The Unique Individual. The Ego and His Own.
Max Stirner. Trans. by S T. Byington. (A. C. Fifeld. 6s. 6d. net.)
In the absence of a complete English translation of the work of Nietzsche (for which, by the way, somebody or other deserves to be shot), we may be grateful for this translation of Nietzsche’s John the Baptist. Max Stirner wrote sixty years ago his “Der Einzige und sein Eigentum,” in which he certainly anticipated the main ideas of Nietzsche and the most modern revolutionary school. That Nietzsche may have owed a good deal to Stirner we can certainly believe; but not for a moment can we tolerate the suggestion that Nietzsche owed everything to his forerunner. All such comparisons and valuations are utterly worthless, and make it appear that a doctrine should only be true if no more than a single person should hit on it. That two or three or a dozen people should say the same thing because it happens to be true seldom strikes the writer of introductions as even probable.
Stirner wrote his book during the seething revolutionary period of 1848, when both in Germany and in France a good deal of frothy talk was being raised on subjects such as Liberty and the Rights of Man. In some ways, such words and phrases are characteristic of most revolutionary movements. After all, if you have not cannon, what else is there to do but talk? Stirner grew more and more indignant as he recognised not only that the phrases and words meant little, but that in the mouths of most of the young Germans they meant nothing at all. He, therefore, began the enormously difficult task of endeavouring to hammer into the minds of his contemporaries the differences, and sometimes the radical antagonisms between words and realities. In this he was simply following Epictetus, with whom in other respects he seems to have had much in common. A liberal education, Epictetus said, gives a man no more than the faculty of discriminating words.
It happens, of course, that reformers today are very much like the reformers of 1848, and the reformers of Epictetus days. In other words, Stirner’s message is quite as necessary now as it ever has been since the dangerous discovery of speech. At this moment we are all employing words without meaning, and talking of things that have no real existence. Our vocabulary plays such tricks with our intellects as cause the realistic angels to weep.
Stirner was mainly concerned with the two words, Liberty and Man. In essence they may be said to constitute the Alpha and Omega of liberalism in the broadest and narrowest senses. Both words are, strictly speaking, meaningless; or, at least, their meaning is so vague that their use in genuine discussion is extremely perilous. Regarding Man, for example, it is plain on a moment’s reflection that we know of no such entity. One man we know, another man we know; but where is this “ghost,” this “spook” (to use Stirner‘s words) who is not this man or that man, but Man? Yet we proceed in all our reformatory schemes on the assumption that somewhere or other there exists, or ought to exist. Man who is not any particular man, but a Being from whom all particularities have vanished by sublimation. In place of the two concepts of myriads of individuals as they are, and of myriads of individuals as they actually might be, we abstract from both, and make Man as he is, and Man as we think he ought to be. The result is that all our legislation is made to apply itself to two impossible and non-existent entities, to Man with a capital M, and to Humanity as it ought to be in a perfect state, etc. But this sacrifice of real individuals to the non-existent and impossible Perfect Man is exactly similar to sacrifices made to any other abstract Mumbo-Jumbo. The more atheistic, in fact, revolutionaries pride themselves on being, the more firmly have they made the secret substitution of a wholly imaginary ideal Man or Humanity for God.
Against this ingrained habit of men to sacrifice themselves to dragon-like ideals, Stirner inveighs with splendid zeal. He is a rare realist, and an iconoclast of the first order. He will have nothing to do with abstractions, even when they simulate the concrete form of generalisations. His single claim is that he is unique and incomparable. I am not, he says, Man, but a man. I ought not to become essential Man or to fade away into a colourless abstraction. On the contrary, my sole business is to become more and more myself. Legislation that assumes that I am like anybody else in all the world is misfit legislation; when it assumes that I am like everybody else it is simply ludicrous. No, my claim is to a special treatment of a special being; and your ideals of perfection and all the rest leave me cold because they are not my ideals.
This principle of uniqueness is really incompatible with a good deal of the modern talk of reform. The mere dangling of new communal ideals before masses of people is from Stirner’ s standpoint the dangling of new halters over our necks. If it comes to a choice it might even be easier to serve a theological than a humanitarian ideal. The service of the older gods at any rate, did not require individual deification; but the service of the new god, Humanity, apparently demands the humanisation of man. Stirner again points out that a man can no more become Man than man can become God; he can only become himself. A man, however, may very well try to become what he is not; and these efforts of his are the most lamentable and tragic feature of his history. Dissatisfied with himself as he is when once he has descended to the level of comparison, he seeks to add to himself all the belauded or envied qualities of other men. That such fruit cannot possibly grow upon his tree is his secret misery; yet he endeavours to simulate their appearance. And this pathetic abandonment by a man of his own task of bringing forth his own fruit in favour of the task which other men are only too willing to put upon him, of bringing forth their fruit, is responsible for all the moral misery and deformity of the world. Deceit, lying, evil conscience are the accompaniments of‘ this shirking of his own destiny for him; and the submission to punishment at the hands of others for his good. All punishment being, theoretically at least, intended for the good of man, theoretically assumes both a man’s consent, and a man’s desire to become Man. To refuse to bow the knee to Man is the reformer’s conception of blasphemy. But Stirncr has some equally strong things to say of Liberty. Ibsen once remarked of Norway that it was a land of political liberty peopled by slaves. The same remark may be made of all the western European countries. Political liberties arc doubtless worth fighting for, since the light for liberty alone is liberty. But it is probable that there are more genuinely free men to the square mile in Russia at this moment than in any other country in Europe. The curse of politics is that we confound political liberty with freedom. Freedom is the will to be responsible for oneself; political liberty is permission to choose one’s masters. Except for the change of régime is there any difference between serving a majority of one’s fellow citizens and serving a feudal baron? Unless it can be shown (as we hold it can) that the change of mastership is for the better, there would be nothing to say for democracy. On the other hand, unless democracy is regarded merely as a means, its modified tyranny is no less a tyranny than any other despotism. Stirner, as we have said, pours the vials of his wrath upon all these vague phrases and words. His one object is to become himself; the same object he supposes is at the root of every other individual. All institutions are to be valued according as they enable the greatest number of individuals to become more individual. The more similarity the more despotism. The greater variety of individuality the greater the freedom. Political liberties, democracy and Socialism for the sake of the individual and his uniqueness are one thing; but political and economic liberties for the sake of Man in general, for Man in the skies are the substitutions of a tyrannical superstition for a genuine fact.
“The Ego and his Own” is well worth reading. The printers have done their best to make the book unique by printing the matter to give the appearance blank verse. The translation, however, is quite good; and, in any case, the book is far too important to be missed by anybody in search of ideas.