In his introduction, Stirner remarked that the self creates itself out of nothing, and so has a claim to be a divine “all in all”. To substantiate this assertion, he gives an account of how an individual develops himself. This discussion will also serve as a model of historical human development, in which many men analogously free themselves from enslavement to what is alien to their self-interest.
From the moment when he catches sight of the light of the world a man seeks to find out himself and get hold of himself out of its confusion… But everything that comes in contact with the child defends itself in turn against his attacks, and asserts its own persistence. [p.9.]
Stirner is not claiming that newborns are self-conscious, but that they are self-assertive. The “selfishness” of infants is well attested; they are concerned only with their immediately perceived wants, and have little perception of what is remote from these wants. They react according to whether their wants are satisfied or frustrated. They soon learn that there are many other things in the world that assert themselves against selfish wants.
Accordingly, because each thing cares for itself and at the same time comes into constant collision with other things, the combat of self-assertion is unavoidable.
Victory or defeat — between the two alternatives the fate of the combat wavers. The victor becomes the lord, the vanquished one the subject: the former exercises supremacy and “rights of supremacy,” the latter fulfils in awe and deference the “duties of a subject.” [p.9]
We may see here a prefiguring of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and master-slave morality. Stirner does not explore these notions in the same depth as Nietzsche, though he does affirm an essential antagonism of interests between master and slave, or “the victor” and “the vanquished.”
But both remain enemies, and always lie in wait: they watch for each other’s weaknesses—children for those of their parents and parents for those of their children (e.g. their fear); either the stick conquers the man, or the man conquers the stick.[p.9.]
The antagonism between child and parents is resolved either by the parents breaking the will of the child, so he adopts the role of the slave, preferring the desires of his parents over his own, or else the child remains defiantly selfish, no matter how severely he is punished. The issue is not external obedience, but whether the child’s sense of self will remain autonomous or become subordinated to an external criterion.
…when, e.g., we have got at the fact that the rod is too weak against our obduracy, then we no longer fear it, “have outgrown it.” [p.10.]
The rod cannot be used for the moral instruction of older children, not because it no longer hurts or cannot compel physical obedience, but because it can no longer command moral assent in the strongly developed mind. When a boy is convinced he is not in the wrong, the rod will not persuade him otherwise. At most, it may persuade him to hide his machinations from his parents.
Before that which formerly inspired in us fear and deference we no longer retreat shyly, but take courage…. And the more we feel ourselves, the smaller appears that which before seemed invincible. And what is our trickery, shrewdness, courage, obduracy? What else but—mind (Geist)!
Stirner will repeatedly exploit the multiple meanings of Geist—mind, spirit, ghost—to argue that these are all spooks which should frighten the ignorant, but not the developed man. He does not thereby deny that mind or spirit has a positive role to play in man’s development. It is by mind that we are able to free ourselves from fear of punishment, as we are no longer slaves to sensations, and so the might of the rod and the parent’s stern look are demystified.
It will be a long time before it occurs to the boy to fight against reason. In fact, he generally does not trouble himself about reason. “We care nothing at all about it, do not meddle with it, admit no reason. We are not to be persuaded to anything by conviction, and are deaf to good arguments, principles, etc.; on the other hand, coaxing, punishment, and the like are hard for us to resist.” [pp.10-11.]
Later in life, however, the youth will learn to intellectualize his perception of self and the world. That is, he develops an understanding of what is behind things. He no longer regards his parents, or indeed any men, as powers to be simply recognized unthinkingly. There must be reasons for authority, and so his deference is to these reasons or ideas.
These reasons can become a new kind of mystical authority or spook, as they seem to have laws of their own, and can oppose our will. This restraint is imposed through conscience, which tells us our selfish desires are unreasonable or immoral. Even if we do not fear punishments in this life or the next, we are effectively restrained by fear of the chastisement of conscience. (So much for the greater courage of the “moral atheist”!)
In this state, we obey our thoughts—i.e., our principles—just as slavishly as we once obeyed our parents. We are only capable of such obedience when we are capable of pure or absolute thought; i.e., thought that is not bound to a thing; abstract or logical thought.
Discovery of pure thought or spirit delights the youth, as it enables him to rise above the world. This accounts for the oft-observed idealism of youth. He obeys God, or whatever other ideal, rather than men.
The adult, according to Stirner, does not try to conform the world to his ideals as the youth does, but takes it as is, and pursues his self-interest. The adult learns to fall in love with his bodily self, unlike the youth willing to die for ideals. The mature man is more “selfish,” more “practical.”
Stirner’s characterization of the adult or mature man resembles what Aristotle ascribes to old age or senescence. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he notes that “old age and every disability is thought to make men mean” (i.e., stingy) [IV, 1], and that the elderly seek friendships of utility, “for at that age people pursue not the pleasant but the useful”. [VIII, 2] Cicero similarly warns the elderly to resist the tendency to return to the weakness and sensuality of childhood by energetic mental activity. [De Officiis, I, 123]
Should we hold that the parsimony or self-interest often found among older people is a sign of maturity or decadence? Stirner holds the former; Aristotle and Cicero the latter. In order to make his case, Stirner will have to do more than merely describe how people generally behave in different stages of life. Some men remain idealists throughout their adult life, and may even become more so toward the end. (Think of Wagner’s late adoption of the ascetic ideal expressed in Parsifal, much to Nietzsche’s chagrin.) Others may despair of transforming or transcending the world, and content themselves in their last years by clutching every coin and limiting their horizon to purely practical or pecuniary matters.
This brings us to a broader problem with Stirner’s approach. Although he is strenuously asserting the rights or interests of what is radically individual in a man, he describes this egoism by making generalizations about people. If he is to avoid self-contradiction, he must not invoke these generalizations as proving anything about self-interest, but only as a model or parable describing his perspective of the matter. This way, it is not necessary for his generalizations to be accurate descriptions of most people, nor for them to be normative. Indeed, the very notion of proposing a general norm is antithetical to Stirner’s program.