Stirner, Max (1806–1856)

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Max Stirner was the nom de plume of the German individualist philosopher Johann Kaspar Schmidt. Born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Schmidt had a poor childhood. His academic career was long and fragmented. From 1826 to 1828 he studied philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he fell under the influence of G. W. F. Hegel. After brief periods at the universities of Erlangen and Königsberg, he returned to Berlin in 1832 and with some difficulty gained a certificate to teach in Prussian Gymnasiums. Several years of poverty and unemployment followed, until Schmidt found a position as teacher in a Berlin academy for young ladies run by a Madame Gropius. After this he lived something of a double life: The respectable teacher of young ladies had for another self the aspiring philosophical writer who assumed the name of Stirner.

The immediate stimulus that provoked Stirner to write his one important book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (Leipzig, 1845; translated by Steven T. Byington as The Ego and His Own, New York, 1907), was his association with the group of young Hegelians known as Die Freien (the "free ones"), who met under the leadership of the brothers Bruno and Edgar Bauer. In this company Stirner met Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Arnold Ruge, Georg Herwegh, and many other revolutionary intellectuals. In the same circle he also met Marie Dahnhardt, whom he married in 1843 and who left him in 1847. Before the publication of his book Stirner produced only a few brief periodical pieces, including an essay on educational methods printed by Marx in Rheinische Zeitung.


Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, a treatise in defense of philosophic egoism, carried to its extreme the young Hegelian reaction against Hegel's teachings. In part it was a bitter attack on contemporary philosophers, particularly those with social inclinations. Stirner's associates among Die Freien were rejected as strongly as Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach.

Stirner's approach was characterized by a passionate anti-intellectualism that led him to stress the will and the instincts as opposed to the reason. He attacked systematic philosophies of every kind, denied all absolutes, and rejected abstract and generalized concepts of every kind. At the center of his vision he placed the human individual, of whom alone we can have certain knowledge; each individual, he contended, is unique, and this uniqueness is the very quality he must cultivate to give meaning to his life. Hence, he reached the conclusion that the ego is a law unto itself and that the individual owes no obligations outside himself. All creeds and philosophies based on the concept of a common humanity are, in Stirner's view, false and irrational; rights and duties do not exist; only the might of the ego justifies its actions.

There is much in common between Stirner's embattled ego and Friedrich Nietzsche's superman; indeed, Stirner was seen as a forerunner of Nietzsche during the 1890s.

Stirner has often been included with the anarchist philosophers, and he has much in common with them. However, he differs from writers like William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Pëtr Alekseevich Kropotkin in that the idea of a system of natural law, or immanent justice, which human law negates, is essential to their points of view. Stirner, however, rejected the idea of any such law, and in this respect he stands nearer to certain existentialists and the nihilists. Furthermore, while the anarchist seeks freedom as his ultimate goal, Stirner regarded such an aim as always being limited by external necessities; in its place he sought uniqueness or "own-ness." "Every moment," he said, "the fetters of reality cut the sharpest welts in my flesh. But my own I remain."

Stirner agreed with the anarchists, however, in regarding the state as the great enemy of the individual who seeks to fulfill his "own will." The state and the self-conscious and willful ego cannot exist together; therefore the egoist must seek to destroy the state, but by rebellion rather than by revolution. This distinction is essential to Stirner's doctrine. Revolution, in overthrowing an established order, seeks to create another order; it implies a faith in institutions. Rebellion is the action of individuals seeking to rise above the condition they reject; it "demands that one rise, or exalt oneself." Revolution is a social or political act; rebellion is an individual act, and therefore appropriate to the egoist. If rebellion prospers, the state will collapse.

In rebellion the use of force is inevitable, and Stirner envisaged "the war of each against all," in which the egoist fights with all the means at his command. This viewpoint led Stirner to justify and even to exalt crime. Crime is the assertion of the ego, the rejection of the sacred. The aim of egoist rebellion is the free wielding of power by each individual.

In Stirner's view the end of this process is not conflict but a kind of dynamic balance of power between men aware of their own might, for the true egoist realizes that excessive possessions and power are merely limitations on his own uniqueness. His assertion is based on the absence of submissiveness in others; the withdrawal of each man into his uniqueness lessens rather than increases the chance of conflict, for "as unique you have nothing in common with the other any longer, and therefore nothing divisive or hostile either." Stirner argued that far from producing disunity among individuals, egoism allows the freest and most genuine of unions, the coming together without any set organization of the "Union of Egoists," which will replace not only the state with its political repression but also society with its less obvious claims.

Later Years

Der Einzige und sein Eigentum is not just a most extreme expression of individualism, it is also the single manifestation of Stirner's own revolt against a frustrating life that finally submerged him. In his totally undistinguished later years he embarked on a series of unsuccessful commercial ventures and translated English and French economists. His remaining book, Die Geschichte der Reaktion (Berlin, 1852), lacked the fire of discontent that made his earlier work so provocative. Stirner's last years were shadowed by declining powers and haunted by creditors; he died poor and forgotten in 1856.


For further information on Stirner, see Victor Basche, L'individualisme anarchiste: Max Stirner (Paris: Alcan, 1904); James Gibbons Huneker, Egoists (New York, 1921); and John Henry Mackay, Max Stirner, sein Leben und sein Werk (Berlin: Schuster and Loeffler, 1898).

George Woodcock (1967)