The Ego and Its Own
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.
In 2010, John F.Welsh coined the term dialectical egoism for the thoughts of Stirner expressed in this work, in order to emphasize the distinction from the negative and pejorative connotations from the common everyday use of egoism in the sense of egotism.
The first part of the text begins by setting out a tripartite dialectical structure based on an individual's stages of life (Childhood, Youth and Adulthood). In the first realistic stage, children are restricted by external material forces. Upon reaching the stage of youth, they begin to learn how to overcome these restrictions by what Stirner calls the "self-discovery of mind". However, in the idealistic stage, a youth now becomes enslaved by internal forces such as conscience, reason and other 'spooks' or 'fixed ideas' of the mind (including religion, nationalism and other ideologies). The final stage, 'egoism' sees the now adult individual freed from all internal and external constraints, attaining individual autonomy.
Throughout the book, Stirner applies this dialectial structure to human history (the Ancient and Modern worlds, and the Egoistic Future). Part one is a sustained critique of the first two periods of human history and especially of the failure of the Modern world to escape from religious modes of thinking. Stirner's analysis is opposed to the belief that modern individuals are progressively more free than their predecessors. Stirner sees moderns as being oppressed by ideological forces such as Christianity and the ideologies of the modern nation state.
Stirner's critique of modernity is centred on the Protestant Reformation. According to Stirner, Reformation theology extended religious domination over individuals by blurring the distinction between the sensual and the spiritual (thus allowing priests to marry for example). The Reformation also strengthened and intensified religious belief and made it more personal, creating an internal conflict between natural desires and religious conscience. Thus the Reformation only served to further enslave Europeans under spiritual ideology.
Stirner's critique of a progressive view of history is part of his attack on the philosophies of the left Hegelians, especially that of Ludwig Feuerbach. Stirner sees Feuerbach's philosophy as merely a continuation of religious ways of thinking. Feuerbach had argued that Christianity was mistaken in taking human qualities and projecting them into a transcendent God. But according to Stirner, Feuerbach's philosophy, while rejecting a God, left the Christian qualities intact. Feuerbach had taken a set of human qualities and deified them, making them the only prescriptive view of humanity. This became just another religion for Stirner, a "change of masters" over the individual. Stirner criticizes other left-Hegelians for setting a conception of essential human nature as a goal to be striven for outside of the individual themselves. So while liberals like Arnold Ruge found the essence of the human in citizenship, and social liberals like Moses Hess found it in labor, all of them made a similar error of ossifying an "essence" of the human and deifying it. For Stirner, 'human nature' cannot provide any prescriptions on how one ought to live. His goal is to free the individual from such notions of essential universal goals.
Part two is centered on the possibility of freedom from current ideological ways of thinking through a robust philosophical egoism. Stirner's egoism is centered on what he calls Eigenheit ('Ownness' or autonomy). This 'Ownness' is a feature of a more advanced stage of human personal and historical development. It is the groundwork for our world-view.
Stirner's Egoism is not a descriptive psychological egoism, in fact he believes that non-egoism is the most common way of thinking. Stirner also does not advocate a narrow prescriptive ethical egoism of self-interest. Stirner rejects, for example, the actions of an avaricious individual whose only pursuit is material gain. For Stirner such a pursuit enslaves the individual to a single goal and this is incompatible with his idea of autonomy.
Stirner's conception of Ownness is then a type of self-mastery in which one's actions are unrestricted by any internal or external constraints—"I am my own only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered by...anything else".:153 To attain autonomy, the individual must free himself from all forces, such as ideologies, religions, ethics, other persons and even their own desires. For Stirner, Eigenheit is the only good, and is incompatible with any moral, political and familial obligations ("the forming of a family binds a man".:102) Stirner's influence in anarchist circles stems from his rejection of the legitimacy of the state. Stirner argues that "own will and the state are powers in deadly hostility, between which no 'perpetual peace' is possible".:175 Every form of the state is rejected as a despotism over individual self ownership. Even a unanimously democratic decision does not bind Stirner's egoist, since this would freeze his "will of yesterday", making him a slave to his past desires and decisions. Stirner rejects promise keeping on similar grounds of not allowing past actions to constrain his autonomy. He states that the egoist must embrace the "heroism of the lie".:210
Along with his critique of ideologies and institutions, Stirner also provides an alternative form of social relationship, the "union of egoists" (verein von egoisten).:161 These unions are temporary groupings of self-determined individuals which do not subordinate each individual to the good of the group. The only good in these unions is the self-interest of each individual. Stirner suggests that some human relationships like love might continue in this new egoistic future. However this new kind of love is one in which the egoist does not sacrifice his autonomy and thus he loves only as long as "love makes me happy".:256
Stirner does not shy away from the radical outcomes of his worldview. He explains the relationship between the egoist and his objects or other persons as one of 'ownership'. For Stirner this means that there are no restrictions, moral or otherwise, on how an egoist can relate to other things and persons. The egoist views others instrumentally, they are "nothing but - my food, even as I am fed upon and turned to use by you".:263 The consequences of this view is that he does not see murder, incest and infanticide as always unjustified. Stirner admits that this view affords little comfort to others but he states that his audience's concern is of no importance to him.
Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own, p. 394
He also asserted his own "doctrine" of self-interest to be neither a universal truth nor an established viewpoint, and likens his book to a ladder you throw away after climbing, a sort of self-therapy.
Style and structure
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.
Reception and influence
Initially, The Unique And Its Property received much attention, though most reviews were negative critiques by left Hegelians such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Moses Hess, as well as by Carl Schmitt. Feuerbach's critique, "The Essence of Christianity in Relation to The Unique And Its Property" called the work 'ingenious' and 'intelligent' but also criticizes it as 'eccentric, one-sided and falsely defined.'  Stirner responded to these critiques in an 1845 essay titled "Stirner's Critics".
The Unique And Its Property also had a profound impact on Marx and Engels. In 1844 Engels sent a letter to Marx praising "the noble Stirner" and suggesting that his dialectical Egoism can serve as a point of departure for communism:
It is certainly true that we must first make a cause our own, egoistic cause, before we can do anything to further it. . . . [W]e are communists out of egoism also, and it is out of egoism that we wish to be human beings, not mere individuals...
However, Marx and Engels would later collaborate on a lengthy criticism of Stirner's book in The German Ideology (1845, published 1932). The critique is a polemical tirade filled with ad hominem attacks and insults against Stirner (Marx calls him a "petty bourgeois individualist intellectual").
Stirner also had a lasting influence in the tradition of Individualist Anarchism. American Individualist Benjamin R. Tucker, editor of the Journal Liberty, adopted Stirner's Egoism in 1886 while rejecting conceptions of natural rights. This led to a bitter split in American Individualist Anarchism between Egoists such as James L. Walker, Sidney Parker, Dora Marsden and John Beverly Robinson and the proponents of natural rights anarchism such as that of Lysander Spooner. Other Individualist Anarchists influenced by Stirner include Lev Chernyi, Adolf Brand, Renzo Novatore, John Henry Mackay, Enrico Arrigoni, Miguel Giménez Igualada, and Émile Armand.
Confusion of the censors
He who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, a 1955 exhibition by University of Kansas Library noted the following regarding the book's initial publication:
Its frank espousal of anarchistic egoism led to the not unexpected announcement in the newspapers of Saxony that the book had been immediately confiscated in Leipzig. Anxious not to be outdone, where usually they were so far ahead, Prussia banned the book. Then, Berlin received more accurate news: the book had not been banned in Saxony at all. In fact, the book's farfetched overstatement was regarded at Dresden as its own best antidote. The small states of Germany fell into line, on one side or the other, often with considerable difficulty owing to the scarcity of copies to examine first.
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- The same mental image of a ladder to be thrown away after climbing is used by Ludwig Wittgenstein in section 6.54 of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This turn of phrase was originally coined by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1844:
However, for the man who studies to gain insight, books and studies are merely rungs of the ladder on which he climbs to the summit of knowledge. As soon as a rung has raised him up one step, he leaves it behind. On the other hand, the many who study in order to fill their memory do not use the rungs of the ladder for climbing, but take them off and load themselves with them to take away, rejoicing at the increasing weight of the burden. They remain below forever, because they bear what should have bourne them.
- Welsh, John F. Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism, A new interpretation; p. 17. Lexington Books, 2010.
- Welsh, John F. Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism, A new interpretation; p. 20. Lexington Books, 2010.
- Welsh, John F. Max Stirner's Dialectical Egoism, A new interpretation; pp. 22–23. Lexington Books, 2010.
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- "He who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, an exhibition of books which have survived Fire, the Sword and the Censors". University of Kansas Library. 1955. Retrieved March 2, 2009.
- Paterson, R. W. K. (1993) , The Nihilistic Egoist Max Stirner (Reprint ed.), London: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-7512-0258-4.
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