We Live In A Society (Max Stirner)

All of your life you have probably been told that you are not the center of the universe. That there are just bigger things other than oneself. Life is about excellent service. Excellent service to what? This school of thought often asserts you ought to recognize that you are a cog in something greater. We live in a society! If we do not sacrifice for the greatness that is society, then everything will collapse. You don’t want society to collapse, best go back to work.

Let us take a look at this section of The Unique and It’s Property, by Max Stirner. This will help us frame our further thinking on what people mean by “sacrifice for society”.

How is it with mankind, whose cause we are to make our own? Is its cause that of another, and does mankind serve a higher cause? No, mankind looks only at itself, mankind will promote the interests of mankind only, mankind is its own cause. That it may develop, it causes nations and individuals to wear themselves out in its service, and, when they have accomplished what mankind needs, it throws them on the dung-heap of history in gratitude. Is not mankind’s cause — a purely egoistic cause?

I have no need to take up each thing that wants to throw its cause on us and show that it is occupied only with itself, not with us, only with its good, not with ours. Look at the rest for yourselves. Do truth, freedom, humanity, justice, desire anything else than that you grow enthusiastic and serve them?

They all have an admirable time of it when they receive zealous homage. Just observe the nation that is defended by devoted patriots. The patriots fall in bloody battle or in the fight with hunger and want; what does the nation care for that? By the manure of their corpses the nation comes to “its bloom”! The individuals have died “for the great cause of the nation,” and the nation sends some words of thanks after them and — has the profit of it. I call that a paying kind of egoism.

But only look at that Sultan who cares so lovingly for his people. Is he not pure unselfishness itself, and does he not hourly sacrifice himself for his people? Oh, yes, for “his people.” Just try it; show yourself not as his, but as your own; for breaking away from his egoism you will take a trip to jail. The Sultan has set his cause on nothing but himself; he is to himself all in all, he is to himself the only one, and tolerates nobody who would dare not to be one of “his people.”

And will you not learn by these brilliant examples that the egoist gets on best? I for my part take a lesson from them, and propose, instead of further unselfishly serving those great egoists, rather to be the egoist myself.

Let us think about the motivations behind our actions. One way to think about this is to explain our actions as attempting to serve ourselves. The main objection of this selfish theory of human action is to appeal to our sense of morality. People argue that to have selfish motivation is immoral and instead we should submit to a higher end. People argue that life is about service to some ideal or higher cause. It is an interesting retort that we are not all selfish and that the amount of selfishness inside man should be limited. 

One such progressive end is the progress of mankind united towards our common destiny. We can think here about lefties and other one world do gooders. Stirner asks us to think about mankind united to serve the interests of mankind. In this kind of arrangement we are thinking of mankind as an actor. In this sense, the idea that mankind should unite and serve mankind is a type of selfish motivation. Each individual working for a single will, the will of mankind. A spirit composed of all human beings which acts for its interest.

Looking at mankind as an acting thing which has selfish ends may sound strange. Stirner is qualifying one way of looking at the situation. This is part of his style to present alternative ways of looking at the world and expose their flaws to reach the truth. People talk about units such as mankind or other groups as a united actor, capable of having an interest and acting. This seems in many ways very absurd, a group is not a living being. This absurdity is part of Stirner’s argument. He is criticizing this worldview by showing the strange logic. I lay out his argument refuting the condemnation of selfishness as illogical.

  1. You should never act for your own interests, but instead a higher interest.
  2. An individual shouldn’t act for their own interest.
  3. An individual should serve the higher interest of mankind, the nation, etc.
  4. Mankind/The Nation/Etc. should act for its own interest???
    • This violates the idea that serving your own interest is wrong. (1)

The belief in a united mankind is much less dominant than patriotic and nationalistic tendancies. People of Stirner’s day had hoped we were moving past these tendencies, but they still remain today. The majority of demands for a great sacrifice are still the call to national service. Stirner gave the example of the ultimate sacrifice that you can give, your life. The soldiers give their life so that the nation can benefit and grow from the corpses of young men. This depending on your emotional and ideological commitments can invoke very strong feelings. Stirner is not actually taking a side to whether this is good or bad. He is just showing the kind of act people are called to do in service of the group.

To understand his point about the nation, let us consider some additional ideas. Suppose you are living your life in your nation. Now, one day you are dragged out into the street and you are shot. Some could suggest that this sacrifice of part of the nation is done by the nation for the benefit of the nation. This feels something like the rhetorical question: Why are you hitting yourself? This is a clearly perverse interpretation of the facts. Maybe the use of the nation being treated as a unified actor is flowery language covering something up. What really happened you could say is that some group of people shot you for the benefit of another group of people. In some way this kind of national thinking has covered up the functions of the state. 

Now we look to the Stirner’s example of the selfless Sultan or in other words the selfless national leader. A lot of people see many including the political class as giving a lot to society. Stirner asks us to consider that maybe these people give to society not because they are selfless, but because they transparently have a stake and benefit from society. They give to you out of a sense of their own gain. Many of the national leaders assume the egoistic pleasure and motivations of the will of the nation. As we had explored earlier maybe looking at the existence of some collective entity representing the group is absurd. They come to society not to serve as a cog in the will of society, but to promote their own good as an egoist.

Maybe you could question this arrangement. You too could come to society as an egoist. This act of serving yourself is revolutionary and is a threat to the powers that be. Some people might immediately reject Stirner and my commentary here as reckless and selfish. If people act selfishly and for their own desires, then society would come to an end. If society wouldn’t function without your exploitation, then maybe that speaks horrible of society. Why even participate if we are being led to slaughter for no benefit of our own? 

Max Stirner is not arguing against society. He just believes that ultimately, we want to come to society with a concern for ourselves. This doesn’t mean that being willing to die for something is wrong. The issue is for what end. Stirner argues that other egoists use ideas such as the nation to get you to fulfill their ends. It is very absurd to talk about society as a cohesive will. You should look at society less in a collective sense, but specific and real people.

You may benefit from the relation that other egoists have towards you. You enjoy other people and love their company. Being an egoist doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk to people. The assumption is selfishness harms you, but a leader probably would benefit by treating their subjects nice and having them appreciate what the leader does for them. This doesn’t mean the national leader has your best interest in heart. They will ask you to die for their own benefit. Instead of allowing the nation to become the property of a few egoists, we too could have a stake in the nation. Egoists may be willing to die not for a vague concept, such as the nation, but for the specific people in the nation we love. 

The call to be a conscious egoist is a call not to reject society but to be the hero of one’s own life. Those who fail to be the hero serve themselves by mere instinct and only so far as the conscious egoists allow. Will you die for the causes of other egoists and exist in a society which is the private property of another? Sure there is egoist gain to be had here. I however believe that is sad and cucked. Make all of society your property and something which serves you and your greatness.

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