The Ego as the Infinite?
After putting down the book Gnostic Philosophy (2005) by Tobias Churlton I was struck by a thought which, as thoughts tend to, quickly led onto several others. My main single reflection could be summed up as follows: If Gnostic thought is consumed with a stripping away of the conscious ego in an attempt to apprehend the infinite spirit then why are Gnosticism’s main protagonists, for example from modernity Aleister Crowley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Dr Samuel Johnson, such obvious egotists?
Is ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ not the distillation of pure ego? Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t. Or maybe even the conscious ego is that infinite of which a Gnostic will speak of, and not the other, of which they mean. It is the kind of inversion that Hazlitt proposed in his essay On the Pleasure of Hating (1826), to paraphrase, ‘Love grows stale but hate is forever’. With this in mind could I not be permitted to venture, with trepidation, thus; ‘the infinite unconscious is fleeting yet I will go on forever’.
The ego is most apparent in the projection of agency; this may sound somewhat self-evident as what is an ego other than a projection of selfhood? But such projections of oneself do not implicitly suggest selfish aims. Consider how one may perceive and infer the suffering of others from unspoken references if one cannot, and will not, do that most ego-driven of acts (!) and put yourself within their frame of reference.
More readily is it not the ego that misses latent misery, from which the mental cues toward empathy are detected, but the unconscious; the unknowing, or perhaps even – the blissfully unaware? This has massive implications for how we deal with each other on both the macro and micro political scale. Empathy and dignity flow from personal relations at all levels and these in turn influence how we treat ourselves, others and the environment around us.
Before I proceed I must define my definitions. I have used the infinite to mean ‘the ground of all being’, ‘what is beyond current comprehension’ or in a more Gnostical application maybe: ‘the absolute God’. I will also flit quite readily between using ego and (sense of) self interchangeably. From this I can state that I have defined ego-death as a total removal of the sense of self. To be clear, I do not mean a mere reduction, but an actual temporary expiration or annihilation of oneself.
There is either no such thing as ‘ego-death’ or it is something that happens so regularly that it becomes commonplace. One could even be provoked into suggesting that the term itself, ego-death, is a violent misnomer that we would do well to jettison. Every act of concentration requires a channelling of attention. If one is consumed by concentration invariably a shadowing of the ego, an eclipse – if you will – occurs. Is this not the fabled ‘ego-death’? If one compares this ‘eclipsed ego’ with its more virulent cousin, which occurs during large doses of psychoactives, rigorous meditation, or even, I might add, times of extreme or focused emotion and/or sense-datum (be that pain, joy and ecstatic or psychotic episodes. But vastly less so, interestingly, if we consider depression or lethargy) a correlation can appear.
A human brain is not an infinite tool in operation in the sense that if a large proportion of its ability is projected into a single activity then it must compartmentalize other processes in order to function satisfactorily. This means that processes can be moved from the foreground of experience, to a more unconscious, background, experience. For example, the ticking of a clock can switch between being perceived to not being perceived depending on how our attention is taken by other things at that time. One of the processes that can be eclipsed in such as way is the sense of self. The brain is still capable of switching between different processes, as a tap can be turned on and off, but such an ego eclipse still occurs despite of the individual.
In Gnosticism, appreciation of the infinite is paramount; it is my argument that the infinite is, at most, human endeavour or inspiration, or at least, that which facilitates inspiration. The Gnostics wish each human to concentrate on similar things – the infinite beyond space and time. We now live in an age, in the west at least, whereby each human is capable of concentrating their embrace of the infinite (whether they call it such a thing or not) into any pursuit they see fit. This radically expands the scope for both the ego and its negation via the cloud coming over the sun.
From my experience of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) the acronym is all wrong. Such people, as they are, do not suffer from lack of attention – quite the opposite. Their attention is pulled about too much; they wish to know all, to experience all. Think of a spider sat in its web, all 8 appendages perched upon a strand of silk; each waiting for an unwitting insect to stumble in. Now consider the same arachnid web under the influence of a breeze – one of those whimsical English breezes that so pleased Shelley and Yeats. At all times the silk is in motion, so to the spider. Each capricious change of wind direction could possibly indicate a fly caught on a strand. The ADHD ‘sufferer’ is one who will scurry this way and that in an attempt to investigate each airy nuance in the hope that one will bring satisfaction. It would perhaps pay to be a more stoic spider, allow the information time to accumulate and then once sufficient information has been collated make a choice about which strand is worth the effort to pursue. It is my thought that each strand of investigation will implicitly imply an eclipsed ego, in some sense, for the percipient.
It is also held within Gnostical thought that the material world of our 5 senses (there are many more senses within the animal kingdom) is a prison we must endure. The spirit is trapped within the material. The conscious ego is something we must banish in order to attain glimpses of the infinite. However, the personal ego is part of our humanity and without such a thing could we even contemplate sophia? Would even such a phrase as ‘’I contemplated the infinite’’ make sense without a sense of self?
Without agency how can we strip away the personal from the impersonal? The dialectic must be in place in order to move forward; we must have an ego to achieve ego eclipse; allow your ego to be your guide of its own negation. There cannot be any other way, as to deny selfhood is to deny humanity (yes, the point of the Gnostics I hear you cry!). This truth cannot but make us free. Or at least as free as it is possible to be.
If one considers the Gnostical belief regarding humanity and its ‘three divisions’; most notable are the Spirituals, who are the fully fledged and completed Gnostic articles; sandwiched in the middle are the Psychics, who are well on the way to fulfilment. The lowest of the three are the Hylics, who are those that are aware of, and therefore left to dwell in, matter alone. Such people have no chance of salvation and are perpetually dead to spiritual thoughts and practices.
Such a hierarchy as described in pre-Christian Gnosticism belies its own true nature. It is the work of the ego, nothing more. One can appreciate this by reflecting on the fact that true Gnostics somehow find themselves at the top of the pile, whereas mere materialists dwell in the nadir! Only the human ego can compose such a self-fulfilling prophecy! Are we to trust the ego that tells us not to trust the ego? Could this actually be the work of the Demiurge instead? It is almost an inverted Faustian concept – sell your soul for a non-material gain.
If even spiritual thoughts and systems cannot extract the self from the other without allowing the ego to tag along on the back of phrases and notions, then one may be allowed to conclude that the ego is there, and as such, will come out as it sees fit. Only through endeavour, thought, action or relief can we hope to temporally subsume the self. Subsuming is all we should hope to achieve as the ego, the self; the sense of agency is a beautiful slave, yet a terrible master.