Is Ego a Dirty Word?

My introduction to the word ego was as a child hearing the Australian rock band, Skyhooks, smashing out the lyrics to Ego is Not a Dirty Word. I had no idea what they were singing about but the rebellious tone of “don’t you believe what you’ve seen or you’ve heard” was very catchy. It was a popular song; it raced to the top of the charts soon after being released in April 1975 and stayed there for many months. It has come as somewhat of a surprise to realise, four decades later, that this band of flamboyantly dressed entertainers were making a profound intellectual comment on social attitudes and psychological constructs that were common at the time. 

Skyhooks, 1976, Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

As inferred by the song, the term ego generally has some negative connotations, as is exemplified by related words like egotistical and egocentric. Skyhooks, however, exclusively link the term ego to self esteem by making the point that if a person has a strong ego they are more likely to have a satisfying life while, conversely, a person with a weak ego may need to self-medicate with alcohol to make up for lack of confidence.

In psychological and/or spiritual contexts, discussions of the ego can differ to the construct Skyhook’s present. The ego is often accompanied by directives to purify or train it. Sometimes, people are even told to let go of their ego, in which case they are literally being told to let go of their sense of self. I’m not sure if this is really what is meant or if ego and egotistical confused as being one and the same?

When reviewing ego theories, it’s easy to get the impression that it is some nuanced part of the psyche that one doesn’t have control over but ought to. Alternatively, it is a part of oneself that is best dissociated from if one wants to achieve some form of higher existence.

An article on Psychology Today attempts to explain why the concept of the ego is so confusing. It begins by identifying that “ego” is Latin for “I”. So if someone was to say “I love you” in Latin, they’d say “ego amo te”. Or to give another example, if I were to say “I am a storm” in Latin, I would say “Ego sum temperto”. (Not sure why I’d want to say that I am a storm, but anyway, you get the idea.)

The term ego largely came into vogue through the work of Sigmund Freud. However, things get interesting when it is realised that Freud never actually used the word ego. He used the word I, or ich to be precise because he spoke German, and ich is I in German. But this use of the word I is not necessarily a simple one. 

Why did “I” get replaced with “ego” in English translations of Freud? The only explanation I’ve found (so far) is by Joseph Burgo who suggests that it was because ego sounds more scientific than I, therefore, Freud’s theories were more likely to be accepted by a broader audience. Burgo also points out that ego was already used within the English language; however, ego in English never simply meant I.

If I were to say “I am going to the bathroom” then the term “I” is being used as a noun to represent a person in a somewhat benign manner. Likewise, if I were to say “I love my life”, at the simplest level, the “I” is still only informative. Depending upon the tone, context, and listeners interpretation, “I love my life” may be heard as a declaration of a positive emotional state or it could be considered boastful. Basically, it is the intention behind the term “I” that psychologists refer to as the ego. The “I” that represents ego is a reference to how one sees oneself and, in turn, is wrapped up with notions of self worth and importance. 

To explore the psychological construct of ego/I a little further, let’s have look at some examples from Freud: 

  • “The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it’s not merely a bodily entity, but is itself a projection of a surface.”
  • “In this way the ego detaches itself from the external word. It is more correct to say: Originally the ego includes everything, later it detaches itself from the external world. The ego-feeling we now aware of is thus only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling – a feeling that embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the external world.”
  • “Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”

Personally, I find reading Freud’s work makes more sense if “ego” is replaced with “I”. 

In the case of the first example (the I is first and foremost a bodily I …) Freud is simply saying that the “I” is attached to a physical body and extends out from here. 

In the second and third example (the I detaches itself from the external world… ) Freud is describing how children see their sense of self as being part of everything around them (egotistically), but as we mature, our sense of self becomes detaches from our external surroundings, that is to say we become more conscious individuals. 

On this basic level, it is difficult to pick fault with the concept of an ego that Freud presents. The negative connotations come about when the ego is combined with Freud’s other infamous terminology, the superego and the id. Not surprisingly, the superego simply means the over-I, or as Freud said in German, the Uber ich. What is the superego? It is a concept of a better self, an “I” that is rational, calm, and has noble qualities. This can be likened to spiritualised concepts of a higher-self that is more dignified than the lower I. The id, on the other hand, represents irrational impulses and passions. Literally translated from Freud’s German, id is Latin for es, and es means it. Yes, that’s right, Freud used the word “it” as a technical term to describe the workings of the mind. 

According to Freudian psychoanalysis, the ego needs to balance the passions of the id with the noble principles of the superego. Moreover, it is the strength of the id that makes this balancing act a difficult. Here are a few more quotes from Freud: 

  • “It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.”
  • “A transference neurosis corresponds to a conflict between ego and id, a narcissistic neurosis corresponds to that between between ego and super-ego, and a psychosis to that between ego and outer world.”
  • “Where id was, there ego shall be.”

Essentially, what Freud is saying in the above quotes is that if a person has a mental health issue, it is because the ego is out of balance, either due to too much influence from the id or the superego, but mostly the id. 

It is prudent to keep in mind that there is no scientific evidence to support the constructs of the id, ego, or superego. They are categories that define ways of thinking that can loosely be defined as emotional (id) and cognitive (superego), hence, an individual’s ego is the product of thoughts and feelings. Despite lack of evidence, I don’t mind viewing humans in this manner. I do, however, have issue with finite definitions of the id and superego being asserted as facts due to researcher biases, for example, the Freudian belief that the id’s passions are solely sexual.

In Freudianism, the id is concerned with sexual drives, otherwise known as the libido, and is driven by pleasure principles (Freud 1923). The superego is characterised as a self-critical part that governs one’s conscience and sense of morality. And the ego is one’s image of their conscious self; a combination of conscious and unconscious drives afflicted with the superego and id (Thurschwell 2009). 

In order to really understand Freudian theories, it’s useful to reflect on where he got his ideas from: the Ancient Greeks. Plato referred to individuals as having both a noble and ignoble soul (Phaedrus, section 246). Likewise, Aristotle referred to a rational and irrational soul (Politics, Book 7, part 14). And what word did Plato and Aristotle use to describe the ego? Answer: they used the word ego. Ego is the Greek word for I, just like it is in Latin. The difference between the Greek and Latin definition of ego is the subtle, suffice to say, in Ancient Greek philosophies, the concept of the ego has a close connection to Freudian psychology.

FreudAristotlePlato
German: Das Uber ich
Latin: Superego
English: The Over-I
Rational soul
(Superior)
Noble soul
German: Das es
Latin: Id
English: The It
Irrational soul
(Inferior)
Ignoble soul
German: Das ich
Latin: Ego
English: The I
Ego
The individual
Ego
Metaphorically presented
as a charioteer
Claimed men have more 
refined superegos
than women
Claimed men have more 
rational soul
than women
Supported the concept of
spiritual equality 
across genders

Above: Summary and comparison of Freud’s, Aristotle’s, and Plato’s division of the psyche (soul)

Can anyone else see plagiarism? Or is it fairer to say that Freud *only* appropriated the Greeks? Either way, why doesn’t contemporary psychology openly acknowledge where Freud got his ideas from? This enigma of Freudian popularity and giving him acclaim for so-called original thoughts confuses me more than the concept of the ego itself. 

‘Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. … the human charioteer drives his [soul] in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble’ 

~ Plato, C.370BCE, Phaedrus, section 246)
‘Now the soul of man is divided into two parts, one of which has a rational principle in itself, and the other, not having a rational principle in itself, is able to obey such a [rational] principle’ 

~ Aristotle, c.350BCE, Politics, Book 7, part 14

Freud’s appropriations of Ancient philosophies puts a negative spin on the word ego that is not necessarily consistent with ideologies that were presented in antiquity. The precise nature of the ego, and the soul in general, differs depending upon whomever’s writings you favour, for example Plato, Aristotle, or other. As a general rule, Freud appears to have plagiarised more from Aristotle, as is notable by both claiming that men have more superego or rational soul than women (more about this misogyny another time). 

Freudian ideas dominated psychological and cultural realms for the better half of the twentieth century. (Ironically this came about no sooner than Aristotles’ philosophies had finally fallen out of favour amongst academics, see Is Aristotle Overrated?) Given this background, there is something quite significant about Skyhooks challenging the psychological conventions of the twentieth century that promoted the idea that the ego was something negative and dirty.

Clearly and concisely, Skyhooks declared that the ego is not a bad thing. With flair and provado they sang “if you had no ego you might not care the way you dressed” or “if you did not have an ego you’d just be like the rest”. In the contexts of these lyrics, the suggested is clear: egotism, that is confidence in one’s sense of self and the expression of individuality can be a positive trait. Further, the song is deliberately controversial with references to the egos of Jesus and Nixon.

Nuances surrounding the concept of ego reminds me of what Plato said about the nature of the soul; that being that the nature of the soul was the most debated topic amongst philosophers (i.e., the soul’s true form is a theme of discourse; Freud didn’t appropriate this remark). Hence, given that the ego is an aspect of the soul (or in psychology terminology, the psyche, which of course is Greek for soul) it stands to reason that there are multiple views about the nature of the ego. Today’s psychological research is a lot more informed than in Freud’s, nonetheless, there is still much to learn.

In conclusion, it amuses me how an art form like music can transport ideas and provoke deeper thinking.

References

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). Politics. http://Www.perseus.tufts.edu. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:tlg

AZ Quotes. (2019). Sigmund Freud Quote. A-Z Quotes. https://www.azquotes.com/quote/102818

Burgo, J. (2011, June 21). Freud’s Theory of the Id, Ego and Superego: Lost in Translation. After Psychotherapy. http://www.afterpsychotherapy.com/id-ego-superego/

Freud, Sigmund. 1923. The Ego and the Id. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-ego-and-the-id.pdf

Leary, M. (2019). What Is the Ego, and Why Is It So Involved in My Life? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toward-less-egoic-world/201905/what-is-the-ego-and-why-is-it-so-involved-in-my-life

Plato. (370 B.C.E.). Plato, Phaedrus, page 246. http://Www.perseus.tufts.edu. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DPhaedrus%3Apage%3D246

sadzol. (2008). Skyhooks – Ego Is Not A Dirty Word. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6B9YXhZPrM

The Sydney Morning Herald. (2015, September 30). Skyhooks to reform for one-off performance but singer unconfirmed. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/skyhooks-to-reform-for-oneoff-performance-but-singer-unconfirmed-20150930-gjy4h7.html

Thurschwell, Pamela. 2009. Sigmund Freud. Routledge. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=4mx8AgAAQBAJ

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