Under Christianity, the spirit assumed the role of master once held by the world. Dogmatic truths and values reigned over Christian Europe, until these were subverted by a process similar to what had occurred in the ancient world.
In the century before the Reformation, just as the Sophists had intellectually undermined customary morality, so too did Christians assert a freedom of the intellect from religious dogmas, while retaining Christian mores. As Stirner puts it, “If only the heart remains Christian-minded, the understanding may go right on taking its pleasure.” [p.30.]
Here Stirner seems to have in mind the Italian courtiers and Machiavellian princes who, while keeping the form of Christian mores, nonetheless rationalized utterly un-Christian systems of thought and practice. There was no thought of ridding oneself of Christianity, but only of freeing one’s mind from dogmatic norms. Luther’s disputations were but the most recent in a long line of daringly bold subversions of orthodoxy.
Stirner’s account of Renaissance humanism requires some qualification. It is hardly the case that all, or even most, of the prominent humanists were trying to subvert orthodoxy. Many, most notably Petrarch, were actually trying to protect the ancient faith against perceived scholastic distortions, much as the Greek Orthodox were suspicious of any philosophical theology that had no analogue in the Fathers. There was no intent to diminish the supremacy of spiritual truths, and faith, in most cases, was sincere and devout. It would be anachronistic to make Christian humanism a step toward secularism, for in fact it moved away from the latter, as did Protestantism.
Stirner, like most nineteenth-century intellectuals, is committed to a deterministic model of history, proceeding in phases of development, as it was already believed that such mechanistic determinism was the standard of science. We should not be surprised that he and other Left Hegelians espoused an evolutionary historical materialism well before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). After all, Darwin’s formulation of evolutionary theory was itself informed by culturally prevalent ideas about human development.
Stirner gives the Reformation the role of Socrates, purifying the heart of Christian contents, until it has “nothing but empty warm-heartedness… the quite general love of men, the love of Man, the consciousness of freedom…”. [p.31.] Committed to historical materialism, Stirner presumes that the appearance of Christian liberalism was a necessary consequence of the Reformation. In fact, it was far from the Reformers’ intent to diminish the Christian content of their hearts. As Hitler astutely remarked in Mein Kampf, the Reformation was a disaster for the Church precisely because it took hold of many of her strongest and most devout members, as contrasted with the AustrianKulturkampf, which took only the lukewarm. [ch.3.] The Age of Reformation was marked by an increase in religious fervor, which continued into the early seventeenth century.
It is true that later developments toward Christian deism and secular liberalism were facilitated by the Protestants’ lack of a coherent authority principle, resulting in further theological fractures and the assertion of state independence from the Church. This does not, however, mean that the Reformation as such began a determinate process of de-Christianizing Europe. Similar developments arose in Catholic countries among men who had little exposure to Protestant ideas and writings.
Still, we may retain Stirner’s general point by taking late 17th/ early 18th-century liberal Christianity as our starting point. Here we truly find men who retained Christian mores, while lacking religious fervor or any strong belief in the supernatural. It is at this time that we find the first attempts to reduce Christianity to the mere love of men, or the principle of reciprocity, i.e., the “Golden Rule,” which had previously been considered only a minor saying of Jesus.
It is also at this time that many thinkers take interest in the “rights of man” and a more cosmopolitan view of ethics and politics. Stirner accuses those with this disinterested warm-heartedness of loving “Man” in the abstract, but not actual men. Like some more traditional Christians, this newer breed loves only the “spirit” of man, but not a man in his concrete individuality, which he rejects with all “egoism”, privilege or partiality.
We may see many examples of this hypocrisy in our own day. There are countless liberals who profess their love of “mankind”, yet do not hesitate to vilify “bigots”, “fanatics,” “the greedy,” and other broadly defined bogeymen who, all tallied, constitute the vast majority of actually existing people. What then, is left of this “mankind” supposedly loved? It is clear that, in such cases, the object of affection is primarily an abstraction, and individuals are loved only to the extent that they conform to the abstraction.
The coldness of the “warm-hearted” liberal Christian toward individual men proves to Stirner “that the spirit is—a lie,” [p.32.] for those who love the spirit love nothing actual.