Egoism is a concept often not characterized in a helpful way. Many popular depictions fail to pick out true egocentrists while falsely accusing others of egoism.
In this four-part series, I try to draw a path from (true) egoism to unconditional love (agape in ancient Greek). The natural starting point is to understand egoism properly.
I’ll start with a quote by C.S. Lewis:
Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world.C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 125
Lewis depicts the egoist as unable to recognize, taste, connect to anything other than himself. Of course, he is considering an “imaginary” egoist. But even if no such person existed in the actual world, the thought experiment, being in fact an extrapolation of character traits observable in real people, would still be instructive.
Let’s dwell a bit on the contrast between the egoist’s self and the “other”. How are we to understand that the egoist turns “everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self”? Does this mean that he does not even perceive the existence of persons and things distinct from himself? Obviously not, or else he wouldn’t be able to “meet” them. Does it mean that he deliberately abuses other persons for his own purposes? Perhaps. But it would certainly go too far to charge every person who satisfies the egoist description with cold-blooded calculated manipulation.
Rather, the pivotal point is this: the egoist lives all by his feelings. Whatever makes him feel good is acceptable. What does not, will either be turned into something that makes him feel good or flushed out of his life. It’s all about self-gratification: in most cases in an infantile, in some cases in a malicious way.
This entails that our egoist is unable to sustain relationships. I mean real, substantial relationships, where one Self connects to another. Other persons may appear in her talk and even in her thinking, but only as two-dimensional, flattened representations. What seems like a relationship on the egoist’s part is not about other persons, but about the feelings related to those persons. Egoists may consequently also do things that seem altruistic and express deep indignation about other (purported or real) egoists; however, much of what they brandish ‘egoistic’ really isn’t, but is only about her wounded ego.
The crux is that the egoist’s inability of to make real connections is anything but obvious. Which leads us to our next question: how to detect egoists. But I need at once to qualify this project. Egoism comes in degrees; perhaps no one is an egoist in the fullest sense, and most likely all of us are egoists to some degree. So please understand the following points with this caveat in mind.
Some marks of egoists
The problem is that nothing prevents egoists from engaging in social activities. Maybe some of those egoists reveal themselves by locking themselves into their closet; but many others won’t, and many loners may yet have a longing for communion that is thwarted by their fear. True egoists, by contrast, may interact with people; laugh with them, even cry with them; but only to the extent to which those activities are in concord with their feelings or at least do not disturb them. What will never happen is that an egoist laughs, cries or talks with someone else in virtue of this other person being other. Unfortunately, this secret stance of the heart is not written on people’s fronts.
For this reason, it takes more ‘operationalizable’ criteria to discern egoists. Here are some:
- An egoist cannot stand even constructive, obviously well-meant criticism.
- An egoist cannot stand that another person makes her feel uncomfortable, for example by living an example that creates pangs of conscience in the egoist.
- An egoist is unable to ‘put herself in someone else’s shoes’. She refuses to even try to understand someone else’s position if that entails thinking thoughts uncomfortable to her.
- An egoist usually has warped memories: whenever some memory makes her feel uncomfortable, it will be tinged; in other cases, memories will be warped because the twisted version allows her to justify her own misdeeds.
- An egoist will not consider revising her memories if told differing details or perspectives.
- An egoist will not ‘update’ her image of another person over time (for this requires the examination of something that requires the effort of conforming one’s thoughts to reality instead of the other way around!). Especially if the other is conveniently pigeonholed as a persona non grata, this classification will not be altered no matter how much evidence the other person shows to the contrary.
- An egoist thinks and speaks in stereotypes, instead of heeding the individual in front of her. Thus, for her, there are only ‘men’ (or ‘women’), ‘whites’ (or ‘blacks’) or ‘right-wing people’ (or ‘leftists’), not individuals who may have these attributes and many more.
- Spiritually, egoists usually cannot bear a God who makes moral demands and who interferes with people’s lives. God, if he is seen as personal at all, is kept at a distance. New Age pantheist wishful thinking prevails among egoists. Caution, egoists often disarmingly insist that they believe in a ‘loving’ God, meaning a God who lets them do what they want.
- The egoist does not take responsibility for her feelings and shortcomings. She finds creative (and often plausible-sounding!) ways for blaming others instead.
- You won’t find an egoist ever admitting his own misdeeds.
- Consequently, whenever a conversation could lead to the egoist having to admit that she’s messed up something, then her counterpart will be reviled, accused and generally given things to gnaw at so that she can defect.
- As far as experiences unrelated to other persons are concerned, the egoist will – if he can enjoy them at all – tend to speak about his feelings rather than about the intrinsic properties of the experienced thing.
A philosophical analysis of egoism
Identifying egoism (in others – and in oneself!) is important, but can we understand the phenomenon more deeply? I wish to offer three reflections.
First, the egoist refuses to know himself. This sounds paradoxical. Isn’t he totally preoccupied with himself? But, as pointed out above, the egoist focuses on his feelings, and providing good feelings for oneself isn’t the same thing as knowing oneself. Knowing oneself of course, like all knowledge, incorporates truth: and the truth can be unpleasant, something the egoist cannot allow.
Note what the egoist misses by being ignorant of himself. First, he loses the chance to improve himself. Second, he misses to see who he really is, what value he has as an individual and as a member of the human species, and in virtue of what he has the good sides he has. Third, he misses another possibility of connecting with others: for knowing her own weaknesses, strengths, desires, and longings would enable her to see that by implication others might be “in the same boat”. Self-knowledge is also tantamount to seeing that one can be loved despite one’s flaws (which enables one to love other flawed people). (No wonder self-knowledge is considered the summit of wisdom in several of Plato’s dialogues.)
The second thought is that the egoist is disconnected from the three transcendentals truth, beauty, and goodness. This is in line with above observation that she cannot connect to or align herself with anything outside herself. Ontologically speaking, her world is a world of only particulars, with no universals; and as far as particulars go, her mental life really melts down to one. Furthermore, since the egoist has a hard time recognizing anything other than himself as other, he also misses out on beauty and truth among non-person entities like animals, waterfalls, sunsets, science, poetry and philosophy.
The transcendentals play an important role at a later stage of the journey from egoism to agape; we shall take up this thread in the last part of this series.
Image by Kyle Glenn / unsplash.com