In brief: in Ostad Elahi’s model of the self, the imperious self is the source of impulses within the psyche that imperiously drive us to act against ethical and divine principles and to violate the rights of others.
Let us illustrate this with an example from everyday life. The following is Romain’s account of an experience relative to this point:
“I work in a large government administration and deal directly with the public. We are short of personnel, so the job isn’t easy and I have to juggle between answering the phone that rings every five minutes and giving information to people standing in line at the desk. I end up stressed and at the brink of being rude to people asking for information, especially when they need me to repeat or explain what seems obvious to me. I try to control myself, however, by telling myself that it’s not these people’s fault that we are understaffed, and that I also get anxious when I have to deal with government offices I am not familiar with, worried that I filled out the right forms and am standing in the right line and so on. I tell myself that it is their right to come to me with their questions. I try to remember this to get a hold of myself—which is not always easy and stay patient and polite.”
This experience brings to the fore the tension that resides within us between two opposite tendencies or “voices”. One of these tendencies is the voice of reason, founded on values such as altruism, or ethical principles such as “do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you”. It is this tendency that urges Romain to “get a hold of himself”—even if it is not easy for him—in order to stay patient and pleasant. This first tendency is a manifestation of what Ostad Elahi calls the “celestial soul.”
The other “voice” that stands out in this account corresponds to an unethical tendency based on selfishness and the desire to immediately act upon one’s harmful impulses (here, one’s aggressive impulses) taking into account neither ethical principles nor the regard we owe fellow humans and ourselves. Someone asks me an annoying question and being in a position of power I yield to my impulse and am rude, ignoring the rights of the person I am speaking with, who, after all, is a client of the government office that employs me, but also, more importantly, is a fellow human being. This second tendency corresponds to what Ostad Elahi calls the “imperious self.”
The imperious self manifests itself then through harmful impulses that are systematically opposite to true ethical values.
This first definition has the advantage of being simple because it evokes an experience we all can relate to: the internal tug-of-war between two opposing voices. It is, however, incomplete as it does not take into account the complexity of this component that is essentially unconscious, and which can take on the most varied and subtle forms. This is why it is essential to learn to recognize it. And so, for example:
- Not every impulse is necessarily the manifestation of the imperious self. The irritation and annoyance Romain feels in this objectively stressful situation are natural. These feelings are not in themselves the fruit of the imperious self. But if they drive him to act unpleasantly (and hence injuriously to others) or to develop an attitude of ingratitude and pessimism toward life (which is harmful to himself), then he has fallen prey to the imperious self.
- Conversely, behavior or attitudes can appear to be reasonable, ethical or spiritual and in fact stem from the imperious self. Indeed, the imperious self is relentlessly putting unethical and anti-divine pressure on our psyche and we are not always aware of it. We can act in perfectly illegitimate ways under the influence of the imperious self, while convincing ourselves that we are perfectly within our “rights.”
Hidden behind manifestations of the most varied and contradictory sorts, the imperious self always represents the same tendency within us: the unethical and anti-divine. Its main function seems then to be to prevent us from progressing and growing spiritually. It is, however, crucial to understand that although what primarily defines it is its harmful nature, the imperious self is actually indispensable to the maturing of our celestial soul. The inner tension through which the imperious self manifests itself is necessary—without it there could be neither progress nor maturation. It is only through an active struggle against the unethical and anti-divine pressure of the imperious self that the celestial soul can reach perfection. The imperious self is then both an obstacle and a condition for the development of the self.
Characteristics of the imperious self
The imperious self can be described as follows:
1. Harmful to others but also to ourselves— The imperious self is the adversary of the celestial soul and thus my adversary, because the true self is an emanation of the celestial soul. The imperious self not only stands in the way of the celestial soul’s progress and positive evolution, it attempts—by virtue of its own nature—to invade it and—if no struggle is upheld—to denature and poison it entirely.
2. Hostile and aggressive— The imperious self likes to trample on others. It aims to expand the ego and thus seeks to neutralize anything that may get in its way.
3. Hyperactive and tireless— The imperious self is by nature tireless, and requires no effort on our part. Motivated solely by the pleasure principle, it blindly seeks to satisfy its impulses and continues to do so unless the self keeps it in check and brings it under control.
4. Rebellious— The imperious self viscerally resists all our attempts to control it and free ourselves from its hold. At a more fundamental level, it stubbornly and systematically pits itself against anything that contributes to the development and growth of our celestial soul (that would weaken its domination over us), such as true ethics, spirituality, or attention to the divine.
5. Sly— If it cannot win by force, the imperious self will resort to underhand methods to assure its domination. It can notably infect our judgment and cause us to adopt false lines of reasoning or even mimic the voice of the soul.
6. Invasive— If we do not actively struggle against its propensity to colonize the whole self, it eventually takes control of the three other components (the ego, the super-ego, and the super-id). It is naturally driven to dominate our psyche, to get us to adopt its values and think and act in accordance with its interests.
7. Irresponsible— The imperious self, with its impulsive operational mode, is a blind and therefore irresponsible force that cannot answer for itself. The conclusion that can be drawn is then that it is not “evil” in itself. It is the responsibility of the self to locate it, control it and avoid its effects. It is then useful, as weights are useful to an athlete striving to develop muscle mass.
8. Unethical and anti-divine— The imperious self is unethical, because it is the source of all our impulses, all our emotions, all our thoughts and all our harmful actions, which tend to infringe on the rights of others or our own rights. We speak ill of someone—it is the imperious self; we are impatient, aggressive and irritable—it is the imperious self; we are jealous—it is the imperious self; we are haughty, we want to show off and prove our superiority—it is the imperious self; we judge and look down on others—it is the imperious self. It is the imperious self again—though in another guise—when we are cowardly, weak or incapable of defending our rights; when we let ourselves become depressed (except in clinical cases that are beyond our control); when we want to drop everything; when we brood over pessimistic thoughts or look at life from an exclusively negative point of view. The imperious self is, moreover, anti-divine, because it is at the source of all thoughts or actions that push us to cut our ties with the Source (real atheism). It is also the imperious self that drives us to imagine God and spirituality not as they are, but so as to suit us (which leads to fanaticism, dogmatism or spiritual laxity).
What the imperious self is not
The imperious self is not the body. It is an extension or complication of the earthly soul or id. Struggling against the imperious self therefore does not involve mortification of the body or the refusal of legitimate pleasures. The body is to be respected and cared for as a creature that has been entrusted to us—nothing more, nothing less.
The imperious self is not a substance. It is not a separate entity, a seed of evil or—with reference to a familiar image—a sort of little devil that would exist independently within us. The imperious self is not a substance, an entity in itself; its nature is relational. It is the result of a functional problem, namely a dysfunction of the id—either in excess or in default. The imperious self appears when we give free rein to impulses liable to harm others or ourselves, when our relations with others suffer from some form of excess or default. As soon as a strong self manages to regulate these excesses of the id, the imperious self disappears, just as a functional illness disappears when the imbalance that is at its source is successfully resolved.
In practice, however, it is helpful to refer to the imperious self as a separate entity, even personifying it, if need be—attributing to it actual unethical intentions or even a “voice” that is opposed to the voice of conscience. It then becomes possible to imagine it as an adversary against which we must struggle, and whose tricks we must foil. This kind of narrative is quite necessary in practice, as it’s hard to fight against an abstraction.
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