From Ego to Ergo: True Education as Self-Liberation

We live in a seemingly crazy world. A world in which people enslave themselves in the name of freedom. A world in which the best things do not cost any money but in which they nonetheless come at a price. A world in which nothing is free, least of all freedom itself. In short, or in a nutshell, we live in a world of paradox, in which the path to perception is paved with those apparent contradictions that point to deeper truths. The purpose of education is to teach new generations to walk this paradoxical path, perceiving the deepest truths within the paradigm of paradox.

At the beginning of this path to perception is the first and ultimate paradox, the alpha and omega of all paths to perception: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. At the heart of this axiomatic paradox is the apparent contradiction that we must die to ourselves so that we can truly live. We must die to ourselves so that we might no longer be dead. We must die to ourselves so that we can be resurrected into the reality beyond the deadening and deafening self. Those who remain egocentric, who put themselves first, will always be last because they will remain lost in the bottomless pit of the self, failing to take the appointed path to the perception that liberates the self from itself. Those who put themselves last by putting others first will escape from the prison of the self in the very act of their selflessness.

St. Thomas Aquinas encapsulated this essential paradox at the heart of all perception in his insistence that humility is the prerequisite for all progress towards the perception of reality. It is humility that brings forth the fruit of gratitude which opens the eyes to wonder, and it is wonder which leads to the spirit of contemplation that opens the mind and heart into the fullness of reality. So says St. Thomas, and his words get to the very core of what constitutes a true education. First must come an education in the virtue and necessity of humility, which can be seen as the antidote to the poison of the egocentrism which theologians call pride. If pride and not humility is at the heart of education, we will have an absence of the gratitude which opens the eyes to wonder. Such education precludes the possibility of the contemplation which opens the heart and mind into the presence of the real. Instead of a dilation into the glories of the good, the true and the beautiful, we will have an education which closes the mind and heart in a self-enclosed claustrophobic cloister. The irony is that the prideful education which places so-called self-expression as the highest goal actually prevents the self from knowing itself; and if it doesn’t know itself, it cannot express itself. The me-myself-I sees with an eye that only see me and myself and not the greater reality of which me and myself are a part. The self is more distant than any star, says Chesterton, and we can only see the distant star which is the ego by learning to gaze beyond the self to the stars in the sky and the stars that sparkle in the eyes of our neighbors.

“We are all in the gutter,” says Oscar Wilde, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” If we will not look at the twinkling little stars, wondering what they are and what they signify, we will have only the gutter of the self in which to wallow. Preferring the darkness of the black hole of the ego we will shrivel into a pathetic gollumized shadow of whom we are meant to be. This is why today’s education, which advocates pride as the highest good, is producing a generation of gollums, unable and unwilling to see the light that shines beyond the dark and desperate ego.

True education is, therefore, an engagement with the truth beyond the self; it is an engagement with the other. It is learning to give ourselves to others in the goodness that we call caritas or Christian love; it is learning to give ourselves to others in the truth that we call scientia or the knowledge of objective reality; it is learning to give ourselves to others in the beauty that is revealed when we see with eyes wide open with wonder.

René Descartes has led many people astray with his famous proclamation, “je pense, donc je suis”: I think, therefore I am; or, as it is usually rendered in Latin, cogito ergo sum. It could be argued, which was Descartes’ point, that we know that we are because we think, but we do not know what we are or who we are because we think. We can only know these deeper truths by engaging our thoughts with that which is beyond ourselves; by subjecting our thoughts to the objectively real; by making our thoughts servants of the truth. The rock group U2 got closer to the heart of reality when they declared that if we want to kiss the sky, we need to learn how to kneel. It would be even more true to say that we need to learn how to kneel if we want to even see the sky in its true light. I kneel therefore I wonder; I wonder therefore I see. This is the ergo that liberates us from the ego.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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