THE HEGELIAN CONTEXT: READING STIRNER AS A DIALECTICAL EGOIST
This chapter provides an overview of Stirner’s discussion of the rise o f modernity, the problems it presents, and opportunities for a philosophic and practical break from it. The chapter (a) d iscusses the ideas Stirner presents in the preface and the first part of The Ego and Its Own, (b) outlines the basic elements of dialectical egoism as a body of ideas, and (c) sets the stage for his critique of modernity.
The first part of The Ego and Its Own culminates in Stirner’s argument that the humanism or “humane liberalism” of modernity destroyed the old gods, but created a new supreme being: “Man.”
The Ego and Its Own i s organized into three major sections. The first section is a brief preface titled, “Al l Things Are Nothing to Me.” The p reface is followed b y a lengthy section titled, “First Part – Man.” The first part comprises two chapters. The first of these i s a short chapter titled “A human life,” which discusses, a t the level of the individual, the processes of developing critical thought and an egoist view o f the world. The second chapter in the first part is titled, “The Men of the Old Times and the N ew.”
This chapter includes Stirner’s discussion o f the transition from antiquity to modernity, and the social and philosophic tensions within the modern world . The first section of this chapter discusses the organization of The Ego and Its Own, and some basic points that are helpful in understanding Stirner as a dialectical egoist theorist of modernity The second part comprises three chapters. The first is a description of his concept of “ownness.” The second is a description of “the owner,” or those dynamics of history, persons, and ideas that challenge the domination of individuals by “causes” and the ideologies that support them.
The third chapter describes “the unique one,” the notion that persons are unique and cannot be reduced to the categories imposed by collectivist movements and philosophies, without seriously damaging them as persons.
The final chapter is a glimpse of the person who emancipates self from movements and philosophies that externalize and alienate thoughts and behavior. The crux of the second part of The Ego and Its Own is Stirner’s viewpoint on the transcendence of modernity. The following is a discussion of the preface and the first part of The Ego and Its Own .
The preface of The Ego and Its Own is a bold introduction to Stirner’s book. It poses a provocative thesis: Individuals are confronted by a multitude of political ideologies and movements that demand the allegiance and submission of the person to their values, perspectives, and interests.
The individual’s claim that she or he a lso has values, perspectives, and interests that deserve recognition is derided as “egoism .’” Individuals are continually bombarded with external claims on their loyalty, allegiance, labor, money, safety, well-being, and lives that are seen as appropriate and legitimate. When individuals reject those external claims, they are attacked as selfish and morally inferior. The self-interests, avarice, and needs of the collective are ubiquitously defined as “patriotism” and “humanism,” but the interests, avarice, and needs of the person are defined as “egoism.”
Stirner begins with the assertion that the person’s values, perspectives, and interests are more important than the assertions and demands by the external agents or “causes.” He vows to fight external demands and redefine his life as his own cause.
Stirner’s signature s logans, “I have founded my affair on nothing!” and “Nothing is more to me than myself!” are actually translations of, and clear references to, l ines in Goethe’s ] poem “Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas! ” Goethe’s poem became a drinking song in the early nineteenth century. The first lines in “Vanitas! ” have been translated as,
My thoughts and oughts are nothing fixed! For joy’s the world that’s downed unmixed!
The narrator sings about his adventures searching for meaning and ful fillment through avarice, sexual conquests, wanderlu st, fame, and military glory, only to find disappointment and emptiness at the achievement of each. Far from despairing, the narrator j oyfully anticipates the closing statement in the preface and the last line in Stirner’s book, ” Nothing is more to me than myself!”
So now I call my calling naught! The world’s all mine that comes unsought!
Stirner’s reference to Goethe’s poem is not a capitulation to nihilistic despair, but an affirmation that individual fulfillment cannot be found in external causes where meaning, values, and ideals are imposed on the person.
Fulfillment can only be found in actions that have meaning freely assigned by the person. Goethe’s poem is a rousing and raucous critique of “fixed ideas” or obsessions that persons believe will bring them happiness. Fixed ideas only bring disappointment and frustration. The poem states that meaning, fulfillment, and happiness are more likely to be found in more mundane activities like sharing a meal and drink with friends.
Stirner’s preface specifically addresses the demands and claims of (a) religion, which is the cause that promotes the interests of God and his human surrogates, and (b) humanism, which is the cause that promotes the interests of “Mankind” and those who purport to represent it. But where is the “cause” that promotes the autonomy, freedom, and dignity of the individual? Such a cause does not exist, except for that which individuals are able to create for themselves. Such a cause is universally discredited and reviled as “egoism” because the external and collectivist causes that demand the allegiance and submission of the person recognize the threat it presents to their power and interests. The purpose of external causes, such as god and mankind, is to eliminate the self as a competing cause or an alternative source of allegiance. The practice of external causes is to extend their control by ensuring that individuals subordinate their values, meanings, and “concerns” to an allegiance to god, humanity, or some political ideology.
Stirner’s egoism, on the other hand, is an assertion that individuals are the source of creation, or the assignment of meaning and allegiance, and, thus, can legitimately base their thoughts and behavior on their own “concern.” “Nothing is more to me than myself” is the expression of Stirner’s egoist rebellion against claims that external causes are the legitimate owners of the thought and behavior of the person. The basic question of the egoist challenge to external causes is: why should the byproducts of human interaction acquire more importance than the individuals who created them? Are social organizations the masters or the servants of persons?
Stirner’s preface is a radical individualist deconstruction of the ideological claims that external causes (,pouse for the allegiance and subordination of the person. It demonstrates that the person is ultimately responsible for assigning meaning to causes or social movements and can legitimately assign meaning to his or her choices.
The preface is important to The Ego and Its Own because Stirner begins to articulate his view of alienation and the power that ideologies and social movements have over the individual. His preface is an initial efforttom deconstruct the ideological claims of social movements for the allegiance and submission of individuals. Stirner articulates this theme as the recurrent message throughout the book. The last paragraphs of The Ego and Its Own return to the statement that “all things are nothing to me.”
Commentators such as L6with and Paterson interpret Stirner’s signature slogan in the preface as evidence of his nihilism and solipsism.This is a misrepresentation of Stirner that is based on the studied avoidance of his discussion in both the preface and core of the book. Stirner does not deny the existence of external causes. He denies their legitimacy. He rejects the claim that external causes are the absolute source of meaning and allegiance. He rejects the claim that external causes are everything and that the person is nothing. The person is the “creative nothing” that is the source of meaning, purpose, and allegiance. The person can withdraw meaning, purpose, and allegiance from the external cause. While this does not mean that the external cause disappears into “nothingness,” it does mean that the person can become his or her own cause.
External, institutionalized causes are “nothing” because the egoist rejects the claim that social movements and organizations have the sole right to structure the person’s thought and behavior. The Ego and Its Own is in many respects an historical and philosophical articulation of the theme found in its preface. The book is a critique of organized and institutionalized “causes” that claim to be everything, relegating the person to “nothingness.” The philosophy that Stirner propounds in The Ego and Its Own is unabashedly egoist, but it is unlike the nominalist and atomist forms of egoism that appear in the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham. Stirner’s philosophy is a form of Hegelianism that explores the implications of the notion of the ” free, thinking subject” at its absolute limits. Taking Hegel’s argument that the purpose of philosophy is to promote human freedom more seriously than Hegel or his other students.
The recognition that Stirner’s egoism is either a form of Hegelianism or a derivative of it has several important implications for the reading of The Ego and Its Own .
The Ego and Its Own is replete with Hegelian concepts and problema tics: the universal and particular, the objective and subjective, lordship and bondage, the “in-itself” and the ” for-itself, and the potential and actual.
Stirner’s rhetoric exudes concepts and ideas that are rooted in Hegel’s work, particularly from the Philosophy of History, Phenomenology of Spirit, and Science of Logic.Stirner not only adopts facets of Hegel’s view of history, he organizes The Ego and Its Own a fter the structure of the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic. He builds a philosophic edifice that culminates in a concept that encapsulates the body of thought that precedes it. For Hegel, this was the “absolute idea.” For Stirner, it is the Humanity – the New Supreme Being ”unique ego.”
Like Hegel, Stirner is primarily concerned with the problem of alienation as it pertains to the person’s alienation from self, but he attacks other forms of alienation as well. He speaks eloquently and analytically about the person experiencing self as an “otherness,” coerced to accept values and “causes” that serve external, abstract masters. He discusses the degradation of the person as an “egoist” as she or he attempts to assert self as an autonomous, unique, objective being.
Stirner is also an astute analyst of reification, or the process in which social and cultural products are conferred an autonomous existence and acquire the power to subordinate individuals. Stirner is especially interested in the dynamics through which ideologies acquire a determinant status in society and in the everyday lives of individuals. The Ego and Its Own includes a lengthy critique of “the uncanny,” “spooks,” “ghosts,” and “specters,” which originally emerge from the creative activities of human beings, but acquire an institutionalized, independent, material existence backed by political, economic, and religious power. Stirner’s egoism is a critical philosophy that undermines the reified, objective, material status that ideologies acquire in favor of the free and unconstrained choices made by persons as they live their lives. It promotes human liberation through an attack on ideological constructions that control individual thought and behavior through manipulation and coercion.
The Ego and Its Own is a direct response to the interpretations of Hegelianism by Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Moses Hess, and the radical left in Germany in the 1 840s. Stirner was convinced that the critical philosophy prevailing at the time legitimated new forms of oppression and alienation. The humanist writings of Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer were particularly important stimuli for Stirner’s work because he believed that they created new justifications for domination, rather than providing a break from them. Feuerbach published his most renowned work, The Essence of Christianity, in 1841 .