From the time of Louis-Philippe and of Napoleon III, it has not seemed possible that a mind could push the audacity of negation farther than Proudhon.
He battled all parties, and all ideas with the same force: universal suffrage and the dogmas of the Church, God, property, authority, socialism and liberalism, and, a less pardonable crime, he treated men with more irreverence than books, ridiculing by terrible sarcasm the archbishop Mathieu, the socialist Louis Blanc, the orthodox economist Bastiat and the sinuous, ever-changing Prince-President.
He summarized his audacities in short, blasphemous formulas: property is robbery; God is evil; Satan is good. One may recall his admirable lyric invocation to Satan, intelligence of the universe. He frightened, terrified. The pope excommunicated him, the tribunals condemned him, the priests denounced him as the Antichrist in the flesh, all opinion finally cast him as the fundamentally antisocial being. This small, spectacled man was, for thirty years, all disrespect and blasphemy. The civilized world ended at his books, like the ancient world at the columns of Hercules.
Today it is necessary to change that geography. A keener negator, a more irreligious blasphemer, a more voracious “ideophage” has been revealed to the public; here is Max Stirner, the author of The Unique and its Property.
Little known in Germany, Stirner is in France much more a name than a doctrine. He is cited, however, and his book has had the honor of two translations. Mr. Basch has dedicated a large volume to him. If he is cited, and even studied, it seems that there is too much tendency to situate him outside of contemporary thought, to consider him as an eccentric, a case of morbid intellectualism. This is an inexact view, for Stirner is very much of his era; he is even one of those types which best represent it, as one of the promoters of the extension of the scientific method to morals. Let us recognize in him one of those who have participated in the formation of modern skepticism. It is in this sense that we must treat him.
Proudhon was indeed a skeptic, but he still believed, and believed too much; Stirner does not want to believe anything anymore. In that, he has gone beyond the author of The Social Revolution, who had, indeed, left something to demolish after him: Justice. “It is an enemy, an old enemy who has taken a new face.” It is that last authority, intact among the most non-religious and the most revolutionary of our contemporaries, that Stirner would attack.
Proudhon thought he had given post-revolutionary civilization its specific and irrefutable philosophical formula. Stirner would take up arms against this optimism and against Proudhon, the most dangerous heir of the tradition, and all the more dangerous because he did not know it. But Stirner, in battling that terrible polemicist, continued his work, also unconscious his own traditional ties; he followed him against the same enemies; he is of the Proudhonian line.
Proudhon provided a faith, and made himself its apostle; he went so far as to be martyred in its defense: the martyrdom of prison. He was, however, a skeptic, and of a skepticism, at base, very close to that of Stirner; the filiation lies there It is necessary, Proudhon wrote, in his most famous book, it is necessary, while the multitude is on its knees, to uproot the honor of the old mysticism, to eradicate from the heart of man the remainder of the latria which, fostering superstition, destroys justice in it and perpetuates immorality.
In a prosopopoeia, an artifice with which he was familiar, Proudhon had already invoked irony, anticipating Stirner and our contemporary Anatole France. It forms the epilogue of the Confessions of a Revolutionary. Irony, true liberty! It is you who deliver me from the ambition of power, the servitude of parties, from respect for the routine, from the pedantry of science, from the admiration of great personages, from the mystifications of politics, the fanaticism of the reformers, from the superstition of this great universe and from the adoration of myself. And Proudhon continued, in a tender manner:
Sweet irony! You alone are pure, chaste and discrete. You give grace to beauty and seasoning to love; you inspire charity by tolerance; you dispel homicidal prejudice; you teach modesty to the woman, audacity to the warrior, prudence to the statesman… You make peace between brothers, you bring healing to the fanatic and the sectarian.
That prosopopoeia is Stirnerian by all the force of disrespect that animates it: these few lines contain virtually all the philosophy of the Unique. But the faith prevails.
The criticism has scarcely indicated anything but Proudhon’s negations.
That is a grave error: Proudhon has a positive doctrine; Stirner saw it only tooin the work of that negator: he denounces in his turn the latria that remains in the mind of that enemy of the Church. “We call skeptics,” said the author of the Jardin d’Epicure, “those who do not share our own illusions, without even concerning ourselves if they have others.” It was precisely the case that Proudhon had other illusions than his adversaries.
If Proudhon vigorously combated the concepts of the Church and the School,he was very far from disbelief. That skeptic had a horror of pyrrhonism. He said, in fact:
In order to form a state, to give adhesion and stability to power, we require a political faith, without which the citizens, given over to the pure abstractions of individualism, could not, no matter what they do, be anything but an aggregation of incoherent existences.
We can already see if Proudhon left more to deny: he had abandoned the cathedral; Stirner wanted to demolish it Stirner was no less brutal than the author of the Anti-Proudhon;5 he took him by the throat and treated him as a dishonest man; Proudhon, elsewhere, had treated Rousseau as a “Genevan charlatan.”
“Thus,” wrote the author of The Unique, “Proudhon has said insolently: ‘Man is made to live without religion, but the moral law is eternal and absolute, who would dare to attack morals?” The teacher from Berlin dared.6 He was wrong to forget that Proudhon, despite his faith, had prepared the way for all his doubts. Stirner, by still other points, strikes at Proudhon. Like him, he puts the individual will at the center of his philosophy; not without modification, for his will remains fiercely individual to himself: it will never be made to serve the reconstruction of society, as Proudhon did with Rousseau. Proudhon reproached Rousseau for having constructed society badly; Stirner reproaches Proudhon for not having destroyed it enough: this is where the differences begin.
Stirner separates himself from Proudhon, or better, surpasses him, when he considers morals as a purely superficial transformation of religion. It is to the democratic State, he thinks, what religion was to the autocratic State in times past. Its essence is the same, it is authoritarian, it is an intolerance, an unquestionable other; God is reincarnated in the popular imperative. It is the same tutelage: the moral laws command, they allow no discussion, they are absolute, they demand respect, arouse the apostolate, inspire fanaticism; one orthodoxy follows another orthodoxy; it is of orthodoxy in its narrow sense.
Even modified in a laic sense, morality is composed of “God-words,” truth, right, light, justice, which as soon as one dares touch them arouse a formidable clamor in all of society. The individual who questions them or just scoffs at themis called a profaner, accused of sacrilege, called in the current criminal terminology, utopian, revolutionary. What about it liberates us from religion? Morals is still a dogma, the most recent ritual of our credulity. “Moral faith is as fanatical as religious faith.”
Stirner shows us then, with intensity and anger, how the man is the thing, the slave of the good and the just that he wants to realize: “The moral man acts to serve an end or an idea, he makes himself the instrument of the idea of good, absolutely as the religious man boasts of being the instrument of God.” And, always rich in metaphors, like his master, he compares in various places the man to one “possessed” and thus we are no less gullible than our grandmothers who devoutly go to Easter communion. The one who no longer believes is phantoms has only to be consistent, he must push farther in his disbelief to see that he does not hide any special being behind the scenes, no phantom, or, what amounts to the same thing, taking the word in its most naïve sense, no spirit.”
Truths, he writes again, are phrases, ways of speaking, words; brought into connection, or into an articulate series, they form logic, science, philosophy.He concludes finally that truth is the enemy of man: As long as you believe in the truth, you do not believe in yourself, and you are a— servant, a—religious man. You alone are the truth, or rather, you are more than the truth, which is nothing at all before you Thus, the human will will only be liberated by skepticism. “Can I call myself free,” concludes the contemptuous critic of Proudhon, “if some verbal powers as vain as idols still command me?”
Henceforth the question is not how one can acquire life, but how one can squander, enjoy it; not how one is to produce the true self in himself, but how one is to dissolve himself, to live himself out.
Let us have no more hunger for the ideal, no more “spiritual distress,” no more “temporal distress.” No more ecstasy: Stirner makes us turn our eyes toward the earth; he shows us the vast world that is our, then casts us into it.
But he immediately puts us on guard against the enthusiasm which watches the secular for a new terrestrial paradise. And here the author of “The Unique” notes the same transposition as in morals. Once, it was a question of achievingthe celestial homeland; today, the terrestrial homeland. The enemy has changed its face. It is still a collectivity which wants to oppress me, something outside of me that takes my liberty.
From concepts, still more concepts, one respect dispels another, authority renews itself insidiously, the forms of slavery are diversified and I remain eternally the fearful slave of the first disobedience. The world is peopled with respectpersonen; the Catholic saints took the place of the hamadryads and naiads of paganism, beside the springs and in the hollows of the ancient oaks.
The companion of Bacchus is not dead, Pan survives, the “scoundrel” is resurrected