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Max Stirner versus Morality

Daniel J. Castellano


Part I: The Self versus Higher Causes
1. The Egoism of Higher Causes
2. The Stages of Life
3. Three Stages of History
4. Modern Man: From Christianity to Humanism
5. Critique of Ideals and Essences
6. Enslavement to Thought
7. Racial Metaphor of Historical Development
8. Political Liberalism
9. Social Liberalism
10. Critical Liberalism
11. Breaking Free of Thought: Egoism
Part II: Self-Ownership
12. “Ownness” versus Freedom
13. Stirner’s Ego Distinguished from Concepts
14. My Power as Source of “Right”
15. Society and Intercourse
16. Property and Labor
17. Love of Others
18. Truth-Telling
19. Society versus Ownness
20. False Ideal Societies
Part III: Self-Enjoyment
21. Self-Enjoyment as Consumption
22. Critique of Idealistic Self-Improvement
23. Self-Exertion as Force
24. Critique of Egalitarian Essentialism
25. Denial of Human Potential or Perfectibility
26. Cultural Idealism
27. Subjectivity of Thought
28. The Mastery and Use of Thought
29. Perfection of the Existing Ego
30. The Unique One

Part I: The Self versus Higher Causes

1. The Egoism of Higher Causes

Max Stirner (1806-1856) is a rarely studied and even more rarely appreciated Left Hegelian philosopher, known primarily through his 1845 book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum[1], often translated as “The Ego and Its/His Own.” Yet Stirner’s Einzige properly means “Only One” or “Unique One,” as distinct from simply “Ego” or ‘I.’ Stirner is so radically individualistic, that he will not even espouse “egoism” as a principle, for that is to make “ego” into a universal. Stirner’s subject is not Fichte’s “Ich” or “Ego” considered in a general sense. There are as many I’s or egos as there are people. Stirner is not articulating the rights of “the individual” in general, but is focusing on the ineffable, unique aspects of oneself. I am not a mere instantiation of the universal “Man,” nor am I exhaustively described as an instance of “Ego.” There is something about me that is unique and irreducible to any general quality or species. This is properly my person and most truly my own.

When Stirner speaks of the “Eigentum” of the “Only One,” he means a most intimately personal property. Something becomes “my own” or “my property” (Eigentum) by virtue of pertaining to that ineffable uniqueness that is me. It does not become mine if it is only my property by virtue of being human, or being an ego, for these are impersonal specifications. If I hold a piece of property only by virtue of being human or being a rational ego, then it does not really belong to me, but to “humanity” or “rationality” or “das Ich.”

We are asked to serve higher causes—God, humanity, truth, goodness, the nation, etc.—yet these causes only “serve themselves;” that is to say, they are ends in themselves, and are not devoted to the interest of any other. As such, these causes are not altruistic, but “egoistic.” Why should I serve some higher cause rather than my own interest? It will not do to say that altruism is preferable to egoism, for if that were so, these highest causes should themselves be altruistic, but they are not. The choice, then, is between serving my own egoism or the egoism of another, be it “the people,” “the nation,” “humanity,” or some other abstraction. Stirner rejects even “the good” and “truth” as imperatives.

Is it true that these higher causes really only serve themselves? God, for example, is said to work everything for His glory, but this not in an egoistic sense, for He is pure self-giving love or caritas. Stirner addresses this contention by noting that such love is not extrinsic to God, but identical with Him, according to Christian theologies:

You are shocked by this misunderstanding, and you instruct us that God’s cause is indeed the cause of truth and love, but that this cause cannot be called alien to him, because God is himself truth and love; you are shocked by the assumption that God could be like us poor worms in furthering an alien cause as his own. “Should God take up the cause of truth if he were not himself truth?” He cares only for his cause, but, because he is all in all, therefore all is his cause! But we, we are not all in all, and our cause is altogether little and contemptible; therefore we must “serve a higher cause.”—Now it is clear, God cares only for what is his, busies himself only with himself, thinks only of himself, and has only himself before his eyes; woe to all that is not well-pleasing to him! He serves no higher person, and satisfies only himself. His cause is—a purely egoistic cause. [Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, trans. Steven T. Byington (New York: Benj. R. Tucker, 1907), pp. 3-4.]

The theologian cannot imagine that God, like man, would serve a principle alien to himself, and so he regards truth, goodness, and love as intrinsic to the Deity. Thus even the Christian theologian, for all his praise of altruism, recognizes that egoism is necessary in the Highest Cause.

Although Stirner successfully argues that most theological conceptions of God are egoistic, Christians should not be scandalized, since there is nothing evil or vicious about this “egoism.” Indeed, Stirner’s point is precisely to destigmatize egoism, and any thoughtful ethics must allow that self-love is sometimes and in some respects licit and praiseworthy. Divine “egoism” is not vicious since (1) self-love is not intrinsically evil, but in many cases good; (2) God loves Himself not for the mere fact of being oneself, i.e., as ego, but because that ego is Good and Truth; (3) though He serves no higher person, He generously gives of Himself to creation.

Once we recognize the folly of regarding self-love as evil, there is no moral necessity that we should submit to a cause alien to our own. Indeed, in the case of humanist ideals, we find an especially abusive egoism of the collective.

How is it with mankind, whose cause we are to make our own? Is its cause that of another, and does mankind serve a higher cause? No, mankind looks only at itself, mankind will promote the interests of mankind only, mankind is its own cause. That it may develop, it causes nations and individuals to wear themselves out in its service, and, when they have accomplished what mankind needs, it throws them on the dung-heap of history in gratitude. Is not mankind's cause—a purely egoistic cause? [Ibid., p. 4.]

Secular humanism, in both its liberal and socialist forms, is a tyrannical master. While liberals and socialists disparage those who dare prefer their own interests to those of “humanity,” the collective or mob acts ruthlessly in its own self-interest. It recognizes no higher cause, and thus acts as a selfish deity. Individuals are expendable, and may even be slaughtered by the millions for the good of the abstract collective or nation. From the republican revolutions to the socialist revolutions, history has shown that innumerable blood sacrifices of individuals are accepted for the good of the collective. Indeed, the zeal for such sacrifice increases the more stridently the rights of the collective are asserted. The twentieth century proved Stirner’s critique of humanism more thoroughly than he could have imagined.

While modern history abounds with examples of the selfish tyranny of the collective, it is perhaps less obvious that more abstract ideals are similarly egoistic.

Do truth, freedom, humanity, justice, desire anything else than that you grow enthusiastic and serve them? [pp.4-5]

It is not immediately clear how truth and justice can be said to desire anything, but later Stirner will elaborate how we can become slaves of our ideas, by treating them as though they were something other than our own creatures. While it still seems an improper anthropomorphism to regard truth and justice as egoistic, these abstractions can effectively become tyrants with nothing above them, while demanding total submission.

Nationalism, ascendant in the nineteenth century, is another selfish ruler of men:

The patriots fall in bloody battle or in the fight with hunger and want; what does the nation care for that? Joy the manure of their corpses the nation comes to “its bloom!” The individuals have died “for the great cause of the nation,” and the nation sends some words of thanks after them and—has the profit of it. I call that a paying kind of egoism. [p.5.]

If an individual lord praised the memory of those underlings who sacrificed themselves for his benefit, we should not hesitate to see this as self-serving. Yet this is exactly what a nation does when it celebrates its martyrs. The nation is no less egoistic than a despot.

But only look at that Sultan who cares so lovingly for his people. Is he not pure unselfishness itself, and does he not hourly sacrifice himself for his people? Oh, yes, for “his people.” Just try it; show yourself not as his, but as your own; for breaking away from his egoism you will take a trip to jail. The Sultan has set his cause on nothing but himself; he is to himself all in all, he is to himself the only one, and tolerates nobody who would dare not to be one of “his people.” [p.5.]

Here being “all in all”—that is, having all choiceworthy causes contained in oneself—is equated with being “the only one” (der einzige). This condition constitutes Stirner’s notion of egoism.

And will you not learn by these brilliant examples that the egoist gets on best? I for my part take a lesson from them, and propose, instead of further unselfishly serving those great egoists, rather to be the egoist myself. [p.5.]

Every “higher cause” regards itself as “all in all”—that is, as having no subordination to anything alien to it. The “higher cause” looks within itself to find what is noble or choiceworthy. Since this egoism is a principle found in all higher causes, then, when choosing a higher cause, we are choosing among egoisms. If we must serve some selfish despot, let it at least be oneself.

It might seem sophistical to argue that every higher cause has regard only for itself—as one might almost expect by definition—and that therefore all moralities are egoisms. After all, it is hardly cogent to regard abstract moral principles as selfish or having any sort of preference. Further, even if every morality is an “egoism” in some sense, it hardly follows that one master is just as good as another. We do not follow a master such as “justice” or “liberty” simply because they are masters or egos (assuming this were possible), but because of specific qualities of these masters that we find admirable. It is not necessarily irrational to prefer the egoism of another over my own.

God and mankind have concerned themselves for nothing, for nothing but themselves. Let me then likewise concern myself for myself, who am equally with God the nothing of all others, who am my all, who am the only one. [p.5.]

Higher causes, according to Stirner, concern themselves with nothing that is not themselves. (This is not true of the God of Christianity, but Stirner, as an atheist, recognizes God only as a formal essence or idea, not a personal reality that loves.) To render the German more literally, they have no affair or concern (Sache) other than themselves. Stirner is not anthropomorphizing abstract moral principles, but pointing out that these principles have no normative content directed toward anything alien or extrinsic to themselves. (Again, this is almost a necessity when dealing with abstractions.) Similarly, Stirner will not follow any principle that is alien to himself. By “himself” is meant not an instantiation of “Man” or even of “Ego,” but what is radically personal and unique in him.

The unique individual, no less than God, is radically Other, the negation or complement of all others who exist. Yet on what basis does Stirner claim that he is the all in all?

If God, if mankind, as you affirm, have substance enough in themselves to be all in all to themselves, then I feel that I shall still less lack that, and that I shall have no complaint to make of my “emptiness.” I am nothing in the sense of emptiness, but I am the creative nothing, the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything. [p.6.]

We will later see that Stirner thoroughly denies any real existence to spirits and universals, calling them “spooks.” If these phantasms are substantial enough to be all in all, then surely the concrete individual may make such a claim. The unique self is “empty” of content. Any attempt to define this self must leave us mute. Yet we may be assured of the unique one's real existence despite our inability to put a finger on him, since his existence is proved by his creative activity, in thoughts and deeds.

The same argument which Stirner advances in favor of the unique one might also be used to validate belief in universals and spirits, including God. Although we cannot observe these things directly, we may infer their existence from their creative activity. This is not a criticism of Stirner’s ethics, but of the metaphysical materialism he takes for granted.

Away, then, with every concern that is not altogether my concern! You think at least the “good cause” must be my concern? What’s good, what’s bad? Why, I myself am my concern, and I am neither good nor bad. Neither has meaning for me. [p.6]

Since Stirner identifies the self as that which is radically unique in him, it is impossible for the self to be good or bad. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are universal concepts, but the self is that which cannot be categorized under any universal. We might call it haeccitas (“thisness”) or unicity (“oneness”), if we can excuse the contradiction of terming the unique (“this,” “one”) as though it were a universal (“-ness”).

If the self, as Stirner insists, is “all in all,” then it has no necessary concern with anything other than itself. Thus it has no concern with universals, concepts or species as such. It may be concerned with these only incidentally, insofar as their use may facilitate the pursuit of selfish interests.

The divine is God’s concern; the human, man’s. My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., but solely what is mine, and it is not a general one, but is—unique, as I am unique.

Nothing is more to me than myself! (Mir geht nichts über Mich!) [p.6.]

My concern is only what pertains to me, that is, to what is radically unique in me. I do not care about any universals such as truth, justice, and freedom, except insofar as they pertain to me. My concern or interest cannot be expressed as a general principle, not even egoism—which is why Stirner is a genuine nihilist—but it is as unique as me. That which is most truly mine or pertaining to me is myself, for I alone exemplify the uniqueness necessary to truly pertain to me, the unique one.

This radical anti-universalism or anti-conceptualism is at the heart of Stirner’s thought. If we lose sight of it for a moment, we run the risk of reducing him to just another egoist, such as have existed throughout history.

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2. The Stages of Life

In his introduction, Stirner remarked that the self creates itself out of nothing, and so has a claim to be a divine “all in all.” To substantiate this assertion, he gives an account of how an individual develops himself. This discussion will also serve as a model of historical human development, in which many men analogously free themselves from enslavement to what is alien to their self-interest.

From the moment when he catches sight of the light of the world a man seeks to find out himself and get hold of himself out of its confusion... But everything that comes in contact with the child defends itself in turn against his attacks, and asserts its own persistence. [p.9.]

Stirner is not claiming that newborns are self-conscious, but that they are self-assertive. The “selfishness” of infants is well attested; they are concerned only with their immediately perceived wants, and have little perception of what is remote from these wants. They react according to whether their wants are satisfied or frustrated. They soon learn that there are many other things in the world that assert themselves against selfish wants.

Accordingly, because each thing cares for itself and at the same time comes into constant collision with other things, the combat of self-assertion is unavoidable.

Victory or defeat—between the two alternatives the fate of the combat wavers. The victor becomes the lord, the vanquished one the subject: the former exercises supremacy and “rights of supremacy,” the latter fulfils in awe and deference the “duties of a subject.” [p.9]

We may see here a prefiguring of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and master-slave morality. Stirner does not explore these notions in the same depth as Nietzsche, though he does affirm an essential antagonism of interests between master and slave, or “the victor” and “the vanquished.”

But both remain enemies, and always lie in wait: they watch for each other’s weaknesses—children for those of their parents and parents for those of their children (e.g. their fear); either the stick conquers the man, or the man conquers the stick. [p.9.]

The antagonism between child and parents is resolved either by the parents breaking the will of the child, so he adopts the role of the slave, preferring the desires of his parents over his own, or else the child remains defiantly selfish, no matter how severely he is punished. The issue is not external obedience, but whether the child’s sense of self will remain autonomous or become subordinated to an external criterion.

…when, e.g., we have got at the fact that the rod is too weak against our obduracy, then we no longer fear it, “have outgrown it.” [p.10.]

The rod cannot be used for the moral instruction of older children, not because it no longer hurts or cannot compel physical obedience, but because it can no longer command moral assent in the strongly developed mind. When a boy is convinced he is not in the wrong, the rod will not persuade him otherwise. At most, it may persuade him to hide his machinations from his parents.

Before that which formerly inspired in us fear and deference we no longer retreat shyly, but take courage.… And the more we feel ourselves, the smaller appears that which before seemed invincible. And what is our trickery, shrewdness, courage, obduracy? What else but—mind (Geist)!

Stirner will repeatedly exploit the multiple meanings of Geist—mind, spirit, ghost—to argue that these are all spooks which should frighten the ignorant, but not the developed man. He does not thereby deny that mind or spirit has a positive role to play in man’s development. It is by mind that we are able to free ourselves from fear of punishment, as we are no longer slaves to sensations, and so the might of the rod and the parent’s stern look are demystified.

It will be a long time before it occurs to the boy to fight against reason. In fact, he generally does not trouble himself about reason. “We care nothing at all about it, do not meddle with it, admit no reason. We are not to be persuaded to anything by conviction, and are deaf to good arguments, principles, etc.; on the other hand, coaxing, punishment, and the like are hard for us to resist.” [pp. 10-11.]

Later in life, however, the youth will learn to intellectualize his perception of self and the world. That is, he develops an understanding of what is behind things. He no longer regards his parents, or indeed any men, as powers to be simply recognized unthinkingly. There must be reasons for authority, and so his deference is to these reasons or ideas.

These reasons can become a new kind of mystical authority or spook, as they seem to have laws of their own, and can oppose our will. This restraint is imposed through conscience, which tells us our selfish desires are unreasonable or immoral. Even if we do not fear punishments in this life or the next, we are effectively restrained by fear of the chastisement of conscience. (So much for the greater courage of the “moral atheist!”)

In this state, we obey our thoughts—i.e., our principles—just as slavishly as we once obeyed our parents. We are only capable of such obedience when we are capable of pure or absolute thought; i.e., thought that is not bound to a thing; abstract or logical thought.

Discovery of pure thought or spirit delights the youth, as it enables him to rise above the world. This accounts for the oft-observed idealism of youth. He obeys God, or whatever other ideal, rather than men.

The adult, according to Stirner, does not try to conform the world to his ideals as the youth does, but takes it as is, and pursues his self-interest. The adult learns to fall in love with his bodily self, unlike the youth willing to die for ideals. The mature man is more “selfish,” more “practical.”

Stirner’s characterization of the adult or mature man resembles what Aristotle ascribes to old age or senescence. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he notes that “old age and every disability is thought to make men mean” (i.e., stingy) [trans. Terence Irwin (Hackett, 1985) IV, 1], and that the elderly seek friendships of utility, “for at that age people pursue not the pleasant but the useful.” [VIII, 2] Cicero similarly warns the elderly to resist the tendency to return to the weakness and sensuality of childhood by energetic mental activity. [De Officiis, I, 123]

Should we hold that the parsimony or self-interest often found among older people is a sign of maturity or decadence? Stirner holds the former; Aristotle and Cicero the latter. In order to make his case, Stirner will have to do more than merely describe how people generally behave in different stages of life. Some men remain idealists throughout their adult life, and may even become more so toward the end. (Think of Wagner’s late adoption of the ascetic ideal expressed in Parsifal, much to Nietzsche’s chagrin.) Others may despair of transforming or transcending the world, and content themselves in their last years by clutching every coin and limiting their horizon to purely practical or pecuniary matters.

This brings us to a broader problem with Stirner’s approach. Although he is strenuously asserting the rights or interests of what is radically individual in a man, he describes this egoism by making generalizations about people. If he is to avoid self-contradiction, he must not invoke these generalizations as proving anything about self-interest, but only as a model or parable describing his perspective of the matter. This way, it is not necessary for his generalizations to be accurate descriptions of most people, nor for them to be normative. Indeed, the very notion of proposing a general norm is antithetical to Stirner’s program.

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3. Three Stages of History

Notwithstanding the above remarks, it appears that Stirner presented his account of the ages of man in earnest, for he next proceeds to describe human history analogously.[2] The ancients, like children, were realists. Modern Christians are idealists, like youth, while men of the future will be egoists, like adults.

For the ancients, the world of nature and blood kinship was the highest value, and they accepted it as unquestioningly as a Christian accepts the mystery of the divine word. This observation was already made by Feuerbach, but Stirner adds that the ancients also tried to subvert or get behind supposed natural truths.

In particular, he praises the Sophists, who used the mind as a weapon against the world. The Sophists lived by their wits to attain the most pleasant life, rather than accepting natural or customary norms. They used the mind as an instrument for getting behind traditional ethics, yet without elevating the mind to the status of a new master or conscience. They cultivated the understanding, but not the heart, which was still free to pursue its most voracious appetites unhindered. Thus, for all their superior understanding, the Sophists remained enslaved to the world through their sensual desires.

Socrates perceived that the heart as well as the mind must be purified. It is not enough to have understanding, but that understanding must also be directed to a worthy cause. Stirner considers this purification of heart to be a further liberation of the mind, freeing it from worldly desires. What is this purification? According to Stirner, just as the Sophist mind had elevated its own interests over the interests of others (i.e., what is “natural” or customary), so does the Socratic heart disdain all worldly things, so that even family and country are given up for the sake of the heart’s own blessedness.

“Daily experience confirms the truth that the understanding may have renounced a thing many years before the heart has ceased to beat for it.” [p.21.] While the Sophists had made themselves masters over “the dominant, ancient powers” in their understanding, it remained to drive these powers out of the heart. Socrates began this war, which would last until the end of the classical age.

The final purgation of the heart was achieved by the Skeptics, who “threw all contents out of the heart and let it no longer beat for anything.” [p.22.] This purgation, stripping man of all bonds to the world even in his desires, effectively detaches man from the corporeal world. He now sees himself as spirit, i.e., as pure thought, a development that would facilitate the reception of Christianity.

The spiritual man concerns himself with the spiritual rather than seeking to be a “master of things.” The Christians were able to arrive at pure spirituality, unlike the Jews, who were yet unwilling to say that worldly things are valueless. Stirner’s characterization of religious Jews as “unspiritual” may seem strange, but he makes this distinction on account of the doctrine of justification by faith without works. Raised by Lutheran parents, Stirner must have been deeply impressed with the importance of this doctrine.

Still, even if we acknowledge the greater antiquity of the Catholic teaching that works are a necessary perfection of faith, this does not abolish Stirner’s present point. In either confession, it is not works as such that justify, but the faith which they express. The Christian derives his value from the spiritual, not the worldly. Whatever good may be found in the world derives from the spiritual end to which it may be directed. The good Christian will never set his heart toward worldly things as such, while such a total purgation of the heart is alien to Jewish thinking. To the Jew, the spiritual is certainly higher than the worldly, yet the worldly still has value in itself that is not derived from any higher aim. It is perfectly licit and good to pursue wealth for its own sake, marriage for its own sake, and so forth, as long as this is in conformity with divine law. Thus the Jewish heart is only imperfectly spiritual at best, for there is still much room for worldly desires to coexist.

In practice, of course, few Christians have really attained the pure spirituality they profess, but the mere existence of a purely spiritual ideal is itself historically and psychologically significant. It makes possible the basis of an ethics that is completely independent of the criteria of worldly desires. Thus Christianity constitutes an important development in the liberation of the human mind. This fact is so decisively demonstrated by history that it is admitted, even loudly professed, by some of the religion’s severest critics, including Stirner and Nietzsche.

Still, Stirner believes that something was lost in the transition from worldly man to spiritual man. The spiritual life, nourished only by thoughts rather than the natural world of things, “is no longer ‘life,’ but—thinking.” [p.26] The ancients, by contrast, sought enjoyment of life, which was to be found in health, beauty, riches, friends, and above all, good cheer.

It is not clear that these characterizations are altogether accurate. Stirner, like other critics of Christian asceticism, seems to have lost sight of the fact that Christianity is an incarnational religion, insisting on a God who is immanent in the corporeal world, which will partake of divine union no less than the soul. Although there have been many perversions of Christianity, such as Gnosticism, Origenism, Messalianism, and Catharism, where spirituality entailed a rejection of external acts or even of the body, the mainstream traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy have presented the contemplative and active lives as complementary, and emphasize the corporeality of the Church of Christ.

Conversely, the ancients were far from unspiritual people, and many of their external practices were expressions of belief in a world filled with spirits. The “nature” and “kin” that they revered were not merely things, but had divine aspects. Even the Greek term for the worldly “good life,” eudaimonia, literally means, “good daemons.” Further, the Sophists were the exception rather than the rule among the ancients, as most believed that the “good life” ought to be circumscribed by moral norms. Thus Simonides lists among life’s blessings “riches acquired without guile.” Even the hedonistic philosophers, from Aristippus to Epicurus, sought to show how their systems were compatible with upright behavior.

Still, Stirner makes the valid point that, no matter how much they sought to rid themselves of the world, the ancients were essentially sensual men, as they conceived all happiness in sensual terms, living calmly, without fear or excitement. Thus he astutely observes that the Stoics and Epicureans effectively taught the same practical philosophy, differing only in method. The Stoics teach that man must assert himself against the world, attaining “imperturbability and equanimity of life.” The Epicureans similarly seek freedom from fear, which they call hedone, though they teach us to oppose the world by deceit rather than impassivity.

Stirner’s characterization of the Stoics is flawed, for he thinks they had no physics or cosmology. In fact, the Greek Stoics had a well-developed cosmology, and this integrated with their ethics in such a way that men were exhorted to follow nature, not oppose it. Still, we may note Nietzsche’s critique that the Stoics defined “nature” to match their ethical preconceptions, and in fact opposed nature as it really is.

The Skeptics break our relation to the world, regarding this relation as “worthless and truthless,” in the words of Timon. Likewise, Pyrrho says the world is neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly. [p.28.] In other words, value is not something inherent in the world, but comes from our thoughts about the world.

This paves the way for Christianity, which draws its values from outside the world, in the realm of spirit. The “natural bonds” of community and family, no less than the pursuit of sensual pleasures, are all regarded as “burdensome hindrances which diminish my spiritual freedom.” [p.29]

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4. Modern Man: From Christianity to Humanism

Under Christianity, the spirit assumed the role of master once held by the world. Dogmatic truths and values reigned over Christian Europe, until these were subverted by a process similar to what had occurred in the ancient world.

In the century before the Reformation, just as the Sophists had intellectually undermined customary morality, so too did Christians assert a freedom of the intellect from religious dogmas, while retaining Christian mores. As Stirner puts it, “If only the heart remains Christian-minded, the understanding may go right on taking its pleasure.” [p.30.]

Here Stirner seems to have in mind the Italian courtiers and Machiavellian princes who, while keeping the form of Christian mores, nonetheless rationalized utterly un-Christian systems of thought and practice. There was no thought of ridding oneself of Christianity, but only of freeing one’s mind from dogmatic norms. Luther’s disputations were but the most recent in a long line of daringly bold subversions of orthodoxy.

Stirner’s account of Renaissance humanism requires some qualification. It is hardly the case that all, or even most, of the prominent humanists were trying to subvert orthodoxy. Many, most notably Petrarch, were actually trying to protect the ancient faith against perceived scholastic distortions, much as the Greek Orthodox were suspicious of any philosophical theology that had no analogue in the Fathers. There was no intent to diminish the supremacy of spiritual truths, and faith, in most cases, was sincere and devout. It would be anachronistic to make Christian humanism a step toward secularism, for in fact it moved away from the latter, as did Protestantism.

Stirner, like most nineteenth-century intellectuals, is committed to a deterministic model of history, proceeding in phases of development, as it was already believed that such mechanistic determinism was the standard of science. We should not be surprised that he and other Left Hegelians espoused an evolutionary historical materialism well before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). After all, Darwin’s formulation of evolutionary theory was itself informed by culturally prevalent ideas about human development.

Stirner gives the Reformation the role of Socrates, purifying the heart of Christian contents, until it has “nothing but empty warm-heartedness… the quite general love of men, the love of Man, the consciousness of freedom….” [p.31.] Committed to historical materialism, Stirner presumes that the appearance of Christian liberalism was a necessary consequence of the Reformation. In fact, it was far from the Reformers’ intent to diminish the Christian content of their hearts. As Hitler astutely remarked in Mein Kampf, the Reformation was a disaster for the Church precisely because it took hold of many of her strongest and most devout members, as contrasted with the Austrian Kulturkampf, which took only the lukewarm. [ch.3.] The Age of Reformation was marked by an increase in religious fervor, which continued into the early seventeenth century.

It is true that later developments toward Christian deism and secular liberalism were facilitated by the Protestants’ lack of a coherent authority principle, resulting in further theological fractures and the assertion of state independence from the Church. This does not, however, mean that the Reformation as such began a determinate process of de-Christianizing Europe. Similar developments arose in Catholic countries among men who had little exposure to Protestant ideas and writings.

Still, we may retain Stirner”s general point by taking late 17th/ early 18th-century liberal Christianity as our starting point. Here we truly find men who retained Christian mores, while lacking religious fervor or any strong belief in the supernatural. It is at this time that we find the first attempts to reduce Christianity to the mere love of men, or the principle of reciprocity, i.e., the “Golden Rule,” which had previously been considered only a minor saying of Jesus.

It is also at this time that many thinkers take interest in the “rights of man” and a more cosmopolitan view of ethics and politics. Stirner accuses those with this disinterested warm-heartedness of loving “Man” in the abstract, but not actual men. Like some more traditional Christians, this newer breed loves only the “spirit” of man, but not a man in his concrete individuality, which he rejects with all “egoism,” privilege or partiality.

We may see many examples of this hypocrisy in our own day. There are countless liberals who profess their love of “mankind,” yet do not hesitate to vilify “bigots,” “fanatics,” “the greedy,” and other broadly defined bogeymen who, all tallied, constitute the vast majority of actually existing people. What then, is left of this “mankind” supposedly loved? It is clear that, in such cases, the object of affection is primarily an abstraction, and individuals are loved only to the extent that they conform to the abstraction.

The coldness of the “warm-hearted” liberal Christian toward individual men proves to Stirner “that the spirit is—a lie,” [p.32.] for those who love the spirit love nothing actual.

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5. Critique of Ideals and Essences

The hypocrisy of “love of mankind” is what motivates Stirner’s extended critique of essences and abstractions. He wishes to reassert the ethical primacy of the person as such, not of “a person,” but of this unique person. If we are truly to say that John loves Mary, it is not because Mary is a human, or because she is beautiful, or virtuous, for this would be to love the abstractions of “humanity,” “beauty,” or “virtue.” Rather, he loves Mary as Mary, in all her concrete individuality. Such a love cannot be dependent on Mary’s conformity with some higher criterion, for then Mary the person would not properly be the object of love.

Stirner is principally concerned with justifying the love of self rather than love of another, since only the former is widely condemned and in need of apology, and also because he wishes to establish self-love as the basis of all voluntary action, including the love of others.

“Egoist” (Egoisten) is not a name that Stirner chooses for himself, but is an epithet applied by modern liberals, Christian or secular, to those who pursue their own interests rather than subordinating themselves to some idea. Stirner defends “egoism” not because it most aptly characterizes his position, but to show the weakness of any ethics that elevates an abstract ideal over a person. It is only by first deconstructing universalist ethics that he can approach description of his radically individualist position.

The so-called “egoist” effectively rejects the idea that spirit is the loftier part of man, separable from his body. One’s real self-interest, according to Stirner, is not in idea or spirit, but in unified body-mind. While Stirner is not properly a materialist in his psychology, he does see the realm of spirit or thought as something that is merely the effect of our bodily activity. In our mental activity no less than our muscular activity, we self-create: just as singing makes you a singer, so does the act of thinking make you a thinker or spirit. Yet you are not on that account essentially or fundamentally a thinker or spirit. You are much more than this.

In his rejection of spirit, and indeed of all essences, Stirner is making strong metaphysical claims that he cannot hope to establish by making purely ethical arguments. Even if it could be proved that all idealists are hypocrites, it would not follow that spirits and ideals are nothing. We should reserve judgment on the latter claims to a rigorous metaphysical discussion. As far as ethics is concerned, we need only consider whether ideals and spirit are relevant and choiceworthy with respect to human decision making.

Stirner finds the locus of the self to be in both mind and body, so any ethics grounded in self-interest must take account of the body. For this reason, he says that those who are zealots against the non-spiritual oppose themselves. Here Stirner rejects not only overtly religious notions of the spirit, but also the idealist philosophy (found in Schopenhauer and Feuerbach) that human essence should be set above the individual. According to Stirner, this is just taking the myth of God or spirit and putting it within ourselves.

At first glance, it might not be clear why Stirner elides from discussion of spirit to essence. After all, an essence can be defined to include the corporeal aspects of being. Yet Stirner has a staunchly nominalist metaphysics, so to him any essence is necessarily a ghost or spook. The only real, concrete, tangible thing is the individual. For the first time, a philosopher is willing to take the ethical implications of this metaphysical doctrine to their logical conclusion. If there is no universal “humanity,” there can be no “human ethics” or general norms for behavior.

The nineteenth-century idealists, following Kant to varying degrees, would have the individual formulate ethical principles that he would will to be universal laws of rational agents. Stirner astutely calls this “involuntary egoism,” as the modern idealist really serves himself, while pretending he is serving a higher essence. Any principles that an individual formulates really come from himself, but the idealist sets these principles above himself as a master, treating them as part of a “higher essence” other than oneself. All liberal pretensions about “humanity,” “human feeling,” and the like are really expressions of one’s own feelings, preferences and inclinations. It is only because the modern liberal retains traditional prejudice against egoism that he feels the need to construct a higher principle or nature out of his own thoughts and desires. Thus he is an “involuntary egoist.”

The idealist’s error of mistaking one’s own thoughts for a “higher essence,” according to Stirner, results from a failure to recognize that each man is his own creator, surpassing and creating himself anew in each moment. This notion of self-creation and self-surpassing prefigures Nietzsche, who made it central to his philosophy. For Stirner, this insight is necessary to explain how man can become more than himself without becoming other than himself, or drawing upon anything transcendent.

Stirner’s notion of self-creation and self-surpassing avoids contradiction only by adopting Hegelian metaphysics, which accounts for change by collapsing the mutual exclusion of identity and non-identity. A criticism of this position is best reserved for a properly metaphysical work.

As a Left Hegelian, Stirner accepts only the dialectical aspects of Hegelianism, while rejecting its idealism in favor of materialism. In his rejection of idealism, Stirner is much more thorough and consistent than his peers, especially the communists, who would become especially fond of constructing new ideological norms.

For Stirner, the search for essences inverts reality and unreality. Instead of accepting the things we observe as reality, the essence-seeker looks for a “thing-in-itself”—really an “un-thing”—behind that which we observe and experience. Thus the world of phenomena—the only world we ever actually experience and interact with—is reduced to mere semblance. Yet our experience of concrete objects is what gives us our very notion of a “thing,” while the immaterial essence, which cannot be seen or touched, neither acts nor is acted upon, is utterly unlike what any sensible person would call a “thing.” Reality and unreality, thingness and nothingness, have been inverted.

Not only does Stirner deny that there are essential realities underlying material objects, but he also rejects any essentialism of thought, which is more pertinent to his ethical treatise. He denies there is a such a thing as “truth” in the sense of an essence or essences behind our thoughts. Stirner appears to be saying that, when I think something, all that exists is my subjectively experienced thought. If someone else thinks something similar in content, we are not both accessing the same “truth,” as though there were some Platonic realm of ideas—true-in-themselves—that our minds can access.

By rejecting truth in this idealistic sense, one can claim one’s thoughts as fully one’s own. They do not draw upon or interact with some realm of ideals or universals. A thought belongs entirely to an individual as his most personal property, not something held in common with others.

Stirner’s position does not entail rejecting all notions of truth. One can still sensibly maintain a correspondence theory of truth, at least regarding descriptions of physical phenomena. All of our thoughts and words about physical reality, of course, are at best imperfect representations of reality, so there is only truth in an equivocal sense. As Nietzsche would put it more boldly, our concepts are falsifications of reality, but they are practically necessary falsehoods (e.g., our mathematical simplification of physics) that enable us to interact with reality. This would lead Nietzsche to question whether truth should even be considered desirable; rather, we ought to prefer falsehood in many circumstances. This willingness to challenge truth as the last ideal (held even by atheists) is already found in seminal form in Stirner.

Following his rejection of all essences and ideals as so many superstitions, Stirner logically concludes that the vast majority of humans are madmen enslaved to their delusions. They “only seem to go about free because the madhouse in which they walk takes in so broad a space.” [p.55.] The limits of this apparent freedom can be seen when you challenge the moral tenets of modern man. The bourgeois liberal will attack you no less forcefully than the religious fanatic when his axioms are questioned. We may see this even today with the vindictive ressentiment of “political correctness,” which acts as a new Puritanism and tartuffery of words and deeds, forging chains that even atheists fear to break. There is freedom of thought only within unchallengeable presuppositions.

Stirner recognized this hypocrisy over 150 years ago, and noted how atheists were no less fanatical than theists in promoting their unbelief. The atheist, no less than the theist, is a slave of his ideas, and he too constructs moral obligations out of them. In many cases, for all his vaunted irreligion, he uncritically retains moral principles from Christianity. “Much as he rages against the pious Christians, he himself has nevertheless as thoroughly remained a Christian,—to wit, a moral Christian.” [p.58.] Accordingly, Stirner tweaks atheists for clinging to taboos against incest and polygamy.

Secular liberals often profess pride in their claim that they can be morally good without needing to resort to religious rationales. Stirner has turned this source of pride into a brand of slavery. The secular liberal boasts that he still wears his chains though his master is presumed dead. He still lacks the courage to make himself his own criterion, as he is conditioned to regard “selfishness” as “unethical.”

To be fair, in the last half century, secular liberals have partly come to terms with the nihilistic implications of religious unbelief and the abandonment of teleological metaphysics. This realization has largely been confined to sexual hedonism, however, and even here only imperfectly. The twenty-first century liberal, “enlightened” enough to embrace the legalization of “same-sex marriage,” still finds it salutary to keep incest and bigamy illegal. Yet we will find no hint of this laissez faire attitude in matters economic. Here we will find a bewildering complex of statutes and bureaucracies with their “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” of petty morality. The scrupulosity here exceeds that of a late medieval confessional. The liberal of today, no less than that of Stirner’s time, is still the slave of his moral ideas, which arbitrarily grow or shrink in number. Even when modern men throw off a moral norm, this must be rationalized in terms of some ideal concept, such as “equality,” which is attributed to the universal “Man.”

Accordingly, Stirner’s critique of bourgeois civic morality is no less pertinent today. “Man” the universal has taken the place of the Supreme Being, but this is a mere change of masters, for “Man” is no less ethereal than God, the Good, or any other ideal. As long as morality is grounded in an abstract universal, the “moral man” will not be able to comprehend the egoist, who is necessarily categorized as “immoral” since morality is defined in terms of conformity to a universal.

Here, Stirner’s “egoist” is not merely someone who pursues his own pleasure without regard for others, but someone who refuses to evaluate himself and his actions according to any universal ideal. Conversely, the “unselfish” are not so by virtue of helping others, though this is their conceit. In helping others, they are really pursuing an end they have chosen, so this is not properly unselfish. True unselfishness occurs when we no longer choose our end, but this becomes a fixed idea that is our master. In other words, when we formulate as an ideal that “We must help others when we can,” making this a fixed principle that binds the conscience, then we have become “unselfish” in Stirner’s negative sense. We have denied and renounced ourselves, becoming slaves to an immaterial idea or spook. We are “possessed” (to use Stirner’s term) by these ideals, maxims or principles. This logically leads to an annihilation of our freedom to do what we will, best expressed by Luther’s famous profession, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise,” which likely impressed itself on Stirner in his youth.

Instead of being “possessed” by ideas, Stirner’s egoist will be the owner, not only of his thoughts, but of all that he does and touches. This emphasis on making oneself the owner rather than the owned is the central theme of the book’s latter parts.

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6. Enslavement to Thought

Christianity helped man become an owner by delivering us from the life determined by nature or our appetites. We may still have appetites, but no longer let them own us. Stirner contends that, by the same logic, we must liberate ourselves from mind or thought. The same thoughts (spirit, the good, God, Man) that help free us from the domination of our appetites can become new masters, in the form of fixed rules or principles. [pp.80-81.]

This notion that a mind of universal concepts and principles is enslaving presumes that such thoughts are extrinsic to the self. Just as the Christian ascetic sees in carnal appetites a “law of the flesh” acting against the interests of his true self, so Stirner finds fixed ideas and principles of behavior to be foreign masters. He takes pains to distinguish between thoughts or feelings that are merely “aroused” in us by external things and those which are “imparted” or given to us. [pp.82-83.] The latter are those concepts which are drilled into us from childhood—his examples: “God, immortality, freedom, humanity, etc.”—so that we accept them uncritically, or elaborate them in systems of thought or works of art.

Stirner is attacking culturally received ideas that demand acceptance as truths. He recognizes that all ideas come from without, and has no objection to that. He would have such ideas come as proposals or incitements to thought, and then we, through our own initiative, shape and mold our thoughts as we see fit. What he objects to is any idea or principle that imposes upon us any duty or obligation, forcing us to exert our genius in order to defend it or build elaborate systems around it.

Naturally, Stirner regards the ideas of Christianity and other religions to be such “childish trifles” upon which we squander our powers. Yet he also takes aim at modern ideas about “freedom” and “humanity,” for these too are imparted to us, and demand that we accept them and exert our mental energies to defend them. Thus the secular liberal, no less than the Christian, is enslaved to his thoughts.

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7. Racial Metaphor of Historical Development

These three phases—enslavement to things, enslavement to thoughts, and total ownership—reflect the trajectory of world history, where man struggles to shed his weaker nature. Stirner describes this development in racial terms, more for illustration than out of any rigid commitment to any racial history. Such discussion may make modern readers squeamish, but if we are going to question the very foundation of objective morality and universal truths, it hardly makes sense to insist on the dogma of racial equality.

Recognizing that the shaping of world history has been generally dominated by the Caucasian race, Stirner uses the Caucasian as his model of the man who works to rid himself of his more primitive nature. First, he must work off his “innate negroidity,” which represents the man of antiquity, who was enslaved to things of the natural world. This slavery is embodied in the innumerable superstitions found among sub-Saharan peoples. Stirner is not asserting the existence of rigid racial types, for in fact he is speaking of “negroidity” within Caucasians, recognizing the common descent of races.

The second phase, enslavement to thoughts, is called “mongoloidity,” on account of the Chinese reverence for tradition and fixity in culture. This is the Christian era, which continues even today, and is no less applicable to secular liberals. All the supposedly radical changes and reforms of the modern era are, in Stirner’s eyes, merely “jugglers’ tricks,” for nothing essential has changed, as we are still enslaved to “eternal” ideas and precepts.

The Caucasian’s struggle to free himself from “mongoloidity” may be seen historically in “the invasions of the Huns and Mongols, up to the Russians.” This last note is a bit prophetic, as the Russians, of course, through their adoption of Communism, would become the most strident promoters of collectivist, “Mongolian” ideology, enslaving men to Man.

As long as men remain enslaved to their thoughts, the third phase must be reserved to the future, when one can say, “I am owner of the world of things, and I am owner of the world of mind.” [p.86.]

By establishing habits, customs or mores, men create a world of permanence with eternal precepts. While he inhabits this heavenly world, “man secures himself against the obtrusiveness of things,” so he is not ruled by things, “and the combat against the world has found an end,—in which, therefore, nothing is any longer denied him.” Living by habits elaborated into cultural norms, as the traditional Chinese have done, guarantees that we can remain in this serene heavenly state of rest. Thanks to our precepts, we already know how we are to behave in any circumstance, and are not vulnerable to any contingency.

The Caucasians have not been content to accept this heavenly life, but wish to get to the bottom of things. Their activity is “heaven-storming,” challenging received customs in order to replace them with something better. Yet Stirner regards this activity to be “tainted with Mongolism,” insofar as it merely replaces one heaven or set of ideals with another. His problem with heaven-building is that it isolates man from the world. He would rather have man secure his independence from things without isolating himself, and without creating a new dependency on things of the spirit. “Man has not really vanquished Shamanism and its spooks till he possesses the strength to lay aside not only the belief in ghosts or in spirits, but also the belief in the spirit.” [p.91.]

How can one deny that there is a spiritual, non-sensual world or aspect to the world? Stirner’s answer is that this can only be done by one “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.” [p.92.]

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8. Political Liberalism

Stirner discusses at length how even the most “modern” liberals and socialists are not at all distinct from the “Mongolian” or Christian stage of human development. They are thoroughly enslaved to ideas and abstractions, and even their notion of “freedom” is but one more chain binding men to “Man.”

Equality of political rights really means that the state has no regard for my person. I have value only as an instance of the universal “man,” not in my person, that is, in my radical uniqueness. Indeed, it is a boast of liberal justice that the law should have no regard for persons. Our uniqueness is relegated to our private lives, while in public life we can act only as instantiations of the mass of “humanity;” the individual is suppressed. All our political rights come from the State, acting on behalf of Man. [p.128]

By observing how equality of rights is antithetical to valuing individuality, Stirner points to a central contradiction of liberalism. While claiming to uphold individual rights, the liberal really strips individuals as such of all political power, restricting their action to the private sphere (business and other “civil society”). As a political entity, each man is just a number at the polls, with no special privilege on account of individual ability or accomplishment. Politically, he is a herd animal, with no distinctions in status, and sheer numbers being the determination of power. Nietzsche would elaborate a much more detailed critique of equality of rights, noting at one point that denial of special claims and privileges “means ultimately opposition to EVERY right, for when all are equal, no one needs ‘rights’ any longer.” [Beyond Good and Evil, 202] That is to say, no individual or subjective rights are needed any more. The only “rights” pertain to Man, not men. Only the Communists were daring enough to take this logic to its extreme, attempting to abolish every sort of individual claim to property or any other right. The tyranny of the Communist states is only a more overt expression of liberalism’s submersion of the individual into an egalitarian herd.

After the revolutions, Stirner notes, the third estate made itself the State, abolishing all distinctions of class and persons. “Let all be alike! No separate interest is to be pursued longer, but the general interest of all!” This devotion to the “general will” manifested in the State was especially characteristic of French liberalism, less so in England and America. Yet even in other liberal nations, there is a strong sense that one should sacrifice oneself for the good of the nation, where the “nation” is a herd with no distinctions in status. All are “free and equal” servants of the nation or State, which is the proxy of the third estate (i.e., “the people”).

“The bourgeoisie is the aristocracy of DESERT.” [p.136.] In contrast with the supposedly lazy nobility, the bourgeoisie justifies its status (in civil society and business) by its industry or service, even if it is only serving mammon. Stirner considers that this philosophy of serving the nation to deserve one’s status effectively means that one must serve the spirit of the State (i.e., “the people”) in order to be free to pursue one’s desires, which is nonsense. Yet the bourgeois world is filled with those who, like Goethe and Hegel, glorify service to a general cause as the highest expression of freedom.

Liberalism avoids nihilism by constraining or limiting freedom by the “thought of humanity.” This is often called “reason,” though it is more sentimental than logical. If we circumscribe our actions by selfless consideration of the desires of others, we are said to be acting in accordance with “reason,” per liberal and deist philosophy. This is not really reason, but a sort of sympathy or pity. In any case, this “reason” involves the subordination of the individual to its rule. For all their supposed irreligion, even the most secular liberals are zealots for “reason” so conceived.

Contrary to liberal promises of freedom, Stirner finds that political liberty is not freedom from the state, but rather the individual's subjection to the state and its laws. It is called “liberty” only because there are no intermediaries between the individual and the state, just as Protestantism removed intermediate authorities between the individual and God. The freedom that the liberal offers is freedom from these intermediate authorities, which is accomplished by vesting all public authority in the State. We see a kinship here with Hobbes’ Leviathan, before which every individual and private society is equally powerless.

The liberal does not object to having a ruler, but only to arbitrary rule depending on someone’s personal will. Upon perceiving a man who claims to rule as a person (rather than as an office-holder), the liberal “shrieks about ‘arbitrariness’.” [p.141] He will not submit to orders from a person, but only to the rule of law. Liberal freedoms are only freedom from personal willfulness. In the citizen-State, a “free people” are compelled to do thousands of things. Stirner’s observations are no less true in our time, where liberal “freedom” is circumscribed by millions of statutes. In our highly regulated, formalized, bureaucratized life, backed by the coercive power of police forces and armies, a thoughtful man can only regard liberal “freedom” as a farce. We are only free from the personal will of our neighbor, who has been rendered as impotent as us before the impersonal will embodied in our laws and regulations.

Accordingly, Stirner is right to say that the Revolution was not against the established as such, but only against the particular establishment in question. Every liberal democratic state expects the obedience formerly enjoyed by kings and aristocrats. It rationalizes its right to obedience by its supposed expression of the popular will, yet the “will of the people” is an impersonal will, and is deemed worthy of obedience precisely because it is not the personal will of any individual or private group. If we follow Stirner in his denial of universals, “the people” are just a ghost or abstraction, not a real creature capable of willing. Following the “will of the people” really means not following anyone’s will. It is acting without willing; a self-abnegation. We have expropriated our right of judgment to a set of impersonal laws and principles, which we then follow mechanically. It is in this slavery to that which cannot think that we are supposed to find the basis of our freedom.

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9. Social Liberalism

“Social liberalism” (i.e., communism, ownership by society) holds that “no one must have,” just as in political liberalism, “no one must give orders.” [p.153.] It aims to disenfranchise persons as such, just as political liberalism has done with political power. Social liberalism completes the program of equality by doing away with personal property, making all property impersonal or common. Thus we are all equal nullities before the ruler.

Through political and social liberalism, command and property are robbed from the “personal” in the name of “humanity.” [p.155.] Once again, the rights of real persons are sacrificed to the rights of an abstraction, be it called “humanity,” “the people,” “the nation,” or “society.”

Stirner’s criticism of so-called “social liberalism” was a prophetic description of the tyranny of Communist states, which effectively annihilated personal rights in the name of the good of the collective. If Western liberal republics seem free by comparison, it is only because they have left a wide domain for personal rights in the economic sphere. If we restrict our view to political rights, however, we may see that the liberal republics have done to personal political power what the Communists did to personal property. Thus Stirner is right to think of them as different stages of the same program of equality, usurping personal rights and accustoming us to hatred of those who claim personal rights.

Just as people in liberal republics have been trained to hate anyone who claims a right to command by his personal will, so do the socialists (and liberals with socialist leanings) hate those with great wealth. They express this hatred by claiming that it is unfair that some should be fortunate enough to be in a position of economic superiority. (This is an extension of the bourgeois claim that the aristocrats did not earn their right to rule by industry.) The socialist hatred of the “unfortunate” toward the “fortunate” is more properly, Stirner says, a hatred toward “fortune” as such.

No one, according to the socialist, should be able to acquire wealth by his forcefulness or cleverness, that is, by exertions of his personal will. A man is entitled to wealth only by virtue of his labor, which has more or less the same value for every man. If the socialist follows his egalitarian logic ruthlessly, he will even say that the stronger, more able, or more talented worker does not deserve greater reward, since he did not earn the greater ability with which he was born. (We already see this denial of merit among Western liberals, and in the philosophy of John Rawls.) This perfect communism denies all value to that which is properly personal, acknowledging only the impersonal value of labor. Communism does not value the person as such, but only as an instance of the generic “laboring man.”

In all forms of liberalism, “Man” is to be made master over the egoist. Personal rights must give way to the impersonal. In political liberalism, we are told it is wrong for a person to prefer his own interest or will over the will of “the people” or “the nation.” In political matters, he is trained to enslave his own real will to the imagined will of “the people” or some other abstraction that is incapable of willing. In this self-abnegation, he is to prefer the interests of an abstract Other to his own interests. What is more, this is considered the highest and noblest use of freedom! Logically, the only way to complete this program is to make all action disinterested, for the egoist always acts out of interest, and only “Man” is disinterested.

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10. Critical Liberalism

Stirner has already summarized how the socialists extend the liberal program of depersonalization to the economic sphere, and now he observes that even opinion must be abolished or made impersonal. Here he attacks so-called “freethinkers” or “critics,” such as Bruno Bauer’s school, who suppose that they are above the masses. Such thinkers take pride not so much in the personal quality of their thought, but in the impersonal or objective nature of their epistemology or rules of inquiry. A thought is valued precisely to the degree that it is impersonal and not a merely subjective opinion, so that any other person following the same rules and assumptions could come to the same belief.

The freethinkers and critics take pride in their rejection of received opinions or dogmas, yet anti-dogmatism is itself a dogma, and an ethical dogma at that. The anti-dogmatists accept the value judgments that criticism is “good” and dogmatism is “bad.” We find in their discourses a fanatical zealotry for epistemological purity, and a strange belief that this purity gives them a sort of ethical superiority. Stirner points out their central ethical thesis: Criticism subjects all thoughts to its criteria, allowing none to egoistically establish itself. Anti-egoism is at the heart of “critical” thinking. All that is personal and subjective must be expunged, while only the impersonal is accepted for a thought to be established.

While freethinkers like to think of themselves as individualistic and independent, since they do not enslave themselves to dogmas (i.e., the opinions of others), they effectively alienate their power of thinking to a common set of basic assumptions and rules of argument. Any person with a certain level of competence can follow these rules and generate similar thoughts. There is no properly personal genius to any “critical” thinking, if all that is valued is what can be established “objectively.” The freethinker is utterly expendable as a person; if he should die, someone else can follow the rules of criticism and discover the same theses. Given the impersonal nature of critical thinking, we should not be surprised that “skeptics” and “freethinkers” are so uniform in their basic opinions, even in their arguments. They are so predictable, one can usually guess in advance what their opinion will be on a given topic, if one is familiar with the current set of generally accepted axioms.

Rejecting the mechanization of thinking, either by subordination to received dogmas or to rules of criticism, Stirner is neither a dogmatist nor a critic, for “I am not a thought,” and he is not to be ruled by thoughts. That is to say, he is not going to enslave himself to concepts and abstract rules which are but the products of his volitional thinking. This would be a sort of fetishism or idolatry.

Stirner, unlike critical liberals, does not propose that we should break up received dogmatic systems by a systematic use of reasoning. This would be to break up thoughts by thinking, which will not free man from his millennia-long slavery to thoughts. “It is not thinking, but my thoughtlessness, I the unthinkable, incomprehensible, that frees me from possession.” [p.196.] The locus of freedom is in the unthinkable “I,” who am irreducible to any general concept or rule of thought. Any attempt to find freedom in systematic thinking only replaces one dogmatism with another. The thought, idea, concept, or principle claims supremacy over the person.

Accordingly, Stirner sees the liberal’s espousal of a free press and aversion to censorship as motivated by anti-egoism. This notion that the dissemination of ideas and arguments must not be restricted by any personal authority elevates thoughts over persons. To claim no one has the right to suppress ideas is to deny that a person has a right to power over “thought” in the abstract, the latter being sacrosanct. “But thinking and its thoughts are not sacred to me, and I defend my skin against them as against other things.” [pp.197-98.] Stirner will defend his own interests against any supposed right to free expression.

One might object that the right to free expression is conceived by most liberals as a personal right. Yet, as with all other rights, the “right to free speech” or expression is treated by liberals as a common or generic right, irrespective of any personal quality. We have it by virtue of common humanity, not as a personal prerogative, whether our ideas are wise or foolish. In his attack on critical liberalism, Stirner is addressing those who would ground this right in some abstract right to truth, or in the supposed right of free academic inquiry. Such thinkers seek to elevate themselves above the socialistic mob, and propose higher critical standards as the basis of free expression. Yet Stirner has shown that these standards are themselves a reification of thought, so that the critical liberal, no less than the common sort, remains a slave of abstract concepts and principles.

Critical liberalism, like political and social liberalism, only replaces one slavery with another. Political liberalism would free men from the personal rule of aristocrats only by making the impersonal State master of all. Social liberalism would replace personal possession with the common property of “society,” so that we pursue the interests of “society” rather than our own. The critical liberal uses systematic skepticism to dismantle all traditional belief systems, yet he would enslave us to “Man” in place of God. In all our thinking, we should prefer the good of “Man,” and even our mode of thinking should follow generic rules accessible to us as instances of “Man.”

In all of these exchanges of one master from another, liberalism accomplishes a depersonalization. Political liberalism would have us ruled by laws instead of men, as if there were something shameful about authority having a personal aspect. Social liberalism would have us follow the impersonal good of “society” rather than allow that each should follow his own interest, as if there were something shameful about a man preferring his own prosperity to that of an impersonal Other. (The Other is always impersonal, as the liberal prefers the impersonal largesse of the state over private charity, which is irregular and unequal, and worst of all, depends on the personal will of donors.) Lastly, critical liberalism tends toward atheism, the most impersonal of religions. The religious man, at least, can speak of “my God,” but the abstract master of atheists, be it called “Man” or “Reason,” belongs to no person. The very act of belief is depersonalized, as it is considered shameful to believe something solely out of subjective preference or personal loyalty, rather than as a result of an impersonal, mechanistic thought process.

We should not be surprised that the critical liberals (or “skeptics,” or “freethinkers”) are frequently the most soulless, bloodless, and gutless of liberals, having managed to depersonalize even their inner life. Indeed, the critical liberal thinks it a virtue that he does not follow his own subjective or arbitrary desires in choosing beliefs, as he prefers abstract rules and concepts to his own interests. He desires only knowledge of things, that which is objective and impersonal. He claims knowledge of man only to the extent that man is a thing, something susceptible to analysis under general principles. The radically individual, indescribable person escapes such analysis, and so must be ignored or denied. The liberal has no use for his personal self anyway, having renounced all his desires in favor of the interests of the spooks of his mind.

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11. Breaking Free of Thought: Egoism

It is not through thought, but by the ineffable ego that one may break free of thought. The egoist does not free himself from thought only to enslave himself to some external thing (as does the superstitious pagan or the sensual hedonist), but he pursues the real interest of the self, which is autonomy, and “its own.” That is to say, the self’s real interest is to belong to oneself, to be one’s own master, and not to be the slave of another person, nor of an idea, appetite or thing.

Stirner’s egoist rejects morality in the sense of fixed rules of behavior. Although he rejects moral obligation, he nonetheless may value things as good or bad. Things are “good” insofar as they enhance “ownness;” “bad” insofar as they detract from it. Some commentators consider that these definitions of good and bad suffice to distinguish Stirner’s views from ethical nihilism. Yet these notions of “good” and “bad” are purely equivocal with any ethical concept. Stirner expressly denies that there is any moral obligation (i.e., “ought” or “ought not”) to which he is bound. His ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are mere synonyms for autonomy and its negation. Yet Stirnerian autonomy is not nomological, as he denies that we should even create principles or rules of behavior for ourselves to follow. Indeed, by his thorough repudiation of principles and concepts as guidelines for behavior, Stirner certainly intends to express as nihilistic an ethical view as the limitations of language will permit. If the term ‘nihilist’ has ever had a referent, it was surely Max Stirner.

As evidence that he is in earnest, Stirner expressly repudiates even those minimal principles to which modern iconoclasts cling, namely truth and love. We have no duty or obligation to “truth.” I may lie or break promises when I judge this to be in my interest. I may love another person as long as “love makes me happy;” when it no longer gratifies me, I have no duty to love. All other values are subordinate to my interest.

In contrast with social utilitarians, Stirner does not hold that any basic honesty or affection among people is necessary in order to maintain relations with others. We may relate to others strictly through relations of selfish utility, without regard for the “good of the many” or any principle of reciprocity. We tell the truth only when it is in our benefit to do so, not because of any duty toward truth-telling. We love only insofar as it makes us happy, not because of any duty to love our fellow man.

Stirner frankly acknowledges that his egoists use others for their own benefit and nourishment. I “own” other people in the sense that I use them for my good. Since Stirner’s “good” is nothing other than self-ownership, and is not subordinate to “pleasure,” “truth” or any other extrinsic value, there are no moral constraints on how I may make use of other people.

Once it is completely accepted that there are no moral obligations of any sort, there can be no taboos or absolutely forbidden acts. Stirner allows even incest and murder, so thorough is his practical nihilism. One might decline to commit such acts in order to avoid repercussions from others, but there is no absolute imperative to refrain from any class of acts. There are no general rules of behavior; we may murder today though we abstained from murder yesterday, if we judge that this time there is some advantage to ourselves that outweighs any harm we might receive in response.

This denial that there are any rules of behavior, even self-imposed rules, entails a rejection of any notion that we ought to be governed by our thoughts. Our thoughts, no less than our actions and material possessions, are our property. We control them instead of them ruling us. We do not need to appeal to any thought, concept or principle to justify our beliefs, actions, or anything else we will. “In the kingdom of thought… every one is assuredly wrong who uses unthinking force…” [p.198] What the critical liberal finds shameful, namely unthinking force, the Stirnerian egoist accepts without scruple.

Those who advocate “freedom of thought” against government coercion want there to be no egoistic exertions imposing themselves against the rule of thought. Critical liberalism, no less than political and social liberalism, is hostile to any properly personal power or privilege. Yet this advocacy of thought over egoism is purely formal, since in reality thought is impotent against egoistic or personal power. In practice, everything must be resolved by a fight of egoists, that is, between the egoists who prefer that everyone obey their favored ideas or principles, and the pure egoists who nakedly advocate their own interests without seeking any justification in thought.

No amount of criticism or metacriticism can escape the tyranny of thought, since criticism is itself only the “priest of thinking.” Even those who critically examine the axioms and epistemology of criticism do not leave the realm of thought. “Criticism criticizing criticism,” as Stirner says, is really just clearing up inconsistencies. It is not really challenging the presuppositions of criticism, such as the notion that we ought to be critical, that we should know the truth about things, that we should be governed by thought, and that thought should follow rules.

Stirner’s only presupposition is “myself.” It is not something toward which he struggles for perfection. “I consume my presupposition, and nothing else, and exist only in consuming it.” [p.199] It is not really a presupposition at all, for there is only the I who am, not one ego who presupposes and another ego that is presupposed. That would be to make a distinction between the imperfect or uncompleted and the perfect or completed self. The Ego is not something we need to work upon or improve, nor do we need to try to “be ourselves,” as if we could be anything other than ourselves. The ego is nothing other than oneself. The posited ego is nothing other than the self that posits. “I do not presuppose myself, because I am every moment just positing or creating myself… I am creator and creature in one.” Here Stirner is taking pains to distinguish his notion of ego from that of Fichte’s “posited” Ich. The Ego is not something to be abstracted from the one who posits; there is only the ineffable, indescribable self. Here he discards any notion of trying to be one’s “true self,” for that would be to make the Ego itself into an ideal or template for action. Stirner’s nihilism is thorough.

The content of thought and the act of thinking itself, including all criticism, even when we are thinking about the Ego, tends to subordinate the self in favor of others. “My good” in a Fichtean egoist sense would really be the good of some other, the good of some abstracted, posited, presupposed Ich. To really make the self the owner, we need to discard all presuppositions, and this even entails rejecting the Ego itself as an extrinsic presupposition. We do not become self-owners by thinking about the Ego, but by simply being what we already are, without making ourselves dependent on any idea or concept of “the self.”

Continue to Part II


[1] Also cited as Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum, following 19th-century orthography. Work was completed and publication began in 1844.

[2] While it is true that Stirner is using Hegelian dialectic ironically, to derive conclusions opposite of those of the Left Hegelians, it does not follow that his historical arguments are not in earnest. Marx certainly thought they were, and faulted him for focusing on the history of ideas rather than a materialist understanding of history. [The German Ideology, I.A.2.] [16 May 2017]

© 2014 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.
* Original publication dates: Part I, 30 Dec 2013; Part II, 14 Jun 2014; Part III, 24 Aug 2014.