In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. —George Orwell
Finding the balance between individualism and collectivism, self-autonomy and cooperation, has been the challenge for humanity at least since the dawn of social units larger than hunter-gathers. The human population is now approaching 8,000,000,000. That’s eight-thousand millions of people. Numbers this big are difficult for our tiny brains to put in perspective. In the last 100 years the world population has more than quadrupled. A growth rate unheard of for the entire time homo stupidiens have been traumatizing the earth. Depending on how you define our species, we’ve been around roughly 200 thousand years—a flash in the historic pan. Even before reaching such invasive numbers, humans have struggled with their relationships between inside and outside groups. We have lived in large state-level social structures for barely 3% of human existence. Formal logic has been around for a scant 1.3% of human time. The significance of these factoids? For large scale social units to survive, the reconciliation of self and group is imperative. Ninety-seven percent of human evolution has been spent in small band-level groups of less than 50 people that never made great demands on social organization. How can we expect to have developed high functioning, large scale social units in only a few thousand years when it took evolution millions of years to get from simians to primates to humans? In contrast, we have developed high functioning technology in a mere 200 years—0.1% of modern human time. On the scale of an individual, that’s only 29 days out of an entire 80 year lifespan. How much can a person learn in only a month? Humans need to figure out how they are going to settle the conflict between the individual and the global social unit. Neglect of personal relations in light of our technological power is unsettling.
During the first half of the 19th century, in the aftermath of the American revolution (1776), the French revolution (1789), and the initial spark of the industrial revolution (≈1760), there were great political and philosophical stirrings. A name mostly forgotten from this period is Max Stirner. Forgotten partly because he was a heretic in his era, and partly because he was a nihilist of the first degree, an absolute nihilist—not a popular position then or now, not even among nihilists.
All Things Are Nothing To Me
What is not supposed to be my concern! First and foremost, the Good Cause, then God’s cause, the cause of mankind, of truth, of freedom, of humanity, of justice; further, the cause of my people, my prince, my fatherland, finally, even the cause of Mind, and a thousand other causes. Only my cause is never to be my concern. “Shame on the egoist who thinks only of himself!”
This opening paragraph is a clue of what’s to come. He’s setting us up for his destruction of “good and bad,” “god and country,” “law and order,” and the idea that anyone doing anything for any cause not his own is wasting his life slaving for a phantom. Not only is “the good person” giving up his own autonomy, but as likely to do evil as good in the name of the cause. Stirner insists that all social organizations, governments, religions, corporations, families, are antithetical to the ego. The ego rejects submission to anyone, anything. The egoist is consequently, relative to all social constructs, a criminal in the group’s eyes. Stirner was a criminal.
But just look at the Sultan who so lovingly cares for “his own:” Isn’t he pure seIflessness itself, and doesn’t he sacrifice himself hour after hour for his own? Yes, of course, for “his own.” Try just once to show yourself not as his own, but as your own; for escaping his egoism, you will take a trip to his jail. The sultan has based his affair on nothing but himself; he is for himself the all in all and the only one, and tolerates no one who dares not to be his own.
And won’t you learn from these shining examples that the egoist gets on best? I take a lesson from them, and instead of serving those great egoists unselfishly anymore, I would prefer to be the egoist myself.
This smacks of libertarianism, of Ayn Rand, of laissez-faire capitalism, of anarchy. It is, but, and this is an important but, he goes beyond simplistic dog-eat-dog-all-for-me-none-for-you selfishness. According to Max all social behavioral control is flawed. He wants to destroy all the ideals of mankind—nationalism, patriotism, feudalism, socialism, democracy, all theologies, and atheism. He wants each of us to realize that in being, for example, French or Chinese, one doesn’t belong to France or China, on the contrary Frenchness or Chineseness is a property that belongs to the individual. He wants us to realize that being yourself means rejecting anything imposed upon you by someone else’s ego, or the collective’s prescription. You are not yourself if you are subject to anyone else’s influence or control. He intends, instead, that you are the center of your universe, grab hold of your ego, and take responsibility for it.
He has a point. Groups are always behind the greatest tragedies—political genocide, corporate greed and malfeasance, holy wars. Individuals do horrendous deeds in the name of “our god,” or “our country, “ or “our team,” or “our faith.” We can all cite examples. Mobs can’t be trusted, they behave erratically and violently. Those who believe in the goodness of people fail to see that people act kindly only as individuals. In mobs, individuals lose their will and conscience to the pack. It’s the method applied for getting people to give up one’s self and to do things not in one’s own best interest. How is singling out an ethnic group for discrimination, incarceration, or murder in my personal interest? The egoist realizes he has nothing to gain, and refuses going along with the madness. Groupthink is another aspect of giving up the self. The human tendency for following the crowd is powerful. Following the followers makes fads and fashion possible. It makes holocausts, genocides, market booms and busts. It’s mass insanity that drives young men to suicidal campaigns in warfare.
Max goes beyond the customary limits. He implies that the state and its laws make criminals and necessitate crime. This raises interesting questions. Could lawlessness be a means to civility? Would social suggestions be voluntarily adopted as opposed to laws forced upon us? Is law enforcement just? Are laws just?
The law does not settle differences. Differences are settled person to person. The law never stopped anyone from breaking it. If someone betrays our trust, it could be best to settle the disagreement directly, person to person. The law, police and courts are supposed to be of help, perhaps they are obstacles.
Stirner has a view of property that may be difficult for contemporary minds to understand. He claims that ownership only exists by law, however the law is imaginary. The law puts conditions on ownership, “but property is my property only when I hold it unconditionally: only I, an unconditional ego.” The thing belonging to me is only what is in my current possession at the moment. And consequently, what is not in my possession is not mine. And if property is not in anyone’s possession, “What belongs to no one cannot be stolen.”
This is a curious perspective on ownership. If the law, as written by an exclusive few, defines ownership, what does one own if not for the law? If there is no law of ownership, then no one owns anything. What does it mean to own? Why do we have ownership? If Max is a full-blown egoist/anarchist, then he owns everything and nothing. He owns whatever he controls here and now. He owns the place he stands. This is my city, my street, my sidewalk. If I care about what is mine, I may actually be a better citizen, better neighbor, because it’s all mine—and by logical extension, yours.
Unfortunately, he also believes that might makes right. If I have the power to take what’s in your possession, it’s rightly mine. It must be remembered that Stirner has no sympathy for anything except the egoist. Individuals, on their own, have little power. Individuals also have conscience, for which groups, states, corporations are quite oblivious. Groups are phantoms that are without conscience, and without power, except and until individuals give up their own individualism to the group. There again is the danger. When masses of people give up their power to a state, a cause, a political party, they lose themselves and gain a dangerous enemy.
The man is distinguished from the youth in that he takes the world as it is, instead of presuming that it is everywhere in the wrong, and wanting to improve it, to mold it to his ideal. In him, the view that one has to deal with the world according to his interest, and not his ideal, is established.
Only when one grows fond of himself in the flesh, and enjoys himself just as he is—but it is in mature years, in the man, that we find this—only then does one have a personal or egoistic interest, . .
Personal freedom for the individual leaves each of us responsible for our actions. Imagine the social pressures if one violates the trust between individuals that self-responsibility engenders. Imagine a society that doesn’t rely on police and courts to settle breaches of trust and fairness. The concept intrigues me. No civilization has tried it. Small groups have tried communal democratic living—they’ve failed. Large scale attempts at socialism or communism have failed. And without question monarchies and theocracies and federalist democracies all succeed greatly in breeding corruption. Anytime more than the power of one is placed in the hands of a single person or a selected group, power-plays and gross inequalities follow. Anarchy keeps power only in the individual, no one person can do much harm. The next question that comes to mind is, how can anarchy prevent groups from forming that would engage in power abuse? We have in our DNA the social instincts both to lead and to follow. Leaders succumb to the intoxication of power; followers give up their power in blind, lazy submission.
Lazy submission is what Max keeps harping on throughout his tract. He claims his individuality. That can’t be done if you follow the leader. It can’t be done if you give your power to someone or something. And it can’t be done if you are not responsible for yourself. Anarchy can’t succeed without regard for others. We are social animals, and our survival requires working together. Our personal, individual, egoistic success requires cooperation. Cooperation concurrently opens the risk of group domination and the loss of individualism. Now, again, we face the struggle with the balance between individual and group.
For the state is concerned only with its self-assertion; it demands “patriotic self-sacrifice” from everybody. To it, accordingly, everyone in himself is indifferent, a nothing, and it cannot do, not even suffer, what the individual and he alone must do. Every people, every state, is unjust toward the egoist.
Totally different from this free thinking is own thinking, my thinking, a thinking which does not guide me, but is guided, continued, or broken off, by me at my pleasure. The distinction of this own thinking from free thinking is similar to that of own sensuality, which I satisfy at my pleasure, from free, unruly sensuality to which I succumb.
He applies his theory to every aspect of living and thinking. He challenges all our beliefs, all our received opinion. He tears every house down.
As with any wisdom, there are those who will take pieces of it out of context to use selectively as a means to justify their greed, lies and abuse. Where Stirner goes wrong is not in his principles, but in his failure to fully tie together his ideas. It’s sad how often we hear the misused, misapplied, piecemeal quotations from famous people or revered books. His insistence that the ego is all there is and all that matters leaves the libertarian open to bolstering his narrow, shortsighted views. Without the connected whole, separate parts allow, even obligate, unbridled capitalism. His words would seem to order the exploitation of natural and human resources with no regard for the greater consequences. He says take by force, your force, what you want. He hints at self-control and forethought, occasionally states it outright. He also states that we only deserve what we can own completely, that is, only what you can hold and consume yourself. Hoarding is taking more than you need or can use. To take more than you can use requires others to give up their share. Still, as with other philosophies, we take only the parts we like; a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, hmm-hmm-hmm.
Pauperism can be removed only when I as ego realize value from myself, when I give my own self value, and make my price myself. I must rise in revolt to rise in the world.
Another point he makes, by illustration of the “unintentional egoist,” is that no matter what we believe self-interest guides our actions. All normal everyday behavior is based on decisions made, whether consciously or subconsciously, about how the self can benefit. If we accept the fact that we do everything for selfish reasons we might actually be able to make better decisions for ourselves individually, and for ourselves collectively. Stirner serves this point by repeatedly bashing the reader with how ignorant it is to do “good” for god or country, instead of for oneself. That in doing good for the sake of some other imaginary entity, one is not really doing good, one is pretending. The reason behind the good deeds is not real, not honest, not from one’s self.
One can be a confirmed egoist and still understand that I am not the center of the universe. No one is worth more, no one is hugely smarter, no one is less human than anyone else. No one deserves more or less respect. The denial or negation of these statements cannot be made without conceit and dishonesty. The standard arguments against egoism are shortsighted misunderstandings of what it fully means. The conflation of acting in one’s self interest as opposed to acting in one’s best interest is the problem. Always satisfying every immediate desire and want, now and to the fullest, is a prescription for disaster and addiction. In this limited sense, self interest is not always one’s best interest. Shallow, childish selfishness is not egoism, it is simpleminded, runaway submission to emotional drives. Egoism is mindful, intellectual, rational.
Many have experienced how bad it gets for us when [sensual] desires pass through us free and unbridled; but that the free spirit, glorious spirituality, enthusiasm for spiritual pursuits, or whatever one may call this jewel in the most varied phrases, brings us into a still worse jam than even the wildest misbehavior. People don’t want to notice this; nor can they notice it without consciously being an egoist.
Driven by the thirst for money, the greedy person denies all warnings of the conscience, all feelings of honor, all gentleness and all compassion: he puts every consideration out of sight: the desire carries him away. The holy person desires in the same way. He makes himself the hard-hearted and strictly righteous; because the aspiration carries him away.
An egoist acknowledges others have egos and are themselves egoists. My ego recognizes your ego. No ego can be superior to another. Everyone has equal egoism and self interest. When we all acknowledge each other as individuals, there follows cooperation between equals. Though we may be very different as individuals, with different interests, various amounts of knowledge and talent, our egoism is equal. If these simple truths—that we are all no more and no less human, that no one is worth more than another, that we all look out for ourselves—are remembered moment to moment by each of us, imagine the changes we’d see. This is the Golden Rule in a new light.
Another equalizing factor to hold in memory is no one creates himself. We are products of our genetics and environment, our parents and our friends, of unchosen, undirected happenstance, one accidental event after another, which cumulatively form each of our individual selves. If you are special, you owe it to the world; if you’re ordinary, thank the cosmos for letting you off easy; if you’re less than average, you’re the luckiest of all.
Keep all this in mind when you give up your self to celebrities, teams, political parties, revolutions, movements, and “leaders” who owe you more than you owe them. Those special people already have more. They have already taken (stolen) a bigger slice of pie. They may have more brains (usually not), more talent (sometimes), and for this, they owe the world more. Remind yourself, if you have more, you are in greater debt.
There is one more way of approaching Stirner’s position. His anarchy is based on autonomy, self-rule. If I rule myself, I respect myself. If I respect myself, I will have respect for others. If I have no respect for myself, I have none to give. By subjugating my autonomy and giving others my power, I am left with nothing, I am nothing but a pawn. This is a key point to remember : no one takes your power, you have to give it away. On the other hand, when we are all self-ruled, autonomous individuals, then we will cooperate with others freely. We will be fair and honest and respectful at no sacrifice to ourselves. When acting rationally—it is in our own best interest.
Adam Smith proposed that free markets are self regulating based on the rational actions of individuals. He never accounted for the fact that people do not act rationally. In the real world, neither individuals nor groups act in their own best interest, as we’ve witnessed throughout history. As we are witnessing now.
“As men are not all rational, though, it is probable that they cannot be so.”
The major block interfering with rationality : fear. Fear of the other, fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of oneself, or as seen from Max’s perspective, fear of ego. There is no escape, though, in the final analysis we are all egoists. Until we admit and embrace our egoism, the world will continue to suffer from the effects of submission and domination between individuals and groups.
Man, your head is haunted; you have bats in your belfry! You’re imagining big things and painting for yourself a whole world of gods that is there for you, a haunted realm to which you are called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea!
Do not think that I am joking or speaking figuratively when I look upon those who cling to something higher, and, since this includes the vast majority, almost the whole human world, as veritable fools, fools in a madhouse.
The following link makes many points I aimed to make, but failed, or says them better than I have.
Link to the 2017 Wolfi Landstreicher translation, much preferred over the 1907 Steven T. Byington version.
and one more to ponder— WWCSS.
Man is neither an animal nor an angel; but he becomes a devil when he tries to be an angel. —anonymous