Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ego: Problems of Definition

EGO: Problems of Definition
by Joseph C. Maurone

The criticism that Rand's work primarily appeals to adolescents stems, I believe, from her celebration of the ego. This is perhaps most explicit in Anthem, where the plot revolves around the re-discovery of the word "I." Rand was aware of the link between heroism and its crucial significance in the psychological development of the individual. The role of ego in the formation of the self is also a crucial aspect of the hero cycle of mythology and religion, and both Jungian psychology and Objectivism take up the relation in their work, defending the ego against its negative connotations in common usage.

As Objectivist Leonard Peikoff states, "…[E]goism has been advocated through the centuries mainly by subjectivists. The result is several corrupt versions of egoism, which most people now regard as the self-evident meaning of the concept. ... Objectivism upholds objectivity and therefore rejects all these versions…. We reject the notion that selfishness means 'doing what you feel like doing.'"

Jungian analysists would agree. As Mary Ann Matoon states, "The ego of Jungian psychology should not be confused with the ego of common parlance. The latter, often is used to denote selfishness or conceit, is used to mean 'egocentric' or 'big ego.' However, such an ego is not big; rather it is underdeveloped, insecure, and in need of protection . The healthy ego of which Jung wrote does not need protection; it can tolerate criticism from other people as well as from within." And according to William Doty, "Within the Jungian system there is a strong emphasis upon individuation, the process by which selfhood is attained by an individual. The transpersonal or archetypal self is considered to be manifested though an individual, and there is a strong bias toward the attainment of an integrated and creative individuality ... "

In addition, Robert A. Segal writes that for Jungians, "the key feat of the first half of life is the establishment of a measure of independence from the unconscious." Compare this to Peikoff's take on Rand's use of ego: "Each individual must choose his values and actions by the standards of man's life in order to achieve the purpose of maintaining and enjoying his own life. Thus Objectivism advocates egoism-the pursuit of self-interest-the policy of selfishness."

But a problem arises when comparing Jung's and Rand's usage of the word ego. Both thinkers affirm the ego, but Jung saw it as part of a larger whole, the Self, while Rand identifies it as the Self. In Nathaniel Branden's words, "A man's ego is his mind, his faculty of awareness, his ability to think-the faculty that perceives reality, preserves the inner continuity of his own existence, and generates his sense of personal identity. 'Ego' and 'mind' denote the same fact of reality, the same attributes of man; the difference, in the use of these terms pertains to an issue of perspective: I use the term 'ego' to designate man's power of awareness as he experiences it."

Branden identifies the ego as awareness and thought, but does not mention here the relation of the ego to the rest of the psyche, or what is often termed the unconscious or subconscious, suggesting that it is the whole of the self. His next statement confirms this: "Any threat to man's ego -anything which he experiences as a danger to his mind's efficacy and control—is a potential source of pathological anxiety. The pain of this anxiety is the most terrible that man can know—because the value at stake is, necessarily, the most crucial of all his values."

This, Jung might say, is the source of ego-inflation which cause the hero to become tyrannical, creating a need for the hero to be sacrificed. According to Jung, the ego that sees itself as the whole self runs the risk of inflation with its own importance. In mythology, this is illustrated by the hero replacing the defeated tyrant with his own variant of tyranny. He usually starts out with good intentions; the hero acts as a benevolent dictator who knows best for the community. But when the populace doesn't act in the manner that he thinks they should, he decides that it is in their best interest to make the decisions for them. So, the cycle of tyranny continues.

This would normally be the part of the hero cycle where a new hero arises, which usually results in the downfall or the redemption of the former hero. If the former hero is not slayed, he is otherwise sacrificed. But this is not a sacrifice in an altruistic sense, for the heroic sacrifice signifies the submission of the ego to the larger realm of the Self, of which the ego is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Segal writes that "The feat of the second half [of the hero cycle] is, almost paradoxically, the restoration of contact with the unconscious." But Rand's fiction does not include this aspect. As Joseph Campbell states, "If one or another of the basic elements of the archetypal pattern is omitted from a given fairy tale, legend, ritual, or myth, it is bound to be somehow or other implied-and the omission itself can speak volumes for history and pathology of the example…".

A study of Rand's literary and political influences can shed light on the significance of this omission, in her work, and may offer more insight to the criticisms against her work for appealing to adolescents.

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