term “ego.” Philosophers, psychologists, theosophists and mystics each have their own perspective on what precisely constitutes the “ego.” According to Plato, which he identified with also identified with Nous (‘Mind’) and Descartes likewise had a similar view, namely, the ego is the personal identity of an individual that can exist independently of the body.
British skeptic David Hume was puzzled as to the nature of his core self, while other philosophers like Hobbes felt uncomfortable with anything that was so mysterious and non-physical.
Some thinkers believe that the ego pertains to the conscious areas of the personality associated with self-control and self-observation. On the other hand, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) taught that the ego refers to a certain area of the psyche that stands at the center of the person and involves the individual’s attributes and functions. Without the ego, we would be incapable functioning. One of Freud’s best known quotes, “Where id was there shall ego be”—that situated Freud as the father of modern psychology. Freud asserts that consciousness is the ego’s awareness and mediation of the unconscious. This awareness in turn lets the ego realistically to allocate a part of the sexual force (libido) for sexual activity and love and productively, as well as sublimate the remainder for meaningful work. Without ever explaining why, Freud contends that reason enables the healthy ego to perceive a close approximation of reality. Thus, science and reason are indispensable for the individual’s salvation.
Another psychologist, Heinz Kohout, views the ego in a somewhat different light. He argues that the ego [or what he prefers to call “the self”] refers to the principle that gives unity to the mind without which we could not function. According to the French psychologist Piaget, the term egocentric does not denote a sense of self that is differentiated from the world but quite the opposite—the self is NOT separated or distinguished from the world; the ego has no sense healthy sense of separateness apart from the world. Often the word “ego” carries nothing but the most preparative connotations, but the simple truth is we would have no identity were it not for the ego.
According to Jung, the ego is related to a certain body sense; it senses the center of our field of awareness; it is also linked to an awareness of intellectual thinking and is affected by all sorts of feelings. The ego oversees what we do every day. Whether it be driving a car in busy traffic jam, or whether it be eating while listening to the radio, the ego helps us remain connected to the world we live in. It can best be described as a “waking consciousness.” The ego is the self‑awareness that makes us human. Jung also argues that the ego is neither the center nor the master of the personality. In some of his more mature writings, Jung limits the ego to that portion of the psyche available to consciousness.
In mythical literature, the hero is consistent one who is willing shatter through egoic consciousness through his or her ability to pass certain tests and obstacles; by doing so, the hero transcends the limitations of his ego while Jungian psychology teaches that in the evolution of consciousness, the Self is undifferentiated with the ego. The ego exists only as a potential ‑‑this is analogous to the relationship between the mother and its embryo‑‑ it is in a virtual state of oneness and non‑differentiation. As the child emerges, much of its conscious identity is still bound up with its mother. The Mother’s “Self” so to speak still encompasses the child’s psyche until the child develops its own sense of self in early childhood. The ultimate maturity of the ego will depend on whether it can individuate itself in the course of its life.
Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann thinks the whole point of the Garden of Eden narrative about the “Fall” in Genesis 3 touches upon this important point. Prior to Adam and Eve’s fall, their identities remained completely undifferentiated from God’s. It is only after the primal sin, they develop a separate sense of who they are. From the expulsion from Paradise, Adam and Eve and their children must learn to develop a healthy sense of self—this was for them—and still is for us—the beginning of life’s majestic spiritual journey.
One of the more interesting schools of mystical psychology is the area of “transpersonal” psychology, which teaches that reality is something that lies “beyond”(hence the word “trans”) the individual. For some movements, e.g., those influenced by Buddhism, it is an illusion to think of the ego possessing any independent ontological reality. Martin Buber in his I and Thou believes this kind of thinking disrupts the importance of the I and Thou, but we may wish to discuss this issue at another time. Buber may not necessarily be correct in his condemnation of mysticism.
In some of the eastern religious traditions, the Sanskrit term Jîva (“egoic self”) refers to the germ of life or the human soul; this aspect of identity is not destroyed, but continues to exist in an ethereal form. Like a droplet from the ocean, the Jîva is an eternal expression of the Supreme Reality. At its deepest level, it contains a reflection of the unchangeable light of Intelligence.
Judaic Reflections on the Ego
According to several Jewish mystics, our creaturely sense of “Yesh” (i.e. the “Ego” or the “Self”) is what protects our individual identity, without which our perception of the world would dissolve into an abyss of nothingness; without the ego, there could be no possibility of self-conscious beings. Kabbalistic thought tends to incorporate many of the above theories governing the ego. The divine light demands that we feel and experience our separateness from God, but the mystical consciousness realizes that the perception of separateness and the ego is really an illusion (comparable to the Hindu concept of the maya).
The Hebrew etymology for the word for world עוֹלָם (`ôläm = “universe, “eternity,” time,” and “world”) might be related to the verb עָלַם (a’lam) “be hidden, concealed, secret” (cf. Lam. 3:56). If this theory is correct, then the ego could not exist at all if God didn’t grant us the space to be unique and individual. There could never be freedom where we not self-conscious of ourselves. If the Divine light were to appear, we would realize that our separateness from God is truly an illusion. If you examine the Hebrew
Yet paradoxically, the key to sublimating our ego, lies through a process of “bittul hayesh” putting the unhealthy ego aside. By doing this, we attain transcendence; the more one gives of oneself to another in the spirit of love and fellowship, keeps the ego healthy and centered. Every act of love requires making space for something Other than oneself. Jewish mystics portrayed the creation of the cosmos as an example of God’s infinite capacity to give. God transcended His own Ego (so to speak) by setting aside God’s own reality so that creation might exist.
This would explain why mystics of all the great religions see God’s creative power as a supreme act of love. Love is what enables us to transcend the boundaries of the ego, and enables us to scale past the walls of the self. It is for this reason, I believe, we become most God‑like only through our capacity to love and put our own selfish interest aside. Of course, this is much easier said than done …