Johann Schmidt (Max Stirner), the only child of Albert Schmidt (1769–1807) and Sophia Elenora Reinlein (1778–1839).was born in Bayreuth, Bavaria, on 25th October, 1806. His father died of tuberculosis the following year and his mother remarried Heinrich Ballerstedt.
In 1826 Stirner attended the University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy, and theology. During this time he attended the lectures of Georg Hegel. Stirner returned home to look after his mother, who was suffering from deteriorating mental health. She was committed to a mental home in 1837. He worked a part-time teacher and married Agnes Butz, a woman nine years his junior. According to his friend, Edgar Bauer, Stirner confessed that having once caught sight of his wife naked he had been unable to touch her again. In August 1838, Agnes died giving birth to a still-born child.
In 1839 Stirner managed to obtained a position at a well-regarded private girls' school, teaching history and literature. He began visiting the Café Stehely and Hippel's wine bar in Berlin. Stirner joined in discussions with a group of young philosophers who became known as the Young Hegelians. Members included Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Bruno Bauer and Marie Dähnhardt. According to David Leopold: "In this unconventional environment, and despite his calm and unassuming personal appearance, Stirner gained a reputation for his hostility to religion, intolerance of moderation, and ability to provoke fierce argument... During this period, Stirner is said to have occasionally alluded to a book that he was working on, but it seems that few of his associates took its existence seriously."
Richard Parry has argued that during this period Stirner became an anarchist: "Stirner saw all morality as an ideological justification for the repression of individuals; he opposed those revolutionaries who wished to set up a new morality in place of the old, as this would still result in the triumph of the collectivity over the individual and lay the basis for another despotic State. He denied that there was any real existence in concepts such as 'Natural Law', 'Common Humanity', 'Reason', 'Justice' or 'The People'; more than being simply absurd platitudes (which he derisively labelled sacred concepts, they were some of the whole gamut of abstract ideas which unfortunately dominated the thinking of most individuals... Stirner perceived the repressive nature of ideologies, even so-called revolutionary ones; he believed that all these sacred concepts manufactured by the intellect actually resulted in practical despotism."
In 1843 Stirner married Marie Dähnhardt. The following year he published The Ego and Its Own. The book upset many on the left with its rejection of socialist ideology. Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Moses Hess and Arnold Ruge, all wrote articles to defend their own views against Stirner's polemic. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also devoted a large section of their book, The German Ideology, to Stirner's work. The Ego and Its Own
The most revolutionary aspect of Stirner's book concerned his views on property: "There are some things that only belong to a few, and to which we others will from now on lay claim or siege. Let us take them, for one only comes into property by taking, and the property of which for the present we are still deprived came to the proprietors likewise only by taking. It can be utilized better if it is in the hands of us all than if the few control. Let us therefore associate ourselves for the purpose of this robbery... Liberty belongs to him who takes it... Take hold and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have!"
Stirner did have his supporters. The most important being Benjamin Tucker. According to David Leopold: "Finally, and over a longer period of time, the author of The Ego and Its Own has become best-known as a member of, and influence upon, the anarchist tradition. In particular, Stirner's name appears with familiar regularity in historically-orientated surveys of anarchist thought as one of the earliest and best-known exponents of individualist anarchism. The affinity between Stirner and the anarchist tradition lies in his endorsement of the claim that the state is an illegitimate institution.... Only in cases where there is a conflict between the autonomy of the egoist and the demands of the state, does he recommend resisting the requirements of law. That said, whilst individuals have no duty to overthrow the state, Stirner does think that the state will eventually collapse as a result of the spread of egoism.... Anarchists influenced by Stirner's individualism and his suspicion of the state can be found in several European countries. However, his best-known anarchist admirers were in America, in the circle which formed around Benjamin R. Tucker (1854–1939)."
Richard Parry, the author of the The Bonnot Gang (1987) has argued that Stirner had a great influence on the illegalist movement in the early part of the 20th century: "In 1900, the year of Nietzche's death, the libertarian publisher, Stock, printed the first complete French translation of Stirner's work.... Young anarchists, in particular, quickly developed a fascination for the book, and it rapidly became the Bible of anarcho-individualism. Stirner's polemic was more extreme than the well-worn ideas that had made up the stuff of revolutionary ideology... The force and vigour of Stirner's ideas appealed to many anarchistic spirits determined to live the revolution there and then." Parry suggests that a group of anarchists based in Paris, including Jules Bonnot, Raymond Callemin, André Soudy, Octave Garnier, Stephen Monier, René Valet and Edouard Carouy, were all deeply influenced by the work of Stirner.
The Ego and Its Own was neither a popular nor a financial success. Aware that the book would be highly controversial, Stirner resigned his teaching post before it was published. In 1846 Marie Dähnhardt left him and went to live in London. Dähnhardt later told Stirner's biographer, John Henry Mackay, that he was "a very sly man whom she had neither respected nor loved, and claiming that their relationship together had been more of a cohabitation than a marriage."
David Leopold has pointed out: "From 1847, Stirner's life was characterized by social isolation and financial precariousness. He remained curiously detached from contemporary events - he seems, for example, to have largely ignored the revolution of 1848 - and his daily life was increasingly dominated by domestic routine and economic hardship. Stirner continued to write intermittently, but commentators have generally found his later work to be of little independent interest."
Max Stirner died in Berlin on 25th June, 1856, after being bitten on the neck by a winged insect.
There are some things that only belong to a few, and to which we others will from now on lay claim or siege. Let us take them, for one only comes into property by taking, and the property of which for the present we are still deprived came to the proprietors likewise only by taking. It can be utilized better if it is in the hands of us all than if the few control. Let us therefore associate ourselves for the purpose of this robbery...
To what property am I entitled? To every property to which I empower myself ...I do not demand any Right, therefore I need not recognize any either. What I can get by force, I get by force, and what I can not get by force I have no right to, nor do I give myself airs or consolations with my imprescriptable Right... Liberty belongs to him who takes it...
Pauperism can be removed only when I as an ego realize value from myself, when I give my own self value, and make my price myself. I must rise in revolt to rise in this world.... In crime the egoist has hitherto asserted himself and mocked the sacred; the break with the sacred, or rather of the sacred may become general. A revolution never returns, but a mighty, reckless, shameless, conscienceless, proud CRIME, does it not rumble in distant thunder, and do you not see how the sky grows presciently silent and gloomy?"
Talk with the so-called criminal as with an egoist, and he will be ashamed, not that he transgressed against your laws, but that he considered your laws worth evading, your goods worth desiring; he will be ashamed that he did not despise you and yours altogether, that he was too little an egoist.
Take hold and take what you require! With this the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have!
If socialists continually ignored the question of individual desires and the subjective element of revolt, then it must be said that Stirner made little effort to direct his attention to basic socio-economic questions and the need for a collective struggle of the dispossessed, which would realize each individual's desires. He saw "the masses" as "full of police sentiments through and through", and reduced the social question of how to eliminate the State and class society, to an individual one to be resolved by any means. Still, he had at last made it possible for rebels to admit that their revolt was being made primarily for their own self-realization: there was no need to justify it with reference to an abstract idea. Those who claimed to be acting in the name of "The People" were often sentimental butchers. Stirner stripped away the dead weight of ideology and located the revolution where it always had been - in the hearts and minds of individuals.
The force and vigour of Stirner's ideas appealed to many anarchistic spirits determined to live the revolution there and then. The long association of French anarchism with theoretical voluntarism and practical illegality, sympathy for working class criminality, and hostility to bourgeois morals and socialist politics, meant that Stirner's ideas were easily accessible to many anarchists not yet blinded by an ideologically `pure' anarchism. In contrast to the latter, the new generation of anarchists felt it necessary\- to call themselves 'anarchist-individualists', although they saw themselves as upholding the banner of anarchism pure and simple.
At the time of his death, Stirner's brief period of notoriety was long over, his book had been out of print for several years, and there was little sign that his work might have any longer term impact. Since then, however, The Ego and Its Own has been translated into at least eight languages, and appeared in over one hundred editions.
Subsequent interpretations of Stirner have often followed contemporary intellectual fashion. For example, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Stirner was frequently portrayed as a precursor of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), as having anticipated, if not influenced (it is far from certain that Nietzsche had ever read Stirner's work), both the style and substance of Nietzsche's work. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Stirner was rediscovered as a forerunner of existentialism, whose anti-essentialist concept of the self as a ‘creative nothing’ had affinities with the notion of human nature employed by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). More recently, Stirner has been identified as a nascent poststructuralist, employing a genealogical critique of humanist discourses of power and identity. It would be wrong to suggest that these various parallels are wholly implausible. However, they often appear to reflect changing historical enthusiasms as much as they accurately capture aspects of his philosophical and political thought.
The historical influence of Stirner's work is perhaps more plausibly located in two rather different contexts. As far as its contemporary impact on the cultural life of Vormärz Germany is concerned, The Ego and Its Own had a destructive impact on Stirner's left-Hegelian contemporaries, and played a significant role in the intellectual development of Karl Marx. As far as its longer term historical influence is concerned, Stirner's work has become a founding text in the tradition of individualist anarchism.
Stirner's insistence that his radical contemporaries had failed to break with religious modes of thought prompted most of the leading left-Hegelians to defend their own work in public against this attack. In perhaps the most important of these replies, a defensive and ill-tempered Feuerbach (who suspected Stirner of trying to make a name for himself at his own expense) was widely seen as struggling to maintain a besieged and outdated position. Stirner responded to three of these left-Hegelian reviews—the defence of Bauer's ‘humane liberalism’ by ‘Szeliga’ (the pseudonym of Franz Zychlinski (1816–1900)); the defence of socialism by Moses Hess; and the defence of Feuerbach by Feuerbach himself—in an article entitled ‘Stirner's Critics’ (1845). In this confident rejoinder, Stirner reiterated some of the central themes of The Ego and Its Own and clarified the character of his own commitment to egoism.
Stirner's work also had a significant impact on a little known contemporary associate of these left-Hegelians, one Karl Marx. Between 1845 and 1846, Marx collaborated with Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) on a group of texts now usually called The German Ideology, which included a fierce and sustained attack on their erstwhile philosophical contemporaries. Most of these texts were not published at the time, and it was 1932 before this critical engagement with the work of Bauer, Feuerbach, and Stirner, appeared in print. The account of Stirner contained in The German Ideology takes up over three hundred pages of the published text (unfortunately abridged editions occasionally omit this dense but fascinating part of the book), and, although Marx is remorselessly critical of Stirner's position, it scarcely follows that The Ego and Its Own was without influence on the former's own work. Not least, Stirner's book appears to have been decisive in motivating Marx's break with the work of Feuerbach, whose influence on many of Marx's earlier writings is readily apparent, and in forcing Marx to reconsider the role that concepts of human nature should play in social criticism.
Finally, and over a longer period of time, the author of The Ego and Its Own has become best-known as a member of, and influence upon, the anarchist tradition. In particular, Stirner's name appears with familiar regularity in historically-orientated surveys of anarchist thought as one of the earliest and best-known exponents of individualist anarchism. The affinity between Stirner and the anarchist tradition lies in his endorsement of the claim that the state is an illegitimate institution. However, his elaboration of this claim is a distinctive and interesting one. For Stirner, a state can never be legitimate, since there is a necessary conflict between individual self mastery and the obligation to obey the law (with which the legitimacy of the state is identified). Given that individual self-mastery trumps any competing consideration, Stirner concludes that the demands of the state are not binding on the individual. However, he does not think that individuals have, as a result, any general obligation to oppose and attempt to eliminate the state (insofar as this is within their power). Rather the individual should decide in each particular case whether or not to go along with the state's demands. Only in cases where there is a conflict between the autonomy of the egoist and the demands of the state, does he recommend resisting the requirements of law. That said, whilst individuals have no duty to overthrow the state, Stirner does think that the state will eventually collapse as a result of the spread of egoism. The cumulative effect of a growing egoistic disrespect for law, he suggests, would be to ‘scuttle’ the ‘ship of state’. Anarchists influenced by Stirner's individualism and his suspicion of the state can be found in several European countries. However, his best-known anarchist admirers were in America, in the circle which formed around Benjamin R. Tucker (1854–1939) and the remarkable journal Liberty (founded in 1881).