Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own brings us face to face with the fundamental question of authority in the modern day.
Stirner’s Critique of Authority
The German philosopher Max Stirner (1806–1856) is by no means a thinker of the right. In his main work The Ego and His Own (1844) he care-freely dismisses all institutions, ideals and divinities of both old and new times as mere ‘spooks’. Every ‘calling’ of an authority is for Stirner a fixation of the mind, which limits the pure act of the Ego, and a weakness which enslaves him and forces him to serve something which is not his own. In his time, Stirner was associated with the Left Hegelians, although he often ridiculed them in The Ego and His Own for not being as radical as they suppose, and his work is seen as a forerunner of nihilism, anarchism and postmodernism.
The first part of this essay will examine Stirner’s critique of authority in order to characterize what truly comprises a false authority; the second, more important part will try to explain where Stirner goes wrong and to characterize the absolute, spiritual authority which is at the centre of a true society. There will certainly be some liberties taken in the presentation of Stirner’s thought, but this academic transgression will be effected with the purpose of incorporating his critique into a Traditional framework, of reaching above the Egoism he prescribes and answering how one can serve, without being a slave. The final part of the essay will offer reflections on where we might then find this spiritual authority in our times.
The Left Hegelians interpreted Hegel’s dialectic of History as something revolutionary, moving towards the absolute realization of reason and freedom of the individual. Thus they formulated critiques against the religious and political authorities of their time, which would have their greatest impact in the development of the thought of Marx. Like the Marxist school of thought, Stirner views society as an interaction of power, as the relation between the slave and the master. But where the Marxist seeks to liberate the slave, to revolt against the ruling class and to institute a new order which will guarantee everyone’s equal rights in a society without masters, Stirner wants to make himself into his own master. Stirner does not seek freedom or empowerment from a revolution, from something outside of himself, but rather wants to act on the world through his own power. According to Stirner’s view, the only true freedom is the one I am able to create fully by myself, that which is in my actual power. The Marxist revolts against the spiritual, as he can only understand it as a claim to authority, as a tool of the ruling class to keep material mastery over the slaves; but Stirner’s revolt stems from the feeling that the spiritual alienates a man from his true being. In the spiritual, men of every class posit something outside of themselves as their origin and destination. Furthermore, this origin is thought of as their true being, and their self is more or less a deviation, whose only worth is in the degree to which it manages to be an image of the origin. Man gives up his own power in enslaving himself to his concept of an origin, whether it is the people, mankind as a whole, or God.
What makes Stirner’s work respectable is his radical search for his own centre, his true being, the elusive yet absolute ‘I’ which can be found as little in a man’s origin as his destination, as little in his convictions and ideals as in his desires and vices. Stirner wants something more absolute than a ‘calling’; he wants that which makes him completely self-sufficient, and he then want to turn this ‘I’ toward the world, through power, and to make everything in his life radiate as an affirmation of his absolute being. That this search ends in egoism is the result of Stirner’s ignorance of true spirit, namely Being. At the basis of Stirner’s critique of authority is the equation of spirit with thought, but a thought is just a single being, a part of the material world of Becoming. A thought can never capture or contain Being, but is just an expression of it, the residue of Being trying to manifest itself in the world of Becoming. Being is the true, transcendent centre of every single material manifestation in Becoming, including man, and it is thus the ‘I’ that Stirner confuses for his material Ego. We will later formulate the true authority which stems from the identification of the transcendent side of ‘I’ with Being, but for now we will only reproduce Stirner’s critique of what we can call false authority, namely the authority of a thought. This will not be a fruitless endeavour, as Stirner is not alone in confusing Being with thought. On the contrary, this confusion is the source of every dogma and every ‘-ism’, and it is as prevalent on the right as anywhere else. The authority of a thought does indeed turn man into a slave, as it forces the Being within him to run the errands of a part of Becoming. If we truly want to affirm Tradition, i.e. the dominion of Being over Becoming, we need to be radical: we need to realize that this false authority is as great an obstacle for us to overcome as are our mere individual desires. We must rid ourselves of the want, the weakness, of having a ‘meaning’ and a ‘cause’ in the world below our true selves.
Stirner begins by describing the ancient, ‘childlike’ view of the world in which history began. For the child, the world is something unknown and overwhelming, and at the centre of this world stand the parents who gave him his individual life, and who both nourish him and command him. ‘The gods of the people’ are like the parents of a pagan people, and the pagan needs to seek their favour by obeying their words and giving them gifts, but, like a child, he might also try to trick them, or play them against each other. In this sense, Stirner characterizes Paganism as a materialistic faith, a religion of things, as it is concerned with gods as powers of this world; and the pagan’s worship of the family, the people or the gods is not truly spiritual, as it simply stems from acknowledging them to be more powerful than the pagan himself. The goal of Paganism, the reason why Abraham turned his servitude to Jehovah, is the promise of many sons and rich lands, of flourishing as a power in this world: it is more a bargain than an authority.
Stirner is of course not aware of the transcendent side of Paganism, the esoteric side which has been explained by Evola and other traditionalists, nor of the spiritual authority which accompanied it. But the esoteric side has, by its nature, only been available to the higher castes, to the few of a spiritual race, the true Aryans, while the non-Aryan faith of the great masses, in all honesty, probably lies near Stirner’s view of the childlike worship of the ‘people’s gods’. For now, we shall pretend that Stirner’s view is complete, so that he can illustrate the birth of thought and the false authority that this entailed.
While the child grows, he tries to ‘get at the back of things’, to test what he can do, and soon he realizes that he has his own thought, his own power, and that he can steer himself, without or even against the parents. And so ancient man tried to get at the back of his gods, the divine powers of nature, and later, the world as a whole. This is the development Stirner sees in the rise of Greek, and later Roman, philosophy, which by their own thought searched for ‘the Good’ and a way to live in accordance with it. This ‘Good’ stood beyond the pagan gods, and when the philosophers advocated worship of the gods, or the people, or the family, it was because this worship was a good act. But ancient philosophy remained a philosophy of things, a practical philosophy, and not pure thought, as the goal was always a good life. The Stoics wanted man to be unmovable by the world, the Epicureans wanted to be satisfied with the small enjoyments of the world, and the Sceptics wanted to free us from our judgement and evaluation of the world; ancient philosophy was concerned with how to place oneself in the world, not to be outside of it, to reach the spirit beyond. But the ancients worked towards and longed for this leap out of the world, which they were not able to take themselves, and it was at this time, at the twilight of the pagan faith, that Christ appeared.
Stirner views Christ as pure thought, which of course misses the actual spiritual nature of Christ, but also ignores the main point of Christianity: that Christ was God made man, that is, a manifestation of spirit in the material as a breathing man, as living Tradition. It was probably this aspect of Christ that attracted European man, rather than any will to ‘exit’ the world. The Greek philosophers, especially Plato, could not really make the Good a part of this world. It remained a perfect idea, hovering outside of our material existence in its own, separate world. European philosophy to a large degree found a path away from thought, into the real world, by the idea of a God who breached the wall they had put between the Good and matter, entering into the flesh of a single man. We will later attempt to discuss the qualities of Paganism and Christianity thoroughly, in the question of what should be the spiritual authority of our time, but there are no doubts that the acceptance of Christ as the unity of matter and spirit was an acceptance of a true, spiritual authority, and that this rebirthed the European Tradition that was slowly dying along with its pagan gods. But for every new Christian who understood the spiritual nature of Christ, countless more only saw Christ as thought, and thus put themselves under a false authority. Under this view of Christ, thought intensified and finally set man outside of the world, as Stirner claims; we must recognize that this is the only aspect which Stirner manage to describe and criticize.
It is with the advent of Christ that Stirner dates the end of humanity’s childhood and the beginning of its youth. It is in our youth that we revolt against our parents, which is to say, the material power over and the origin of ourselves, and wholeheartedly follow the principles that begin to arise in our own head. The youth is fully occupied with thought, and at his height he may believe himself to have found the sole principle of everything in his concepts: he dismisses everything around him that does not align with his new conviction, and he believes this conviction to be the centre, origin and goal of his life. This mania for the Christian is his concept of God, and the soul that God gave him. The Christian ‘soul’ can of course be an expression of the realization that man’s core lies in Being, but as a mere concept, it places man’s ‘true being’ outside of himself. The Christian man is a creation of God, and is given life by being the vessel for a part of God, of God’s breath. Man’s nature is that he is an image of God, and everything that makes him into an individual man, his body and its desires, is a deviation from his origin, and hence represents an inescapable sin. Man alienates Being from himself, puts it in the creator, while he himself remains as an empty creation, a slave which has his worth only to the degree to which he manages to satisfy the will of his master.
The dogma is a fixed idea, a classification of Becoming into the two parts ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The man who does not know Being, but only thought, confuses the dogma with Being, and calls it ‘the will of God’. He thinks that his true ‘purpose’ is to realize this idea and destroy everything that does not fit into it; he is possessed by his thought, he does not comprehend that the thought itself is just a part of Becoming, that when he serves the ‘cause’ of the idea he turns his Being into a slave of Becoming. Again, Stirner thinks spirit is this thought, and instead of the Being of man talks about his ‘Ego’; but Stirner correctly notices that the man truly possessed by thought cannot stop by alienating only himself from his Being, but must continue to alienate the whole world. Not only I, but the whole world is sinful! The world is an imperfect semblance of the perfect thought, it is something that must be left behind and shunned. Only the ‘spirit’ is true and only by being devoured by this thought can I become what I was meant to be. Only the ghostly thought is real, and the world is its faded apparition, the spook of the thought. Finally, the possessed man has put himself outside of the world of Becoming – and we might add, outside of Being as well.
But ‘God’ is not the only fixed idea, and the age of thought does not end with the end of Christian dominion. Instead, Stirner sees the modern man as the faithful successor of the Christian – or at least, we might interject, of the Christians who only knew thought. However radical and liberal the ‘humane’ moderns are in their critique of Christianity, they never defeated the divine master outside of man, but rather transformed him into a new fixed idea and abstraction, namely ‘Man’. ‘Man’ is never the actual man; he is not myself, but rather the new, abstract master every mere man must strive to realize, through ‘freedom’, ‘human rights’ and ‘morality’ – not the Christian gospel, but a dogma and a holy faith nevertheless. He who differs (for Stirner, the egoist), is an enemy, an ‘un-Man’, and there is no forgiveness for the man who actually wants to be his own.
Finally, Stirner declares his vision for the coming age of history, the age of the adult man. Adult man has outgrown the dreams and thoughts of the youth, and only has concrete interests; he looks at the world and considers what he can do, how he can realize his own will. He is self-sufficient, content with being concerned only with his actual self, and does not need to serve any ‘cause’, for he is his own. Stirner chooses not to identify his person with something outside of himself – not God, not Man, not the Nation – but only with his own, actual power. As little as a true man serves and is possessed by his desires, shall he serve and be possessed by his ideals; they are both to be his property, something of which he is the complete master and which he can use for his own will. To look outside of myself for value or ‘meaning’ is to become a slave to something I do not possess; it is only what I am a master of that is truly me: I am only my ownness.
Stirner declares that the whole world is his property. There is nothing, material nor ‘spiritual’, that I should view as off-limits, or to which I should pledge fidelity; there are only things that are not yet in my power, not yet an expression of my will. Of course, I do not have the power to actually make everything mine, and there will always be individuals and movements more powerful than me, but that which overpowers and compels me to follow it is not the same as authority. To be restricted is not the same as feeling respect. In the nakedness of power, we see in the one greater than ourselves someone we want to be, someone whose domain we want to conquer, even if we can’t now (or perhaps ever) challenge him. What characterize authority is that we yield to someone else, stronger or weaker, because of something other than our own advantage, mercy or lack of power. True authority is when this ‘something else’ is the Being which is both my true self and my commander; but false authority, the only authority Stirner knows, is when this ‘something else’ is a mere thought, something alien to my true self. It is when I feel the need of a ‘calling’ in the world of Becoming, when I believe that the ‘meaning’ of my being is to serve a ‘cause’ or to respect a ‘right’ in order to truly become, not who I am, but who I am ‘meant’ to be, that I create an authority, and make myself into a slave.
Thus the difference between Stirner’s ownness and the moderns’ ‘freedom’ is clear; the liberal ‘freedom’ is not anything one possesses, but rather something given to one, a power and a claim to one’s property and being that someone else has resigned. And in the same manner, ‘freedom’ requires one to resign one’s own power. This mutual resignation is only made possible by the concept of a ‘right’ that both you and the other have, built on something sacred that you do not dare to touch, namely that you are both ‘Man’. Everything created in this ‘freedom’ is not the result of your power, it is not your own, but is rather a fief, given to you by the grace of the liberal state, to which you can nicely submit and for which you can work as an image of ‘Man’ .
Stirner characterizes the liberal movement by its ‘right’ to property, which is believed to free man from his feudal lords, but which in reality robs everyone, serf and lord alike, of their actual property, their actual power, by giving them a ‘right’ to their property only by their quality of being a ‘Man’. This servitude to the modern god ‘Man’ is intensified in socialism and communism, or ‘social liberalism’ as Stirner calls it, which needs to rob man of the profit of his given property. The different powers and qualities of men result in a different degree of ‘right to property’, and thus provide a new hierarchy of profit, something own which makes me differ from the abstract ‘Man’ in all of us. Finally, liberalism reaches it peak in ‘humane liberalism’, an obscure moment in Stirner’s time, but which rings as a preludium of the false authority of our own. In this final form, liberalism realizes that the particular qualities of man, his identity, make him a deviation from ‘Man’, and thus incomplete, sinful. If one is a Christian or something else, if one is a German or something else, or if one is simply an egoist, one is a forbidden own, a particular interest which hinders our journey towards the universal ‘Man’ in all of us. Thus everyone must become nothing; we are only truly ‘humane’ when we have annihilated all interests of our particularity, in the servitude of ‘Man’s rights’. Everyone must be total slaves, to the total and global ‘mankind’.
It is worth noting how visible this religion of ‘Man’ has been in the self-destruction of European power, identity and heritage, and especially in the case of orchestrating a massive, foreign immigration. First they pretended that there was a quality in this immigration we needed, but few natives benefited from or wanted this ‘enrichment’. Then they alleged it was a demand of morality, pointing to the evil of not letting them in, and letting them suffer in their own countries; but now it is the natives who suffer, and people are questioning the morality of hurting their own. Now the only cause left, which was the only cause to begin with, is that the immigrants are humans, and as ‘Man’ they have the same ‘right’ as any European to the lands of Europe; by denying them entrance, one is inhuman, ‘un-Man’. It is not the immigrants themselves or anything they can produce that is the goal of immigration; the true goal is to attack the particularity of Europe, the own of the Europeans. For by our identity, by this part of the earth that is our own, we are something else, something greater than the false god of modernity; we are not ‘Man’, but sinners, and modernity must summon the great flood to wash us away, they must let fires rain upon our cities. They fear us, because in affirming that which is ours, we are slowly killing their god.