II. The Western Philosophical Concept: A rapid overview In the west, the one who introduced the modern concept of “Ego”1 was Saint Augustine, the great Latin father. Some centuries later Boethius defined the person as “the individual substance of rational nature,” placing the center of personal identity in an “inner I.” Joined to the introspection of Augustine, the elevation of individuality by Boethius lead to the idea that the “Ego” is the stable, permanent reality that constitutes the individual human reality.
In the Middle Ages a person’s security and identity were connected to membership in a particular group: the guild, the nobility, the bourgeoisie, the clergy etc. With the Renaissance that idea disappeared and society saw the triumph of the idea of individualism at all levels of life.
Some changes in the religious sphere are closely connected to the story of the “Ego”. Martin Luther found security in the soul’s trust in God and in the personal experience of faith. Religion is seen from the perspective of interiorization and individuality. For the Puritans, Pietists and their descendents, real religion is essentially internal. It is experienced individually. The believer can evaluate his religious growth and know with certainty whether he has received salvation.
The Enlightenment will take another step and call this “inner reality” reason. For Descartes and followers, the conscious “Ego”, the rational “Ego”, sure of is own existence, was the essential principle of reality and the final arbiter of truth. Kant’s careful analysis of reason completed the long movement toward radical individualism. For Kant the essence of humanity is thought that is individual, self-conscious and separate from others.
The “Ego” of Romanticism is more particular than universal and more centered in feelings than in the reason. In the place of self-control, Romanticism advocates self-expression. The key to happiness is to embrace oneself so as to celebrate one’s own nature.
Even though in this brief sketch we cannot go all the different nuances and philosophies, we can say that western thought since Saint Augustine has been concerned with the discovery and fulfillment of the individual person. This is seen to take place through introspection, focused on ourselves, either through rational self-control or in a celebration of personal uniqueness. In all its variations, however, the idea that persists is that the real person, the true “Ego”, is something that is within us and the individual is the essential unit of human reality. In other words, the modern “Ego” is the solitary “Ego”, disconnected from others. This is not a moral evaluation but of a philosophical explanation.