Johann Kaspar Schmidt, better known as Max Stirner (the nom de
plume he adopted from a schoolyard nickname he had acquired as
a child because of his high brow [Stirn]), German philosopher,
who ranks as one of the literary grandfathers of nihilism, existentialism
and anarchism, especially of individualist anarchism. Stirner
himself explicitly denied holding any absolute position in his
philosophy, further stating that if he must be identified with
some "-ism" let it be egoism — the antithesis
of all ideologies and social causes, as he conceived of it.
main work is The Ego and Its Own, also known as The Ego and His
Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum in German), which was first
published in Leipzig, 1844, and has since appeared in numerous
editions and translations.
was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on October 25, 1806. What little
is known of his life is mostly due to the Scottish born German
writer John Henry Mackay, who wrote a biography of Stirner (Max
Stirner - sein Leben und sein Werk), published in German in 1898.
A 2005 English translation has now appeared.
attended university in Berlin, where he attended the lectures
of Hegel, who was to become a vital source of inspiration for
his thinking, and on the structure of whose work Phenomenology
of Spirit (Phänomenologie des Geistes), he modelled his own
book. (Hegel's influence on Stirner's thinking is debatable, and
is discussed in more detail below.)
in Berlin in 1841, Stirner sometimes participated in a discussion
group of young philosophers called "The Free" [Die Freien],
and who historians have subsequently categorized as so-called
Young Hegelians. Some of the best known names in 19th century
literature were members of this discussion group, including Bruno
Bauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Arnold
some of the Young Hegelians were eager subscribers to Hegel's
dialectical method, and attempted to apply dialectical approaches
to Hegel's conclusions, the "left wing" members of the
Young Hegelians, e.g. those named above, broke with Hegel. Feuerbach
and Bauer led this charge.
the debates would take place at Hippel's, a Weinstube (wine bar)
in Friedrichstrasse, attended by, amongst others, the young Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engels, at that time still adherents of Feuerbach.
The only portrait we have of Stirner consists of a cartoon by
Engels, drawn forty years later from memory on the request of
Stirner's biographer John Henry Mackay.
worked as a schoolteacher employed in an academy for young girls
when he wrote his major work The Ego and Its Own, which in part
is a polemic against both Hegel and some Young Hegelians (e.g.
Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer), but also against communists as
Wilhelm Weitling and against the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon,
not to mention Feuerbach. He resigned his teaching position in
anticipation of the controversy arising from his major work's
publication in October 1844.
married twice; his first wife was a household servant with whom
he fell in love at an early age. Soon after their marriage, she
died due to complications with pregnancy in 1838. In 1843 he married
Marie Dähnhardt, an intellectual associated with Die Freien.
They divorced in 1846. The bitter ironic dedication of The Ego
and Its Own - "to my sweetheart Marie Dähnhardt"
- may hint at the reasons for the shortness of their liaison.
Marie later converted to catholicism and died 1902 in London.
of the most curious events in those times was that Stirner planned
and financed (with his second wife's inheritance) an attempt by
some Young Hegelians to own and operate a milk-shop on co-operative
principles. This enterprise failed because the German dairy farmers
harboured suspicions of these well-dressed intellectuals with
their confusing talk about profit-sharing and other high-minded
ideals. Meanwhile, the milk shop itself appeared so ostentatiously
decorated that most of the customers felt too poorly dressed to
buy their milk there.
The Ego and Its Own, Stirner published German translations of
Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Jean-Baptiste Say's Traite
d'Economie Politique, and a set of his replies to his critics
were collected in a small work titled History of Reaction (1852).
1856, Stirner died in Berlin, Prussia from an infected insect
bite. As the story goes, Bruno Bauer was the only Young Hegelian
present at his funeral.
(Assigned) Place in the History of Philosophy
The status of the philosophy of Max Stirner has been largely determined
by his criticism of others, and his treatment by his critics.
His lengthy repudiation of Hegelian philosophy has reserved an
historically dubious niche for his name in the list of "Young
Hegelians" offered in standard histories of 19th century
philosophy, and, perhaps more importantly (so far as keeping his
works in print), the perceived importance of his philosophy in
the intellectual development of the young Karl Marx has earned
him a footnote in many reading lists.
number of pages Marx and Engels devote to attacking Stirner in
(the unexpurgated text of) The German Ideology exceeds the total
of Stirner's written works. Marx's incoherent (and frequently
ad hominem) screed has led a few of his followers in each generation
to investiage the source text that inspired so much vituperation.
Leaving aside Stirner's critical engagement with Feuerbachian
Humanism, German Liberalism, and other ideologies of his era,
we may say that Stirner's purely negative associations with Hegel
and Marxism alone have been sufficient to assign him a permanent
place in the canon of Western philosophy --albeit a place of infamy.
Even those who value Stirner's contribution to the Western tradition
tend to focus on the negative arguments of The Ego and its Own,
viz., his condemnation of the social, moral, religious and political
conditions that surrounded him in 19th century Europe.
Stirner provides plenty of such "negative" material
for our consideration, it is disappointing to find that the "positive
aspect" (or "posited tenets") of his philosophy
has been so rarely taken into consideration in evaluating his
significance. Although less overtly prejudicial to Stirner's work,
the small literature of comparative essays that have attempted
to relate Stirner in Nietzschean terms (e.g., R.W.K. Patterson,
The Nihilistic Egoist, & John Carroll, 1974, Break Out from
the Crystal Palace) have also obscured the primary source text
by reducing Stirner's work into a set of points that can (or cannot
be) validated in the light of later philosophical developments.
root of the problem is partly methodological: to describe Stirner
simply in contradistinction to Hegel (or Marx, or Feuerbach, etc.)
must inevitably fail to touch on the heart of his own philosophy,
for the plain reason that his own arguments stand independent
of (and in radical contradistinction to) the common assumptions
of the 19th century German tradition.
Stirner's main work is The Ego and Its Own (org. 'Der Einzige
und sein Eigentum'), which appeared in Leipzig in 1844. One can
chart the development of his philosophy through a series of articles
that appeared shortly before this central work (the articles The
False Principle of Our Education and Art and Religion furnishing
The Ego and Its Own Stirner launches a radical anti-authoritarian
and individualist critique of contemporary Prussian society, and
modernity and modern western society as such, and offers an approach
to human existence which depicts the self as a creative non-entity,
beyond language and reality, as generally conceived of in the
western philosophical tradition.
short, the book proclaims that all religions and ideologies rest
on empty concepts, that, once undermined by individual self-interest,
break apart to reveal their emptiness. The same holds true for
those of society's institutions, that uphold these concepts, be
it the state, legislation, the church, the systems of education,
or other institutions that claim authority over the individual.
argument explores and extends the limits of Hegelian criticism,
aiming his critique especially at those of his contemporaries
(particularly colleagues amongst the Young Hegelians, most importantly
Ludwig Feuerbach), embracing popular 'ideologies', explicitly
including nationalism, statism, liberalism, socialism, communism
the time of spirits thoughts grew till they overtopped my head,
whose offspring they yet were; they hovered about me and convulsed
me like fever-phantasies -- an awful power. The thoughts had become
corporeal on their own account, were ghosts, e. g. God, Emperor,
Pope, Fatherland, etc. If I destroy their corporeity, then I take
them back into mine, and say: "I alone am corporeal."
And now I take the world as what it is to me, as mine, as my property;
I refer all to myself.
— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p 15.
Only when the false claims of authority by such concepts and institutions
as the above, are revealed, can real individual action, power
and identity take place. Individual self-realization rests on
each individual's desire to fulfill his egoism, be it by instinct,
unknowingly, unwillingly - or consciously, fully aware of his
primary difference between an unwilling and a willing egoist,
is that the first will be 'possessed' by an empty idea, or a 'spook',
in the hope that this idea will make him happy, and the last,
in contrast, will be able to freely choose the ways of his egoism,
and enjoy himself while doing it. The contrast is also expressed
in terms of the difference between the individual being the possessor
of his concepts as opposed to being possessed thereby. Only when
one realizes that all sacred truths such as law, right, morality,
religion etc., are nothing other than artificial concepts, and
not holy authorities to be obeyed, can one act freely. In Stirner's
idiom, 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):
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, p. 37-8]
has been broadly understood as a proponent of both psychological
egoism and ethical egoism, although the latter position can be
disputed, maintaining that there is no sense in Stirner's writing,
in which one 'ought to' pursue one's own interest, and further
claiming any such category of 'ought' would be a new 'fixed idea'.
The notion that one's own interest (or one's own nature) is a
calling to which one is beholden (or "ought to follow"
in any moral or imperative sense) is, strictly speaking, contrary
to Stirner's tenets. However, he may be understood as a rational
egoist in the sense that he apparently considered it irrational
not to act in one's self interest.
the other hand, Stirner repeatedly refers to a fundamental state
of existence, which he seems to view as ideal, 'like the bird,
who sings because it is a singer'. He provokes his readers with
references to their christian-adopted fear of their own nudity,
encouraging them to throw away such fixed ideas, to see and become
'who they really are'. In such terms, Stirner's egoism may be
seen as 'ethical' and perhaps even as idealistic.
The political ramifications of Stirner's work are sometimes described
as a form of individualist anarchism. Stirner however does not
identify himself as an anarchist, and includes anarchists among
the parties subject to his criticism. In particular, Stirner's
political doctrine repudiates revolution in the traditional sense,
and ridicules social movements aimed at overturning the state
as tacitly statist (i.e., aimed at the establishment of a new
state thereafter), putting forth instead a unique model of self-empowerment
and social change through "union activism" --although
the definition and explanation of the latter is unique to Stirner,
and does not resemble a standard socialist doctrine of trade unionism.
Some people see Ernst Jünger's revolutionary conservative
concept of the anarch as a more faithful rendition of Stirner's
Stirner's demolition of 'fixed ideas' and absolute concepts (derided
as 'spooks' of contemporary philosophy) lead him to a nameless
void, without meaning and without existence; a so-called 'creative
nothing' from which mind and creativity will arise. The 'nothing'
Stirner arrives at, in the process of tearing down every absolute
concept (every absolute description) outside of himself, he later
described as an 'end-point of language', meaning this is where
all description comes to an end; it cannot be described. But this
is also the place where all description begins, where the individual
self can describe (and therefore create) the world in its own
order to understand this 'creative nothing', which Stirner strives
so hard to argue for and explain, to the extent that his work
invokes poetry and vivid imagery to give meaning to his words
- but helplessly cannot describe by words alone, it is worth bearing
his Hegelian origins in mind. The 'creative nothing' by its dialectical
shortcomings creates the need for a description, for meaning.
You need the word 'nothing' to describe nothing - therefore nothing
is a paradox. You cannot say 'nothing' without someone saying
it, at the very least. And you need the concept of self to describe
who is describing it. The nothing gives way to individual meaning,
existence and power.
elaborated on his attempt on describing the undescribable in the
essay "Stirner's Critics", written by Stirner in response
to Feuerbach and others (in custom with the time, he refers to
himself in the third person) :
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
might describe this place (if describable) as the place where
we come into existence; where we are born (see reference to the
modern theorist Julia Kristeva below).
and the philosophy of "no self"
In a peculiar but formally acurate sense, we could summarize The
Ego and Its Own as "an ethic of owning the world". The
book both opens and closes with a quotation from 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". Contrary to the common gloss on the Stirner,
one of his central doctrines is that the self "is nothing";
and in realizing this 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]. This philosophical
standpoint, and the type of imagery used to advance it, remains
shocking to the Western philosophical tradition that Stirner emerged
from, and still in our times, authors such as David Leopold (in
his introduction to the Cambridge Edition of _The Ego..._, 1995
& reprinted in 2000) express stunned disbelief at most of
what Stirner has to say about the nature of mind, world, and "property"
(as he defines it). However, from other philosophical perspectives
Stirner's conclusion that "the I" (or "the ego)
is nothing is less surprising; both this and the related tenet
that "the world is empty" have no similar Western precedent,
but recall to mind closely comparable sentiments from canonical
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). [Ibidem, 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. [Ibidem,
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
Significantly, Stirner describes this world-view, in brief, as
"enjoyment", and he frequently glosses the "nothingness"
of the non-self as "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). This ethic of self-liberation is a striking
contrast to the exhortations on duty, obedience, and public morality
common to Kant, Hegel, and even anti-establishment authors like
Marx who drew so much of their vocabulary from the former generation.
Without Authority, Compassion Without Obligation
Contrary to the common gloss on Stirner, this combined teaching
of "egoism" and the illusory nature of the ego is not
associated with a life of rapacious self-interest, but rather,
as the author states repeatedly, is part of a life of "love"
and "compassion" (for "every feeling being");
but this "consciously egoistic" love comes with the
important caveat that these feelings are without the "alienness"
of a religion, and are no longer social "duties", nor
"fixed notions", nor even "passions":
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]
Stirner's concept of "Ownership"
Turning to the introduction to the Cambridge edition of _The Ego
and its Own_ provided by David Leopold (Ibidem, pg. xxxi), we
find a badly flawed sketch of this important aspect of Stirner's
[W]hen Stirner talks of the egoist being 'owner' of the world
it seems simply to indicate the absence of obligations on the
egoist --a bleak and uncompromising vision that he captures in
an appropriately alimentary image:
the world comes in my way -- and it comes in my way everywhere
-- I consume it to the quiet hunger of my egoism. For me you are
nothing but -- my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to
use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness,
of utility, of use. We owe each other nothing. (p. 263)"
The supposedly "bleak and uncompromising vision" that
he alludes to on page 263 is in fact a description of a bird singing
in a tree for the sheer joy of creating its own song; the image
is not "bleak", but positively ebullient. Stirner's
words immediately preceding the quotation that Leopold has taken
out of context are as follows:
not only not [sic.] for your sake, not even for the truth's sake
either do I speak out what I think. No:
sing as the bird sings,
That on the bough alights;
The song that from me springs
Is pay that well requites.
I sing because -- I am a singer. But I use [gebrauche] you for
it because I -- need [brauche] ears. [Ibidem, 263]
Stirner's intended meaning for the word 'use' [gebrauche] in this
excerpt is established in the context of the metaphor of the singing
bird: the bird's song is reward enough for the act of singing,
but yet the performer has some 'use' for an audience. The very
next statement ("where the world comes in my way..."
etc.) broadens the meaning to encompass all sorts of creative
engagement with the world (i.e., Stirner's point is not limited
to birds or vocalists), and the paragraph ends with a re-affirmation
of the central point of the metaphor, namely, that the performer
has no obligation to the audience, but sings out of sheer joy
for the act of performing. Thus, it seems, the audience is encouraged
to get the same 'use' out of the performance, viz., mutual joy/enjoyment
without any obligations binding the two parties. By taking the
quote out of context, Leopold effectively imposes an unintended
meaning upon the verb "use" [gebrauche] as somehow implying
"instrumental treatment" (p. xxxi), but the specific
"use" that Stirner here describes is the enjoyment of
a listener for a song, or of a singer for the very act of singing.
This misuse of the source text is further demonstrated when we
consider Stirner's words immediately following the quotation selected
owe each other nothing, for what I seem to owe you I owe at most
to myself. If I show you a cheerful air in order to cheer you
likewise, then your cheerfulness is of consequence to me, and
my air serves my wish... [Ibidem]
Leopold abruptly ends his quotation with "We owe each other
nothing" (full stop, i.e., failing to provide an ellipsis
to indicate that he is breaking off Stirner in mid-sentence) the
original text reiterates that the subject being discussed is,
in fact, the imparting of cheerfulness (without any debt being
owed between the parties cheered up, i.e., because each cheers
the other for his own delight, as per the bird with its song).
role as author and the problem of "Pessimism"
There is a broad problem of interpretation in the assignation
of "pessimism" to Stirner's philosophy, despite its
frequently ebullient tone, and sometimes overtly optimistic imagery.
This extends to the important issue of Stirner's writing about
writing, viz., the role of the author (and "critic")
in self-liberation and effecting social change.
the foregoing section, readers were encouraged to decide for themselves
if Stirner's thesis is truly "a bleak and uncompromising
vision" as Leopold characterizes it in his introduction (op.
cit. supra). In that instance, the source text actually presents
a discussion of how people can spread joy to one-another (with
detachment, and no sense of mutual obligation), explained by way
of a rather impish and fey simile. What Leopold glosses as an
"alimentary image" is in fact a bird's "hunger"
for the sound of its own song in the act of cheering itself (and
abuses the same passage again (p. xxxi) when he attempts, in effect,
to have Stirner condemn his own writing by taking a quotation
out of context:
Stirner's own meiotic prediction has it: 'very few' of us will
'draw joy' (p. 263) from this picture. [Ibidem, xxxi]
this a fair representation of Stirner's opinion of his own work
as an author on page 263? No, it is not; on that page, Stirner
specifically describes himself as comparable to a singing bird
in imparting joy to others (as shown above) without having any
obligation toward his audience. His separate statement that 'very
few will draw joy from it' is put forth in direct contrast to
the Catholic Church's medieval policy of 'withholding the Bible
from the laity' so that the ignorant bliss of the masses would
not be troubled by its details. In the passage quoted by Leopold,
Stirner is asserting that his writing will trouble the bliss of
the ignorant, but (like the bird that is compelled to sing) he
feels he must "scatter" his thoughts even if they "deprive
you of your rest and sleep" (p. 263).
the passage quoted, Stirner is definitely not conceding that his
vision is so "bleak" that few can enjoy it; he is rather
making an argument (sustained throughout the book, e.g., p. 127,
132, 309-12) that the correct attitude of the intellectual (or
"critic") is to proceed with an open mind, and an open
heart, not with the intention of protecting his audience from
truths too terrible to tell. Specifically, in this passage, the
emphasis is on writing without any preconceptions (viz., including
such vague assumptions as what "the public good" might
be), and without any sense of obligation to nationality, religion,
or broader abstractions such as humanity, truth and justice. All
such obligations, Stirner argues, entail prejudice, even when
these obligations are represented as a kind of enthusiasm, passion,
or love (e.g., censorship "out of love for the Church",
"...for the Nation", etc.).
any such obligation may be portrayed as a form of love, Stirner's
assertion is that "because preconceived, it is a prejudice"
(p. 262). In terms closely comparable to the classical Skepticism
of Sextus Empiricus, Stirner directs us to examine the criterion
of truth that underlies our arguments as an unexamined proposition;
this "first presupposition" perverts true philosophy
(glossed as "discovery", and elsewhere as "self-discovery")
into mere dogmatism (p. 309). Stirner maintains that love, too,
can be subverted by "dogmatism", viz., sentiments that
philosophers have so much praised, such as the love for humanity
in general, and the love for truth, Stirner criticizes as "narrow"
feelings compared to the open-minded impulse of one who loves
from the free play of the passions (here posed as parallel to
the bird singing from pure joy):
do not limit myself to one feeling for men, but give free play
to all that I am capable of. [...] With this, I can keep myself
open to every impression without being torn away by one of them.
I can love, love with a full heart, and let the most consuming
glow of passion burn in my heart, without taking the beloved one
for anything else than the nourishment of my passion, on which
it ever refreshes itself anew. [Ibidem, p. 262]
this quotation we find again that the "alimentary" imagery
that Leopold complains of is far from "bleak"; it simply
posits the role of the beloved as "fueling" the passion
of lover (as akin to the audience "fueling" the passion
of the performer --Stirner describes both as reciprocal relationships
of "utility", and, thus, of "union").
may be complained that Stirner is using needlessly cerebral (and
unfamiliar) terms in describing the singer's impulse to perform
as "the quiet hunger of egoism", or in speaking of the
"nourishment" of passion. Nevertheless, it is intellectually
dishonest for Leopold to characterize "the absence of obligations
on the egoist" in negative terms by taking Stirner's psychologically
loaded vocabulary out of context, and suggesting to the reader
that the appearance of the word "use" means that Stirner
endorses the "instrumental treatment" (xxxi) of people,
or that Stirner is literally telling people they ought to regard
one-another as food (in the quote that Leopold has taken out of
context from page 263) when this is in fact an image employed
in an argument that people should spread joy to one-another without
any feelings of obligation, and moreover (in a separate but related
argument) that authors should write without dogmatic preconceptions.
Stirner's ethic is not revolutionary (he does not call for his
reader to rebel, as does Marx), nor is it one of enjoining a moral
duty or obligation upon the reader (as with Kant, Hegel, and so
many others), but he instead describes his own social and moral
role as comparable to a figure no more obscure to the Western
tradition than Jesus Christ:
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... [Ibidem p. 280-1]
Stirner specifies in a footnote (p. 280), he here uses the word
insurgent "in its etymological sense"; thus, "to
rise above" the religion and government of one's own times
by "straightening oneself up" is contrasted to the method
of the revolutionary who merely brings about a "change of
conditions" by displacing one government with another:
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. [Ibidem, p.
is hardly necessary reiterate that Stirner is using the language
of ethical philosophy to direct the reader to pursue his or her
own "upliftment" --both that they might liberate themselves
from their own "limits" (elsewhere given a more detailed
epistemological definition), and also that they might "rise
above" limiting social, political and ideological conditions,
and each walk their "own way". An attentive reader can
also gathered a working definition of Stirner's sense of the term
"egoistic" from the quotes provided above; the egoism
that Stirner endorses is quite simply setting aside any interest
in the social order to seek out one's own liberation --but, at
the same time, serving to benefit others by demonstrating "the
way and the means". The passages quoted above are clearly
incompatable with Leopold's conclusion (in his introduction to
the Cambridge edition) that Stirner "...saw humankind as
'fretted in dark superstition' but denied that he sought their
enlightenment and welfare" (Ibidem, p. xxxii). Although it
is technically true that Stirner refuses to describe himself as
directly liberating others, his stated purpose these quotations
is precisely to achieve the "enlightenment and welfare"
of others by way of demonstration --and "insurrection"
as he defines it.
of Christianity and/or/as Dogmatism
The passages quoted above seem to exhaust 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 --he has
nothing but scorn for Christianity as the basis of a new dogmatism
that was to ossify soon thereafter. His reason for "citing"
the cultural change sparked by Jesus, is (explicitly) 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 expressly
opposed to faith or belief in the broadest possible sense of the
term; 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 epistemology would repudiate,
but also a wide variety of European ideologies that are effectively
condemned as crypto-Christian for putting hypostatized ideas in
an equivalent, injuntive role:
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 brought other concepts on the carpet;
human instead of divine, political instead of ecclesiastical,
'scientific' instead of doctrinal, or, more generally, real concepts
and eternal laws instead of 'crude dogmas' and precepts. [Ibidem,
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 the former
brings coherence into his tenets, and take the coherence in turn
for the scale to estimate their worth by. p. 304
Stirner proposes is a radical alternative to dispense with dogmatism,
root and branch; it 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 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, with the conscious awareness
that our own desire is (in effect) the criterion of truth:
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)
are material, like vegetables and weeds; as to whether vegetable
or weed, the decision lies in me. (p. 313)
place of such systems of beliefs, Stirner presents a detached
life of non-dogmatic, open-minded engagement with the world "as
it is" (unmediated by such hypostatizations, unpolluted by
"presupposed truth" of any kind), coupled with the awareness
that there is no soul, no personal essence of any kind, but that
the individual's unqiueness consists precisely in its "creative
nothingness" prior to all concepts.
'Power' is of central importance for Stirner, and can best be
described as a form of mental creativity, represented as the key
to psychological and social possibility of radical change. Stirner
counterposes his notion of "power" to the liberal discourse
on social rights that was ongoing in his contemporaneous Europe:
polemic against privilege is a characteristic feature of liberalism,
which fumes against "privilege" because it [instead]
appeals to "right". But it cannot carry the matter any
further than this fuming; privileges do not fall before right,
because they are merely forms of right. Right falls apart into
nothingness when it is entwined with might, e.g., when one understands
what is meant by "might goes before right" [i.e., that
"right" is established by force]. [_The Ego and its
Own_, Cambrdige Edition, p. 229, translation amended by E.M.]
Stirner's sense power, also referred to as the acquisition of
'property', has a broad meaning, ranging from the smile of the
child, that acquires its mothers' love, over the sensual and material
pleasures and meanings of taking what one desires, to the wholesale
attribution of meaning, value and existence in language and life.
Power in this sense is synonymous with the dynamics of utter autonomy,
and the ability of change, of existence, of life itself.
Stirner's critique of Hegel shows a profound awareness of Hegel's
work, and, argued by scholars such as Karl Löwith and Lawrence
Stepelevich, suggests a vital influence of Hegel's thinking, in
Stirner's intellectual development and line of thinking -- even
if Stirner's mature philosophy may comprise a thorough repudiation
of Hegelianism, in form as well as content.
employs some of the most important elements of Hegelian structure
and many of Hegel's basic presuppositions to arrive at his conclusions.
Stepelevich argues, that while The Ego and his own evidently has
an "un-Hegelian structure and tone to the work as a whole",
as well as being fundamentally hostile to Hegel's conclusions
about the self and the world, this does not mean that Hegel and
Stirner are not related on the most intimate level.
main juncture leading from Hegel to Stirner is found [in The Phenomenology
of the Spirit] at the termination of a phenomenological passage
to absolute knowledge. Stirner's work is most clearly understood
when it is taken to be the answer to the question, 'what role
will consciousness play after it has traversed the series of shapes
known as 'untrue' knowledge and has attained to absolute knowledge?
Lawrence Stepelevich, 'Max Stirner as Hegelian, Journal of the
History of Ideas, v.15, pp. 597-614 (1985).
other words, to go beyond Hegel in true dialectical fashion is
to continue Hegel's project, and Stepelevich argues persuasively
that this effort of Stirner's is, in fact a completion of Hegel's
concludes his argument referring to Jean Hyppolite, who in summing
up the intention of the Phenomenology, stated : "The history
of the world is finished; all that is needed is for the specific
individual to rediscover it in himself."
as an Einziger took himself directly to be that 'specific individual'
and then went on as a Hegelian to propose the practical consequence
which would ultimately follow upon that theoretical rediscovery,
the free play of self-consciousness among the objects of its own
determination: "The idols exist through me; I need only refrain
from creating them anew, then they exist no longer: 'higher powers'
exist only through my exalting them and abasing myself.... My
intercourse with the world consists in my enjoying it, and so
consuming it for my self-enjoyment" (Ego, 319)
Lawrence Stepelevich, 'Max Stirner as Hegelian'
Question of Racism in Stirner's Oeuvre.
Opinions among scholars have been strongly divided as to how the
terms "racism" and "racialism" apply to Stirner's
oeuvre. Those who reject the accusation that Stirner was a racist
can point to Stirner's protacted (and consistent) opposition to
bigotry and nationalism of any kind, and his many passages attacking
the racism of Germans as narrow-minded "tribalism" and
"Teutonomania". However, for many modern readers, Stirner's
use of the (now odious) 19th century racial categories "Mongoloid"
and "Negro" constitute powerful prima facie evidence,
and may cause them to ignore his direct arguments against racist
central argument (or "method") on the question of racial
identity hinges on his assertion that ethnicity is an illusory
and invidious notion (variously exploited by nationalism, liberalism,
and the Church in his contemporary Germany) and that can be broken
by the uniqeness (and "nothingness") of the ego. With
the latter breaking of the illusion a free intercourse between
people of different ethnicities is supposed to ensue; this seems
to work from a cosmopolitan or "multi-cultural" assumption
wherein each distinct ethnicity or religion should "assert
[its] distinctness or peculiarity: you need not give way or renounce
yourself [viz., your ethnic identity]" (p. 185). This is
a striking contrast to the widespread presumption of the time
that ethnic minorities in Europe were obliged to assimilate or
else depart. Stirner excoriates the presumption that ethnic divisions
can be "dissolved" by the forced imposition of a nationalistic
identity, and similarly rejects the liberal claims that the issue
will disappear if only state power would provide "equal rights"
"equality of right" is a phantom ... people dream of
"all citizens of the state having to stand side by side,
with equal rights". As citizens of the state they are certainly
all equal for the state. But it will divide them, and advance
them or put them in the rear, according to its special ends, if
on no other account... People conceive of the significance of
the opposition [between ethnicities] too formally and weakly when
they want only to 'dissolve' it in order to make room for a third
thing that shall 'unite'. The opposition deserves rather to be
sharpened. [...] Our weakness consists not in this, that we are
in opposition to others, but in this, that we are not completely
so; that we are not entirely severed from them, that we still
seek a "Communion", a "Bond", that in communion
we have an ideal. One faith, one god, one idea, one hat, for all!
If all were brought under one hat, certainly no one would need
to take off his hat for another anymore. The last and most decided
opposition, that of unique against unique, is fundamentally beyond
what is called opposition, but without having sunk back into "unity"
and unison. As unique you no longer have anything in common with
the other, and therefore nothing divisive or hostile either; you
are not seeking to be in the right before a third party [viz.,
god, the state, etc.], and are standing with [others] neither
on "the basis of right" nor on any other common ground.
The opposition vanishes in complete severance or singleness. This
might be regarded as the new point in common, or as a new parity,
but here the parity consists precisely in the disparity, an eqality
of disparity, and [even] that [distinction arises] only for him
who poses the two in "comparison". [p. 184-186]
David Leopold has badly misinterpreted one of the most inflammatory
passages (dealing with race) in his introduction to the Cambridge
edition (op. cit. supra). The passage appears as a non-sequitor
("episodically", in Leopold's terms) from pg. 62-65,
and certainly does employ offensive racial terms, but, significantly,
these terms are employed to ridicule the (then mainstream) European
conceptions of their own history and ethnic heritage.
passage in question begins [p. 62-3] by claiming that the period
Western scholars commonly refer to as "European antiquity"
(viz., classical Greece and Rome) should instead be termed "the
Negroid age", viz., the period in which "Egypt and...
northern Afica in general" are culturally predominant over
Europe. Leopold's assessment seems to ignore the fact that this
passage is not intended to insult black people, but is rather
a pointed attempt to upset the (historically false, but still
prevalent) European assumptions that paint modern racial prejudices
onto ancient history, e.g., claiming that the Athenians, or even
the Egyptians, were in some sense "Europeans" or ethnically
"Caucasian", whereas the Hittites, and adjacent peoples
of Asia Minor, etc., are presumed to be "non-white"
enemies in this apocryphal racialization of bronze age history.
Against this miasma of racial prejudices, Stirner brashly asserts
that these ancient peoples were all "Negro", including
the (much mythified) Athenian Greeks and Romans. He briefly expands
on this to say that all of classical "Euroepan" philosophy
is in fact African in character, a clear attempt to lampoon the
historicist racialism of authors such as Hegel. His next assertion
is that currently (viz., in the 19th century) Europeans are ethnically
Mongoloid, not Caucasian: they follow a Mongolian religion, are
worshipping a Mongolian god, and have the same social ideals as
those of dynastic China. Thus, while European Christians imagine
themselves to be superior to Asian idolators, Stirner asserts
that Europeans have merely "wrestled for thousands of years
with [the same] spiritual beings" as the Chinese, and still
dream of going to "the Mongolian heaven, Tien", after
they die. [p. 64] As with the first phase of the argument, it
is clear that Stirner is not using these terms to insult Asians,
but is throwing the established (Eurocentric) preconceptions of
history back upon Europeans, and juding them to be (in their own
racist terms) merely "Mongoloid" in their beliefs. [p.
the passage is likely to be offensive to members of any religion
(or almost any ethnicity) it is also noteworthy that Stirner here
asserts that the dynastic empire of Confucian China is a more
advanced civilization than that of Europe, but, from his perspective,
this advancement is in precisely the wrong direction, viz., toward
hierarchy, patriarchy, and the repression of the individual by
obligation and law. For those who have studied Hegel's Philosophy
of History, Stirner seems to have included a direct inversion
of the Hegelian conception of freedom (based as it was upon a
racist historical dialectic, and the glorification of law and
obligation as the precondition of "freedom of the spirit"):
want to win freedom for the spirit is Mongolism; freedom of the
spirit is Mongolian freedom, freedom of feeling, moral freedom,
and so forth.
Stirner is here saying that what Germans imagine to be the "new"
philosophy of freedom (according to Hegel, a philosophy exclusive
to their race, and to their time) is really just a throwback to
an ancient and repressive notion that was already prevalent in
classical China (or "Mongoldom" as Stirner styles it).
it is no accident that the passage in question is extremely offensive;
most modern readers will likely feel insulted by it, or by the
(now antiquated) terms it employs. Stirner clearly lacked any
detailed understanding of classical Chinese civilization, and
simply employs a limited sketch of its repressive, hierarchical
elements as part of a reproach against European civilization in
his own times. The primary purpose of the passage seems to be
to upset the long-standing conceits of European pre-eminence,
and it does not establish a racialist historiography of its own.
What Leopold and other critics seem to have failed to understand
is that what Stirner dubbs climbing "the ladder of culture,
or civilization" [p. 64] is not a process that he seeks to
glorify (as Hegel and so many others did), but rather to repudiate;
thus, it is not inconsistent that Stirner identifies the culture
of Confucian China with greater advancement and yet, at the same
time, considers it abhorrent. In this passage "Civilization"
is glossed as the subordination of the individual and the world
to the rule of "the hierarchy of the spirit", viz.,
the inculcation of "habit, or second nature", and the
proliferation of "principles" and "laws" on
the basis of the enjoined obligations of man to "heaven".
[p. 64] Thus, only at the conclusion of the passage does Stirner
define what he means by the term "Mongolism", viz.,
"[the] utter absence of any rights of the sensuous, [it]
represents non-sensuousness and unnature...". [p. 65] In
some respects, this critique of civilization and culture (as such)
seems to anticipate much later thinkers such as John Zerzan.
Stirner's work did not go unnoticed among his colleagues, the
Young Hegelians. Stirner's attacks on ideology, in particular
Feuerbach's humanism, forced Feuerbach into print. Moses Hess
(at that time close to Marx) and Szeliga (an adherent of Bruno
Bauer) also replied to Stirner. Stirner answered the criticism
in a German periodical, in the article Stirner's Critics (org.
Recensenten Stirners, Sept 1845), which clarifies several points
of interest to readers of the book - especially in relation to
begin with, Engels was spontaneously enthusiastic about the book,
and expressed his opinions freely in a letter to Marx. Later,
Marx wrote a histrionic indictment of Stirner, co-authored with
Engels, spanning several hundred pages (in the original, unexpurgated
text) of his book The German Ideology (org. Die deutsche Ideologie).
The book was written in 1845 - 1846, but not published until 1932.
Marx's lengthy, ferocious polemic against Stirner has since been
considered an important turning point in Marx's intellectual development
from "idealism" to "materialism".
The German Ideology so assured The Ego and Its Own a place of
curious interest among Marxist readers, Marx's ridicule of Stirner
has played a significant role in the subsequent marginalization
of Stirner's work, in popular and academic discourse.
the course of the last hundred and fifty years, Stirner's thinking
has proved an intellectual challenge, reminiscent of the challenge
Cartesian criticism brought to western philosophy. His philosophy
has been characterized as disturbing, sometimes even considered
a direct threat to civilization; something that ought not even
be mentioned in polite company, and that should be, if encountered
by some unfortunate happenstance, examined as briefly as possible
and then best forgotten. Stirner's relentlessness in the service
of scuttling the most tenaciously held tenets of the Western mindset
yields a terrain which bears testimony to the radical threat he
posed; most writers who read and were influenced by Stirner failed
to make any references to him or The Ego and Its Own at all in
their writing. As the renowned art critic Herbert Read has observed,
Stirner's book has remained 'stuck in the gizzard' of Western
culture since it first appeared.
has been argued that Nietzsche did read Stirner's book, yet even
he did not mention Stirner anywhere in his work, his letters,
or his papers. Nietzsche's thinking sometimes resembles Stirner's
to such a degree that Eduard von Hartmann called him a plagiarist.
This seems too simple an explanation of what Nietzsche might have
done with Stirner's ideas. Stirner's book had been in oblivion
for half a century, and only after Nietzsche became well-known
in the 1890s did Stirner become more well-known, although only
as an awkward predecessor of Nietzsche. Thus Nietzsche - as with
Marx's concept of historical materialism in 1845/46 - did not
really plagiarize Stirner but instead "superseded" him
by creating a philosophy.
other authors, philosophers and artists have cited, quoted or
otherwise referred to Max Stirner. They include Albert Camus (In
The Rebel), Benjamin Tucker, Dora Marsden, Georg Brandes, Rudolf
Steiner, Robert Anton Wilson, Italian individualist anarchist
Frank Brand, the notorious antiartist Marcel Duchamp, several
writers of the situationist movement, and Max Ernst, who titled
a 1925 painting L'unique et sa propriété. The Italian
dictator Benito Mussolini read and was inspired by Stirner, and
made several references to him in his newspaper articles, prior
to rising to power. His later writings would uphold a view opposed
to Stirner, a trajectory mirrored by the composer Richard Wagner.
its appearance in 1844, The Ego and Its Own has seen periodic
revivals of popular, political and academic interest, based around
widely divergent translations and interpretations -- some psychological,
others political in their emphasis. Today, many ideas associated
with post-left anarchy criticism of ideology and uncompromising
individualism - are clearly related to Stirner's. He has also
been regarded as pioneering individualist feminism, since his
objection to any absolute concept also clearly counts gender roles
as 'spooks'. His ideas were also adopted by post-anarchism, with
Saul Newman largely in agreement with many of Stirner's criticisms
of classical anarchism, including his rejection of revolution
demolition of absolute concepts disturbs traditional concepts
of attribution of meaning to language and human existence, and
can be seen as pioneering a modern media theory which focuses
on dynamic conceptions of language and reality, in contrast to
reality as subject to any absolute definition. Jean Baudrillard's
critique of Marxism and development of a dynamic theory of media,
simulation and 'the real' employs some of the same elements Stirner
used in his Hegelian critique without, however, making recourse
to very much that lies at the heart of the plumb-line libertarian
core of Stirner's philosophy. Though many in the poststructuralist
camp have championed Stirner's thought, the core tenets of these
two entities are wholly incompatible; Stirner would never agree,
for example, with that fundamental poststructuralist idea, that
as a product of systems, the self is undermined. For Stirner,
the self cannot be a mere product of systems. There remains, in
the Stirnerian schema, as described in the above, a place deep
within the self which language and social systems cannot destroy.
This idea finds expression, perhaps, in a concept put forward
by the contemporary philosopher Julia Kristeva; the 'semiotic
chora', as she calls it, represents a state of mind which predates
the inculcation of the social apparatus in the mind of the young
Twenty years after the appearance of Stirner's book, the author
Friedrich Albert Lange wrote the following:
went so far in his notorious work, 'Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum'
(1845), as to reject all moral ideas. Everything that in any way,
whether it be external force, belief, or mere idea, places itself
above the individual and his caprice, Stirner rejects as a hateful
limitation of himself. What a pity that to this book -- the extremest
that we know anywhere -- a second positive part was not added.
It would have been easier than in the case of Schelling's philosophy;
for out of the unlimited Ego I can again beget every kind of Idealism
as my will and my idea. Stirner lays so much stress upon the will,
in fact, that it appears as the root force of human nature. It
may remind us of Schopenhauer
History of Materialism, ii. 256
great are great only because we are on our knees. Let us rise!"
truth wears longer than all the gods; for it is only in the truth's
service, and for love of it, that people have overthrown the gods
and at last God himself. "The truth" outlasts the downfall
of the world of gods, for it is the immortal soul of this transitory
world of gods; it is Deity itself."
what is sacred, people lose all sense of power and all confidence;
they occupy a powerless and humble attitude toward it. And yet
no thing is sacred of itself, but by my declaring it sacred, by
my declaration, my judgment, my bending the knee; in short, by
State calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime."