The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Stirner, Max (1806-1856)

Johan Caspar Schmitt, who wrote under the name Max Stirner, was a German intellectual associated with the “Young Hegelians” and best known as the author of The Ego and Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum), an idiosyncratic case for a radical form of egoism that was influential in the development of American individualist anarchism.

The overriding thrust of The Ego and Its Own is that the best life is one totally free of constraint or obligation. “Owness [Eigenheit]” is incompatible with any surrender of individual judgment. “I am my own,” Stirner wrote, “only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered … by anything else.” Stirner therefore rejected the existence of any legitimate obligation to others or to the laws of the state. According to Stirner, “every state is a despotism, be the despot one or many.” Even one’s own promises are not binding because the truly free individual cannot permit his present will to be limited by past choices. Although Stirner maintained that society is, for the most part, a source of ego-suffocating constraint, it is possible to build purely instrumental and conditional alliances that are aimed at mutual advantage through a union of egoists. The peculiar structure and style of The Ego and Its Own reflects Stirner’s view that even reason and language are oppressive constructs to which the individual owes no deference.

The first American edition of the English translation of The Ego and Its Own was published in 1907 by the American individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker. In the pages of Tucker’s magazine, Liberty, the main conduit of Stirner’s ideas to America, Tucker and others, among them James L. Walker, defended Stirnerite antinomian egoism as the correct grounds for rejecting the legitimacy and authority of the state against those anarchists who embraced natural rights. Stirner’s emphasis on liberation from unchosen obligations is reflected in contemporary works such as How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by two-time Libertarian Party presidential nominee Harry Browne.

 

Further Readings

McElroy, Wendy. “Benjamin Tucker, Liberty, and Individualist Anarchism.” The Independent Review 2 no. 3 (Winter 1998): 421–434.

Stirner, Max. The Ego and Its Own. David Leopold, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Originally published .