non serviam #19
- Svein Olav Nyberg:
- Svein Olav Nyberg:
In this issue, both features are by yours truly. The first is a reply to Sid Parker concerning the understanding of the term “union” as it is used by Stirner. The second is the first part of an introductory talk I held about Stirner for the local libertarian club “Fridemokratene” here in Oslo, and later also for a group of “the other egoists” – the Randians. Some discussion did of course result afterwards, but the reception was still surprisingly good, given that Stirner – despite sharing individualism with these two groups – differs from them in significant ways where morality is concerned, and has a critique of morality that steps hard on many tender toes.
A Swedish group has done some good work in making Stirner available in Swedish. To see their work, go to
If you know the Swedish language, they would of course appreciate proof-reading help.
Svein Olav Nyberg (ed.)
Union of Egoists
(reply to Sid)
I will stick to Sid Parker’s point numbering from Non Serviam #18 in my reply.
(1) “Egoism” in Stirner is, as he himself points out, not the same as the bugaboo that is being used to scare old women and little kids. Rather, it is simply your own interests as the unique one you are – what you’d call “interest” when not viewed through the tinted spectacles of idealism. Egoism needs thus be no all-or-nothing affair: While you and I may be egoists through and through, the common man may let his personal interest win out to the ideals some 50% of the time, or 30%, or 90%.
“Conscious egoism” can be understood in two ways: First we have the “conscious egoism” of those of us who have read Stirner and who could give lengthy lectures on the topic of preferring own interests to those of ideals. But second, we have it in the form of simply being aware of your own interests – and acting on that awareness, that consciousness. Never would any of us require, I think, that one should also be conscious of the label attached to one’s actions – the concept. So conscious egoism we have around us in almost everyone, each and every day: When someone haggles the price for his own good, and when someone eats delicious food for the sake of his own pleasure. That they do not name it is of no importance; likewise, an egoistic action is not negated by that the person afterwards goes off to squander a few hours on an ideal – for instance by following up a steaming sexual Sunday night by going to church later in the day.
(2) Concerning the unions of egoists and the State, I think you are right. For though Stirner’s philosophy as we find it in writing is recognized by its unique character all the way, he nevertheless changed. In “The false principle of our education”, Stirner elevates “freedom”. Later, in The Ego, he has gone away from that concept. In his “Art and Religion”, he is very focused on dialectics and contradictions, whereas in his “Replies to Stirner’s critics” such Hegelianisms are as well as absent. So when you speak of Henri Arvon’s statement that “[Stirner had not] succeeded in freeing himself completely from the climate of social reform that surrounded him [when he wrote The Ego]”, it is perhaps not so strange that many have taken the “union of egoists” to be a mere means to a world transformation.
(3) On “union”, “property” and “one-sidedness”:
- Consider Tom and Joe: Tom really likes Joe and his company. Joe, however, loathes Tom and his company. Would you then call Tom and Joe “friends”?
- Consider Jack and Fred: Fred really likes Jack and his company. Likewise, Jack likes Fred and his company. Would you call Jack and Fred “friends”?
- Consider Ben and Roger: Ben couldn’t care less for Roger’s company. Likewise, Roger couldn’t care less for Ben’s company. But still they play together, because their fathers have told them to, and they both do whatever father says. Would you call Ben and Roger friends?
“Friends” is a label attachable to case 2 only, and I would call that a “union of egoists”. This is primarily opposed to the bond, exemplified in case 3, which is a being-together without or against own will – a “community”. This, we seem to agree on.
So the critical case is case 1. I know myself from cases in life as a “Joe”: There are people who have persisted in calling me “friend” even after I bang the door in their face. I do not call them “friend”. The “Tom” might view me as “property” – i.e. our being-together is a willed relation from his side. I, the “Joe”, on the other hand, am no more interested in that potential piece of “property” than I am in collecting rotting twigs in the woods.
My conclusion is that Tom and Joe are not “friends”. Whatever the relation between them, it can scarcely be called a “union”, as little as a whipper and a whipped are in “union”. This does by no means mean that you “should” prefer “union” with another man rather than the relation “property”. But it does mean that what can be labelled “property” does no automatically acquire the label “union”, even though a “union” may well be labelled “property” too. So this is not a moral question, but a question of how to apply labels. Or rather – how our common favourite philosopher Stirner once applied those labels.
So who is right? Well, neither old Hess, nor old Sid – and not even old me. My position on how to apply the label “union” has changed, if ever so slightly, in part because of this very discussion.
Oslo, 6/3 – 1999, Svein Olav Nyberg
The Great Philosopher Of Egoism
By Svein Olav Nyberg
Thank you for your invitation. I have been invited to give a talk on Max Stirner, with subtitle “The Great Philosopher Of Egoism?”. A bolder subtitle, “The Great Philosopher Of Individualism?” would perhaps have been even more appropriate. For, although Stirner certainly is a philosopher of egoism, I would say he is also the mostconsistent philosopher of both egoism and of the larger category of individualism. But the theme of egoism as the ultimate individualism will have to wait until later. In this talk my focus will be on presenting Max Stirner’s ideas, which may cause great delight or annoyance!
You are probably familiar with the term “egoism” from Ayn Rand’s writings. So you will not come to this meeting completely unprepared. However, the kind of egoism I will present to you today is not the one Rand talked about; it is not quite as domesticated. So at times, these concepts of egoism will not only be different, but they will even be complete opposites. For while Rand talks about the “Nature of Man” (“qua Man”), about morality, and about the State as the protector of Man’s rights, Stirner reveals himself as the anti-moralist: Just like Henrik Ibsen, he treats the State as “the curse of the individual”, and any claims about the “Nature of Man” aside from the purposes of biological classification, are Stirner’s favourite targets.
So who is this Max Stirner? And what is his philosophy?
Max Stirner is primarily known as the author of Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (The Ego and His Own), and it is in this book that he puts forth most of his philosophical views. His philosophy is both an easy and a difficult one to grasp. During his own time and by his opponents, Der Einzige was characterized as the first readable book in all the history of German philosophy. Its style is catching and rhetorical, and makes it easy for the reader to become intrigued. At the same time it is a multi-faceted piece of work; both in structure and in content it is packed with implicit and explicit references to both its past and its present: It is a work of many layers, and I doubt that I have managed to get through all of its layers.
Stirner starts his work by quoting Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach. “Man is to men the highest creature” says Feuerbach. “Man has just been discovered” says Bruno Bauer. The criticism of these two philosophers are at the core of Stirner’s work. Through his criticism of these two philosophers in particular, Stirner criticizes all kinds of moral philosophy up to his own time, and an extension of his criticism into our time makes it nicely applicable to more recent philosophers.
You do not need to be familiar with Bauer and Feuerbach to understand Stirner’s criticism of morality; Stirner himself provides enough insight. It is nevertheless useful to know where Stirner is coming from. So let us do a historical summary:
Max Stirner (1806-56) was born Johann Kaspar Schmidt. “Max Stirner” is a nickname he acquired during his college years because of his high and broad forehead. He later adopted this name and later on used it as his literary pseudonym. He studied philosophy, where he had Hegel as one of his lecturers, and was well on his way to a doctorate in philosophy. Due to circumstances concerning his mother’s health, however, this doctorate was never finished. Stirner’s intellectual background is his deep knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy, the Bible, and of greek Antiquity. So the specific contents of Stirner’s critique in Der Einzige relates to these elements.
In 1841 Stirner started his association with “Die Freien” (“The Free”), a circle of intellectuals who met to drink and debate at Hippel’s Weinstube in Berlin. These “Free” were also known as the “Young Hegelians” or the “Left Hegelians”. Note that the meaning of “left” here is the one used in the French parliament after the 1789 revolution and the one of current political classification. In this circle of intellectuals, Stirner was known for his few but penetrating arguments, and he easily fired up heated debates – debates that he then observed from a distance with an ironic smile. In 1844 he published his infamous magnum opus; a work which not only gave him instant notoriety, but also crushed the illusions of the Left Hegelians, and for all practical purposes destroyed the movement.
Being good subversive book, Der Einzige was of course confiscated by the government. Stirner and his publisher had, however, planned for this contingency and had already distributed quite a few books before the censorship could get hold of their first copy. After a short while the book was released again, reportedly “too absurd to be dangerous”! “Absurd” was also Karl Marx’s reaction. History has it that Engels wrote to Marx1 upon its publication and talked sympathetically about Der Einzige. Marx’ reply has not been preserved, but in his next letter to Marx Engels states that he has changed his mind and that he now finds the book “what you find it to be”. These two partners in crime then commenced writing The German Ideology, originally a work of 700 pages about their contemporaries. This work is usually published in a version with their embarrassing ad hominem attacks on Max Stirner edited away – a version of a mere 200 pages.
The Left Hegelians
Left Hegelianism was a response to Hegelianism, and particularly a reaction to the Hegelian tendency to support every aspect of the established order. The Left Hegelians were impressed by Hegel’s methods, in particular his dialectics.
In dialectics you have a starting-point, and by studying relations at this starting point, you will find dualisms and “one-sidedness” that need to be dissolved through dialectics. The result from the previous exercise in dialectics will then become the starting point for a new dialectical investigation, and so we have a dialectic progression.
So dialectics is specifically related to development – development of concepts through critique; dualisms are found between relational opposites, at times pure “one-sidedness” or “hidden premises” will also be found.
How tempting is it then not – when Hegel himself, the Master of dialectics, almost declares the end of history in the state of Prussia and in Lutheran Christianity – how tempting is it not then to go on and apply dialectics to the end results Hegel’s own investigations? How tempting is it not to “apply Hegel to Hegel”, to surface as – the better Hegelian?
This is exactly what the Young Hegelians did. Strauss’ Leben Jesu is probably the best marker of the start of this process of re-examining Hegel. In his work Strauss is discussing the “Christ”-concept: By assumption, “Christ” is Mankind’s universal saviour. However: According to Hegel’s own methodology, the universal cannot be identified with a single individual. Strauss pursues the matter in true Hegelian style, and ends up with the conclusion that although Jesus probably was a historical person, he could not have been Christ. “Christ as an individual” was merely a mythical expression of Mankind’s “real” saviour – Mankind itself.
Naturally, this caused quite a stir among both theologians and philosophers. To Hegel’s followers it was certainly no minor matter, and they ended up taking sides. One side, represented by Strauss, thought Hegel was a starting point for further movements of Spirit, and not an end result. Opposing them were the conservatives, in particular Bruno Bauer and Hegel himself. It should, however, be noted that it did not take long ere Bauer switched sides, and became a leading Left Hegelian.
Strauss’ work was the key that unlocked the door, and several works were published, works that presented radical departures from the “results” of conservative Hegelianism. The work of greatest impact was Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence Of Christianity), first published in 1841. In this work, Feuerbach develops Strauss’ thesis by also denying God, who in Hegelianism is seen as The Universal, incorporation into a single individual.
“How are we said to know God?” Feuerbach asks. His contemporaries the Hegelian theologians replied that he is known by his attributes. “God is love,” “God is truth”, etc. So this God is not known directly, but rather via his attributes. Is it not so, then, asks Feuerbach, that what is worshipped can just as little be God himself? Must not what is worshipped be God’s knowable attributes? Would it not then be closer to the truth if we inverted subject and predicate in these statements, so that they now read: “Love is divine,” “Truth is divine”, etc? And since this is the truth, are not the original statements the real inversion? Feuerbach proceeds by asking from where we know love, truth, etc. Where else, he says, but from ourselves?
Feuerbach concludes by saying that not only is Mankind its own Christ, it is also its own God: “God” is nothing but an alienation of Man’s essence, where this essence has been referred to an external object, and thereby considered something otherthan Man.
With this turn the Young Hegelians have reduced theology to anthropology, and replaced Christianity with Humanism. Man is the measure of all things. Speculations on the nature of God are replaced by speculations on the “essence” of Man. Questions about “God’s order” and God’s will are replaced by questions about Man’s order and will – questions about morality.
So does being Man mean? Feuerbach, who has just brought God down from Heaven in order to chase him into Humanity, is obligated to search for all of God’s attributes in Man – in Man’s essence. This way the statements “God is love”, “God is truth”, etc. turn into “Love is the essence of Man”, “Truth is the essence of Man” etc. This is the way it must be if Feuerbach’s description of God as nothing but the alienation of Man’s essence is to be correct.
But individuals are not always loving, and neither are they always truthful. Which means Feuerbach can not present these statements as empirical generalizations of humans. So Feuerbach’s point of view becomes that “love”, “truth”, and so are not properties of individuals, but rather the normative essence of all men. “Man”, to Feuerbach, is the normative essence of men.
Stirner’s Critique of Left Hegelianism
This is Stirner’s starting point, and he could hardly have had a better one; perhaps a Stirner could exist only in an environment like this, where the principles of morality were thus clearly presented.
So what is Stirner’s critique?
The first appearance of the concept “egoist” is in his critique – used as a dialectic lever. The egoist is introduced in the preface ofDer Einzige, for this occasion translated into Norwegian as “Kun for min egen skyld” by myself and Hans Trygve Jensen. In this preface Stirner presents what may be considered an existential choice; deciding whom to serve – God, Mankind, “The Good” – or oneself. Stirner points out that the last choice has always been “shameful”; you are incessantly instructed to serve something “higher”, like “God”, “Man”, etc. But what is “higher”? Stirner shows that such a concept becomes completely circular; God is “higher” by God’s measure, “Man” by Man’s measure, etc. Therefore, Stirner will choose himself as his own measure. He puts his own will first. and declares – the egoist, one single concrete man.
This creature, the egoist, is then sent into the arena of philosophical debate to match strength with the ideals – in particular with “Man”, this abstract, normative concept of Feuerbach’s.
Stirner’s main argument is this: In relation to the egoist – one single, concrete man – Feuerbach’s “Man” becomes a contradiction. Feuerbach can not deny that the egoist is a man. But yet, the egoist is no “Man” in the normative sense: For the egoist could not care less about the essence Feuerbach has assigned to him, like “True” and “Loving”. So in relation to the normative ideal, the egoist is both man and un-man at the same time – a logical contradiction. Stirner’s argument provoked a strong response from Feuerbach’s followers, and a restructuring of their ideas. Among these followers was, as mentioned earlier, the young – Karl Marx.
It might hard to relate to Stirner’s critique of Feuerbach without the details you would find in Stirner’s presentations of him, or in Feuerbach’s own presentations of himself for that matter. So, as an example of how Stirner’s argument works, I am going to use a philosopher closer to our own time, a more famous one; the competing egoist – Ayn Rand.2
To Rand, ethics is founded on one “existential choice”: To live or not to live. And since everything, according to Rand, has an identity, you cannot simply “live”; you have to live as something – “as man” – qua Man. And if you have decided to live “qua Man”3, then you have chosen a certain ethic4.
Stirner’s critique applied to Rand would be the example of a man who does not fit her ethics, a man who has chosen otherwise. It would not be hard to find such examples. So what is to be said about this man? Could we say he is not alive – that he is dead? Hardly. And despite objections from Objectivists, most bureaucrats have reasonably long lives. But they do not live according to Ran’s ethics. So what else can Rand and Randians say in defence of their ethics than that these people cannot be – men?
So Rand’s and Feuerbach’s “Man” capital M is therefore exposed as something other than the empirical generalization it was claimed to be. “Man” gets exposed as a set of ideals and phantasms that the two authors have desired men should be, which flies in the face of their claims to objectivity. Using the word “Man” to describe their fantasies is exposed as arbitrary – that is, arbitrary for any other purpose than rhetoric.
Myself, I have learned a lot from Stirner’s critique of the morality manifested in Feuerbach, and I have yet to find a morality that can not be critiqued using Stirner’s method. As a general case, Stirner has proven that arguments of the kind “I am a man, therefore I ought to be ‘Man’ in a normative sense” are nothing but philosophy based on a poor pun! Such bad puns, however, seem to be the order of the day in moral philosophy.
1 Engels wrote in a letter to Marx: “this work is important, far more important than Hess believes. [T]he first point we find true is that, before doing whatever we will on behalf of some idea, we have first to make our cause personal, egoistic […] Stirner is right to reject the “Man” of Feuerbach [since] Feuerbach’s Man is derived from God. [Among] all of “The Free” Stirner obviously has the most talent, personality, and dynamism.”
2 In this context, it is interesting to note that Rand’s philosophy keeps being compared to Hegelianism, and that critics like Chris Sciabarra indicate significant similarities between her methods and the methods of the former Feuerbachian – Karl Marx. (Chris Sciabarra: Ayn Rand, the Russian Radical)
3 Peikoff: Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 119-120
This is where Rand makes her error: She does not look for my or any other man’s concrete identity. She looks for Man’s identity. But since Man is a concept, its identity is its essence. And Man’s essence, she says, is Rationality. Erroneously, she then applies this essence to the concrete individuals, as if the concept’s essence was the individual’s identity. As I mention below, essences belong to concepts, and I am no concept.