non serviam #20
Svein Olav Nyberg: Max Stirner – the great philosopher of Egoism (Part 2 of 2)
J.W. von Goethe: Vanitas! (translated by Wm. Flygare)
Since the first issue of non serviam saw the light of day, an interesting new list has appeared on the Internet. It is called Egoism. The predominant species of animal on that list seems to be a Stirner-type egoist. This list is also inhabited by a few animals of another kind, most of them passing by and leaving in a huff. These animals are the moralists. The moralists are a funny kind of animal. In the world at large, they are in an overwhelming majority. So they will usually arrive at the Egoism list with the mindset of a majoritarian: They take their majoritarian presumptions for granted. A particular presumption that seems to be very common is that moral language formulas have a meaning outside of their use within the language games themselves. This presumption is not surprisingly the one that is challenged first, in particular by the resident Stirnerite veteran Dan Davis. I find Dan’s method of dissection quite delightful, and I would like to invite readers of Non Serviam to experience these dissections for themselves by dropping by the Egoism list. If you want to join the list and see, send an email to
with message body “subscribe egoism FirstName LastName”.
In Non Serviam #18 we featured the obituary of Wm. Flygare. In this issue we have his translation of Goethe’s “Vanitas!” into English. To my knowledge, this is the only translation in existence. It was sent to Non Serviam by Flygares widow Yoshiko, via Sid Parker. As the readers are probably well aware, it was the opening lines from “Vanitas!” that inspired and even named Stirner’s preface to The Ego and Its Own. I think you will recognize the sentiment and the inspiration when you read the poem.
Last, this issue also features the second part of my introduction to Stirner, “The Great Philosopher Of Egoism”. Enjoy!
Svein Olav Nyberg (ed.)
The Great Philosopher Of Egoism
By Svein Olav Nyberg
The political Stirner
Earlier on we mentioned that Stirner, like Ibsen, considered the State as “the curse of the individual”. To consider the State to be a curse is hardly unique. There is no lack of people cursing the State for “taking away their freedom”, “oppressing them as a class”, “working against God’s will”, “destroying the environment”, “oppressing one’s nation/race/etc.”, and not forget – etc.
They all have this common: They curse the State in the name of an ideal. Their complaint is that the State prevents the ideal’s free unfolding. Stirner and Ibsen, on the other hand, curse the State because it prevents their own free unfolding.
Stirner identifies two opposite directions – the individual and the universal. The question is, who is going to win? On one side you have the individual with its the demands of own will and its individual goals. On the other side you have the universal with its implicit demands of equality.
How different, then, will not the two sides define “freedom”. The individual wants to break away from those who demand power over it; it finds its freedom when its movements are unhindered. The universal, on the other hand, finds freedom when the universal is unlimited.
As an example, let us look at Norway’s liberation from Sweden. Did the individuals in Norway gain more freedom after this event. No, by all means, that would be a misunderstanding. What was liberated was the nation. The nation gained more power. From an individual’s point of view, this was a mere change of rulers. After having been ruled by a Swedish king, the Norwegians were now to be ruled by a king devoting his kingship to Norway only.
The same goes for liberation movements all over the world. South Vietnam was liberated from the imperialists, but the South Vietnamese – the individuals – got new and stricter masters. And was not Iran liberated from American imperialism? Yes indeed,Iran is liberated, while individuals like Salman Rushdie have to fear for their lives.
Stirner’s contemporaries, first of all Bruno Bauer, had become experts on how to liberate the universal. And they particularly wanted to free “Man”. But as I stated above, he is not talking about concrete individuals, but rather about our “essence”. Here the antagonism is even closer to the surface than in the case of the liberation of nations.
Stirner describes three stages in the development of “Man”‘s liberation. The first one is from the French revolution of 1789, while the other two are taken from political critics that were Stirner’s contemporaries:
- Man’s first liberation takes place during the 1789 revolution. Personal power should be removed – no one should be more than anyone else as a person – all are citšyen – state citizens. This is called political liberalism.
But since this liberation is presented as a liberation of Man, and not of any actual and concrete beings with all their personal interests – “egoists” as Stirner calls them – the 1789 revolution lays itself open to criticism that it is not a complete liberation. Distribution of property is controlled by the State, protecting the have’s from the have-not’s. Property is left to the sphere of egoists, and is not under the control of Man or Mankind.
- So – if the intention is to liberate Man, you have to remove the power the egoists have gained over property, and make it available for – Mankind. With that we have stepped into Communism or, as it is also called, the social liberalism.
But this is only the beginning of a slippery slope. The humanists, led by Bruno Bauer, finds it abhorrent that even under social liberalism, leisure time is still reserved for private interests – for egoism.
- So in order to get closer to the complete liberation of Man from the grip of these evil egoists, leisure time must be “human” as well. Everything is to be organized around “Man” – and all one’s own and personal interest are to be removed.
This “humane liberalism” is strikingly similar to the society the main character of Ayn Rand’s Anthem wakes up in. Here Rand and Stirner meet again, in joint critique: Rand does it by means of a novel, and Stirner with a “reductio ad absurdum” argument against this liberation of abstract beings – spirits and spooks!
Feuerbach turned God into Man, says Stirner, while Bauer wanted to turn Man into my concrete I. For remember: In Hegelianism the universal has no existence without its concrete manifestations. As Stirner puts it: “Man is lost without me”. And so he turns his back to those who wish to make “Man” the identity of Stirner or any other concrete person.
Stirner’s concept of egoism has so far been presented as something with a negative function – something that can be inserted into a philosophical or political argument to knock the opponent off his perch. But Stirner also gives us egoism as a positive example: Here is what I have done. If you want to and you are able, the way is open to do likewise.
Unlike Rand’s egoism, Stirner’s egoism is not prescriptive. He has not chosen the term to be the base of a new -ism. Stirner’s philosophy is one of focusing on the concrete individual. The core concept to understand the philosophical world of Stirner beyond his critique is Der Einzige – a phrase which means “the unique”, “the individual” and “the sole one”.
Stirner notes that each individual is unique. Hans Trygve5 and I are not the same person. We are two concretely different individuals. For sure, we are both human beings, but “human beings” only expresses what we have in common, not anything we must strive to become. That we have something in common does not make what we have in common our essence. “Essence” is a characteristic of concepts, not of individuals; and I can have something in common with a lot of things. That I have something in common with something else, does not make this commonality my essence. For I am no concept. Had I been a concept, could you not also spell me?
This is a simple every-day observation. Yet we have seen that this little stroke fells big philosophical oaks.
As unique, our interests are unique – they express the unique one. It is this unique person’s unique interests that Stirner calls egoism. Egoism is the interest you have for your own concerns, as opposed to the concerns of ideals like God, Man and your Country.
Stirner also suggests that if we should happen to identify our concerns with the struggle for an ideal, we would still be doing this on the basis of our self-interest – out of egoism. In other words, he suggests a psychological egoism. This is correct and tautological in the sense that all our interests are basically – unique interests; our own personal interests, as the unique persons we are. Personally, I think the idea of psychological egoism can be a bit messy, since it raises the threshold to separate “unconscious” egoists like Mother Theresa from “conscious” egoists like myself.
Throughout his works Stirner makes a crucial distinction between the ideas and feelings that have been instilled in me and those that arise in me. In his article Das unwahre Prinzip unserer Erziehung (The False Principle of Our Education), he attacks the theories that see the great question of teaching as one of to stuff knowledge into children’s heads as effectively as possible. The pedagogues furiously disagree with each other about the means, Stirner observes, but they all agree that the goal is to stuff knowledge into the children’s heads. Opposed to this, Stirner suggests that the children could choose their own learning; that their edification is best based on their own – interest. This way knowledge becomes children’s own, and not a heavy burden of imputed facts and theories. An interesting observation in this regard, from brain research 150 years after Stirner, is that the chemistry of learning works best exactly when the learner learns with interest.
Precisely this notion that something is one’s own, like learning, is our second, essential concept to better understand Stirner. According to Stirner, everything you get in touch with is your property. Not in a legal sense, but in the sense that what you, as a unique one, get in touch with, you will face on your own terms, and not on terms prescribed by someone else, by an ideal, etc.
This is undeniably an idiosyncratic way of using the word “property”, so let me explain: “Property”, in a classical sense, is what you control. How you specifically use this control is up to you and your abilities. “Property” as a “right” is something Stirner has just rejected, because the “right” is not something that belongs to the individual; it belongs to “Man”.
So in the absense of ruling, normative ideals, “property” means nothing else than whatever you come into contact with. It is “property” when you relate to it by your ownness, and not according to what ideals and authorities have prescribed. And your control of the object depends on your power or – in other words – your abilities.
The second last concept of Stirner’s is exactly Eigenheit – “ownness”. This concept is a description saying that you consider yourself and your evaluations – yours. It is related to the last of Stirner’s concepts, Eigner, which means “owner”.
Stirner contrasts “ownness” to “freedom”. “Freedom” in itself, says Stirner, is only an empty and toothless concept. Freedom – the word “freedom” – means, along with the word “free”, nothing but “absence of”. Light beer is, for instance, free of alcohol. But you do not become a libertarian by drinking it. So when you are looking for “freedom”, exactly what do you want freedom from? The word itself does not provide any answer, and you can argue with the “humane liberals” about the right to the word until you are blue in the face.
Or you can simply decide for your own sake what this freedom should contain, and work to liberate yourself, not a crowd of men who do not desire your freedom at all, but instead perhaps desire another kind of freedom contradicting yours.
But Stirner prefers “ownness” to “freedom”. Because freedom, which is an absense, is not a result of your own efforts, but rather something that is “granted” by those who otherwise would have put forth a presence in the sphere where you like your freedom. This is echoed in the infamous phrase “You can’t have Freedom for free”.
An illustrative example of the difference between freedom and ownness can be found in the case of a child being teased at school: If the bullies tire of harassing him for a while, the harassment is absent for a while – he is free of it. But this freedom is easily seen to be in the hands of someone else. On the other hand, if he starts learning karate or gets himself some athletic friends, the situation takes on another flavour. He then uses his ownness to fight his harassers. He resists them by his will. In the first scenario: If the bullies decided to start harassing him again, and he appealed to his freedom, this vain appeal would be nothing but a wish, a wish for the bullies’ absence. But this wish is not up to himself to fulfill; it is up to the bullies.
This does again hold a certain similarity to Rand: Rand talks about “sanction of the victim”: The bullies’ power over you is unlimited unless you fight back and say no.
In the last part of his book, Stirner describes what it means to relate to one another as an individual to an individual, rather than facing each other through the intermediary of an ideal. He does in particular give a reply to those who object desperately when he tears down their ideals: “But if we do not have the ideals to protects us, we are completely lost! We will have no claim of right to hold up against the evil-doers!” Here Stirner replies that the “rights”, just like crosses and garlic, have never been a protection in any case.6 “What are you standing there for?” he asks, “Do you not have any power of resistance? Don’t you, too, have power and abilities?”
Furthermore, Stirner stresses that power and abilities are not reserved for big, brawny men alone. For if I join up with others of similar interests, my power is multiplied manifold. And all changes that have been accomplished throughout history, whether done in the name of an ideal or for some concrete people’s sake, have always been accomplished by concrete people; the ideal has not done a darn thing – it has at best been a stowaway or deadhead in the concrete people’s minds.
So what I have gained does not become lost when I lose illusions and ideals, not even if the lost ideals are “right” and “freedom”. It is rather so that what has been gained has become more solidly founded, because I no longer feel I must bend my head in shame if someone will no longer grant me what I had won: The “freedom” that the bullied school-boy has gained is better founded on his ownness than on pleas for freedom. Also: I may have lost my licence to sell liquor, but that does not mean I will automatically stop selling drinks. I may been denied imports above certain limits, thus limiting my “freedom” in the classical political sense. But in ownness I – smuggle.
The Scottish-German poet John-Henry Mackay has the credit for most of what is known about Stirner today. Mackay used several years and a huge amount of his fortune to track down information about Stirner and what he wrote. He was himself an individualist anarchist, and interpreted Stirner to be so, as well. I doubt this is true of Stirner, but this is for another discussion. Stirner did in any case inspire anarchists, particularly individualist anarchists, like Mackay, but also social-anarchist like Mikhail Bakunin admitted a debt to Max Stirner.
Stirner got his second season of fame at the turn of the century. Georg Brandes had discovered and promoted Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s fans were looking for a “precursor” to Nietzsche, and found this in Stirner. Brandes therefore had a market when he published and wrote a preface to the Danish edition of Der Einzige in 1902. Henrik Ibsen corresponded frequently with Brandes, so we have reason to assume Ibsen was influenced by Stirner.
Stirner’s reputation as an individualist anarchist was strengthened when Benjamin Tucker, the leading American libertarian at the beginning of this century, considered it to be his greatest achievement when he published the first English edition of Der Einzige in 1907. In later years, Stirner has for the most part been seen as an anarchist political philosopher. According to the critic Herbert Read, however, people like Erich Fromm, Jung, Martin Buber and several 20th-century existentialists are indebted to Stirner – a diversity I am confident would have pleased Stirner.
After Der Einzige was published things did not happen quite the way Max Stirner had envisioned. The work had a heavy, immediate effect, but in the wake of political unrest and a revolution in 1848, the attention paid him and his contemporary Young Hegelians was lost. Most of the young Hegelians, including Stirner, experienced hardship both financially and otherwise in this time. Stirner himself wasted the whole fortune of his soon-thereafter ex wife on unsuccessful investments.
Before he died in 1856, Stirner completed the first German translation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and also translated some books by a French popularizer of Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say. Stirner could be found until his death in different lounges and assembly rooms where he stated radical and shocking ideas.
On June 25, 1856 Stirner died of an infection after having been stung by an insect. With him dies a unique world.
Postscript on Feminism
Stirner’s attack on “the essence of Man” can be neatly applied in a critique of gender roles as postulated by “feminists” and patriarchalists alike. Both sides maintain normative views of what a woman “is”. We are, for instance, told that women can not be muscular. When a woman is strong, the patriarchs label her “unfeminine” and even “unwomanly”. All this while a simple medical inspection would reveal her to be a woman. A similarly ugly example from the eighties is when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. The feminists yelled that she was not one of them, the “women”: She was “a man”7. Following the pattern of Stirner’s critique of “Man”, we find that gender essentialism and pre-assigned gender roles are simply self-contradictory: It is not the deviant woman who ceases to be a woman when she does not fit the essence and role of “woman”; it is the essences and roles of “woman” that cease to be true.
Feminism is perhaps of particular interest because of Dora Marsden, a prominent individualist and feminist in the United Kingdom at the turn of the century. Her rhetoric and ideas bear a strong resemblance to Stirner, and she explicitly confirmed this link. If you are interested in gaining better knowledge of this remarkable woman, I recommend having a look at this web page:http://pierce.ee.washington.edu/~davisd/egoist/marsden/
But be warned: Compared to Marsden and her rhetoric, today’s feminists will look like boring bureaucrats!
Translated from Norwegian by Hans Trygve Jensen with assistance from Deborah Byfield and the author himself.
6 “If someone is steps on your right,” the prominent Norwegian libertarian Bj¿rn Borg Kj¿lseth once asked, “will the right bite his leg in response, or will you have to do it yourself?”
7 Likewise, it may be noted that the competing egoist, Rand, has said that women cannot become presidents. At the moment, it is a bit unclear to me if this yet another example of normative essentialism in her philosophy.
My thought’s on n’ought!
J.W. von Goethe
My thoughts ‘n’ oughts are nothing fixed
for Joy’s the world that’s downed unmixed
and all who’d be good mates of mine
to clink ‘n’ drink just suit me fine
for lees of life and wine!
I’d trained my trade on gold ‘n’ gain
but so I sold my joy for pain;
the coins were rolling here and there,
but every time I chased a where
the here was over there.
To women then I gave my heart
but how those damsels made me smart
The false were true to others, true,
but true ones bored me through and through;
the best … were not for woo.
Next, I thought I ought to roam
but then I lost my ways of home,
and nothing seemed to suit me quite,
the board was bad, the bed a fright,
and no one got me right.
I tuned my dream to name and fame
Excel! but better men put me to shame
or when I gave some good I had
they made me out to be a cad;
my good was worse than bad.
I sought the right in battle might
and often was our might so right
the enemy’s land was ours to run;
but still the score was won to none,
and a leg became undone.
So now I call my calling nought
The world’s all mine that comes unsought
Now that it’s song and sup all day,
come clink ‘n’ drink me all the way
these lees to the last hooray!
This poem was translated into English by Wm. Flygare from the German original “Vanitas!”.