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The philosophy of Max Stirner is credited as a major influence in the development of individualism, nihilism, existentialism, post-modernism and anarchism (especially of egoist anarchism, individualist anarchism, postanarchism and post-left anarchy). Max Stirner's main philosophical work was The Ego and Its Own, also known as The Ego and His Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum in German, or more accurately The Individual and its Property). Stirner's philosophy has been cited as an influence on both his contemporaries, most notably Karl Marx (who was strongly opposed to Stirner's views) as well as subsequent thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Enrico Arrigoni, Steven T. Byington, Benjamin Tucker, Émile Armand, Albert Camus and Saul Newman.
Stirner argues that the concept of the self is something impossible to fully comprehend; a so-called "creative nothing" he described as an "end-point of language." Stirner elaborated this attempt to describe the indescribable in the essay Stirner's Critics, written by Stirner in response to Feuerbach and others (in the custom of the time, he refers to himself in the third person):
Stirner speaks of the Unique and says immediately: Names name you not. He articulates the word, so long as he calls it the Unique, but adds nonetheless that the Unique is only a name. He thus means something different from what he says, as perhaps someone who calls you Ludwig does not mean a Ludwig in general, but means You, for which he has no word. [...] It is the end point of our phrase world, of this world in whose "beginning was the Word."— Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
In order to understand this creative nothing, Stirner uses poetry and vivid imagery. The creative nothing by its dialectical shortcomings creates the need for a description, for meaning:
What Stirner says is a word, a thought, a concept; what he means is no word, no thought, no concept. What he says is not what is meant, and what he means is unsayable.— Max Stirner, Stirner's Critics
The Ego and Its Own opens and closes with a quotation from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that reads "I have taken up my cause without foundation", with the unstated next line of the poem being "and all the world is mine". One of Stirner's central ideas is that in realizing the self is "nothing" one is said to "own the world" because—as the book states in its last line—"all things are nothing to me" [Ibidem, p. 324]:
By bringing the essence into prominence one degrades the hitherto misapprehended appearance to a bare semblance, a deception. The essence of the world, so attractive and splendid, is for him who looks to the bottom of it—emptiness; emptiness is—world's essence (world's doings).— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p. 40
[F]or 'being' is abstraction, as is even 'the I'. Only I am not abstraction alone: I am all in all, consequently, even abstraction or nothing: I am all and nothing; I am not a mere thought, but at the same time I am full of thoughts, a thought-world.— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p. 300
I say: liberate yourself as far as you can, and you have done your part; for it is not given to every one to break through all limits, or, more expressively, not to everyone is that a limit which is a limit for the rest. Consequently, do not tire yourself with toiling at the limits of others; enough if you tear down yours. [...] He who overturns one of his limits may have shown others the way and the means; the overturning of their limits remains their affair.— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p. 127
Stirner describes this world view in brief as "enjoyment" and claims that the "nothingness" of the non-self is "unutterable" (p. 314) or "unnameable" (p. 132), "unspeakable" yet "a mere word" (p. 164; cf. Stirner's comments on the skeptic concepts ataraxia and aphasia, p. 26).
Stirner has been broadly understood as a proponent of both psychological egoism and ethical egoism, although the latter position can be disputed as there is no claim in Stirner's writing in which one ought to pursue one's own interest and further claiming any "ought" could be seen as a new "fixed idea". Therefore, he may be understood as a rational egoist in the sense that he considered it irrational not to act in one's self-interest. However, how this self-interest is defined is necessarily subjective, allowing both selfish and altruistic normative claims to be included. Further, rationality as an end in and of itself is another fixed idea.
Individual self-realization rests on each individual's desire to fulfill their egoism. The difference between an unwilling and a willing egoist is that the former will be 'possessed' by an empty idea and believe that they are fulfilling a higher cause, but usually being unaware that they are only fulfilling their own desires to be happy or secure; and the latter, in contrast, will be a person that is able to freely choose its actions, fully aware that they are only fulfilling individual desires:
Sacred things exist only for the egoist who does not acknowledge himself, the involuntary egoist [...] in short, for the egoist who would like not to be an egoist, and abases himself (combats his egoism), but at the same time abases himself only for the sake of "being exalted", and therefore of gratifying his egoism. Because he would like to cease to be an egoist, he looks about in heaven and earth for higher beings to serve and sacrifice himself to; but, however much he shakes and disciplines himself, in the end he does all for his own sake [...]. On this account I call him the involuntary egoist. [...] As you are each instant, you are your own creature in this very 'creature' you do not wish to lose yourself, the creator. You are yourself a higher being than you are, and surpass yourself [...] just this, as an involuntary egoist, you fail to recognize; and therefore the 'higher essence' is to you—an alien essence. [...] Alienness is a criterion of the "sacred" [Ibidem, Cambridge edition, pp. 37–38].
The contrast is also expressed in terms of the difference between the voluntary egoist being the possessor of his concepts as opposed to being possessed. Only when one realizes that all sacred truths such as law, right, morality, religion and so on are nothing other than artificial concepts and not to be obeyed can one act freely. For Stirner, to be free is to be both one's own "creature" (in the sense of 'creation') and one's own "creator" (dislocating the traditional role assigned to the gods). To Stirner, power is the method of egoism. It is the only justified method of gaining 'property'. Even love is explained as "consciously egoistic":
[L]ove cuts no better figure than any other passion [if] I obey [it] blindly. The ambitious man, who is carried away by ambition [...] has let this passion grow up into a despot against whom he abandons all power of dissolution; he has given up himself because he cannot dissolve himself, and consequently cannot absolve himself from the passion: he is possessed. I love men too—not merely individuals, but every one. But I love them with the consciousness of my egoism; I love them because love makes me happy, I love because loving is natural to me, it pleases me. I know no 'commandment of love'. I have a fellow-feeling with every feeling being, and their torment torments, their refreshment refreshes me too [Ibidem, p. 258].
However, Stirner cautioned against any reification of the egoist or subject:
The egoist, before whom the humane shudder, is a spook as much as the devil is: he exists only as a bogie and phantasm in their brain. If they were not unsophisticatedly drifting back and forth in the antediluvian opposition of good and evil, to which they have given the modern names of "human" and "egoistic," they would not have freshened up the hoary "sinner" into an "egoist" either, and put a new patch on an old garment [Second Part: The Owner: 3 – My Self Enjoyment].
Stirner proposes that most commonly accepted social institutions—including the notion of state, property as a right, natural rights in general and the very notion of society—were mere illusions - spooks, or ghosts in the mind, saying of society that "the individuals are its reality". Stirner wants to "abolish not only the state but also society as an institution responsible for its members".
He advocated egoism and a form of amoralism in which individuals would unite in a "Union of egoists" only when it was in their self-interest to do so. For him, property simply comes about through might: "Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property. [...] "What I have in my power, that is my own. So long as I assert myself as holder, I am the proprietor of the thing". He says: "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!". Stirner considers the world and everything in it, including other persons, available to one's taking or use without moral constraint—that rights do not exist in regard to objects and people at all. He sees no rationality in taking the interests of others into account unless doing so furthers one's self-interest, which he believes is the only legitimate reason for acting. He denies society as being an actual entity: "The conquerors form a society which one may imagine so great that it by degrees embraces all humanity; but so-called humanity too is as such only a thought (spook); the individuals are its reality" (The Ego and Its Own, Tucker ed., p. 329).
Stirner never referred to markets and his philosophy on property causes problems for a market system because—according to proponents of markets—property is not considered to be legitimate if taken by force. Stirner was opposed to communism, seeing it as a form of authority over the individual. He said in The Ego and Its Own:
All attempts to enact rational laws about property have put out from the bay of love into a desolate sea of regulations. Even Socialism and Communism cannot be excepted from this. Everyone one is to be provided with adequate means, for which it is little to the point whether one socialistically finds them still in a personal property, or communistically draws them from a community of goods. The individual's mind in this remains the same; it remains a mind of dependence. The distributing board of equity lets me have only what the sense of equity, its loving care for all, prescribes. For me, the individual, there lies no less of a check in collective wealth than in that of individual others; neither that is mind, nor this: whether the wealth belongs to the collectivity, which confers part of it on me, or to individual possessors, is for me the same constraint, as I cannot decide about either of the two. One the Contrary, Communism, by the abolition of all personal property, only presses me back still more into dependence on another, viz., on the generality or collectivity; and, loudly as it always attacks the "State," what it intends is itself again a State, a status, a condition hindering my free movement, a sovereign power over me. Communism rightly revolts against the pressure I experience from individual proprietors; but still more horrible is the might that it puts in the hands of the collectivity. Egoism takes another way to root out the non-possessing rabble. It does not say: Wait for what the board of equity will—bestow on you in the name of the collectivity (for such bestowal took place in "States" from the most ancient times, each receiving "according to his desert," and therefore according to the measure in which each was able to deserve it, to acquire it by service), but: Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have.
Stirner has a concept of "egoistic property" in which he is referring to the absence of moral restrictions on how the individual uses everything in the world, including other people. For Stirner, property comes about through might: "Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property. [...] What I have in my power, that is my own. So long as I assert myself as holder, I am the proprietor of the thing". He says: "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!". This position on property is much different from the then prevalent form of individualist anarchism, which defended the inviolability of the private property that has been earned through labour. However, American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker rejected the natural rights philosophy and adopted Stirner's egoism in 1886, with several others joining with him. Since he was a radical anarchist, he preferred a political-economic social condition that was anti-statist, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian completely void of authoritarian monopolies (whether they positioned themselves as property or sovereignty) which were the enemies of individual liberation. Stirner's egoist anarchism is all about freeing the individual from the domination of property monopolists such as monarchs, governments, or industrialists while at the same time it positions itself against the anti-individualist nature of the traditional political left. Stirner had no concrete dogma on the issue of property and simply urged individuals to stop being ruled by others regardless of the authorities' moral claims about political sovereignty or property rights.
Main article: Union of egoists
Stirner's idea of the "Union of egoists" was first expounded in The Ego and Its Own. The Union is understood as a non-systematic association, which Stirner proposed in contradistinction to the state. The Union is understood as a relation between egoists which is continually renewed by all parties' support through an act of will. The Union requires that all parties participate out of a conscious egoism. If one party silently finds themselves to be suffering, but puts up and keeps the appearance, the union has degenerated into something else. This Union is not seen as an authority above a person's own will.
Stirner criticizes conventional notions of revolution, arguing that social movements aimed at overturning the state are tacitly statist because they are implicitly aimed at the establishment of a new state thereafter. To illustrate this argument, he compares his own social and moral role with that of Jesus Christ:
The time [in which Jesus lived] was politically so agitated that, as is said in the gospels, people thought they could not accuse the founder of Christianity more successfully than if they arraigned him for 'political intrigue', and yet the same gospels report that he was precisely the one who took the least part in these political doings. But why was he not a revolutionary, not a demagogue, as the Jews would gladly have seen him? [...] Because he expected no salvation from a change of conditions, and this whole business was indifferent to him. He was not a revolutionary, like Caesar, but an insurgent: not a state-overturner, but one who straightened himself up. [...] [Jesus] was not carrying on any liberal or political fight against the established authorities, but wanted to walk his own way, untroubled about, and undisturbed by, these authorities. [...] But, even though not a ringleader of popular mutiny, not a demagogue or revolutionary, he (and every one of the ancient Christians) was so much the more an insurgent who lifted himself above everything that seemed so sublime to the government and its opponents, and absolved himself from everything that they remained bound to [...]; precisely because he put from him the upsetting of the established, he was its deadly enemy and real annihilator[.]— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, pp. 280–281
As Stirner specifies in a footnote (p. 280), he was here using the word insurgent "in its etymological sense", therefore to rise above the religion and government of one's own times and to take control of one's life with no consideration of them, but not necessarily to overthrow them. This contrasts with the method of the revolutionary who brings about a change of conditions by displacing one government with another:
The revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on 'institutions'. It is not a fight against the established [...] it is only a working forth of me out of the established. [...] Now, as my object is not an overthrow of the established order but my elevation above it, my purpose and deed are not political or social but (as directed toward myself and my ownness alone) an egoistic purpose indeed.— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p. 280
The passages quoted above show the few points of contact between Stirner's philosophy and early Christianity. It is merely Jesus as an "annihilator" of the established biases and preconceptions of Rome that Stirner can relate to. His reason for "citing" the cultural change sparked by Jesus is that he wants the Christian ideologies of 19th century Europe to collapse, much as the ideology of heathen Rome did before it (e.g. "[the Christian era] will end with the casting off of the ideal, with 'contempt for the spirit'", p. 320). As with the classical skeptics before him, Stirner's method of self-liberation is opposed to faith or belief and he envisions a life free from "dogmatic presuppositions" (p. 135, 309) or any "fixed standpoint" (p. 295). It is not merely Christian dogma that his thought repudiates, but also a wide variety of European atheist ideologies that are condemned as crypto-Christian for putting ideas in an equivalent role:
Among many transformations, the Holy Spirit became in time the 'absolute idea' [in Hegelian philosophy], which again in manifold refractions split into the different ideas of philanthropy, reasonableness, civic virtue, and so on. [...] Antiquity, at its close, had gained its ownership of the world only when it had broken the world's overpoweringness and 'divinity', recognised the world's powerlessness and 'vanity'. [...] [The philosophers of our time say] Concepts are to decide everywhere, concepts to regulate life, concepts to rule. This is the religious world [of our time], to which Hegel gave a systematic expression, bringing method into the nonsense and completing the conceptual precepts into a rounded, firmly-based dogmatic. Everything is sung according to concepts and the real man, I, am compelled to live according to these conceptual laws. [...] Liberalism simply replaced Christia concepts with humanist ones; human instead of divine, political instead of ecclesiastical, 'scientific' instead of doctrinal etc.— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, pp. 87–88
The thinker is distinguished from the believer only by believing much more than the latter, who, on his part, thinks of much less as signified by his faith (creed). The thinker has a thousand tenets of faith where the believer gets along with few; but the former brings coherence into his tenets, and take the coherence in turn for the scale to estimate their worth by. p. 304
What Stirner proposes is not that concepts should rule people, but that people should rule concepts. The "nothingness" of all truth is rooted in the "nothingness" of the self because the ego is the criterion of (dogmatic) truth. Again, Stirner seems closely comparable to the skeptics in that his radical epistemology directs us to emphasise empirical experience (the "unmediated" relationship of mind as world and world as mind), but it leaves only a very limited validity to the category of "truth". When we regard the impressions of the senses with detachment, simply for what they are (e.g. neither good nor evil), we may still correctly assign truth to them:
Christianity took away from the things of this world only their irresistibleness [...]. In like manner I raise myself above truths and their power: as I am above the sensual, so I am above the truth. Before me truths are as common and as indifferent as things; they do not carry me away, and do not inspire me with enthusiasm. There exists not even one truth, not right, not freedom, humanity, etc., that has stability before me, and to which I subject myself. [...] In words and truths [...] there is no salvation for me, as little as there is for the Christian in things and vanities. As the riches of this world do not make me happy, so neither do its truths. [...] Along with worldly goods, all sacred goods too must be put away as no longer valuable. (p. 307)
Truths are material, like vegetables and weeds; as to whether vegetable or weed, the decision lies in me. (p. 313)
In place of such systems of beliefs, Stirner presents a detached life of non-dogmatic, open-minded engagement with the world "as it is" (unpolluted by "faith" of any kind, Christian or humanist), coupled with the awareness that there is no soul, no personal essence of any kind, but that the individual's uniqueness consists solely in its "creative nothingness" prior to all concepts.
Scholar Lawrence Stepelevich argues that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a major influence on The Ego and Its Own. While the latter has an "un-Hegelian structure and tone" on the whole and is hostile to Hegel's conclusions about the self and the world, Stepelevich argues that Stirner's work is best understood as answering Hegel's question of the role of consciousness after it has contemplated "untrue knowledge" and become "absolute knowledge". Stirner, Stepelevich concludes, presents the consequences of the rediscovering one's self-consciousness after realizing self-determination.
However, Widukind De Ridder has argued that scholars who take Stirner's references to Hegel and the Young Hegelians as expressions of his own alleged Hegelianism are highly mistaken. De Ridder argues that The Ego and Its Own is in part a carefully constructed parody of Hegelianism, deliberately exposing its outwornness as a system of thought; and that Stirner's notions of "ownness" and "egoism" were part of his radical criticism of the implicit teleology of Hegelian dialectics.
Stirner was a philosopher whose "name appears with familiar regularity in historically-orientated surveys of anarchist thought as one of the earliest and best-known exponents of individualist anarchism". In 1844, his The Ego and Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum which may literally be translated as The Unique Individual and Its Property) was published and it is considered to be "a founding text in the tradition of individualist anarchism".
For the Polish political philosopher and historian of ideas Leszek Kołakowski, there is logical explanation for the interest of the early intellectuals of fascism and proto-fascism in the individualist/egoist ideas of Stirner.
At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artificial bonds among individuals who were expected to render explicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it is clear he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity. The totalitarian ideal of a barrack-like society from which all real, historical ties have been eliminated is perfectly consistent with Stirner's principles: the egoist, by his very nature, must be prepared to fight under any flag that suits his convenience.