The ego is a social construct. What we experience as “I” is mostly composed of words, which are self-evidently social entities (In the beginning was the word). We even dream in words most of the time, don’t we?
While the origin of the written word can be attributed to the development of taxation, the origin of oral language is unknown. There are many theories. (I even tried to read Chomsky, whom I regard as a political ally – OMG, way above my pay grade). You too can read the Wikipedia entry for “Origin of Language.” I love the idea that oral language is an extension of grooming, “Vocal Grooming” they call it. Others speculate that language needs to be seen not as a thing in itself but as an artifact of symbolic culture.
We started by standing on two legs (cf. Engles, “The part played by labor in the transition from ape to man”). This frees our hands to make tools. We steal fire from lightning which enables us to survive in a wider range of climates. As we move apart, we have a greater need to communicate over distances, whence the symbolic tool of oral language.
Now, full disclosure, if you read my novels, you’ll find that I’m not convinced that other species like birds and baboons or bees for that matter don’t have symbolic language. We just don’t understand theirs any more than they understand ours.
Still, the bizarre trajectory that humans are on that seems unique when compared with any other species – call it the development of a material culture – may have its origins in symbolism run amok.
In not many but several of my experiences on LSD over the past 50 years under the guidance of Leary’s, Alpert’s and Metzger’s Psychedelic Experience, I was able to experience ego death – and it felt like death – bringing me to state that saw the world as luminescent, full of love and spirit, a timeless reality beyond the frantic reality of the ego. I was able to perceive that light which I’m pretty sure is what people talk about when they talk about “God.”
Now, I’m a died in the wool atheist, and that experience rarely lasted more than 24 hours before I sank back into mundane egoland. I understand that people can reach this state using meditation, but I never have had the patience for that. To reconcile my understanding of the world through the lens of dialectical materialism, I decided to go along with those thinkers who anchor the Spirit in quantum mechanics: What we call spirit is material. It is a form of energy. It’s the energy of connectedness, the energy of solidarity, the energy of love.
And it is beyond the world of language. Presumably, language developed as a tool of connectedness, but especially after the development of its written form, it could also be a means to divide us. The ego we construct from language divides us. In modern times, the ego – and I mean all of our egos – has been shaped by capitalism and its ideological handmaiden, individualism.
There are many implications of this understanding, not the least of which – especially at my advanced age – is the fear of death. It is related to the whole idea in Marxism of the subjective factor, a factor which the left has fudged for a century or two, the capacity of the masses to develop political consciousness. “Religion is the opiate of the people” is among the most incorrect and sectarian pronouncements of Marx, who was otherwise correct about most things. The spirit that drives people to church is the same spirit that inheres in the solidarity needed to create a society that serves the needs of the many rather than the few.