Episode 24: A Natural History of the Ego, Part 3

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We have looked at the nature of the ego as part of our natural history, so now it just remains to look at its history; that is, how it has been represented in art and literature over the ages.

Adam and Eve, catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Rome.  Early 4th century.

Adam and Eve, catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Rome. Early 4th century.

This struggle between what may be called the soul and the ego is one of the most enduring themes of all eras and cultures.  It is embodied in our most ancient myths, whether explicitly or symbolically.  In all cultures there are stories of a Golden Age of harmony when people were in touch with their true Good-like nature, often represented by some magical object.  But then something happens; some new alien force–the ego–enters, and the Good is lost, stolen, usurped, forgotten, ignored, imprisoned, banished, attenuated, fallen, attached, hypnotized, dormant, covered, darkened, limited, exiled, ostracized, displaced, or ensnared.  This is the separation phase of the monomyth, as we have previously discussed.  As described by Joseph Campbell, what happens next is:

A hero ventures forth from the world of the common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.¹

Jason seizing the Golden Fleece, fragment of a sarcophagus. Luni marble, Roman artwork, second half of the 2nd century AD.

Jason seizing the Golden Fleece, fragment of a sarcophagus. Luni marble, Roman artwork, second half of the 2nd century AD. National Museum of Rome. © Marie-Lan Nguyen

In short, he regains he regains his own soul.  Campbell goes on to give a number of examples of the basic theme: Prometheus and fire.  Jason and the Golden Fleece.  Aeneas in the Underworld.  Gautama’s transformation into the Buddha.  All the quest stories can be seen as the struggle by which the soul/hero reclaims its true nature from the ego/usurper.  So add to this list the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita, the Grail, Frodo and the Ring, and particularly stories of slaying the dragon.  Again, to quote Joseph Campbell, in his conversation with Bill Moyers, published as The Power of Myth:

Gushtasp Slaying the Dragon, Page from an Illustrated Manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdawsi

Gushtasp Slaying the Dragon, Page from an Illustrated Manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdawsi, ca. 1450-1500.

Psychologically, the dragon is one’s own binding of oneself to one’s ego.  We’re captured in our own dragon cage.  ….The ultimate dragon is within you, it is your ego clamping you down.²

And he goes on to say how in Western myths the dragon “tries to collect and keep everything to himself.  In his secret cave he guards things: heaps of gold and perhaps a captured virgin. He doesn’t know what to do with either, so he just guards and keeps.”  Sound familiar?

So the “fictional” ego has been with us forever; the more “philosophical” almost as long.  While Plato didn’t use a specific term like “ego,” he discusses in a number of dialogs the effect on the man who identifies with the body and is pulled into the world of appearances and desires by it.  The most extensive description occurs in books 8 and 9 of The Republic, as Plato discusses the four different kinds of states and the individual personalities that correspond to them.  These are Timocratic man who desires honor and glory, the Oligarchic man who desires money at all costs, the Democratic man who values liberty above all, and the Tyrannical man who is single-minded in pursuing his own thirst for power and control.  As Plato describes them, some are worse than others, but all are devoted to their own ends at the expense of the whole state, the unity.  The tyrant of course is the worst– he has no redeeming qualities, and everything said about it can apply to the ego–our own resident Muammar Qaddafi.  Plato sums up his discussion giving a hypothetical dialog with a man who would give up his Goodly nature for some perceived transitory benefit:

Socrates: Come, now, and let us gently reason with the unjust, who is not intentionally in error. ‘Sweet Sir,’ we will say to him, what think you of things esteemed noble and ignoble? Is not the noble that which subjects the beast to the man, or rather to the god in man; and the ignoble that which subjects the man to the beast?’ He can hardly avoid saying yes –can he now?
Glaucon: Not if he has any regard for my opinion.
Socrates: But, if he agree so far, we may ask him to answer another question: ‘Then how would a man profit if he received gold and silver on the condition that he was to enslave the noblest part of him to the worst? Who can imagine that a man who sold his son or daughter into slavery for money, especially if he sold them into the hands of fierce and evil men, would be the gainer,

Polynices giving Eriphyle the necklace of Harmonia. Attic red-figure oinochoe, ca. 450–440 BC. The Louvre, Paris.

Polynices giving Eriphyle the necklace of Harmonia. Attic red-figure oinochoe, ca. 450–440 BC. The Louvre, Paris.

however large might be the sum which he received? And will any one say that he is not a miserable caitiff who remorselessly sells his own divine being to that which is most godless and detestable? Eriphyle took the necklace as the price of her husband’s life, but he is taking a bribe in order to compass a worse ruin.’

This is very similar, of course, to the later saying of Jesus in Mark 8:36, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Hermes Trismegistus, mosaic on the floor of the cathedral, Siena, Italy

Hermes Trismegistus, mosaic on the floor of the cathedral, Siena, Italy

Another vivid description of the ego comes from the writings Hermes Trismegistus.  I’ve avoided including him thus far because his place in the Ideal tradition is not as easily determined as others we have discussed.  When his writings first appeared in the West in the Renaissance (and translated also by Ficino) he was originally thought to be contemporaneous with Moses, Egyptian in origin, and a lawgiver to both Eastern and Western traditions.  His dates were later revised to post-Plato, and probably pre-Plotinus, although no one seems to be able to put him in a precise period.  I for one see enough similarity of ideas and imagery to believe that he is part of the tradition.  In any case, he delivers the following admonition to those who wish to return to the Good, but are living under the tyranny of the ego:

But first you must rip off the tunic that you wear, the garment of ignorance, the foundation of vice, the bonds of corruption, the dark cage, the living death, the sentient corpse, the portable tomb, the resident thief, the one who hates through what he loves and envies through what he hates.  Such is the odious tunic you have put on.  It strangles you and drags you down with it so that you will not hate its viciousness, not look up and see the fair vision of truth and the good that lies within, not understand the plot that it has plotted against you when it made insensible the organs of sense, made them inapparent and unrecognized for what they are, blocked up with a great load of matter and jammed full of loathsome pleasure, so that you do not hear what you must hear nor observe what you must observe.³

No “sweet sir,” here.  “The portable tomb, the resident thief.”  That about says it all.

Plotinus, the advocate for the One, also realized that there was some “other” that somehow makes us forget the One.  He too invokes the image of a human as a microcosm of the state, and associates our “becom(ing) a dual thing” with an attachment to the body.

Even now, it is true, we are not put apart; but upon that Primal man there has intruded another, a man seeking to come into being and finding us there, for we were not outside of the universe.  The other has wound himself about us, foisting himself upon the Man that each of us was at first.  Then it was as if one voice sounded, one word was uttered, and from every side an ear attended and received and there was an effective hearing, possessed through and through of what was present and active upon it: now we have lost that first simplicity; we are become the dual thing, sometimes indeed no more than that later foisting, with the primal nature dormant and in a sense no longer present.  …

This is the evil of state and of council: and this is the evil of man; man includes an inner rabble–pleasures, desires, fears–and these become masters when the man, the manifold, gives them play.

But one that has reduced his rabble and gone back to the Man he was, lives to that and is that Man again, so that what he allows to the body is allowed as to something separate.

We see again here the important distinction, as we discussed in the last episode, between the philosophical approach to the ego expressed here, and the religious view of reward and punishment.  We are not “bad” because we have an ego, just mistaken.  We are victims of the “inner rabble–pleasures, desires, fears–” and have only to reduce our rabble to return to our primal state, the One.

I was going to write another episode on the ego, but then decided it would be giving it too much attention, which is of course exactly what it wants.  So enough.  You get the idea.  All the adjectives you use to describe yourself–male, female, black, white, gay, straight, success, failure, old, young–are all just properties of your body, your mind or your emotions.  They are not, as Whitman said, “the Me Myself.”  They are things you have, not what you are.  So have them, but don’t be had by them.  Embark on your quest.  Bust the thief, slay the dragon.  Be your own hero.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Image of Jason and the Fleece © Marie-Lan Nguyen, used under Creative Commons license.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 30

²Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988, p. 149.

³Brian P. Copenhaver, trans., Hermetica, Cambridge, 1992, p. 24

¹Plotinus, The Enneads, translated by Stephen McKenna, Penguin, 1991, p. 453-4