The motivation for self-display, which is part of virtually all aspects of modern human striving by individuals, throws a different light on the role of ego. Freud cast the ego in modern humans as a mediator between the superego, representing the inhibitions demanded by society, and the antisocial impulses of the (primate) id. To me, Freud’s concept of ego resembles what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle termed “the ghost in the machine” (1949), referring to the very natural and widespread assumption that there is a little person or “homunculus” in our minds. Freud envisioned the ego as a rational (and purely defensive) diplomat— a guy with comparatively little motivational energy of his own.
This envelope was the winning response (note penciled “1”) to this ad placed in the Washington Post in 1991:
Perhaps Freud’s ego is a cultural construct that negotiates the tug-of-war between aggressive primate motivations (id) and the demands of civilization (superego). Since the Enlightenment, Western man has adopted the Freudian ego as their archetypal mythic hero: “I act rationally, therefore I am.” So I do not discount the existence of the Freudian ego, but from a medical-biological-evolutionary perspective, I consider the human ego to have emerged in Homo sapiens with its own agenda, not just the limited forms of sexual display seen in birds, but a vastly expanded motivation to display to many others in many different ways the special status of you, the individual. This definition is more akin to a toned-down-and-widened version of what is meant by saying that someone has a “big ego.” Step back and consider how very human it is for everyone to “dress up” what one knows to be the bare-bones reality of oneself by adding a few harmless “stretchers” to the truth— a little psychological makeup and a spiritual shoeshine—to enhance one’s appearance to others.[ 96] Occasionally I was asked by a patient what I thought of the vanity that was being exposed by the frankness of our conversation. My answer was always the same: “It’s only human.”
The psychoanalysts certainly do not have a patent on this ancient existential abstraction. For example, contrasted with Freud’s embattled, heroic ego, the New Age thinker Eckhart Tolle in his wildly popular book A New Earth (2005), the ego is cast in the role of villain. Tolle’s concept of ego could be placed in an evolutionary perspective by considering it as a combination of the uniquely human drive for self-display (narcissism) along with the primate impulse for domination (id). Tolle’s recipe to achieve a spiritual awakening is to rid one’s life of ego and replace it with “mindfulness.” Mindfulness could be identified with the attempt to center oneself in the collective unitary hominin mind (analogous to “soul,” or Jung’s collective unconscious) that evolved over the course of six million years prior to the evolution of modern humans. Another bestselling New Age author is Michael Singer, who in his book The Untethered Soul (2007) gives excellent subjective descriptions of internal mental interactions; he identifies what is depicted here as our old mind as the part of you that “listens” to the “chatter” of your new ego-mind.
So I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to reinterpret the term ego. The principal consequence of my thinking about ego is the recognition that the human drive to seek this purely individual pleasure, vanity, as revealed by mania, was evolved after six million years of evolution, during which authority and obedience to groups were motivated by aversion to the painful emotions of social anxiety. Clearly, vain behaviors by individuals are driven by the pursuit of a very different and often conflicting agenda than long-evolved communal for-good-of-the-group behaviors. Here emerged a new agency of the mind, an “ego-mind” focused on happiness, that must have evolved to interact and emotionally integrate itself with the old communal mind so the two could function together. Whereas intrinsic to the old mind is the suppression of the ape mind, the new mind of the “I” evolved to actively function with the old mind of the “we.” All philosophers are drawn to think about the nature of thought. Here was a second philosopher’s stone.[*] We humans possess the power of reflective thought because we have been endowed with two conscious minds.
True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness: I am life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live.
–Albert Schweitzer, Philosophy of Civilization