Tag Archives: Max Stirner

The Politics of the Sovereign Individual

Building off of some of the discussions, comments and questions we’ve had in class, I’d like to look more at Nietzsche’s politics, more particularly what the politics of the Sovereign Individual would look like. As great as it is to take a text like the Genealogy and assess it in purely literary, rhetorical, or philosophical terms, there is always something to be gained still by asking of any text one is reading, “What of it? What does this mean? What does this look like in reality?” And especially with such a naturalistic thinker as Nietzsche I think it makes sense to take ourselves out of the ivory tower of theory and analysis and throw ourselves into the mud and muck of everyday life and politics to see how what Nietzsche has to say about morality and the Sovereign Individual might look beyond the pages of a book.

Picking up from our latest discussion on Treatise III, the Owen text, and the Gemes and Janaway article(s), I think it’s fair to say that so much of what makes an SI an SI is the significance of the source of one’s interests, desires, and actions, as well as how one relates to them. To be an SI one must stay disciplined and true to one’s innermost, own-most unique driving, interpreting, creative force in organizing the hierarchy of one’s desires and interests and not deny this creative aspect of oneself for any external ‘other’. Insofar as the ‘nobles’ give a blanket pass to all of their desires and interests, regardless of whether they are internally- or externally-motivated, and leave this hierarchy untouched, they are not SIs. And, insofar as the ‘slaves’ give a blanket denial to all of their desires and interests and seek to abnegate their own creative, ordering, interpreting drive, they too can never be SIs.

Teasing out the consequences of this, I think we can say that the ‘sovereignty’ of the Sovereign Individual depends very much so upon its not recognizing any external authorities to itself, be they moral, epistemological, or political. Now, as much as Nietzsche may have disparaged anarchists at various points, I can’t help but feel this deep rejection by the SI of any source of authority external to itself leads inexorably to some form of anarchism. Afterall, ‘anarchy’ at its etymological roots is simply the absence of a dominant authority or ruler: ‘an-‘ (not, or without) ‘arkhos’ (ruler, leader) or ‘arkhe’ (power, authority). Despite the strong contemporary conflation of ‘anarchy’, ‘anarchism’, and ‘anarchists’ with chaos, disorder, and destruction, anarchism as a political theory does offer itself as a means of positive organization, one that is based on consent, free association, and self-governance rather than force, oppression, and hierarchy. From everyone’s favourite ‘holy-shit-anyone-can-edit-this’ online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to the open-source code underpinning this very blogging platform, we are in fact readily acquainted with ‘workable’ examples of anarchism.

Perhaps in understanding Nietzsche’s politics and the connection of the Sovereign Individual to anarchism it is again helpful to look at Max Stirner. As I suggested in my first blog post for this class, much of Nietzsche’s genealogy of nobles, slaves, knights, and priests sounds eerily similar to Stirner’s earlier genealogy of Ancients and Moderns, and Nietzsche’s Sovereign individual sounds very much so cut of the same cloth as Stirner’s egoistic ‘unique one’. Where Stirner does seem to go further than Nietzsche with these ideas, though, is in his application of them to politics. Throughout The Ego and Its Own, Stirner vehemently criticizes the state and all its institutions, and in the latter half of the book, in spelling out his description of the ‘unique one’ with its ‘egoistic future’, Stirner points to the mode of organizing of these ‘unique ones’ being a ‘union of egoists’. In short, this ‘union of egoists’ is the free, spontaneous, non-systematic association of such ‘egoists’, which is held together only by the continuous, freely given consent of its members based on their own, individual desires and interests. Insofar as one no longer wishes to be part of such a union, they may leave, and insofar as the original purposes of the union have been accomplished the union spontaneously dissolves.

For his work in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner is usually seen as an ardent egoist, or individualist, anarchist. However, when addressing the ‘union of egoists’ there does seem to be at least some room and possibility for more social forms of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism. Regardless, insofar as we can understand Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individuals to be defined, at least politically, first and foremost by a rejection of imposed external authority, and insofar as the comparison between Nietzsche’s Sovereign Individuals with Stirner’s ‘unique ones’ and their ‘union of egoists’ is apt, then it is fair to say that at least some form or manner of anarchistic organization and principles would underlying the real-world politics of real-world Sovereign Individuals.

Max Stirner, A Third Face of Genealogy?

I do not presuppose myself, because I am every moment just positing or creating myself, and am I only by being not presupposed but posited, and again, posited only in the moment when I posit myself; that is, I am creator and creature [Schöpfer und Geschöpf] in one.

Max Stirner, 1844. (The Ego and Its Own. Ed. David Leopold. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

In human beings, creature and creator are combined: in humans there is material, fragments, abundance, clay, dirt, nonsense, chaos; but in humans there is also creator, maker, hammer- hardness, spectator-divinity and seventh day:—do you understand this contrast?

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886. (Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Judith Norman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.)

October of 1844 was quite the interesting month for births in the Saxon city of Leipzig and surrounding area. On the 15th of that month just outside of the city in the village of Röcken-bei-Lützen Freidrich Nietzsche was born into the word by mama Fransizka and papa Carl. Also that same month in the city itself there was born into the world the work Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum by papa Max Stirner, known most-often in English as The Ego and Its Own.

There is much constroversy and debate around the extent to which Nietzsche was aware of Stirner and his magnum opus, and even if he plagiarized his predecessor. Since I brought up Stirner in seminar and no one outside of Lee seemed to have even heard of him, I feel obliged to provide at least a brief run-down of Stirner’s work and connect it to Nietzsche since even if Freidrich did not plagiarize Max, The Ego and Its Own is still highly relevant to any study of Nietzsche in general and our looking at genealogy in particular.

Max Stirner was a student of G.W.F. Hegel and one of the group of Left or Young Hegelians that included the likes of Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels (the latter two of whom would seek to skewer ‘Saint Max’ in the third chapter their German Ideology).

Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own covers much of the same ground that the infant Nietzsche would also cover later in life, and acts to foreshadow greatly Nietzche’s work. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which is simply titled ‘MAN’ and has Stirner tracing his own genealogy of human ‘self-discoveries’. For Stirner, to be born is to be thrust into the world as a physical entity – into the combat of self-assertion with other physical entities of the natural world. As children, we seek out the weaknesses of our ‘enemies’ (the punishment rod of our parents, for example), in order to ‘get behind’ and conquer them. This search leads us to our first ‘self-discovery’, that of our ‘obduracy’, or more generally the discovery of the intellect, spirit, or geist. With this discovery, the youth now recognizes ‘spirit’ as the dominant force over the natural/bodily world, and seeks to align itself with the purity of ‘spirit’ and concern itself only with intellectual or ‘spiritual’ matters. However, ultimately the youth must come to terms with the fact that due to its embodied nature it will never be able to achieve purity of ‘spirit’. This leads to the second ‘self-discovery’, whereby man ‘gets behind’ this ‘spirit’ and discovers his corporeality. At this point, man is concerned to live egoistically and according to its own interests. Finally, as to the question of what becomes of man later in life when he becomes an old man, Stirner says only, “When I become one, there will still be time enough to speak of that.”

Following this same evolving, dialectical movement of physical-ideational-egoistical, Stirner drafts a similar genealogy of the devolpment of humankind as a whole (read: the Western world). For ‘the Ancients’ (Greeks, Romans) the natural world was their primary concern and they were ‘enslaved by existing things’. However, between the work of the Sophists and Socrates there began a process of ‘self-discovery’ and ultimately self-denial in the world of the ‘Ancients’ that culminated with the work of the Skeptics. From here, Stirner sees Judeo-Christianity and the figure of Christ in particular as key in initiating the transition to ‘Modernity’ and the complete denial of bodily self for the sake of purified spirit, i.e., God. Then, Stirner departs from mirroring his earlier genealogy of personal/psychological/moral development by suggesting that his liberal, post-Christian contemporaries are not ‘the Free’ as they like to think of themselves, but rather are really only “the more modern and most modern amongst the ‘moderns’”. Although they may have ‘gotten behind’ God, they have not truly ‘gotten behind’ the spirit of the age, and instead have only replaced the Christian God with their own Modern, secular gods of liberalism, humanism, and socialism whereby one is still required to deny one’s corporeal, egoistic self for the sake of some ideational/spiritual ‘other’ (pure morality, humanity, the state, etc.). This is where the first part of the book and Stirner’s genealogy ends. The second part of the book, ‘I’, consists of Stirner’s extended character treatment of the egoistic ‘unique one’ who, unlike Stirner’s contemporaries, goes beyond simply seeking to ‘brush away’ the ‘other world outside us‘, to also to ‘brushing away’ the ‘other world in us‘ as well; to remove not only God, but Man as well from the ‘Modern’ picture of self as ‘God-man’. Here too Stirner briefly sketches out the ‘egoistic future’ of these ‘unique ones’ as ‘creative nothings’.

So, there is much to be made of comparing Nietzsche to Stirner on their use of genealogy. Like Stirner before him, Nietzsche begins his genealogy of morality with a take on the ‘ancient’ world of nobles, knights, and noble morality as one concerned primarily with the natural world, physicality, and action. Like Stirner’s first ‘self-discovery’, Nietzsche too sees the physical powers and prowess of this ancient/noble/knightly morality overcome by the ideational/spiritual/otherworldly slave revolt in morality brought on by the priestly class, most typified by the dominance of Christianity and its attendant self-denying obedience to a supernatural god. And as Stirner sees his contemporaries as still bound up with the very ‘Modern’ need for some external other even after the ‘death of God’, so too does Nietzsche view post-Christian modernity. Finally, as Stirner enigmatically points to a sort of quasi-achieved, quasi-yet-to-be-achieved ‘unique one’ as the ‘creative nothing’, we see Nietzsche enigmatically pontificating about his quasi-achieved, quasi-yet-to-be-achieved Sovereign Individual.

As quick and dirty as this run-down of a fairly obscure and esoteric precursor to Nietzsche has been, hopefully it has shown the distinct possibility that along with Nietzsche’s more well-known influences of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Paul Rée, the Übermensch was also was reacting to, and building off of, the legacy of Max Stirner.

Free online copies of Stirner’s works:

The Ego and Its Own: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/max-stirner-the-ego-and-his-own

Stirner’s other works: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/authors/max-stirner