Biography of Max Stirner

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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]), German philosopher, who ranks as one of the literary grandfathers of nihilism, existentialism and anarchism, especially of individualist anarchism. Stirner himself explicitly denied to hold any absolute position in his philosophy, further stating that if he must be identified with some “-ism” let it be egoism (Stirner clearly embraced both psychological egoism and ethical egoism) — the antithesis of all ideologies and social causes, as he conceived of it.

Stirner’s main work is The Ego and Its Own (org. Der Einzige und sein Eigentum), which was first published in Leipzig, 1844, and has since appeared in numerous editions and translations.

Biography

Stirner was born in Bayreuth 25th of October 1806. What little is known of his life is mostly due to the Scottish writer John Henry Mackay, who wrote a biography of Stirner (Max Stirner – sein Leben und sein Werk), published in German in 1898. No English translation has yet appeared.

Stirner attended university in Berlin, where he attended the lectures of Hegel, who was to become a vital source of inspiration for his thinking, and on the structure of whose work Phenomenology of Spirit (org. Phänomenologie des Geistes), he modelled his own book.

While in Berlin, Stirner also met Ludwig Feuerbach, whose ideas of humanism and humanity he later vigorously attacked in The Ego and Its Own. Both had associations with the so-called Young Hegelians, who clustered around Arnold Ruge and Bruno Bauer in Berlin in the 1830′es and 40′es. Eager subscribers to Hegel’s dialectical method, the Young Hegelians applied a dialectical approach to Hegel’s own conclusions, which led not only to new, politically more radical and disturbing conclusions than Hegel’s own, but also to internal dispute and disruption. 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. One of the few portraits we have of Stirner consists of a cartoon by Engels.

Stirner worked as a schoolteacher employed in a academy for young girls when he wrote The Ego and Its Own, although he resigned this position in anticipation of the controversy he expected with its publication.

Stirner married twice; his first wife died due to complications of pregnancy in 1838, and the second abandoned him just prior to the publication of The Ego and Its Own. The heartfelt dedication to her on the first edition’s title page served also as a plea for her return.

In one of the most curious events in the history of 19th century philosophy, Stirner planned and financed (with his wife’s inheritance) a short-lived attempt by the Young Hegelians to own and operate a milk-shop on co-operative principles. This enterprise failed because the German dairy farmers harboured suspicions of these well-dressed intellectuals with their confusing talk about profit-sharing and other high-minded ideals. Meanwhile, the milk shop itself appeared so ostentatiously decorated that most of the customers felt too poorly dressed to buy their milk there.

In 1856, Stirner died from an infected insect bite. After The Ego and Its Own he published his German translation of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1847 and a History of Reaction (1852).

Philosophy

Stirner’s main work is The Ego and Its Own (org. ‘Der Einzige und sein Eigentum’), which appeared in Leipzig in 1844. One can chart the development of his philosophy through a series of articles that appeared shortly before this central work (the article On Education furnishing particular interest).

In The Ego and Its Own Stirner launches a radical anti-authoritarian and individualist critique of contemporary Prussian society, and modernity and modern western society as such, and offers an approach to human existence, which borders on the edge of language and reality.

Stirner extends and explores the limits of Hegelian criticism, aiming his critique especially at those of his contemporaries (particularly colleagues amongst the Young Hegelians, most importantly Ludwig Feuerbach), embracing popular ‘ideologies’, explicitly including nationalism, statism, liberalism, socialism, communism and humanism.

In short, the book proclaims that all religions and ideologies rest on empty concepts, that, once undermined by individual self-interest, break apart to reveal their emptiness. The same holds true for those of society’s institutions, that uphold these concepts, be it the state, legislation, the church, the systems of education, or other institutions that claim authority over the individual.

Only when the false claims of authority by such concepts and institutions are revealed, can real individual action, power and identity take place. Individual self-realization rests on each individual’s desire to fulfill his egoism, be it by instinct, unknowingly, unwillingly – or consciously, fully aware of his self-interest. The only difference between an unwilling and a willing egoist, is that the first will be ‘possessed’ by an empty idea, or a ‘spook’, in the hope that this idea will make him happy, and the last, in contrast, will be able to freely choose the ways of his egoism, and enjoy himself while doing it. Only when one realizes that law, right, morality, religion etc., are nothing other than artificial concepts, and not holy authorities to be obeyed, can one act freely.

The consequence of Stirner’s egoism is first and foremost a radical political anarchism. But the depth and complexity of Stirner’s philosophy reaches beyond the sphere of politics, to a place without language. Stirner’s radical hegelian demolition of ‘spooks’ and concepts lead him to a nameless void, without meaning and without existence; a ‘creative nothing’ from which we are born. This ‘nothing’ by hegelian definition creates the need for individual meaning, existence and power.

‘Power’ is of central importance for Stirner. In Stirner’s sense power, also referred to as the acquisition of ‘property’, has a broad meaning, ranging from the smile of the child, that acquires its mothers’ love, over the sensual and material pleasures and meanings of taking what one desires, to the wholesale attribution of meaning, value and existence in language and life. Power in this sense is synonymous with the dynamics of utter autonomy, and the ability of change, of existence, of life itself.
Influence

Stirner’s work did not go unnoticed among his colleagues among the Young Hegelians. Stirner’s attacks on ideology, in particular Feuerbach’s humanism, forced not only Feuerbach (who engaged in a subsequent debate with Stirner à n a German periodical), but also Karl Marx into print. Marx wrote a histrionic indictment of Stirner spanning several hundred pages (in the original, unexpurgated text) of his book The German Ideology, co-authored with Engels and written in 1845 – 1846. Marx’s lengthy, ferocious polemic against Stirner assured The Ego and Its Own a place of permanent interest among Marxist readers. Communists have since considered the critique of Stirner a turning point in Marx’s intellectual development from “idealism” to “materialism”.

Over the course of the last hundred-and-fifty years, Stirner’s thinking has proved an intellectual challenge, reminiscent of the challenge cartesian criticism brought to western philosophy, converging with it in nihilism. His philosophy has been disturbing, sometimes even banned as a direct threat to civilization. Either way, The Ego and Its Own has created a flurry of popular, political and academic interest. The text has seen periodic revivals of interest based around widely divergent interpretations — some psychological, others political in their emphasis — and has experienced some rather revisionist “translations” to suit various political movements.

Stirner has also been regarded as pioneering individualist feminism, in contrast to most other German philosophers of the time, since his objection to any absolute concept also clearly counts gender roles as ‘spooks’.

Stirner’s demolition of absolute concepts disturbs traditional concepts of attribution of meaning to language and human existance, and can be seen as pioneering a modern media theory which focuses on dynamic conceptions of language and reality, in contrast to reality as subject to any absolute definition. Jean Baudrillards critique of Marxism and development of a dynamic theory of media, simulation and ‘the real’ expands on Stirner’s hegelian critique, although modern theorists seldom refer to Stirner by name.

At present, Stirner remains at the centre of a diffuse but highly charged debate spanning Europe; ample secondary literature appears in German, Italian, French, and Spanish. English sources lag in number, and tend to reflect either anarchist or existentialist interpretations.

Several other authors, ideologists and philosophers have cited, quoted or otherwise referred to Max Stirner.

They include:

Benjamin Tucker
Dora Marsden
Rudolf Steiner
Robert Anton Wilson
Max Ernst (who titled a 1925 painting L’unique et sa propriété)
Several writers of the situationist movement.

We don’t know for sure whether Søren Kierkegaard read Stirner or not, but it seems highly plausible. Kierkegaard actually visited Berlin to attend Hegels lectures at a time, where it is possible, that the two could have actually met.

It has been recently established that Nietzsche did read Stirner, although the signs of Stirner’s influence were such that this had been previously presumed without historical evidence.

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). His later writings would uphold a view opposed to Stirner.

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