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Max Stirner versus Morality

Daniel J. Castellano


Part I: The Self versus Higher Causes
Part II: Self-Ownership
Part III: Self-Enjoyment
21. Self-Enjoyment as Consumption
22. Critique of Idealistic Self-Improvement
23. Self-Exertion as Force
24. Critique of Egalitarian Essentialism
25. Denial of Human Potential or Perfectibility
26. Cultural Idealism
27. Subjectivity of Thought
28. The Mastery and Use of Thought
29. Perfection of the Existing Ego
30. The Unique One

Part III: Self-Enjoyment

21. Self-Enjoyment as Consumption

In most systems of ethics, religious or otherwise, the goal of human behavior is to attain some higher state of happiness or fulfillment. Stirner rejects such goal-directedness as inherently idealistic, for it makes the happy self something held above the actual self. The egoist does not need to seek out happiness as something in a foreign land; for him happiness consists in enjoying himself as he actually is. For this kind of happiness, one does not need religion or philosophy or anything other than oneself. Further, happiness is not something to be attained, but consists precisely in consumption: “Enjoyment of life is using life up.” [p.426.]

With this axiom, Stirner evades the moral philosopher’s concerns about the futility of life. It does not matter if the egoist’s life should end in dissolution or annihilation. Such is not a failure to attain enjoyment, but precisely the result of self-enjoyment, which is to use up one’s powers. You can’t eat your cake and still have it. Since enjoyment comes from the self as it already is, it is accessible to everyone. This fact is borne out in our today, as even the most uneducated are capable nihilists, unconcerned with the prospect of death, and content with themselves in the absence of religion, philosophy, or any other higher criterion.

Stirner presents his notion of enjoyment as more sensible than that of the idealists, for he accepts the commonsense perception that life is right in front of us, not something to be sought.

Now—we are in search of the enjoyment of life! And what did the religious world do? It went in search of life. “Wherein consists the true life, the blessed life, etc.? How is it to be attained? What must man do and become in order to become a truly living man? How does he fulfil this calling?” These and similar questions indicate that the askers were still seeking for themselves,—to wit, themselves in the true sense, in the sense of true living. “What I am is foam and shadow; what I shall be is my true self.” To chase after this self, to produce it, to realize it, constitutes the hard task of mortals, who die only to rise again, live only to die, live only to find the true life. [pp.426-27.]

This characterization of “the religious world” applies also to the ancient philosophers, as well as to modern idealists. The ethical man considers himself truly man only insofar as he does that which is most worthy of man, what makes the best use of his powers. For Stirner, one use is as good as another, so there is no criterion by which he can become a better self or “more himself” or “more human.” As discussed previously, such an idealization of the self impedes self-ownership.

Not till I am certain of myself, and no longer seeking for myself, am I really my property; I have myself, therefore I use and enjoy myself. On the other hand, I can never take comfort in myself so long as I think that I have still to find my true self…

A vast interval separates the two views. In the old I go toward myself, in the new I start from myself; in the former I long for myself, in the latter I have myself and do with myself as one does with any other property—I enjoy myself at my pleasure. I am no longer afraid for my life, but “squander” it.

Henceforth the question runs, not how one can acquire life, but how one can squander, enjoy it; or, not how one is to produce the true self in himself, but how one is to dissolve himself, to live himself out. [p.427.]

Here we see how literally Stirner takes self-ownership. The self, as a piece of property, is consumed in the process of its enjoyment. Instead of seeking the “true life” or “true self” as something to be acquired, one consumes the actual life of the self already owned. He is unconcerned by claims that he is “wasting” his life and will end up as nothing, for such self-dissolution is a necessary consequence of self-enjoyment.

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22. Critique of Idealistic Self-Improvement

Stirner considers this sort of self-enjoyment to be preferable to idealistic “self-improvement” because he considers the actual self as the only real self. The “ideal self” pursued by moralists is a ghostly invention, and even if it were real, it would be something other than oneself. Whatever may said of the futility of dissolute egoism, this sort of self-enjoyment would be the only kind that is really available.

If the enjoyment of life is to triumph over the longing for life or hope of life, it must vanquish this in its double significance, which Schiller introduces in his “Ideal and Life”; it must crush spiritual and secular poverty, exterminate the ideal and—the want of daily bread. He who must expend his life to prolong life cannot enjoy it, and he who is still seeking for his life does not have it and can as little enjoy it… [p.428.]

Although Stirner references Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “The Ideal and the Actual Life,” we will not find there any contempt for ideals. On the contrary, Schiller attempts a synthesis of the ideal and the actual, as man realizes ideals in the here and now through creative effort and sympathetic suffering in solidarity with his fellow man. We may likewise accept Stirner’s assertion of egoistic enjoyment not as necessarily abolishing idealism, but at least as something that idealism must take into account. I am not to be merely “the ideal man,” but also a concrete individual, and life is not really life unless it also encompasses my temporal circumstances.

Stirner, as contrasted with Schiller, thinks we should abolish hope for both spiritual and material goods. Spiritual hope is to be banished by disbelieving in ideals, while material hope, by contrast, is banished by satisfying material wants. In the latter case, Stirner is concerned only with abolishing extreme want, such as the slavery and industrial drudgery that keep a man barely alive enough to do more work. Such an existence is incompatible with self-enjoyment. Expending oneself just to stay alive is not the same as expending life in enjoyment. The seeker of ideals, Stirner contends, is likewise incapable of self-enjoyment because the ideal life is unattainable.

Those who are hungering for the true life have no power over their present life, but must apply it for the purpose of thereby gaining that true life, and must sacrifice it entirely to this aspiration and this task. [p.428.]

The moral idealist does not really own his present life, since its activities are all directed to the imperatives of his ideal. Stirner seems to have Christianity especially in mind, with its emphasis on the afterlife. Yet even in Christianity, the “true life” or “kingdom of God” begins here and now. Why does Stirner insist that it is all mere aspiration? He holds that insofar as we make all our actions subject to ideal criteria, we do not own our life. Rather, we are slaves to the ideal, just as the proletariat are enslaved for the sake of bare subsistence. In both cases, we do not work at our pleasure, for our own enjoyment, but for the sake of something extrinsic to ourselves.

In this view life exists only to gain life, and one lives only to make the essence of man alive in oneself, one lives for the sake of this essence. One has his life only in order to procure by means of it the “true” life cleansed of all egoism. Hence one is afraid to make any use he likes of his life: it is to serve only for the “right use.” [p.429.]

To reduce one’s life to a mere instrument for the sake of some extrinsic ideal or biological imperative would be to deny self-ownership, rendering genuine self-enjoyment impossible. The self-owner, by contrast, does whatever he likes with his life.

The self-owner may even end his life in suicide, if he so chooses. Moral and religious injunctions against suicide presume an instrumentalist notion of ego: “…for in me good loses a tool, as God does an instrument.” [p.431.] Moralists will say we have “no right” to commit suicide, because of duties to our family, to God, or to society, or because of the good we might have done. All of these arguments suppose that the ego is the instrument or property of another.

Only when I am under obligation to no being is the maintaining of life—my affair. “A leap from this bridge makes me free!”

In recent decades, many liberals have accepted the liceity of suicide, but only by appeal to “human rights.” Like other liberal rights, this is subjected to humanistic criteria. Often, a moral imperative against suicide is imposed under the guise of “mental health,” where anyone who finds the liberal paradise unsuitable for life is deemed unhealthy. This subjection of the ego to humanistic criteria only confirms Stirner’s statement: “Man is the liberal’s supreme being, man the judge of his life, humanity his directions, or catechism.” [p.433]

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23. Self-Exertion as Force

Self-exertion for the sake of self-enjoyment is not a calling, destiny or imperative; it is simply something a man does by virtue of what he can do. Stirner’s discussion of force bears a striking resemblance to Nietzsche’s “will-to-power.”

A man is “called” to nothing, and has no “calling,” no “destiny,” as little as a plant or a beast has a “calling.” The flower does not follow the calling to complete itself, but it spends all its forces to enjoy and consume the world as well as it can,—i.e. it sucks in as much of the juices of the earth, as much air of the ether, as much light of the sun, as it can get and lodge. The bird lives up to no calling, but it uses its forces as much as is practicable; it catches beetles and sings to its heart’s delight.

But the forces of the flower and the bird are slight in comparison to those of a man, and a man who applies his forces will affect the world much more powerfully than flower and beast. A calling he has not, but he has forces that manifest themselves where they are because their being consists solely in their manifestation, and are as little able to abide inactive as life, which, if it “stood still” only a second, would no longer be life.

Now, one might call out to the man, “use your force.” Yet to this imperative would be given the meaning that it was man's task to use his force. It is not so. Rather, each one really uses his force without first looking upon this as his calling: at all times every one uses as much force as he possesses. One does say of a beaten man that he ought to have exerted his force more; but one forgets that, if in the moment of succumbing he had had the force to exert his forces (e.g. bodily forces), he would not have failed to do it: even if it was only the discouragement of a minute, this was yet a—destitution of force, a minute long. Forces may assuredly be sharpened and redoubled, especially by hostile resistance or friendly assistance; but where one misses their application one may be sure of their absence too. One can strike fire out of a stone, but without the blow none comes out; in like manner a man too needs “impact.”

Now, for this reason that forces always of themselves show themselves operative, the command to use them would be superfluous and senseless. To use his forces is not man's calling and task, but is his act, real and extant at all times. Force is only a simpler word for manifestation of force. [pp.436-37; emphases added]

The emphasized text indicates the strong similarity with Nietzsche’s notion that there is no distinction between power and its exertion. In the penultimate paragraph, Stirner discusses at length how there is no force besides that which is exerted. Thus it is senseless to say that one “ought” to exert force as some kind of moral imperative; rather, as a matter of fact, every living being exerts what force it can.

Living creatures exert force for their own “enjoyment,” which is to say, for their own consumption. An individual plant or animal has no knowledge of any prior biological imperative to “improve” itself or its species; it acts only for its immediate concern. The so-called “law of natural selection” is really just a generalized description of the result of many egoistic exertions.

We may add that egoistic exertion is not always on the level of individual organisms, but social animals such as bees and ants may exert themselves as a collective, becoming a larger egoistic unit. Such collectives may rightfully be called egoistic, since they act only for their own good, and use other organisms for their own consumption or enjoyment.

Stirner’s account of biology dispenses with any sort of “law” as an imperative. This is in marked distinction from many liberal humanists who would make normative what is “natural” or inherited behavior, or else invent some duty to “evolve” or “improve” toward some ideal. This lawful and teleological orientation is contrary to Darwin’s understanding of evolution, which was more akin to Stirner’s notion of haphazard egoistic exertions without regard for higher criteria.

Now, as this rose is a true rose to begin with, this nightingale always a true nightingale, so I am not for the first time a true man when I fulfil my calling, live up to my destiny, but I am a “true man” from the start. My first babble is the token of the life of a “true man,” the struggles of my life are the outpourings of his force, my last breath is the last exhalation of the force of the “man.”

The true man does not lie in the future, an object of longing, but lies, existent and real, in the present. Whatever and whoever I may be, joyous and suffering, a child or a graybeard, in confidence or doubt, in sleep or in waking, I am it, I am the true man. [p.436-37.]

Unlike the post-Darwinian Nietzsche, Stirner does not have any vision of evolving into a better kind of human of something more than human. You are already what you are no matter what. Even a babbling infant is not an “imperfect” or “undeveloped” man. The notion of being “more perfect” or “more evolved” smuggles idealism back into biology, where Darwin sought to abolish it. Still, an adult may be considered “more developed” in the sense that he has successfully exerted himself in consumption to the point of acquiring ever greater powers. Likewise, humans are “more developed” than other animals not because they more closely approximate some ideal, but because they generally have much greater powers, that is, greater ability to exert force against all that is not self.

Clearly, Stirner rejects biological essentialism as forcefully as any other idealism, especially in its teleological aspect. Humanity is not a goal, but something we already possess. It is senseless to “try” to be “more humane,” or to seek to “improve humanity,” unless improvement simply means acquiring greater powers. Yet even the acquisition of such powers serves no other purpose than self-enjoyment, which is realized in the act of consumption.

While the idea that humanity has some destiny of self-improvement is banished as another idealist myth, perhaps at least an individual destiny might be admitted. This need not mean that there is a fixed path that I ought to follow, but one might at least acknowledge that some paths are better for me than others. This may be precisely what Stirner posits. While he rejects any notion that I ought to pursue “my better self” or become more truly myself, it is inarguable that my egoistic exertions involve choosing one path as preferable to another. The path I choose is not preferable for everyone, nor is it even preferable for me for all time, but it is preferable for me at that moment, because I judge it to be better for me at that moment, and so in that limited sense it is my individual destiny.

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24. Critique of Egalitarian Essentialism

Moving from biology to ethics, we see that essentialism still divides man into two: the ego as he actually is, versus the ideal or true Man to be attained.

And, as one stormily pursues his own self, the never-attained, so one also despises shrewd people’s rule to take men as they are, and prefers to take them as they should be; and, for this reason, hounds every one on after his should-be self and “endeavors to make all into equally entitled, equally respectable, equally moral or rational men.”

Liberal egalitarianism, being a kind of essentialism, is a fiction based on how men “should be,” rather than how they actually are. As a result, the liberal is hopelessly impractical and frequently disappointed with his fellow man. The socialist, likewise, complains that his program is frustrated by the “inhumanity” of egoistic men.

Yes, “if men were what they should be, could be, if all men were rational, all loved each other as brothers,” then it would be a paradisiacal life.—All right, men are as they should be, can be. What should they be? Surely not more than they can be! And what can they be? Not more, again, than they—can, i.e. than they have the competence, the force, to be. But this they really are, because what they are not they are incapable of being; for to be capable means—really to be. One is not capable for anything that one really is not; one is not capable of anything that one does not really do. Could a man blinded by cataract see? Oh, yes, if he had his cataract successfully removed. But now he cannot see because he does not see. Possibility and reality always coincide. One can do nothing that one does not, as one does nothing that one cannot. [pp.438-39.]

The notion that there is no distinction between capability and actual force exerted is here applied to morality. Liberal complaints that man is not as he “ought to be” carry no more weight than the assertion, “Si mi abuela tuviera ruedas, sería una bicicleta.” What the idealist thinks man “ought to be” is really nothing more than what he wishes men were, but are not. If men do not act in fraternity, it is not because men are deficient, but rather the liberal concept of fraternity fails to describe reality.

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25. Denial of Human Potential or Perfectibility

Consistent with his claim that all force is actual, Stirner apparently denies that there is any distinction between potentiality and actuality.

…the words “it is possible that…” almost never contain another meaning than “I can imagine that…,” e.g., It is possible for all men to live rationally, i.e. I can imagine that all, etc. Now,—since my thinking cannot, and accordingly does not, cause all men to live rationally, but this must still be left to the men themselves,—general reason is for me only thinkable, a thinkableness, but as such in fact a reality that is called a possibility only in reference to what I can not bring to pass, to wit, the rationality of others. So far as depends on you, all men might be rational, for you have nothing against it; nay, so far as your thinking reaches, you perhaps cannot discover any hindrance either, and accordingly nothing does stand in the way of the thing in your thinking; it is thinkable to you. As men are not all rational, though, it is probable that they—cannot be so.

If something which one imagines to be easily possible is not, or does not happen, then one may be assured that something stands in the way of the thing, and that it is—impossible.

In the first part, Stirner seems to deny that there is any such thing as “possible.” What we call “possible” simply means “imaginable” or “conceivable.” He then easily deduces that the act of imagining cannot cause something to be, but no one denies this. The question remains whether he is justified in cavalierly dismissing the reality of potentiality or possibility.

In the example he gives about human rationality, Stirner makes a probabilistic argument, and probability presupposes the reality of potentiality. It is supposedly easily possible for men to live rationally, yet the fact that so many are irrational suggests that there is something impeding them, in which case it is not easily possible for most individuals, and therefore it is practically impossible for all humans to be rational.

It might be countered that this presumes a static notion of potentiality, when in fact human potential changes over time. Stirner himself admitted earlier that lifeforms vary in their capacity or power, which, in the context of natural history, implies an increase in capacity over time. We have certainly witnessed a great increase in man’s power in modern history, a fact that deeply impressed upon nineteenth-century minds. Yet at every point in time, potentiality and actuality are equal. There is no reservoir of untapped potential. If man in the future becomes capable of universal fraternity or anything else not currently actual, it will be because he later acquires some new power that he does not currently possess. It is not that he is capable of such fraternity now, and mysteriously refuses to use that capability.

A more potent critique of Stirner’s metaphysics is that he fails to distinguish between what is logically possible (i.e., conceivable) and what is physically possible. (We here ignore the “metaphysically possible” since Stirner has a purely naturalistic metaphysics.) To him, “possibility is nothing but thinkableness…” Modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, makes it practically impossible to deny that there are physically real potentialities. For something to be physically possible yet not actual means something more than to be merely thinkable. It must be consistent with the real physical powers of a natural object (e.g., a particle or field). We can only know that a potential is real from the fact that it sometimes becomes actual under certain conditions. In a strongly deterministic physics, as was assumed in the nineteenth century, it was still conceivable that one could dispense with the physical reality of potential, and say that power comes into being only as it becomes actual. Yet when the same cause is capable of producing various effects or no effect, as in quantum mechanics, the reality of physical potentiality can no longer be denied.

Still, Stirner’s claim that moral idealists are describing only the “thinkable” rather than the physically possible carries weight, insofar as their ideals consistently fail to be realized in the actual world. If there were a real natural potential of man to be universally rational, righteous, philanthropic, and so forth, we should see this potential already actualized in innumerable examples. The fact that only a minority of men exemplify these ideals, and only very imperfectly at that, suggests that the ideals are merely abstract thoughts, not descriptions of a natural human capacity.

Reason, right, philanthropy, etc., are put before the eyes of men as their calling, as the goal of their aspiration. And what does being rational mean? Giving oneself a hearing? No, reason is a book full of laws, which are all enacted against egoism. [pp.441-42; cf. p.81]

A further indictment against the reality of humanistic moral ideals is that they oppose the ego, which is the man who actually exists. A morality that was grounded in reality ought to be, at least in part, egoistic, since the ego and his interests are undeniably real.

No sheep, no dog, exerts itself to become a “proper sheep, a proper dog”; no beast has its essence appear to it as a task, i.e. as a concept that it has to realize. It realizes itself in living itself out, i.e. dissolving itself, passing away. It does not ask to be or to become anything other than it is.

It is senseless for secular thinkers to propose humanity as an ideal, for this is to make the human essence something other than an animal nature. For all their supposed disdain for religious concepts, secular humanists retain a mystical human exceptionalism, by holding up “humanity” as an ideal to be pursued, rather than regarding humanity as nothing more than however human beings already happen to be. A truly secular, scientific outlook would regard cruelty and kindness, egoism and altruism, violence and pacifism as all having equal claim to “humanity,” insofar as all are actually manifested among humans. To regard only some of these behaviors as “natural” or “humane” while disdaining others as “inhumane” or “barbaric” is nothing but an arbitrary idealism.

Some strains of humanistic thought consider that “perfectibility” or the capacity for self-improvement is an aspect of human essence that sets us apart from brute animals. This builds liberal ideals about “progress” into the definition of humanity, so that it is our nature to be goal-driven and idealistic. Whatever merits such a conception may have, it is patently at odds with the materialistic and non-teleological view of nature held by most modern secular thinkers.

By pointing out this incoherence, Stirner is not suggesting that behaving like brute beasts is more “natural,” for that would only replace one ideal with another. “Do I mean to advise you to be like the beasts? That you ought to become beasts is an exhortation which I certainly cannot give you, as that would again be a task, an ideal…”

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26. Cultural Idealism

Common to both secular and religious idealism is the notion that man ought to be more “civilized” or “cultured,” where these concepts are defined in terms of some favored moral objective. Stirner dismisses idealistic notions of “human progress” or “self-improvement,” but he does admit that an increase in power or ability is real improvement. It is by this criterion that he evaluates cultural development.

“Culture, religiosity, makes us free from other men, only to serve God or Reason.” [p.444.] This evaluation, similar to that made later by Nietzsche, recognizes that culture and religion have had some positive impact as they have enabled man to become free from certain kinds of slavery, while at the same instituting a more abstract servitude.

Without doubt culture has made me powerful. It has given me power over all motives, over the impulses of my nature as well as over the exactions and violences of the world. I know, and have gained the force for it by culture, that I need not let myself be coerced by any of my appetites, pleasures, emotions, etc.; I am their—master; in like manner I become, through the sciences and arts, the master of the refractory world, whom sea and earth obey, and to whom even the stars must give an account of themselves. The spirit has made me master.—But I have no power over the spirit itself. From religion (culture) I do learn the means for the “vanquishing of the world,” but not how I am to subdue God too and become master of him; for God “is the spirit.” And this same spirit, of which I am unable to become master, may have the most manifold shapes: he may be called God or National Spirit, State, Family, Reason, also—Liberty, Humanity, Man. [p.444.]

Again, Stirner does not identify egoism with following one’s appetites, and he accepts the civilized discipline that helps one master such desires. Still, when such discipline becomes idealized as a set of inviolable rules, it becomes a new master over the ego. Stirner wishes to retain the ego-empowering aspects of culture while rejecting its claim of authority over the ego.

I receive with thanks what the centuries of culture have acquired for me; I am not willing to throw away and give up anything of it: I have not lived in vain. The experience that I have power over my nature, and need not be the slave of my appetites, shall not be lost to me; the experience that I can subdue the world by culture's means is too dear-bought for me to be able to forget it. But I want still more. [pp.444-45.]

It is at first unclear how the one who lives normlessly, rejecting all ideals and concepts, can pursue anything other than his appetites. Stirner will now clarify that he objects to static or fixed ideals, not all objectives that can be thought.

People ask, what can man do? what can he accomplish? what goods procure? and put down the highest of everything as a calling. As if everything were possible to me!

If one sees somebody going to ruin in a mania, a passion, etc. (e.g. in the huckster-spirit, in jealousy), the desire is stirred to deliver him out of this possession and to help him to “self-conquest.” “We want to make a man of him!” That would be very fine if another possession were not immediately put in the place of the earlier one. But one frees from the love of money him who is a thrall to it, only to deliver him over to piety, humanity, or some principle else, and to transfer him to a fixed standpoint anew.

Instead of pursuing the “ultimate” or “absolute” good, virtue, etc., our goals should be contingent upon our capacities at the moment. We should delight in what we are actually able to accomplish now, rather than become slaves of the pursuit of “piety,” “humanity” or some other ideal.

Secular liberalism succeeds Christianity as the latest mode of enslavement to idealism:

…The Christian is nothing but a sensual man who, knowing of the sacred and being conscious that he violates it, sees in himself a poor sinner: sensualness, recognized as “sinfulness,” is Christian consciousness, is the Christian himself. And if “sin” and “sinfulness” are now no longer taken into the mouths of moderns, but, instead of that, “egoism,” “self-seeking,” “selfishness,” and the like, engage them; if the devil has been translated into the “un-man” or “egoistic man,”—is the Christian less present then than before? Is not the old discord between good and evil,—is not a judge over us, man,—is not a calling, the calling to make oneself man—left? If they no longer name it calling, but “task” or, very likely, “duty,” the change of name is quite correct, because “man” is not, like God, a personal being that can “call”; but outside the name the thing remains as of old. [p.447.]

In Stirner’s telling, Christian ethics is little more than the disparagement of the sensual. This account depends on particular interpretations of the doctrine of original sin, and is not universal among Christian sects. It is interesting that Stirner elides from Christian “sinfulness,” supposedly equivalent to sensualness, to liberal “egoism.” This seems to admit an equivalence between egoism and sensualness, an equation that Stirner has previously denied, yet seems unavoidable in a life averse to moral norms. Still, this does not seriously diminish his point that one’s “duty” to serve mankind is equivalent to the Christian calling to holiness. If anything, the liberal ethos moves us further into idealism, since God at least is a personal being who calls us to a holy life, while liberal “duty” is strictly impersonal, being commanded by the abstraction “Man.”

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27. Subjectivity of Thought

In the case of Christianity, everyone is required to have the same relation to a determinate body of revelation (e.g., Sacred Scripture), namely one of reverence before its absolute truth.

And with this the ownness of the relation is destroyed, and one mind, one disposition, is fixed as the “true,” the “only true” one. In the limitation of the freedom to make of the Bible what I will, the freedom of making in general is limited;

For how we toss things about is the affair of our option, our free will: we use them according to our heart’s pleasure, or, more clearly, we use them just as we can. Why, what do the parsons scream about when they see how Hegel and the speculative theologians make speculative thoughts out of the contents of the Bible? Precisely this, that they deal with it according to their heart’s pleasure, or “proceed arbitrarily with it.”

It seems that Stirner is saying that we can decide the reality about objects, though here he is discussing thought-objects. For him, the Bible, no less than any other set of prescriptive norms or principles, is just a collection of ideas that we may use or ignore at our pleasure, if we are to master our thoughts rather than be mastered by them. He dismisses the notion that the Bible or any other ethical system contains objective truth, but regards it purely in terms of our own subjective evaluations.

Yet Stirner applies this egoistic perspective not only to thought-objects, but toward all objects to which we might have some ethical relation, i.e., anything which may be of some interest or use to us.

One does look at things rightly when one makes of them what one will (by things objects in general are here understood, such as God, our fellow-men, a sweetheart, a book, a beast, etc.). And therefore the things and the looking at them are not first, but I am, my will is. One will bring thoughts out of the things, will discover reason in the world, will have sacredness in it: therefore one shall find them. [p.449.]

There is no limit to what kinds of things I might subject to the criterion of my interest. Things have no intrinsic value or rationality; we impose such upon them by our thought and judgment. Since “every judgment which I pass upon an object is the creature of my will,” [p. 449.] I am not the slave of that object, but its master and creator.

Here Stirner seems to move beyond ethics into metaphysics. The rational structure or logos of an object is something I impose by thought, not an objective reality that I am bound to accept. It is not that Stirner denies the objective reality of physical entities. Rather, the thing that exists is an ineffable particular, a thing-with-power. Our notion that it is a certain kind of thing with certain properties and intelligible structure is the product of our own thought, not something “out there.” We impose this rational structure in order that we may manipulate physical objects to our benefit, which is to take an instrumentalist interpretation of physical theories.

Applying this subjectivist metaphysics to ethics, it would follow that man creates God, morality, “the good,” and so forth. Since these are all creatures of the mind, “I must not let them grow over my head, must not have the weakness to let them become something ‘absolute,’ whereby they would be eternalized and withdrawn from my power and decision.” [p.450.]

When people mistake subjective evaluations for objective truths, they will insist that a single set of evaluations be imposed on all. The confessional wars of Europe were among many such attempts at forced reconciliation of conflicting ideas about God, the world, and the good. Anyone who deviated from the official view was considered a “dissenter” in that state, yet taking a broader view, everyone is a “dissenter” by someone else’s standard.

But why should I only dissent (think otherwise) about a thing? why not push the thinking otherwise to its last extremity, viz., that of no longer having any regard at all for the thing, and therefore thinking its nothingness, crushing it? [p. 451.]

Liberalism, having allowed for difference of opinion about ethics and religion, refuses to take the next logical step and allow for the total negation of ethics and idealism. Regarding thought as merely “that inwardness in which all the world’s lights go out, all existence becomes existenceless” [p. 451.], Stirner takes a materialist view, assuming that extension is the only existent reality. He objects to regarding “the inward man (the heart, the head)” as “all in all,” for he does not regard thought as identical with the ego, but only its creature.

…only when thoughts run out are there no more believers. To the thinker his thinking is a “sublime labor, a sacred activity,” and it rests on a firm faith, the faith in truth. At first praying is a sacred activity, then this sacred “devotion” passes over into a rational and reasoning “thinking,” which, however, likewise retains in the “sacred truth” its un-derangeable basis of faith, and is only a marvelous machine that the spirit of truth winds up for its service. Free thinking and free science busy me—for it is not I that am free, not I that busy myself, but thinking is free and busies me. [p.452.]

The liberal scholar’s devotion to truth, no less than a monk’s devotion to prayer, is an enshrinement of thought as all-in-all; i.e., that which serves no higher interest than itself. Thus thought is transformed into something we serve rather than an instrument that serves us.

…a busying with the essence of the world, therefore a derangement. The thinker is blind to the immediateness of things, and incapable of mastering them: he does not eat, does not drink, does not enjoy; for the eater and drinker is never the thinker, nay, the latter forgets eating and drinking, his getting on in life, the cares of nourishment, etc., over his thinking… [p.452.]

The parallels between the scholar and the ascetic result from their shared commitment to the non-sensual world of thought as the “higher,” “truer” reality.

Totally different from this free thinking is own thinking, my thinking, a thinking which does not guide me, but is guided, continued, or broken off, by me at my pleasure. [p.453.]

Stirner takes the egoistic domination of thought so seriously, that he even denies that he is ever compelled to accept any “logical” conclusion. He may accept or dismiss theses at his pleasure. This denial of objective criteria for logic and epistemology seems self-stultifying. Without such criteria, how can one arrive at the metaphysical materialism (and prior suppositions) underlying Stirner’s arguments?

Still, we may take to heart Stirner’s thesis that thoughts depend on the self, not the other way around. Logic and epistemology can exist only if there is first a person who thinks and inquires. It would invert master and creature to make logic something that binds a person, obliging him to believe or assent to anything.

Absolute thinking forgets that thoughts are “mine,” exist only at my pleasure, through me. “Being,” even “the I” are abstractions, though “I” am not an abstraction alone, I am full of thoughts, but not a mere thought… [p.453.]

Again, Stirner, unlike Fichte and other philosophers, does not conceive of the “I” as something generalized or abstract, but in all the particular uniqueness of oneself. All thoughts are dependent not just on “a thinker,” but on the particular person who thinks them.

I require the senses for everything, or that I cannot entirely do without these organs. Certainly I cannot think if I do not exist sensuously. But for thinking as well as for feeling, and so for the abstract as well as for the sensuous, I need above all things myself, this quite particular myself, this unique myself. If I were not this one, e.g. Hegel, I should not look at the world as I do look at it, I should not pick out of it that philosophical system which just I as Hegel do, etc. I should indeed have senses, as do other people too, but I should not utilize them as I do. [p.454.]

Although everyone may have similar sensitive and rational faculties, each person directs his faculties in a unique way according to his interest. My ego or self is first, and upon me depends my sensory existence, and upon this in turn depends abstract thought. Stirner exalts the sensory over thought not by conceiving the sensuous in some strange idealized way as does Feuerbach, but by emphasizing its concreteness and proximity to the particular self.

Stirner does not deny the reality of thought, though he seems to give a materialist account of it:

What is thought of is as well as what is not thought of; the stone in the street is, and my notion of it is too. Both are only in different spaces, the former in airy space, the latter in my head, in me; for I am space like the street. [p.455.]

This does not necessarily mean that thought occupies the same metric space as corporeal bodies, but nonetheless mental space is a kind of physical space.

It doesn’t matter if someone else has similar thoughts—my thoughts are mine, and I can do with them what I please, regardless of what you do. I can do with your thoughts what I will, making them mine. [p.456.]

The notion that thoughts inhabit a kind of space is necessary to express the non-identity of different person’s thoughts. Space is a medium of particularization. The only way one can perceive that two objects with identical properties are distinct from each other is if they are conceived as existing in a common space. Once it is understood that “my thought” is a unique object, even if someone else is thinking about the same thing, it follows that thought is something particular, and thus conceivable as objects in a space, rather than various minds drawing upon a common realm of ideals. The proof that we are not simultaneously working with some shared universal ideal is that each of us can manipulate the same thought differently. This shows that my thought is my creature (i.e., my property), and it is no less my creature and subject to my will, if someone else creates a similar thought for himself.

According to the professionals’ opinion, the thought is given to me; according to the freethinkers’, I seek the thought. There the truth is already found and extant… In both cases the truth (the true thought) lies outside me, and I aspire to get it… [p.457.]

Any notion of thought that makes my ideas independent of the thinking self effectively makes thought my master rather than my property. This includes any notions of objective truth, logic, or epistemology. Thought is intrinsically subjective and wholly subordinate to the person who thinks.

Freedom of thought, then, has the meaning that we do indeed all walk in the dark and in the paths of error, but every one can on this path approach the truth and is accordingly on the right path (“All roads lead to Rome, to the world’s end, etc.”). Hence freedom of thought means this much, that the true thought is not my own; for, if it were this, how should people want to shut me off from it? [p.458.]

The freethinker protests only that others prevent him from pursuing the truth, yet still regards the truth as something extrinsic to himself, and so he has merely exchanged one master for another.

Thinking has become entirely free, and has laid down a lot of truths which I must accommodate myself to. It seeks to complete itself into a system and to bring itself to an absolute “constitution.” [p.458.]

Only thought itself has been set free, at the expense of the individual. The ego is enslaved to the demands of thought, which can become an increasingly all-encompassing system. Stirner undoubtedly has the restrictiveness of Hegelianism especially in mind here. Hegel created an entire world of thought covering every aspect of being, and it is fitting that he should use the absolute State as his model, for all idealist thought imposes a sort of absolutist government over the thinkers enslaved to it.

Stirner’s position regarding thoughts and ideals is only a half-truth. Yes, thoughts are our creations, insofar as thoughts are determinate signs or symbols. They are tools we use to represent some reality we wish to understand, however imperfectly. Yet our complete mastery of our tools does not imply that truth-judgments (correspondences of verba mentalis with reality) are arbitrary. We devise rules of thought—logic—in the belief that these reflect the structure of reality. To think a proposition is to suppose it as true; a basic function of thought is to know extramental reality. If there is no truth, why have rational thought? Why argue any position?

As we develop more complex linguistic structures, corresponding to more sophisticated conceptualizations about reality, our body of knowable truths expands, into ever more developed systems of logically linked theses. Stirner derides this progress as though it were but another kind of blind faith in ideals.

The thinker has a thousand tenets of faith where the believer gets along with few; but the former brings coherence into his tenets, and takes the coherence in turn for the scale to estimate their worth by. [pp.458-59.]

There was good reason to be skeptical of the all-too-elegant comprehensive systems nineteenth-century German philosophy. It is a mistake to think that self-consistency is any proof of objective truth. Many German idealists seemed to be enamored of their thought-systems, as if their beauty showed their truth rather than the cleverness of their creators. Still, this is insufficient ground for regarding all thought as mere subjectivity without any connection to extramental reality.

Stirner rejects the kind of intellectual freedom that would remove extrinsic moral constraints only to replace it with the binding “conscience of reason,” i.e., with epistemological imperatives.

A “rational” freedom of teaching, which “recognizes only the conscience of reason,” does not bring us to the goal; we require an egoistic freedom of teaching rather, a freedom of teaching for all ownness, wherein I become audible and can announce myself unchecked. That I make myself “audible,” this alone is “reason,” be I ever so irrational; in my making myself heard, and so hearing myself, others as well as I myself enjoy me, and at the same time consume me. [p.460-61.]

It seems strange for the anti-teleological Stirner to speak of a “goal;” he takes it for granted that self-enjoyment is desirable. He avoids inconsistency only because the “goal” is not some absolute based on objective criteria, but is simply whatever the ego wishes. Liberal intellectual freedom does not take us all the way to egoistic liberation, for it would have the ego impose upon itself some epistemological shackles, subordinating itself to “logic,” “empiricism,” or whatever other formal system of inquiry is generally accepted by intellectuals. Stirner recognizes that all epistemologies are tools invented by humans, and that we should subject these tools to the ego, rather than the other way around.

Such a perspective has profoundly radical implications, as it rejects any attempt to define “reason” objectively. The primary function of reasoning, in this view, is to express myself and announce myself to others. By showing my insights, I show something of myself to others, so that they too may enjoy me and consume me. This sharing of the ego is a further example of how Stirner’s egoism is not anti-social as such, but he is concerned that egos rather than abstractions should be agents of social intercourse. If the only valid discourse is that which conforms to abstract rules of logic and evidence, then only impersonal discourse is permitted. Nothing of my uniqueness can be conveyed, which is to say nothing of me. Instead of delighting in each other as unique persons, we delight in abstractions and ideals, which subsume us and become a pseudo-self.

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28. The Mastery and Use of Thought

The ego is a wordless reality beyond thought. This dissociation of self from thought is essential to the liberation of the ego. Thought is something common to all men, making it a property of the human species, not of the unique individual.

And really I have thoughts only as man; as I, I am at the same time thoughtless. He who cannot get rid of a thought is so far only man, is a thrall of language, this human institution, this treasury of human thoughts. Language or “the word” tyrannizes hardest over us, because it brings up against us a whole army of fixed ideas. Just observe yourself in the act of reflection, right now, and you will find how you make progress only by becoming thoughtless and speechless every moment. You are not thoughtless and speechless merely in (say) sleep, but even in the deepest reflection; yes, precisely then most so. And only by this thoughtlessness, this unrecognized “freedom of thought” or freedom from the thought, are you your own. Only from it do you arrive at putting language to use as your property. [pp.461-62.]

It is in our arbitrary use of language that we prove ourselves to be masters of language, and therefore beyond language. It is likewise with thoughts. Since we use thoughts as instruments, it follows that we ourselves are something superior to thought.

This mastery of thought need not imply, as Stirner supposes elsewhere, that we have no interest in objective truth. On the contrary, it is precisely such interest that motivates us to define fixed rules of language and logic. One who masters a tool knows to handle it a certain way. He has command, yet acts according to certain rules of technique. These rules do not inhibit his mastery, but make it possible. The painter or sculptor realizes his will on canvas or stone precisely because he uses his tools following certain rules, not recklessly like a child.

Still, there is validity in Stirner’s contention that the instrumentality of thought requires an assertion of the ego—the subject who thinks—that knows no higher imperative such as “rules of thought” (logic and epistemology).

If thinking is not my thinking, it is merely a spun-out thought; it is slave work, or the work of a “servant obeying at the word.” [p.462]

When thinking follows mechanical rules, it is impersonal, and does not belong to the subject who thinks. There must be more to thought than such mechanism if thought is to be our instrument. This insistence on the mastery of thought does not imply a rejection of the value of thinking. Indeed, for all his apparent anti-essentialism, Stirner does admit a kind of reality to essences.

I can as little renounce thinking as feeling, the spirit’s activity as little as the activity of the senses. As feeling is our sense for things, so thinking is our sense for essences (thoughts). Essences have their existence in everything sensuous, especially in the word. [p.463.]

Essences are real only as thoughts (conceptualism or nominalism). Essences exist in the “word” or thought of sensuous things. The word is posterior to the thing; thus thought is posterior to the senses.

The power of words follows that of things: first one is coerced by the rod, afterward by conviction. The might of things overcomes our courage, our spirit; against the power of a conviction, and so of the word, even the rack and the sword lose their overpoweringness and force. The men of conviction are the priestly men, who resist every enticement of Satan. [p.463.]

Man is sensual before he learns to become ruled by thoughts. Such conviction frees him from enslavement to things, but only by establishing a new slavery to thought.

…as I am supersensual, so I am supertrue. Before me truths are as common and as indifferent as things; they do not carry me away, and do not inspire me with enthusiasm. There exists not even one truth, not right, not freedom, humanity, etc., that has stability before me, and to which I subject myself. They are words, nothing but words, as all things are to the Christian nothing but “vain things.” In words and truths (every word is a truth, as Hegel asserts that one cannot tell a lie) there is no salvation for me, as little as there is for the Christian in things and vanities. As the riches of this world do not make me happy, so neither do its truths. It is now no longer Satan, but the spirit, that plays the story of the temptation; and he does not seduce by the things of this world, but by its thoughts, by the “glitter of the idea.”

If essences exist only as thoughts, then it follows, as Hegel asserts, that all words (i.e., verba mentalis) are truths, in the sense that they all reflect concepts that are really thought. It is only because of this assumption that we can conclude that ‘truths’ are mere vanities. Interestingly, Stirner considers it a temptation or distraction to be seduced by truth, again hinting that egoism is a moral imperative, which he elsewhere denies. Here, however, temptation merely means distracting someone from one’s real good, and since good for Stirner is purely subjective, any ideal truth is a distraction.

Continuing with the Hegelian equation of words and truths:

Truths are phrases, ways of speaking, words; brought into connection, or into an articulate series, they form logic, science, philosophy.

For thinking and speaking I need truths and words, as I do foods for eating; without them I cannot think nor speak. Truths are men’s thoughts, set down in words and therefore just as extant as other things, although extant only for the mind or for thinking, they are human institutions and human creatures, and, even if they are given out for divine revelations, there still remains in them the quality of alienness for me; yes, as my own creatures they are already alienated from me after the act of creation. [p.464.]

Thoughts are human creations, though no less real on that account. They are something other than the self, and thus have an objective reality. The objective reality of thought for Stirner does not mean that thoughts exist in some divine realm of ideals. Each thought exists in the mind that generates it and nowhere else, yet it is objectively real in the sense that it something other than the thinking subject himself.

The Christian man is the man with faith in thinking, who believes in the supreme dominion of thoughts and wants to bring thoughts, so-called “principles,” to dominion. Many a one does indeed test the thoughts, and chooses none of them for his master without criticism, but in this he is like the dog who sniffs at people to smell out “his master”: he is always aiming at the ruling thought. [p.465-66.]

So-called critical thinking does not liberate us from thought, but only makes us more judicious in choosing our master.

If there is even one truth only to which man has to devote his life and his powers because he is man, then he is subjected to a rule, dominion, law, etc.; he is a servingman. It is supposed that, e.g., man, humanity, liberty, etc., are such truths.

On the other hand, one can say thus: Whether you will further occupy yourself with thinking depends on you; only know that, if in your thinking you would like to make out anything worthy of notice, many hard problems are to be solved, without vanquishing which you cannot get far. There exists, therefore, no duty and no calling for you to meddle with thoughts (ideas, truths); but, if you will do so, you will do well to utilize what the forces of others have already achieved toward clearing up these difficult subjects… [p.465.]

There is no general obligation to truth or to any idea by virtue of being human, yet some individuals may choose to occupy themselves with thoughts. They may use what others have already accomplished in order to advance in solving problems. It is unclear how, in the absence of objective truths, one can speak of solving intellectual problems or advancing in understanding. It would appear that Stirner tacitly admits a realist notion of truth, but he still considers truth subjective in the sense that is under our dominion. Even though the truth is something other than self, it is always to be brought in subjection to the self, so it is our property rather than our master.

…however far you may come at any time, you are still always at the end, you have no call to step farther, and you can have it as you will or as you are able. It stands with this as with any other piece of work, which you can give up when the humor for it wears off.

Just so, if you can no longer believe a thing, you do not have to force yourself into faith or to busy yourself lastingly as if with a sacred truth of the faith, as theologians or philosophers do, but you can tranquilly draw back your interest from it and let it run. Priestly spirits will indeed expound this your lack of interest as “laziness, thoughtlessness, obduracy, self-deception,” and the like. But do you just let the trumpery lie, notwithstanding. No thing, no so-called “highest interest of mankind,” no “sacred cause,” is worth your serving it, and occupying yourself with it for its sake; you may seek its worth in this alone, whether it is worth anything to you for your sake. [pp.465-66.]

The egoist rejects any imperative to pursue truth, and is not bound to follow any inquiry further than what pleases him. Secular thinkers who hold themselves bound to such an imperative are practicing a kind of faith, submitting themselves to a set of doctrines or system of thought. Instead of using thoughts as tools, they prostrate themselves in the service of thoughts, duty-bound to expend their mental energy to defend and expound a system of truths. As soon as any man, however secular he may be, claims to be morally obligated to accept or investigate some truth, he has adopted a kind of faith.

Stirner does not dream of abolishing thought, which is as indispensable to us as our senses, but only wishes to banish its power over the self.

…the power of thoughts and ideas… will endure as long as people believe in, think of, or even criticise, principles; for even the most inexorable criticism, which undermines all current principles, still does finally believe in the principle. [pp.466-467.]

Even so-called critical thinkers succumb to the power of thought, and thus practice a sort of faith.

Every one criticises, but the criterion is different. People run after the “right” criterion. The right criterion is the first presupposition. The critic starts from a proposition, a truth, a belief. This is not a creation of the critic, but of the dogmatist; nay, commonly it is actually taken up out of the culture of the time without further ceremony, like e.g. “liberty,” “humanity,” etc. The critic has not “discovered man,” but this truth has been established as “man” by the dogmatist, and the critic (who, besides, may be the same person with him) believes in this truth, this article of faith. In this faith, and possessed by this faith, he criticises… [p.467.]

Not only does the critic accept his epistemic criteria as binding dogmas, but he even adopts some propositions from dogmatists, usually in the form of supreme principles, such as “freedom” and “humanity.” More fundamentally, in his act of criticism, he supposes that there is some “truth” to be sought.

The critic, in setting to work, impartially presupposes the “truth,” and seeks for the truth in the belief that it is to be found. He wants to ascertain the true, and has in it that very “good.”

Presuppose means nothing else than put a thought in front, or think something before everything else and think the rest from the starting-point of this that has been thought… [p.468.]

Critical liberals often speak of ‘criticism’ or ‘skepticism’ being able to accomplish one thing or another. Like the Hegelians, they effectively personify thinking.

But, if thinking ranks as the personal actor, thinking itself must be presupposed; if criticism ranks as such, a thought must likewise stand in front. Thinking and criticism could be active only starting from themselves, would have to be themselves the presupposition of their activity, as without being they could not be active. But thinking, as a thing presupposed, is a fixed thought, a dogma; thinking and criticism, therefore, can start only from a dogma, i.e. from a thought, a fixed idea, a presupposition.

Elevating thought or criticism to the role of actor diminishes and subjugates the ego. We are bound to follow truth and rules of critical inquiry.

So-called “free” criticism is really servile, for it presupposes that there is truth, which comes from dogmatists. It is not my “own,” because criticism is personified, as if it had rules and a life of its own, and could tell me how to think.

Criticism falls into the idealist trap of supposing that there is on kind of rationality for all men, and therefore a universal way to think. The egoist, by contrast, affirms, “man is not the measure of all things, but I am this measure." [p.470.] Truth, skepticism, empiricism and logic are all extrinsic universal criteria for commanding our assent. The egoist takes orders from no one and no thing, affirming only what he wishes to affirm. “The distinction between the two attitudes will come out still more strikingly if one reflects that the servile critic, because love guides him, supposes he is serving the thing [cause] itself.” [p.470.]

Truth is the free thought, the free idea, the free spirit; truth is what is free from you, what is not your own, what is not in your power. But truth is also the completely unindependent, impersonal, unreal, and incorporeal; truth cannot step forward as you do, cannot move, change, develop; truth awaits and receives everything from you, and itself is only through you; for it exists only—in your head. You concede that the truth is a thought, but say that not every thought is a true one, or, as you are also likely to express it, not every thought is truly and really a thought.

And by what do you measure and recognize the thought? By your impotence, to wit, by your being no longer able to make any successful assault on it! When it overpowers you, inspires you, and carries you away, then you hold it to be the true one. Its dominion over you certifies to you its truth; and, when it possesses you, and you are possessed by it, then you feel well with it, for then you have found your—lord and master. [p.471.]

We hold thoughts to be objective truths when they seem to impress themselves upon us even against our will. This is especially the case with so-called self-evident truths. As we find ourselves unable to deny or refute them, these thoughts become our masters, even though they are but thoughts, our creations, existing nowhere but in our heads.

You alone are the truth, or rather, you are more than the truth, which is nothing at all before you… You address yourself to thoughts and notions, as you do to the appearances of things, only for the purpose of making them palatable to you, enjoyable to you, and your own: you want only to subdue them and become their owner, you want to orient yourself and feel at home in them, and you find them true, or see them in their true light, when they can no longer slip away from you, no longer have any unseized or uncomprehended place, or when they are right for you, when they are your property. If afterward they become heavier again, if they wriggle themselves out of your power again, then that is just their untruth,—to wit, your impotence. Your impotence is their power, your humility their exaltation. Their truth, therefore, is you, or is the nothing which you are for them and in which they dissolve: their truth is their nothingness. [pp.472-73.]

We dominate our thoughts by recognizing that there is nothing more to them than what we have given them as their creator. The only “truth” they have comes from the ego, as they exist only by our pleasure. Yet the egoist recognizes no truth other than himself, so thoughts as such contain no truth; without the ego they are nothing. “The truth is dead, a letter, a word, a material that I can use up.” [p.473.]

Here we return to the main theme of self-enjoyment or self-consumption. Thoughts and their “truths” are to be used up for the ego’s enjoyment:

Wherever I put my hand I grasp a truth, which I trim for myself. The truth is certain to me, and I do not need to long after it. To do the truth a service is in no case my intent; it is to me only a nourishment for my thinking head, as potatoes are for my digesting stomach, or as a friend is for my social heart. As long as I have the humor and force for thinking, every truth serves me only for me to work it up according to my powers. As reality or worldliness is “vain and a thing of naught” for Christians, so is the truth for me. It exists, exactly as much as the things of this world go on existing although the Christian has proved their nothingness; but it is vain, because it has its value not in itself but in me. Of itself it is valueless. The truth is a—creature. [p.473.]

The truth is something we create or invent for our own utility or pleasure. We have no more duty to the truth than to the potatoes we eat. Stirner calls truth a “nourishment” for the mind, yet this only makes sense if thoughts have some definite benefit. Not all objects are equally fit for eating, and neither are all thoughts equally beneficial to the mind. Stirner is not denying that there are statements with lesser or greater correspondence to the facts of reality, but is emphasizing that such statements, and associated inferences, exist only for the utility of the ego, and do not constitute a higher imperative.

All truths beneath me are to my liking; a truth above me, a truth that I should have to direct myself by, I am not acquainted with. For me there is no truth, for nothing is more than I! Not even my essence, not even the essence of man, is more than I! than I, this “drop in the bucket,” this “insignificant man!” [p.474.]

Here he objects only to teleological or normative truths, not mere facts about nature, which we can use. Yet even truths about the natural world are subjected to egoistic utility; we have no duty to learn or understand anything. This implies a strictly instrumentalist notion of science, which we pursue only for our benefit or amusement, not because it is an important duty to know or understand nature. Scientific “truths,” no less than the philosophical and theological, rely on statements with universal terms. Yet Stirner recognizes no universals or essences. While the scientist, much like the theologian, emphasizes the smallness of the individual in the cosmic order, Stirner cares nothing for the majesty of universal laws. Universals are mere phantoms, while the individual, however small he may be, at least is a real existent.

This rejection of ideas as agents includes the critical liberal idea of freedom:

They say, the idea of liberty realizes itself in the history of the world. The reverse is the case; this idea is real as a man thinks it, and it is real in the measure in which it is idea, i.e. in which I think it or have it. It is not the idea of liberty that develops itself, but men develop themselves, and, of course, in this self-development develop their thinking too.

In short, the critic is not yet owner; because he still fights with ideas as with powerful aliens… [p.476.]

Men have not become more free because the idea of liberty impresses itself upon them, but because they choose to organize their society in a way that allows an increase in freedom. “Freedom” or “liberty” is not a reality extrinsic to the ego. The same may be said of so-called “progress” (or “evolution”). Change is not some extrinsic imperative, but something humans may choose to do as long as it pleases them.

Perhaps I too, in the very next moment, defend myself against my former thoughts; I too am likely to change suddenly my mode of action; but not on account of its not corresponding to Christianity, not on account of its running counter to the eternal rights of man, not on account of its affronting the idea of mankind, humanity, and humanitarianism, but—because I am no longer all in it, because it no longer furnishes me any full enjoyment, because I doubt the earlier thought or no longer please myself in the mode of action just now practised. [p.477.]

Egoism is not another stage in some human progress or social evolution; we are no more bound to oppose Christianity and liberalism than to endorse them. The egoist simply does and thinks what gives him most enjoyment. This implies a rejection of the very notion of self-improvement.

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29. Perfection of the Existing Ego

If religion has set up the proposition that we are sinners altogether, I set over against it the other: we are perfect altogether! For we are, every moment, all that we can be; and we never need be more. Since no defect cleaves to us, sin has no meaning either. [p.479.]

This reaction against Lutheran anthropology may prove to be a fatal flaw in Stirner’s system, as it denies the human capacity for self-improvement. For all his emphasis on self-determination, we are left with a fatalistic acceptance that we are all that we can be at any moment. Yet the rejection of improvement is not a denial of human development, but a rejection of any objective evaluation of such development as “better” or “progress.” Without any higher master or ideal, there is no basis for such evaluation.

Show me a sinner in the world still, if no one any longer needs to do what suits a superior! If I only need do what suits myself, I am no sinner if I do not do what suits myself, as I do not injure in myself a “holy one”; if, on the other hand, I am to be pious, then I must do what suits God; if I am to act humanly, I must do what suits the essence of man, the idea of mankind, etc. What religion calls the “sinner,” humanitarianism calls the “egoist.” [pp. 479-80.]

If there is no higher norm or criterion, then obviously there is no sin or moral flaw. Yet, contrary to what Stirner suggests, not all morality relies on an essentialism of “humanity” or the divine, for it is possible that what is really good for me as an individual is different from what I will at the moment. This is proven by my regret over past actions or inaction. Nietzsche, recognizing this logical implication, would adhere to immoralism by rejecting any notion of regret and accepting pure fatalism. It is not clear to what extent Stirner realized the fatalistic implications of his philosophy.

The egoist, before whom the humane shudder, is a spook as much as the devil is: he exists only as a bogie and phantasm in their brain. If they were not unsophisticatedly drifting back and forth in the antediluvian opposition of good and evil, to which they have given the modern names of “human” and “egoistic,” they would not have freshened up the hoary “sinner” into an “egoist” either, and put a new patch on an old garment. But they could not do otherwise, for they hold it for their task to be “men.” They are rid of the Good One; good is left!

The egoist is a phantasm not in sense that there is no such thing as selfish people—rather the notion of selfishness as bad is a phantasm, depending on notions of good and evil. The idea that one should not be an egoist comes from the duty to “man” the essence or phantasm.

We are perfect altogether, and on the whole earth there is not one man who is a sinner! [p.480.]

This also applies to the religious. They are not to be considered evil, since they are just doing what is possible for their level of development. Stirner is more broadminded than those liberal relativists who paradoxically insist that religious fanatics are evil.

The liberal pseudo-sophisticate has merely replaced “sinner” with “egoist” and “saint” with “philanthropist,” as the spectre of “Humanity” takes the place of God.

Get away from me with your “philanthropy”! Creep in, you philanthropist, into the “dens of vice,” linger awhile in the throng of the great city: will you not everywhere find sin, and sin, and again sin? Will you not wail over corrupt humanity, not lament at the monstrous egoism? Will you see a rich man without finding him pitiless and “egoistic”? Perhaps you already call yourself an atheist, but you remain true to the Christian feeling that a camel will sooner go through a needle’s eye than a rich man not be an “un-man.” How many do you see anyhow that you would not throw into the “egoistic mass”? What, therefore, has your philanthropy [love of man] found? Nothing but unlovable men!

And where do they all come from? From you, from your philanthropy! You brought the sinner with you in your head, therefore you found him, therefore you inserted him everywhere. Do not call men sinners, and they are not: you alone are the creator of sinners; you, who fancy that you love men, are the very one to throw them into the mire of sin, the very one to divide them into vicious and virtuous, into men and un-men, the very one to befoul them with the slaver of your possessedness; for you love not men, but man. But I tell you, you have never seen a sinner, you have only—dreamed of him. [pp.481-82.]

The liberal, like the Christian, creates an ideal of man that is totally unlike man as he actually is; it is a standard by which all men are condemned. Instead of accepting that men are egoistic, he condemns egoism as “inhumane”; rather than accept that men love to acquire wealth, he makes them outcasts from his idealized humanity. This has strong parallels with the Christian doctrine of original sin, especially the Lutheran version which make fallen human nature vitiated and incapable of choosing the good. The “egoistic mass” is parallel to the Augustinian massa damnata. Expressed plainly, such doctrine, in its liberal or Christian versions, implies that no man alive today is truly human. Yet what is humanity if it is not the character of men who actually exist? The liberal hypocritically claims to love humanity, but he hates men as they actually are, for failing to live up to his ideal.

All the subsequent crimes of the Left against humans in the name of humanitarianism can be understood in this light. The bourgeois liberal creates byzantine bureaucracies to process people like cattle, and divest them of opportunity for egoistic initiative. The Communist will imprison and slaughter anyone who egoistically tries to undermine the collectivist plan of the moment. In every case, the leftist tries to impose his vision of how humanity ought to be, over and above the humans who actually exist, driven principally by self-interest.

All right: if I no longer serve any idea, any “higher essence,” then it is clear of itself that I no longer serve any man either, but—under all circumstances—myself. [p.482.]

This inference is faulty, for essentialism is not the only means by which man may coerce man. Other individuals, no less real than myself, might try to enslave me for their own egoistic benefit, without imagining that I owe any duty to them. They might succeed by force of arms or by combining their strength as a group. We have already discussed this defect in Stirner’s philosophy, which supposes that a world of unabashed egoists would necessarily be a freer world.

The idealist justifies his condemnation of men as they actually are by holding that we were meant for something better. Christians say we are called to a divine life, while liberals say we are destined to progress to a more humane society. Both groups would have us claims some ethereal inheritance, at the expense of the mundane property before us. By rejecting such ideals, the egoist can take ownership of his real property.

You are then not merely called to everything divine, entitled to everything human, but owner of what is yours, i.e. of all that you possess the force to make your own; i.e. you are appropriate and capacitated for everything that is yours.

Men are no longer perceived as deficient, but have a right to take whatever they have the power to possess. Potentiality and actuality are commensurate.

The last ideal to be abolished is “the ego” considered as a generalization. Stirner is not advocating “the rights of the individual,” as do modern liberals. The right of each unique one (Einzige) is determined by that particular person. We do not have rights by virtue of being a person, an individual, or an ego, but by virtue of each one’s unique power to take.

Fichte’s ego too is the same essence outside me, for every one is ego; and, if only this ego has rights, then it is “the ego,” it is not I. But I am not an ego along with other egos, but the sole ego: I am unique. Hence my wants too are unique, and my deeds; in short, everything about me is unique. And it is only as this unique I that I take everything for my own, as I set myself to work, and develop myself, only as this. I do not develop man, nor as man, but, as I, I develop—myself.

This is the meaning of the—unique one (Einzige). [pp.482-83.]

For convenience, we have repeatedly referred to Stirner’s philosophy as “egoism,” yet we must always keep in mind that his “ego” (Ich) simply means “I,” pointing to myself in my uniqueness. It is not “the ego” (das Ich) in some abstract, generalized sense. Each man is unique in his desires, deeds, and powers, and it is from this uniqueness alone that any “right” derives, making rights and objectives thoroughly ungeneralizable.

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30. The Unique One

The ancient sages sought to ascend to the ideal realm by human efforts, thereby “idealizing the real,” while Christians hold that the ideal, namely the perfect man who is Christ, is realized in each of us. Both views presuppose an opposition between the ideal and the real.

Pre-Christian and Christian times pursue opposite goals; the former wants to idealize the real, the latter to realize the ideal; the former seeks the “holy spirit,” the latter the “glorified body.” Hence the former closes with insensitiveness to the real, with “contempt for the world”; the latter will end with the casting off of the ideal, with “contempt for the spirit.”

The opposition of the real and the ideal is an irreconcilable one, and the one can never become the other: if the ideal became the real, it would no longer be the ideal; and, if the real became the ideal, the ideal alone would be, but not at all the real. The opposition of the two is not to be vanquished otherwise than if some one annihilates both. Only in this “some one,” the third party, does the opposition find its end; otherwise idea and reality will ever fail to coincide. The idea cannot be so realized as to remain idea, but is realized only when it dies as idea; and it is the same with the real. [p.484.]

The “realization” of an ideal is an impossible contradiction. Ideals are mere imaginings. If reality ever should come to resemble what we imagine, it is because determinate individuals took determinate actions to make it so. We may then take the new state of affairs as the current concrete reality, not as an ideal to be pursued or emulated. Likewise, if some pagan wise man should attain his ideal, it would only be by immersing himself in thought and forsaking his real interest.

Following Hegelian dialectic, the opposition of real and ideal may be annihilated by “some one,” i.e., a concrete individual who thinks, yet makes his thoughts subordinate to himself, thereby unifying the ideal and the real; i.e., thoughts and corporeality.

Idealists (including Hegel himself), by contrast, have pretended that their ideals can become realized in corporeal men.

The unreal “wise man,” this bodiless “holy one” of the Stoics, became a real person, a bodily “Holy One,” in God made flesh; the unreal “man,” the bodiless ego, will become real in the corporeal ego, in me. [p.485.]

Yet no idea, whether of the divine or of “humanity,” can attain existence as a real person.

No idea has existence, for none is capable of corporeity. The scholastic contention of realism and nominalism has the same content… [p.486.]

Here Stirner presumes that corporeity is the only possible mode of existence. I have elsewhere called him a nominalist on account of his utter rejection of the reality of universals, yet here he depicts himself as transcending the opposition of realism and nominalism. Both realists and nominalists try to realize ideas in the concrete world, even though they disagree as to whether ideas have any reality prior to this realization in the world. Stirner denies the opposition of ideal and real, seeing thoughts as mere instruments or property of his ego. As property belongs to the concrete ego, so too are thoughts concrete.

Christianity’s magic circle would be broken if the strained relation between existence and calling, i.e. between me as I am and me as I should be, ceased; it persists only as the longing of the idea for its bodiliness, and vanishes with the relaxing separation of the two: only when the idea remains—idea, as man or mankind is indeed a bodiless idea, is Christianity still extant. [p.488.]

The tension between ideal and reality collapses once thoughts are fully subjected to each individual ego as his own property, rather than regarded as ideas with a common, extrinsic reality. When thoughts are simply “my thoughts,” extensions or instruments of myself, there is no distinction between the ideal and concrete reality.

The repeated emphasis on Christianity suggests that Stirner’s motive for rejecting ideals is to free himself from Christianity and its world-historical goal. He elaborates:

That the individual is of himself a world’s history, and possesses his property in the rest of the world’s history, goes beyond what is Christian. To the Christian the world’s history is the higher thing, because it is the history of Christ or “man”; to the egoist only his history has value, because he wants to develop only himself, not the mankind-idea, not God’s plan… [p.489.]

The egoist, by subjecting all thoughts to himself, also subjects his knowledge of world history to himself. Unlike the Christian or the secular liberal, who see themselves as playing a role in some grand human drama, the egoist exists only for himself, and directs his actions toward his own interest, rather than trying to help develop “humanity” or some divine plan. History is but another instrument to put to his own use, rather than something to which he will enslave himself.

…he does not fancy that he exists for the further development of mankind and that he must contribute his mite to it, but he lives himself out, careless of how well or ill humanity may fare thereby. [p.489.]

The liberal humanist must constantly cajole others, and even himself, to make contributions for the good of humanity, yet he can only achieve this by promising some material or emotional reward. He must work hard to generate this supposedly natural regard for abstract “humanity.” In reality, most people care primarily about themselves and those near to them. The egoist makes no apologies for this, as he recognizes himself as his own value, and does not see himself as existing for the service of “mankind.”

What, am I in the world to realize ideas? To do my part by my citizenship, say, toward the realization of the idea “State,” or by marriage, as husband and father, to bring the idea of the family into an existence? What does such a calling concern me! [p.489.]

Political societies are attempts to compel humans to conform to abstract rules for social intercourse, rather than allowing them to interact as they please, lawlessly. Even the supposedly natural society, the family, has been subjected to an idealization of roles that are rarely realized in practice. In reality, family relations arose because they were convenient, and the structure of the family has changed over time according to the expediency of the day. When the family becomes some fixed idea that we try to bring into existence by playing preconceived roles, it ceases to be a genuine intercourse of persons, and becomes something that demands the alienation of the self. For Stirner, the family would be little more than a group of persons for which he may have varying degrees of affection on the basis of a shared upbringing, not something that imposes any absolute duties upon him, nor is it incumbent upon anyone to start a family.

Here Stirner’s nihilism speaks to our time, as the family has indeed become a structureless amalgam of affectionate relations. Any attempt to propose even the most basic of norms is now denounced as bigotry (though such moral outrage is unsuited to a genuine nihilist). Strangely, however, the egoism in family relations is not matched by a similar renunciation of membership in political society or broader humanity. Accordingly, the dissolution of the family has not resulted in Stirnerian egoism, but has left people all the more vulnerable and atomized so that they can be more easily dominated by the liberal State and submerged in mass culture.

They say of God, “Names name thee not.” That holds good of me: no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names. Likewise they say of God that he is perfect and has no calling to strive after perfection. That too holds good of me alone.

I am owner of my might, and I am so when I know myself as unique. In the unique one the owner himself returns into his creative nothing, out of which he is born. Every higher essence above me, be it God, be it man, weakens the feeling of my uniqueness, and pales only before the sun of this consciousness… [p.490.]

Only my unique personal aspects can identify me; I am not merely an instantiation of some species. This uniqueness is what makes possible my own-ness or property. There can only be personal property if there is first a unique person. Anything that belongs to me “as a human” is not truly my property, but is something held in common with others. Such commonality diminishes my property, thereby diminishing me. The egoist resists this diminution not because he expects to endure, but because he demands that he should enjoy or consume himself, rather than live for the enjoyment or consumption of others.

If I concern myself for myself, the unique one, then my concern rests on its transitory, mortal creator, who consumes himself, and I may say:

All things are nothing to me.

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It is a mystery why so many who praise Nietzsche should ignore Stirner, and the few who recognize him denounce him. Admittedly, much of Nietzsche’s work has a superior literary quality, but this is hardly a defining characteristic of sound philosophy, and one often suspects that Nietzsche’s poetics conceals a disorganization and even an incoherence in his thought. Stirner, at least, expresses his thoughts clearly, though he frequently succumbs to the rhetorical excesses and repetitiveness of Nietzsche. This clarity may be precisely why he has been so poorly received.

The aristocratic, professorial Nietzsche had the uncanny ability to make immoralism seem refined and ultra-civilized, confirming the conceits that iconoclastic intellectuals hold of themselves. Stirner, by contrast, presents immoralism with proletarian vulgarity, unabashedly defending its ugliest implications, including murder and incest. While Nietzsche pretends to oppose nihilism and advance to a higher stage beyond humanity as we know it, Stirner does not trouble himself with any definite program. He is unburdened by any doctrine of eternal recurrence, nor does he see himself as the prophet of a new age of men. He is overtly nihilistic, and pursues the logic of egoism even to the point of denying that he has any common interest with other egos. He does not make the realization of “will-to-power” into any sort of cosmic characteristic, but accepts that he may use whatever power he happens to have, either to please himself directly or to please himself indirectly by helping those for whom he cares.

Stirner’s egoism is utterly pedestrian and unromantic; he does not pretend that he is a great master or predator of other men. He has no ambition other than to enjoy himself, physically and mentally, until he is dissolved by death. The banality of this life is no fault of Stirner; on the contrary, he has done too good a job of expounding the logical implications of moral nihilism.

While a life of doing what one pleases may be a tortuous labyrinth, especially for those who are more reflective, this does not constitute a refutation of Stirner. It could be that life really is as bleak and pointless as he describes. Likewise, our revulsion toward his ethical implications is not a refutation. If you are repulsed by murder and incest, this may be a reason for not allowing yourself to commit such acts, but it is not grounds for a universal rule against them.

Despite the general decline of religion and the family in the West, there remains a strong sense of ethics among liberals, who remain informed by an idealism that is incompatible with their otherwise materialist philosophy. The ideals of “freedom” and “equality” which Stirner mocked remain forceful even today, even though they have no coherent metaphysical basis. This has not deterred some atheists from attempting pseudo-biological accounts of ethics. Starting with the false supposition that “altruism” is some distinctively noble trait, they strain to attribute this ideal to monkeys, while conveniently ignoring the notorious selfishness of much more closely related chimpanzees. Secular liberals, like the Christians and Stoics before them, frequently project their preconceived ethics onto nature.

Stirner’s nihilism presupposes a materialist, nominalist metaphysics. He asserts without proof that God is merely a thought or idea, and that concepts have no reality beyond the particular mind that generates them. Underlying these assertions is an understanding that there can only be corporeal existence, as existence requires a medium of individualization, namely space. This confinement of reality to the spatiotemporal is widely shared among modern intellectuals, yet there are very few who are willing to accept the ethical nihilism deduced therefrom by Stirner.

Most intellectuals draw their ethical presuppositions from the mass culture of the upper classes. (As Ortega y Gassett noted, mass culture is not purely a lower class phenomenon.) These constitute a set of received ideals, no more subject to criticism than the Christian deposit of faith. Whoever opposes “freedom” and “equality” discredits himself merely by opening his mouth. In this cultural context, there is little room for Max Stirner except on the fringes of society. He has always had a following among anarchists, who have been gadflies to the political Left. They take to heart his assertion of the right of the individual against “society” or “the State,” while other leftists have left a trail of carnage in the name of their “humanitarian” programs.

Even those who are unconvinced by Stirner’s nihilism may still find merit in his strenuous defense of the unique individual as an agent with rights that do not derive from abstract ideals or generalizations. In the twentieth century, both liberalism and Christianity have emphasized a “personalism” that has due regard for the value of an individual in his unique circumstances, without trying to reduce all of morality to general rules. An excessively programmatic moralism removes the virtue from virtue. This is hardly a new problem, as it was an ancient complaint of the Taoists against the Confucians.

If ethics is truly a practical science, it must be able to deal with men as they are, not as we wish them to be. This means we are not free to discard actual human nature as something totally corrupt and worthless, but instead we should find some positive value in natural instincts and desires. This does not compel us, however, to declare ourselves perfect as we are. The legacy of human experience may teach us that some things are better for us than others, and we may posit (fallibly, to be sure) future changes that might be even better. If this is disparaged as “idealism,” so be it, but it is consistent with the core of Stirner’s thought that we should use ideas as instruments for our benefit. It is a distinctive capacity of human beings to think of things that we have not yet seen in reality. This ability to plan and design is not a defect or delusion, but our greatest advantage. After all, the astounding development of human capabilities in the last fifty thousand years has been almost entirely cultural, which is to say, driven by ideas.

See also: Nietzsche’s Challenge to Moral Good | Pleasure in Epicureanism


English citations from:
Max Stirner. The Ego and Its Own, trans. Steven T. Byington (New York: Benj. R. Tucker, 1907).

© 2014 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.