It is a curious fact (and mentioned here for no other reason) that the appearance of Stirner’s book Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum (often translated as The Ego and its Own) in mid-October of 1844 nearly coincided with Nietzsche’s birth. Max Stirner (the pseudonym of Johann Caspar Schmidt, 1806-1856) lived at that time in Berlin and kept company with a circle of the so-called Junghegelianer (Young Hegelians).
Their theoretical leaders were two former Hegelian theologians who had been removed from university office because of their criticism of religion: Bruno Bauer in Berlin and Ludwig Feuerbach in Franconia. Bauer tried, for the first time in Germany, to establish a connection with the ideas of the atheist faction of the French enlightenment. Feuerbach, drawing from German sources, had likewise struggled to arrive at an atheist position. Suddenly Stirner, the “artificial barbarian” (Calasso), entered the scene and took up a position that enabled him to mock the two atheists as “pious people”.
However, Stirner did not launch his devastating criticism at the prominent Young Hegelians in order to harm the post-Hegelian movement of enlightenment; rather, he wanted to radicalize and lift it up to a higher level. Later historians ignored the singular position of Stirner and subsumed him without further analysis within the Young Hegelians, and classified these philosophers altogether as nothing but a “product of decomposition” of Hegel’s school. Nevertheless, as shown above, ‘The Ego’ did not disappear entirely.
Stirner’s criticism came as a shock to the Young Hegelians. The beleaguered Feuerbach — who called Stirner in a private letter the “freest and most ingenious writer I’ve ever known” — soon published a written defense. Stirner’s superior response to it pushed the young Marx, at that time a follower of Feuerbach, into a situation which rightfully can be called his own “initial crisis”. He separated from Feuerbach, but did not side with Stirner. He instead wrote with feverish zeal a furious attack on Stirner, in which he executed sentence after sentence.
During this process Marx conceived his original idea of “historical materialism”, the framework of which he sought to fill out in a lifelong effort of economic study. But Marx probably felt that his attack on Stirner might lead him to suffer the same fate as Feuerbach. In any case he decided to leave the manuscript unpublished.
Already in 1847, long before the coming revolts of March 1848 could be discerned, Stirner’s shocking book was ‘forgotten’. And after the historical break of 1848 there followed a political climate in which the atheist enlightenment initiated by the Young Hegelians was considered taboo, which held doubly so for its radicalization by Stirner. Furthermore, its most important protagonists (Feuerbach, Bauer, and Marx) no longer represented it and adjusted themselves in one way or another to the new political conditions.
Stirner rapidly sank into poverty, and died in 1856. At this time he had already become a non-person, an untouchable one, a pariah in the philosophical community. Up to the end of the 80’s, a time which approximately coincides with Nietzsche’s lifetime in awareness, Stirner was rarely discussed in public. Instead philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Lange gained fame in the 1860’s. Nietzsche refers to all of these men in his writings and letters. Could he have come to know Stirner from their writings?
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) did not mention the name of Stirner anywhere. Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) treats Stirner in his successful firstling Philosophie des Unbewussten (1869) only briefly, but in a significant way. He gives the attentive reader to understand that he, after all, once shared “Stirner’s point of view” and abandoned it by writing this work.
Friedrich Albert Lange (1828-1875) mentions Stirner in his famous Geschichte des Materialismus (1866) with few, but carefully chosen words. He assesses Stirner’s book as “the most extreme, that we have knowledge of”, referring to its “ill fame” before quickly coming to an end by maintaining the lack of any closer relationship to materialism.
The mention of Stirner in these books of Hartmann and Lange are the most important ones in those four decades of underground obscurity. They are particularly important for our topic because Nietzsche studied precisely these two works with exceptional thoroughness. Apart from these brief discussions of Stirner, the observation of a little-known contemporary would seem to be accurate: “Max Stirner — what a vilified and hated name ! […] Yes, if anyone can complain of being hushed up, then this is not Schopenhauer, but Stirner.”
At the beginning of the 1880s the mental climate gradually began to change. A new generation of writers, who called themselves “naturalists” or “realists”, appeared before the public and wanted to take up the radicalism of the pre-1848 years which had, until this time, remained proscribed and repressed. A first booklet, Kritische Waffengänge, edited in 1882 by Julius and Heinrich Hart, sent a clear signal of this trend. At the same time, and from the same publishing house, there appeared the second edition of Stirner’s ‘The Ego’.
The reissue of the “ill famed” book, suppressed for decades, proved to be premature: the public remained silent. Even the young literary rebels did not dare to so much as touch Stirner. Stirner was brought into discussion only some years later, characteristically at first as a bugaboo in the propaganda quarrels of the Weltanschauungen.
In 1886 Friedrich Engels tried to foist Stirner onto the anarchists as their “prophet”. (26) And Eduard von Hartmann exploited him somewhat later in his fight against Nietzsche. These are clear indications that Stirner, at the time, was generally held in a disrepute nobody felt it was necessary to justify. Engels and Hartmann both relied upon such an assessment of Stirner when, in order to strike decisive blows, each portrayed their respective opponents as mental ‘descendants’ of the ill-famed pariah.
Beginning in the mid-80s Nietzsche, whose writings up to then had been barely known outside a close circle of friends, also achieved greater public recognition. In some private circles of Nietzsche admirers, Stirner’s ‘The Ego’ — or more precisely Nietzsche’s silence regarding it — must have been a source of a vague confusion. This resulted, for example, in a remark revealing as much caution as prying curiosity, almost hidden in a lengthy letter from a Viennese admirer full of diverse questions addressed to Nietzsche’s friend Overbeck: “A connoisseur of N.’s writings, who is not a member of our circle, has expressed the conjecture that Max Stirner’s pamphlet Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum may have been not without influence on the later conceptions of N.” He went on to ask if this could be correct.
We know that during the whole of his productive period of mental health, Nietzsche was never himself confronted with the question so often posed later: whether he knew Stirner’s ‘The Ego’. And when at last the time had come, when approaching fame was within easy reach, then, at the beginning of 1889 — as if he had anticipated such questions, addressed to him as a famous figure — he absconded from intellectual life without leaving a single word about his relationship to Stirner.