How Egoism Blinds the Intellect

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2007
Reproduced with Permission

This year I came to the realization that a friend of mine with whom, over a year earlier, I'd debated a particular philosophical point, was right after all. In fact, this happened recently on more than one occasion. Two things intrigued me about this experience: that it took me so long to see it, and that while debating the issue, I'd felt so confident in my own position.

I am fortunate to have a few friends who love to argue. Their propensity to dispute is not at all rooted in a spirit of pride that refuses to acknowledge there is something larger than their own individual understanding. On the contrary, it is rooted in a spirit of humility that recognizes something much larger than them, which is the measure of their limited understanding, as well as a love for precisely this larger reality, namely truth. For they readily acknowledge the truth when they finally come to behold it in the context of an argument, and they take not the slightest offence at being opposed by their friends in debate. An argument is not a quarrel, because truth is not primarily about me, but something that measures and perfects me. Hence, to "lose" an argument is really to score a victory.

Having such friends is a great blessing, because dialogue is, as the etymology of the word (dia-logos) suggests, the means by which we raise one another higher towards the very word (logos) of truth. Such dialogue, if genuine, is a work of love.

Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov writes: "Truth as a living power that takes possession of the internal being of a human and actually rescues him from false self-assertion is termed Love. Love as the actual abrogation of egoism is the real justification and salvation of individuality."

If this is true, then egoism is the abrogation of love, and by extension truth. Egoism is a very basic thinking error rooted in a profoundly self-centred will. It consists not so much in attributing to oneself an absolute significance and worth, but in a refusal to ascribe to others the absolute significance that one rightly attributes to oneself. Consequently, the egoist relegates others to the circumference of his own life and attributes to them only a relative value, that is, a value determined in reference to the egoist who is at the very centre of his own existence.

Egoism can only result in deep intellectual impoverishment, for the egoist has made himself - in his own eyes at least - larger than everyone else. Thus, his entire rational life is founded upon a false premise. He refuses to embrace the most fundamental truth about his status as one profoundly limited, essentially equal to others, yet dependent upon them in order to become more fully himself.

The egoist's unconscious but pervasive conviction that he is larger than everyone - who exist on the circumference of his life and who enjoy only a relative value - involves him in believing that his own individual perspective has much greater scope than it actually does, and that the perspectives of others are, as it were, contained within his own. The egoist simply does not entertain the notion that others could possibly enrich and elevate him to see what otherwise would remain undiscovered. The insights others put forth only render him indignant because such behaviour on their part implies that they do not hold him in the same elevated estimation in which he holds himself, and perceived injustice begets anger.

But truth has something essentially to do with community. There are not many truths, but one truth. Yet this one truth is far too large for me to acquire on my own, limited as I am in all directions. I can only become larger through the possession of truth through love, that is, through the willingness to allow myself to be loved by another, to allow that other to lift me in his own way, to communicate to me what he knows to be true, to allow myself to be the other, to see the world from his point of view, one that enables him to see what I cannot, at least from my current vantage point. The egoist will not permit this to occur - or will only do so to a very limited extent -, for to permit it requires the recognition and acceptance of his radical perfectibility, and thus his own lack.

The perspective of the egoist is akin to that which results from gazing through the wrong end of a telescope. What is larger (i.e., the mind of another) appears smaller, and what is near to me (the status of others) appears at a distance. And just as a person can only experience great difficulty walking without stumbling while looking through the wrong end of the telescope, the egoist makes very little progress towards the possession of genuine wisdom, and his blindness to what lies close by causes him to stumble.

Egoism is a continuum. Few are absolute egoists, just as few have perfect humility. But everyone must struggle with inordinate self-estimation, for "the pride of life" (1 Jn 2, 16) is one of the wounds of Original Sin. Hence, an unhealthy degree of egoism can exist while a person is in a state of grace. But the intellectual blindness that results will correspond to the degree and intensity of that egoism, for it is a refusal to love as fully as one is able. It is more or less a refusal of community. As such, the egoist imposes on himself an unnecessary limitation and a corresponding deficiency.

Memory and docility are parts of prudence precisely because the human person is limited by time and place. It took me more than a year to realize that my friend was right because it took that long for me to enter into a concrete situation I could behold in light of his arguments. Without memory, debate is rendered pointless, but without docility and a thick skin, another's insights would fail to benefit, as they ought. Such imprudence and injustice is as rational as a person who freely and stubbornly refuses the prescription lenses designed to help him see more clearly, more distinctly, and farther.