Max Stirner

Should there be any restrictions on individual freedoms? Should each individual be free to pursue their own self-interests regardless of how it impacts others? Why is the taking of human life legitimate in some instances and criminal in others? In this explanation, we will delve into the thoughts, ideas, and philosophies of influential egoist Max Stirner, and highlight some of the main principles of individualist anarchic thought. 

Max Stirner Max Stirner

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Table of contents

    Max Stirner's biography

    Born in Bavaria in 1806, Johann Schmidt was a German philosopher who under the alias of Max Stirner wrote and published the infamous 1844 work The Ego and its Own. This would lead to Stirner being viewed as the founder of Egoism, a radical form of individualist anarchism.

    At 20, Stirner enrolled at the University of Berlin where he studied philology. During his time at university, he frequently attended the lectures of the famous German philosopher Georg Hegel. This led to Stirner's later affiliation with a group known as the Young Hegelians.

    The Young Hegelians were a group influenced by George Hegel's teachings that sought to further study his works. Associates of this group included other well-known philosophers such as Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels. These associations served to influence the foundation of Stirner's philosophies and later the establishment of egoism.

    No one is sure why Stirner chose to use a literary pseudonym but this practice was not uncommon in the nineteenth century.

    Max Stirner and anarchism

    As described above, Max Stirner was an influential egoist, which is an extreme form of individualist anarchism. In this section, we will take a closer look at both egoism and individualist anarchy and how these ideas shaped Stirner's worldview.

    Max Stirner: Individualist anarchism

    Individualist anarchism emphasises the sovereignty and freedom of the individual above all else. It is an ideology that pushes the ideas of individual freedom of liberalism to the extreme. Individualist anarchism, unlike liberalism, argues that individual freedom can only occur in stateless societies. To protect the freedom of the individual, state control must be rejected. Once free from restrictions, individuals can then act rationally and cooperatively.

    From the individualist anarchism perspective, if authority is imposed on an individual, they can't make decisions based on reason and conscience nor can they fully explore their individuality. Stirner is an example of a radical individualist anarchist: his views on individualism are extreme, as they are not based on the notion that humans are naturally good or altruistic. In other words, Stirner knows individuals can do bad things but believes it is their right to do so.

    Max Stirner: Egoism

    Egoism argues that self-interest is at the core of human nature and serves as the motivation for all individual actions. From the egoism perspective, individuals should be bound neither by the constraints of morality and religion, nor the laws implemented by the state. Stirner posits that all humans are egoists and that everything we do is for our own benefit. He argues that even when we are being charitable, it is for our own benefit. The Egoism philosophy falls within the individualist anarchism school of thought and encompasses the anarchist rejection of the state alongside a radical individualism that seeks complete freedom to pursue one’s personal interests.

    Like all anarchists, Stirner views the state as exploitative and coercive. In his work The Ego and its Own, he talks about how all states have 'supreme might'. Supreme might can either be granted to a single individual as in states run by a monarchy or can be distributed among society as witnessed in democratic states. Either way, the state uses its might to enact violence on individuals under the guise of laws and legitimacy.

    However, Stirner argues that there is, in fact, no distinction between the violence of the state and the violence of individuals. When the state commits violence, it is seen as legitimate due to the establishment of laws, but when an individual commits an act of violence, they are deemed criminal.

    If an individual kills 10 people, they are labelled a murderer and sent to prison. However, if that same individual kills hundreds of people but is wearing a uniform on behalf of the state, that individual might receive an award or a medal of valour because their actions will be seen as legitimate.

    As such, Stirner views the violence of the state as akin to the violence of individuals. For Stirner, to treat certain orders as law or to believe it is one’s duty to obey the law is incompatible with the pursuit of self-mastery. In Stirner's view, there is nothing that can make a law legitimate because no one has the capability to command or dictate their own actions. Stirner states that the state and the individual are irreconcilable enemies, and argues that every state is a despot.

    Despotism: the exercise of absolute power, particularly in a cruel and oppressive way.

    Max Stirner's beliefs

    Central to Stirner's conception of egoism is his ideas on how a society of egoists would organise themselves. This has led to Stirner's theorisation of a Union of Egoists.

    Max Stirner An illustration of Max Stirner StudySmarterIllustration of Max Stirner, Respublika Narodnaya, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    Max Stirner's beliefs: Union of egoists

    Stirner’s political philosophies led him to put forward the notion that the existence of a state is incompatible with egoists. As a result, he puts forth his own vision of society in which individuals are able to express their own individuality without constraint.

    Stirner’s vision for society includes a rejection of all social institutions (family, the state, employment, education). These institutions would instead be transformed under an egoist society. Stirner envisions an egoist society to be a society of individuals who serve themselves and resist subjugation.

    Stirner advocates an egoist society organised into a union of egoists, which is a collection of people who interact with one another only for their own self-interest. In this society, individuals are unbound and have no obligation to any others. The individuals choose to enter the union and also have the ability to leave if it benefits them (the union is not something that is imposed). For Stirner, self-interest is the best guarantee of social order. As such, each member of the union is independent and pursues their own needs freely.

    Despite the radical individualism components in Stirner's union of egoists, this doesn't mean that egoist societies are devoid of human relationships. In a union of egoists, there is still human interaction. If an individual wanted to meet up with other individuals for dinner or a drink, they are able to do so. They do this because it may be in their self-interest. They are not obligated to spend time with other individuals or socialise. However, they may choose to, as it could benefit them.

    This is idea is similar to children playing together: in an egoist society, all children would make the active choice to play with other children as it is in their own self-interest. At any point, the child can decide they no longer benefit from these interactions and withdraw from playing with other children. This is an example of how an egoist society with everyone acting in their own self-interest does not necessarily equate to the breakdown of all human relationships. Instead, human relationships are established without obligations.

    Books by Max Stirner

    Max Stirner is the author of a variety of books including Art and religion (1842), Stirner's critics (1845), and The Ego and its Own. However, of all his works, The Ego and its Own is the most well known for its contributions to the philosophies of egoism and anarchism.

    Max Stirner: The Ego and its Own (1844)

    In this 1844 work, Stirner presents a range of ideas that would later become the basis of an individualist school of thought called Egoism. In this work, Stirner rejects all forms of social institutions that he believes encroach on an individual’s rights. Stirner views the majority of social relationships as oppressive, and this extends far beyond the relationship between individuals and the state. He goes so far as to reject familial relationships arguing that

    The forming of family ties binds a man.

    Because Stirner believes that the individual should not be subjected to any external constraints, he views all forms of government, morality, and even family as despotic. Stirner is unable to see how things such as family ties are positive or that they nurture a sense of belonging. He believes that there is a conflict between individuals (known as egoists) and all forms of social institutions.

    An important aspect of The Ego and Its Own is that Stirner likens an individual’s physical and intellectual capabilities to property rights. This means that an individual should be able to do whatever they want with both their mind and body as they are their owner. This idea is often described as 'anarchism of the mind'.

    Anarchism as a political ideology refers to a society without rule and emphasises the need to reject authority and hierarchical structures such as the state. Stirner’s anarchism of the mind follows this same ideology but instead focuses on the individual body as the site of anarchism.

    Critique of Max Stirner

    As an individualist anarchist, Stirner has faced criticism from a range of thinkers. One of the more prominent criticisms of Stirner is that he is a weak anarchist. This is because while Stirner views the state as coercive and exploitative, he also believes there is no requirement to abolish the state through revolution. This is due to Stirner’s adherence to the idea that individuals are not obliged to do anything. This position is not in line with the majority of anarchist thinking, which calls for a revolution against the state.

    Another area where Stirner faces criticism is in his support of all individual actions, regardless of their nature. The majority of anarchists argue that humans are naturally cooperative, altruistic, and morally good. However, Stirner argues that humans are moral only if it is in their self-interest to be.

    In The Ego and its Own, Stirner does not condemn actions such as murder, infanticide, or incest. He believes that these actions can all be justified, as individuals have no obligations to one another. This unwavering support for an individual to do as they please (regardless of the consequences) was the source of much of the critique of Stirner’s ideas.

    Max Stirner Quotes

    Now that you're familiar with Max Stirner's work, let's take a look at some of his most memorable quotes!

    Whoever knows how to take, to defend, the thing, to him belongs property" - The Ego and Its Own, 1844

    Religion itself is without genius. There is no religious genius and no one would be permitted to distinguish between the talented and the untalented in religion.” - Art and Religion, 1842

    My power is my property. My power gives me property"-The Ego and its Own, 1844

    The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual, crime" - The Ego and its Own, 1844

    These quotes serve to reinforce Stirner's attitude to the state, the ego, personal property and coercive institutions like the church and religion.

    What do you think about Stirner's view of state violence?

    Max Stirner - Key takeaways

    • Max Stirner is a radical individualist anarchist.
    • Stirner's work The Ego and its Own likens an individual’s physical and intellectual capabilities to property rights.
    • Stirner founded Egoism, which is concerned with self-interest as the foundation of individual actions.
    • The Union of egoists is a collection of people who interact with one another only for their own self-interest. They are not bound to one another, nor do they have any obligations to one another.
    • Individualist anarchism emphasises the sovereignty and freedom of the individual above all else.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Max Stirner

    Who was Max Stirner?

    Max Stirner was a German philosopher, anarchist and founder of egoism.

    Was Max Stirner an anarchist?

    Max Stirner was indeed an anarchist but he is criticised by many for being a weak anarchist. 

    Was Max Stirner a capitalist?

    Max Stirner was not a capitalist. 

    What are Max Stirner's contributions?

    Max Stirner's main contribution is founding of Egoism. 

    What did Max Stirner believe?

    Max Stirner believed in self-interest as the foundation of an individual's actions. 

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