Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Happy 199th, Max!

What distinguishes a religious belief from, well, a non­-religious belief?

Is it belief in a god or gods? Belief in the super-natural? It seems to be something more than these things.

Aside from the usual suspects, examples of "religions" having a more secular flavor are legion. It isn't just the Christians who are screaming "The end is Nigh!" Witness those who believe in an impending technological singularity. Or those who think future technologies will be able to give us the naturalist's equivalent of an afterlife. Or those who think we're about to run out of oil. Or that our carbon emissions are causing global warming (for why I think that's bullshit, go here). Or that our very existence is causing mass extinctions (okay, maybe that one is supported by the evidence - just maybe).

And those are just the millennialists and chicken littles (and only a sample, at that)! Other "secular" beliefs that I think fall under the "religious" umbrella include SETI, Communism, Objectivism, natural rights theory...

There must be something deep in the human psyche that compels us to believe that we - meaning "we" as a species, or "we" as people living here, now - are somehow special, somehow chosen; that we have meaning; that we have import or intrinsic value, for those would appear to be some of the characteristics of the beliefs I mentioned. Another - perhaps more important - characteristic is that these beliefs are (generally) couched in terms that are not falsifiable, and hence rest ultimately on the basis of faith.

Given this apparently fundamental need to believe (i.e., "have faith") in something, it's not surprising that Max Stirner, born Johann Caspar Schmidt on October 25th, 1806, in Bayreuth, Germany, is all but forgotten.

A worthy introduction to Stirner and his thought is well beyond the scope of what I can present here. Wikipedia has a decent introductory essay about him, along with an excellent set of links to further reading (this one in particular I like!), and Svein Olav Nyberg's pages are comprehensive and indispensable.

For even more depth, I recommend as a starting point that you read the book Individuality and the Social Organism. Follow that link and you'll no doubt see my review of it, as well as my Listmania List of other Stirner-related books.

I will save a longer discussion of Stirner's ideas and influence for a later date (After all, I will need something new to say on his bicentennial) and confine myself in this post to touching on just one reason I think he is worth retrieving from the dustbin of history: his attack on "religious" thinking of all stripes.

Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons you. You have a fixed idea!
With this thought, Stirner begins his attack upon an idea proposed by his friend and contemporary, Feuerbach, in his book The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach's thesis was that all of the Christian notions of the "divine" rightfully belonged in the concept of Man. Stirner's counter (and, as it turned out, death-blow) was that this was simply a change of masters, and he would have none of it.
History seeks for man: but he is I, you, we. Sought as a mysterious essence, as the divine, first as God, then as man (humanity, humaneness, and mankind), he is found as the individual, the finite, the unique one [einzige].
Stirner cautioned that such an abstraction of "essences" was identical to religion, in spite of Feuerbach's attempt to eliminate God from the equation.

With the strength of despair Feuerbach clutches at the total substance of Christianity, not to throw it away, no, to drag it to himself, to draw it, the long-yearned-for, ever-distant, out of its heaven with a last effort, and keep it by him forever. Is not that a clutch of the uttermost dispair, a clutch for life or death, and is it not at the same time the Christian yearning and hungering for the other world?

So, Stirner was interested in freeing himself from all instances of dogmatic (i.e., religious) belief, and his book Der Einzige und sein Eigentum can be seen as an exploration and casting off of these "fixed ideas," or "spooks," as he called them, one by one.

Whether a poor fool of the insane asylum is possessed by the fancy that he is God the Father, Emperor of Japan, the Holy Spirit, or whatnot, or whether a citizen in comfortable circumstances conceives that it is his mission to be a good Christian, a faithful Protestant, a loyal citizen, a virtuous man - both these are one and the same "fixed idea".


When I have degraded [the fixed idea] to a spook and its control over me to a cranky notion, then it is to be looked upon as having lost its sacredness, its holiness, its divinity, and then I use it, as one uses nature at pleasure without scruple.


Here would be the place to pass the haunting spirits in review... Sacred above all is the "Holy Spirit", sacred the truth, sacred are right, law, a good cause, majesty, marriage, the common good, order, the fatherland, and so on.

Stirner's message is ultimately one of profound empowerment and self-liberation, in spite of the charge of some that it is the pinnacle of "estrangement," "desolation," and "nihilism." Admittedly, it is few indeed who are willing to follow Stirner all the way along his path. What Stirner does, though, like all skeptics worth their mettle do, is make you fight hard for the spooks you want to keep. For some, I guess, the belief in the Easter bunny is too precious a thing to give up.


Einzige said...

Hubert Kennedy, who recently completed an English translation of John Henry Mackay's biography of Stirner, has also translated Mackay's 1927 introduction to The Ego and Its Own.

At 7 pages, it serves as an excellent summary for Mackay's larger work, and perhaps the best available introduction to Stirner himself.

It's available in PDF format here:

Solan said...

Happy Birthday, Max!

steve said...

Damn, that's some heady stuff, but good nonetheless. I'll have to check out striner's work sometime. As an agnostic, I don't have too much of a problem with Christians, or any religious type who has thoroughly examined their percepton of "faith".It's the millions of blind followers who scare me. As for other staunch beliefs or practices being loosely classified as religious, I believe that as individuals we pick and choose what is most important to us. Sometimes our personal views and practices are shaped by sociologically formed emotional responses. Sometimes they're shaped by more thorough examination an investigation into a matter that captures our interrest.My only beef with atheism is that,in my opinion, it's really just a concept sitting on the opposite end of the coin.What do we really know in our relatively brief stint as human beings on this planet. In the context of natural history, we're really just walking out of our caves and squinting at the sun and trying ever so hard to define ourselves as individuals and as a whole. There are those not willing to give up the easter bunny simply because of the false sense of security it gives them. These are some of the most insecure and frightening people on the planet.These are the people who are so insecure about their faith they partake in wars to force it on others wo don't see things the same. There are the minority of believers though who know better than that and have a much deeper understanding of where their head or "soul" is at. I think the Dali Lama is a prime example of this. The recent interview with bono (headlined in the current Rolling Stone) is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a Christian who is very skeptical of the church and of the Evangelicals and taking the scriptures into literal context. Should any of these people be scorned then for their faith just as many a Christian or Muslim might scorn agnostics or atheists for not seeing things their way? Honestly, a lot of these brainiacs couls go on and on and theorize the existence or nonexistence of a "higher being",and not to dismiss or discourage intelligent examination into these matters, but in the end we run in circles. The truth is,we really need to step off our high-minded platforms from both ends of the spectrum and and admit to ourselves that we really don't know didley-squat. The big question is, how can we rise above or egos and pride and enable ourselves to coexist?

Einzige said...

I became a U2 fan when I paid closer attention to his lyrics on The Joshua Tree and I saw a man grappling with his faith. Obviously his faith wins out, but I find it interesting nonetheless. Questions and soul searches are always good.

People who claim certain knowledge - i.e., who have a "fixed idea", a "spook", a "dogma", an "ideology" (Marx's favorite word) - about anything, be it God, morality, political systems, or good music, are creepy, especially when they are willing to kill or die in thrall to those ideas.

Steve, to me it sounds like you, I, and Stirner are in substantial agreement about most things. We're just using different words for it. If you want to call me an agnostic because I won't categorically say "There is no god", then that's fine with me. I've been called worse!

Einzige said...

Another bono lyric that resonates with me and probably would with Stirner as well:

And I have no compass
And I have no map
And I have no reasons
- No reasons to get back
And I have no religion
And I don't know what's what
And I don't know the limit
- The limit of what we got

steve said...

exactly! great song and album (zooropa)--one of bono's personal favorites and a nonfave amongst many (clueless) fans.

Einzige said...

A post that dovetails nicely with the theme of this post:


Einzige said...

And David Friedman weighs in (though I wonder if anyone besides you and I, Jim, will read this comment here, lol).