Book Reviews -- the Wisdom of the Ego by George E. Vaillant

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GEORGE E. VAILLANT: The Wisdom of the Ego. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993, 94 pp., $27.95.

The rumor of the death of Ego Psychology is greatly exaggerated. As long as George Vaillant writes his engaging books extolling the wisdom of ego psychology it is destined to remain part of our theoretical landscape.

Vaillant's Adaptation to Life (Little, Brown & Co. 1977) had been based on the longitudinal study, started in 1938, of a cohort of Harvard students viewed from the perspective of changing, maturing coping styles through the life cycle. His latest book The Wisdom of the Ego is partly a useful recapitulation and update, as well as a considerable expansion of this earlier book's themes. This time we are given a fascinating glimpse of two other longitudinal studies in which the author had participated in various phases, adding to the Harvard group a contrasting socioeconomic group of "Core City" men who had been peer controls for a study of juvenile delinquents in the early 1940's and a subsample of 90 women from the 1920's Terman study of gifted California school children.

Thus, Vaillant draws, at this point, not only on one, but on three diverse longitudinal studies to demonstrate the empirical existence of defenses which he views basically as biologically based phenomena, in that "[M]aturity of defensive style did not seem affected by socioeconomic status, intellectual ability, or gender" (p. 136).

Vaillant's book could be viewed as a celebration of the human capacity to engage in self-deception in order bear inner and outer assaults. The author likens "defense mechanisms" to the immune system, which is both basic to our survival, while also known to turn against itself in its protective efforts. He makes some room for contextual considerations, yet continues to divide defenses into four categories ranging from psychotic to mature. Vaillant thus remains faithful to the basic psychoanalytic view that even admirable human behavior is mostly a defense against baser instincts [in Anna Freud's words, altruism resulting from the badness of one's heart] (p. 248). He even views human creativity as an activity that "transmutes pain and restores the self" (p. 27), thus as the highest level of defensive sublimation. Vaillant pursues his earlier interest in the association between maturity of defenses and other measures of successful adulthood, positing a causal link between the former and the latter. The author's definition of successful adulthood is embedded within traditional Western values, exemplified by his defining Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar as "inspirational and generative leaders" (p. 199). A person's defensive style is linked to such presumably inborn personality traits as "fortunate temperament" (p. …