The Ego and His Own: —“The book is a terror to read, but when you do read it, you have mastered something that you will never be able to forget as long as you live. ”
In the ranks of rebel philosophers Max Stirner occupies a conspicuous place. Henrik Ibsen is his literary descendant, and his thought is alleged to have influenced Treitzschke and the von Bernhardi school of dreamers. Anyhow, he is the ethical parent of Nietzsche who, however, was only on listening terms with his father. And Nietzsche had a large, ready ear for Stirner’s teaching as the researches of Friedrich’s friend, Overbeck, bear astonishing witness. Stirner, whose real name was Johann Kaspar Schmidt, was born at Bayreuth, in 1806. He died m Berlin in 1856. Apart from his intermittent starvation and his reckless marriage with a lady named Marie Dahnhardt who after his death, visited Australia, married a laborer, and became a washerwoman, Stirner’s life was singularly uneventful. He was a mild, abstemious character, congenitally shiftless and self-effacing, and had the pallid-eyed myopia of the typical Teuton pedagogue. For several years he found life easy in the refined atmosphere of a girls’ school, but improvidence and incapacity twice cost him imprisonment for debt. Yet behind the meek eyes of this small professor was the soul of a slinking Superman. Between 1843 and 1845 he published his astounding effort, The Only One and His Property, which many subsequent Anarchists probably set to the music of dynamite.
Now this anarchistic book, known in English as The Ego and His Own, is not a great work, nor is Stirner a commanding writer. If he had been a real craftsman he might have achieved the Nietzschean distinction of becoming a Penny Dreadful to the Great Unread. But Stirner lacked the manner of the litterateur and the physical resolution of a vigorous heretic. He could not translate his message, like Bakunin, into the melodrama of pistol and poison. Nor could he, like Nietzsche, sacrifice sense to the beguiling sound of beautiful words. Yet admitting his premises, Stirner’s argument is consistent, Nietzsche’s never. That explains why Stirner is never entertaining, while reading Nietzsche is like a tour through Chaos on a char-à-banc. Still, with all its literary deficiencies, the book has the sure note of revolution, sustained with a staccato intensity that seems a new kind of idiom. “Might is right,” exclaims Stirner, bawling to an attentive Teuton posterity. And Might is an abounding Egoism seeking satisfaction by the amiable principle of force majeure. The wayback French King who said “The State is I” gave Stirner the material for the modern Kaiserism, “I am the Universe.” Listen to Max: —
What you have the might to be you have the right to be. I deduce all right and entitlement from myself; I am entitled to everything that I have might over. I am entitled to overthrow Zeus, Jehovah, God, etc., if I can; if I cannot, then these gods will remain in the right and in the might as against me…. Away with every business that is not altogether my business! You think at least the “good cause” must be my business? What good, what bad? Why, I myself am my business, and I am neither good nor bad. Neither has meaning for me. What is divine is God’s business; what is human, Man’s. My business is neither what is divine nor what is human; it is not what is true, good, right, free, etc., but only what is mine; and it is no general business, but it is—unique, as I am unique. Nothing is more to me than myself.
Stirner rejects all authority, gods and moral values. He admits the institution of property only under the following conditions: —
Property should not, and cannot, be done away with; rather, it must be torn from ghostly hands and become my property; then will the erroneous consciousness that I cannot entitle myself to as much as I want vanish—“But what cannot a man want?” Well, he who wants much, and knows how to get it, has in all times taken it to him, as Napoleon did the Continent and the French Algeria. Therefore, the only point is that the respectful: “lower classes’ should, at length, learn to take to themselves what they want. If they reach their hands too far for you, why defend yourselves.”
Other extracts could be given, but those are sufficient to indicate the material of the grim, philosophic garment that Stirner wove, so to speak. Nietzsche coming more than a generation later cut this garment to the needs' of a ballet dancer, and still left sufficient stuff for a winding sheet. Stirnerism was too much for Nietzsche. It gave him the idea for The Transvaluation of All Values and Beyond Good and Evil, and drove him to create the mountebank Zarathustra who showed appropriate gratitude by worshipping his maker. Nietzsche is now comparatively dead, but Stirner is becoming very much alive.
THE BULLETIN, (Vol. 36 No. 1856) 9 September 1915.