concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


Derived from the Latin term for "I", ego is used widely to refer to the concept of self, or one's own identification with oneself, or the aggregate of an individual human's desires. In Middle Way philosophy it is used specifically to refer to the totality of identifications of an individual person focused together at a given time. My ego is basically what I want at present. The identifications of an ego are not necessarily only with a particular individual (they could, for example, be focused on serving someone else, or promoting an impersonal ideal), nor is a particular individual self to be summed up merely as an ego. Instead, it is the crucial point of Middle Way philosophy that whilst ego is necessary to us, it is not sufficient. I must have an ego to exist as an individual, and my consciousness and drive as an individual depends on the bag of wants I carry around with me. Nevertheless, we are not limited to the particular set of wants that we have at present. Instead, I am a kind of library of wants, a whole set of different possible identifications that I might switch between, rather as a library borrower hands in one book to take out another. The whole potential set of identifications associated with a given individual can be referred to as the psyche.

The psychology of Karl Jung is a crucial source for the insight that the ego is not identical to the psyche, though Middle Way philosophy goes further than Jung in pointing out the moral and other philosophical implications of that distinction, which are immense. For the ego shapes our understanding of the world around us in terms of our current identifications, but this only condemns us to a degree of alleviable illusion, not to an endless or necessary illusion. If we can stretch the ego to encompass more of the psyche (a process which, following Jungians, I refer to as integration) in the process we overcome a degree of illusion, and address conditions more effectively. It is thus our ability to move beyond current identifications (with their associated meanings and beliefs) that creates the very possibility of objectivity.

If we see ourselves only as egos, as sinful or illusory selves, this tends to lead to the belief either that we have no way out of our vain egoistic fantasies (nihilism), or that we must seek a dramatic rescue from the state of ego altogether, by appeal to an absolute source of moral truth beyond the ego (eternalism). The first of these denies the hope that we can gather simply from the observation we can make of ourselves that we change and develop. The second denies the essential agency of the ego, entering contradiction immediately as it does so, because it is the ego that identifies with the theoretical possibility of denying itself.

The ego is not bad, but is just under an unnecessary defensive impression that it understands the whole picture, when it does not. The lever of awareness can gradually help stretch the ego, but it is ego itself that provides the motivation for stretching itself. We need the ego, but we do not have to be limited by it. This means that all the mucky detail of our lives needs to be fully acknowledged, but the possibility of understanding more than we understand now must constantly flavour this acknowledgement.

Links to further discussion

The psychological basis of belief, from thesis

The psychological basis of the Middle Way, from thesis

The Middle Way and psychology

The Middle Way and egoism


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