Max Stirner: The Dissolute Life of an Egoist

By Keith Preston


German intellectual culture of the early nineteenth century produced an amazing variety of thinkers whose influence would continue to be felt two centuries later. Among the most interesting of these were those influenced in various ways by G.W.F. Hegel, but who utilized Hegel merely as a starting point for the widely diverse direction their individual thought would assume. Karl Marx was one of these thinkers, and perhaps the one with the most far reaching and durable influence. However, another fascinating thinker from this time period was an individual that in many ways could be considered the ultimate counterpart to Marxian communism, and to such a degree that a significant part of Marx’s The German Ideology is devoted to attacking his ideas. The individual in question was a dissolute figure who wrote under the curious pseudonym of Max Stirner.

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Stirner was born as Johan Caspar Schmidt on October 25, 1806, into a lower middle class German household of a Lutheran religious affiliation. Stirner’s father died when he was only six months old, and Stirner was consequently raised by his mother, and later by his aunt after his mother remarried. His mother appears to have been plagued by mental illness, and it is interesting to considering what psychological effects having been raised without a father and by an unstable mother might have had on Stirner. As a student, Max Stirner was unremarkable, although he attended three different universities, and his educational experience included attending a series of lectures by Hegel. As with so many other young intellectuals of his generation, it was Hegel who would clearly become the most important influence on Stirner’s later thought as Stirner’s egoism is essentially a negation of the Hegelian view of the supremacy of spirit.

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An Unremarkable Young Man

As a young man, Stirner was married twice. His first marriage was to a relative of his landlady named Agnes Butz. The nature of the relationship between Agnes and Max is also interesting to speculate about considering that Max once told Bruno Bauer that the sight of his naked wife was enough to permanently eliminate any sexual interest he ever had in her. Agnes died during childbirth in 1838 (the child was stillborn). Stirner later married Marie Dahnhart, whom he had met as part of a circle of radical intellectuals in Berlin during his time frequenting the bohemian circles there between 1838 and 1844. Marie would subsequently outlive Stirner by nearly half a century. Many years later, the English individualist-anarchist John Henry Mackay would contact an elderly Marie during the course of preparing his biography of Stirner. Marie was apparently so repulsed by the memory of her late husband that she refused to cooperate with Mackay, except to write to him expressing her view of Stirner as devious character for whom she had no personal respect, and characterizing her marriage as one of convenience rather than affection.

Yet, it was during Stirner’s time of his marriage to Marie that he was his most productive. During the years between 1838 and 1844, Stirner was employed as a teacher in a respectable girls’ school and led a conventional bourgeois life as an instructor of literature and history. Yet as part of the bohemian intellectual circles of Berlin, he was drawn to those with the most radical ideas and interests, including Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels, Bauer, the early communist thinker Moses Hess, Arnold Ruge, Ludwig Feuerbach, and others. Within this circle, Stirner became known as a provocative thinker that was capable of generating intense debate among his contemporaries. Another interesting aspect of Stirner’s biography is that no portraits of him survive for posterity. The only indication that is available concerning what Stirner might have looked like is a hand sketch drawn by Friedrich Engels approximately forty years later. Engels produced the sketch at the request of Mackay, who had approached the at-the-time famous communist thinker to inquire about his association with Stirner during their time in Berlin.

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The Ego and Its Own

Stirner’s core philosophy developed during these years when he was a part of Berlin’s radical intellectual circles, and he ultimately produced only one written work of note. Yet it was a work that would have a very far reaching impact in terms of its influence and implications. In 1844, Stirner’s book, The Ego and Its Own, was published, although the proper German title of the work was The Unique Individual and His Property. More than a century and a half later, scholars still debate the meaning of this work and its legacy. Stirner’s book contains a radically individualistic philosophy that has been considered a forerunner to such thinkers as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Foucault, and intellectual currents such as nihilism, postmodernism, existentialism, egoism, and anarchism. Stirner’s work is also regarded as having influenced the field of psychoanalysis as well.

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Indeed, many of the ideas expressed by Stirner are remarkably similar to those later contained in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. It has often been claimed that Nietzsche might have an unacknowledged intellectual debt to Stirner. However, there is no consensus among scholars of either thinker concerning the question of whether Nietzsche was in fact familiar with Stirner’s work, or influenced by it if he was. Yet it is difficult to fathom that Nietzsche, another German philosopher interested in similar subjects to those which Stirner addressed and living only a few decades later, would not have had at least a passing familiarity with Stirner’s work. Certainly, the approach to such topics as individualism, religion, ethics, morality, history, and politics contained in the works of both Nietzsche and Stirner bear an uncanny resemblance.

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Stirner’s individualism was an individualism of a particular kind. It is important to differentiate the individualism of Stirner’s egoistic philosophy from that of conventional bourgeois individualism. The form of individualism that is normally associated with classical liberalism is in turn derived from the philosophy of John Locke. Locke was the early English Enlightenment thinker that is largely considered to have formulated the philosophical foundations of modern liberalism. Locke’s idea of individualism was to some degree parallel with the rising ethos of early capitalism, reflected in the wider Protestant tradition out of which it emerged. The Lockean individual was the man of material acquisition within the framework of a social contract.

However, the individualism of Stirner would have cast aside those specific features of liberal philosophy as abstract “spooks” (intellectual ghosts which ultimately hold no substance) which exercise tyranny over the individual. Stirner’s individualism is not bourgeois individualism, which champions the ethics of property, respectability, and “middle-class values.” Indeed, Stirner’s philosophy in many ways represented the antithesis of these. Stirner never expressed anything other than contempt for bourgeois norms in either his philosophy or, ultimately, in his private life. His two marriages seem to have likely been for the sake of convenience, most probably financially motivated, and Max Stirner was largely responsible for squandering the inheritance of Marie, his second wife. Much of his later life was spent dodging debt collectors, and Stirner spent two stints in debtors’ prison before he eventually died in 1856 at the age of forty-nine. His cause of death has been traditionally attributed to an illness that was developed after a poisonous insect bite.

The Influence of Stirner on Ernst Jünger

The twentieth century German literary giant Ernst Jünger, best known for his writings during the period between the two world wars, would come to cite Stirner as a major influence later in life. In his classic 1977 dystopian novel, Eumeswil, published more than 130 years after The Ego and Its Own, Jünger provided an extensive discussion of the work of Stirner and its relevance to a world that is perpetually dominated by outward tyranny. For Jünger, true freedom was to be found not by means of external revolt but through internal resolve. Jünger looked to Stirner’s concept of the egoist as a model for achieving such an inner state of being. Ernst Jünger interpreted Stirner’s core ideas as amounting to two primary considerations: “1)That is not My business” and “2) Nothing is more important than I.” Such a sentiment is aptly expressed in Stirner’s proclamation that “all things are nothing to me.”

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Jünger regarded Stirner as an ironic figure that had been a dissolute failure in his personal and professional life, and yet one who left behind profound insights into the human condition. Jünger characterized Stirner in the following terms:

I can see him sitting there and smoking, a delicate profile. The sketch that Friedrich Engels drew from memory in London captures only the middle part of the face: the straight nose and the fine mouth. It was revised by the media service in the luminar. The new version also had the high, though less receding, forehead, which is Stirn in German. And indeed, he, Johann Kaspar Schmidt, had been nicknamed Stirner by one of his fellow students at the University of Königsberg; later on, he used the pseudonym “Max Stirner.” His signatures are likewise delicate; one notices that the final stroke sinks with the years. Incidentally, he died not by his own hand but from a fly sting that became infected. A banal life: misspent in profession and business, a failed marriage, debts, a regular tavern table with the standard blabber preceding the German revolution, a high-level philistine – the usual stuff.

What were the insights of Stirner that Jünger felt were so profound? As Jünger explained in Eumeswil:

The rebukes against him concentrated – nor could it be otherwise – in the reproach of egoism, a concept with which Stirner himself never fully came to terms. Still, he annexed it, often replacing Einziger (Only One) with Eigner (owner, proprietor). The owner does not fight for power, he recognizes it as his own, his property. He owns up to it, appropriates it, makes it his own. This process can be nonviolent, especially as a strengthening of the self-awareness. What had touched me so deeply? Stirner’s arrow grazed the point at which I suspected the presence of the anarch. The dissimilarity presupposes a very subtle distinction, and, I believe, Vigo is the only person in Eumeswil who could make it. After all, he instantly caught the difference between owner and egoist. It is the same as the difference between anarch and anarchist. These concepts appear to be identical, but are radically different.

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For Stirner, the true rebel is not one that is necessarily engaged in active revolt against established political structures or social norms in the same manner as the conventional revolutionist. Rather, the egoist is one that lives only for himself and his own interests, and allows no one or nothing else to exercise any claim upon him.

The Total Rebel

Stirner’s rebellion against authority was absolute. He not only rejected conventional political, legal, economic, religious, and ethical norms as “spooks”, but likewise rejected conventional philosophical, literary, and linguistic values as exercising potential tyranny over the individual as well. Stirner is considered to have been a prototypical anarchist, in that in his philosophy, the egoist certainly fails to recognize the authority of the state. However, the egoist is not an anarchist revolutionary in the same sense as figures such as Bakunin or Kropotkin. Instead, the egoist is antagonistic towards the state not because the state perpetrates perceived injustice or oppression, or out of a desire for a better existence; instead, Stirner’s archetypical egoistic figure rejects the state merely because the authority of the state is counter to his own interests.

Perhaps the most enduringly scandalous aspect of Stirner’s work is his notorious defense of crime, and his insistence that murder, infanticide, and incest might well contain a certain utility if they serve the purpose of the egoist. Stirner also foreshadowed the critiques of reason, science, and rationality offered by later thinkers — including Nietzsche and the neo-Marxists of the Frankfurt School — with his insistence that these could in turn become tyrannies over the mind of the individual. Indeed, Stirner serves as an early prototype for postmodern critiques of language as a means of facilitating oppressive narratives, whereby discourse serves the interests of hegemony. Throughout his articulation of each of these different critiques, Stirner’s starting point remains his conviction that values which are external to the individual need only be observed when they advance the interests of the individual.

Linguistic or literary norms, religion and morality, law and justice, science and reason: none of these things have any binding claim on the individual, according to Stirner’s philosophy. He summarized his attack upon conventional morality as follows:

What is not supposed to be my concern? First and foremost the good cause, then God’s cause, the cause of mankind, of truth, of freedom, of humanity, of justice; further, the cause of my people, my prince, my fatherland; finally, even the cause of mind and a thousand other causes. Only my cause is never to be my concern. ‘Shame on the egoist who thinks only of himself!’

Stirner subsequently aims for an inversion of these norms by remarking that,

God and mankind have concerned themselves with nothing and for nothing but themselves. Let me then likewise concern myself for myself, who am equally with God the nothing of all others, who am my all, who am the only one (der Einzige).

If God, if mankind, as you affirm, have substance enough in themselves to be all in all to themselves, then I feel that I shall still less lack that, and that I shall have no complaint to make of my ’emptiness’. I am not nothing in the sense of emptiness, but I am the creative nothing (schöpferische Nichts), the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything.

Stirner summarized the philosophical outlook of the egoist by proclaiming,

Away, then, with every concern that is not altogether my concern! You think at least the ‘good cause’ must by my concern? What’s good, what’s bad? Why, I myself am my concern, and I am neither good nor bad. Neither has meaning for me. The divine is God’s concern; the human, ‘man’s’. My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, the good, just, free, etc, but solely what is mine (das Meinige), and it is not a general one, but is – unique (einzig), as I am unique. Nothing is more to me than myself!

Foreshadowing Nietzsche

One of the most interesting ways in which Stirner parallels and foreshadows Nietzsche is in his critique of religious morality and the relationship between the ancient and the modern. Nietzsche is perhaps best known for his critique of Christianity as an embodiment of “slave morality”, in which the conditions of the suffering and downtrodden are implicitly regarded as ennobling and virtuous. Nietzsche likewise regarded Christianity as having represented a degeneration of the earlier “master morality” of the Roman era, in which domination and conquest were regarded as feats of nobility and courage rather than as vices. Indeed, Nietzsche traced the roots of slave morality to the Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece and the metaphysical conceptions of justice emanating from the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Nietzsche preferred the pre-Socratic perspective of the Sophists, with their “might is right” ethos.

Like Nietzsche, Stirner was concerned with the way in which the secular ideologies of the nineteenth century were developing into new religions with pieties of their own. He summarized this view with his statement, “Our atheists are pious people.” Like Nietzsche, he expressed concern that the modern religions of reason, science, progress, liberalism, egalitarianism, humanism, socialism, and communism were creating a foundation for systems of oppression that would be even greater than those created by the ancient tyrannies or the medieval Church. Stirner’s view of the emerging secular ideological crusades of the modern era similarly parallel Nietzsche’s prediction that the twentieth century would be a time of unprecedented conflict between contending forces of crusaders.


Politics as Theology

Ernst Jünger revisited these observations of Stirner in Eumeswil in a way that is reminiscent of Henry Louis Mencken’s claim that the expressed desire to save humanity was more often a mask for a desire to rule humanity. As Jünger noted:

As for the do-gooders, I am familiar with the horrors that were perpetrated in the name of humanity, Christianity, progress. I have studied them. I do not know whether I am correctly quoting a Gallic thinker: ‘Man is neither an animal nor an angel; but he becomes a devil when he tries to be an angel.’

Indeed, Stirner’s critique of modern political thought as essentially derivative of earlier theological doctrines resembles Carl Schmitt’s notion of “political theology.” Stirner and Schmitt can reasonably be said to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum. While Stirner championed absolute individualism and the negation of all authority, for Schmitt order and authority were the highest of all values. Yet the skepticisms both thinkers displayed towards doctrines of social improvement mirror each other in many ways. Carl Schmitt once remarked that any serious approach to political philosophy must begin with the presumption that humanity is evil. Once again foreshadowing Nietzsche, Stirner would have argued that the egoist is one who has transcended good and evil and recognizes these classical moral concepts only to the degree that they serve his own interests.

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Carl Schmitt

In many ways, the prevailing ethos of  the late modernity of the twenty-first century embodies both the ethos postulated by Stirner and the “spooks” which he despised. On one hand, the culture of the contemporary Western world is characterized by endless conflicts and antagonisms over contending claims of “rights” and parallel tales of victimization in a way that often reflects an egoistic outlook that borders on narcissism. On the other hand, the systems of oppression that Western people face are perpetrated by the very “pious people” whom Stirner lambasted. In 1969, Malcolm Muggeridge presciently observed that the prevailing values of the ruling elites seemed to be undergoing a transformation from championing systems of overt imperialism and oppression to championing anyone presenting credentials of having been oppressed. He regarded this as a hollow mask for a new tyranny. Regrettably, the predictions of Muggeridge, like those of Stirner, have largely been proven to have been correct.

2 replies »

  1. Always interesting to learn more about Stirner’s life. Roberto Calasso has an interesting essay on him in Forty-Nine Steps. He cites a letter from someone who was at Stirner’s wedding, in which he described Stirner and his friends as ‘ubermenschen.’

  2. Excellent summary! Thanks for writing it. I am just getting started with The Ego and Its Own so your post will be very helpful with background.

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