I want to gain an understanding of the history of ego. My guess is that ego didn’t exist or only barely existed in hunter-gatherer and tribal groups. The more egalitarian and interdependent a group, the less need for individual ego. With the rise of agriculture and permanent settlement, we started having specialists and an elite caste. That’s probably where ego first began to evolve significantly, especially among the kings and pharaohs. The commoners likely still lived in a collective mindset, but the elite were beginning to individuate and thereby develop egos.
There was a quote in one of the books I read recently (World War III) that got me thinking about the history of ego:
In Mesopotamia, Mexico, Java, Egypt, Angkor, countless generations of indentured slaves worked hundreds of millions of cubic feet of brick into colossal gestures of self-edification, the precursors of today’s mammoth urban landscapes.
I would say, even more so, the precursors of today’s suburban landscapes. In ancient times only the emperors built massive structures to the self, now everyone is a pharaoh in suburbia. I was thinking of this quote when I wrote a few entries back, “we don’t need more monuments and mansions to the self.” Everyone is now a pharaoh.
Take a look at this quote from The Long Emergency (James Howard Kunstler):
The fossil fuel bonanza was a one time deal, and the interval we’ve enjoyed it in has been an anomalous period of human history. It has lasted long enough for the people now living in the advanced industrialized nations to consider it absolutely normative. Fossil fuels provided for each person in an industrialized country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal.
The average individual now commands resources in equivalent measure to the rulers of old. Well maybe not quite, but close!
And then there’s the connection between ego and materialism I want to understand. They seem to go hand in hand; we don’t have one without the other. As you become somebody separate, what happens that makes you start grabbing for things? As you’re separating from a tribal identity, you’re also separating from Nature. Where once you were an interconnected part of the whole, now you are separate and just an insignificant dot. You can’t go back to the old way once you have an awareness of self, yet there must remain in you some glimmer of tribal memory and a yearning for that kind of connection and belonging. Grabbing at stuff--it’s really a laughable, infantile maneuver. We heap up all of this stuff around us—Hey, look at me, I’m so special and fascinating, don’t you just love me! We want to be popular, to fit in, to be esteemed because we still deeply crave belonging. If our infantile way, maybe we think stuff can bring us that unity we long for.
As I write this I keep seeing the ridiculous image in my head of these great machines tearing big holes in the earth, translating the body of the earth into piles of glittery, cheesy crap—little mountains of crap around proud, smiling people, all with cheesy crowns on their heads. It is so absurd. How do we not see right through the absurdity of ego and evolve beyond it?
The post-consumer paradigm has to also be the post-ego paradigm. Gosh, that makes it seem almost unattainable. When I look at the issue as one of simply moving from an orientation of consumption to one of simplicity, it seems like a big shift, but a reasonable one. If that shift can only really take place by people transcending their egos, it sounds like a pipe dream.
But isn’t that what’s happening with me? As I get further and further into this process, aren’t I simultaneously shedding things and ego?
I think I’m getting at something really important here. Our culture is really geared towards not only creating materialists but also generating ego.
We’re raising kids to have egos. There’s this giant machinery in place churning out more and more ego. How about we just stop?