While Dostoevsky and Nietzsche must be acknowledged as the thinkers who plumbed the depths of nihilism most deeply, we can see the outlines of nihilism-though not fully developed as suchin an earlier work published by Max Stirner in 1844, The Ego and His Own ,Thanks to the revival of interest in Stirner’s work by J. H . Mackay (Max Stirner, Sein Leben und Sein Werk, 1897), attention has been drawn to various similarities between Stirner’s ideas and those of Nietzsche. It is almost certain that Nietzsche did not read Stirner’s work.
If he was acquainted with Stirner at all, it was probably indirectly through Lange’s History of Materialism.In the absence of direct and substantive influence, the presence of such similarities raises a number of questions.
At the same time, comparisons must not be allowed to obscure the great difference in the foundations of their philosophies and in the spirit that pervades the entirety of their thought.
Although Mackay regards Stirner far more highly than he does Nietzsche, there is in Stirner nothing of the great metaphysical spirit excavating the subterranean depths we find in Nietzsche. Stirner’s critiques do not display the anatomical thoroughness of Nietzsche’s painstaking engagement with all aspects of culture; nor does one hear in Stirner the prophetic voice of a Zarathustra resounding from the depths of the soul. The unique style of Stirner’s thinking lay in a combination of a razor-sharp logic that cuts through straight to the consequences of things and an irony that radically inverts all standpoints with a lightness approaching humor. In this regard his work is not without its genius. Feuerbach, even though he was one of the primary targets of Stirner’ criticisms, admired The Ego and His Own greatly, referring to it in a letter addressed to his brother shortly after the book appeared as “a work of genius, filled with spirit.” Feuerbach allowed that even though what Stirner had said about him was not right, he was nevertheless “the most brilliant and liberated writer I have ever known .”
Stirner’s book showed him at his best in his confrontation with the turbulent Zeitgeist of the period, set in a highly charged political atmosphere culminating in the outbreak of the February Revolu tion of 1848. Among the intelligentsia the radical ideas of the “Hegelian left” were in high fashion. As Nietzsche was to write later: “The whole of human idealism up until now is about to turn into nihilism” ( WP 617); and indeed such a turn was already beginning to show signs of emerging from the intellectual turmoil of the earlier period.
It was Stirner who grasped what Nietzsche was to call the “turn into nihilism” in its beginning stages, presenting it as egoism.
Around the beginning o f the 1840s a group o f people who called themselves “Die Freien” used to gather in Hippel’s tavern on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. The central figure of the group was Bruno Bauer, and such people as Marx and Engels occasionally attended as well . Stirner was among these “Free Ones.” The trend at that time was a sharp turn away from idealism and romanticism in favor of realism and political criticism. The criticism of the liberals was focused on overthrowing the coalition of Christian theology, Hegelian philosophy, and political conservatism . It was only natural that Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity which appeared in 1841 would cause a great shock through its severe critique of religion.
The current of thought broke forth into a rushing torrent. In no time Marx and others had developed Feuerbach’s ideas into a materialism of praxis and history, while Bruno Bauer developed them in the opposite direction of “consciousness of self.” Stirner then took the latter’s ideas to the extreme to develop a standpoint of egoism .
It was only three years after Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity that Stirner’s The Ego and His Own was published, which shows how rapidly ideas were changing at the time . His critique of Feuerbach is directed at his basic principle of “anthropology,” the standpoint that “human being” is the supreme essence for human beings . In this sense, Stirner and Marx exemplify two entirely opposite directions of transcending the standpoint of humanity in human beings .
As mentioned earlier, Feuerbach represented a reaction againstHegel’s philosophy of absolute Spirit, in much the same way as Schopenhauer had, since both criticized the idealism of the speculative thinking in Hegel and the Christian “religious nature of spirit” at its foundation. But just as Nietzsche detected a residue of the Christian spirit in Schopenhauer’s negative attitude towards “will to life,” Stirner recognized vestiges of the religious spirit and idealism in the theological negation of God and Hegelian idealism in Feuerbach. Both Nietzsche and Stirner, by pushing the negation of idealism and spiritualism to the extreme, ended up at the opposite pole of their predecessors . This may account for some of the similarities between them.