Max Sterner, the ego and its own.

Max Sterner, the ego and its own.

max-stirner.jpgI know about Max Sterner for many years now, mainly as a predecessor of Nietzsche philosophy but I never read anything from him, till yesterday when I started on his most famous book The ego and its own. There is lots of information to find on the internet but Wikipedia says the following about this book:

The Ego and Its Own (German: Der Einzige und sein Eigentum; meaningfully translated as The Individual and his Property, literally as The Unique and His Property) is an 1844 work by German philosopher Max Stirner. It presents a radically nominalist and individualist critique of Christianity, nationalism, and traditional morality on one hand; and on the other, humanism, utilitarianism, liberalism, and much of the then-burgeoning socialist movement, advocating instead an amoral (although importantly not inherently immoral or antisocial) egoism. It is considered a major influence on the development of anarchism, existentialism, nihilism, and postmodernism. Read the rest here.


Translated from the German by Steven T. Byington. 1907

  1. A Human Life

From the moment when he catches sight of the light of the world a man seeks to find out himself and get hold of himself out of its confusion, in which he, with everything else, is tossed about in motley mixture.

But everything that comes in contact with the child defends itself in turn against his attacks, and asserts its own persistence.

Accordingly, because each thing cares for itself at the same time comes into constant collision with other things, the combat of self-assertion is unavoidable.

Victory or defeat — between the two alternatives the fate of the combat wavers. The victor becomes the lord, the vanquished one the subject: the former exercises supremacy and “rights of supremacy,” the latter fulfills in awe and deference the “duties of a subject.

But both remain enemies, and always lie in wait: they watch for each other’s weaknesses — children for those of their parents and parents for those of their children (e.g., their fear); either the stick conquers the man, or the man conquers the stick.

In childhood liberation takes the direction of trying to get to the bottom of things, to get at what is “back of” things; therefore we spy out the weak points of everybody, for which, it is well known, children have a sure instinct; therefore we like to smash things, like to rummage through hidden corners, pry after what is covered up or out of the way, and try what we can do with everything. When we once get at what is back of the things, we know we are safe; when, e.g., we have got at the fact that the rod is too weak against our obduracy, then we no longer fear it, “have out-grown it.”

Back of the rod, mightier than it, stands our — obduracy, our obdurate courage. By degrees we get at what is back of everything that was mysterious and uncanny to us, the mysteriously-dreaded might of the rod, the father’s stern look, etc., and back of all we find our ataraxia, i. e. imperturbability, intrepidity, our counter force, our odds of strength, our invincibility. Before that which formerly inspired in us fear and deference we no longer retreat shyly, but take courage. Back of everything we find our courage, our superiority; back of the sharp command of parents and authorities stands, after all, our courageous choice or our outwitting shrewdness. And the more we feel ourselves, the smaller appears that which before seemed invincible. And what is our trickery, shrewdness, courage, obduracy? What else but — mind![Geist. This word will be translated sometimes “mind” and sometimes “spirit” in the following pages]

Through a considerable time we are spared a fight that is so exhausting later — the fight against reason. The fairest part of childhood passes without the necessity of coming to blows with reason. We care nothing at all about it, do not meddle with it, admit no reason. We are not to be persuaded to anything by conviction, and are deaf to good arguments, principles, etc.; on the other hand, coaxing, punishment, etc. are hard for us to resist.

This stern life-and-death combat with reason enters later, and begins a new phase; in childhood we scamper about without racking our brains much.

Mind is the name of the first self-discovery, the first self-discovery, the first undeification of the divine; i. e., of the uncanny, the spooks, the “powers above.” Our fresh feeling of youth, this feeling of self, now defers to nothing; the world is discredited, for we are above it, we are mind.

Now for the first time we see that hitherto we have not looked at the world intelligently at all, but only stared at it.

We exercise the beginnings of our strength on natural powers. We defer to parents as a natural power; later we say: Father and mother are to be forsaken, all natural power to be counted as riven. They are vanquished. For the rational, i.e. the “intellectual” man, there is no family as a natural power; a renunciation of parents, brothers, etc., makes its appearance. If these are “born again” as intellectual, rational powers, they are no longer at all what they were before.

And not only parents, but men in general, are conquered by the young man; they are no hindrance to him, and are no longer regarded; for now he says: One must obey God rather than men.

From this high standpoint everything “earthly” recedes into contemptible remoteness; for the standpoint is — the heavenly.

The attitude is now altogether reversed; the youth takes up an intellectual position, while the boy, who did not yet feel himself as mind, grew up on mindless learning. The former does not try to get hold of things (e.g. to get into his head the data of history), but of the thoughts that lie hidden in things, and so, e.g., of the spirit of history. On the other hand, the boy understands connections no doubt, but not ideas, the spirit; therefore he strings together whatever can be learned, without proceeding a priori and theoretically, i.e. without looking for ideas.

As in childhood one had to overcome the resistance of the laws of the world, so now in everything that he proposes he is met by an objection of the mind, of reason, of his own conscience. “That is unreasonable, unchristian, unpatriotic,” etc., cries conscience to us, and — frightens us away from it. Not the might of the avenging Eumenides, not Poseidon’s wrath, not God, far as he sees the hidden, not the father’s rod of punishment, do we fear, but — conscience.

We “run after our thoughts” now, and follow their commands just as before we followed parental, human ones. Our course of action is determined by our thoughts (ideas, conceptions, faith) as it is in childhood by the commands of our parents.

For all that, we were already thinking when we were children, only our thoughts were not fleshless, abstract, absolute, i. e., NOTHING BUT THOUGHTS, a heaven in themselves, a pure world of thought, logical thoughts.

On the contrary, they had been only thoughts that we had about a thing; we thought of the thing so or so. Thus we may have thought “God made the world that we see there,” but we did not think of (“search”) the “depths of the Godhead itself”; we may have thought “that is the truth about the matter,” but we do not think of Truth itself, nor unite into one sentence “God is truth.” The “depths of the Godhead, who is truth,” we did not touch. Over such purely logical, i.e. theological questions, “What is truth?” Pilate does not stop, though he does not therefore hesitate to ascertain in an individual case “what truth there is in the thing,” i.e. whether the thing is true.

Any thought bound to a thing is not yet nothing but a thought, absolute thought.

Read the rest here at

Some back covers to read…

The Ego and Its Own is a philosophical work by German philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856). This work was first published in 1845, although with a stated publication date of “1844” to confuse the Prussian censors. The book portrays the life of a human individual as dominated by authoritarian concepts (‘fixed ideas’ or ‘spooks’), which must be shaken and undermined by each individual in order for that person to act freely. These concepts include primarily religion and ideology, and the institutions claiming authority over the individual. The primary implication of undermining these concepts and institutions is, for Stirner, an ethical egoism, which can be said to transcend language. According to him, not only is God an alienating ideal, as Feuerbach had argued in The Essence of Christianity (1841), but so too are humanity itself, nationalism and all such ideologies. According to Stirner, individuals should only entertain temporary associations between themselves, agreeing in mutual aid and cooperation for a period of time, but only when in each individual’s interest (perhaps anticipating cooperative games). Stirner repeatedly quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Bruno Bauer assuming that readers will be familiar with their works. He also paraphrases and makes word-plays and in-jokes on formulations found in Hegel’s works as well as in the works of his contemporaries such as Ludwig Feuerbach. This can make the book more demanding for contemporary readers.

The first part of his book, Stirner criticizes the vast array of human history, establishing the patterns through which authority manipulates the conscience. Feelings of strong patriotism or nationalism, religious beliefs, and various ideologies claim individuals and deprive them of their powers of self-discovery; as a part of at least one of these creeds, aspects of a person’s identity are undermined by the monoculture of old ideals.

Max Stirner identifies how, during adolescence and early adulthood, many people embark in their own original path of discovery. Yet even philosophical movements such as that advanced by Hegel or Kant act to undermine this process, admitting otherwise free thinking persons into their rigid tenets – compared against political or spiritual forces, these were merely new masters.

The second part of Stirner’s thesis floats a solution: a sense of ‘ownness’; autonomy from established orders, is proposed. This sort of egoism is not to be confused with a single-minded goal; pursuit of say wealth or fame is, in Stirner’s view, just as enslaving as subscribing to an established ideal. Fulfilling the various self-interests of the soul, and being independent from any kind of state control, are what the author envisages as the perfect form of egoism.

Stark in its arguments and immediately controversial upon release, Max Stirner’s furious thesis against such an established order remains influential and widely read. Individuals interested in anarchism, postmodernism, and nihilism refer to The Ego and His Own to this day.


From Wikipedia

Johann Kaspar Schmidt (25 October 1806 – 26 June 1856), better known as Max Stirner, was a German philosopher who is often seen as one of the forerunners of nihilism, existentialism, psychoanalytic theory, postmodernism and individualist anarchism. Stirner’s main work is The Ego and Its Own, also known as The Ego and His Own, first published in 1845 in Leipzig and since then appeared in numerous editions and translations, with his German original title literally translating as The Individual and His Property (Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum).

Stirner was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria. 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 (enlarged 1910, 1914) and translated into English in 2005. Stirner was the only child of Albert Christian Heinrich Schmidt (1769–1807) and Sophia Elenora Reinlein (1778–1839). His father died of tuberculosis on 19 April 1807 at the age of 37. In 1809, his mother remarried to Heinrich Ballerstedt (a pharmacist) and settled in West Prussian Kulm (now Chełmno, Poland). When Stirner turned 20, he attended the University of Berlin,[8] where he studied philology, philosophy and theology. He attended the lectures of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who was to become a source of inspiration for his thinking. He attended Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of religion and the subjective spirit. Stirner then moved to the University of Erlangen, which he attended at the same time as Ludwig Feuerbach.

Stirner returned to Berlin and obtained a teaching certificate, but he was unable to obtain a full-time teaching post from the Prussian government. While in Berlin in 1841, Stirner participated in discussions with a group of young philosophers called Die Freien (The Free Ones) and whom historians have subsequently categorized as the Young Hegelians. Some of the best known names in 19th century literature and philosophy were involved with this group, including Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Bruno Bauer and Arnold Ruge. Contrary to popular belief, Feuerbach was not a member of Die Freien, although he was heavily involved in Young Hegelian discourse. 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 group broke with Hegel. Feuerbach and Bauer led this charge….

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Max Stirner (1806–1856) is best known as the author of the idiosyncratic and provocative book entitled Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum (1844). Familiar in English as The Ego and Its Own (a more literal translation would be The Unique Individual and his Property), both the form and content of Stirner’s work are disconcerting. He challenges expectations about how political and philosophical argument should be conducted, and seeks to shake the reader’s confidence in the moral and political superiority of contemporary civilisation (over its historical predecessors). In particular, he provides a sweeping attack on the modern world as increasingly dominated by religious modes of thought and oppressive social institutions, together with a much briefer sketch of a radical ‘egoistic’ alternative in which individual autonomy might flourish. The historical impact of The Ego and Its Own is not easy to assess. However, Stirner’s book can certainly be said to have had an immediate and destructive impact on contemporary left-Hegelianism, to have played a significant role in the intellectual development of Karl Marx (1818–1883), and to have been a major influence on the tradition of individualist anarchism….

The anarchist library

In 1888, John Henry Mackay, the Scottish-German poet, while at the British Museum reading Lange’s History of Materialism, encountered the name of Max Stirner and a brief criticism of his forgotten book, Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum (The Only One and His Property; in French translated L’Unique et sa Propriété, and in the First English translation more aptly and euphoniously entitled The Ego and His Own). His curiosity excited, Mackay, who is an anarchist, procured after some difficulty a copy of the work, and so greatly was he stirred that for ten years he gave himself up to the study of Stirner and his teachings, and after incredible painstaking published in 1898 the story of his life. (Max Stirner: Sein Leben und sein Werk: John Henry Mackay.) To Mackay’s labors we owe all we know of a man who was as absolutely swallowed up by the years as if he had never existed. But some advanced spirits had read Stirner’s book, the most revolutionary ever written, and had felt its influence. Let us name two: Henrik Ibsen and Friedrich Nietzsche. Though the name of Stirner is not quoted by Nietzsche, he nevertheless recommended Stirner to a favorite pupil of his, Professor Baumgartner at Basel University. This was in 1874.

One hot August afternoon in the year 1896 at Bayreuth, I was standing in the Marktplatz when a member of the Wagner Theatre pointed out to me a house opposite, at the corner of the Maximilianstrasse, and said: “Do you see that house with the double gables? A man was born there whose name will be green when Jean Paul and Richard Wagner are forgotten.” It was too large a draft upon my credulity, so I asked the name. “Max Stirner,” he replied. “The crazy Hegelian,” I retorted. “You have read him, then?” “No; but you haven’t read Nordau.” It was true. All fire and flame at that time for Nietzsche, I did not realize that the poet and rhapsodist had forerunners. My friend sniffed at Nietzsche’s name; Nietzsche for him was an aristocrat, not an Individualist — in reality, a lyric expounder of Bismarck’s gospel of blood and iron. Wagner’s adversary would, with Renan, place mankind under the yoke of a more exacting tyranny than Socialism, the tyranny of Culture, of the Superman. Ibsen, who had studied both Kierkegaard and Stirner — witness Brand and Peer Gynt — Ibsen was much nearer to the champion of Ego than Nietzsche. Yet it is the dithyrambic author of Zarathustra who is responsible, with Mackay, for the recrudescence of Stirner’s teachings…




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