Sum it up for me

The Ego


Table of Contents

The “definition” of the Ego

The Ego is the first entity that we encounter when we start to deal with the psyche, either in ourselves or in someone else and Jung begins with a good definition in the 1st paragraph of Aion.

“[1] We understand the ego as the complex factor to which all conscious contents are related. It forms, as it were, the centre of the field of consciousness; and, in so far as this comprises the empirical personality, the ego is the subject of all personal acts of consciousness. The relation of a psychic content to the ego forms the criterion of its consciousness, for no content can be conscious unless it is represented to a subject.”

Aion by Carl Jung

He then goes ahead to describe how the Ego rests on two different bases, on the somatic and the psychic or another way of putting it is the Ego develops at the intersection between the body and the psyche. In paragraph 6 he says:

“[6] It seems to arise in the first place from the collision between the somatic factor and the environment, and, once established as a subject, it goes on developing from further collisions with the outer world and the inner.”

Aion by Carl Jung

We use this term “Ego” very freely, but we shouldn’t, because the more one reflects on it the more one realizes that the Ego in its very existence is a profound mystery. It isn’t something known at all, it’s very mysterious. All that we can really define it as the seat of consciousness, or the center of consciousness. That’s all that the definitions amount to, no more than that.

What we realize is that all consciousness must be registered by an Ego in order to exist. The Ego is absolutely indispensable to consciousness.

The discovery of the Ego in western thought

Descartes’ discovery of the Ego

We really hadn’t been aware of its existence for very long. I think we can say that so far as the history of Western culture is concerned, full consciousness of the Ego was discovered by René Descartes when he announced that discovery in 1637, which is not to say that there wasn’t some sense of individual conscious identity before that, but the full consciousness of the Ego was discovered by him. He described it in his “Discourse on the Method”. He starts out his philosophical reflections by doubting the existence of everything. You see, he could say, for all we know, some malevolent deity may have put us into a dream-state so that everything we see is no more than an illusion or a fantasy and we can’t be absolutely sure that anything really exists except one thing, we can’t exist without the existence of our own Ego, and his term for that was:

“Cogito ergo sum.”

Discourse on the Method by René Descartes

Now, that’s commonly translated as “I think therefore I am”, but that’s not quite accurate. A better translation would be “I am conscious therefore I am”. That’s the bedrock foundation of every individuals existence. We can’t deny that the Ego exists because it’s the seat of consciousness, but everything else might be denied.

Now, very interestingly a dreamer who was well educated and had some knowledge of Latin had a dream that came to my attention. The dream was the Latin sentence that started out with Descartes’ statement “cogito ergo sum” and then continued “ergo scivio, Deo gratias, Deus est“, which means “I am conscious therefore I am, therefore I know by God’s grace, that God is”. That’s a very interesting addition that the modern Unconscious has made to Descartes’ discovery of the Ego.

Schopenhauer’s discovery of the Ego

The next philosophical elaboration on this subject was done by Schopenhauer. Here’s how Schopenhauer starts his masterpiece “The World as Will and Representation”. This is the 1st paragraph of that work.

“The world is my representation. This is a truth valid with reference to every living and knowing being, although man alone can bring it into reflective abstract consciousness. If he really does so philosophical discernment has dawned on him. Then it becomes clear and certain to him that he does not know a Sun and Earth, but only an I that sees the Sun, a hand that feels the Earth, but the world around him is there only as representation, in other words, only in reference to another thing, namely that which represents, and this is himself. If any truth can be expressed a priori it is this, for it is the statement of that form of all possible and conceivable experience, a form that is more general than all others in time, space and causality.”

The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

So all these presuppose it.

“The division into subject and object that is the common form of all those classes. Everything that in any way belongs and can belong to the world is inevitably associated with this being conditioned by the subject and it exists only for the subject. The world is representation.”

The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

The theme that Schopenhauer elaborates so vividly is the distinction between subject and object and this theme is a crucial one for Jungian-psychology. This idea is at the basis of Jung’s typology concerning extroversion and introversion. The extrovert is the one that naturally and spontaneously relates to the object and the introvert is the one that naturally and innately relates primarily to the subject.

It’s been my experience that this distinction is much easier for an introvert to perceive than for an extrovert. In fact I very often have the feeling that extroverts really don’t get it at all, but it’s absolutely necessary if one is to distinguish oneself consciously from the collective soup, from the state of Participation Mistique with the world and all the objects that are in it. The keenness of perception of the distinction between subject and object is an aspect of the well-developed Ego.

The re-discovery of the Ego in the childhood

The more you reflect on it, the more you can recognize the symbolic meaning of that statement. See, the Cartesian discovery of the Ego re-occurs in the childhood of the individual. The young child at first refers to itself in the third person, then maybe about the age of 3 it starts using the pronoun “I”, but that doesn’t mean that it yet has self-conscious awareness of the Ego. That’s not the case. That only comes later and it may not even come at all. For Jung it came at about the age of 11. He describes how that happened to him in “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” in page 32:

“I was taking the long road to school from Klein-Hüningen, where we lived, to Basel, when suddenly for a single moment I had the overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once: now I am myself! It was as if a wall of mist were at my back, and behind that wall there was not yet an “I.” But at this moment I came upon myself. Previously I had existed, too, but everything had merely happened to me. Now I happened to myself. Now I knew: I am myself now, now I exist. Previously I had been willed to do this and that; now I willed. This experience seemed to me tremendously important and new: there was “authority” in me.”

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung

I think what Jung is describing here with particular clarity happens only dimly to some people and I think to many it doesn’t happen at all. For myself, I had no clear-cut single experience that would correspond to this one that Jung describes, but I do remember, around the age of 11 or 12 becoming fascinated with the word “I” and its meaning. I would repeat that word again and again until dark mysterious vistas would open up. The whole notion of being a separate conscious individual that is a carrier of unique consciousness set apart from the world took on a profound mystery for me and it would be revealed by this repetition of the word “I” and still generates that same feeling. It’s quite a mystery.

The problem of free will

Now as Jung tells us that the Ego as the subject of consciousness has two aspects. It’s the seat of perception or consciousness, but it’s also the agent of the will, and this brings up the whole problem of free will, and Jung refers to that in the following paragraph:

“[9] The ego is, by definition, subordinate to the self and is related to it like a part to the whole. Inside the field of consciousness it has, as we say, free will. By this I do not mean anything philosophical, only the well-known psychological fact of “free choice,” or rather the subjective feeling of freedom. But, just as our free will clashes with necessity in the outside world, so also it finds its limits outside the field of consciousness in the subjective inner world, where it comes into conflict with the facts of the self. And just as circumstances or outside events “happen” to us and limit our freedom, so the self acts upon the ego like an objective occurrence which free will can do very little to alter.”

Aion by Carl Jung

Another way of describing free will is it can be defined as the libido disposable by the Ego. This is of considerable importance both for one’s self-understanding and for one’s work with patients. One needs to have an estimate at least, an approximation of what the extent of one’s own free will truly is and what the extent of one’s patient’s free will truly is because that determines how one’s going to relate both to oneself and one’s patient. We’re not going to expect oneself or one’s patient to take responsibility for something that is clearly outside the range of the free will of that individual. That’s why it’s important to sift these things through clearly to know what one’s doing. As Jung tells us the Ego’s freedom is limited by its dependence on the Unconscious:

“[11] With this discovery (of the Self) the position of the ego, till then absolute, became relativized; that is to say, though it retains its quality as the centre of the field of consciousness, it is questionable whether it is the centre, of the personality. It is part of the personality but not the whole of it. As I have said, it is simply impossible to estimate how large or how small its share is; how free or how dependent it is on the qualities of this “extra-conscious” psyche. We can only say that its freedom is limited and its dependence proved in ways that are often decisive. In my experience one would do well not to underestimate its dependence on the unconscious. Naturally there is no need to say this to persons who already overestimate the latter’s importance. Some criterion for the right measure is afforded by the psychic consequences of a wrong estimate.”

Aion by Carl Jung

I want to emphasize that last sentence. I think it’s an important one for analytic work.

Some criterion for the right measure is afforded by the psychic consequences of a wrong estimate.

Aion by Carl Jung

Now, what does that mean? I think that statement is calling for an experimental approach. If I don’t know for sure whether a patient’s free will can include a given item I can put it to the test. I can try out a certain attitude and then observe the psychic consequences and if my estimate has been wrong then I can correct it. It’s the most important to keep an empirical attitude about the matter and then you’re free to experiment. If you’ve overstepped the estimate, if you’ve assumed greater free will than actually exists, then you can correct yourself. As long as you’re conscious it’s always correctable. It’s only when you’re unconscious that you get caught and can’t correct it.

Along the same line as we ask ourselves how much free will does the Ego have that we’re talking to, we also must ask ourselves the related question, that at any given time to who are we speaking. Just because the person is in front of us and looking at us and maybe even smiling doesn’t mean we’re speaking to the Ego necessarily. We’re maybe speaking to a complex, we’re maybe speaking to the Shadow, maybe speaking to the Anima or the Animus, or even the Self, or some combination. In the course of an interchange the person, the entity to which we are speaking can fluctuate too, and so that’s something always to be kept in mind, not only how much free will does the Ego have at its disposal, but is it the Ego I am really speaking to at a given time, because naturally we’re going to speak in a different fashion depending on to whom we’re speaking.

The Reciprocality Principle

The reference to this is found in paragraph 355 of Aion, where Jung speaks of the Self as being true complexio oppositorum.

“[355] The self is a true “complexio oppositorum,” though this does not mean that it is anything like as contradictory in itself. It is quite possible that the seeming paradox is nothing but a reflection of the enantiodromian changes of the conscious attitude…”

Aion, Paragraph 355 by Carl Jung

“[355] The same is true of the unconscious in general, for its frightening figures may be called forth by the fear which the conscious mind has of the unconscious. The importance of consciousness should not be underrated; hence it is advisable to relate the contradictory manifestations of the unconscious causally to the conscious attitude, at least in some degree.”

Aion, Paragraph 355 by Carl Jung

Jung is referring here to what I wanna underline by baptizing it a fancy name. It’s what I call the reciprocality principle. I think it’s important enough to warrant such a name because if you really understand how this works, it’s very valuable.

I’m using the word reciprocal as it’s used in mathematics. The reciprocality principle states that the Unconscious responds inversely to the conscious Ego. That’s the reciprocality principle and what I mean by that is this: we know that every number in mathematics has a reciprocal. The reciprocal of 5 is 1/5. To find the reciprocal one has to turn a whole number into a fraction, or into a fractional notation at least, in another words has to turn it into a double term. The reciprocal of 2/3 is 3/2.

The idea is that reciprocality can exist only when 2 terms exist, so that a whole number has to be turned into a fractional expression. When one multiplies two reciprocals the product is always 1. That’s psychologically significant, I think. Now this is all relevant to the Ego’s relation to the Unconscious. The Ego’s relation to any particular psychological quality or content can be expressed in a fractional term and then according to the reciprocality principle the unconscious manifestation of that quality will be an inverse ratio or a reciprocal of the conscious manifestation.

Let me give you an example of that. Let’s say we’re dealing with the quality of aggressivity on a scale of 10. So at 0, one would be total victim, total, quivering, knee-shaking, fleeing victim. At the other end 10, would be total aggressor, chasing, attacking, totally. Well, let’s say that our particular Ego is very much in the victim realm, let’s say he’s got an aggressivity fraction of 2/10. That means he’s very much a victim, he’s only got 2 out of 10 of an aggressive tendency. By this principle then, the Unconscious will have an aggressivity fraction of 10/2, in other words, if the Ego is very much identified with being a victim the Unconscious will have the aggressor constellated in it and will start chasing the Ego and the Ego, of course, will be running. Now we all know in observing animals that if one animal runs, if a cat runs, a dog will chase it. If the cat stops running and turns around, the dog suddenly stops and it might start running, you see. That illustrates how the Unconscious can work.

This works not only within the individual, it also works with the individual’s relation to his environment. If I behave in very much of a weak, fearful victim role, here, at my desk, it won’t be long before this whole crowd will be after me, I can promise you.

That’s the way the Unconscious works and this is the way the transference and the counter-transference work too. So that if you have a patient who is very much identified with the victim, no matter how mild mannered and gentle you may think you are, if you’re alert, you’ll catch yourself bullying him or her, because that’s what’s constellated. It works in all sorts of other qualities too. You see, characteristically a patient comes to see us because the patient is feeling sick, weak, or wounded, and then that constellates in the analyst the contrasting powers of health, power, healing. As long as those things just remain carried by the analyst they don’t help the patient at all and the task is how to reverse those reciprocal fractions, to know how to hand over what’s been constellated in the analyst and how to hand it back to the patient. That’s not so easy to do. It’s easier said than done. But it’s a big help at least to know what’s going on and I think the reciprocality principle is helpful there.

I use that term rather than calling it reciprocity, because reciprocity carries ordinarily a different meaning: mutuality. It’s a different kind meaning for us.

The Jungian understanding of groups and group psychology

The ideal psychological group

The ideal psychological group is described very nicely by Marie Louise von Franz in her first-rate book Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology (page 177). I can’t do any better than to quote it:

“… bonds with other people are produced by the Self and these relations are very exactly regulated as to distance and closeness. One might describe this as the social function of the Self. Each person gathers around him his own soul family, a group of people not created by accident or by mere egoistic motivation but rather through deeper, more essential spiritual interest or concern: reciprocal individuation. Whereas relations based merely on projection are characterized by fascination and magical dependence, this kind of relationship, by the way of the Self, has something strictly objective, strangely transpersonal about it. It gives rise to a feeling of immediate, timeless being together. The usual bond of feeling, says Jung elsewhere, always contains projections that have to be withdrawn if one is to attain to oneself and to objectivity. Objective cognition lies hidden behind the attraction of the emotional relationship; it seems to be the central secret. In this world created by the Self we meet all those many to whom we belong, whose hearts we touch; here there is no distance, but immediate presence.”

Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology, page 177 by Marie-Louise von Franz

In the so-called “ideal group” each individual has his or her own conscious relation to the Self already established. The relations to the others in the group then is a shared experience of conscious relation to the Self. In this setting the so-called corporate soul, the collective experience that is shared jointly has been adequately mediated by each individual.

The crucial consideration is that the individuals making up the group each have their own conscious relations to the Self.

Edward Edinger

The toxic psychological group

Now very unfortunately this is not the usual state of affairs. In this scenario the individual group members do not have individual conscious relations to the Self, but instead the group or corporate soul, to some extent or other, carries the projection of the Self for some or all of the individuals. The result then is that there is a certain degree of participation mystique, collective identity. The Ego is comfortable in this situation and as long as its in conformity with the general viewpoint of the group or the group spirit. But the group spirit begins to reveal his demonic aspect whenever the individual goes against the group spirit. Then you find the very common phenomenon that the rest of the group gang up on that individual trying to achieve a greater level of autonomy by being different.

Jung has an important statement on this subject in a 1956 letter I’m gonna quote you part of. This comes from volume 2 of the Letters starting on page 218. He’s talking about group psychology.

“Even a small group is ruled by a suggestive group spirit which, if it is good, can have very favourable social effects, though at the expense of mental and moral independence of the individual. The group accentuates the ego; one becomes braver, more presumptuous, more cocky, more insolent, more reckless; but the self is diminished and gets pushed into the background in favour of the average. For this reason all weak and insecure persons belong to unions and organizations, and if possible to a nation of 80 million! Then one is a big shot, because he is identical with everybody else, but he loses his self (which is the soul the devil is after and wins!) and his individual judgment. The ego is pressed to the wall by the group only if in his judgment it is not in accord with the group. Hence the individual in the group always tends to assent as far as possible to the majority opinion, or else to impose his opinion on the group. The levelling influence of the group on the individual is compensated by one member of it identifying with the group spirit and becoming the Leader. As a result, prestige and power conflicts are constantly arising due to the heightened egotism of the mass man. Social egocentricity increases in proportion to the numerical strength of the group.”

Letters of C. G. Jung, 1906-1961, Volume 2 by Gerhard Adler

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