In light of the above, there can be little doubt that Der Einzige’s Stirner cannot be identified with the figure presented in The Nihilistic Egoist: namely, with Paterson’s whimsical, metaphysical, infectious Stirner; his emasculating, erupting, inward, frivolous, devious, artificial, motiveless, arbitrary, gratuitous Stirner; his rootless, cynical, solipsistic, sophisticated, desultory, sinister, morally perverted, brutal, piratical Stirner; his vagrant, detached, spectatorial, rancorous, promiscuous, rashly repudiating, mephistophelian, self-abusing Stirner; his disloyal, impugning, solitary, disenchanted, essential, irrational, dissolving, estranged, absurd Stirner; his barren, rapacious, serpentine, passionately self-displaying, evasive, self-gratifying, uncaring, annexing, remote, insular, fickle Stirner; his tediously indifferent, doodling, destructive, rebounding, factitious, callous, explosive Stirner;
nor his truculent, turbulent, disembowelling, caressing, abyss-dwelling, sub-arctic, and nocturnally leaping vampire Stirner. Much is asserted in the course of this book, The Nihilistic Egoist, yet the feeling persists that some key points have been missed –for starters, the lot.
Whether inadvertently or by intent, just such a hermeneutic travesty seems the deliberate project of The Nihilistic Egoist. In blunt terms the book amounts to a befuddled sheaf of accusations by one to whom Stirner and existential philosophy have been toujours ha•ssable. There seems little apparent cause for a modern philosopher to contort into such embarrassing positions, unless there really is something to the 150 year old book that hits the mark and provokes to apostasy. In this sense periodic ‘revivals’ of Stirner may be likened to a return of the repressed.
Not only are most of the objections raised by Paterson pre-answered in Stirner’s text, but Paterson’s method is little different than the hunter gone sailing who, not having his sealegs and afraid of the water, takes potshots through the hull at an imagined shark.
There is a popular quip that goes, “just remember that you are unique — just like everyone else.” Stirner seems not to be bothered by this and indeed revels in it, while making his pitch within the energizing matrix of rebellion, comprising as it does disobedience, radical questioning, active resistance, ludic enjoyment, and deconstruction of linguistic tank-traps. Why do some people find it so odious to admit the world needs a little ‘wrecking’ in certain departments? Intelligent destruction, as Kingsley Widmer once remarked, “is a rigorously discriminating process.”
Like Nietzsche, Stirner was an ambiguous nihilist, or more correctly a nihilism of ambiguity, not in the sense of irrationalism, but substituting ‘appropriation’ for rationalism, or placing the world as will in the horse’s seat pulling the world as representation. Still, the broad coalition to disarm his book of its activist egoism for the pale copy of a shopkeeper’s egoism is a strategem to defuse the maieutic of Stirner as educator, and demands some accounting in today’s circumstances. The theme of Stirner’s irrationality is familiar in the critiques of thinkers such as Berdyaev,Scheler, Marx,Camus,Buber,Helms,and Holz.
It would seem the minihysteria of Professor Paterson came from bogging down in an impossible project. Paterson’s merit may well be that he was profoundly agitated, enough to start drawing a map of how the strange terrain looked, marking all sorts of ‘wilde and dangerous beestes’ at its edges. However at the same time he has trivialized the matrix of Stirner’s thought into nothingness, analyzing it in a vacuum and coming up with a vacuum. This required ignoring how Stirner paved the way for the egoist rants of later writers such as Nietzsche, Hesse and others.
Of course other broadsides against religion specifically, not requiring the egoism as such have since Swift, Mark Twain and many more been conducted from the standpoints of agnosticism, paganism, pantheism, or Bokononism, though none has driven in the point that religion is a “cult of Society”. I have argued that there is no Stalinist atheism in Stirner, and he speaks highly of Jesus Christ as insurgent, as would Nietzsche covering in more depth the same problematic forty years later, and we may add as does anyone who looks skeptically at the institutionalization (i.e., falsification) of Christ. Stirner also praises Catholicism for saving sensuality from Protestant extinction.
Protestantism held authority itself as sacred and thus abolished the last ties of religion to sensuality or allegiance to a mortal man (king, pope, etc.).Thus Stirner falls in line as a Hegelian, or using dialectic to the completion of Christianity by cancelling it: “Along with worldly goods, all sacred goods are to be set aside as no longer valuable.”
The critique we find in Stirner is still an impassioned refusal of any model of man as a homunculus, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Indeed more adventurous explorers of the spirit-body dichotomy have always been able to steer around the wreckage of the abandoned deity. Dr. Alex Comfort explains that seekers
have from the Gnostics to Blake attributed [the rule-making activity] not to a God but to a pseudo-God, the projected matter of everything Kant was told before the age of five, in other words, Nobodaddy. It is a fantastic state we have reached when since the middle of the last century ethicists seriously argued that without belief in a legislating deity morality loses all rational sanction and must founder.
God may be harmless enough unstrung from His human institutions, an Oz figure who frightens children and the dying with damnation, but the other face is that of the State, and the State is a “web and plexus of dependence and attachment”. The State [Staat] is the state of society as it exists, probably more the established order of society and its interconnection, rather than governments as such (separation of church and state was not yet a feature of European society in Stirner’s time).
The abolition of fear long inculcated by religion, then, is a radical dialogue of empowerment enacted at the personal level, though the ‘person’ for Stirner is of course equally a fiction if taken as substantial; it is rather just a way of pointing, a way of speaking.
You as ‘unique’ are so only together with what is ‘your own’…. Our world and the sacred world — therein lies the difference between affirmative egoism and self-denying, unconfessed, incognito, sneaking egoism (KS, pp. 354-355).
While some rightist libertarians have adopted Stirner in their pantheon of approved authors, we should add here that the identification of egoistic ‘property’ with private property is a caricature of Stirner of the kind broadcast by Helms and other Marxists: private property as an institution resolves into state property. State and [Gesellschaftsprinzip] rise and fall together.
Our societies and states are, without our making them, are united without our uniting, are predestined and established, have their own independent standing, are indissolubly established against us egoists. The present world struggle is, as one says, directed against the ‘established order’ [das Bestehende]. Yet one is prone to misunderstand this as if what is now established is to be exchanged for another improved establishment. But war might be declared against the ‘established’ itself, against the State (status), not as a particular State, or as the mere present condition of the same, not to aim at another (such as a ‘people’s state’); rather, the aim is towards men’s union and uniting, this ever-flowing union of everything standing (EO, p. 223).
From this creative nihilism, then, our mortgaged freedom will never be bestowed upon us but must be taken at every moment: short of exercising rebellion to this degree, Simmel’s “tragedy of culture” will remain chronic. Explaining Entfremdung once again:
The power of the single man [Einzelnen]becomes permanent and a right, only through others combining their might with his. Their delusion consists in their believing that they cannot withdraw their might. The same phenomenon over and over: might is separated from me and I cannot take back the power that I gave to the possessor. One thus ‘grants power of attorney’, has given away his power, has renounced thinking better of the deal (EO, p. 276).
When men arrive at losing respect for property, then everyone will have property — as all slaves become free men as soon as they no longer respect their master as master. Unions [Vereine] will then multiply the wherewithal of individuals and secure their assailed property as well (EO, pp. 276, 258).
None of this, of course, is a prescription for how to live, and does not provide a script for what we should make of ourselves, only how that project is to be undertaken.
To be rid of something is to be free of it, and this is freedom in the negative sense, freedom from. Freedom to, however, is the proper realm of egoism, as the creative nothingness [das schaffendes Nichts]. Yet it is never that the egoist must consciously set out to do things for the sake of himself as a kind of calculation. It is a false picture of egoism as one who sets out to be selfish and cut a swath through people. Egoism is not a programme to be achieved, it is the ground of human existence and of a proper orientation in the world. It is a tacit dimension of bold action and self-affirmation with neither condescension nor supplication. Ownness “is my entire being and existence, it is I myself. I am free from what I am rid of, and owner of what is in my power.”
The contrast is thus between self-determined freedom, self-caused movement, and what Stirner called the “chartered” concept of freedom, which is a permission or some sort of writ delivered in texts, by proclamation of some authority or other, that cannot pass the test of self-origination.
The contrast is with theories of liberation promising freedom “as soon as”, or “once” society reaches a new theoretical phase, based on newly discovered “laws” of history, for example, as communism promised to deliver freedom once society had achieved the dictatorship of the proletariat, whence the state would wither away.
As to what shall happen once I have become free, the doctrine of freedom is silent — as our governments let the prisoner go, thrusting him out into abandonment, once his sentence is up.
…The cry for freedom rings loudly all around. But does one know and feel just what a granted or chartered freedom must mean? It is not recognized that in the fullest sense of the word, all freedom is essentially — self-liberation; that I can have only so much freedom as I procure by my ownness. Of what use is it to sheep that no one restricts their freedom of speech? They stick to bleating.
One cannot confer freedom because freedom is always taken and so freedom that is disbursed or promised is likely to be a fraud, the selling of stock that does not belong to one.
Those who would still give you freedom are simply knaves who give more than they have. For then you have not your own, but stolen wares.
…In their knavery they know well that dispensed freedom is no freedom at all, since only the kind one takes for himself — egoistic freedom — rides with full sails. Chartered freedom drops sails as soon as there comes a storm — or calm: it needs a light and moderate breeze.
This “knavery” is of course a definition of communism and its founders as well as of state capitalism. At the climax of his emancipating nihilism, Stirner explains the “joy” that he brings to men with this sword:
Even unfree, laid in a thousand fetters, I still am and I am not, as with freedom, extant only in the future and in hope, but even as the most abject slave I am — present.
Consider that well and decide if you will place on your banner ‘freedom’ or the resolve of ‘egoism’ and ‘ownness’. The former is and remains a longing, a romantic plaint, a Christian hope for the otherworldliness and futurity. ‘Ownness’ is an actuality, which of itself removes just as much unfreedom as obstructs you in your course (EO, pp. 163, 167).
This passage was not surprisingly pilloried by Marx in Die Deutsche Ideologie as another idealistic escape from the realities of collective action. The slave is basically deluding himself, says Marx, if he believes that his egoism makes him free while he is objectively a slave. Fetters are fetters. Changing one’s consciousness changes nothing and is just a delusion, another fetter. Only concrete action to overturn the state of slavery, consisting of collective action under a common rallying call an ironclad discipline is likely to achieve revolution or even rebellion here.
Such an objection, while outside the scope of this essay, is one I am not prepared to reject here without argument. But it may also be that as distinct and poles apart as these descriptions were, they are not necessarily incompatible. For Marxism, a social revolution was required. It was fomented and made a reality and has now been abandoned in Europe. But Stirner’s does not require a revolution and another priestly or nomenklatura class of people who “count”. Of course, few who read Marx’s full diatribe against Stirner in that work are likely to come away thinking it was made calmly and giving credit due, that it was spare of personal passion, rivalry or competitiveness, much less snobbery and jealousy, even sheer malice in dismissing Stirner before the audience of Young Hegelians and his own supporters.
If we did not live in a probabilistic and contingent world that resists us and forces scarcity upon us, ‘egoism’ would be pointless as a rubric of education and activism; if we were handed optimal conditions by God or society, ‘ownness’ would be an empty image. Instead, according to Stirner, we live in a society which ha bound the egoist to the pillory, and fanatically sacrificed egoism to each and every straw ‘holiness’ that has come along, from the domain of thinking and belief. We do not live in an egoistic world, but rather in one lacking all but the most ragged tatters of property, a world that is sacred through and through.
The world has, then, “long enough languished under the tyranny of thoughts, under the terrorism of the Idea” (KS, pp. 363, 408). As he surveyed the society in which he found himself. Stirner was not deluded about the road that lay ahead:
What is it that is called a ‘fixed idea’? An idea that has subjected the man to itself…. And is not all the stupid chatter of most of our newspapers the babbling of fools who suffer from the fixed ideas of morality, legality, Christianity and such — and who only appear to go about freely because the asylum in which they wander takes in so wide a space? Touch the fixed idea of such a fool and you will at once have to guard your back against the malice of these madmen [as they] stealthily assault the one who disturbs their notion. They steal first his weapon from him, then his freely given word, then plunge their nails into him from above.
Every day now reveals the cowardice and vindictiveness of these maniacs — and the stupid populace cheers every insane step they take. One must read the dailies of our era, and hear the Philistines talk, to get the terrifying impression that one is shut up in a house of fools (EO, pp. 43-44).
Just as the founders of Christianity hatched their new world order, ‘Spirit”, with no concern at all for the torment of future generations — because it was ‘their thing’, their idea, not consulting first those with opposing views, in short, out of egoism — Stirner gives his own parable of the sower:
Do I write out of love for man? No, I want to create an existence for my thoughts in the world, and even if I foresaw that these thoughts would wreck your peace and tranquillity, even if I saw bloody wars and the perishing of many generations sprouting from this seed of thought — I would nevertheless scatter it. Do what you can and will with it, that is your concern and does not trouble me. You will perhaps have only trouble, strife, and death from it; very few will draw joy from it (EO, p. 296).
A paradox, coming from the apostle of Weltgenu§, but joy in radical finitude and the accompanying dissolution seems, on this view, the only joy capable of vision, since it celebrates not illusion but mortality.
“Stirner’s maxim of ‘get the value from yourself!’ is a clever trick, born from impotence,” complains Hans Helms, echoing Marx just a hundred pages into his massive exposŽ of everything to do with Stirner. “On such a basis historical progress is just as definitely impossible as the said-perfect Unique One’s social emancipation.”
Here historical progress ostensibly pointed to a rationalist utopia where Marx may fish, work in the fields, and raise cattle. On close inspection, though, the greenery camouflaged the tanks and bulldozers of a heavy-armored, invulnerabilizing discourse of human liberation. The difference between some playful tilling of dried-up ideals and a legitimized scorched-earth policy, is evident here in Helms’ materialist-aggressive complement to Paterson’s defensive-sentimental critique. In retrospect ‘historical progress’ and ‘social emancipation’ have gone the way of all ideals, as shop manuals of human engineering.
The bankruptcy of bureaucratic statism is one lesson from the betrayal of the working class revolution by Marxist fanatics, which established an ideological hierarchy and another ‘cult of society’, never shrinking from criminal means as vicious as the strikebreakers of the avaricious capitalist or segregationist governor. This is one way to view Stirner’s critics and why another interpretation is called for.
Still, archetypal ‘egoism’ remains a strong theme in the contemporary psyche and in pop culture. The hero as nihilist, or the nihilistic anti-hero haunts our literary and cinematic mindscapes as well as MTV. The warrior image of Stirner, like those of Nietzsche and the pagans, can still affirm that “with a smile I lay my shield on the corpses of my thoughts and my faith, and triumph with a grin when I am beaten. Such is the humor of the thing.”
Such an image, borrowing from Homer or the Bhagavad-Gita, is more edifying than instructive. Still I have argued that consigning this brand of egoism to myth, fiction, phantasy or metaphysical masturbation will not work: not just as Stirner’s ideas have come to fruition, but because he should get credit where it is due, and also because the book is still powerful.
My claim here is that rather as scholars trying to fill in Stirner’s lacunae — typical academic interpretation, uncommitted, disinterested and [to coin a Stirnerism] disinteresting — he can help fill in some of ours. In this light a perspective on Stirner as educator is long overdue, and so I have only tried to sketch an outline.
Against winds of anomie, overpopulation and the prospect of permanent recession, as many feel we are devolving to a Lonely and underfunded Crowd as we approach century’s end, some willful and intelligent ‘sharpening of the oppositions’ seems called for. In our time, though, erosion of family, church, and state values as electronic substitutes have become available, may have created a vacuum of values and a crisis not of repression but of “technarchy” or what Herbert Marcuse used to call “repressive desublimation.” Whether puritan, paranoid or remissive (to paraphrase the title of John Carroll’s excellent book) it seems that Stirner’s philosophy of education is far from outdated, and this adaptability I would argue is the perennial value of Der Einzige.
The question ‘What am I’ yields at first “an abyss of unruly and lawless impulses, desires, wishes, passions, — a chaos without light or guiding star.” A circumspect glance inwards reveals that “we nowhere meet with such grievous arbitrariness, such frightful violence, such stupid coercion, as here in the domain of our own free will [WillkŸr] (EO, pp. 161, 336).
Creativity is unthinkable without negativity, sacrifice of the moribund and corrosive factors that prevent a pursuit of life as enjoyment, creation, self-overcoming. Is society for the purpose of enjoyment? Or is it for repression and warfare and ignoring the foul mistakes of the past? As every society has its ruling castes, and its priesthoods, every society has its artists and egoists, and the question of egoism is a question of participation and as he put it, ‘getting the value out of oneself’, the idea Helms condemned as a trick and a dodge.
We might formulate Stirner’s philosophy of rebellion to parody a famous Buddhist sutra: ‘Because the I is a only a name, we use it to name the unnameable; because the I destroys all, we speak of the creative I; Because there is no ego there is egoism.’
The spirit of Der Einzige may also be captured and its author reconsidered as educator in the stanza of Walt Whitman’s 1871 “Lessons”:
There are who teach only the lessons of peace and safety;
But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,
That they readily meet invasions, when they come.
Surely philosophy and education are misemployed if only to sit on the fantail whittling figurines, while the Captain Queegs or Ahabs command the course of history. The goal would be full democratic participation in enjoying and remaking our circumstances rather than intellectual taxidermy, all of which reduce live and challenging texts to academic crusts.
Nihilistic egoism in the case of Stirner emphasizes the experimental, the bold, and the passionate way of life. If all “absolute values” are questioned or demolished by it, then still, what’s the problem? Why not embrace it? What century are we going to live in?
Surely, considering Stirner as educator, we are able to navigate humanity otherwise than as a ship of fools, led by pallid Žlites, its creative and intelligence bodies sweating in the boiler rooms, its children cast down in lifeboats as no more than, in Melville’s phrase, ‘unnecessary duplicates’.