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Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
Do you share my view that ego is all-pervasive? I tell you that my meditations have convinced me it is the root of all evil … and is also inescapable. I mean that it is inescapable for a person, which is what we normally take ourselves to be. For what is a person but an ego, and vice versa? Thus, we are inherently born into suffering and causing others to suffer because ego is the inevitable bearer (both deliverer and endurer) of these ills.
I know that I have made two claims: that ego and suffering go hand-in-hand, and that ego is everywhere. Let me give you an example of the latter that will address you, Socrates, directly. I claim that the pursuit of knowledge is an egotism. Take something as simple as a person saying or even just thinking, “It is hot.” But why not say instead, “I feel hot”? Why must a person think that she not only feels hot but that the fact of the matter for all persons is that ‘it’ is hot? My answer: egotism. We transmute a merely psychological fact into a physical fact by spontaneously attributing to the world whatever we ourselves experience.
This is not only egotism – the belief that the universe revolves around oneself – it is selfishness. For what is the motive of this attribution of one’s own qualities to the world? Probably none other than the desire not to compromise. To declare that it is hot means that anybody who thinks otherwise ought to relinquish their claim entirely and capitulate to yours. They should just put on a sweater rather than ask you to remove yours or to turn up the heat. Or maybe it is sheer laziness – the desire not to have to change, since compromising implies accommodating, which requires some effort.
Even if a person is putting himself at risk by a possibly wrong assessment, it is worth the gamble to the ego, since ego views its prerogatives as more important not only than anybody else’s but even than one’s own non-egotistic needs. For example, one may have perfectly legitimate egoistic needs, such as food, shelter, companionship, and so on. But these will often by trumped by the egotistic needs to be right, to be pampered, to be praised. That is why I also say that egotism brings suffering in tow, for when one’s values are not in accordance with reality, one puts oneself, and others, at peril.
Therefore I see but one solution: give up the ego.
I share your concern regarding the excesses of ego, but I do not see how your final conclusion follows. I also question some of your assumptions. For example, you seem to be attributing the pursuit of knowledge to me. What I seek, however, is wisdom. For example, what you are explaining to me might count as wisdom, namely, that the pursuit of knowledge contains egotistic elements. Now, that is a kind of knowledge too, to be sure; but it is knowledge about knowledge, so I would call it wisdom to avoid confusion.
What troubles me about your conclusion is that it would seem to throw the baby out with the bath water. For you spoke not only of the disease of egotism but also of the legitimate needs of the ego; therefore it seems excessive, indeed absurd, to rid oneself of what is legitimate in order to rid oneself of what is not. We could also avoid suffering by killing ourselves; but would we not thereby also ‘avoid’ all happiness and all goodness?
The trick, then, is to find the cancer cells and extirpate them without killing the healthy cells. That is the challenge of chemotherapy in the treatment of physical cancer, and so it is our spiritual challenge in the treatment of cancer of the soul. Perhaps radiation is the better route in our case: to focus the light of awareness onto the subtleties of our human psychology, and then burn out the bad stuff.
Your example of knowledge is an excellent one. Once we reflect upon the nature of what we are used to taking as knowledge, we will be able to separate and isolate what is truly known from the encrustation of egotism. Then it will become much easier just to sear off the latter, seeing it clearly as being inessential and even as being a defacement. Keep the “I am hot” and discard the “It is hot.” There is still an ‘I’ there – in fact, it is being recognized explicitly. And that could be all that is required: to acknowledge the ego rather than allow its surreptitious infusion into everything else. “Permit me to be hot, and I will therefore acknowledge that you may be not”; then we can all find ways to live together equitably and peaceably.
Yours as ever,