George Walford: Freedom from Truth or Was Stirner Serious

In 1845 Johann Kaspar Schmidt, writing under the name of Max Stirner, published his version of egoism. Highly original, intensely provoking, puzzling and disconcerting, the book acts as an irritant. Working with the English translation by Steven J. Byington [1] I produced more than one short study (appearing in IC and Freedom) which proved on reflection unsatisfactory; eventually I saw that the main difficulty in coming to terms with the book arises from the presence in it of a paradox, not explicitly stated but close enough to the surface to frustrate any attempt to put the ideas as a whole into practice, even the ‘practice’ of serious thinking.

With wit and vigour Stirner proclaims the supremacy of the individual, and not just in the usual restricted sense; he urges rejection not only of the authorities but of all authority, including that of morality and principle. Yet the biographical preface mentions no infringement (other than this publication) of the standards accepted in his place and time; this repudiator of all authority seems to have behaved for the most part as a good and compliant 19th Century German citizen. Further thought, however, takes us beyond the implication of inconsistency (if nothing worse) carried by this observation. If Schmidt found it advantageous to issue a book advocating one mode of behaviour while practising another, then on Stirner’s ideas he was entitled to publish it.

Stirner’s ideas justify Schmidt’s behaviour. They justify any behaviour. Christian, Buddhist, atheist, anarchist, Nazi, Conservative, warrior, pacifist, thief, philanthropist, nun, rapist, torturer or saint, whatever is done has only to be in the interest of an individual to deserve Stirner’s approval. Even publication of a book declaring that one holds certain ideas while not in fact holding any of them; that too, provided it offers individual advantage, finds justification in Stirner’s ideas.

We all take it for granted, in the absence of evidence to the contrary (the qualification is important), that other people are telling the truth; we have to do this, or communication breaks down. What is said is often not in fact so, but this does not have to mean that the speaker was lying; each assertion carries a tacit rider: ‘to the best of my knowledge and belief’ (official documents sometimes require that it be spelt out) and, that condition satisfied, the speaker is telling the truth even though mistaken. Fallibility is universal, truth-telling a matter of intention. Sometimes evidence appears showing that the speaker is or is likely to be intentionally making false statements; then we do well to adjust our response accordingly, and Stirner provides such evidence for his own statements when he repudiates a commitment to truth. He warns us to abandon the normal assumption that he does hold the ideas he says he holds; he may do so or not, it depends where his advantage lies. (The advantage need not be material).

Among the estimable qualities that Stirner repudiates concision ranks high; this enforces greater selectivity when quoting him than one would wish, but since the point to be brought out agrees with the main thrust of his book – he treats truth in the same way as other principles – this will perhaps be accepted. Rhetoric and repetition apart, he advocates holding to the truth, or departing from it, as individual interests dictate:

You alone are the truth, or rather, you are more than the truth, which is nothing at all before you… You address yourself to thoughts and notions, as you do to the appearances of things, only for the purpose of making them palatable to you, enjoyable to you, and your own: you want only to subdue them and become their owner, you want to orient yourself and feel at home in them, and you find them true… when they are right for you, when they are your property.

Truths are material, like vegetables and weeds; as to whether vegetable or weed, the decision lies in me.

As reality or worldliness is “vain and a thing of naught” for Christians, so is the truth for me. (Emphases in original).

Stirner warns us that for him truth is ‘a thing of naught,’ and thereby confronts us with a dilemma approaching the Liar Paradox ascribed to Epimenides, the Cretan who said that all Cretans are liars.

Do we take seriously the bulk of his book, assuming him to be telling the truth about his ideas, beliefs and opinions? Then we are failing to take seriously his statements about his attitude towards truth.

Do we take seriously his statements about his attitude towards truth? Then we cannot take seriously the rest of his book.

The conclusion reached in IC 57 still holds good: Stirner tells us that we ought not take things seriously; not the state, not God, not love… and not truth either. Why should we want to take Stirner himself seriously? His book is fun, and there’s not too much of that around; let’s enjoy what we have.

REFERENCE
[1] The Ego and his Own; the case of the individual against authority. Sun City, Calif: Western World Press 1982. The quotations are from pages 353-354.

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ATTEMPTS to stop the use of addictive drugs are now so nearly universal that hardly any control situation remains to provide a standard for judging their effects. To find one we have to look back, and Edward Behr reports the governor of Aden in 1961 as saying that attempts there to ban the narcotic kat ‘had merely led to gang warfare and inflated black-market prices caused by smuggling.’ (Edward Behr) Does that outcome sound familiar?

THE UNITED States is a country in which people, permitted to say what they like, all end up saying the same thing. (Louis Menand, ascribing the original perception to Tocqueville). Well, not quite, Menand being one exception, but true enough to show that suppression is not the cause of consensus.

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.