The Philosophy of Nothing: yet another attempt to depict Max Stirner

God and humanity have based their cause on nothing, on nothing else but themselves. I likewise base my cause on myself, I, who just like God, am the nothing of all others, I who am my all, I who am the Unique.

– Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own

In the dim light of an oil lantern, a man is sitting in the dark corner of Hippel’s wine bar, scribbling on his notebook with an amused face. The heavy, pitch-black ink traces the lines of a slim man with small glasses and a high forehead, grinning in the back of a fervent discussion among his loud companions. As usual, the debate in the literate circle Die Freien has quickly escalated and among the most important philosophers of the Hegelian Left, none other than Friedrich Engles enjoys capturing those moments. However, the tall blond man smoking his cigar in peace while the others get more and more heated up, is Max Stirner, a far lesser-known thinker. That very drawing will be his only depiction left. Nothing more.

But who was Max Stirner?

One can say Max Stirner was a German philosopher of fundamental importance for the nihilistic and existentialist thought, as well as one of the main inspirations behind the anarchist movement of the 20th century. However, Stirner’s disruptive philosophy cannot be associated with any current, so he is often classified as a relativist, even though such categorization can be hardly made given his unique thought. Indeed, although initially adhering to the Hegelian left, he soon distanced himself, accusing the young Hegelians of being excessively idealistic. It goes without saying that Max Stirner remains one of the most debated philosophers of the 19th century to this day, as his thought has been interpreted by successive ideological schools, even very divergent ones, generating misunderstandings and contradictions.

Thanks to subsequent studies and the work of one of his few biographers, John Henry Mackay, a better understanding of his thought allows him today to be considered the precursor of the so-called egoist anarchism: a sub-category of the anarchist school of thought, understood as an ethical-moral conception of individual and inner rebellion, rather than a subversive anarchist intent.

However, the information about Stirner’s life can be compared to Engels’ drawing: quite essential and not very clear.

In fact, there is very little information. He was certainly born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, in 1806 under the name Johann Caspar Schmidt, the son of a flute maker. During his studies, he had the opportunity to travel throughout the territory of present-day Germany and frequent various universities. He also attended lectures by maybe one of the most important thinkers of all time: Hegel. After completing his studies, he settled permanently in Berlin and dedicated himself to teaching, having to cope immediately with various economic and familiar difficulties, such as his mother’s mental illness and the death of childbirth of his first wife. During his stay in Berlin, he became acquainted with and frequented the most important thinkers of the time, mostly members of the group of young Hegelians, Die Freien (the free), which included the highly illustrious Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx.

Although his wayward and quite restless character, he particularly bonded with Engels and the philosopher and theologian Bruno Bauer. The latter was his only friend who remained with him until his untimely death. Stirner’s second wife, Marie Wilhelmine Dähnhardt, was also part of this group. In 1845, his main work was published: “The Ego and Its Own.” Although initially banned by censorship, it was almost immediately released, deemed by the authorities as so absurd and incomprehensible as to be considered harmless. On the other hand, the criticism received was mixed, particularly being extensively attacked in Marx and Engels’ “The German Ideology.”

Abandoned by his wife and overwhelmed by a huge amount of debt, Max Stirner died at the age of 49 in 1856, in misery and poverty and under unclear circumstances.

But how could such a groundbreaking thinker disappear into oblivion? Is it possible to affirm that classical philosophy came to a turning point, thanks to Stirner’s almost-forgotten contribution? To answer these questions, he first needs to be contextualized and compared to his contemporaries. And indeed, dear reader, you will find yourself confronted with some of the issues that philosophers have always formulated in the most complicated ways and to which Stirner gives a quite simple answer: egoism.

However, there is more. To understand Max Stirner’s thought, it is necessary to start from the critique he makes against Hegel and consequently against the young Hegelians, among them, particularly Feuerbach.

Now, lets further define egoism, freedom and the Unique.

To grasp the philosophical conception of egoism according to Stirner, it is necessary to start from Hegel’s dialectic: because each thing cares for itself and at the same time comes into constant collision with other things, the combat of self-assertion is unavoidable, writes Stirner in the very first pages of “The Ego and his Own”. Therefore, egoism, in a philosophical postulation, does not have to be intended as pure selfishness, it is rather a rationalization of human interactions: everything can be viewed in the light of egoism. This does not mean that it has a negative conception. Egoism drives innate human sociality, however, at the same time it limits one’s freedom: if everyone is pursuing his own aim when living together with other Uniques, everyone necessarily becomes an instrument of the other. This is also the reason why, according to Stirner, absolute freedom is practically impossible. True freedom consists in owning, in the sense of having at your disposal, your freedom. In doing this you must have the possibility to choose to which association, and therefore to which rules, to submit. Freedom has to be a conquest, avoluntary and willing act of acquisition. This brings us to a rather natural rejection of the state: independently of its democratic or totalitarian nature, it is also a “spirit” that first subjugates the man and then more or less gradually grants him his freedoms. Within this idea, can be recognised a link to anarchism, as 19th and 20th-century philosophers will further define and theorize it. However, it is still imprecise to define Stirner as the first anarchist.

Indeed, his philosophy is permeated by a profound individualism, which is reflected in the introspective nature of his thought. The rebellion against one’s own lack of freedom has to occur internally, and even if it will not bring any external upheavals, it changes something inside and our approach to the surrounding reality. A risky but effective comparison can be made with Nobel-prize winner and Italian author Luigi Pirandello. The typical protagonist of his works is, usually struck by a sudden realization of his miserable state. This phenomenon brings him to a total rejection of social conventions and norms. In the famous short stroy “The Train has Whisteled” the protagonist, Belluca, a man living under the constant burden of his cruel boss and ever-demanding family, one day starts to rebel against everyone who took advantage of him and therefore is seen as completely mad.

– He had railed against the office manager, continuing to shout that nonsense about the train having whistled and that now, by God, not anymore, now that he had heard the train whistle he just couldn’t anymore, he could no longer stand to be treated this way.

Another interesting aspect of Stirner’s egoism is its close tie with corporeity. To him, men, the Unique, to be more precise, discovers himself as corporal spirit. This entails a rejection fo the abstract spirits, even in Feurbach’s interpretation of the divine, as a reflection of the human essence.

– Not until one has fallen in love with his corporeal self, and takes a pleasure in himself as a living flesh-and-blood person – but it is in mature years, in the man, that we find it so – not until then has one a personal or egoistic interest, an interest not only of our spirit, for instance, but of total satisfaction, satisfaction of the whole chap, a selfish interest.

In Feuerbach’s reasoning about religion, human nature takes the place of the divine and assumes its function of being a superior entity, something above and to a certain extent, godlike. In general, there is an acknowledgment of the Self, through the divine, God, almost leading to an overlap of these two concepts. According to Stirner, this search for the human essence is an elevation of the idea of the Self in place of the Divine. However, the Self is a Unique, which in Feuerbach’s vision continues to be subjected to “spirits” by illusory and superstitious concepts such as religion, nationalism, statism, liberalism, socialism, communism, and humanism. Stirner on the other hand, considers the Unique to have created itself. It is in fact, an unrepeatable and irreducible being who is master of himself if he does not allow his instrumentalization nor to be subjugated by purposes or ends other than his own. Therefore, he cannot be the subject of the state, other people, or illusory spirits such as religion. He follows the others’ rules only if he considers it convenient for himself, for instance to have advantages or avoid disadvantages. Otherwise, he remains subject only to his own personal laws.

Starting from this conception of the Self, Stirner develops the concept of true freedom, which is such only if it is a personal conquest of the Unique. As I explained before, this freedom is quite different from a form of Freedom granted by someone else. It can be said that the individual must own the property of freedom; he must achieve it by subjecting it to his power. For this reason, it is crucial that the Unique uses every means to be able to do and not do what he desires, with ethics and morals assuming a rather secondary role. For example, he can resort to deceit and hypocrisy, provided that other Uniques do not prevent him from doing so. In this perspective, concepts such as altruism can be traced back to forms of masked selfishness. In fact, the Unique uses other Uniques, who constitute human society, as his property and employs them as means and tools for his own purposes. Therefore, as long as the Unique lives in society and interacts with others, he cannot achieve absolute freedom. One would have to live completely isolated, somewhere in the middle of a tropical forest, for example, to be legitimized to call himself free. This is because the freedom of one Unique cannot coincide in any way with that of another Unique. To put it in a nutshell: the free choice of the individual is necessary for the renunciation of certain freedoms, otherwise he does not remain true to himself.

The rejection of institutions therefore arises when the rules of a particular society conflict with the individual’s personal laws. In fact, as explained earlier, any concession of rights and freedoms by an authority, irrespectively from its democratic or totalitarian nature, does not represent a genuine acquisition of freedom, since these rights are not the result of personal conquest. Such institutions claim to automatically include all individuals, regardless of their will.

Stirner therefore makes a decisive distinction between State and Association. It is an association when the individual chooses and accepts on a voluntary basis a certain form of government, that is when it is convenient for the Unique. In fact, an Association of egoists can be understood as the only acceptable form of collectivity. It is based on a convergence of the selfishness of individual members. Let’s take SIB as an example: we, the SIBlings, could hypothetically call ourselves an association of egoists. We all joined the organization by pursuing a personal aim: weekly lectures, new friends, fun memories, and these all vary from Unique to Unique. By joining the Association, we agreed to follow a certain set of rules, mainly societal rules, which we would never have imposed on ourselves, and which to a certain extent limit our absolute freedom. With this formulation of collectivity, Stirner implicitly recognizes the innate sociality of the human being. On the other hand, the negative counterpart of the association is the State, the incarnation of authoritarianism. Societies based on coercion and internalization of habits greatly limit the individuality of the Unique. Stirner’s philosophical consequence to this is a rejection of that social contract, theorized by Hobbes, which essentially has been signed by others who came before and is valid forever. It is nothing more than a ghost, a spirit, devoid of any meaning for the Unique.

Once this fundamental distinction between associationism and authoritarianism is made, Stirner derives the definition of the concepts of revolution and revolt. Indeed, the former is nothing more than the elimination of present institutions, usually carried out by a collective group in order to replace them with new ones, theoretically different from the previous ones but practically of the same nature. Revolt (Empörung, in German) on the other hand, is understood as an inner upheaval, on a more personal level of the Unique, which derives from a state of individual dissatisfaction that inevitably leads to his withdrawal from any institution. It can be conceptualized as an egoistic impulse.

Still, there are numerous misunderstandings of Max Stirner’s thought. He has been embraced by extremist currents of ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, fascism, and collectivist conceptions.

As a matter of fact, in the subsequent text to “The Ego and Its Own,”, the “Stirner’s Critics” he distances himself from liberalism, particularly analyzing the concept of free competition. From a liberal/capitalist perspective the state, although intervening minimally in the market, recognizes the right to free competition, and individuals find themselves in a state of equality before it. Obviously, in Stirner’s conception the freedom of competition, if granted by the state, is not actual freedom. In fact, he considers it as a right granted to society, only to allow the State to create new servants. For Stirner, free competition can necessarily only consist of a legitimate agreement among Uniques, within an association of egoists.

Even far-right reinterpretations have misunderstood Stirner: in the fascist version, the association of egoists corresponds to a consequent elevation of a stronger Self, capable of dominating others. He becomes the spiritual leader, protected by what in this case has become an authoritarian state, and in any case, impossible to contradict. Although Stirner’s philosophy allows for the possibility that such an individual may succeed in gaining command of the community, the latter does not acquire eternal rights and remains subject to possible disobedience from anyone.

Ironically enough, Stirner is considered to have influenced a substantial number of all sorts of movements. Indeed, he has been embraced by academics and authors in many ways, as if there was a bit of Stirner in every unconventional, disruptive, and profoundly individualist phenomenon of the 20th century.

Friedrich Nietzsche was particularly inspired by Stirner, presumably drawing the foundations for his nihilism and generally presenting many parallelisms with his theories. There has been extensive discussion about Nietzsche, never mentioning Stirner, despite the great affinities between the two philosophers: as a matter of fact, it is certain that Nietzsche was well-read on Stirner’s work and many of Nietzsche’s close friends later argued that the silence could be out of fear of being accused of plagiarism.

Classic theorists of the 20th-century anarchist movement, such as Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, based their thought on Max Stirner’s. It is thanks to their subsequent philosophical development that the seed of individualism, planted by Stirner, further grew into what we nowadays call anarchism.

In any case, 1844 was a point of no return for philosophy: not only was Friedrich Nietzsche born, but it was also the year in which Stirner first published his main work. However, in regard to his philosophical doctrine, it can be compared to what that rather reserved man, smoking in the back of Hippel’s wine bar, must have appeared to Engels, while he was drawing the essential lines of his slightly grinning profile. It is never quite clear whether his magnum opus might have given a complete picture of the Unique and all of its declinations. The absurdness of his writings, especially in the original German language, has often appeared feverish and incomprehensible to the common reader. I myself have had a copy of “The Ego and Its Own” on my shelf for more than a year now, patiently waiting for me to have the dedication and courage to finish it. The philosopher’s allure, however, is undeniable, and his shadow has encumbered Western philosophy ever since. His deeply individualistic approach has been embraced by artists and philosophers, and their interpretations have contributed to filling the blank spaces of that scarce depiction of Stirner, peacefully smoking his cigar in the dim light of an oil lantern.

By Sophia Manni

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