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David Bohm on the Ego

I just came across this while going thought some old saved drafts, and I thought some people here might also find it interesting. I don’t remember where I got it, maybe from Changing Consciousness???

David Bohm: It is interesting to speculate on the probable origin of the ego process in the human race. There is evidence that modern man, with essentially his present brain capacity, came on the scene not more than 30,000 years ago. At this stage, the poor creature was ignorant. The animal is ignorant too, but it does not possess a cortex that can remind it of unpleasant dangers, real and imaginary, as well as death, while at other times creating wonderful illusions of satisfactions, apparently to be obtained by certain actions, and so on. So the animal can sit peacefully until there is actual danger, in which case it either runs or fights. But our poor primal “Homo-sapiens” must experience fear of the known and the unknown as well as desire for satisfaction of a kind that never would enter the animals brain. Being confused, he starts to invent imaginary “magical” means of dealing with dangers, and bringing him these satisfactions. At first, this is not so different from what a child does in his daydreams. But eventually, man’s imagination runs away with him. The magical forces that he has invented seem to escape him, and disclose themselves as even more dangerous than the unknown dangers that he first wanted to escape. So he must propitiate them. He confuses his mind even more, now being afraid even to look at what he has termed “taboo.” But he doesn’t see that it is all a game that he is playing with himself. How can he? After all, magical dangers are easily confused with real dangers that abound in his life, and there is no easy way at his disposal to study the problem properly.

Gradually man starts to accumulate tools, techniques, knowledge, language, weapons, etc. He develops agriculture, aggregates himself into stable communities, smelts metals, is able to guard against hunger by storing food, etc. This apparently happened in North Africa about 9000 years ago to 6000 years ago. V. Gordon Childe, in his It Happened In History, suggests that this was a great period of creative development in man.

Now up to this time, war had not developed, beyond occasional raids and quarrels. Slavery wasn’t worth it, as a man consumed almost as much as he could produce. But with growing wealth, plunder became inviting. Weapons made raids practicable and slavery was now technically feasible. At some time, there began to occur to some people the brilliant idea that they could live off others. Thus started the modern age of war, plunder, slavery, and exploitation of man by men. Childe gives evidence that for thousands of years following this change, creativity almost dried up, as man began to look up to the “hero,” the conqueror, the slave-holder, while technique and the arts were left to the despised slave. Even in Greek and Roman times, there was the same tendency, and only much later was there a change, allowing a self-respecting man seriously to interest himself in the arts and techniques. Childe suggests that except for slavery, man could have reached modern technical levels long before the time of the Greeks.

It seems to me that the development of plunder, slavery, and exploitation as man’s main mode of life determined the modern form of the ego process. Even when slavery was given up, exploitation remained the essential feature of man’s relation to man, which it still is today. Once this mode was started, man was doomed to ever increasing confusion, for he had to justify his mode of life to himself. This is in fact impossible, except by continual recourse to confusion. For how else can you justify the arbitrary authority of some people over others? You can pretend that God or nature ordered it, that the others are inferior, that we are superior, etc. But once you start on this line, you can never allow yourself to think straight again, for fear that the truth will come out. You must glorify the “hero” who murders and plunders, while on the other hand, you tell the child that he must be honest, treat people fairly, and so on. Just this one point is enough to destroy the minds of most children. How can you square up the emotion of love and truth with that of plundering your enemy, stealing his wealth, murdering helpless people, and enslaving others? No wonder even brilliant people like Aristotle regarded slaves as basically inferior. How else could they stand life in their society?

The basic character of the ego process is to continue in the midst of superficial change. At its core is the desire to be satisfied. Since man began to project his satisfaction into an imagined future, he also needed to feel secure. For he is always seeing causes, real or imagined, that threaten his projected satisfactions and promise projected pains and dangers instead. The fear reflex is thus set in motion. This confuses the mind, which looks urgently for solutions. Usually these solutions put man in an ultimately more dangerous position than he was to begin with. For what else can be expected of a confused mind? Then his fear reflexes are activated again with still greater intensity. In this way, society has been developing into a situation of ever mounting fear. The movement is zigzag, with alleviations and improvements from time to time. But on the whole, each move of man to increase his security has brought him finally to greater insecurity than ever, until today, the “security” of atomic weapons threatens man with annihilation.

I would say that man is suddenly entering a situation where the whole idea of this mode of life is evidently absurd. It always was absurd, but many men had the illusion that they could get satisfaction out of it. It usually took a man 30 or 40 or 50 years to find out that this is false, and that life is “vanity” after all. But today, even the young people feel it, perhaps even more keenly than the older ones. Mankind has been in a chronic state of crisis for 6000 years or more. Now the crisis is acute, general, and inescapable. The old illusions don’t seem to work very well any more, nor do the new illusions either. So mankind is presented with a unique opportunity to drop the ego process. This opportunity arises out of unique danger. He may annihilate himself or degenerate to the level of a confused beast if he does not drop the ego process in a reasonable period of time.

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