“In the frontispiece of our century we cannot read the maxim ‘Know Thyself’ but this one: ‘Exploit yourself'”, wrote the philosopher Max Stirner at the beginning of the 19th century but his words are covered with a prophetic halo and resonate with the concept of the burnout society of Byung-Chul Han.
Interesting and controversial equally, many of Max Stirner’s quotes and ideas have been buried in oblivion, partly because they’re too much uncomfortable and go against the status quo. However, this philosopher exalted like no other the power of the “ego” and encourages us to fight for personal freedom, to the point that many of his words are darts directed straight at the center of our conscience: “Know yourselves […] Give up your hypocritical efforts, that foolish mania to be something other than what you’re not.”
Reflections by Max Stirner that guide us towards the essential personal deconstruction
1. Freedom cannot be granted graciously, it must be conquered gloriously
Stirner believed that “Freedom belongs to the one who takes it […] Who is nothing more than what the circumstances or the will of a third party make of him, possesses only what that third party grants him”. He was convinced that “What is given to us doesn’t belong to us as our own”. That is why he encourages us to fight for what we want, to free ourselves from the social shackles that we ourselves may help to build in time. He encourages us to take charge of our lives, without waiting for someone else to give us permission to do it.
2. All freedom is essentially a self-liberation
“One must know how to break his own faith and even his oath if he wants to determine himself.” One of the ideas of Max Stirner, reflected in all his work, is that true freedom implies an act of personal deconstruction and rebellion. First we need to realize all the social constructions we have internalized, such as principles, beliefs and values that don’t belong to us and with which we don’t fully identify, then we must go a step further by building our own values and principles. Only that act of introspection can lead us to freedom.
3. The more we learn to know each other, the more we laugh at what we considered insurmountable
We know that we overcome an obstacle or a problem when we’re able to look back and laugh at what happened or, at least, see it with such a detached perspective that allows us notice how useless it was to worry about that. If our past continues to generate feelings such as hatred and resentment, anguish or anxiety, it’s because we haven’t overcome it yet and continue to be its prisoners.
4. What will it serve to man to be able to conquer the universe, if it damages his soul?
With this quote, Max Stirner conveys to us the idea that the path is often more important than the goal, the person we become along that path is much more important than the result we achieved. It also encourages us to ask ourselves how much we’re willing to sacrifice to achieve certain objectives. We may discover that it’s not worth it.
5. Every interest, whatever it is, makes of me, when I don’t know how to get rid of it, his slave
In a consumer society where people are not worth for what they are but for what they have, this idea gains prominence. Stirner warned us that everything we obsessively focus on our attention ends up tuning us in its slaves because it restricts our attention, limits our critical thinking and takes away our ability to desire something more. This thought of Max Stirner applies the same to material possessions as to interpersonal relationships or even ideas. Everything we’re not able to get rid of can end up becoming our prison.
6. If you allow someone to give you the reason, you must also consent him to take it away from you
Stirner considered unproductive arguing to be right. All those daily discussions in which we don’t seek a true understanding but only the validation and final approval by our interlocutor, don’t imply an authentic victory, but the submission to the will of the other. When we’re sure of something, we shouldn’t subject it to external approval, which is often as labile as the wind, but continue forward with that idea or project. Searching for the approval of the others only generates a dependency.
7. If you’re chained to what you did in the past and you have to prattle for what you did yesterday, you cannot transform yourself in every moment
Stirner encourages us to free ourselves from the yoke of the past and the heavy emotional and moral burden it represents. We can only deconstruct ourselves when we abandon the need to look back continuously in search of excuses for our behaviors and ways of thinking. The act of personal transformation can start from the past, to understand why we are the way we are, but we must continue looking towards the future. Otherwise, it becomes an act of self-affirmation of old beliefs and experiential burdens.
8. He who is satisfied with what he is and what he has, doesn’t want to change the state of things
The real change comes from dissatisfaction. Although we often avoid the conflicts because they represent a state of discomfort for the “ego”, are these contradictions and dissatisfactions that push us to change the state of things. Therefore, we must understand that concepts socially coated with a negative imprint, such as dissatisfaction, conflicts and problems, are actually the cornerstone for change and evolution, the fuel that feed our “ego” and pushes it to get out of our comfort zone.
9. The mature man differs from the young man in that he takes the world as it is, without seeing everywhere evils to correct, wrongs to be straightened, and without pretending to mold it to his ideal
In Max Stirner’s thinking, psychological maturity resembles a kind of radical acceptance. That acceptance is not a passive resignation, but implies understanding the world as it is, so that it stops becoming a source of discomfort. Maturity implies not fighting against windmills, choosing wisely those battles worth fighting, accepting everything that we cannot change, instead of trying to mold reality to our idea of how things should be. Paradoxically, this act of “acceptance” frees us, because it allows us to focus our attention and resources on what is really worthwhile.
10. The habit to renunciation freezes the ardor of desires
Stirner thought that the education to which society subjects us is a process of constant renunciations. We give up playing, which is what we really want, to spend hours sitting at a desk. We often give up saying what we think to be politically correct. And we often renounce our values and dreams to fit certain groups. The price of those resignations is losing our capacity to desire. When we need to silence our “ego” to fit into society, we end up losing contact with our authentic desires, so we embrace the wishes of the others, we desire what the others have, with the vain and futile hope that it will make us happy
11. People, in general, don’t think beyond what their teachers have thought
This Max Stirner’s quote alerts us of the importance of free thought because, according to his words: “The State gives me an education and an instruction appropriate to him and not to me”. We cannot lose the sight of the fact that education is a process of preparing the individual to be inserted into society, generally through the transmission of those – and only those – knowledges and skills that are considered necessary. Unfortunately, many people stay trapped all their lives in this educational process and aren’t able to develop free, autonomous and critical thinking.
12. What doesn’t see the intelligence of the intelligents, sees in its simplicity the child’s soul
In line with the previous idea, Stirner warns us about the dangers of the supposed “intelligence”, an intelligence that has been carefully shaped in the educational process and often is not able to cross its borders. To escape from those constraints that limit our thinking we need to go back, becoming children again, which means looking at the world with curiosity, but also question everything, asking us the “why” of things, even those that have always been like this or that are taken for granted. Then a completely new path opens before our feet.
13. Better the man who refuses everything and everyone, than he who always consents
“Moral influence begins where humiliation begins, under which pride, forced to bend or break, leaves the place to submission”, Stirner wrote. And that’s why he thought that the person who opposes everything is better because he shows that he has at least a criterion of his own, than the one that always agrees with the others, because he can be easily manipulated.
14. He, whose only concern is living, cannot think of enjoying life
This Max Stirner’s quote retakes a Taoist idea according to which, we cannot find serenity and inner peace simply because our eager search prevents us. If we’re too concerned for taking advantage of each moment, not to miss anything, live life to the fullest, as it happens to many people today, we only manage to sink into a vortex that prevents us from truly enjoying life. Thus, the more we want to take advantage of life, the more we waste it by falling into a spiral of commitments and tasks against the clock.
15. Before the sacred one loses all its power, feels impotent and humbles himself. Nothing, however, is sacred in itself, I only consecrate it. What canonizes is my thought, my judgment, in a word, my conscience
This quote of Max Stirner is central to his philosophical thinking because encourages us to question the most basic things, precisely those that we consider sacred. It reminds us that nothing is sacred in itself, that we’re the ones who accept and grant certain things the role of “sacred”. And it warns us that once we placed above us that sacred ideal, it takes away all our power and dominates us.
Stirner, M. (1976) El único y su propiedad. Pablos Editor: México.