Happiness Is a Quiet Ego
A pandemic of the greatest proportions has taken over the world. Wherever you look--from a casual scroll through social media to a quick stroll through town--all signs point to the iron grip of this disease in almost every nation on the planet. It’s responsible for most of the world’s problems. If we could just eradicate it, much of our heartache and grief would disappear. Do you know which pandemic I mean? Not Covid-19. I’m talking about the epidemic of egotism that has infected every corner of the globe.
Ok, so I’m playing a bit with the idea of a pandemic here, but I’m not alone in identifying egotism as a major historical and social problem. You probably know that moralists have been wringing their hands over this tendency for much of recorded history. In fact, some of the earliest religious and philosophical traditions were developed to deal with the perennial problems of egotism and selfishness.
Historian of ideas Karen Armstrong, in her works on comparative religion, points out that the eminent religions and philosophies of the world have all had to confront the egotism inherent in the human experience. Rising above our own egos--getting over ourselves, both practically and metaphorically--is one of the essential lessons that any wisdom tradition must teach. In The Great Transformation, Armstrong explains how four great traditions that developed during the so-called Axial Age (approximately 800-200 BCE) countered the affliction of selfishness and encouraged the cultivation of its opposing force, self-transcendence:
The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda. For them, religion was the Golden Rule. They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from--their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence. What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle.
As Armstrong describes them, the great traditions of ancient Israel, China, India, and Greece blossomed during this period to address problems created by rapid urbanization. Axial civilizations were becoming larger and more complex, and people needed guidance on living harmoniously within societies that were both broader and more stratified (much like our world today!). Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism each developed spiritual practices that helped quiet the ego and reduce self-centeredness. Armstrong also identifies Socrates as serving the same function in ancient Greece. As she puts it,
By rigorous use of logos, [Socrates] had discovered a transcendence that he deemed essential to human life…He understood just how little he knew and was not ashamed to encounter the limits of his thought again and again. If he did feel that he had an edge over others, it was only because he realized he would never find answers to the questions he raised. Where the Sophists had taken refuge from this ignorance in practical action, Socrates experienced it as an ekstasis that revealed the deep mystery of life. People must interrogate their most fundamental assumptions. Only thus could they think and act correctly, see things as they truly were, get beyond false opinion, and arrive at intimations of that perfect intuition that would make them behave well at all times.
In other words, Socrates’ use of reason to pursue truth was closely tied to reducing the hold our egos have over us. Most of us are firmly convinced that the way we see things is the right way to see things, regardless of whether we have reasonable evidence for our opinions. Socrates’ intense desire for the truth--and his pugnacious manner--punctured other people’s egos by asking them to question their own assumptions. But he was only able to do this because of his own intellectual humility: he already knew that he didn’t know.
The Stoics, who were unabashedly inspired by Socrates, inherited this Socratic mission of trying to get beyond mere opinion to see the world clearly and objectively. But the project of seeking truth outside ourselves requires us to admit that we are, just maybe, not as smart and special as we once thought. By opening ourselves to the possibility that we are not the center of the universe, we are using our rationality to see more clearly, quiet the ego, and develop a deep inner peace.
How Do We Quiet the Ego?
So on a practical level, what does it mean to quiet the ego? The ancient Stoic writers offer plenty of advice to help us do this. But I’d like to look at their suggestions through the lens of contemporary psychology. Psychologists Jack Bauer and Heidi Wayment developed the concept of a quiet ego based on their study of Eastern meditative traditions like Buddhism. Here is how they describe a quiet ego:
The relatively quieter ego listens to others as part of a psychosocial harmony, whereas the noisier ego tunes others out as one would tune out back-ground noise. The quieter ego is attuned to internal rhythms of people's (including the self's) psychological dynamics, whereas the noisier ego is attuned more to the clamoring boom of people's external appearances. The quieter ego, compared with the noisier ego, has more balance and integration of the self and others in one's concept of the self, a balanced recognition of one's strengths and weaknesses that paves the way for personal growth, and a greater compassion for the self and others. (Bauer & Wayment, 2008, p. 8)
You’ll notice quite a few parallels with Stoic philosophy in this description of the quiet ego: psychosocial harmony, psychological dynamics, looking past external appearances, balance and integration, self and others, personal growth, compassion. It's no coincidence that Stoicism follows the traditional ego-quieting pattern that is found in the great wisdom traditions of the world. Like most other major philosophies and religions, Stoicism addresses our all-too-human tendency to see ourselves as the center of the world and offers a solution for overcoming this self-centeredness.
Now let's get more specific. How exactly do we go about the very difficult task of getting over ourselves? Bauer and Wayment have identified four areas that particularly influence ego quieting:
You can read a very nice summary of Bauer and Wayment's research in this Scientific American piece by popular psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. (Bauer and Wayment's academic publications are also readily available through a Google search, if you're interested in seeing the original research.) I’m going to cite Kaufman's descriptions below because he describes each of these areas very clearly and succinctly. So, using these modern ideas about the quiet ego, let’s see what advice the ancient Stoics can give us in each of these four areas.
Kaufman’s description: “Those with a quiet ego have an engaged, nondefensive form of attention to the present moment...They attempt to see reality as clearly as possible...It also involves the ability to revisit thoughts and feelings that have already occurred, examine them more objectively than perhaps one was able to in the moment, and make the appropriate adjustments that will lead to further growth.”
Advice from Marcus Aurelius: Look at the underlying causes of things, stripped of their covering; and consider what your actions are aiming at, and what pain, pleasure, death, and fame truly are, and who is really to blame if a person is disturbed within, and how no one can be obstructed by another, and that everything turns on opinion. (Meditations, 12.8)
Advice from Epictetus: If you muster these thoughts against it, you'll overpower your impression and not be swept away by it. But first of all, don't allow yourself to be dazed by the rapidity of the impact, but say, "Wait a while for me, my impression, let me see what you are and what you're an impression of; let me test you out." And then don't allow it to lead you on by making you a picture of all that may follow, or else it will take possession of you and conduct you wherever it wants. But rather, introduce some fine and noble impression in place of it, and cast out this impure one. (Discourses, 2.18, 3-5)
Kaufman’s description: “They understand other perspectives in a way that allows them to identify with the experience of others, break down barriers, and come to a deeper understanding of common humanity...If your identity is inclusive, you’re likely to be cooperative and compassionate toward others rather than only working to help yourself.”
Advice from Marcus Aurelius: Make haste to look into your own ruling center, and that of the universe, and that of your neighbor. Into your own, to ensure that your mind holds to justice; into that of the universe, to remind yourself of what whole you form a part; into that of your neighbor, to know whether ignorance or judgment rules, and to recognize at the same time that his mind is of one nature with your own. (Meditations, 9.22)
Advice from Epictetus: When children come to us clapping their hands and saying, "Today's the Saturnalia, rejoice!" do we reply to them, 'There's nothing to rejoice at in that?" Of course not, we clap in return. Well then, you should do the same--when you're unable to make someone change his views, recognize that he is a child, and clap as he does. Or if you don't care to act in such a way, you have only to keep quiet. (Discourses, 1.29, 31-32)
Kaufman’s description: “By reflecting on other viewpoints, the quiet ego brings attention outside the self, increasing empathy and compassion...The realization of one’s interdependence with others can lead to a greater understanding of the perspective of others.”
Advice from Marcus Aurelius: If you gain the impression that somebody has done wrong, ask yourself this, “How can I be sure that this really was wrong?” And even if he did do wrong, how do I know that he has not condemned himself for it? (Meditations, 12.16)
Advice from Epictetus: Whoever keeps this fact clearly in mind, then, that for human beings the present impression is the measure of every action--an impression that may, besides, be well or badly formed--whoever keeps this in mind will never be angry with anyone, and will never abuse, never criticize, never hate, and never offend anyone. (Discourses, 1.28, 10)
Kaufman’s description: “A concern for prosocial development and change for self and others over time causes those with a quiet ego to question the long-term impact of their actions in the moment, and to view the present moment as part of an ongoing life journey instead of a threat to one’s self and existence.”
Advice from Epictetus: So where is progress to be found? If any of you turns away from external things to concentrate his efforts on his own power of choice, to cultivate it and perfect it, so as to bring it into harmony with nature, raising it up and rendering it free, unhindered, unobstructed, trustworthy, and self-respecting...this is the person who is truly making progress; this is the person who hasn't traveled in vain! (Discourses, 1.4, 18-21)
It may seem paradoxical that overcoming our egotism would require us to actually pay more attention to our own thoughts. But it makes sense when you remember that, to quote Bauer and Wayment, "the quieter ego is attuned to internal rhythms of people's (including the self's) psychological dynamics." In order to assess whether your thoughts accurately reflect reality, you must first become aware of those thoughts, then become able to manipulate those thoughts in an appropriate way. So I would say that in order to truly find inner peace, we have to do the work of Stoic logic, ethics, and physics.
Developing a quiet ego doesn't require you to abandon your own ego, ignore your own needs, or lower your self-esteem. And it certainly doesn't mean you should think you're not important--each person is important! It simply means you have a realistic understanding of your place in the world. When you quiet your ego, you're expanding your awareness outward from yourself to the entirety of the cosmos. Rather than seeing yourself at the center of the universe, you see yourself as one part of the greater whole. In the words of Pierre Hadot (La philosophie comme maniere de vivre, p. 142):
Generally speaking, I personally tend to consider the fundamental philosophical choice, in other words the effort toward wisdom, as a state of surpassing the partial, egocentric, egoistic Me in order to reach the level of a superior Me who sees all things from the perspective of universality and totality, and who understands himself as part of the cosmos, ultimately embracing the totality of things.