Most of what is known about the person who became “Max Stirner” was discovered and collected in the late nineteenth century by his biographer, the Scottish-German novelist, poet, and anarchist writer John Henry Mackay.
Mackay laments in his biography that very little is known about Max Stirner. Mackay regrets that he was able to gather only the “bare facts” about Stirner’s life, especially before the publication of The Ego alld Its Own.
Mackay reports that many of his efforts to uncover the facts about Stirner’s life, beyond the “mere statistics” and “dead numbers,” were frustrated by the absence of pertinent documents and lack of cooperation from certain principals, specifically, Stirner’s second wife Marie Dahnhardt.
“Max Stirner” was actually the pen name, or the nom de guerre, of a German schoolteacher named Johann Caspar Schmidt. Schmidt acquired the nickname “Stirner” as student because of his high forehead, which was accentuated by the manner in which he parted his hair. “Max Stirner” was a humorous, but affectionate moniker because it translates into “Max the Highbrow.” Schmidt was born in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth on November 6, 1806, to Albert Christian Heinrich Schmidt, a flute maker and part-time portrait painter, and Sophia Eleonora Schmidt. 1806 was a year of considerable social disorganization in Bayreuth and the entirety of West Prussia because of the Napoleonic Wars. 1806 was the last year of Prussian rule, which was replaced by the domination of Napoleon.
Schmidt’s parents were likely married in 1805 and had no other children.
In April 1807, barely six months after Johann Caspar’s birth, Albert Schmidt died of an apparent hemorrhage caused by some sort of physical injury. In 1809, Sophia Eleonora married Heinrich Ballerstedt and moved without young Johann Caspar to Kulm in West Prussia. Johann Caspar stayed behind with his godparents- his aunt Anna Marie Sticht and her husband Johann Caspar Martin Sticht in Bayreuth. This was the first of several major moves that suggest considerable familial instability in Johann’s early years.
Ballerstedt was an apothecary who either purchased or rented a pharmacy in Kulm. Johann eventually joined his mother and her new husband in 1810. Eight years later, Johann returned to Bayreuth to live with the Stichts. This transition was apparently prompted by his mother’s increasing psychological problems as well as the political unrest and economic hardships in Prussia at that time. However, Johann was warmly received back in the Stichts’ home. He entered the gymnasium in Bayreuth in 1819 and, by the account provided by Mackay, appears to have been a good, but not stellar, student. He graduated from the gymnasium in September 1826.
As Stirner reaches this important benchmark in his life, Mackay asks, What kind of person was this boy? How did his first inclination appear? How did his first drives in life express themselves? Where did they find nourishment and what was it? Did he enjoy the years of his youth in untroubled joy and strength? Or were they already made melancholy by the shadows of some kind of conflict?
Mackay indicates that questions like these cannot be answered by either available information or “external data” about Schmidt. Schmidt’s early years remain a “hidden life” in that little or nothing is known about his personal experiences or his personality. This begins to change as he leaves for university study in Berlin, where he lived most of the rest of his life. Berlin was the city in which he flourished as a student, writer, and intellectual.
Schmidt left Bayreuth in October 1826 to begin his studies in philosophy at the University of Berlin. He was joined that term by another new student who became his greatest philosophic adversary and one of the two sources of inspiration for The Ego and Its Own: Ludwig Feuerbach.
The other source of inspiration was G. W. F. Hegel, professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin and, with little doubt, the most influential philosopher in Germany at the time. Schmidt began taking courses with Hegel in his second semester. His initial course with Hegel was the ” Philosophy of Religion.” This was followed the next year with courses taught by Hegel in the “History of Philosophy and Psychology” and “Anthropology, or Philosophy of the Spirit.”
Schmidt’s studies in philosophy at Berlin were interrupted from 1828 to 1832 most likely because of “domestic circumstances” associated with his mother’s illness. He returned to West Prussia, enrolling at universities in Erlangen and Konigsberg. Mackay reports, however, that Schmidt attended lectures only sporadically and did not apply for a completion certificate. It appears that Schmidt continued his philosophical and philological studies on his own. He returned to Berlin in October 1832 and enrolled in the University for the second time. He took courses in art, the mythology of the ancient Germans, the history of literature, and the history of Prussia.
He withdrew from the University once again in the spring of 1834 and applied with the Royal Scientific Examination Commission to take the exam pro facultate docendi, in the hope of obtaining a teaching position at a public institution. He submitted his written exam materials in November of 1834 and took his oral examinations in the spring of 1835. A s Mackay documents, Schmidt passed the exam and was granted a qualified facultas docendi. Although “none of the examiners had any doubt about his unusual talent,” this was not “a splendid result.” Regardless, Schmidt became qualified to teach.
From April 1 835 to November 1 836, Schmidt obtained an unpaid position teaching Latin at the Royal Realschule in Berlin. It eventually became obvious that he was unlikely to obtain a teaching position at either a state u niversity or gymnasium because of his mediocre academic performance and his evolving reputation for atheism and egoism. As a consequence, he abandoned public education as a career path. Living off of small inheritances he received after the death of his stepfather and his godfather,
Stirner married Agnes Clara Kunigunde Burtz, the daughter of his landl ady, in December 1837. Mackay characterizes the marriage as “quiet, harmless, and dispassionate.” Unfortunately, Agnes Clara and her premature baby died in childbirth on August 29, 1838. Soon thereafter, Schmidt resumed his former life as a withdrawn independent scholar. In October of 1839, he obtained a salaried position at a well-regarded and wel lfunded private school for “young ladies” from upper-class families. The school was owned and administered by a Madame Gropius. It focused on l anguages, literature, and the humanities. Schmidt taught courses in German, the history of literature, and European history. He taught at Madame Gropius’ school for young ladies until unexpectedly, at least to his employer, resigning in October 1 844.
Schmidt’s resignation from Madame Gropius’ school was prompted not by any particular dissatisfaction with his employment, but by two important, somewhat veiled, transitions that occurred in his life from 1 842 to 1844. Schmidt became a serious writer and a participant in an informal group of radical intellectuals who were attempting, both individually and collectively, to articulate a philosophic foundation for revolutionary change in Germany and throughout E urope. Through his writings and the political discussions with other radicals from 1 842 to 1 844, Johann C aspar Schmidt transformed himself into Max Stirner. It is only at this point in his life that information about his personality and inner experiences becomes available.
In the early 1 840s, a disparate group of young men began to meet informally almost every evening in a wine bar called “Hippel’s” on the F riedrichstrasse close to the University in Berlin. Very l ittle unified this group of journalists, teachers, artists, poets, musicians, and activists, but they all were very critical of the political and economic circumstances of G ermany at the time and, to a greater or lesser degree, they were all fighting against them publicly. The group included atheists, radical democrats, socialists, and communists. Moreover, members of the group considered themselves to be critics of the Hegelianism that still dominated the universities and public discourse. This group, which was considered to be the //extreme left” of Germany at the time, was known as Die Freien, or //The Free.” The group of //young” or //new” Hegelians acquired considerable notoriety in the 1840s because of the philosophic positions and political activities of several of its members. In addition to drinking the spirits sold at Hippel’s, //The Free” engaged in raucous discussions about the prospects for the rise of a post-Hegelian philosophy as well as a revolutionary
transformation of Germany and Europe.
The participants in the discussions at Hippel’s reads like a //who’s who” of the German left in middle of the nineteenth century. Karl Marx joined the discussions in 1840 prior to his departure from Berlin in early 184l.
Friedrich Engels, who had not yet met Marx, also participated beginning in 1842. The radical journalist Arnold Ruge was a frequent participant in the discussions during this time, as were the theologians Bruno and Edgar Bauer. The Bauers acquired some infamy in the 1840s because of their atheistic interpretation of Hegelianism and their occasional encounters with law enforcement. Bruno Bauer, also a student of Hegel, was especially notorious, having been fired from his position as professor of theology at the University of Bonn for his criticism of religion and efforts to create an incipient form of humanism, or a human-based philosophy of nature, society, and individuality. Bruno and Edgar Bauer became and remained close friends of Stirner.
Stirner began attending the discussions at Hippel’s probably in mid- to late 1841. He became good friends with the inner circle of //The Free,// including Engels. Evidence regarding Stirner’s participation in the discussions at Hippel’s provides some information about the type of person he was. Stirner typically kept a low profile and only rarely engaged in passionate discussions. Reportedly, he never became cynical or sarcastic, never tried to interrupt or outdo other speakers. Atypical for the discussions of //The Free,” Stirner was never vulgar, raw, or even particularly vehement. He apparently philosophized unwillingly. When he did, it was usually about Feuerbach’s The E ssence of Christianity.
However, he was not taciturn, but would engage in conversation gladly. He easily demonstrated to others that he was a first rate scholar who mastered the diverse fields addressed in the conversation at Hippel’s. Stirner almost never spoke about himself. Consequently, he was viewed as a calm, smiling, comfortable, painfully modest man who occasionally contributed a pertinent observation or witticism to the rambunctious dialogue at Hippel’s.
His friend Edgar Bauer reported that Stirner was an //amiable and unobtrusive person, never offensive nor striving after brilliant effects in either phrase, conduct, or appearance.” Bauer also said that his general impression of Stirner was that he was an intelligent but unimpressive good person, agreeable, cool, and never spoke badly about anyone behind theirback. His attitude toward others and the world was “easy indifference” and a lack of ambition.
Engels also provided some recollections of the dramatis personae among “The Free” that included an epic poem about the meetings at Hippel’s and a couple of drawings that included Stimer. In the drawings, Stimer appears as a marginal, amused, and observant figure who is unruffled by the chaos and discord of the discussions. In the epic poem, Engels portrays “the noble Stimer” as the “peaceful enemy of all constraint.”
Look at Stirner, look at him, the peaceful enemy of all constraint.
For the moment, he is still drinking beer, Soon he will be d rinking blood as though it were water.
When others cry savagely “down with the kings” Stirner immediately supplements “down with the laws also.”
Stirner full of dignity proclaims;m You bend your willpower and you dare to call yourselves free.
You become accustomed to slavery.
Down with dogmatism down with law.
Even before the publication of The Ego and Its Own, Engels clearly understood that the central quality of Stirner’s egoist thought was the unchained criticism of all external constraints on the behavior and thoughts of the person.
In early 1843, Stimer met a young woman through their mutual affiliation in “The Free.” Marie Dahnhardt moved to Berlin from Dadebusch in 1838. She was from a bourgeois family and was a very well-educated, financially independent, and free-thinking woman. According to Mackay, Marie was slim, short, blonde, and full-figured. She was vivacious and exuded a healthy exuberance. She joyfully participated in the range of activities at Hippel’s, including the loud discussions, drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing billiards. She apparently accompanied some of the men of “The Free” on occasional visits to brothels. Stimer married her on October 21, 1843, in a comical anticeremony that mocked more traditional, religioncentered matrimonies. While Stimer and his new bride had radically different personalities, it is clear that he loved her. However, the marriage was tumultuous and dissolved, at her insistence, in April 1846, subsequent to a failed business venture that destroyed her fortune.