W. Curtis Swabey, “The Ethics of Stirner” (1912)

When I first encounter the French version of this text, I was aware that I might be translating a translation, but the article was interesting enough to make the work worth the bit of time it took—and it was quite a while before I finally tracked down the original English version. Now that I have the original text, it’s interesting to see to what extent the sense of the work survived the double-translation, so I have simply added the original to the post containing my translation.

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The Ethics of Stirner

To all who have been fortunate enough to read Max Stirner’s “Ego and His Own,” there comes a strong desire to impart his doctrine to others, especially to the members of the working-class. It is with this end in view that I have undertaken to outline his doctrine in a few words. His book is very hard to obtain and does not appear to have been understood by some of those who have tried to give an estimate of it.

Eltzbacher’s account is not a very accurate one. It must be said that Stirner took no special pains to be clear and that he used a peculiar philosophic dialect. Stirner’s egoistic—or better—nihilistic philosophy is too often confused with the individualistic philosophy of, say, Emerson.

Stirner proclaimed—and this seems to be the most fundamental point in his theory—the doctrine of Ownness. It was a daring conception which will some day help effect a great revolution in philosophy. In essence it is this: “You are your own; work for your own interests. Respect no ideal! Do not make your actions conform to this or that standard! Disregard custom, duty, morality, justice, the Law! ‘I am God, and King, and Law!’ Hold nothing sacred but your own cravings and desires!” This is what he means by that nihilistic expression: “All things are nothing to me!” You are not bound if you will refuse to believe yourself bound. You are to yourself the Most High. Respect no “Thou shalt!” Be your own God! Obey no covenant! In short, “Nothing is more to me than myself!”

Now, between the nihilist and individualistic philosophy there is a rather subtle distinction which should be clearly perceived. Individualistic philosophy says: “Be a strong individual! Be above the common crowd! Develop your personality!” Egoistic or nihilistic philosophy says: “You have no duty whatsoever. If you desire to be a strong man, a man of influence, a real Individual above—as far as you can be—the influence of the common herd,—well, in that case, be strong! But not as a duty, but as a privilege! The former theory says: Thou shalt be a Superman! The latter says: Be what YOU wish to be!

The Stirnerian egoist—the man who accepts no morals whatsoever does not restrain himself in the matter of sympathy. An injury to one member of the human race is truly an injury to all. He accepts as absolute the dictates of his heart. He puts no Rights, no property titles, no respect for the State, even tho it be the freest democracy imaginable, no ethical standing above his own desires. The sight of a person in agony arouses in the spectator as really, as truly, as if he himself felt it. Thus there is nothing in Stirner contrary to the feeling of solidarity, sympathy, brotherly love. Stirner proclaims freedom from everything which could chain the individual; he is the prophet of unbridled Egoism; he clears away the ethical rubbish of the ages; he points to the last ideal of an idolatrous race—morals—and says: “Behold, this is fraud!” He turns to the Ego, to all the Egos in the universe and says: “Each of you is to himself the true God! Do as you will!”

Between the ethics of Kropotkin and Stirner, there is no essential difference. What Kropotkin expresses in simple scientific language, Stirner states in exact but somewhat confusing metaphysical terms. When Kropotkin points out that in every individual there is a passion for the good of the race, he gives a strong support to Stirner’s doctrine. We hesitate to proclaim that ethics is a delusion, and duty a fraud, unless we have Kropotkin’s reassurance that the feeling of solidarity is wrought into the very nature of man. With this known we may send morality to the rubbish-heap without fear from the race.

According to Stirner’s view, the good is what suits him and the bad what he detests. That which offends your sympathy is to you wrong. Thus, while entirely denying validity to externally imposed ethics, we find it impossible to deny the existence of good and evil. But I—the Ego—am to be the test. A tyrant, a brutal murderer by that blood-spattered Monster, the Law—such as at San Diego—a cruel deed—these offend my sense of solidarity and are therefore wrong.

Thus we may add to our war-cry a new one.

As before we have said:

Hail to the death of the omnipotent Friend, God! Hail to the downfall of the Law! Hail to the destruction of property rights!—we may add another:

Down with morality!

W. CURTIS SWABEY.

The Agitator 2 no. 13 (May 15, 1912): 4.

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Stirnerian Ethics

All those who have been fortunate enough to read “The Unique and His Property,” by Max Stirner feel the deep desire to make his doctrine known to others, particularly to the workers. It is with that aim that I attempt to give, in a few lines, a glimpse of that doctrine. It does not seem that his book has been well understood by several of those who have attempted to give an account of it.

What Eltzbacher says about it in his book “Anarchism” is not very exact; he should first of all say that Stirner is not especially preoccupied with being clear and that he makes use of an individual philosophical jargon. We too often confuse the egoist — or rather nihilist — philosophy of Stirner, with the individualist philosophy of an Emerson for example.

Stirner has proclaimed, and this seems the fundamental point of his theory, the doctrine of the property of the self. That was a bold conception which will help one day to bring about a great revolution in philosophy. Here it is, in essence: “You are your own masters; work for your own interests. Respect no ideal; do not make your actions conform to any moral standard. Scorn custom, duty, morality, justice, law. I am God, and king, and law. — Hold as sacred only your appetites and desires.” That is what he means by that nihilist expression: “All things are nothing to me,” “You are not bound if you refuse to belief yourself bound; you are to yourself the Most High; respect nothing, and be your own God. Obey no pact.” In short: “Nothing is more dear to me than myself!”

Now, between the nihilist and individualist philosophies, there is a rather subtle distinction that it is necessary to bring clearly to light. The individualist philosophy says: Be a strong individual! Raise yourself above the common! Develop your individuality!” The egoist or nihilist philosophy says: “You have no duty to fulfill. If you desire to be a strong man, an influential man, an individual really above, as much as is possible, the influence of the herd, in that case, be strong! Not as duty, but as privilege.” The first theory commands: “You must be a superman.” The second says: “Be what you want to be.”

The Stirnerian egoist — the man who accepts no morality – does not limit himself with regard to sympathy. He follows the impulses of his heart. He denies the rights, the titles of property; he fosters no respect the State, even if it was the freest Democracy that it was possible to imagine. He concedes no ethical view superior to his own desires. But there is nothing in Stirner that is contrary to the feeling of solidarity, to sympathy, or to fraternal love. Stirner proclaims the liberation from all that which can chain the individual; he is the prophet of unchained egoism. He makes litter of the ethical rubbish of the past, he shows the last ideal of an idolatrous race, morals, and he cries: “Look! It is an imposture.” He turns to the Ego, to all the Egos of the Universe and cries: “Each of you is for himself the true God, do as you please.”

Between the ethics of Kropotkin and that of Stirner there is no essential difference; what the first expresses in a simply scientific language, Stirner explains in metaphysical terms that are correct, but a little confused. When Kropotkin shows that, in each individual, there exists a passion for the good of the race, he gives a strong support to the thesis of Stirner. We have hesitated to proclaim that morals are an illusion and duty an imposture until Kropotkin assured us that the sentiment of solidarity is inherent in the nature of man. This determined, we can cast morality in the trash without danger to the species.

According to the conception of Stirner, the good is that which pleases him, and evil is what he detests. That which wounds your sympathy is evil for you, so that, while denying absolutely any value whatsoever in morals imposed from outside, we find impossible to deny the existence of good and evil.

But it is me, the Ego, which will be its touchstone. A tyrant, a brutal murder committed by this blood-stained monster that is the law, a cruel act, what undermines my feeling of solidarity, that is evil.

Then we will add to our war cry a new call.

Before now, we have cheered the death of the all-powerful enemy, God; the fall of the law, the destruction of the rights of property, we can add: “Down with morality!”

W. Curtis Swabey

Translated from L’En-Dehors n°204-205, April 15, 1931.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2467 Articles
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3 Comments

  1. In discussion elsewhere, Apio Ludicrus notes the suggestion that the unique one should hold their appetites and desires as “sacred” may not quite be in the spirit of Stirner, who was wary of the sacred, and of anything, including one’s own desires, which threaten to possess the individual.

  2. Sacrifice (from sacra, i.e., “sacred rites”) was not something Stirner was necessarily opposed to as far as I am concerned. It was the sacrifice which obtains the unique one’s ownness that concerned him, was it not? Take this passage, which appears to see sacrifice as an action that one might partake in egoistically: “But, if to one passion I sacrifice others, I do not on that account go so far as to sacrifice myself, nor sacrifice anything of that whereby I truly am myself; I do not sacrifice my peculiar value, my ownness.”

    In this way–and remember Bataille was aware of Stirner and mentions him some times in his work–there is nothing that truly distinguishes Bataille’s notion of the sacred from a Stirnerian interpretation. The Sacred, in Bataille, unites the negative with the positive .. much like the tension between Stirner and the rock that stands in his way.

    I know you do not want to necessarily read this, but look at the way that Saul Newman brings Lacanian Desire into contact with Stirner. If Stirner holds his desires as sacred he thereby recognizes Bataille’s hetergeneous and homogeneous desires..

    Schmidt

  3. Schmidt, I’m perfectly happy to approach some of the problems of ownness from the perspective of the sacred. But I think Swabey’s comment, and Apio’s response, pull in a different direction than either you or I would take things. I remain uncertain about how Stirner negotiates the tension between the general and restricted economies of the self. But my sense is that he is perhaps a little too certain of the ego that “truly is himself.” Bataille is more aware of the relation between restricted ownness and misrecognition, though he may fixate a little on the “accursed” nature of the self’s general economy.

    My interest in Swabey’s article is the suggestion it makes about the closeness of Stirner’s and Kropotkin’s ethics. Guyau, one of Kropotkin’s key influences, was, after all, another of the philosophers of ethics-as-excessive (of survival, or the most restricted economies of the self.) Guyau seems to fit in a tradition of individualists who emphasize the general economy of individualism.

    I should probably just treat this stuff in a blog post, but my “gift economy of property” stuff has been an attempt to think the relation of the two economies of the self (ultimately, the two ways in which “property is impossible”) in terms of gift, rather than sacrifice.

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