"I am unique"

"Nothing is more to me than Myself"

"All things are nothing to Me"


The pen name of Johann Kaspar Schmidt (1806 - 1856), a German individualist anarchist philosopher, notorious for his writings which rejected morality and told of the supremacy of the ego or self. He believed self-interest should always be the only factor that governs one's behavior: not custom nor ideology nor law nor authority. Something of an icon for rebels, nihilists and libertarians, his philosophical importance is less than his rhetorical talent.

He was born in Bayreuth on October 25, 1806, to lower middle class parents; his father died the following year and his mother re-married in 1809. He studied philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he was taught by Schleiermacher, Marheineke and Hegel. He also attended the universities of Erlangan and Konigsberg, completing his studies in 1835. The same year, his mother was committed to an insane asylum in Berlin. Stirner married Agnes Klara Kunigunde Butz in 1837. She died the following year in childbirth; the baby was stillborn. In 1839 Stirner began teaching literature at a girls' school.

In 1841, he joined Die Freien, The Free, a Left Hegelian group. The Left Hegelians were followers of the great German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who produced a monumental philosophical system outlined in Phenomenology of Mind. The Left Hegelians, whose members included Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, sought to extend and modify Hegel's thinking to form a new atheistic philosophy based on reason and Enlightenment principles. Among the members of The Free was Marie Dähnhardt, who became his second wife in 1843. She left him in 1846.

The following few years produced his major works. Chief among these is Der Einzige und Sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own), his main philosophical statement, published in 1844 but dated 1845 to evade censorship. He went on to publish the first German translation of Adam Smith's classic text on free-market economics The Wealth of Nations in 1847. He also wrote a number of papers attacking critics of his work, and one more book, Geschichte der Reaktion (History of the Reaction) (1852).

Stirner eventually broke with the Left Hegelians. He attacked them for their intellectual inconsistency and adherence to certain tenets of Christianity. In particular, he objected to their insistence on ethical principles, which he saw as a hangover from the belief in God. In the early 1850s, he spent some time in a debtors' prison, before getting his affairs into better order. In 1856 Stirner contracted a fever after being stung by an insect, and he died on June 25, 1856.


Stirner's philosophy is based on a continuation of Hegelian dialectic, and cannot be fully understood without a knowledge of the baroque system of Hegel's philosophy. Like Hegel, Stirner sought explanations in the context of a dialectical movement through succeeding stages of individual development. Stirner believed that humans passed through three stages of being, moving from the materialist stage of childhood to an idealist stage (where the mind gains supremacy over primitive desires) to the final goal, the egoist stage. To reach this final stage, the ego must exercise power over its ideas, rather than become enslaved by them. Ultimately, the only value is to be found in the ego ie in one's individual mind.

Although his work has something in common with a variety of individualist and anarchist thinkers, there are important differences; in a sense Stirner went much further than anyone else. Unlike socialist anarchists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin or Mikhail Bakunin, Stirner was not interested in political change, only personal liberty. Even among right-wing and non-egalitarian anarchists he stands out. Friedrich Nietzsche, although he did not believe in God and rejected Western morality, saw the individual as having certain goals: particularly the realization of oneself as the Superman. Much of Nietzsche's work, such as Thus Spake Zarathustra, focusses on this: how we can achieve not only mastery over others, but self-mastery; Nietzsche seeks to tell us how to live our lives and become a greater person.

In contrast Stirner does not propose an ideal man; he focusses on the immediacies of consumption rather than becoming or creation. And unlike Ayn Rand, he does not seek to prove that we are morally entitled to take a selfish position. Rather, he is concerned with how we can and must go through life constantly following our own interests. The Enlightenment concept of the social contract, discussed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that people have to sacrifice some of their freedom to society in order to attain greater freedoms; Stirner rejects this.

Stirner's philosophy presents its own model of interaction with the world, concerned with how the individual can use the world to one's own advantage. Central to this is his view of property (Eigentum), a willed relation with an external object. Secondly is his concept of "the union of egoists" (Der Verein der Egoisten); this is a relationship between people not based on custom and duty, on ownership or domination, but a continually-renewed bond, which people must at all times wish to be a part of.

For a long time, Stirner's philosophy was not taken seriously; perhaps it is still not. He was ignored until the 1890s, when there was something of a revival of interest in his work; however this was largely because of the increasing popularity of Nietzsche, of whom Stirner was considered something of a pale imitation. There are nowadays a wide variety of interpretations of Stirner's work, from those who see him as an Enlightenment rationalist and champion of free-market economics, to those who see him as an Aleister Crowley-like demon (and perhaps those who see little difference between the two). Some people see him as a Romantic, defending the human mind against reason; others see him as a narrow rationalist with no humanity.

Any egoism as extreme as Stirner's is in a sense philosophically unanswerable, rather as extreme skepticism is. On one level, all people are egoists all the time, since they only ever do what they want (even though the alternatives they choose between may be equally undesirable). Since he offers little in the way of specific instruction - even less than the often nihilistic Nietzsche - it is hard to weigh up if his philosophical system is more than rhetoric (at which he was very good). Against Stirner, it is clear from experience that often people have to work together in order to achieve common goals, and to do this it is often necessary to subjugate one's own will and temporarily surrender one's own desires or defer gratification; thus his philosophy is both trivially true and trivially false. You can view Stirner's position in two ways, either as rational intellect which seeks to find value but can justify nothing other than its own existence and experience, or as an infantile emotional reaction that fails to accept the reality principle.

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