Philosophical Egoism: Introducing Stirner
The following article was published in an issue of Freedom
magazine, published in the UK ca the late 1960's. It is a fair
introduction to Max Stirner's major contribution to philosophical egoism.
A Proposal for Freedom
By Shirley F. Frederick
Out of the cauldron of revolution struggled a new age. Hesitantly,
falteringly, but with hope born of romanticism, men fought desperately to
retain a hold on the familiar ideas of the past or turned loose of the old
ideas to grasp for new patterns of thought. A staggering number of
separate, but intricately related ideologies grew and competed for support.
this ideological fervour that dominated nineteenth century European thought
produced anarchism, undoubtedly the most paradoxical of the
"isms." Around a core of commonalities clustered at least eight
identifiable varieties of anarchism by 1870. But anarchists, no matter
what their ilk, shared certain propositions. From these emerged the
paradox--complete individual freedom and a strong sense of social
responsibility. This meant that the anarchist's major concern remained
the age-old question of man in relation to his society. It did not mean
he gave the question an age-old answer.
To achieve individual freedom,
anarchists denied authority in any guise, which of course meant that they
criticized, unmercifully, the existing society. Depending on the character
of their anarchist espousal, they might actively undertake to destroy what
they condemned. But whether militant or pacifistic, their method was
always social rebellion. Such an attitude of "austere idealism"
or "apocalyptic passion" very often created saints and
assassins. But it must not be thought that anarchism can equated with
nihilism or terrorism. They are not necessarily synonymous. Anarchy is
not malign chaos as is so often the pedestrian interpretation. To view
Tolstoy, Thoreau, Kropotkin or Godwin as prophets of chaos is to make
Hegel the creator of Nazism. Needless to say, such an attitude, almost of
necessity, demands a belief in the natural goodness of man; and if not
natural goodness, at least the natural sociability of man and an
individualistic view of man's nature.
While the academician searches out this
relatively orderly definition, anarchism, by its very nature, denies such
neatness. Suffice it to say, anarchists rejected dogma in a deliberate
attempt to avoid the rigidity that a systematic statement imposes. The
anarchist believed in a freedom of choice--in a possession of one's
selfness and in the primacy of the individual's ability to judge the best
for that selfness. Anarchists were motivated by a consuming desire to
achieve the release of the total potential of men. This would be achieved
through the use of reason. Above all, anarchists were optimists.
When one understands this, the
stereotype impression of the anarchist as only the bearded, bomb-throwing
fanatic seems quite strange. George Woodcock suggested that people readily
accepted a derogatory image of anarchism because of their fear of its
doctrines, that "fear of freedom" enunciated by Erich Fromm.
Perhaps also one might attribute the general fear of anarchism to Freud's
idea of suppressed guilt coming from the desire to kill one's father--to
kill all authority, which of course the anarchist is intent on doing. No
matter what the merit of anarchism, by the very nature of its principles
it could not missionize. The role of the anarchist was to enlighten by
example, it was not to lead people. Certainly Max Stirner, who epitomized
individualist anarchism, never suggested any desire to :mount the
Max Stirner, the unassuming German
school teacher and one of the Berlin collection of Young Hegelians, helped
Godwin and Proudhon lay the theoretical foundations of anarchist thought.
The idea of the extreme importance of
the freedom of the individual in anarchist theory came from Stirner's
contribution. Stirner wrote The Ego and His Own as a direct
assault on those things in society which he felt prevented this freedom.
But the book is more than a polemic. It also details the nature of human
freedom and what must be done to attain it. The intent here, then, is to
describe how men arrived in bondage in the nineteenth century, how that
bondage could be broken, the character of a free individual, and finally to
suggest some areas that might reflect the continuing influence of Stirner's
The tyrannies which prevent the freedom
of men evolve out of Stirner's theory of history. While Stirner did not
agree with Hegel's conclusions about the nature of history, he used Hegel's
dialectic in drawing his own theory.
Stirner divided the history of men into
three major epochs--the Ancients, the Moderns and the new men. The
Ancients, in the "childhood" of human history, concerned
themselves with the natural world, with objects, with experience, with the
material. But in their efforts to understand this "world of things,
the order of the world , the world as a whole" they asked questions
which predicated the end of the very meaning they had achieved. The
Ancients asked what was the meaning behind their world and sought to break
free from the bound of things. They decided that only be becoming spirit,
could they hope to end their relationship with the world. In their search
for freedom from the material world--"to get back of the world and
above it"--the Ancients created the world of the spirit "and
this is the result of the gigantic work of the ancients; that man knows
himself as a being without relations and without a world, as spirit."
Only the Jews of the ancient people never accepted the spiritual world.
The Ancients sought to idealize the real and gave to the West the
"holy ghost"--Christianity--the second of the tyrannies.
With the advent of Christianity, man
entered into the "youth" of mankind, into the Modern Age. Things
spiritual, things of the mind, reason, abstractions, ideals, causes
dominated the concern of the Moderns. Men tried to get behind the ideal to
understand it. They attempted to make real, the ideal. Hence they
produced the absolute spirit in a material body--"and the Word became
From this point on, Christians tried
to spiritualize the whole material realm, a task completed by the
Reformation when men no longer needed the consecration of the sacraments of
the Catholic Church because they had succeeded in putting some of the
divine in all things.
Lutheranism...tries to bring spirit into all things as far as
possible, to recognize the holy spirit as essence in everything, and so to
hallow everything worldly....Hence it was that the Lutheran Hegel
was completely successful in carrying the idea through everything. In
everything there is reason, holy spirit, or "real is rational."
Hegel's philosophy became the great
culminating statement of the Moderns, of the spiritual age.
While men in past ages had tried,
Stirner thought that they had all failed to reconcile the opposite truths
of these two epochs in the history of men. In blending them, they
destroyed them. This dichotomy could only be resolved in a third stage,
the "manhood" of the human race, the epoch of the egoist. As the
spirit of the Modern had dissolved the real of the Ancients, so the
egotism of the new age must destroy the spiritual tyranny.
But who, then, will dissolve the spirit into its nothing? He who
by means of the spirit set forth nature as the null, finite,
transitory, he alone can bring down the spirit too to like nullity. I
can; each one among you can, who does his will as an absolute I; in a
word, the egoist can.
Stirner correlated his three ages of
men with the three races of men. Thus, "Negroidity represents
antiquity, the time of dependence on things...; Mongoloidity, the time of
dependence on thoughts, the Christian time," and finally that age
reserved for the future, the age of the Caucasians, the true age of
western man. In this age men will say "I am owner of the world of
things, and I am owner of the world of mind."
Here the question became, how to bring
men into this third age. As Stirner analyzed the situation, clearly two
things had to be accomplished before men could hope to achieve the
ownership of their own. They had to be cut free from the spiritual
servitude to Christian precepts before they could know the real self. In a
statement so typically Stirnerian, Stirner described this dismal state of
But to you the whole world is spiritualized, and has become an enigmatical
ghost; therefore do not wonder if you likewise find in yourself nothing
but a spook. Is not your body haunted by your spirit, and is not the
latter alone the true and real, the former only the "transitory,
naught" or a "semblance"? Are we not all ghosts, uncanny
beings that wait for "deliverance"--to wit, "spirits"?
This makes it plain that Stirner saw
the spirit as "something other than [himself]" and that until it
belonged to him, he would not be free. While some in the nineteenth
century thought that Feuerbach had at last destroyed this spiritual
domination over men, Stirner did not. Feuerbach had written:
The essence of man is man's supreme being; now by religion, to be sure,
the supreme being is called God and regarded as an
objective essence, but in truth it is only man's own essence; and therefore
the turning point of the world's history is that henceforth no longer
God, but man, is to appear to man as God.
To this Stirner retorted:
With the strength of despair Feuerbach clutches at the total
substance of Christianity, not to throw it away, no, to drag it to himself,
to draw it, the long-yearned-for, ever-distant, out of its heaven with a
last effort, and keep it by him forever. Is not that a clutch of the
uttermost despair, a clutch for life or death, and is it not at the same
time the Christian yearning and hungering for the other world?
If Feuerbach had not escaped from the
bonds he struggled against, Stirner seems to have broken with the old
The supreme being is indeed the essence of man but, just because it is his
essence and not he himself, it remains quite immaterial whether
we see it outside him and view it as "God," or find it in him
and call it "Essence of Man" or "Man." I am neither
God nor Man, neither the supreme essence nor my essence, and
therefore it is all one in the main whether I think of the essence as in
me or outside of me.
This statement is basic to an
understanding of Stirner's idea of freedom. The only meaning that Stirner
possesses is the meaning he gives to himself by his own power. This
statement also contains the second point that had to be resolved before the
epoch of the Ego could prevail. This Stirner called "wheels in the
head": "fixed ideas" which "subjected the man to
itself" as surely as though he were bound in chains. Morality, law,
justice, virtue, monogamy, filial piety, truth, light, all represented
fixed ideas whose "sacred" quality could not be questioned
without the sceptic running the risk of attack from "lunatic"
Yet as Stirner saw it, none of these
fixed ideas dominated nineteenth century thought like the "love of
Mankind," of "Humanity," of Man. In its various guises,
nothing threatened individual uniqueness more than the sacredness of
To Man belongs the lordship (the "power" or
dynamis); therefore no individual may be lord, but Man is the lord
of individuals;--Man's is the kingdom, the world, consequently the
individual is not to be proprietor, but Man, "all," command the
world as property--to Man is due renown, glorification or
"glory" (doxa) from all, for Man or humanity is the individual's
end, for which he labours, thinks, lives, and for whose glorification he
must become "man."
Closely related to this "humane
liberalism" were political and social liberalism which Stirner
considered to be as destructive as the humanitarian attitude. The first
glorified the State and the second, Society.
While political liberalism contained
many types, Stirner issued his sharpest and most persistent criticism
against the Hegelian State.
So then the separate interests and personalities had been scared away, and
sacrifice for the State had become the shibboleth. One must give up
himself, and live only for the State. Hereby the latter has
become the true person before whom the individual personality vanishes;
not I live, but it lives in me. Therefore, in comparison with the former
self-seeking, this was unselfishness and impersonality itself. Before this
god--State--all egoism vanished, and before it all were equal; they were
without any other distinction--men, nothing but men.
This subordination of men to a higher
concept occurred in social liberalism, only here the object became Society
instead of the State. Stirner's judgement of socialism/communism proved
acute enough to elicit a comprehensive rebuttal from Karl Marx in Die
Deutsche Ideologie published the year after Stirner's book. This
brief comment from Stirner points up well the reason for Marx's
But at the same time the labourer, in his consciousness that the essential
thing in him is "the Labourer," holds himself aloof from egoism
and subjects himself to the supremacy of a society of labourers....People
think again that society gives what we need, and we are under
obligations to it on that account, owe it everything. They are
still at the point of wanting to serve a "supreme giver of
Stirner made it patently clear that he
thought that socialism was nothing more than a "new Spook" which
"takes us into its service and allegiance!"
Albeit in polemical fashion, The
Ego and His Own caused no little stir among the intellectuals of
Europe. Little escaped Stirner's condemnation. His new age, the age of
the individual, demanded more than just reform in the existing value
structure; it called for a new way of thinking. The individual, in order
to be free, must refuse to be possessed by any of the fixed ideas, by
wheels in the head, by abstractions that have no real meaning to his
selfness. He must instead, possess. As in the history of man, so in the
history of the individual, he begins the accumulation of his own uniqueness
by conquering the material world. "When I had exalted myself to be
the owner of the world, egoism had won its first complete
victory, had vanquished the world, had become worldless, and put the
acquisitions of a long age under lock and key." This meant claiming
his material self as his own as well--an obvious denial of the Christian
doctrine of the corrupted flesh: "for it is only when a man hears his
flesh along with the rest of him that he hears himself wholly, and it is
only when he wholly hears himself that he is a hearing or
rational being." Thus one of the essential keys to freedom and to
individuality is the creation within oneself of a uniqueness that can only
be found by possessing one's whole self--body and soul, mind and heart.
Against all opposition the individual must demand and retain with his own
might the possession of himself. Nothing else matters unless the Ego
chooses to make it its own. So Stirner says:
I on my part start from a presupposition in presupposing myself;
but my presupposition does not struggle for its perfection like "Man
struggling for his perfection," but only serves me to enjoy it and
consume it. I consume my presupposition, and nothing else, and exist only
in consuming it. But that presupposition is therefore not a presupposition
at all: for, as I am the Unique, I know nothing of the duality of a
presupposing and a presupposed ego (an "incomplete" and a
"complete" ego or man); but this, that I consume my self, means
only that I am. I do not presuppose my self, because I am every moment
just positing or creating my self, and am I only by being not presupposed
but posited, and, again, posited only in the moment when I posit myself;
that is, I am creator and creature in one.
One might well ask if Stirner's
individualism reflected something out of the mainstream of European thought
at mid-nineteenth century. If Stirner condemned all the major ideologies
of the day as indeed he did, one is likely to summarily decide that he was
out-of-step with his day. Considerable evidence, however, supports the
idea that Stirner was rooted in a strong German tradition of individualism
going back at least to Luther. One historian has pointed out that most of
the great German art and thought has come from a "long endeavor of the
individual to fathom his own inner nature and the deeper significance of
his own existence." This sort of interior journey certainly is
evident in The Ego and His Own. In 1842, three years, before
Stirner published his book, the German liberal, Karl Brggeman
"contrasted the selfish individualism of political economists to a
'German infinite individualism based on an infinite individual
self-confidence to be personally free in morals and truth.'" Again,
this sort of thinking is not foreign to the ideas expressed by Stirner. To
these could be added many other statements which would locate Stirner
strongly in a German individualist tradition.
Perhaps this is part of the reason that
while most historians would agree with Albert Lvy that while Nietzsche
received no direct influence from Stirner, nevertheless the similarities in
thought and expression are indeed striking.
Soon that church will embrace the whole world, and you be driven out to
the extreme edge; another step, and the world of the sacred has
conquered: you sink into the abyss. Therefore take courage while it is
yet time, wander about no longer in the profane where now it is dry
feeding, dare the leap, and rush in through the gates into the sanctuary
itself. If you devour the sacred, you have made it your
own! Digest the sacramental wafer, and you are rid of it!
One might note also Stirner's
statement--"How can you believe that the God-man is dead before the
Man in him, besides the God, is dead?" The similarity to the famous
Nietzchean phrase demands consideration.
While it would take a particular study
to determine this point a parallel might be made between the motive power
in Stirner and the unconscious force in things which Darwin would later
discuss. Another influence that would be interesting to investigate
In 1843, after his second trip to
Berlin, Kierkegaard wrote Fear and Trembling; the following year a
curious line appeared in Stirner's The Ego and His Own--"but
if I am duty bound to reason, then I, like Abraham, must sacrifice my
dearest to it!" Had they talked in Berlin or had Stirner simply read
the book by the Dane? The latter seems unlikely which leaves one with the
tantalizing question--who stimulated whom?
While it might be expected too much
from Stirner's influence, there are similarities to be seen between
Stirner's discussion of freedom, "ownness" and "the
owner" and in the psychological ideas of Victor Frankl, Fromm and
even Freud. The terminology is different but note the Freudian sound of
the following passage.
This tearing apart of man into "natural impulse" and
"conscience" (inner populace and inner police) is what
constitutes the Protestant. The spy and eavesdropper,
"conscience," watches over every motion of the mind, and all
thought and action is for it a "matter of conscience," that is,
In a more general way one should
mention that Paul Avrich definitely maintained that Stirner and Nietzsche
played important roles in shaping Russian anarchist thought. Similarly,
Max Nomad suggested that Mussolini's reading of Stirner helped to influence
the character and direction taken by the dictator. This is of course one
of the difficulties of a strong individualist statement like Stirner's--it
can be corrupted into a tyranny of its own.
Finally, the individualist anarchist
tradition of rebellion clearly parallels existential alienation. Certainly
Albert Camus' definition of a rebel (in his book, The
Rebel) would be something Stirner would have understood. That is:
Rebellion is prompted by a spirit of affirmation, not negation. Is not to
destroy, but to preserve, in the face of external destructive forces, that
which the rebel feels is essential to his selfness. An anarchist cannot be
nihilistic because the whole mind-set is affirmative, as in the case of
Camus' rebel; not destruction absolutely.
Such postulations of influence are
interesting; but more often than not they must remain just that,
postulations. Suffice it to say; Max Stirner very interestingly reflected
much of the tension that dominated the 1840s in Europe. His prose is
powerful and seductive. He spoke to questions which plagued him in his own
day, but ones which have not lost their currency--witness the rebel, the
search for freedom, the search for selfness.