Johann Kaspar Schmidt (October 25, 1806 – June 26, 1856), better known as Max Stirner (the nom de plume he adopted from a schoolyard nickname he had acquired as a child because of his high brow Stirn), was a German philosopher, who ranks as one of the literary grandfathers of nihilism, existentialism, post-modernism and anarchism, especially of individualist anarchism. Stirner's main work is The Ego and Its Own, also known as The Ego and His Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigentum in German, which translates literally as The Individual and his Property). This work was first published in 1844 in Leipzig, and has since appeared in numerous editions and translations.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Philosophy
- 3 Works
- 4 Criticism
- 5 Influence
- 6 Marx and Engels
- 7 Comments by contemporaries
Stirner was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on October 25, 1806. What little is known of his life is mostly due to the Scottish born German writer John Henry Mackay, who wrote a biography of Stirner (Max Stirner - sein Leben und sein Werk), published in German in 1898. An English translation was published in 2005.
Stirner was an only child to Albert Christian Heinrich Schmidt (1769-1807), a flute maker, and Sophia Elenora Reinlein (1778-1839) a Lutheran. Just six months after he was born his father died of Tuberculosis on the 19th of April 1807 at the age of 37. In 1809 his mother remarried to Heinrich Ballerstedt a Pharmacist and settled in Kulm (now Chełmno in Poland).
When Stirner turned 20, he attended the University of Berlin, where he studied Philology, Philosophy and Theology. He attended the lectures of Hegel, who was to become a source of inspiration for his thinking. (Hegel's influence on Stirner's thinking is debatable, and is discussed in more detail below.)
While in Berlin in 1841, Stirner participated in discussions with a group of young philosophers called "The Free" (Die Freien), and whom historians have subsequently categorized as the so-called Young Hegelians. Some of the best known names in 19th century literature and philosophy were members of this discussion group, including Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Arnold Ruge. For a lively account of Die Freien see "Red Room and White Beer" by Robert Hellman.
While some of the Young Hegelians were eager subscribers to Hegel's dialectical method, and attempted to apply dialectical approaches to Hegel's conclusions, the left wing members of the Young Hegelians broke with Hegel. Feuerbach and Bauer led this charge.
Frequently the debates would take place at Hippel's, a Weinstube (wine bar) in Friedrichstraße, attended by, amongst others, the young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, at that time still adherents of Feuerbach. Stirner met Engels many times and Engels even recalled that they were "great friends" (Duzbrüder). but it is still unclear whether Marx and Stirner ever met. It does not appear that Stirner contributed much to the discussions but was a faithful member of the club and an attentive listener.
The only portrait we have of Stirner consists of a cartoon by Engels, drawn forty years later from memory on the request of Stirner's biographer John Henry Mackay.
Stirner worked as a schoolteacher in a gymnasium for young girls owned by Madame Gropius when he wrote his major work The Ego and Its Own, which in part is a polemic against both Hegel and some Young Hegelians including Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, but also against communists such as Wilhelm Weitling and the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He resigned from his teaching position in anticipation of the controversy arising from his major work's publication in October 1844.
Stirner married twice; his first wife was a household servant, with whom he fell in love at an early age. Soon after their marriage, she died due to complications with pregnancy in 1838. In 1843 he married Marie Dähnhardt, an intellectual associated with Die Freien. They divorced in 1846. The Ego and Its Own was dedicated "to my sweetheart Marie Dähnhardt". Marie later converted to Catholicism and died in 1902 in London.
One of the most curious events in those times was that Stirner planned and financed (with his second wife's inheritance) an attempt by some Young Hegelians to own and operate a milk-shop on co-operative principles. This enterprise failed partly because the German dairy farmers were suspicious of these well-dressed intellectuals. The milk shop was also so well decorated that most of the potential customers felt too poorly dressed to buy their milk there.
After The Ego and Its Own, Stirner published German translations of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Jean-Baptiste Say's Traite d'Economie Politique, to little financial gain. He also replied to his critics in a small work titled History of Reaction in 1852.
In 1856, Stirner died in Berlin from an infected insect bite. It is said that Bruno Bauer was the only Young Hegelian present at his funeral.
main article: philosophy of max stirner
Stirner's claim that the state is an illegitimate institution has made him an influence upon the anarchist tradition; his thought is often seen as a form of individualist anarchism. Stirner however does not identify himself as an anarchist, and includes anarchists among the parties subject to his criticism.
Stirner mocks revolution in the traditional sense as tacitly statist. David Leopold's conclusion (in his introduction to the Cambridge University Press edition) is that Stirner "...saw humankind as 'fretted in dark superstition' but denied that he sought their enlightenment and welfare" (Ibidem, p. xxxii).
As with the Classical Skeptics Stirner's method of self-liberation is opposed to faith or belief; life is free from "dogmatic presuppositions" (p. 135, 309) or any "fixed standpoint" (p. 295). It is not merely Christian dogma but also a variety of European atheist ideologies that are condemned as crypto-Christian for putting ideas in an equivalent role.
What Stirner proposes is not that concepts should rule people, but that people should rule concepts. The denial of absolute truth is rooted in Stirner's the "nothingness" of the self. Stirner presents a detached life of non-dogmatic, open-minded engagement with the world "as it is" (unpolluted by "faith", Christian or humanist), coupled with the awareness that there is no soul, no personal essence of any kind.
Because I cannot grasp the moon, is it therefore sacred to me, an Astarte? If I could only grasp you, I surely would, and, if I could only find a means to get up to you, you shall not frighten me! You inapprehensible one, you shall remain inapprehensible to me only until I have acquired the might for apprehension and call you my own; I do not give myself up before you, but only bide my time. Even if for the present I put up with my inability to touch you, I yet remember it against you.
– Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
Scholars such as Karl Löwith and Lawrence Stepelevich have argued that Hegel was a major influence on The Ego and Its Own. Stepelevich argues that while The Ego and its Own evidently has an "un-Hegelian structure and tone to the work as a whole", as well as being fundamentally hostile to Hegel's conclusions about the self and the world, this does not mean that Hegel had no effect on Stirner.
To go beyond and against Hegel in true dialectical fashion is in some way continuing Hegel's project, and Stepelevich argues that this effort of Stirner's is, in fact, a completion of Hegel's project. Stepelevich concludes his argument referring to Jean Hyppolite, who in summing up the intention of Hegel's Phenomenology, stated: "The history of the world is finished; all that is needed is for the specific individual to rediscover it in himself."
The False Principle of our Education
In 1842 Das unwahre Prinzip unserer Erziehung (The false Principle of our Education) or Humanism and Realism, was published in Rheinische Zeitung, which was edited by Marx at the time. Written as a reaction to Otto Friedrich Theodor Heinsius treatise on Humanism vs. Realism. Stirner explains that education in the classical humanists method or the practical education of the realists, still lacks true value. Education is part of the objective of becoming an individual and as an individual you should acquire education for the benefit it gives you in becoming an individual.
Art and Religion
Art and Religion was also Published in Rheinische Zeitung in 1842 while Marx was editor. It addresses Bauer and his publication against Hegel called Hegel's doctrine of religion and art judged from the standpoint of faith.
Stirner's main work is The Ego and Its Own (org. 'Der Einzige und sein Eigentum'), which appeared in Leipzig in 1844.In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner launches a radical anti-authoritarian and individualist critique of contemporary Prussian society, and modern western society as such. He offers an approach to human existence which depicts the self as a creative non-entity, beyond language and reality. The book proclaims that all religions and ideologies rest on empty concepts. The same holds true for society's institutions, that claim authority over the individual, be it the state, legislation, the church, or the systems of education such as Universities.
Stirner's argument explores and extends the limits of Hegelian criticism, aiming his critique especially at those of his contemporaries, particularly Ludwig Feuerbach. And popular 'ideologies', including nationalism, statism, liberalism, socialism, communism and humanism.
In the time of spirits thoughts grew till they overtopped my head, whose offspring they yet were; they hovered about me and convulsed me like fever-phantasies — an awful power. The thoughts had become corporeal on their own account, were ghosts, e. g. God, Emperor, Pope, Fatherland, etc. If I destroy their corporeity, then I take them back into mine, and say: "I alone am corporeal." And now I take the world as what it is to me, as mine, as my property; I refer all to myself.
– Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p 15.
Recensenten Stirners, published in September 1845 is an article which replys to critics of The Ego and its Own including Feuerbach.
History of Reaction
Geschichte der Reaction (History of Reaction) was published in two volumes in 1851 by Allgemeine Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt and immediately banned in Austria. It was written in the context of the recent German revolution of 1848/49 (March Revolution) and is mainly a collection of the works of others selected and translated by Stirner. The introduction and some additional passages were Stirner's work. Edmund Burke and Auguste Comte are quoted to show two opposing views of Revolution.
Stirner's work did not go unnoticed among his contemporaries. Stirner's attacks on ideology, in particular Feuerbach's humanism, forced Feuerbach into print. Moses Hess (at that time close to Marx) and Szeliga (pseudonym of Franz Zychlin von Zychlinski, an adherent of Bruno Bauer) also replied to Stirner. Stirner answered the criticism in a German periodical, in the article Stirner's Critics (org. Recensenten Stirners, September 1845), which clarifies several points of interest to readers of the book - especially in relation to Feuerbach.
While The German Ideology so assured The Ego and Its Own a place of curious interest among Marxist readers, Marx's ridicule of Stirner has played a significant role in the subsequent marginalization of Stirner's work, in popular and academic discourse.
Stirner's philosophy has been almost completely ignored by professional philosophers. Characterized as disturbing and something that ought not even be mentioned in polite company, sometimes even considered a direct threat to civilization. It should be examined as briefly as possible and is then best forgotten. Edmund Husserl once warned a small audience about the "seducing power" of »Der Einzige« — but never mentioned it in his writing. As the renowned art critic Herbert Read observed, Stirner's book has remained 'stuck in the gizzard' of Western culture since it first appeared.
Many thinkers have read, and been affected by The Ego and Its Own in their youth including Rudolf Steiner, Gustav Landauer, Carl Schmitt and Jürgen Habermas. But few openly admit any influence on their own thinking. Ernst Jünger's book Eumeswil, had the character of the "Anarch", based on Stirner's "Einzige."
Several other authors, philosophers and artists have cited, quoted or otherwise referred to Max Stirner. They include Albert Camus in The Rebel (the section on Stirner is omitted from the majority of English editions including Penguin's) , Benjamin Tucker, Dora Marsden, Georg Brandes, Rudolf Steiner, Robert Anton Wilson, Italian individualist anarchist Frank Brand, the notorious antiartist Marcel Duchamp, several writers of the Situationist International, and Max Ernst, who titled a 1925 painting L'unique et sa propriété. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini read and was inspired by Stirner, and made several references to him in his newspaper articles, prior to rising to power.
Since its appearance in 1844, The Ego and Its Own has seen periodic revivals of popular, political and academic interest, based around widely divergent translations and interpretations — some psychological, others political in their emphasis. Today, many ideas associated with post-left anarchy criticism of ideology and uncompromising individualism - are clearly related to Stirner's. He has also been regarded as pioneering individualist feminism, since his objection to any absolute concept also clearly counts gender roles as 'spooks'. His ideas were also adopted by post-anarchism, with Saul Newman largely in agreement with many of Stirner's criticisms of classical anarchism, including his rejection of revolution and essentialism.
Marx and Engels
Engels commented on Stirner in poetry at the time of Die Freien:
Look at Stirner, look at him, the peaceful enemy of all constraint. For the moment, he is still drinking beer, Soon he will be drinking 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; You bend your willpower and you dare to call yourselves free. You become accustomed to slavery Down with dogmatism, down with law."
He once even recalled at how they were "great friends (Duzbrüder)". In November 1844, Engels wrote a letter to Marx. He reported first on a visit to Moses Hess in Cologne, and then went on to note that during this visit Hess had given him a press copy of a new book by Max Stirner, Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum.In his letter to Marx, Engels promised to send a copy of Der Einzige to him, for it certainly deserved their attention, as Stirner: "had obviously, among the 'Free Ones', the most talent, independence and diligence". To begin with Engels was enthusiastic about the book, and expressed his opinions freely in letters to Marx:
"But what is true in his principle, we, too, must accept. And what is true is that before we can be active in any cause we must make it our own, egoistic cause-and that in this sense, quite aside from any material expectations, we are communists in virtue of our egoism, that out of egoism we want to be human beings and not merely individuals."
Later, Marx wrote a major criticism of Stirner's Work, co-authored with Engels, the number of pages Marx and Engels devote to attacking Stirner in (the unexpurgated text of) The German Ideology exceeds the total of Stirner's written works. As Isaiah Berlin has described it, Stirner "is pursued through five hundred pages of heavy-handed mockery and insult". The book was written in 1845 - 1846, but not published until 1932. Marx's lengthy, ferocious polemic against Stirner has since been considered an important turning point in Marx's intellectual development from "idealism" to "materialism".
Stirner and post-structuralism
Saul Newman calls Stirner a proto-poststructuralist who on the one hand basically anticipated modern post-structuralists such as Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, and Derrida, but on the other had already transcended them, thus providing what they were unable to: paving the ground for a "Non-Essentialist" critique of present liberal capitalist society. However, Stirner might have disagreed with the poststructuralist idea that as a product of systems, the self is a determination of external factors. For Stirner, the self cannot be a mere product of systems. There remains, for Stirner, a place deep within the self which language cannot explain and that social systems cannot destroy.
The Nietzsche Dispute
It has been argued that Friedrich Nietzsche did read Stirner's book, yet even he did not mention Stirner anywhere in his work, his letters, or his papers. As Nietzsche studied Friedrich Albert Lange's history of Materialism, where Stirner is mentioned in comparison to Schopenhauer, it is likely that he was at least aware of Stirner. Franz Overbeck said that he went through the records of the university library of Nietzsche's favourite student Adolf Baumgarten and on the 14th of July 1874 he had borrowed Stirner's book, "on Nietzsche's warmest recommendations". He also recalled that Nietzsche came to visit Overbeck and his wife in the winter of 1878/1879, and had spoken of two writers he had taken an interest in, Klinger and Stirner. Nietzsche's thinking sometimes resembles Stirner's to such a degree that Eduard von Hartmann called him a plagiarist. This seems too simple an explanation of what Nietzsche might have done with Stirner's ideas, if he was aware of them. Stirner's book had been in oblivion for half a century, and only after Nietzsche became well-known in the 1890s did Stirner become more well-known, although only as an awkward predecessor of Nietzsche. The winning counterclaim was put forth when philosophical evaluations of Nietzsche's work showed that some of his ideas were unoriginal as they were of Stirner's work.
Comments by contemporaries
Twenty years after the appearance of Stirner's book, the author Friedrich Albert Lange wrote the following:
Stirner went so far in his notorious work, 'Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum' (1845), as to reject all moral ideas. Everything that in any way, whether it be external force, belief, or mere idea, places itself above the individual and his caprice, Stirner rejects as a hateful limitation of himself. What a pity that to this book — the extremest that we know anywhere — a second positive part was not added. It would have been easier than in the case of Schelling's philosophy; for out of the unlimited Ego I can again beget every kind of Idealism as my will and my idea. Stirner lays so much stress upon the will, in fact, that it appears as the root force of human nature. It may remind us of Schopenhauer.
– History of Materialism, ii. 256