“Man is the last evil spirit or spook, the most deceptive or most intimate, the craftiest liar with honest mien, the father of lies.” – Max Stirner, 1844 (2017: 129)
When the heliocentric model of the universe was proposed in the 16th century, it was an enormous scandal. The pope eventually condemned Galileo as a heretic, banned the publication of his books, and kept him on house arrest until his death. Why did the Church respond so aggressively? The decentering of Earth from the universe inherently challenged crystalized beliefs about humanity’s importance. In the heliocentric model, our planet loses its significance in the cosmos. Not only did it challenge religious dogma, on an emotional level it was far less satisfying (at least at first glance). Similarly, Darwin’s evolutionary theory was another blow to the significance of humanity. Evolution, like heliocentrism, decentered humans from their environment. The significance of human existence continued to be challenged. The traditional view of the importance of humanity appears to derive rather spontaneously and without much reflection. When challenged about their self-importance, there is an emotional reluctance to accept scientific observations (Elias 1978).
In his study on the civilizing process, Nobert Elias (1978: 251) goes so far as to suggest that the egocentric view of the world replaced the geocentric view. The self replaced the Earth as the new center. Generally speaking, the assumption the egocentric person holds is that there is a sharp dividing line between themselves and the external world. The self is understood to reside within a closed case and imagined to be entirely independent and separate from others. The individual, in the egocentric view, is thought to have a little world to themselves which is blocked off by an invisible wall to everything outside of it. Their essence is thought to be locked within themselves. Society appears to the egocentric person as just a collection of independent people.
In the egocentric framework, the focus becomes on what is inside the closed case, which is fetishized. The egocentrist treats their identity claims as sacred. Towards each other, egocentrics mutually revere the hidden essence trapped within each other’s bodies. The essence they adore provides a refuge from the cold outside world. Just like with any sacred or religious object, the egocentric individual seeks out others to admire their fixed understanding of “self” and to provide admiration to other worthy “selves.” The adulation of particular selves maintains the dominance of those whose egos are inflated, at the expense of others who are tacitly deemed unworthy. Indeed, the celebrity culture of modernity illustrates the practice of egocentrism on a macro level.
The egocentric view of reality is best understood as the product of the alienation of the individual. Alienation is the withdrawal from affection towards an object. When alienation is accepted and internalized by the individual, certain parts of the mind are feared and treated as though they are outside of oneself. In other words, individuals accept an idealized view of the self which replaces their actual self and causes them to shun aspects of the self that do not correspond with the ideal. Alienated individuals dive into the idealistic abstraction of a ‘fixed’ or ‘closed’ self which they then reify. The emphasis now becomes on appearance and verifying identity claims. The social psychologist Nobert Wiley (1994: 37) describes the harm to the self that the egocentric view causes:
“If some part of the structure [of the self], some identity, begins to masquerade as the whole structure, it is possible for this identity to usurp the structure’s reflexive function. But it can only do so only at the cost of a drastically diminished reflexivity, highly limited in range, inaccurate in what it reveals and distorted by the biases of its localism and historical specificity.”
In essence, egocentrism generates attachments to fixed ideas and disrupts their ability to reflect properly. The self they reify is a static entity. Ultimately, their worldview leads to a group narcissism where the identity claims of the individual take on extreme importance and the social structures in which the individual is embedded takes on secondary importance. Just like with any religion, the identification with the good group absolves the individual from the dreadful feelings of belonging to a divided and toxic society. As the individualist Georges Palante (2019: 172) wrote: “The characteristic trait of the modern soul is the loathing for personal responsibility; the desire to drown this personal responsibility in collective responsibility.” The categories people identify becomes the binary in which the egocentrist interprets reality. Echo chambers take root and division manifests itself across society.
The egocentric understanding of the self rests on unexamined assumptions. For one, the idea of a separate self from society downplays childhood and the role of socialization in the acquisition of sentiments and dispositions. For another, it neglects the shared language, traditions, and culture within which the self is nested. Lastly, the egocentrist loses sight of the fact that the very idea of ‘the self’ is a product of time and place. An individual’s experience and knowledge are fundamentally shaped by the socio-cultural order in which they are embedded.
‘The Self’ through History
According to Marcel Mauss (1979), the oldest civilization to have a clear notion of ‘self’ is in India with the Vedic idea of ahaṃkāra, or the ‘I-construction.’ The self is seen as an illusory thing which creates an attachment to one’s body. In ancient China, the concept of ‘face’ is also analogous with the self but includes fixed ideas related to particular roles and ranks within it. The Romans introduced the Latin term persona, which translates literally to “the mask through which the voice sounds.” In this conception of self, the persona becomes a fact of law with individual rights. However, their notion of self was only extended to Roman citizens. Slaves were excluded from personhood and were not considered to have rights. Indeed, they were seen as having no personality, no ancestors, no name, and not even ownership over their body.
Later, Stoic philosophers introduced ideas about an ethic of self in which the individual makes choices about who they want to become. Rather quickly, this gave rise to the tradition of creating a ‘narrative of self.’ These philosophers focused on the events individuals encountered and gave greater emphasis to their private lives. It is no coincidence that the first biographies emerged during this time. Relatedly, Christians conceived of humans as inherently possessing ‘personhood’ and thereby extended persona from only the privileged to all individuals. Still, the modern conception of ‘the self’ had yet to arise. For example, in St. Augustine’s autobiography The Confessions (397), when he searched the depths of his soul, he found God, a “changeless light,” not an individualized self (Burkitt 2008).
The modern conception of ‘the self’ begins to appear with Descartes and his cogito, ergo sum. Descartes no longer trusted the knowledge he received from society. In searching for some fundamental truth to ground knowledge, he argued that the mind definitely exists. In his conception, the mind (or soul) is entirely distinct from the body. “Descartes’ body is a machine, belonging to a level below the human being. His soul is purely ideational structure, belonging to a level above the human being” (Wiley 1994: 213). Descartes understood the mind to be ruled by reason and the body to be ruled by passions. Western philosophy later became divided between the Enlightenment rationalists, who stressed reason and the Romantics, who emphasized passion. However, Descartes still argued that reason must come from God and, therefore, understood the self as encompassing divinity in some way (Burkitt 2008).
The rise of Protestantism recasts the understanding of self. Instead of the understanding of the self being intrinsically linked with the community and God, Protestantism emphasized the individual and their salvation. Autonomy and freedom became central to their view of self. Furthermore, the Protestant doctrine of the individual focused on their inherently evil disposition as well as their powerlessness, which implanted considerable anxiety and doubt into selfhood. As the individual became increasingly focused on their own autonomy, they were also made to be afraid and to isolate themselves from others (Fromm 1994).
Coming out of Protestant thought, Kant, and later Fichte, gave the ‘ego’ precise form as a basic category of consciousness (Mauss 1979). Shortly thereafter, Hegel replaced the personal God with an immanent ‘spirit’ which absorbs all individuals. The ‘spirit’ or the ‘we’ is the universal which ties together history and reasoning. In so doing, Hegel links historic-cultural development with knowledge of self-consciousness. Following Hegel, Feuerbach argued that God is a reflection of society and a human creation. Instead of God, he places the idea of an abstract man as a guiding principle of social behavior. In Feuerbach’s humanism, there is no difference between the human and the divine. Finally, we arrive at Stirner’s egoism, which is a reaction to Feuerbach’s humanism. Stirner argued that all fixed ideas lead to the alienation of the individual. Hence, his egoism asserts the primacy of the individual before all collectivist constructs.
While Stirner has been called “anti-Hegel,” he has also been argued to “complete” Hegel (Stepelevich 1985). Stirner’s goal, like Hegel, is to understand self-consciousness. By critiquing the reifications of ideas in the mind, it gives rise to the I or the individual who is self-consciously self-determining. According to Welsh (2010: 36), Hegel’s we is actualized in Stirner’s “unique one.” “For Stirner, absolute knowledge can exist only within the particular consciousness of the unique one, a self-comprehending and infinite relationship of person to self that is neither solipsistic nor antisocial.” Through the de-reification of fixed ideas, the individual can then encounter the unalienated self. Fulfillment can only be found from internal causes which have been freely assigned by the individual. While Stirner’s view of ‘the self’ rejects the notion of ‘society’ as an abstraction, he does not lose sight of the fact that the individual is situated within a sociohistorical context. Society inherently shapes the individual. However, society and its powerful institutions enslave the individual by imposing fixed ideas onto them, which they in turn must obey. Stirner rages against these fixed abstractions. In essence, Stirner sought to empower the individual by returning their alienated ego back to themselves.
Before I continue elaborating the social side of egoism, I first want to take the time to describe anti-social individualism. Although it is sometimes argued that the individualism of Marquis de Sade is a precursor to Stirner’s thought (Schuhmann 2011), the two are entirely different. While Stirner’s egoism is amoral, Sade’s is deliberately immoral. Sadean hedonism is a revolt against society altogether and an attempt to ground the self in literally nothing. To Sade, nature permits everything and is indifferent to moral behavior. Sade sets out to destroy all social conceptions and base the self on nature. By deliberately violating all moral norms, he believes he is grasping the root of his true nature. The Sadean conception of self has a right to everything, including other people. In this anti-social conception of individualism, the individual acknowledges only their own self.
In Sade’s nihilistic outlook, life is inherently meaningless and empty. As such, the individual should maximize pleasure at all costs with nothing else being recognized. In contrast to Epicurean hedonism which focuses on long-term pleasure-seeking, Sadean hedonism focuses on the peak pleasure, emphasizing orgasms and climax, and ultimately, in “discharge.” Sade sees orgasmic pleasure as transcendence over the nihilistic void. By crossing all limits, they enter a world “where all is permissible, nothing matters, and nothing can be achieved” (Airaksinen 2002: 64). In an intense orgasm, according to Sade, the individual’s ego is laid aside and their “natural” self emerges. From this aim, the Sadean person eventually becomes a predator who seeks to increasingly push the boundaries to the intensity of their discharge.
For the Sadean, nothing is sacred. The dignity of others is not a concern. Indeed, cruelty is the key driver of behavior in Sadean hedonism. The violation of another person is argued to be both stimulating and rewarding. When one pushes themselves to deliberately violate moral norms towards others, Sade argues the individual experiences real freedom. Sade’s books are replete with stories of torture, rape, mutiliation and murder, all done by “libertine heroes.” Sadean hedonism is true anti-humanism. Others exist solely for the use of the individual. As Sade writes in Juliette, “everything hinges upon the total annihilation of that absurd notion of fraternity” and that “between your self and some other self no connection whatever exists” (quoted in Airaksinen 2002: 117). By destroying all norms and beliefs, Sade argues he arrives at the individual’s true nature.
Sade, the true prophet of nothing, believes he has located the individual’s self in orgasm. Through discharge, the individual makes their mark on nature, much like an explosion. The more intense the discharge, the greater the explosion. Sadean hedonism derives its enjoyment from seeing one’s self projected onto the world. “To do terrible things to others is to enjoy one’s own personality in a self-externalized form. The stigma imposed on the passive world is the monster’s gift given to his own admiring self” (Airaksinen 2002: 114). The only attachment the Sadean holds is towards their self-image, which they want to see reflected back to them. In essence, Sadean hedonism is the internalization of the capitalist worldview which pursues the maximization of pleasure and views other humans as merely interchangeable objects (Lasch 1979).
At its core, Sadean hedonism is a form of narcissism. By denying the dignity of others, they elevate themselves above them and view cruelty towards them as an exercise of their strength. The Sadean person derives enjoyment by desecrating all that is seen as sacred to others. Relatedly, they shun all understanding of themselves from the outside. Unbeknownst to them, in rejecting all moral values, the mirror in which one sees oneself is shattered. In order to reflect on their self, one must first take on the attitude of the other. Their self-image inevitably becomes so distorted they are unable to recognize themselves through the looking glass. The Sadean individual loses their sense of self as they become unable to empathize with others. In mimicking nature’s apathy, the Sadean person is incapable of love. In fact, since they cannot rise above nature, they hate it as well. The rage they harbor reflects their incapacity to control reality.
The “self” the Sadean person finds during orgasm is actually not a self at all. During these moments, they aren’t recognizable as persons. Their actions are totally self-destructive. Through harming others, they are also harming themselves. “Sade offers a view to nowhere through the mirror, or everywhere beyond human thought and motivation. This translucent white is what we see when we read Sade” (Airaksinen 2002: 188). The Sadean worldview leads to a landscape of no color. The further they go, the more they lose themselves, as well as their sense of ‘self.’ Instead of individual fulfillment, they are left with social isolation and self-hatred.
Egoism pushes the individual towards their ‘self’ alone without fear of the consequences. In this seemingly nihilistic and anti-humanistic stance, Stirner actually struck new land. The I is not the anti-social hedonist portrayed by Sade. The interests of the I are not necessarily in opposition to the interests of others. Instead, the I reflects the social environment in which it is embedded. Instead of desecrating morality like Sade, Stirner simply rejects all external morality. The I is not inherently anti-social as Sade and Hobbes believed. The ‘unique one’ emerges by detaching oneself from crystalized categories. The I is not a static entity and, therefore, labels are understood as arbitrary and constraining. The I is a constant state of becoming and, as such, evades fixed meanings.
In contrast to the Sadean hedonist, the egoist carries values within itself. The egoist denounces society as an abstraction, not necessarily the society which is immanent to the ‘unique one.’ As Stirner (2017: 124) writes: “I am really Man and the un-man in one; for I am a man and at the same time more than a man; I am the ego of this my mere quality.” The ‘quality’ which comprises the individual is first molded by society. The I is fundamentally shaped by the way others act towards it. As such, every individual carries a society within themselves. In a similar vein, Stepelevich (1985: 609) argued that Stirner’s egoism “is ultimately grounded in Hegel’s conception that absolute knowledge would not merely culminate in an ego, but in a unique ego; and this ego, being beyond the forms of consciousness that set definitions, is undefinable.” The I goes beyond the traditional conception of ‘the self.’
Since Stirner, others have shed considerable insight into what actually drives the I. For instance, Darwin’s theory of evolution and Freud’s notion of subconscious allude to something within the individual which guides their behavior. Indeed, ‘the self’ can only emerge out of a social group. The sociologist Georges Gurvitch argued that the we ontologically precedes the I. Only once the individual has internalized the we does the I emerge (Bosserman 1968). There is now considerable evidence that the mechanism through which the social group is internalized in the individual is through role-taking (McVeigh 2015). Being able to conceptualize oneself as an object in the world requires a subject to first take on the attitude of the other towards oneself. Without a social group, an individual is unable to understand themselves as an object, and can therefore only see the world through their subjective lens. By taking on the role of the other, the individual internalizes the views of others. Norbert Wiley (1994: 72) provides a nice illustration of how the social group underlies the self:
“[W]ithin the self, i.e. within what is usually considered to be ‘private,’ there is a kind of public square. This square is inhabited by what David Hume called a ‘community,’ the members of which are in constant conversation. Within this square the I has the podium, but the I is enough of a chameleon to give all participants the chance to speak.”
In this regard, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was far ahead of his time. In his magnum opus , Proudhon (quoted in Prichard 2010: 98) wrote: “Man is an integral part of collective existence and as such he is aware both of his own dignity and that of others. Thus, he carries within himself the principle of a moral code that goes beyond his individuality. He does not receive this principle from elsewhere; it is intimate to him, immanent. It constitutes his essence, the essence of society itself.” At the very core of ‘the self’ is the relation of the individual to others. Both reasoning and values derive from this core. As relations to others is at the very core of the self, by respecting the dignity of others we respect ourselves and what it means to have a self (Solari 2012).
While Stirner did critique Proudhon’s early work, it was based on a superficial understanding of his ideas. For example, Stirner asserts that Proudhon is captured by the “fixed idea” of justice. In Proudhon’s thought, ‘justice’ is merely a description of something that is immanent within the individual. In fact, Stirner uses the term ‘unique one’ in a similar manner in order to make sense of something that is indescribable. For Proudhon, justice is “spontaneously experienced” and is based on the sentiment of human dignity. “This respect is innate in us; of all our sentiments, it is the farthest removed from animality; of all our affections the most constant; the one whose momentum, predominating in the long run over every other motive force, determines the character and course of society” (quoted in Douglas 1929: 38). While the two lines of thought have long been held apart, Stirnerite and Proudhonian thought are entirely compatible, as Shawn Wilbur (2020) demonstrates in his Rambles in the Field of Anarchist Individualism.
Instead of the closed box of the egocentrist, the self is better conceptualized as a prism. Social groups shape an individual’s self which then is also molded by the external environment which they inhabit. Similarly, just like the individual, the concept of ‘the self’ is complex and its meaning is constantly negotiated. Although society is immanent to the individual, it does not mean society should be given priority over the individual. It only means that ‘the self’ derives from society and, as such, is inextricably linked to it. Randall Collins (2004:374) sums this up when he concludes: “That experience is a reality, concrete, particular, individual; sometimes of the highest value to ourselves. That the pathway to those experiences is deeply social does not take anything away from them.” To become totally self-conscious, the individual must focus on exhuming these socially-derived dispositions and casting aside the focus on egocentrism and identity claims. Decentering the self goes beyond the focus on labels and allows us to sift through what it means to be a social animal.
Airaksinen, Timo. 2002. The Philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. Routledge.
Bosserman, Phillip. 1968. Dialectical Sociology: An Analysis of the Sociology of Georges Gurvitch. Porter Sargent.
Burkitt, Ian. 2008. Social Selves: Theories of Self and Society. Sage.
Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press.
Douglas, Dorothy W. 1929. “Part II. PJ Proudhon: A Prophet of 1848.” American Journal of Sociology 35(1): 35-59.
Elias, Norbert. 1978. The History of Manners: The Civilizing Process Volume 1. Pantheon Books.
Fromm, Erich. 1994. Escape from Freedom. Macmillan.
Lasch, Christopher. 1979. The Culture of Narcissism. W. W. Norton & Company.
Mauss, Marcel. 1979. Sociology and Psychology: Essays. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
McVeigh, Ryan. 2016. “Basic‐Level Categories, Mirror Neurons, and Joint‐Attention Schemes: Three Points of Intersection Between GH Mead and Cognitive Science.” Symbolic Interaction 39(1).
Palante, Georges. 2019. The Fight for the Individual. Kirk Watson.
Prichard, Alex. 2010. “The Ethical Foundations of Proudhon’s Republican Anarchism.” In Anarchism and Moral Philosophy, pp. 86-112. Palgrave Macmillan.
Schuhmann, Maurice. 2011. Radikale Individualität: Zur Aktualität der Konzepte von Marquis de Sade, Max Stirner und Friedrich Nietzsche. Verlag.
Solari, Stefano. 2012. “’The Practical Reason’ of Reformers: Proudhon vs. Institutionalism.” Journal of Economic Issues 46(1): 227-240.
Stepelevich, Lawrence S. 1985. “Max Stirner as Hegelian.” Journal of the History of Ideas 46(4): 597-614.
Stirner, Max. 2017 The Ego and its Own. Anodos Books.
Welsh, John F. 2010. Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation. Rowman & Littlefield.
Wilbur, Shawn. 2020. Rambles in the Field of Anarchist Individualism. www.libertarian-labyrinth.org/rambles/rambles-in-the-fields-of-anarchist-individualism/
Wiley, Norbert. 1994. The Semiotic Self. University of Chicago Press.