Since its first appearance in the spring of 1845, Max Stirner’s seminal The Ego and Its Own has been subject to a vicious academic bastardisation, quite unlike that faced by any other work of metaphysical philosophy. Brutalised first by Feuerbach, and then by Marx in a quintessentially polemical swathe of The German Ideology, it may well be more distinguished for the weighty corpus of critiques drawn up in the immediate wake of its publication than its murky, gorgeously subversive core. The text is not widely-studied, its ruthless interrogations of all we may deem sacred and absolute far-divorced from anything in the theoretical mainstream. Yet, in an age where legalistic, frequently paradoxical Western ideals of personal sovereignty have acquired something of a universality the world over, Stirner’s message attains for itself a relevance that was otherwise lost to the highbrow classes of mid-19th Century Prussia.
The Ego and Its Own is a challenge not only to authority, but to those whom usurp claims to its opposition – the communist and his quixotic cult of the collective, the religionist and all his mortal, theology-drenched hypocrisies, the revolutionist and his hapless commitment to the deposition of one order in the name of another. He sees the state as simply an extension of an even more tyrannical, insidious force, society, which vests upon the individual a set of impossible conditions and, by its very nature, shuns the self. It is the classical liberal, however, for whom Stirner reserves his most scathing denunciation – he is charged with idolatry, mindless devotion to a statist creed little less astringent than the order that came before it. Liberal ‘rights’ – to property, to non-coercion, to autonomy and to enterprise – constitute, in their purest form, nought but a secular religion, rallying for the deference of man without a question as to their true foundations and serving to ostracise the egoist, the true seeker who fails to recognise them. “Much as he [the liberal] rages against the pious Christians,” Stirner posits, “he himself has nevertheless as thoroughly remained a Christian – to wit, a moral Christian!”
The resounding apathy of freedomists to the volume is a perplexing phenomenon, for The Ego and Its Own makes for an enthralling read as an apocryphal addition to the libertarian canon, John Locke taken to his natural, dizzying conclusions. Among those on the intellectual fringe who have embraced it, both anarchists and anarcho-capitalists bring their own ideological pretensions to the table, quite consciously failing to grasp, in the act, Stirner’s explicit rejections of the assumptions at the heart of their belief systems – he dedicates a lengthy portion of the book to the obliteration of the former’s founding light, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whilst exhibiting utter hostility to any transcendental concept of property rights, a cornerstone of the latter’s thought (“whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing … to him belongs property”;). Herein, perhaps, lies the guarantor of Stirner’s obscurity – he is no Marx or Hegel, preaching a sturdy, well-rooted dogma to the downtrodden masses. His nihilism is unlikely to find serious currency outside of a select, very small circle, and his central, terrifying proposition – that society, in essence, rests upon nothing more than the will of a body of subjects to acknowledge it – is liable to undermine even deconstructionist ideologies.
Stirner does not, however, revel in chaos, for all his detestation of order and formality. In fact, his alternative to hierarchical civilisation forms the base of a challenge as bold and as fascinating as his case against the world. He argues individuals should only submit themselves to economic, social or political contracts with others when they manifest as a ‘union of egoists’, a no-strings, completely voluntary affinity group geared towards the fulfilment of every participant party’s personal desires. This is a powerful counter-proposition not only to the capitalist web of pacts and treatises, inclined as they are to the disproportionate advancement of one element at the expense of all other(s), but to socialist communes; it assumes that self-interest is not only a means to a potential, collective end, but ample enough grounds upon which to operate an entire world system.
Max Stirner strikes at the heart of modernistic concepts of freedom, individuality, authority and morality; his line of reasoning, conveyed in a highly experimental style, remains as fresh and explosive as ever. He is, without a doubt, the most thoroughly eccentric character yielded by the intellectual coffeehouse sets of the 19th Century, and his philosophy, though, in many ways, antithetical to everything we would expect of philosophy, can be appreciated by anybody for its sheer audacity.