Lego my Ego

"if our brains get too smart they will become self aware and take over our bodys"

-Ken M

Ego games

At a party, some friends and I played games around modeling other people. One game we played was ranking superego, ego, and id, in order of most to least prominent, for each person present. This schema is interesting in games because because it’s not a perfectly obvious classification, so it requires original seeing to do anything with.

I’d self-labeled as ego > superego > id, but I was persuaded that I’m likely superego > ego > id. I had thought my ego was the strongest of the three because my self-regulation is fairly flexible and I don’t feel compelled by external rules, but it this is likely attributable to the fact that my superego has achieved self-awareness and taken over my brain. Or more precisely, that my superego is well developed in the sense of having expelled or disendorsed my dissonant, unhelpful, and untrue beliefs and inhibitions, and believes in behaving like an ego. And my ego, in turn, decided to identify with my superego.

I was sleepy 15 minutes ago and successfully managed to get ready for bed, when I was tempted to lie on the couch and “read” or “nap” to "gather my strength” because getting ready for bed seemed like too much work. I climbed out of this hole by asking myself whether the best action would be to go upstairs and get ready for bed. Once I acknowledged that it was the best action, it was easy to muster the willpower.Now I’m in my room, with the LEDs set to red, editing this post as one last task before going to sleep. In hindsight it’s ridiculously obvious that my superego is exceptionally strong.

I have a few friends who I’d describe as having a superego > id > ego arrangement. That’s an unstable relationship where superego and id fight each other directly for control. Superego is usually in charge, but id can seize control for a moment when it’s especially strong. Ego-on-the-bottom is volatile because ego’s special power is mediating among parts, constructing stable narratives that justify and encode trades and compromises between the other parts. If the narrative-spinning ego is weak, id and superego mostly just know how to fight - or, really, how to try to grab control directly. So you see superego, with the occasional flash of id, but no coherent narrative to hold things in place.

What drives the superego > id > ego arrangement? In the case of one of my friends, it looks like what happened was that their id and superego both separately have reasons to distrust their ego. Their superego distrusts the ego for epistemic reasons; the ego is all about spinning a plausible narrative, and that feels like believing things because they’re convenient rather than because they’re true. Their id, on the other hand, distrusts the ego because it believes that it’s dangerous to be seen, that the world is malevolent, that it’s important to hide, that if one can just not exist, one can’t be hurt by anything - and presenting a self, having a strong ego, feels like very noticeably existing. Since neither id nor superego is willing to invest any trust in the ego, this makes it difficult for the ego to smooth out conflicts. It doesn’t have credibility.

Ego as process liberalism

Now I want to talk about Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a trilogy of classical Greek plays about the Ego taking its rightful place as mediator between the Superego and the Id. As I remember it, it starts out with the play Agamemnon, titled after King Agamemnon of Sparta, who sacrificed his daughter in order to appease the gods and make the Trojan war go well for him. When he gets home from the war, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. Their son Orestes then kills her in revenge in the second play, The LIbation Bearers. The third play is called The Kindly Ones, an euphemism for the Furies, ancient revenge spirits. They want Orestes killed as revenge for his murder of Clytemnestra as revenge for her murder of Agamemnon as revenge for his murder of their daughter. Orestes runs away to Athens, seeking refuge.

The Furies are especially mad because Orestes murdered a blood relative, specifically his mother, and they believe in absolute standards, deontological ones, where this is always wrong regardless of motive. Considering motive is a rhetorician’s trick to them, for lawyers and cheats. But the obvious problem here is that they’re basically in favor of perpetually escalating blood feuds, which have some problematic consequences in terms of body count.

The goddess Athena shows up and moderates between them and gets the Furies to agree to a trial by jury for Orestes. The Furies won’t agree to let Orestes go, but they’ll consent to process liberalism, and even agree to let ties favor the defendant. The vote is split evenly, and the furies are, well, furious. So Athena, the wheeling and dealing Athenian goddess of wisdom, gets the Athenians to agree to give the Furies a permanent place of honor, and this makes them feel better, since it ameliorates the perceived disrespect

That’s the power of mediation through the construction of narrative. And as Athena is to the polity of Athens, so is the Ego to the polity of the soul. We want to strengthen a character trait, so we tell stories where we’re a certain sort of person, and consequently find it easier to behave consistently with that trait. The ability to keep promises and hold loyalties is also part of our storytelling ability; the identity between the past self who made the promise, and the present self who makes good on it, comes from the narratives we tell about ourselves. A narrative that explains how you are not merely a succession of states, but a single entity who has undergone alterations while at its core remaining fundamentally the same. We have deep desires that might be inconvenient for our longer term goals or meet with the disapproval of our inner critics, but are necessary for our well-being - so we rationalize them, we explain why these things are actually good, actually follow the rules, we figure out rituals to make it all okay, clean, pure, to appease our inner censors. We wheel and deal and compromise, and then tell a story to make it stick.

This is how we’re able to do things on purpose.

Free thought as a byproduct of stable political arrangements

Kant has a lovely essay on the enlightenment policies of Frederick the Great of Prussia that points to the connection between the ability to command practical obedience to the laws without question, and the feasibility of permitting freedom of thought, concluding:

But only the man who is himself enlightened, who is not afraid of shadows, and who commands at the same time a well disciplined and numerous army as guarantor of public peace--only he can say what [the sovereign of] a free state cannot dare to say: "Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!" Thus we observe here as elsewhere in human affairs, in which almost everything is paradoxical, a surprising and unexpected course of events: a large degree of civic freedom appears to be of advantage to the intellectual freedom of the people, yet at the same time it establishes insurmountable barriers. A lesser degree of civic freedom, however, creates room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity. Nature, then, has carefully cultivated the seed within the hard core--namely the urge for and the vocation of free thought. And this free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government and the state finds it agreeable to treat man, who is now more than a machine, in accord with his dignity.

The subtext is that political liberalism, freedom of thought, is a technology that depends on a stable state whose workings are well-regulated enough that they’re not threatened by free thinking. A less stable state would have to distrust public political discourse, since verbal objections to the state could quickly become rallying cries for an actual political revolution.

There’s a hidden tension in that essay - that reason means nothing if wholly divorced from action, that forbidding the application of reason turns it into nothing but a sideshow. But I don’t think it’s a fatal tension. It’s not necessary for this kind of obedience to permeate all life. The restriction is in practice finite; a lot of the details of one’s own life are left to one’s own reason anyway. And Kant seems to suggest that the connection is the point - that the free exercise of reason must eventually lead to more political liberalism, that it is natural to express one’s reason in actions, eventually, after it’s been nurtured in its infancy inside the protective shell of an existing, stable state.

It’s definitely a departure from the Athenian ideal where the state is seen as sort of an outgrowth of the political reasoning of the citizenry, but it’s something interesting, that I think is missing from the models of a lot of people thinking about governance and freedom.

Free thought within a person as the product of a strong ego

The dynamic Kant points to in a state may occur within a person as well. Freedom of thought internally is way easier with a stable self-narrative. My superego > id > ego friends seem to have an especially strong sense that there are unthinkable thoughts, that there are things they must not look at, lest their souls be destroyed. I nearly never feel like this. I can think nearly anything about myself because I’m not worried it will precipitate a sudden shift in the balance of power; there will be a process that will take into account the interests of all the constituent parts of me, not a sudden violent revolution.

I underestimate how frequently other people don’t have that ability.

The development of a free soul is, in part, the process of coming up with stable, workable compromises in the form of a self-narrative that lets superego and id coexist, getting their fair share while spending less effort fighting each other, freeing up energy to do more interesting things, exploring the space of possible thoughts more freely, being willing to entertain any thought so long as it is interesting, believe any thing, so long as it is true.

And perhaps in the individual soul, as in the body politic, things that are epistemically unvirtuous for our freed-up brains to do, like believing things merely because they’re convenient, are the very basis of the political order that allows the freedom to practice epistemic virtue in the first place.

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