Stirner divides history into three periods, which he compares to three stages in the development of the individual: namely, boyhood, youth, and the prime of manhood . The boy lives only in relation to things in this world, unable to conceive of anything like a spiritual world beyond it. In that sense he is a realist.
In general the boy is under the control of the power of nature, and things like parental authority confront him as natural rather than spiritual powers . Still, from the beginning there is a drive in the boy to “strike to the ground of things and get around behind them” (hinter die Dinge kommen);and through the knowledge he gains he can elude or get the better of the powers that govern him.
When the boy knows something to be true, its truth is not some independent being transcendent to the world; it remains a truth within things. In this sense the boy lives only in this world .
The youth, on the other hand, i s a n idealist. H e feels the courage to resist things before which he had once felt fear and awe . He prides himself on his intel ligence in seeing through such things and opposing them with something like reason or conscience. His is the “spiritual” attitude . In the young man, “truth” is something ideal that exists by itself from the beginning, independent of the things of the world; as something “heavenly” it is opposed to all despicable “earthly” things. From this standpoint thoughts are no more than disembodied abstract ideas, pure “logical” thoughts, “absolute” ideas in Hegel’s sense .
Once in the prime of life, however, the youth turns into an egoist. He knows that the ideal is void . Instead of looking at the world from the standpoint of ideals, he see it as it is . He relates to the world according to his concern in the interest of the self. “The boy had only unspiritual interests, free of thoughts or ideas; the youth had only spiritual interests; but the man has bodi ly, personal, and egoistic (leibhaftig, persiinlich, egoistisch) interests.” Or again:
“The youth found himself as spirit and lost himself again in universal spirit, in [the consummate, ] holy spirit, in the human, in humanity, in short in all kinds of ideals; the man finds himself as bodily spirit” .
The growth of the individual through the stages of realist, idealist, and egoist is a process of discovering and attaining the self. At first the self gets behind all things and finds itself-the standpoint of spirit. The self as spirit acknowledges the world as spirit, but the self must then go behind this spirit to recover itself. This consists the realization that the self is the creator-owner of the spiritual world, spirit, thoughts, and so on. Spirit is ” the first self-discovery” ( 10/10); the self as egoist is “the second self-discovery” ( 13/14), in which the self becomes truly itself. With this latter stage, the self is released from its ties to this real world and to the ideal world beyond, free to return to the vacuity at the base of those things . The vacuity of this world was already realized in idealism; the egoist goes on to see the vacuity of the other world .
The egoist bases himself o n absolute “nothing,” and this is neither realism nor an idealism . Where formerly “spirit” was conceived as the creator-owner of this world, the egoist’S standpoint sees the self as the creator and owner of spirit and the spiritual world . This is what it means to ” set one’s concern on nothing”” not in the sense of a void, but creative nothing (das schOpferische Nichts), the nothing out of which I myself as creator create everything. ,,7 At the basis of Stirner’s egoism is the Hegelian idea of absolute negativity (absolute Negativitiit) in which realism and idealism are superseded.
Parallel to the development in the individual from realism to idealism and egoism, Stirner sees a similar development in world history. He distinguishes between “ancients” and “moderns,” the line between them being drawn at the birth of Christianity. Among these latter he also distinguishes “free people,” a general term for radical liberals of the period who criticized the Christian worldview and its morality.
According to Stirner, even these “free people” had not yet escaped the foundation of the Christian morality they were busy negating and hence were not yet true egoists. In the following section we shall trace this development from paganism to Christianity, and from Christianity to the liberalism that necessarily results in egoism.