The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner is, at once, an indictment and a crime. It is an impossibly repetitive book and yet, when reading it, one senses that the repetition is a means for the author to cover every possible ground, just in case he missed anything, before shutting his mouth and turning his back on mankind forever.
Stirner’s only concern is with freedom. But freedom from what? In his peculiar manifesto, it isn’t enough to merely be free of particular institutions and popular ideologies. The Sacred is constantly revaluated in a long, obsessive study of its ever-shifting taxonomy. The taxonomy in question, for Stirner, seems largely one of grammatical error.
So what, Stirner argued, if men of his age did away with God? They capitalized the word Man and stuck him in that same divine slot. Various allegiances did not dissolve but merely changed names. This was only part of his criticism of Marxism. While he believed that Marxism had merely adopted a few pre-Enlightenment pieties and slipped them into a new language, he also believed that every ideology had sought to carry out its purposes by doing away with the individual. Stirner opted for a shortcut: if every ideology was a masked interest of someone else, why not come out honestly and say that everything I do and want is purely for my own interest? The language that Stirner uses to make his argument invites little space for debate. What is not consumed, used up and taken by this apocalyptic self interest? The transparency of Stirner’s interest is not only disheartening to the moral sensibility of his opponents but disarming. In the midst of Stirner’s proclamation, men of all ideologies are faced only with the frightening prospect that self interest lay at the root of their loftiest duties.
La Rouchefoucault utilized a similar unmasking of self interest when he wrote about the gestures of polite society all around him, but underneath all of his quips and sharp witticisms, one suspects that his unmasking of selfishness was a hopeless moralist’s attempt to give people cause to check the baseness of their own intentions so they could be good honest people once again. Stirner had no such desire. His unmasking of the self-interests of others gave him license for his own self-interest.
Where others wanted utopia built on universals, he wanted free, transient communities with a mind for finitude. He wanted a backdoor out of every ideology, which he could only ever entertain for a time as it suited him. ‘What matters the party to me? I shall find enough anyhow who unite with me without swearing allegiance to my flag.’
Stirner prefigured the nihilists and renegade intellectuals of Dostoyevsky’s fiction. Dostoyevsky’s relationship with the ideologies of his characters has always been quite complicated. The popular suggestion is that Dostoyevsky merely allowed the most page-space to the characters that he disagreed with. However, reading his work, it is hard not to think of his Underground Man or his Raskolnikov as headlong dives into the dark pools of his own unorthodox curiosity. He pushes his thoughts out to the very end of their architecture and, when he reaches the end, it is not he who falls off the edge but only his characters. His own mind is then free to return to the architecture of orthodoxy, having treated his fictions like a moral laboratory with controlled experiments.
Dostoyevsky, even if concerned with existential questions, was a moralist whose endings discarded the means. When, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov passes into shadows of self-loathing in prison and nightmares of the war of all against all, it is that momentary, moral anxiety which the author uses to nudge the reader and say we are not to take the lectures on crime and morality from earlier in the text as anything worth saving. Dostoyevsky constantly killed off or ruined the characters who dared to go the furthest. He had the luxury of making examples of them.
Johann Kasper Schmidt spoke through a pseudonym [Max Stirner] but certainly did not speak through characters. Even if a character went to some ruin because of his actions, or because of the self-interest behind his actions, an ideological absolute could not be made in negation of that action, but the result would merely represent the oscillation of value that comes with self-interest. Stirner would not allow himself to be a character in someone else’s myth.
In this respect, Stirner’s work almost reads like something written by a Dostoyevsky character. One would imagine that Raskolnikov’s essay on crime and morality, only referenced in Crime and Punishment, would probably read a little like The Ego and Its Own.