Egotism in German Philosophy/Chapter IX

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Egotism in German Philosophy by George Santayana
Chapter IX. Egotism and Selfishness
egotism and selfishness

In a review of egotism in German philosophy it would hardly be excusable to ignore the one notable writer who has openly adopted egotism in name as well as in fact. The work of Max Stirner on the single separate person and what he may call his own hardly belongs to German philosophy as I have been using the words: it lacks the transcendental point of departure, as well as all breadth of view, metaphysical subtlety, or generous afflatus; it is a bold, frank, and rather tiresome protest against the folly of moral idealism, against the sacrifice of the individual to any ghostly powers such as God, duty, the state, humanity, or society; all of which this redoubtable critic called “spooks” and regarded as fixed ideas and pathological obsessions. This crudity was relieved by a strong mother-wit and a dogged honesty; and it is not impossible that this poor schoolmaster, in his solitary meditations, may have embodied prophetically a rebellion against polite and religious follies which is brewing in the working classes—classes which to-morrow perhaps will absorb all mankind and give for the first time a plebeian tone to philosophy. Max Stirner called the migratory ego back to its nest. He exorcised that “spook” which had been ascending and descending the ladder of abstractions, lodged now in a single passion, now in a political body, now in a logical term, now in the outspread universe. The only true ego, he insisted, was the bodily person, the natural individual who is born and dies. No other organ or seat existed for the mind, or for any of its functions. Personal interests were the only honest interests a man could have, and if he was brow-beaten or indoctrinated into sacrificing them, that moral coercion was a scandal and a wrong. The indomitable individual should shake off those chains, which were only cobwebs, and come into his own.

Egotism thus becomes individualism, and threatens to become selfishness. The logic of these positions does not seem to have been clear to Max Stirner. That the individual must possess all his wishes and aspirations, even the most self-denying and suicidal, is obvious; he is the seat of those very obsessions and superstitions which Max Stirner deplored. The same thing is true of knowledge: a man can know only what he knows and what his faculties make him capable of knowing. This fact is the excuse for transcendentalism, and the element of truth in it. But the fact that volition and knowledge must have their seat in some person prejudges nothing about the scope of their objects. The fallacy of egotism begins with the inference that, therefore, a person can know only his ideas and can live only for his own benefit. On the contrary, what makes knowledge knowledge is that our sensibility may report something which is not merely our feeling; and our moral being arises when our interests likewise begin to range over the world. To deny that a man is capable of generosity because his generosity must be his own, is insufferable quibbling. Even our vanities and follies are disinterested in their way; their egotism is not a calculated selfishness. When a man orders his tomb according to his taste, it is not in the hope of enjoying his residence in it.

Max Stirner, while deprecating all subordination of the individual to society, expected people, even after they were emancipated, to form voluntary unions for specific purposes, such as playing games. Did he think that such companionship and co-operation would go without gregarious feelings and ideal interests? Would not a player wish his side to win? Would he not impose a rather painful strain upon himself at times for the sake of that “spook,” victory? All the sacrifices that society or religion imposes on a man, when they are legitimate, are based on the same principle. The protest of Max Stirner against sham ideals and aims forced upon us by social pressure should not then have extended to ideals congenial to the natural man and founded on his instincts. Since the seat of our enthusiasms must be personal, their appeal should be so too, if they are to inspire us efficaciously; but every art and science shows that they may be utterly impersonal in their object. It was not in proposing ideal aims that the German philosophers were wrong: that was the noble and heroic side of their doctrine, as well as a point in which their psychology was correct. Their error lay in defining these aims arbitrarily and imposing them absolutely, trying to thrust into us ideals like endless strife and absolute will, which perhaps our souls abhor. But if our souls abhor those things, it is because they love something else; and this other thing they love for its own sake, so that the very refusal to sacrifice to those idols is a proof of faith in a true God.

The conclusion of Max Stirner, that because those idols are false, and the worship of them is cruel and superstitious, therefore we must worship nothing and merely enjoy in a piggish way what we may call our own, is a conclusion that misreads human nature. It overlooks the fact that man lives by the imagination, that the imagination—when not chaotic and futile—is exercised in the arts of life, that the objects of these arts are impersonal, and that to achieve these objects brings us a natural happiness.

The Germans are by nature a good stolid people, and it is curious that their moralists, of every school, are so fantastic and bad. The trouble lies perhaps in this, that they are all precipitate. They have not taken the trouble to decipher human nature, which is an endowment, something many-sided, unconscious, with a margin of variation, and have started instead with the will, which is only an attitude, something casual, conscious, and narrowly absolute. Nor have they learned to respect sufficiently the external conditions under which human nature operates and to which it must conform—God, the material world, the nature and will of other men. Their morality consequently terminates in ideals, casual, conscious, and absolute expressions of the passions, or else expires in a mysticism which renounces all moral judgment. A reasonable morality terminates instead in the arts, by which human ideals and passions are compounded with experience and adapted to the materials they must work in. The immaturity of the German moralists appears in their conception that the good is life, which is what an irrational animal might say: whereas for a rational being the good is only the good part of life, that healthy, stable, wise, kind, and beautiful sort of life which he calls happiness.