George Walford: The Cretan Egoist

Prominent among the more chewy nuggets of unorthodox political literature stands The Ego and his Own, the case of the individual against authority, [1] first published in 1845 and written by Johann Kaspar Schmidt under the pseudonym Max Stirner. Marx tackled it in The German Ideology, and the question whether Stirner ranks among the anarchists still provides matter for debate. The modern Stirnerians say not, and they seem to have the right of it. Anarchists define themselves by their repudiation of the state, nations, god, rulers and coercion; many would add justice, chastity, sanctity, morals, ethics and vocation to the discard, but few go all the way with Stirner, repudiating also mankind, truth, freedom, humanity and love.

Stirner’s title conveys his theme; against all the social influences that would subordinate the person to themselves he proclaims the supreme value of the individual human being. God, mankind, truth, freedom, humanity, justice, nations and rulers; each of them, says Stirner, serves its own cause and demands that individual people sacrifice themselves to it: “community, family, and so forth, as natural relations, are burdensome hindrances which diminish my spiritual freedom.” [2] He refuses to submit:

“I for my part take a lesson from them, and propose, instead of further unselfishly serving those great egoists, rather to be the egoist myself… my concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., but solely what is mine, and it is not a general one, but is – unique, as I am unique. Nothing is more to me than myself.” [3]

Stirner’s egoist does not limit himself to seeking freedom from these influences. Why strive for freedom? To release the ego from its bonds. So don’t bother about freedom at all; go straight to assertion of the ego:

“Now why, if freedom is striven after for love of the I after all – why not choose the I himself as beginning, middle, and end? Am I not worth more than freedom? Is it not I that make myself free, am not I the first? Even unfree, even laid in a thousand fetters, I yet am; and I am not, like freedom, extant only in the future and in hopes, but even as the most abject of slaves I am – present. Think that over well, and decide whether you will place on your banner the dream of ‘freedom’ or the resolution of ‘egoism,’ of ‘ownness.'” [5]

Stirner deals with great issues, and his book appeared in a context of high sophistication; in Germany at that time public interest in philosophy attained a level hardly reached since. The editor of this English edition claims that one cannot fully understand Stirner without first thoroughly reading and understanding Hegel, and for years after first meeting the book I accepted that view, publishing an article in Freedom in 1991 (July 13) which argued that Stirner had incorporated Hegelian thinking into his book. That argument no longer seems valid, but I cannot claim the change of viewpoint as my own unaided work. S. E. Parker, editor of Ego, journal of the British Stirnerians, sent in a reply cogent enough to drive me back to the book; re-reading and rethinking in the light of his remarks produced a simpler and more direct interpretation. (Parker does not, of course, bear responsibility for this).

Stirner offers few profundities. He speaks directly to the reader, and if we stay closely with what he says we come up with little more than a declaration, at unmerciful length, that he feels entitled to put his personal interests before the claims of truth, justice, morality and similar principles. (One cannot specify them precisely since he gives several different listings). This hardly goes beyond platitude; most of us, probably all of us, have shared this feeling and sometimes acted accordingly.

The book uses unrelenting rhetoric with multiple repetition. It has great drive, and one can hardly avoid feeling that such emotive power must have substantial thinking behind it, particularly when it approaches the great moral questions and brings in such names as Feuerbach, St. Origen, Luther, Machiavelli and Socrates. My article had tried to reach these underlying depths by drawing inferences, and Parker’s letter set me hunting through the text for direct evidence of their presence. That effort came to feel increasingly like searching in a dark cellar for a black cat that wasn’t there; I found myself forced to see the ascription of deep thinking to Stirner as an error. The book contains no more than appears on the surface, it constitutes an enormously elaborated account of the simple and direct egoism displayed by children not yet socialised:

“But let the individual man lay claim to ever so many rights because Man or the concept man “entitles” him to them, because his being man does it: what do I care for his right and his claim? If he has right only from Man and does not have it from me, then for me he has no right. His life, for example, counts to me only for what it is worth to me. I respect neither a so-called right of property ( or his claim to tangible goods) nor yet his right to the “sanctuary of his inner nature” (or his right to have the spiritual goods and divinities, his gods, remain unaggrieved). His goods, the sensuous as well as the spiritual, are mine, and I dispose of them as proprietor, in the measure of my – might.” [6]

“No! You can’t have that, it’s mine!” It is the ethic of the nursery.

Even if we accept his aim, his approach does not offer the best way of attaining it. He says: “I want to be all and have all that I can be and have,” [8] but he fails to realise that available possessions, both material and spiritual, increase when people recognise that they have interests in common and act accordingly. Stirner urges us:

“Take hold, and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have.” [7]

That statement: “I alone decide what I will have,” collapses under test. He alone did not decide what he should have, and no one of us does so today. Far and away above any effect our individual efforts may produce, the type of society in which we live decides what we shall have. Stirner could have vastly more than any forager because he lived in a society in which industrial production had begun. In the development and functioning of that society and that method of production the principles by which he refuses to be bound – truth, freedom, humanity, law, nations, justice, rulers, god and the state – had all played their part. (They still do so today, although their uncontrolled operation now produces also the risk of annihilation for us all). The capacity of appropriation enjoyed by Stirnerian egoists depends largely upon the commitments they repudiate.

That failure of understanding on Stirner’s part may seem serious enough, but the book has an even deeper fault; it is hollow at the core. At first sight it may seem impossible to defeat Stirner by argument. Every criticism we can bring forward – that his book displays selfishness, irresponsibility, inhumanity, immorality or some other undesirable quality – he has repelled in advance by disowning such considerations. But if we take a different route, not charging in to contradict him but standing back a little to see the implications of his claims and assertions, the picture changes. We then find that the features which make his book so puzzling, disconcerting and difficult to rebut also make it unworthy of serious study.

He tells us (fuller version given above): “my concern is… not the true… but solely what is mine… nothing is more to me than myself.” He repudiates commitment to truth, telling us that he puts his own interests first. He declares himself a modern partner of the famous Cretan, an egoist who tells us that all egoists hold themselves free to lie when they gain by doing so, and by this he sets himself outside the pale of rational discussion. To take his book seriously is not merely difficult or ill-advised but impossible. Exactly and literally so, for the attempt requires that we assume him to be speaking honestly, that we disregard his repudiation of commitment to truth. In order to take his book seriously we would have to ignore one of its principal assertions, thereby refusing to take it seriously.

Stirner Max, 1982 The Ego and his Own; the case of the individual against authority. Translated by Steven T. Byington, Edited by James J.Martin, Chicago: Western World Press. (All quotations from this source). 2.24; 3.4/5; 4.56/65; 5.163; 6.247; 7.25; 8.138 [citations as in original]

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.