An interview with Svein Olav Nyberg
Mr. Nyberg, could you briefly tell us your definition of Egoism? What authors have inspired your writing?
My direct inspirations have been few. Perhaps only Max Stirner should be mentioned, since I more or less considered myself a disciple of his in my active years. But there have been other minor inspirations, and some of them even by contradiction. It is, for instance, very hard to get past Ayn Rand when you mention “egoism” in our time, and she has of sorts inspired me, but very much via negativa, by that I honed my own understanding of the word in contrast to hers. Not that I am all in disagreement, either, but where we had our differences is perhaps where I was most clarified. Other than that, smaller inspirations from popular psychology and even eastern culture (chuang tzu) have of course had their say. And much in the way of Rand, so have also Nietzsche and Socrates been useful.
My definition? As an old acolyte for Stirner, I have of course not just one. Stirner uses the term “egoist” in at least two ways, so I think I am guilty of at least three. So let me give you three simple ones: 1) The egoist as the moral philosophical disproof, the ad absurdum, is the man who does not act “as man” according to the moral philosopher, and who therefore ends up being the paradoxical “man who is not a man”. Of course, it is the philosophy that dies as a result of this contradiction, not the man. 2) “The creative nothing”. This is what Stirner’s definitions boil down to, and is perhaps the most alluring statement of egoism. It also borders on mysticism, which is another one of my long-time interests. 3) A man whose actions follow from his own interest. This leaves the word “interest” inherently undefined, and for my part at least, an examination of this leads to #2. But I notice others examine it differently and end up with egoisms much closer to the common derogatory term of someone who cares shit about others.
When did you become interested in Egoism?
In my mid teens, after a bit of a philosophical crisis. I had hoped that ethics was somehow logically provable, and of course preferably that these ethics equalled the ones I subscribed to at the time. But the more I tried, the farther away that goal became, until I discovered what all young thinkers discover sooner or later: that we cannot think so hard that we manage to materialize a bridge to “ought”. Not from “is”, but nor from anywhere else we might feel comfortably safe to start. That was when I discovered the trio of Stirner, Nietzsche and Rand, and in the former I found a positive spin on what had seemed like doom.
You have written about what egoism is not, misconceptions of what Egoism is. Could you tell us about this?
That’s an interesting question, and as you saw above, even a single person such as myself often work with several conceptions of that single word. So I won’t go the route of Rand who defines the word, and then everyone else are wrong – by definition.
What is common to most understandings of egoisms, though, is that it is an “ism” of the self, so it means to be “for yourself” in some way. I think where it goes wrong is when someone imposes an external constraint on the meaning. Say, for instance, that they insist that all of existence is a power struggle. With that constraint, being “for yourself” automatically implies “being against the other”. You see where this is going? Other pathways may also end up precisely there, equating being for yourself with somehow wanting ill fortune for others or preying on them. If that was all there was to egoism, then egoists would shun each other’s company! In essence, these people have defined the “egoist” as a predatory character, a near synonym for a “sociopath”. And aside from Sherlock Holmes in the new TV series, not many would defend that. I would not, and Stirner would not. But the sociopath *does* serve one philosophical function: that of being a counter-example to the ethical theorist’s “man”.
But yet, I meet people who argue that philosophical egoists are simply sociopaths in philosophical clothing. This is usually based on a sample of zero persons.
So perhaps just as important as clarifying what egoism is not, is to clarify what self-professed egoists in practice are not. The ones I have met have interestingly enough been very kind people, and open and generous to boot. Quite opposite of the stereotype people have of the reclusive miser scheming others’ misfortune. They actively care about people in their surroundings, and they profess philosophical egoism because they think it will help these others.
At this point, someone may well interject “But what about the non-philosophical egoists, the ones who don’t use the word but who simply act the way we mean when we say ‘egoist’?” And to that, is there really anything to answer? They have already defined “egoist” to mean what they mean, and are thus using the word in the rather common but unreflected and stereotypical way. They really want to reserve that word as a synonym for the predatory and the sociopath. Well, that’s fine too, but they do limit their understandings of the world if they insist that theirs is the only meaning, being dark mirror images of Ayn Rand, in my world.
For those who may not know, could you tell us who Max Stirner was, and why his writing is important in discussing Egoism?
Interesting question. While you could always look him up in some encyclopaedia, the entry writers seem to at best rely on second hand sources, which means they are often off-target by a near 180˚. You may also wonder how it is possible to confuse ethical egoism with epistemological solipsism without a decent dose of absinthe.
Anyway, Max himself. His lived in Germany in the first half of the 1800s, and was a student of Hegel’s. But of course, the name of the teacher does not say it all. What matters at least as much is what the student himself brings into the equation, and Max seems to have had a particularly strong individualist streak. So the short version of who Max Stirner was, was that he was the one to breathe individualism onto Hegelianism – or possibly Hegelianism into individualism.
The result of mixing the Hegelian toolcase with individualism was a very potent kind of individualism that not only asserted the individual in its nakedness, but which also used the intellectual aikido of Hegelianism to swing its oppositions arguments around and against them. This is what Stirner did so successfully: the ethical philosophers of his time tried to subdue real humans by labelling them inhuman, or “un-man”, if they did not do what the ethical theory commanded. Stirner turned that very “un-man” as a club against the philosophies themselves. A dialectical turn, an intellectual aikido, which broke his opponents.
And break his opponents he did. The Young Hegelian club from which Stirner sprang did indeed wither, and I say much as a result of his attacks. One particular weed from that club escaped, though. Not intellectually, for it was nothing but Feuerbachianism (Feuerbach was a prominent Young Hegelian) expounded with lots of gusto. But that gusto let it survive, even though its gardener Karl Marx had to let off steam against Stirner through a few hundred pages of ad hominem attacks on Stirner in The German Ideology.
And that is perhaps the most important reason why Stirner still is important: Marx and Stirner were opposites, and Stirner had the stronger case. Marx won through back then because he had the stronger personality and financial backing. But Stirner still has the stronger case. To anyone wanting to promote egoism – or any other reasonable stripe of individualism – using Stirner’s appropriation of Hegel’s toolbox will prove very valuable.
And it might even be as Hegelian philosopher Lawrence Stepelevich has suggested, that Stirner not only appropriated Hegel’s toolbox for individualism, but even did his philosophical aikido so thoroughly that he showed that Hegel’s toolbox really belonged to Stirner all the time. Stirner was the ultimate Hegelian.