Book ad - Against Democracy by Daniel J. Castellano

Max Stirner versus Morality

Daniel J. Castellano


Part I: The Self versus Higher Causes
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

Part II: Self-Ownership

12. “Ownness” versus Freedom

The proper term for Stirner’s notion of autonomous activity is not ‘egoism,’ but ‘Eigenheit,’ literally “ownness,” that is, belonging to oneself. This does not mean that a person owns oneself, as though the ego or self were to be abstracted from the person as a piece of property owned. Rather, the person is an owner who is owned by no one and nothing else. This dominion extends not only over external objects, but even over his own bodily desires and his thoughts. Stirner’s notion of self-mastery does not entail enslaving oneself to some higher principle, not even to ‘egoism’ as a principle, but rather it consists in a steadfast refusal to subordinate oneself to anything else, while at the same time subordinating all other values to oneself.

Liberals pretend to make freedom the highest value, but freedom is only a means, not an end. People want the freedom to pursue bodily and mental comforts not for the mere sake of having the “freedom” to acquire these things, but so that they may actually acquire them, “to call them yours and possess them as your property.” The objective, then, is actual possession, not the mere freedom to possess. Freedom is useless if it brings us nothing. To be free from everything is to have nothing, “for freedom is empty of substance.” Thus owning, rather than being free, is our heart's desire, and the love of freedom is wholly subordinate to the love of owning. It is not enough to be rid of what you do not want (which is what most people call freedom), but also to have what you do want. It is not satisfactory to be just a “freeman,” but also an “owner” (Eigner).

One might object that freedom is a desirable mode in itself, as one would rather be free than live in a gilded cage. Yet the undesirability of the gilded cage consists in the fact that, though we are surrounded by luxuries, we do not really have ownership over them, but they control us. Likewise, the freedom of movement we seek is not an end itself, but for the purpose of attaining some enjoyment or satisfaction in some place or action. Freedom is a desirable mode precisely because it is the mode suited to an owner or master. Naturally, such a person should not be restrained by anything else, but this is not a sufficient condition for ownership. He must also actually possess something, subordinating it to himself.

Freedom, nonetheless, is a necessary precondition for ownership. With each advance in freedom, we rid ourselves from something that binds us to a cause other than our own. Total self-ownership requires total freedom; “a piece of freedom is not freedom.” [p. 211]

Most people, however, incoherently pursue freedom only to a certain point. They wish to be free from arbitrary princes or ecclesiastical authorities, only to be enslaved to the dominion of law, or to a republic, or to the majority, or to morality. It is only when we rid ourselves of all masters, becoming lawless and amoral, that we can complete our freedom.

Even with total freedom, we have not attained ownership, for we must transform freedom itself into something we own, rather than a principle that governs us. We find a paradox in those libertarians who restrain their actions out of consideration for the freedom of others, as if “freedom” were an abstract thing-in-itself whose rights must be respected. This even goes so far as respecting the freedom of “the market,” itself an abstract entity. The idea that freedom ought to be a rule of behavior is self-contradictory.

Each increase in freedom comes with an awareness of new limits, accompanied by the danger of becoming enslaved to these new limits. Republicans, for example, free themselves from aristocratic rule only to become slaves to the law. To be free from something is to be rid of it, so freedom is completed by being rid of everything, and becoming “sinless, godless, moralityless, etc.” These gains in freedom are to be retained, but we must go further and transform freedom itself into something we own.

Stirner’s description of freedom as a lack of constraint is a fair characterization of the liberal view, as contrasted with the earlier natural law tradition of libertas, which was morally conditioned as the freedom to do good or to perform one’s duty. What Stirner calls freedom is really license, and it is only because of liberalism’s emphasis on the absence of external constraints that his argument can have resonance. Stirner takes the liberal’s own logic to a more consistent conclusion. If freedom really is the absence of restraint, as the anti-authoritarian claims, then the completely free man should abandon all restraints, including those impersonal abstractions known as law and morality. Even the principle of freedom itself should not act as a constraint on his action.

Neither Stirner nor the liberals challenge the assumption that freedom is always desirable. If we do so, it is no longer evident that it is desirable to be free from law, morality, or anything else. The liberal notion of freedom as a categorical good is destructive of all morality, but only Stirner has the temerity to draw this conclusion explicitly.

Most liberals avert nihilism by saying, “My freedom ends where another’s begins,” thereby smuggling much of traditional morality back into their notion of a “free society.” They may further argue that a society of egoists would be completely unworkable, as innumerable individuals violently struggle for the same goods.

Yet Stirner is not embarrassed by the supposition of a world full of egoists. On the contrary, he holds that everyone already is basically egoist, though most will foolishly submit to the egoism of a collective or some abstraction. We already have violent conflicts over the same goods, as a mass of people egoistically uses the armed force of the law to prevent others from becoming aristocrats. Stirner would only bring this egoism out into the open, instead of disguising it as altruism.

How is one to acquire desired goods, if everyone else is basically egoist? You must make these things your property, that is, something over which you have power or control. Freedom is worthless if we are not able to actually acquire what we desire, and this is secured only by having power over it. We may see in Stirner’s notion of property a foreshadowing of Nietzsche’s will-to-power.

It is in “ownness,” not in freedom, that one may exert one’s will in any state of life. The slave cannot will himself to be completely free; at best he can be inwardly free, or free of some things only. The slave can only wish to be free, and as Stirner has shown, practically all men are slaves to one thing or another. As such, complete freedom “remains an ideal—a spook.” Ownness, by contrast, is present in every state of human life, extending over whatever we can control by willing or exertion. It is truly an extension of oneself, something substantial, not an abstraction.

Even those in chattel slavery have something to call “my own.” “My leg” remains my leg, and not even the harshest slave owner can change that. Likewise, I may own my thoughts and my inner life, though this “inward freedom” does not free us from bodily pain, and our bodily slavery is no less real.

For the ego to be free of something, I must be rid of it, and one wishes to be rid of something because it is in one’s way, an obstacle to our pursuit of utility or convenience. If it were not inconvenient, then we would not want to be rid of it. Thus egoistic concern is the measure and judge of whether we are to be rid of something, not any principle of freedom. Egoistic preference takes priority over the desire for freedom.

This being so, why should we not make the self explicitly our center? The self, rather than its dream—namely, freedom—is our focal point, since one desires freedom only from those things that impede the self from acquiring and controlling desired objects.

Despite the fact that the liberal ethic of freedom has an underlying egoism, most people hesitate to make the ego the center openly. Instead, they must consult whatever is their god, be it moral feeling, conscience, a sense of duty, or “the voice of the people,” instead of listening to oneself.

Yet all these ideals or gods, as Stirner discussed at the outset, are themselves “egoistic,” as they recognize no criterion outside themselves. In Christian theology, God is said to act as He pleases, subject to no higher criterion. Men are likewise capable of acting as they please, and may exercise this capacity, pursuing their own egoism rather than the egoism of another. If it is said that God always acts according to eternal laws, Stirner replies that the human ego does likewise, since it cannot act outside its nature, which is itself.

This last bit of wordplay rejects the idea of a universal human nature or even a nature of egos. Whatever the ego does is in accordance with its unique nature; its only “law” is whatever it happens to will.

Undoubtedly aware of the Lutheran doctrine that human nature is so vitiated by original sin that it always prefers evil, Stirner rejects any notion that an egoist will choose the most senseless things, “as though we were the devil.” Animals do not choose what is senseless, but what is in their interest. Stirner assumes, well before Darwin, that man is just a highly intelligent animal. Thus the egoistic man should behave at least as wisely as an egoistic animal, if not more so. The voice of nature “is not a devilish seducer.”

Here we find some inkling of Nietzsche’s proposal to rehabilitate the natural desires of man, which had long fallen under moral opprobrium. The liberal might nod in agreement when speaking of sexual desires and other carnal pleasures, but will recoil in horror when that same embrace of nature demands that we should not be ashamed of hardness or cruelty, but may even delight in these things. The liberal, no less than the Christian, has damned a great portion of our animal nature.

For Stirner, it is not natural desire that is the seducer, but rather conscience, morality and religion that seduce us, causing us to enslave ourselves to something else, to pursue an interest other than our own. They ruin the self while promising to fortify it.

A distinction needs to be drawn here. Moral constraints do in fact help man free himself from becoming enslaved to his unconscious appetites, insofar as these are extrinsic to the ego. Stirner has already admitted this, though he holds that a man must go further and free himself from morality. The “voice of nature” that Stirner defends is not mere sensitive appetite, but whatever the will happens to choose or prefer. The human ego has a more perfect freedom than the animal, and so may override or indulge an appetite depending on what he judges to be in his greater interest. In making such judgments, he is governed by no law but his will or preference.

It might be argued that there is no real distinction between being a slave to one’s animal appetites and lawlessly doing whatever one wills. If this is so, then Stirnerian ethics runs into a serious problem, as it seems to be a regression to savagery rather than a real advance in freedom.

The resolution of this problem depends on which sort of desire or inclination is to be considered part of oneself, and which is considered extrinsic. Since Stirner’s notion of Ich is conscious and volitional, it would seem that desires imposing themselves from our unconscious or non-volitional nature should be excluded, while any conscious, volitional preference is part of Ich. For Stirner’s notion of egoistic freedom to be workable, it is necessary for the will to be able to act autonomously without subjecting itself either to an idealistic law or to unconscious appetites.

The desire to be free is really a rage against all that is not “I.” The objective of freedom is to be rid of everything that is not “I,” which leaves only the enjoyment of oneself, or egoism. This so-called “egoism” is really “ownness” (eigentum), that is, making one's life truly one’s own, purged of all alien masters. [p.214.] “Freedom” is just the dream of which egoism is the realization, so it is a mistake to regard freedom as a goal. We really pursue freedom and other ideals because they suit us. Stirner proposes that we should make our unconscious egoism explicit, and unabashedly make the ego our center instead of some hypocritical ideal. Idealists practice an unconscious, concealed egoism; thus “you are egoists and you are not, since you renounce egoism.”

For Stirner, “ownness” means taking possession of what is in our mind, our body and our surroundings. One may take possession of the world by whatever means are at his disposal. If he is strong, he may use force; if he is weak, he may use deceit, cheating, even hypocrisy. Stirner does not object to idealist hypocrisy on moral grounds, but only because it prevents one from pursuing one's real interest.

Anticipating objections to his brazen immorality, Stirner says: “…cheating, hypocrisy, lying, look worse than they are. Who has not cheated the police, the law? who has not quickly taken on an air of honorable loyalty before the sheriff’s officer who meets him, in order to conceal an illegality that may have been committed, etc.?” Deception is just a defense mechanism of the weak against the strong. Nearly everyone practices deception, since most are in positions of weakness.

Here we find a marked distinction from Nietzsche’s immoralism, as Stirner is not ashamed to use weak means when expedient. Nietzsche, by contrast, extols expressions of strength and vigor, while recognizing that only a select few will have the ability to use strong means, acting as predators or conquerors. Stirner’s immoralism is accessible to people of all levels of strength or weakness, in any station of life.

I know that my freedom is diminished even by my not being able to carry out my will on another object, be this other something without will, like a rock, or something with will, like a government, an individual, etc.; I deny my ownness when—in presence of another—I give myself up…

It does not matter whether we overcome obstacles by smashing them or evading them; in either case, we find a way to carry out our will on them. The only renunciation of ownness is when we surrender to that which opposes us, as when one cravenly submits to a government official. He who violently resists or deceives the official refuses to let violence be done to him, and will not give himself up as a prisoner. Even the one who uses weak means shows a type of vigor or might, for he refuses to submit loyally.

The might of the egoist is in his “ownness,” not in mere freedom. This is why “the freedom of the peoples” is hollow, for the people have no might. [pp.218-19] They have wholeheartedly enslaved themselves to the law, the government, and other masters.

Of what use is it to sheep that no one abridges their freedom of speech? They stick to bleating. Give one who is inwardly a Mohammedan, a Jew, or a Christian, permission to speak what he likes: he will yet utter only narrow-minded stuff. [p.219]

If they nevertheless give you freedom, they are simply knaves who give more than they have. For then they give you nothing of their own, but stolen wares: they give you your own freedom, the freedom that you must take for yourselves; and they give it to you only that you may not take it and call the thieves and cheats to an account to boot. [p.220]

The very notion of receiving freedom from others is antithetical to self-determination and self-ownership. Those who do not forcibly attain freedom for themselves will succumb to one or another group morality. Stirner’s characterization of one who is “inwardly a Mohammedan, a Jew, or a Christian” refers to ostensibly secular liberals who nonetheless voluntarily submit to bourgeois morality, which merely apes the altruistic or collectivist principles of the older religions. For all his talk of freedom, the liberal has the soul of a slave, and thus you will never hear anything but “narrow-minded” platitudes from him. This is even more prominently the case in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as supposedly freedom-loving liberals march in lockstep with the moral fads of mass culture.

The liberal is slave-like precisely because he has not seized freedom for himself, but has passively received it from society and its governing powers. “The man who is set free is nothing but a freedman, a libertinus, a dog dragging a piece of chain with him: he is an unfree man in the garment of freedom, like the ass in the lion's skin.” [p.220.]

Christianity, according to Stirner, is really just a social theory, describing how man ought to live with man and with God. It refuses to let the individual count as an Einzige, but always places him in a relationship of dependence. Accordingly, it holds all that is "own" in disrepute: "selfishness, self-will, ownness," etc. Yet all these things were once honorable: Schimpf (contumely) once meant jest; frech (impudent) meant bold; Frevel (wanton outrage) meant daring. Here we see an anticipation of Nietzsche's critique of Christianity (and its democratic heirs) for condemning all that is strong and virile.

Stirner rejects the claim of Christians and other moralists that egoism is sensuality, for I am more than my sensuality. "I am my own only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered either by sensuality or by anything else." [p.222.] Stirner regards the ego as something other than mere sensual desire, since for me to be caught up in sensuality suggests that sensuality is something other than myself and my determination.

It might be suggested that Stirner is advocating subordination to a new idea, that of "ownness". Yet Stirner retorts that “Ownness” is not an idea; it is only a description of the owner. The word may be a necessary grammatical abstraction, but Stirner denies that "Ownness" is a value separate from or above the self. He is certainly not an "egoist" in the sense of upholding "egoism" as a principle. In other words, he is not saying, "One ought to be selfish," as if this were a supreme moral or meta-moral principle.

Despite his repeated disavowal, it is hard to avoid thinking that Stirner is advocating egoism as a supreme principle. Whether he intends to or not, his presentation of the case for egoism may constitute, in effect, a prescriptive rule for living. If "ownness" is simply following whatever I determine, then there is nothing to say that I am less "my own" if I choose to subordinate myself to some idea, principle, or social system I find choiceworthy. If Stirner objects to this action, he should say why, but he cannot do this without invoking some principle.

Stirner's egoism is deeply problematic in two respects. First, it is not at all clear how an egoism free from all extrinsic rational principles can amount to anything more than whimsical behavior, which in effect means enslavement to sensitive appetites. If egoism means pursuing one's survival, material benefit or emotional pleasure, then this is practically equivalent to ancient Epicureanism, with all its flaws. Second, it is difficult for egoism to evade the charge of being just another principle or prescriptive idea for behavior. While egoism makes no prescriptions about what action we should do in a given circumstance, it does prescribe a preferred mode of acting in all circumstances. Stirner can scarcely hide that he has a moral preference for egoism, as he uses moral pejoratives ("thieves", "hypocrites") for those who are not egoists. (Even Nietzsche does not escape this criticism, though he tries to characterize his moral preferences as aesthetic tastes.)

To these two critiques, one might respond that (1) Stirner's philosophy is no more deficient than any other rationalistic account of free willed choices, and (2) his "egoism" or "ownness" are just verbal pointers to what is an ineffable concrete reality, the unique ego of each person. Even if we are not altogether convinced that Stirner has disproven the value of ideas and principles in moral action, we may still take to heart his assertion of the prerogatives of the radically unique individual, as a value that is not subordinate to any general principle or concept.

[Top of page]

13. Stirner's Ego Distinguished from Concepts

The liberal values you only as an instance of “Man,” the species. Equality and rights are grounded in belonging to humanity, not in persons as such. Consequently, the concrete, bodily Ich is a private matter of no concern to the liberal.

The liberal notion of human equality is an expansion of an earlier Christian idea that the children of God are all equally called to salvation. Originally this equality applied only to Christians, but more liberal attitudes expanded it to all those who saw a need for redemption, "then later each one who has the spirit of integrity, finally each one who shows a human spirit and a human face." [p.228] Now equality includes all men, on account of all having a human spirit, that is, on account of all partaking of "humanity".

Yet if liberals have regard for people only on account of their "humanity," this means they only have regard for a quality or property of persons, not the person himself. Spirit or humanity, Stirner says, is an acquired quality. I own it; not it me. To regard “my spirit” or “my humanity” not as the property of the ego, but as the ego itself, implies reducing the Ich to a spook or a concept.

Therefore the liberal too revolves in the same circle as the Christian. Because the spirit of mankind, i.e. Man, dwells in you, you are a man, as when the spirit of Christ dwells in you you are a Christian; but, because it dwells in you only as a second ego, even though it be as your proper or "better" ego, it remains otherworldly to you, and you have to strive to become wholly man. [p.228.]

This establishment of Humanity as a pseudo-ego effectively entails the subordination of the real Ich—the concrete individual—to an abstract idea, which is supposedly the truer self. To express this in a liberal platitude: "Deep down we are all the same." Such sentiment implies a repudiation of the real self in favor of some ideal of "Humanity." It is "Humanity" that is the recipient of rights upon which our interactions are based. In liberal society, I do not have rights because I am Daniel, but because I am a human being, and my rights are to be no different from those of any other human being merely on account of my uniqueness. Law and right are to have no regard for persons, that is to say, no regard for the real self. With this understanding, we can see why Stirner is dissatisfied with Feuerbach's attempt to divinize the human. Far from emancipating men, such a program enslaves them to Man.

Stirner believes that liberalism is only completing the program of Christianity, realizing "Man" or the "true Man" as the ultimate value. On the surface, it may seem that Christianity regards the individual as infinitely valuable, being so solicitous of each man's salvation, and believing in individual immortality, not just the collective immortality in which secular men hope.

No, it assigns this value to Man alone. Only Man is immortal, and only because I am man am I too immortal. In fact, Christianity had to teach that no one is lost, just as liberalism too puts all on an equality as men; but that eternity, like this equality, applied only to the Man in me, not to me. [p.229.]

This is a fair characterization of early modern Christian universalism, especially among Protestants, but it is hardly true of the more ancient Catholic and Orthodox confessions. There the individual as such, not "humanity" or "man", is the proper subject of salvation. This is not to say that traditional Christians are Stirnerian egoists, for the means of salvation involves a corporate union of the elect with the perfect man who is Christ. This would be no less objectionable to Stirner, both for its collectivism and idealism. Still, we should note that these aspects of traditional Christianity are not inconsistent with an assertion of the value of the individual. The God of the Old and New Testaments does have regard for persons, favoring some over others. Indeed, Christian soteriology is unintelligible without the notion of "grace" or favor.

Stirner's present target is collectivist, idealist humanism, most perfectly expressed by liberals, and found to varying degrees among Christians. The common theme among religious and secular humanists is to uphold a non-ego above the Ich, claiming that the former is in fact the true ego. “For liberalism is a religion because it separates my essence from me and sets it above me.” [p.229.] Liberals cannot avoid this essentialism without implicitly rejecting their notions of "human rights" and "human equality." Few things are more comical than hard-boiled atheist skeptics clinging to patently metaphysical theses as though they were evident truths.

Once it is understood that liberalism is a religion, in the sense of being a metaphysical theory entailing prescriptive norms or ideals, we may see “freedom of religion” as an enthronement of liberalism as the preferred public religion, with all others being relegated to private societies. Frederick the Great did toward every one who performed his duties as a subject, whatever fashion of becoming blest he might be inclined toward. This religion is now to be raised to the rank of the generally customary one, and separated from the others as mere "private follies," toward which, besides, one takes a highly liberal attitude on account of their unessentialness. [pp.229-230.]

You may believe whatever "private folly" you like, as long as you perform the duties that are required of you by liberal ethics and politics. With this pat on the head, we can see the real disdain that liberalism shows toward other religions through its so-called tolerance. The persecutor or the jihadist has much more respect for the religion of others, for to hate something and wage war against it is to have some regard for it, reckoning it as a real force.

Only the generic “man” is accepted into liberal society, which recognizes no personal privileges or prerogatives. The real man, the individual, does not meet this generic concept, so he is "un-man."

Although the liberal state presumes that all its members are nothing but instances of the species “man,” in reality “man” is just a spook, and only individuals exist. Thus in fact all citizens in the liberal state are egoists, using the state for egoistic ends.

According to liberal ideals, we act morally by seeing humanity in each other, and regarding each other as humans. This is not having regard for individuals, but only for “Man.” Morality, in Stirner's view, is necessary only insofar as human society is a union of generic “Men” instead of egos.

Even the egoist has need of this “human society,” yet he will not sacrifice his Ich to it. He avoids this fate by using society, i.e., transforming it into his property. To use society egoistically is effectively to annihilate society as a union of generic "Men," for we are no longer interacting with others as "Man." If everyone behaved in this way, society would instead be a union of egoists.

The domain of generic “Man” is the liberal State (which Stirner understands as encompassing the government and citizenry). Yet generic "Man" is an unattainable ideal, for I do not do anything “human,” I only do my own things. My act is diverse from every other human act.

Now every one is to have the eternal rights of man, and, according to the opinion of Communism, enjoy them in the complete "democracy," or, as it ought more correctly to be called,—anthropocracy. But it is I alone who have everything that I—procure for myself; as man I have nothing. [p.236]

Stirner finds it absurd to say that one should act humanely or act like a human. I am human no matter how I act. Making humanity into an ideal is absurd, for we already are what we are and cannot become more so. As an example of this absurdity, he observes that the ancients called their moral ideal virtus or arete, which simply means "manliness."

I am a man just as the earth is a star (Stern). As ridiculous as it would be to set the earth the task of being a "thorough star," so ridiculous it is to burden me with the call to be a "thorough man." [p.237]

To make "man" an ideal that I must try to emulate is to alienate me from myself, if such a thing were possible. The same self-contradiction arises when one makes the ego into an ideal.

When Fichte says, "The ego is all," this seems to harmonize perfectly with my theses. But it is not that the ego is all, but the ego destroys all, and only the self-dissolving ego, the never-being ego, the—finite ego is really I. Fichte speaks of the "absolute" ego, but I speak of me, the transitory ego. [p 237]

Stirner’s ego is the “self” in the ordinary sense, that of an individual. Stirner’s ego is transitory and self-creating from moment to moment. It destroys all ideals, and takes ownership of things, assimilating them to itself. Stirner correctly regards Fichte’s “absolute ego” as a generic ego. Similarly, for Feuerbach, ‘man’ designates the absolute ego, the species, not the transitory, individual ego.

Yet Stirner has already disregarded the species "Man," like all universals, as a spook, a nothing. All that really exists is each concrete individual, not a generic "ego" or "man."

I am my species, am without norm, without law, without model, and the like. It is possible that I can make very little out of myself; but this little is everything, and is better than what I allow to be made out of me by the might of others... Better—if the talk is to be of better at all—better an unmannerly child than an old head on young shoulders, better a mulish man than a man compliant in everything. [p.238]

Stirner's strong metaphysical nominalism logically implies ethical nihilism. If there is no ideal "humanity" or even "ego" to which we might conform, there can be no normative rules of human conduct. I am fully me no matter what I do; I cannot perfect myself by doing one thing rather than another. Stirner's assertion of the self as sole arbiter of what is choiceworthy, without reference to any higher rule or ideal, is not motivated by any notion that he or any other individual has some exalted dignity or importance. Rather, he might say, "I at least exist, while 'man' and 'the ego' do not."

Yet Stirner goes further and seems to prescribe at least one norm, that it is better to be determined by oneself than by the might of others. Here 'better' need not an entail an ethical principle, but simply a metaphysical superiority. The self-determining "I" has real existence as "I," creating himself, while the "I" who pursues the interests of others as though they were his effectively repudiates and annihilates himself. The latter is not really himself, but rather others live through him, reducing him to a nullity.

The man who allows himself to be determined by the values of others is effectively in a state of feudal subjection, having nothing of his own, but receiving it all as a fief at the pleasure of his master. In old Christian Europe, this master was God, but "The fear of God in the proper sense was shaken long ago, and a more or less conscious 'atheism,' externally recognizable by a wide-spread 'unchurchliness,' has involuntarily become the mode." [p.241] This observation prefigures Nietzsche’s more infamous, and oft-misunderstood, rhetorical assertion of God's “death” in nominally Christian Europe. Men no longer act as though God were a living reality, a determiner of their being, even though they may profess this with their mouths. As Stirner says, "'Man' is the God of today, and fear of Man has taken the place of the old fear of God." [p.241] All modern Westerners, religious or irreligious, have their fundamental ethical notions informed by their sense of humanity.

This Humanity or Man is nothing more than a new feudal master, so Stirner rightly remarks, "Our atheists are pious people." This new master presumes to give us all that we are and all that we have. Instead of recognizing that each man has his own power or might, we instead speak of "rights" which he has only by virtue of his humanity. Likewise, our position in the world is stripped of all personal privilege or any personal character, as we are to engage each other only as right-bearing "humans." Liberal principles of "human rights" and "human equality" steal from each individual the power that is proper to him, and give it back in an emasculated, generic form, as though we had "right" only because we are human, and not that each of us simply has power, and that in unequal amounts.

Stirner, by contrast, asserts: "My power is my property. My power gives me property. My power am I myself, and through it am I my property." [p.242]

[Top of page]

14. My Power as Source of "Right"

When liberals and socialists speak of “right,” they really mean the exertion of society's sovereign will over individuals. Aristotle had taught this more plainly, saying that justice is the advantage of society. Stirner does not recognize any "common good," and he finds liberals to be insincere in their love of individual rights, as long as they conceive “right” as something defined and administered by the state according to a common rule.

Whenever some activity becomes the subject of legal “right,” individual sovereignty is there annihilated. To give Stirner's example, where the state forbids duels, it intervenes even when neither party calls the police. The lesson is clear: only the head may punish. The court alone decides what is right.

Such action by the state presumes that “right” can be defined and imposed by a common rule. Yet for Stirner, “right” is simply what one claims or desires. Accordingly: “Whether I am in the right or not there is no judge but myself. Others can judge only whether they endorse my right, and whether it exists as right for them too.”

Stirner's notion of “right” is not at all the same as what liberals think of as the “rights of individuals,” for these are conceived as something common to all, so that there is nothing individual about them. It is likewise distinct from the revolutionary socialist's “law of society” or “right of all.” My right is unique to me, and I may defend it without endorsing some right common to all. Likewise, each other may defend his right.

One can secure his own right only by his power or might. This does not necessarily mean physical violence, for reasoning also may be used to exercise influence. The point is that there is no authority besides one's own will as the basis of right. The various "rights" that have been established in practice are nothing more than the results of successful self-assertions by individuals and groups of individuals. Once it is accepted that all "right" is based on egoism, there is no compelling reason why one should automatically submit to some common "right" defined by others, if it does not agree with one's own interest.

Why, "equality of rights," as the Revolution propounded it, is only another name for "Christian equality," the "equality of the brethren," "of God's children," "of Christians," etc.: in short fraternité. [p.246]

Stirner astutely notes that liberal and socialist equality is derived from the Christian notion of equality before God (cf Locke's use of Hooker's theology). It is absurd for secular men to cling to such a notion of equality. In the absence of some God or Ideal before which all men are equally subject, there is no reason to assert such equality. We can only be brothers if we have a common Father.

It might be countered that the common ancestry of all men suffices to make us brothers and therefore equals. Such an argument, however, proves too much, for by that standard, all lifeforms whatsoever would be equal. Human equality presupposes an additional thesis, namely that all men share a common nature. It is precisely such typological thinking that Stirner rejects as idealist fantasy. Even if it so happened that all human individuals were equal in certain qualities, it would be superfluous to declare an equality of right, for each man could assert his own interest in those domains with equal efficacy.

The only basis of a right is the capacity or power to exercise that right. As an illustration:

Have Chinese subjects a right to freedom? Just bestow it on them, and then look how far you have gone wrong in your attempt: because they do not know how to use freedom they have no right to it, or, in clearer terms, because they have not freedom they have not the right to it. Children have no right to the condition of majority because they are not of age, i.e. because they are children. Peoples that let themselves be kept in nonage have no right to the condition of majority; if they ceased to be in nonage, then only would they have the right to be of age. This means nothing else than "What you have the power to be you have the right to." I derive all right and all warrant from me; I am entitled to everything that I have in my power. [p.247]

Again Stirner uses China as the model of those who submerge their individuality into a collective ideal, and this indeed was a fair characterization of pre-modern Chinese culture. Although gunpowder, paper, the printing press and the telescope were introduced into China at around the same time or even earlier than in Europe, the Chinese never accomplished anything revolutionary with these, as they lacked the "heaven-storming" boldness of Europeans. Even among Europeans, there were classes of people, and entire nations, still unfit for freedom. The peasantry were notoriously conservative, preferring their lords over republican government. Caudillismo likewise dominated Latin American sentiments then and long afterward.

A people becomes fit for political freedom by virtue of their will and power to exercise it, not because of some pre-existing ethereal universal right. The fact of power as a necessary condition of freedom is historically well-founded, and spares us the useless task of wondering why so many nations have failed to recognize this supposedly universal aspiration.

The analogy of childhood has important moral implications. Children obtain the rights of adults not by virtue of crossing some arbitrary age threshold, but by actually acquiring the ability to act as adults. This is in accord with older cultures, which held children capable of entering contracts upon the age of reason, and becoming married as soon as they were physically capable. Later legal standards imposed a uniform age for these levels, but exceptions were still admitted, even by the Catholic Church (e.g., when Pope Pius X administered Holy Communion to a precocious four-year-old).

Stirner takes this notion of power as the basis of right and applies it to all rights whatsoever, no matter how shocking the consequences.

But I am entitled by myself to murder if I myself do not forbid it to myself, if I myself do not fear murder as a "wrong." ... The only thing I am not entitled to is what I do not do with a free cheer, i.e. what I do not entitle myself to. [pp.247-248.]

If I am comfortable murdering, then I allow myself to murder. If I am uncomfortable murdering, then I do not allow myself to do it; i.e., I do not prefer it or find it to be in my interest. This restraint is not the same as moral conscience or even self-imposed ethics, since Stirner denies that there are any criteria for action beyond what I wish.

I decide whether it is the right thing in me; there is no right outside me. If it is right for me, it is right. Possibly this may not suffice to make it right for the rest; that is their care, not mine: let them defend themselves. And if for the whole world something were not right, but it were right for me, i.e. I wanted it, then I would ask nothing about the whole world. So every one does who knows how to value himself, every one in the degree that he is an egoist; for might goes before right, and that—with perfect right. [p.248]

There are no appeals to the preferences of the majority as a basis for morality. Rather, everyone acts according to what they think is right, alone or in groups, defending their interests as best they can. An egoist does not take his values from others or from abstract ideals, but he is self-valuating. Here we see Nietzsche's image of the aristocrat or master, who assigns his own value, and finds his virtue in his strength.

Because I am "by nature" a man I have an equal right to the enjoyment of all goods, says Babeuf. Must he not also say: because I am "by nature" a first-born prince I have a right to the throne? [p.248]

Here Stirner exploits the fact that 'nature' (Ger. Natur) refers to birth (Lat. natus). If right comes by birth, as the egalitarians claim, why should we not admit that the royal prince is what he is at birth? In fact, it is not birth that gives us right in either case.

But nature cannot entitle me, i.e. give me capacity or might, to that to which only my act entitles me. That the king's child sets himself above other children, even this is his act, which secures to him the precedence; and that the other children approve and recognize this act is their act, which makes them worthy to be—subjects. [pp.248-49]

The real basis of a recognized right is (1) the act of he who asserts this right for himself and (2) the act of others who choose to recognize that right and yield to him. It does not matter whether we are speaking of equal or unequal rights. If equal rights are recognized, it is only because the strong choose to yield to the claims of the many. In all cases, rights are grounded in a give-and-take power struggle.

Thus the Communists say, equal labor entitles man to equal enjoyment. ... No, equal labor does not entitle you to it, but equal enjoyment alone entitles you to equal enjoyment. Enjoy, then you are entitled to enjoyment. But, if you have labored and let the enjoyment be taken from you, then—"it serves you right." [p. 249]

By "enjoyment" (Genuß), Stirner refers to the consumption of the products of one's labor. The final clause is only rhetorical, as Stirner denies any notion of moral desert. One "deserves" only what he is able to get; the only "right" is what one exercises in the act of consuming. If one agrees to let others take the fruits of his labor, by recognizing their contractual "right," then he "deserves" to be a wage-slave, since he has submitted to the "right" of another.

Instead, if the worker wishes to consume the product of his labor, he should forcefully assert this claim, alone or in union with others. He need not hesitate to use coercive means (for the law invoked by the employer already uses coercion), and to regard the "right" of his employer as merely a contrary claim by an enemy.

The Communists affirm that "the earth belongs rightfully to him who tills it, and its products to those who bring them out." I think it belongs to him who knows how to take it, or who does not let it be taken from him, does not let himself be deprived of it. If he appropriates it, then not only the earth, but the right to it too, belongs to him. This is egoistic right: i.e., it is right for me, therefore it is right.

Stirner denies that labor is the basis of any natural right. Instead of birthrights (natural rights), there are only the rights acquired by taking and defending what one has taken. The claims by democrats and communists to natural rights are no less a pretension than a birthright to the throne. To claim that you deserve free schooling because poor parents begot you is just another birthright. In reality, “He who has might has—right; if you have not the former, neither have you the latter.” [pp.251-52]

A juridical notion of "right" would impose a mechanical justice following fixed rules for all. Instead of right defined by law:

Commend me rather to the old French parliaments, which wanted to examine for themselves what was to be matter of right, and to register it only after their own approval. They at least judged according to a right of their own, and were not willing to give themselves up to be machines of the lawgiver, although as judges they must, to be sure, become their own machines. [pp.253-54]

The parlements, at least, had power to decide what constitutes right. They set values, and so were real judges. Still, they created fixed principles, and made themselves slaves to their own rules.

It is said that punishment is the criminal's right. But impunity is just as much his right. If his undertaking succeeds, it serves him right, and, if it does not succeed, it likewise serves him right. You make your bed and lie in it. If someone goes foolhardily into dangers and perishes in them, we are apt to say, "It serves him right; he would have it so." But, if he conquered the dangers, i.e., if his might was victorious, then he would be in the right too. If a child plays with the knife and gets cut, it is served right; but, if it doesn't get cut, it is served right too. Hence right befalls the criminal, doubtless, when he suffers what he risked; why, what did he risk it for, since he knew the possible consequences? But the punishment that we decree against him is only our right, not his. Our right reacts against his, and he is "in the wrong at last" because—we get the upper hand.

Crime and punishment are here analyzed in terms of calculated risk, and two competing sets of egoistic rights.

Since all right is grounded in egoistic assertions of power, the juridical distinction between laws and decrees is senseless. Supposedly only decrees are orders, i.e., declarations of the executive's will. Yet law too is a declaration by an egoistic will, and so it is an order or decree. Even if I give myself the law, says Stirner, it is my order, which I may later obey or disobey. Collapsing this distinction abolishes any notion that law has some authority superior to that of a decree. Law itself is nothing more than a decree, a bare assertion by the will of those who make laws.

One may well enough declare what he will put up with, and so deprecate the opposite by a law, making known that in the contrary case he will treat the transgressor as his enemy; but no one has any business to command my actions, to say what course I shall pursue and set up a code to govern it. I must put up with it that he treats me as his enemy, but never that he makes free with me as his creature, and that he makes his reason, or even unreason, my plumb-line. [p.255]

Instead of the pretext that we are all bound by rule of law, one might as well candidly declare bare assertions of will; that is, what one chooses to accept or not accept from others. Law, after all, is nothing more than such assertions, disguised as objective criteria. Stirner recognizes that other individuals and groups may react with hostility towards his actions, and that they may declare their preferences, expressed as some "law." What he will not accept is that he is supposed to internalize their law, which is nothing other than their preference, as his own rule, treating their interest as if it were his own. Rather, he might yield to them externally, out of respect for their strength, but not because he thinks their "right" is right for all.

It seems that Stirner has introduced a moral principle by claiming that no one may command his actions, or make him their creature. Yet this prohibition is not moral in quality. No one is bound in conscience not to attempt to command others, impose rules on others, or even imprison others. By the same token, the individual is not morally obligated to submit to such attempts, and indeed has no reason to treat another's interest as his own. If he does choose to submit to the rules or mores of another, then he is rightfully what he chooses to be—a slave or subject.

Stirner does not resist the attempts of others to command his actions and thoughts on the grounds of some anti-coercion principle, such as liberals implicitly hold. He grants that people may treat others as enemies, and even use violent coercion to impose their claims or "rights". It is not that no one has the right to command another's actions, or to make him a subject, but rather that no one is morally obligated to submit to such command.

Instead of pretending that one person's criterion of right applies to another, we might as well declare our enmities openly. The real state of affairs is that you will not tolerate certain behaviors of me, and you will exert whatever force you can against me as an enemy if I violate those expectations. I may then judge for myself whether I wish to assume the risk of your enmity, or perhaps defy you, confident in my own strength. Each of us takes what he dares.

The State, by contrast, denies the “own will,” and would make its despotic will take the place of our wills.

Stirner's view of right is properly anarchist ("without rule"); all states are despotic in the sense that they make men their creatures or property. Those who submit to the State's view of "right" are taking their self-valuation from without, mistaking another's interest for one's own.

Though the State may coerce people in externals, it cannot bind the will. By refusing to recognize any duty, we do not allow our will to be bound. "If I have no duty, then I know no law either." [p.257]

If no one recognizes any duty to the State or any other group of men, this does not mean there would be a chaos where anyone can do anything.

Well, who says that everyone can do everything? What are you there for, pray, you who do not need to put up with everything? Defend yourself, and no one will do anything to you! He who would break your will has to do with you, and is your enemy. Deal with him as such. If there stand behind you for your protection some millions more, then you are an imposing power and will have an easy victory. But, even if as a power you overawe your opponent, still you are not on that account a hallowed authority to him, unless he be a simpleton. He does not owe you respect and regard, even though he will have to consider your might. [p.257]

Still, it seems doubtful that coercion alone can bring order to human affairs. If no one felt a duty to abstain from crime, even the most draconian police force would be powerless to prevent widespread rapine. Even if Stirner's diagnosis of morality and law as organized egoism is correct, it might be the case that these are necessary fictions in order to make civilization possible.

We should emphasize that Stirner is not taking a merely libertarian view that laws ought to be limited to those favoring self-development (i.e., "the pursuit of happiness"), but he is challenging law itself, holding that it is merely the violence of the State, of no greater legitimacy than the violence of the individual, called “crime.”

Rather do I ask those who would be egoists what they think the more egoistic—to let laws be given them by you, and to respect those that are given, or to practise refractoriness, yes, complete disobedience.

Instead of a timid, half-hearted egoism whereby we impose our will on others through law and then consider ourselves bound by this law, Stirner commends full egoism, where we are bound not even by our own laws. After all, if, as the liberals claim, law is grounded in nothing but our sovereign will, what need have I of law, since I already possess my will?

Liberals and socialists see a need for law and government because they conceive the sovereign will as collective. Thus all their governments act in the name of the collective ("the people") or the State ("the nation"). This notion of authority opposes the individual will, and indeed liberal and socialist governments disparage individual claims as egoistic or unjust privileges.

Stirner considers it stupid for liberals to oppose “privileges,” since privileges are just forms of right. Privileges cannot fall unless right falls. Again, this anticipates Nietzsche, who noted that equality of rights (no privileges) implies no one has any rights.

In short, Stirner denies the reality of any “right” which is bestowed by an abstraction or spirit; e.g., by "humanity." "What I have I have solely through my power." [p.275] If it seems otherwise, this is because some groups exercise power in combination, while many choose to submit to the interests of others.

[Top of page]

15. Society and Intercourse

It might seem that Stirner's philosophy implies the total atomization of society, yet he allows that people may act in association to protect their interests. What he wishes to eliminate is the pretense that there are "common interests" abstracted from what individuals will. (There can be common interests only in the sense that several or many individuals may will the same thing at a given time.)

Attacking the paradigm of civic virtue, Stirner considers that Socrates “is a fool that he concedes to the Athenians a right to condemn him.” [p.281] His refusal to escape was a weakness, "his delusion of still having something in common with the Athenians, or the opinion that he was a member, a mere member of this people." Here is a rejection of any notion of social solidarity that reduces the individual to a part of a moral whole. "But he was rather this people itself in person, and could only be his own judge." The only real existents are individuals, not "the people," so Socrates could claim a solidarity with the Athenians only so long as his interests coincided with theirs.

Though he could have escaped, Socrates committed treason against himself by favoring the “right” of the people over his own interest. It is treason because the Athenians were his enemies, not his judge, as their interests no longer coincided with his. Socrates alone was fit to judge his interest, to determine his "right."

By making enmity the explicit basis of social intercourse, we avoid the pitfall of mistaking others’ interests for our own. Law (and its associated right), by contrast, is just a hypocritical egoism, as is proved by the fact that it is constantly amended and reinterpreted to assert the advantage of whatever group is influential at the moment. (Thus we arbitrarily legalize "same-sex marriage" but not bigamy.)

The history of the world shows that no tie has yet remained unrent, shows that man tirelessly defends himself against ties of every sort; and yet, blinded, people think up new ties again and again, and think, e.g., that they have arrived at the right one if one puts upon them the tie of a so-called free constitution...

Stirner’s view of history is colored by the iconoclasms of the past century, where all ancient bonds were broken. Even today, liberals stupidly suppose that they have hit upon the correct set of rights that will make everyone free, blind to the implication that all their liberal predecessors had it wrong. The constant changes in the terms of the social contract make it clear that this is negotiated by competing interests, not by any objective criteria of right and wrong. We demand universal healthcare as a right not because it is really a moral right, but because many of us want it and now have the power to attain it.

Given that liberal government really operates in response to competing special interests, we may as well dispense with the fiction of a common good or common right, and assert our egoistic desires openly. Only my strength, alone or with my allies, can get what I want, not any law or constitution supposedly guaranteeing these rights. I am not bound to any constitution and its putative list of rights as long as these do not agree with my interest.

Stirner makes a distinction between society and intercourse. The word Gesellschaft (Society) comes from Sal (hall), signifying that people are in society by virtue of being gathered in the hall enclosing them. You can have society without real intercourse; e.g., people are mute or talk only in empty phrases of courtesy. What is essential to society is enclosure or membership within a group.

Intercourse is mutuality, it is the action, the commercium, of individuals; society is only community of the hall, and even the statues of a museum-hall are in society, they are "grouped." [p.286]

Stirner opposes “society” as a restrictive collectivism. He is not saying people should not interact with each other, but they may do this as individuals guided by their own interests, without subordinating self-interest to that of a collective.

The Latin etymology of “society,” not discussed by Stirner, comes from the word for companion, ally, or partner. Society is thus a union or partnership of individuals, as mediated by what Stirner calls intercourse. It neither requires nor excludes the notion of submersion in a collective.

Society (returning to the German sense) tends to restrict intercourse to its rules. People in a prison have intercourse only as prisoners, for “prison society” defines how they may act. Any “demoralizing intercourse” against prison society rules is forbidden. [p.287.] Intercourse not only has no need of society, but it is freer without it.

Stirner recognizes that we may voluntarily choose to belong to some society or communion, and thus submit to its defining laws. Yet the egoist remains in such society only as long as it is convenient to him. A family is a communion only when the law of family love, i.e., piety, is observed. Where this love ceases, that person is no longer in the family. The family persists only by continued effort to obey the law of piety. In many cases, the good of family and my good coincide. Yet egoistic passion may induce one to the dishonor the family instead of pursuing a suitable marriage. Such an egoist values his own convictions over the bond of the family.

The liberal State no longer allows families to punish wayward sons; indeed it condemns this as private revenge. The sacredness of family bonds has been replaced by that of the State, which is a broadened family. [p.292.] Subsequent liberal campaigns against the traditional authority of the family make sense in this light. The family is a rival society, and the State will not suffer that there should be any real social bonds beyond its laws. Thus families, churches, and all other non-state institutions are treated as private clubs, with no power to enforce their norms. Justice belongs solely to the State.

It might be rejoined that many liberals oppose state absolutism, favoring instead the rights of "the people." Yet Stirner regards "the people" as just another absolutist competing with the government, with no more intrinsic right to rule than a regent by chance of birth. To the egoist, "the people" is just another external power, an enemy to overcome. [p.301] Indeed, the people assert their autocracy precisely by banishing egos. [p.302.]

[Top of page]

16. Property and Labor

Liberalism is inconsistent in its endorsement of open competition for some types of property but not others. Economic competition effectively means that we may take the corporeal goods of a man who cannot defend them. Similarly, liberals allow open competition for certain spiritual goods, as they espouse freedom of speech, science, and criticism. [pp.324-25] Yet they hold that other spiritual goods are inviolable, such as religion, honor, etc. That is, a man cannot have his religion taken from him, nor his dignity, nor whatever other basic "rights" the liberals hold to be inviolable. Likewise, they make an exception for certain tangible goods, namely one's body, as inviolable.

This recognition of inviolable or "consecrated" goods does not constitute an acknowledgement of the ego, for we are granted them only by virtue of being an instance of "human," not in virtue of our individuality. Thus such goods are guaranteed us by "Man" the universal concept, and more proximately by the State.

Stirner has no regard for "Man" the universal, nor "society" which is just a group of men alienating their individuality to the collective, nor the State which is the coercive instrument of the collective's egoism. Accordingly, he has no regard for the supposed inviolability of consecrated goods guaranteed by these entities. He would extend open competition even to these domains. Let each one keep what he can defend. If you do not want your religion or your honor taken from you, you must be prepared to defend it. If you do not want your body injured or degraded, you must likewise defend it. There are no universal rights, but only the "rights" asserted by each person against the "rights" claimed and defined by others for themselves. If others claim “ever so many rights because Man or the concept Man ‘entitles’ him to them… what do I care for his right and his claim? If he has his right only from Man and does not have it from me, then for me he has no right.”

Revolutionary liberalism changed the basis of property ownership from one abstract essence to another, rather than grounding it in the Ego. Whereas it once was held that men owned various kinds of property by divine right (i.e., as a stewardship from God the supreme owner), the liberals asserted that the right to ownership was grounded in human nature, i.e, the essence of Man. This applied not only to temporal goods, but also spiritual goods. Thus the secular liberal enjoins us to love one another for the good of Humanity, rather than for God's sake.

The idea that we should “respect” the property of others, "so each has his bone on which to gnaw," is not truly egoistic or individualistic, for this idea of respect is grounded in a notion that we have some sacred, inviolable right to property by virtue of being Man. As an egoist, by contrast, "I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I need to 'respect' nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!" Each egoist sees the property claimed by others as potentially his own property. He has no respect for another's claim as sacred, but takes what he is able to get and the other is not able to defend.

Stirner ridicules liberal handwringing over inequality of wealth. On the one hand, they allow a degree of open competition, but they do not want it to go so far that anyone should become a pauper. Everyone should have their own tiny bit of property.

Political liberalism, like everything religious, counts on respect, humaneness, the virtues of love. Therefore does it live in incessant vexation. For in practice people respect nothing, and every day the small possessions are bought up again by greater proprietors, and the "free people" change into day-laborers.

If, on the contrary, the "small proprietors" had reflected that the great property was also theirs, they would not have respectfully shut themselves out from it, and would not have been shut out.

Property as the civic liberals understand it deserves the attacks of the Communists and Proudhon: it is untenable, because the civic proprietor is in truth nothing but a propertyless man, one who is everywhere shut out. Instead of owning the world, as he might, he does not own even the paltry point on which he turns around. [p.328]

In liberal democracies of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of people were practically paupers, who were supposed to be satisfied with some nominal amount of property. They were effectively propertyless, since they did not profit from their property. The same basic situation obtains even today, though the lower classes are objectively more affluent due to improvements in production. Most people own at most a house on a small plot, a vehicle and some consumer goods, none of which has any significant productive capacity or value as investment capital. They are effectively propertyless, and so must sell their labor for the profit enterprises of others in order to subsist and to retain their nominal property. Liberals are stupidly scandalized every time the large property owners manage to buy up everything, as if they were too dull to realize that this followed from their own principle about the sacredness of property rights.

Instead, the egoist refuses to recognize any such property rights, and will boldly fight back against those who try to take from him. This goes beyond even Proudhon, who does not really abolish property, according to Stirner, but rather makes each person have a share of property.

If we are to truly repudiate objective property rights, it will not suffice to uphold "society"—as Proudhon does—as a rightful proprietor that has been robbed by individuals. This communist stance on property effectively creates a new spook, making a “moral person” out of the collective (much as the capitalists do with corporations). Instead of paradoxically clinging to classical liberal notions of property rights, those who wish for certain goods to be used in common should just say frankly that these would be better managed if used in common, so let us seize such property from the individuals holding it.

The nakedly revolutionary aspects of Stirner's thought are now fully apparent. The egoist frees himself from pauperism not by invoking universal rights or subjecting himself to the State, but by giving himself value. "I must rise in revolt to rise in the world." [p.336.] It is through aggressive self-assertion that one rises in any world; such has been the lesson of history.

The assertion of egoistic rights—which are defined for himself by each man—needs no mediation by the State, since there are no universal rights requiring enforcement. "The State cannot endure that man stand in a direct relation to man; it must step between as—mediator, must—intervene. [p.337] The very notion of the State presumes that rights are to be adjudicated collectively. Yet if there are no common rights, but only what each man claims for himself, the State is a needless redundancy. Conflicting claims are resolved by whoever can assert themselves more strongly, either alone or in alliance with others. Any "State" that might exist in such a state of affairs is really just a union of egoists imposing their notion of "right" on others. Stirner does not object to such violence, but he refuses to accept another's notion of "right" as his own, and will not pretend that such a "State" is just another egoism, with no more intrinsic authority than his own sense of right.

Communism rightly revolts against the pressure that I experience from individual proprietors; but still more horrible is the might that it puts in the hands of the collectivity. [p.340]

While this is obvious to us in hindsight, we should consider how prescient Stirner was in the 1840s, when nothing existed of Communism but utopian promises. The tyranny of all twentieth-century Communist regimes was not an unfortunate accident or perversion, as socialist apologists have claimed, but is a practically necessary result of concentrating all power in the hands of the State. "The collective" or "the people" is a spook. People cannot act collectively except through some kind of organization that unifies them. When such an organization holds all political power, it is nothing other than the State, whatever name we give it.

We might consider that Stirner is inconsistent in opposing the violence of capitalist proprietors or communist states. After all, if might makes right, why should one complain about either behavior? Yet Stirner does not contend that either behavior is intrinsically immoral, only that they are opposed to his egoistic interest. The capitalists and communists may try to assert their egoism through property rights or the "rights of society", but Stirner recognizes these as mere egoisms with no more intrinsic value than his own. He may have regard for the strength of the capitalists or communists to assert themselves, but he has no regard whatsoever for their rights as universal moral claims. “Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have.” [p.341]

Once the egoism of all is out in the open, there is no reason to find anything contemptible about seizing from others. On the contrary, this "manifests the pure deed of the egoist at one with himself." [p.341] Without the fiction of common rights, the egoist can take what he wants without hypocrisy, without pretending that the interests of another are really his own.

If men reach the point of losing respect for property, every one will have property, as all slaves become free men as soon as they no longer respect the master as master. [pp.341-42]

There is no need to appeal to the "rights of society" for everyone to have property, but we only need to cease recognizing property claims as sacred. In a world where each takes what he can, no one is shut out of property, for everyone has the opportunity to seize something from another.

This economic anarchism differs markedly from libertarianism, since the latter holds private property claims as inviolable. As Stirner notes, laissez faire is not really free, because it relies on the State to protect the property claims of the well-established.

Is "free competition" then really "free"? nay, is it really a "competition,"—to wit, one of persons,—as it gives itself out to be because on this title it bases its right? It originated, you know, in persons becoming free of all personal rule.

Is a competition "free" which the State, this ruler in the civic principle, hems in by a thousand barriers? There is a rich manufacturer doing a brilliant business, and I should like to compete with him. "Go ahead," says the State, "I have no objection to make to your person as competitor." Yes, I reply, but for that I need a space for buildings, I need money! "That's bad; but, if you have no money, you cannot compete. You must not take anything from anybody, for I protect property and grant it privileges."

Free competition is not "free," because I lack the THINGS for competition. Against my person no objection can be made, but because I have not the things my person too must step to the rear. And who has the necessary things? Perhaps that manufacturer? Why, from him I could take them away! No, the State has them as property, the manufacturer only as fief, as possession. [p.345-46]

The liberal State, by defending "property rights", actually suppresses personal competition, allowing only a competition among things. You have no rights or prerogatives as a person; there are only impersonal laws governing the disposal and exchange of property. Only money and securities recognized by the State have privileges. Since the State enforces the rules of the game and protects the winners, the winnings are effectively a fief of the State. Once this is understood, it is no longer remarkable or perverse that the propertied classes have an intimate relationship with the liberal State; indeed this is a practically necessary state of affairs.

The same hypocrisy obtains with other liberal freedoms. We supposedly allow academic freedom, yet impose stringent rules and diploma requirements on those who would teach. This effectively confines academia to those willing to play by the rules of an elaborate game defined by those under the protection of the State. This is a far cry from the free competition of ideas proclaimed by democratic rhetoric. “But do persons really compete? No, again things only! Moneys in the first place, etc.”

Competition suffers from the unfavorable circumstance that the means for competing are not at every one's command, because they are not taken from personality, but from accident. Most are without means, and for this reason without goods. [p.348]

Men could free themselves from unfortunate circumstances if they asserted themselves personally. Yet men refrain from doing so out of respect for mere things: "property rights," money, securities, diplomas, licenses, etc. Once freed of these superstitions, one may boldly take what he can from others, rather than deferring meekly to their claims as sacred and inviolable.

Under liberalism, the only legitimate basis for taking property is productive labor. Yet this principle is constantly belied by economic reality. People become wealthy by entertaining the masses, or by usury, or by passively allowing assets to rise in value. We accept anyone's money as legal tender, regardless of whether they acquired it by industry or idleness. The real basis for taking is money, not labor, since you may have whatever you wish if you only have enough money, however you came by it. Yet money is socially regulated, both in the determination of its value and in its exchange. Its acquisition is not the result of a free competition among persons, but of a regulated competition among things.

Unlike liberal demagogues, who try to blame the monopolization of property on the greed of the rich, Stirner recognizes that most rich people are personally quite charitable. They are no more responsible for poverty than the poor for wealth. It is foolish to demand for the wealthy to abolish poverty, when the supposedly virtuous masses will not share with those poorer than themselves. What is at fault is the subordination of people to things, regarding property claims as sacred and inviolable. When men have enough sense to disregard such claims when they are contrary to their own interests, then each may seize as much property as he can.

It is at best highly doubtful if such economic anarchism would ever be practicable in an industrial age. Without a common currency or respect for contracts, people might fear to engage in any enterprise beyond subsistence farming and arms manufacturing. Investors wisely avoid countries that experience even temporary and partial loss of enforcement of property rights, as investment becomes far too risky. Yet without pooled capital investment, great enterprises are practically impossible. None of this refutes Stirner’s critique of property rights, but only suggests that such rights may be a practically necessary fiction.

Stirner acknowledges a practical need for the social organization of labor, but only for “human” labors, i.e., those that can be done by anyone. By contrast, there are properly personal labors, such as those of Raphael, which could be done by him alone. When socialists esteem or value labor, they consider it only in the generic “human” sense. Yet the social organization of this generic labor serves only to free time for personal labor, or else there is no point to the communist enterprise.

But for whom is time to be gained? For what does man require more time than is necessary to refresh his wearied powers of labor? Here Communism is silent.

For what? To take comfort in himself as the unique, after he has done his part as man! [p.356]

Self-cultivation and self-enjoyment are the object of freeing man from slavish labors. Otherwise, there is no point. Communists do not seem to look past the revolution for any other end. It will not do to say that man should devote himself to the good of the collective, when this good is nothing more than creating for the public greater freedom from servitude and taxing labors. What are they to do with this free time? Here communism, and liberalism for that matter, cannot answer with the “common good” yet again. Ultimately, we wish for everyone to delight in some recreation, which is necessarily a personal experience and has regard for one's own interest.

In economic anarchism, exchange is truly free, as value is determined by people rather than things (i.e. money and laws).

What equivalent do you give for our chewing potatoes and looking calmly on while you swallow oysters? Only buy the oysters of us as dear as we have to buy the potatoes of you, then you may go on eating them. Or do you suppose the oysters do not belong to us as much as to you? You will make an outcry over violence if we reach out our hands and help consume them, and you are right. Without violence we do not get them, as you no less have them by doing violence to us. [pp.357-58.]

Only by disregarding the sanctity of property claims can everyone assert their interests in proportion to their personal strength. The coercion of money and property laws is no less violent than physical assault. If you will not lay down your arms, neither will I lay down mine.

…let us consider our nearer property, labor; for the other is only possession. We distress ourselves twelve hours in the sweat of our face, and you offer us a few groschen for it. Then take the like for your labor too. Are you not willing? You fancy that our labor is richly repaid with that wage, while yours on the other hand is worth a wage of many thousands. … But, if you did not rate yours so high, and gave us a better chance to realize value from ours, then we might well, if the case demanded it, bring to pass still more important things than you do for the many thousand thalers…

Labor, being part of our person, is most truly our property, more so than any external goods. The capitalist's rationale that his labor is worth more rings hollow, since his greater productivity rests in part on his coercive hold on capital and money. If his lowly workers were not forced to subsist on a pittance, some of them might likewise be able to accomplish great works. Stirner’s critique of capitalism is similar to that of socialists only to a point. Whereas the socialists contend that the laboring man is being defrauded of his property, Stirner holds only that the laborer ought to defend his claim no less violently than the capitalist.

We shall be willing to get along with each other all right, if only we have first agreed on this,—that neither any longer needs to—present anything to the other. Then we may perhaps actually go so far as to pay even the cripples and sick and old an appropriate price for not parting from us by hunger and want; for, if we want them to live, it is fitting also that we—purchase the fulfilment of our will. I say “purchase,” and therefore do not mean a wretched “alms.” [pp. 358-59]

No one owes anyone anything. If we want to help those who cannot work because their company pleases us, we may do so. This is not out of any moral obligation, but for our own contentment; thus it is a purchase rather than alms.

The absence of property law and society does not mean that men may not form associations to protect their interests. A type of labor union is described:

And I am your plowman, and will henceforth attend to your fields only for one thaler a day wages. “Then I’ll take another.” You won’t find any, for we plowmen are no longer doing otherwise, and, if one puts in an appearance who takes less, then let him beware of us…

“O ill-starred equality!” No, my good old sir, nothing of equality. We only want to count for what we are worth, and, if you are worth more, you shall count for more right along. We only want to be worth our price, and think to show ourselves worth the price that you will pay. [p.360.]

Unlike the socialists, Stirner does not hold that all labor is of equal value. The purpose of a union is not to demand equal pay, but to prevent anyone from being paid beneath his price. This is accomplished by taking violent action against those who would undersell us. A generic schedule-price for wages is applicable only to unskilled labor. Those who have special management abilities, artistic talent, or any other unique quality are not subject to such generic evaluation.

[Top of page]

17. Love of Others

A denial of the sanctity of property claims—private and public alike—applies also to “spiritual goods,” such as freedom of speech, of the press, etc. Liberals incoherently uphold these freedoms as inviolable rights, when in fact these freedoms undermine the notion that anything is inviolable or sacred.

An unrestricted press guarantees that there will always be a contempt for the sacred: desecration, irreverence, etc. Even those who believe in the sacred will be aware of such irreverence, and thus recognize that the sacred is not absolutely inviolable. By their tolerance of blasphemy, they may learn to regard it as a lesser crime, and so on for other decriminalized impieties. No one and nothing is immune to verbal insult and abuse.

Although Stirner saw even in the 1840s that a free press meant the death of the sacred, his observations more properly fit the trajectory of mass culture from 1890 onward. It is only in this period that impiety (religious, political, familial) went fully mainstream, entering the public discourse of the masses. The media of mass entertainment and journalism proceeded hand-in-hand with a vulgarization of mores, which became increasingly irreverent throughout most of the twentieth century. Even the exception proves the rule, for the mid-twentieth century saw an abatement of this trend only in so far as censorship was briefly imposed in film, television and other media. As soon as this censorship was softened and eviscerated, the decadence of the Jazz Age resumed its trajectory, accelerating to the point that the irreverence of the sixties now seems quaint and restrained.

Still, mere legal freedom does not suffice to effect social change. The press is no freer than the people who write. A Christian will not write against Christ, nor will a liberal write against the dogma of equality. We see this even in our day, as journalists shackle themselves and others in a bewildering, ever-changing etiquette of egalitarianism, commonly called “political correctness.” They may see this as enlightenment, but then every ideologue thinks he has reason on his side.

…Man wants… to make all men happy. Hence every “man” wants to awaken in all men the reason which he supposes his own self to have: everything is to be rational throughout. [p.382]

The universal Man is egoistic, wishing to impose a universal happiness and rationality upon all. The humanist, seeing himself as an instance of “man,” acts egoistically by projecting his own particular notions of happiness and reason upon others as universals.

When understood in this light, we can see how false is liberal altruistic love. This “love” really consists in imposing our own preferences on others so that they may become like us. Can the wealthy liberal really love this poor black man as he really is: “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” religious? Not at all! He must first “enlighten” him, and teach him to become like him. Even now there are propaganda campaigns in black neighborhoods to discourage men from making even obliquely “sexist” or “homophobic” comments in the street. The liberal has no love for the individual or particular; we must become all the same in the fundamentals. You may not hate the groups he does not hate, but by all means you may hate fascists, religious fanatics, ultra-conservatives, and whatever else he hates. His aesthetic preferences are imposed on us as universal ethics.

The liberal, like all ideologues, will claim that his preferences are not arbitrary, but are informed by “reason.” Yet this reason is not pure logic, but is based on metaphysical dogmas about “equal rights,” and is often sentimental. Thus violence, even against murderers, is “barbaric” because of some squeamishness about bloodshed, though we do not hesitate to take life via imprisonment. Likewise, the idea that we should not say anything offensive to certain groups is grounded in sympathy over hurt feelings. Yet liberals do not hesitate to kill or defame their enemies. Whatever one may say about liberal “reason,” it is not a universal reason, but a particular set of ideological preferences. The individual who does not share these preferences is no more bound to them then he is bound to your taste in food or music. Yet the liberal is not content to let others prefer differently, for all society must be governed by his principles.

Collectivist egoism disguised as altruistic love may also be seen in the phenomenon of “justice.” With Justice, only the spook Man is loved, while the actual person is hated. [p.383]

The criminally arraigned man can expect no forbearance, and no one spreads a friendly veil over his unhappy nakedness. Without emotion the stern judge tears the last rags of excuse from the body of the poor accused; without compassion the jailer drags him into his damp abode; without placability, when the time of punishment has expired, he thrusts the branded man again among men, his good, Christian, loyal brethren! who contemptuously spit on him.

We may have softened the physical treatment of prisoners since Stirner’s day, to appease our own squeamishness about assaults to our person, yet we still show an implacable sternness toward those who have committed what we consider to be crimes. It is not enough to punish the accused; we must force him to acknowledge his guilt, to internalize our values. Thus even the most liberal judges become schoolmarmish scolds at sentencing, expecting the convict to realize how evil he is, and that he deserves what he is getting.

The point is not that prisoners should receive better treatment, for we will see that Stirner cares nothing for empathy. Rather, justice is a sham expression of love, for it condemns individuals for deviating from the ideal Man. It hates this individual for being who he is, rather than conforming to some abstract universal, Humanity, which is really un-man, since it is impersonal. This fictional ideal is really just an expression of the preferences of some group of men, who demand that all others should think like them to be counted as human. Otherwise, they will gladly strip criminals of their supposedly inalienable human right of freedom.

Stirner, being loyal only to his own interest, cannot sacrifice himself. He may sacrifice one passion to another passion, while still being true to his core interests, but he may never oppose himself as such without effectively ceasing to be Der Einzige. To make another's interest take the place of one's own is to assimilate and die as a person.

I love men too,—not merely individuals, but every one. But I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy, I love because loving is natural to me, because it pleases me. I know no “commandment of love.” I have a fellow-feeling with every feeling being, and their torment torments, their refreshment refreshes me too; I can kill them, not torture them. [pp.386-87.]

This “fellow-feeling” is not a real empathy; in fact there is no such thing as empathy.

If I see the loved one suffer, I suffer with him, and I know no rest till I have tried everything to comfort and cheer him; if I see him glad, I too become glad over his joy. From this it does not follow that suffering or joy is caused in me by the same thing that brings out this effect in him, as is sufficiently proved by every bodily pain which I do not feel as he does; his tooth pains him, but his pain pains me.

But, because I cannot bear the troubled crease on the beloved forehead, for that reason, and therefore for my sake, I kiss it away. If I did not love this person, he might go right on making creases, they would not trouble me; I am only driving away my trouble. [pp.387-88.]

Awareness of the suffering of another causes me pain, and it is to relieve my pain that I seek to end his suffering. Stirner does not explore the reason why someone else’s suffering should cause us pain, but accepts it as a brute fact. Each of us can only speak for our own preferences. Thus we may be troubled by the suffering of some person we like, but not by that of a person whom we dislike. Each has his own set of preferences on this matter; there is no universal obligation to love all men, or any men.

Obligation is the distinction between egoistic love and “sacred love.” An egoist chooses whom he will make the object of his love, while the idealist is obligated to love. Whether this obligation is religious or humanistic, the basic idea is that something has a right to my love because of what is sacred in it (e.g., the image of God, humanity). I am to love this sacred thing before I even love an actual person; indeed, I am to love the person in fulfillment of my duty to this sacred universal.

We already know that Stirner rejects ideals as spooks, yet obligatory love has the further discredit of making my love someone else's property. “My love, i.e. the toll of love that I pay him, is in truth his love, which he only collects from me as toll.” [p.389]

Even if I freely select the person who is to be my love-object (as when choosing a spouse), “my love” ceases to be my property if I am thenceforth obligated to love that person. In that case, the other person claims a “right of his own to my love.” Likewise, family love (piety), patriotism, and romantic love reveal “an interest in the object for the object’s sake, not for my sake and mine alone.” This unselfishness, Stirner claims, is deceptive. Recall that he regards ideals as hidden egoisms, where we treat our thoughts as something external to us. Thus when we “altruistically” love others, we are really following a self-interest that we have made into a master, in the form of an obligation or duty to love.

An egoist’s love, by contrast, remains in selfishness from start to finish, without any pretense of altruism. I love “my beloved” precisely because it is mine, “my object, my property.” I harbor love as one of my feelings, but “as a religious and moral duty—I scorn it.” If one is required to love others, then love loses its personal character: “I no longer show myself in face of the world, but my love shows itself.”

This is diametrically opposed to Feuerbach’s rationalistic love: “Love that scorns the rigor, the law, of intelligence, is theoretically a false love, practically a ruinous one.” Stirner rightly mocks this idea that love should be subject to some law or reason. Such a monstrosity is not love at all. Love, being a particular feeling toward particular objects, is necessarily irrational, irreducible to universal rules or concepts.

[Top of page]

18. Truth-Telling

It is frequently in one’s self-interest to tell the truth in order to build confidence, for nobody believes a liar. “Yet, at the same time, he would also feel that he had to meet with truth only him whom he authorized to hear the truth. If a spy walks in disguise through the hostile camp…” [p.395] As with other supposed rights, the egoist here recognizes only the right he chooses to impart—I need not recognize any right of certain others to have the truth from me.

Suppose a revolutionary makes an utterance that is a capital offense. Should he confess if questioned?

If truth is more than everything else to him, all right, let him die. Only a paltry poet could try to make a tragedy out of the end of his life; for what interest is there in seeing how a man succumbs from cowardice? But, if he had the courage not to be a slave of truth and sincerity, he would ask somewhat thus: Why need the judges know what I have spoken among friends? If I had wished them to know, I should have said it to them as I said it to my friends. I will not have them know it. They force themselves into my confidence without my having called them to it and made them my confidants; they will learn what I will keep secret. [p.397]

As with Socrates, Stirner regards the man who dies for a principle as a coward who is afraid of some spooky ideal. It is sensible to be afraid of a strong enemy, but childish to fear some make-believe rule about truth and sincerity. The egoist, by contrast, is bold enough to recognize that he alone has the right to decide who is worthy of hearing whatever truth he wants to share.

…let lying come ever so hard to me, I have nevertheless the courage of a lie; and, even if I were weary of my life, even if nothing appeared to me more welcome than your executioner's sword, you nevertheless should not have the joy of finding in me a slave of truth… [p.397]

A common defense of the “heroic” truth-teller is that his act’s virtue is proved by its difficulty. Stirner inverts this argument by saying that he may heroically overcome the difficulty of lying. It is not mere fear of death that makes him lie, for even if he welcomed death, he would refuse to tell the truth to those whom he deemed unworthy of his confidence.

Even the idealists admit exceptions to the law of truth-telling, in order to keep faith with some “higher truth.” Luther broke his monastic vows. Sigismund falsely swore to uphold the Swedish Lutheran Church when he was crowned king, and in fact promoted the Catholic faith. Missionaries everywhere induce men to break with the faith of their fathers. Stirner takes these exceptions a step further: we should lie in order to keep faith with our highest loyalty, namely our own self-interest.

[Top of page]

19. Society versus Ownness

Remarkably, Stirner acknowledges that man is born a social animal, though he does not make the usual inferences from this fact.

Not isolation or being alone, but society, is man’s original state. Our existence begins with the most intimate conjunction, as we are already living with our mother before we breathe; when we see the light of the world, we at once lie on a human being’s breast again, her love cradles us in the lap, leads us in the go-cart, and chains us to her person with a thousand ties. Society is our state of nature. [pp.406-407.]

Still, we do not remain in this natural society, but strive to make our own associations, freeing ourselves from maternal bonds.

And this is why, the more we learn to feel ourselves, the connection that was formerly most intimate becomes ever looser and the dissolution of the original society more unmistakable. To have once again for herself the child that once lay under her heart, the mother must fetch it from the street and from the midst of its playmates. The child prefers the intercourse that it enters into with its fellows to the society that it has not entered into, but only been born in. [p.407.]

Note again the distinction between society and intercourse. Maternal society encloses and binds, while intercourse is an activity we freely choose to engage or desist at our pleasure.

But the dissolution of society is intercourse or union. A society does assuredly arise by union too, but only as a fixed idea arises by a thought,—to wit, by the vanishing of the energy of the thought (the thinking itself, this restless taking back all thoughts that make themselves fast) from the thought. If a union has crystallized into a society, it has ceased to be a coalition; for coalition is an incessant self-uniting; it has become a unitedness, come to a standstill, degenerated into a fixity; it is—dead as a union, it is the corpse of the union or the coalition, i.e. it is—society, community. A striking example of this kind is furnished by the party. [p. 407.]

Just as we may foolishly allow our thoughts to crystallize into fixed ideas or principles that bind us, so that the thoughts are no longer our energies or activities, but our masters, so too might a union of persons be crystallized into a society that imposes obligations on us, becoming a law unto itself rather than a mere creation of our aggregation. A coalition of friends, by contrast, is held together only as long as its members actively choose to remain united. Just as intercourse is the death of society, so too is society the death of a coalition’s voluntary intercourse, so far is it from the case that society and intercourse are the same.

While one would have to explore the depths of early history to find out how our societies emerged from coalitions, we can witness the process firsthand in the formation of new political parties. At first, they are just groups of men who share the same ideas, and freely choose to converse and work with each other for shared goals. At some point, however, they adopt a structure with fixed rules and laws, even a party platform. Then “the Party” becomes an entity of its own, even something to which we owe allegiance.

As Stirner was writing, some of the Left Hegelians were beginning to form a more structured association, which would be called the Communist League or Party. Party tyranny would become a dominant characteristic of Communism, undermining its professed aim of liberating the masses.

The contrast between society and intercourse is by now clear. Society, for Stirner, is something not self-chosen. Once a corporate union becomes binding or obligating, it is no longer a simple union or coalition, like a child’s friends. Yet Stirner does not object to society on the grounds that it impedes his liberty.

That a society (e.g. the society of the State) diminishes my liberty offends me little. Why, I have to let my liberty be limited by all sorts of powers and by every one who is stronger; nay, by every fellow-man; and, were I the autocrat of all the R......, I yet should not enjoy absolute liberty. But ownness I will not have taken from me. And ownness is precisely what every society has designs on, precisely what is to succumb to its power. [p.407-408.]

Unlike the libertarian, who resents the state for limiting his personal freedom of action, Stirner does not naively suppose that an anarchic world would maximize freedom. After all, private entities are quite capable of imposing coercive measures on each other. He recognizes that there will always be stronger individuals, or groups of men collectively stronger than the mightiest autocrat, who might impose coercion on him. What he rejects is the notion that he should have any loyalty whatsoever to his enemies, and adopt their interests as his own. He will defer to his enemies under coercion, recognizing their strength, but they still remain enemies and their interests are not his. He remains his own. Yet a primary aim of society—all society—is to submerse the individual in a corporate whole, so that we prefer the interests of the society to our own. We alienate to society—or its organ, the State—our power to declare what is right for us. If we consent to this internally, we are not merely prisoners, but the property of society. We are no longer our own.

This state of subjection does not result from an abuse of society, but is essential to society; “it exists only by subjection.” [p.408.] As a condition of membership, society demands that no one must exalt himself above society and its law. He may permit himself only what society and its law allow.

If only my liberty is limited, then we have a coalition, agreement or union. “but, if ruin is threatened to ownness, it is a power of itself, a power above me, a thing unattainable by me, which I can indeed admire, adore, reverence, respect, but cannot subdue and consume, and that for the reason that I am resigned.” The strength of society is precisely in this self-renunciation of its members. “My humility makes its courage, my submissiveness gives it its dominion.” [p. 409.] As contrasted with egoistic unions, which attain dominion by their strength, society's strength as society, i.e., its authority, lies in our submission.

[Top of page]

20. False Ideal Societies

Once it is recognized that the subjection of the individual is a necessary precondition of all society, it follows that liberal and socialist ideal societies likewise include this subjection. In these supposed utopias where everyone is free, in fact everyone is annihilated as ego.

The liberal ideal of absolute liberty is the “nonsense of the impossible.” [p.409.] The falsity of this ideal is proved by the fact that liberal societies become increasingly bureaucratized and regulated as they mature. People “freely” choose to express their will through the organs of the state. The state, as it expands in domain, drives away the ego, even daring to posit itself as “my true ego,” as something sacred. [p.410.] Not only do we renounce our interests in favor of those of a ruling bureaucracy, but we even persuade ourselves that such subjection is in our highest interest. Thus we tell ourselves that our own happiness is better secured by submitting to the police, the army, the courts, the state and its laws, and by recognizing the property rights of others. Yet all the real decision-making and evaluation of claims and interests is alienated to others, usually the bureaucratic organs of the state. These operate according to their own rules, with or without my consent as a unique individual.

Stirner’s characterization of the Communist ideal is withering and prescient.

That society which Communism wants to found seems to stand nearest to coalition. For it is to aim at the “welfare of all”… But what then will this welfare be? Have all one and the same welfare, are all equally well off with one and the same thing? If that be so, the question is of the “true welfare.” … Christianity says, Look not on earthly toys, but seek your true welfare, become—pious Christians; being Christians is the true welfare. It is the true welfare of “all,” because it is the welfare of Man as such (this spook). [pp.410-11.]

This spectre of the “general welfare,” known also to liberals, is used by Communists as justification for destroying the welfare of particular people.

Communism, in proclaiming the welfare of all, annuls outright the well-being of those who hitherto lived on their income from investments and apparently felt better in that than in the prospect of Weitling’s strict hours of labor. Hence the latter asserts that with the welfare of thousands the welfare of millions cannot exist, and the former must give up their special welfare “for the sake of the general welfare.”

No, let people not be summoned to sacrifice their special welfare for the general, for this Christian admonition will not carry you through; they will better understand the opposite admonition, not to let their own welfare be snatched from them by anybody, but to put it on a permanent foundation.

Then they are of themselves led to the point that they care best for their welfare if they unite with others for this purpose, i.e. “sacrifice a part of their liberty,” yet not to the welfare of others, but to their own. [pp.411-412.]

Communist society is not a simple union or coalition, for participants in the latter may sacrifice some liberty in order to better defend their interests, not to renounce them, as the wealthy are expected to do.

Appeals to sacrifice the self for the general good have been made for millennia, yet to date they have brought nothing but the misery of the many.

Why then still fruitlessly expect self-sacrifice to bring us better times? why not rather hope for them from usurpation? Salvation comes no longer from the giver, the bestower, the loving one, but from the taker, the appropriater (usurper), the owner. [p.412.]

Communism and humanism expect that self-sacrificing love will improve the lot of the many, contrary to all the evidence of social history. In fact, such self-sacrifice has guaranteed the perpetual servitude of the many. They may attain what they want only when they have the will and united strength to take it.

For Stirner, religion can only be truly expunged from society when we remove this principle of self-sacrificing love.

But it is precisely in Communism that this principle seeks to culminate, as in it everything is to become common for the establishment of—“equality.” If this “equality” is won, “liberty” too is not lacking. But whose liberty? Society’s! Society is then all in all, and men are only “for each other.” It would be the glory of the—love-State. [p.413.]

Stirner attacks the idea of self-renouncing love because he sees it as having been perennially abused to make people serve the interests of those who care naught for them. It may be that he goes too far in attacking charitable love as such, but we may nonetheless admit the frequency of its abuse, especially by political societies.

But I would rather be referred to men’s selfishness than to their “kindnesses,” their mercy, pity, etc. The former demands reciprocity (as thou to me, so I to thee), does nothing “gratis,” and may be won and—bought. But with what shall I obtain the kindness? It is a matter of chance whether I am at the time having to do with a “loving” person. The affectionate one’s service can be had only by—begging, be it by my lamentable appearance, by my need of help, my misery, my—suffering. What can I offer him for his assistance? Nothing! I must accept it as a—present. Love is unpayable, or rather, love can assuredly be paid for, but only by counter-love (“One good turn deserves another”). [p.413.]

It is better to deal with egoists, since at least then we can candidly address our conflict of interests and come to some agreement. Relying on fellow-feeling or kindness makes us dependent on a capricious charity, and a false charity at that, since it demands reciprocity.

Stirner is actually challenging the so-called Golden Rule or principle of reciprocity, the basis of all social morality, as well as the fellow-feeling that underlies it. To depend on another man’s sense of fraternity towards us makes us no less dependent on his arbitrary favor than a servant toward a master. The difference, of course, from the master-servant relationship is the expectation of reciprocity, which seems to imply some moral equality.

Yet Stirner emphatically rejects the notion of human equality, grounded as it in the spectre of universal “Man.”

Let us rather renounce every hypocrisy of community, and recognize that, if we are equal as men, we are not equal for the very reason that we are not men. We are equal only in thoughts, only when “we” are thought, not as we really and bodily are. I am ego, and you are ego: but I am not this thought-of ego; this ego in which we are all equal is only my thought. I am man, and you are man: but “man” is only a thought, a generality; neither you nor I are speakable, we are unutterable, because only thoughts are speakable and consist in speaking. [p.414.]

“Man” does not exist; there is only each concrete individual, who is irreducible to any other, and so cannot be compared with others and evaluated by a common measure. Human equality therefore evaporates; it is intelligible only insofar as we consider “man” as an abstraction.

Instead of relying on fellow-feeling and the fiction of human equality, we may candidly make use of each other, just as we already do in business affairs.

And, if I can use him, I doubtless come to an understanding and make myself at one with him, in order, by the agreement, to strengthen my power, and by combined force to accomplish more than individual force could effect. In this combination I see nothing whatever but a multiplication of my force, and I retain it only so long as it is my multiplied force. But thus it is a—union. [p.415]

By uniting with others who have overlapping interests, we do not renounce ourselves, but amplify our powers. This is different from joining a society, which expects us to suppress our egoism in favor of the interest of the collective. A simple union is held together only as long as our interests coincide, or we agree to cede one claim in order to gain another. A union of egoists amplifies the scope of “ownness,” while society diminishes it.

You bring into a union your whole power, your competence, and make yourself count; in a society you are employed, with your working power; in the former you live egoistically, in the latter humanly, i.e. religiously, as a “member in the body of this Lord”; to a society you owe what you have, and are in duty bound to it, are—possessed by “social duties”; a union you utilize, and give it up undutifully and unfaithfully when you see no way to use it further… [p.416-17.]

There is no loyalty or duty to a union, since the union exists only for its constituent egoists, not the other way around.

Choose then whether you want to be lord, or whether society shall be! On this depends whether you are to be an owner or a ragamuffin! The egoist is owner, the Socialist a ragamuffin. [p.417.]

The pauperism of the individual under socialism is well attested by history, yet Stirner reserves a similar barb for the liberals.

Liberalism wants to give me what is mine, but it thinks to procure it for me not under the title of mine, but under that of the “human.”

While the socialist “gives” the common man his property as a fief from the State, the liberal “gives” out of some entitlement called “human rights,” which we have not as our own rights, but only by virtue of being “human,” and on condition of granting identical rights to all others. Both act like the Wizard of Oz, giving us back our own personal qualities as though they became ours only by virtue of their stamp of approval.

If on the other hand you insist on the value of your gifts, keep up their price, do not let yourselves be forced to sell out below price, do not let yourselves be talked into the idea that your ware is not worth its price, do not make yourselves ridiculous by a “ridiculous price,” but imitate the brave man who says, I will sell my life (property) dear, the enemy shall not have it at a cheap bargain; then you have recognized the reverse of Communism as the correct thing, and the word then is not “Give up your property!” but “Get the value out of your property!”

Over the portal of our time stands not that “Know thyself” of Apollo, but a “Get the value out of thyself!” Universally, no one grows indignant at his, but at alien property. They do not in truth attack property, but the alienation of property. They want to be able to call more, not less, theirs; they want to call everything theirs. They are fighting, therefore, against alienness, or, to form a word similar to property, against alienty. [p.420.]

Those who rail against the abuses of property are really opposed to the alienation of property. What we recognize as legal property rights is not really property at all, but something abstracted from persons. The egoist has no regard for this abstract “property,” but instead cares only to amass genuine property, that which is proper to his person and subjected to him. We have real property by virtue of ourselves, not by virtue of any abstract legal right or membership in some society. Our claims to property are justified by our ability to defend them, alone or in union with others, not by virtue of being born “human” or “an ego.”

Continue to Part III

© 2014 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.