Thursday 14 May 2009

The Divine Ego, or How I so Love Max Stirner

I happened to mention Der Einzige und sein Eigentum-The Ego and its Own-by Max Stirner, a nineteenth century German philosopher, in one of my discussion threads. I rather suspect that most people, not familiar with the subject, have never heard of Stirner, or, if they have, only through the bad-tempered response to his work by Marx and Engels in The Holy Family and The German Ideology.

But Stirner was an exciting and original thinker, who has contributed to some of the most innovative traditions in thought, including existentialism, nihilism and anarchism. So it might be worth recording a few impressions of his principle text, and why I believe it to be relevant to paganism, to the impulses behind paganism, to my particular form of paganism.

Stirner’s basic argument is that the institutions, concepts and structures one takes for granted, as ‘fixtures’ in one’s life, so to speak, in all of our lives, are simply illusions; things like the state, ideology, organised religion, even society itself are all ghosts, to use his term, intended to circumscribe each individual’s freedom and understanding of freedom.

What he calls for, in essence, is the deconstruction of all artificiality, in a move towards the full understanding that we, as individuals, are the only reality. Once understood the only possible basis for action is egoism, the defence and advancement of one’s own interests at all hazards. It is in this new amorality that true freedom is to be found. In the end Stirner says that his book is a ladder that, once climbed, should be thrown away. The blindfold has been removed from your mind; you are free.

Do I write out of love to men? No, I write because I want to procure for my thoughts an existence in the world; and, even if I foresaw that these thoughts would deprive you of your rest and your peace, even if I saw the bloodiest wars and the fall of many generations springing up from this seed of thought — I would nevertheless scatter it. Do with it what you will and can, that is your affair and does not trouble me. You will perhaps have only trouble, combat, and death from it, very few will draw joy from it.

If your weal lay at my heart, I should act as the church did in withholding the Bible from the laity, or Christian governments, which make it a sacred duty for themselves to 'protect the common people from bad books'. But not only not for your sake, not even for truth's sake either do I speak out what I think. No —
I sing as the bird sings
That on the bough alights;
The song that from me springs
Is pay that well requites
I sing because — I am a singer. But I use you for it because I — need ears

Yes, it is a form of intellectual anarchism, nihlism, if you prefer; but that is the true path to self-liberation and self-fulfillment. It is also, in my reading, the path to self-empowerment. :)


  1. It is a strange paradox that the concept of the individual should turn out to be a social artefact, when for centuries the opposite was held to be incontrovertibly true. Whether as a nightmarish vision of a bestial state of nature, or a delightful myth of a golden age, the natural state of mankind was universally represented as anarchic and atomistic; and, depending on whether original human nature was perceived as essentially good or bad, the transition to civil society was explained either as an act of deliverance by divine providence or a heroic will, or as an unfortunate descent from a primitive rationality and ingenuity into a mode of life corrupted by luxury, blinded by superstition, and enthralled by tyranny. The individualism of the social contract theorists of the early modern and Enlightenment periods was accentuated by Romanticism, with its celebration of the cults of the hero and the genius, and it is towards the high-water mark of this movement that we find Stirner, with his bizarre and nihilistic philosophy of the ego.

    Stirner's peculiar vision of "ownness", or self-mastery, involves an absolute autonomy, not only from the external constraints of law, morality and custom, but also from those internal forces - ideas, passions, or appetites - which might otherwise "possess" the ego, and turn it into "a tool of ... [their] realisation". "I am my own", he says, "when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered ... by anything else". Stirner claims his philosophy reflects our true and original human nature. He urges us to "shake ... off" the "thousands of years of civilization [that] have obscured to you what you are", and to "recognise yourselves again ... recognise what you really are". So, who are we, and what aspects of our true and original nature does Stirner draw upon to explain our world, both as it is and as it should be?

    His belief that "ownness" is consonant with our true and original nature appears to be based on little more than the false premise of a primitive individualism, appropriated more or less uncritically from the social contract theorists. (This is despite his claim elsewhere that it is society, and not the ego, which represents "the state of nature" - a claim which appears to owe more to a desire for his twin "dialectics" of historical and individual development to tie in felicitously than anything else, and which he never attempts to reconcile with his position on human nature.)

    His argument from human nature is supplemented by a highly schematic account of human history. This purports to demonstrate that it is the destiny of the ego to throw off the yoke of dependency and self-delusion, and embrace "ownness"; but the absence of any kind of objective analysis, its reliance on anecdotal evidence, its fixation on a pseudo-scientific "dialectical" method, and its consequent subdivision into factitious epochs (i.e. "Negroid", "Mongoloid", and "Caucasian") corresponding to the analogous phases of individual development (i.e. childhood, youth, adulthood), make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that it assumed what it was supposed to prove all along.

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  2. ... continued from post 1

    In a word, Stirner claims that his philosophy is grounded in human nature and history, but for all his ostentatious display of sham and superficial scholarship, he makes no serious attempt to investigate either. So where, if not in human nature or human history, should we look for the roots of Stirner's philosophy? Perhaps we should examine Stirner's own motives. Stirner's is a philosophy of the ego, recognising no separate realm of truth or morality to contrast with the private sphere of the ego, so his personal motivation would apear to be a good place to look for insights into his philosophy. Why, then, if not motivated by "love to men", love of truth, or indeed any other disinterested motive, would he condescend to share his thoughts with us? "I write", he tells us, "because I want to procure for my thoughts an existence in the world"; "I sing", he decalres, "because - I am a singer. But I use you for it because I - need ears". Something does not quite add up here. Neither statement offers a very compelling, or even a plausible, motive for a self-sufficient ego, whose avowed aim is "ownness" or self-mastery, and for whom "all things are nothing". If we follow Jane Austen and define pride as relating "more to our opinion of ourselves", and vanity as pertaining "to what we would have others think of us”, then vanity would appear to offer the better description of Stirner's motivation here. For all his hubristic rhetoric about banishing illusions, Stirner appears to be essentially parasitical upon those towards whom he affects indifference. His nihilism wouldn't even appear to have the merit of intellectual honesty to recommend it.

    But Stirner's apparent insincerity isn't the biggest problem here. Mightn't he who would strive for "self-mastery", without first having attained to some reasonable degree of self-knowledge, risk falling into the trap of self-deception? - isn't this the very fault with which Stirner reproaches his benighted contemporaries? His account of self-mastery, or "ownness", is sketchy in the extreme. It would appear to be a state of absolute autonomy, where the "almighty ego" - supposedly freed from all trammelling constraints, internal and external - can realise itself as pure will and instinct. The only limit Stirner would impose on the ego is that it should not allow itself to fall into what he describes as a "one-sided ... narrow egoism", a state of monomania or "possessedness", where one idea or passion threatens to turn it into a "tool of its realisation". It is perhaps significant that his favourite example of such a controlling and consuming passion was "avariciousness", hardly a vice to which the profligate Stirner would be likely to succumb. Apart from this sole admonitory injunction, he is content to dismiss the problem of evil and allow us to follow our instincts: after all, does not "the beast, which does follow only its impulse (as it were, its advice) ... [nevertheless take] ... very correct steps"? But while the advice to avoid obssessiveness and monomania is fine in so far as it goes, it is hardly adequate to deal with the dangers posed by the many complex emotional states - anger, hatred, sadism, envy, pride and vanity, to name but a few - to which a human being is subject, and "the beast" is not. Instinct alone is not enough to ensure that we take "correct steps".

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  3. ... continued from post 2

    Not content with leaving us a broken compass, Stirner would also have us use a woefully incomplete map. His wholesale and arbitrary dismissal of every part of the great spectrum of human emotion which corresponds to any kind of altruistic or disinterested sentiment leaves us with vast tracts of unelucidated terra incognita, of which Stirner, following the best traditions of medieval cartography, has nothing better to say than "there be illusions". Stirner's cavalier and Procrustean treatment of the human psyche blinded him to the fact that man is naturally a social animal, and that the concept of the individual - his "almighty ego" -is just as much a social artefact as the laws, the morals, the customs, and the rest of the institutions of civil society he would have us destroy.

    Anthropology and psychology have long ago debunked the myth of primitive individualism. Man has always existed as a social animal, and the spectrum of human emotion, comprehended as a whole, reflects this fact very clearly. It is not difficult to see that the individual, as an entity regarded as enjoying certain basic rights, and from which the state and other social institutions ultimately derive their authority, is a social artefact, and one of fairly recent manufacture. But it is far harder to understand how the same could be true of our very existence as independent self-conscious entities, capable of rational thought. And yet it is true nonetheless. Oscar Wilde was wiser than he knew when he said that "language ... is the parent, and not the child, of thought". And, of course, language is indubitably a social artefact. Wittgenstein famously demonstrated the impossibility of a so-called "private language" in his 'Philosophical Investigations'. The only medium through which we can articulate rational thought is a public language, one which evolved through interaction with our social and physical environments, and which is potentially intelligible to others. Without this, individuality as we understand it is quite literally inconceivable.

    This is not to say that we should place a lower value on individuality, only that we should attempt to understand it for what it is, rather than pretend to ourselves that it is something else. There's nothing wrong with following a path of self-realisation or self-fulfilment, as long as one makes a detour via self-knowledge on the way. At the risk of stating the obvious, Stirner is not a guide I would choose.


  4. This is a form of thought that feeds into my love of libertarianism...and my love of Nietzsche. :-) Thanks so much, Allectus, for another superb contribution.

  5. Nietzsche did at least try to tell it how it is, and was, in some measure, successful.

    You may find it of interest that Stirner and his 'Der Einzige und sein Eigentum' are featured in Wyndham Lewis's play (actually, more of a dialogue, broken up here and there by passages of narrative and prose poetry), 'Enemy of the Stars'. Lewis you will know as the author of 'Revenge for Love'. 'Enemy of the Stars' was written in Lewis's Vorticist period, and first appeared in 'BLAST' ("The Review of the Great English Vortex") in 1914, with a revised and expanded edition in 1932, and 'Physics of the Not-Self', which he described as a "metaphysical commentary upon the ideas suggested by the action of 'Enemy of the Stars'", in 1925.

    Stirner was an early influence on Lewis, but one which he soon rejected. In a dream sequence in the play, Stirner's book is symbolically defenestrated, and Stirner himself is abused when he attempts to return it. The book is just another parasitical object, polluting the purity and diluting the energy of the primal self. Lewis believed egoism to be driven by a kind of demiurgic desire to make things and others in one's own image, a process which works both ways, and which eventually leaves the self indistinguishable from its parasitical tools and artefacts. Lewis saw that everyone is "unique", and what is truly unusual and subversive is one who rejects both the first-person perspective of self-interest and the conventional morality of the group for the disinterested pursuit of perfection through intellectual curiosity and the life of the imagination.

    The literary modernism Lewis represented is sometimes portrayed as the last stand of the Romantic ideal of the creative genius against the advance of mass culture, and 'Enemy of the Stars' may certainly be read as a dramatisation of this conflict. The best introduction to Lewis's literary and critical work is still 'Rude Assignment', his "intellectual autobiography", which is written with his usual verve and panache.

  6. I've read Revenge for Love but nothing else by Lewis. I had no idea that there was a Stirner influence in his writing. I shall dig deeper. Thanks, Allectus. You really are a star. :-)