The ‘ego’, the ‘soul’, and metaphysics ll

 It can be said that, in psychological and existential or ontological terms, the ‘only’ problem, or the main one, is that of the ego or self, seemingly a legitimate, authentic and real entity, and at the same time an apparent aberration. Why is this so? The ego is a conundrum, if not the conundrum in the realms of philosophy, metaphysics and religion. Here we are confronted with two problems, one of them metaphysical and the other linguistic – the use of terminology.
The ego (self), to begin with, is the centre of experience, the human subject; in it, both the poles of thinking and feeling, of knowing and being, unite. It can be referred to as the individual mind or consciousness and, as such, it is ‘undivided’ (in-dividuus), as the human subject itself (equivalent term) is undivided. But there is more to this, as it will be shown.


Logically and metaphysically we can refer to the individual man, woman, as a subject or self: ‘I’; psychologically as an ego and, metaphysically and theologically, as a soul or person.

In any case, the ego, the individual, is a unit, single and undivided, even though, when we consider the soul as such (and one should not shrink on hearing this word) we may ascribe qualities or dispositions –or faculties- to it. That single entity is the total human being (person or individual soul) who has those qualities, such as memory, rationality, imagination, desire, and who, consequently, is different from every other person, each being unique in some respect. A totality is a unit, a unity, whether seen as whole-and-parts, centre-and-periphery, or essence-and-qualities or aspects.

Taking the word ego as equivalent in meaning to ‘person’, ‘individual’, ‘soul’, as just indicated, we must make two important considerations: 1) the enigma of diversified subjectivity1 and 2) the distinction between ego and ‘ego’ (in what does it consist).

  1. The notion of unity -or totality- is clearly intelligible; that of multiplicity is metaphysically – not empirically – more of an enigma. Every thing is one, so why, and how, can there be many ones? See the verbal contradiction (which is only a clue): you cannot say ‘ones’. If the subject or self is one an undivided, and is, furthermore, capable of encompassing the whole (“the mind is all that it knows” – Aristotle; another way of expressing the unity of, or assimilation between, consciousness or knowing and being). It [Brahman] is undivided and indivisible, and yet it appears to be divided among all beings” (BG, 13- 2 & 16) how can there be many subjects (selves)? If we can intuit that mind is, or may be understood as being, a generic or universal entity, or rather an aspect of ultimate reality (we can call this reality Consciousness), the understanding that this is at the same time the unique Subject would be obvious. Now reality being one, it has, or may be considered as having, two aspects: Subject and Object, Intellect and Being, and, in another, ‘vertical’ axis, Principle and Manifestation, or Centre and Irradiation. And here is the clue, in the last two polarities. All this, of course, is metaphysics.

Man is, as it were, ‘thrown’ into existence as a separate being, this separation being the condition –the price par excellence- of being born into existence, into multiplicity (“existence is a sin with which no other can be compared” –saying of Râbi’a al Adawiya, the Muslim woman saint). Individual man experiences that separation, hence his anguish and all the rest, because, empirically, he is a particular being, subjected to all the characteristics of contingency: limitation or imperfection, transitoriness, changeability. Perfection resides in wholeness, in integrality. The ‘part’ or ‘cell’ experiences longing, nostalgia, for the whole, for the centre, where it ultimately belongs (“Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee” – St. Augustine).

However (and here we part company with the existentialists, who have in view only the absurd, the irrational –this multiplicity and separateness precisely-, hence the meaninglessness of life, of existence, man being alone, uprooted, ‘for himself’) man is also capable of experiencing wholeness, self-integration, due to the totality of his Being. He is rooted in, and penetrated by, being, which is also Consciousness.

Reality could provisionally be said to be ‘composed’ of (ontological) layers; layer upon layer, “light upon light” (Koran – sura 24, verse 35; correspondingly, the ‘negating’ darkness or obscuration  – “darkness upon darkness” – verse 40 –  due to peripheral location, away from the centre, inevitable result of Emanation). Consisting as it does –as totality- of Centre or Principle, and periphery or Manifestation, as previously described, this layering, or gradation, logically follows. Manifestation, since it has its being in space and time, is, or seems to be, multiplicity itself: ‘this’ and ‘that’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘then’ and ‘now’. The light is filtered, as through a prism, and dispersed, fragmented, though still light. This is the realm of contingency, of becoming, and the world and man, are ‘thrown’ (to use the same simile) into this contingency, even though rooted in being –that which cannot cease to exist, to be, and to which we cannot (mentally) put any limits.

Buddhism and Vedanta’s account is quite different since, in the last analysis (intuition rather), they both deny multiplicity, layers or degrees of being, and even causality and time; particularly, this is the case with Advaita Vedanta. But for now we may proceed with the original line of thought, which appears to be more congenial with Existentialist and even ‘common sense’ (Pragmatic, or Materialist) philosophy.

Individual man may well find or see himself as shipwrecked, having to keep afloat; to ‘make himself’, ‘find himself’, that is, ‘construct his own reality’, following  the existentialist philosophers up to this point. Is he then a pauper, abandoned to his own devices? Can he not be a prince –the cub lion of the story- even though forlorn or lost? Language and ‘reality’ –human experience- attest to the complementarity (hence, the completeness) of things, of states, aspects, roles, conditions and levels. Relatedness and relativity are words which point to that reality which is ‘composed’ of singularity and multiplicity, necessity and contingency, totality and particularity, infinity and finiteness, eternity and duration or time. Multiplicity and particularity appear as such to our senses and in our thoughts; everything seems to be particular: feelings, imaginations, etc. In this era of relativity and quantum mechanics, we can say that a thing is a phenomenon, and whereas a phenomenon is not a ‘thing’, it is ‘something’, possibly the mark (mask?), expression, or ‘impersonation’, of something (thus a symbol or image) or of ‘someone’. The notion of oneness is a far-reaching one, and is central in all non-dualistic doctrines such as Advaita Vedanta and –occasionally, and in principleSufism, apart from Buddhism. We will take this up towards the end of this article