Reflections on egoistic love (and religion)

Being in love a few years ago and then out of love since last year has done some really weird things to how I relate to egoism. But reading Stirner’s Critics turns out to be a good way to make sense of it. When I fell in love, and keep in mind that back then it was probably the first time in years since I felt like that about someone, it was like I was ready to live my life for another person for the first time, and only her. But is that not because I felt like I was alive through her? Or is it not that there’s a certain forgetting involved?

Max Stirner, writing in third person in Stirner’s Critics, talks about egoistic love in response to the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach, a certain “Szeliga” (possibly Franz von Zychlinski), and Moses Hess. Their contention is that the egoist cannot really have love, that the egoist cannot have a “sweetheart”, that the egoist man is destined only to marry a rich woman who then bickers at him constantly, that the egoist is nothing but a “human-beast”. They rally around “unselfish love”, which they take to mean a sort of self-sacrifice towards some higher purpose, in opposition to the mere satisfaction of the organ. The part about Stirner’s response that stuck out for me is the discussion of self-forgetting in relation to love. He pointed out that Feuerbach still lived in a world that was essentially his own, just as we all really do in the sense not only of egoism being mutual to us all but also that this world is really “our” world because of it. The world here is basically what you are not, but it is in a relationship with you and then belongs to you, and you, the unique, are unique together with “your property”. But it doesn’t escape you that this “property” is still also its own as much as you are, it has its own existence just like you do.

The real deal for me was the point about self-forgetfulness. You forget yourself in sweet self-forgetting in your relationships. But do you disappear as a result of that? No. You just stop thinking of yourself. People forget about themselves in the moment of looking into another person’s eyes, or looking up to the stars, or even looking at tiny animals under a microscope, and in fact everyone seems to forget themselves all the time, often thousands of times in an hour. But do you only exist just because you think about yourself all the time? That’s absurd. Of course you’re still here. You’re just thinking about something else while you’re here! But forgetting about yourself, “losing” yourself in a moment and coming back, is one of the ways that individuals enjoy themselves. It’s part of why people get intoxicated in various ways. That’s the pleasure we take in our world. But it’s not this in itself that dupes us. The ignorance that leads to the illusion of “unselfishness” comes from forgetting that the world is “our” world. What Stirner calls “duped egoism” is what happens when we throw ourselves at the mercy of an alienated world (or what Stirner calls the “absolute” world) that we take as a “higher” world outside ourselves and waste our self-consciousness as a result. We thus fall into self-denial while idealising a world outside ourselves.

You know, that can happen as you forget about yourself, at least for long enough. Or at least it can happen when you forget about the fact that it’s you who is enjoying, you who is coming alive, you who “owns” around you, and so does everyone else. You stop thinking about yourself once in a while, more often than you might think, and sometimes you actively set out to do so for your own self-enjoyment. But what if you forget the fact that you’re forgetting yourself for your own pleasure? That’s what Stirner means when he says that the real problem is when we forget that the world is “ours”. It’s self-denial. And, convinced that we are not of ourselves or owning our world when we love others, convinced that we now draw our breath just so another person can feel us, we fall into ignorance and we dupe ourselves. And in the end it doesn’t help anyone when you forget yourself as the lover, that you’re the star in someone’s sky just as much as the other person might be in your own.

Egoism a deux is how the petty ideologues of history often imagine false love. In fact, you might notice that in describing that basic conceit I’ve stolen that term from Erich Fromm, who used it to refer well-oiled reciprocal relationships between people who remain basically strangers to each other, whereas “real” love meant “active concern for the life and growth of that which we love” – an abstracted unselfishness, which is also easily explainable through the fact of our own desire for that which we love. In fact, when Fromm said that real love only exists in a union based on respect for each other’s individual integrity, that’s actually fully understandable as egoistic union, since what that means is the keeping of each other’s Ownness in mutual recognition. Egoism a deux, then, is actually real love, and we just happen to forget the egoism in mutual love. But Society, judging from the way it tends to present love on almost the exact same terms as Feuerbach, Szeliga, Hess, indeed all Christians both religious and secular, has a vested interest in our amnesiac self-denial, because Society, at least insofar as we’ve set it apart from ourselves (a separation from which it derives its own conceptual life) is its own interest and its business is that we forget about our own interest so as to become part of Society’s absolute interest. You can read this in almost all discussions of egoism or individualism carried out by people who see it as a problem or something that needs to be “balanced” with “the interests of the collective”.

While we’re still here, talking about Stirner’s Critics, let me also extend some thoughts about religion that I derive from the distinction between “absolute”/”sacred”/”holy” interest and egoistic interest. This is important partly because, although Stirner can be counted as a critic of atheism, he often did talk about religion in ways that can be interpreted as anti-religious or anti-theistic. Still, I don’t think that you have to absorb such a perspective in order to appreciate egoism.

We can start by discussing what Stirner means by “absolute interest”, a.k.a. “sacred interest” or “holy interest”. “Absolute interest” is the interest that does not spring from the egoist and exerts itself outside and above yourself. It is a universal interest, because everyone is meant to be a vessel for it in some way. It is called “sacred interest”, fitting in that the one of the root words for sacred can mean “to set apart”, and in Stirner’s sense is set apart from your own interest. In the face of this “absolute” interest, your own individual interest is categorized against the absolute as “private interest”, and against the holy as “sin”. Many religions do function as absolute interests, as does a lot of conventional morality. But at the same time, when we observe conformity to abolsute interest as “religious behaviour”, this is pretty much a reflection of the terms of Christianity and its understanding of religion. Granted, you will find similar attitudes towards religion outside of Christianity. I think about “absolute interest”, what Stirner calls “holy” or “sacred” interest, and I am inclined to interpret it in terms of alienation. In literal terms that’s exactly what it is: it is an interest that does not spring from your own and, unless you can make it your own, it is thusly alienated from you.

But if a lot of religion presents itself and its conception of divinity as an alienated interest, does that really have to be how we approach religion as a whole? Remember: to devour the sacred is to make it your own. That is what pre-Christian pagan magicians did in the spells they devised so as to allow them to identify themselves with the gods. It’s also part of those same magicians identifying themselves with the places of power they saw in nature. The act of religious identification in this sense presents what I think is the way to look at it, in that it very much literally presents the making of divinity your own in the context of apotheosis. Admittedly this idea makes little sense to much of the world’s religions. But it makes quite a bit of sense for Paganism, and for Satanism, and it especially makes sense when we look at religion from a magickal perspective. But even if you don’t conceive it on those terms, what matters is the idea that religion can be pursued on the terms of a framework where it centers an unalienated divine interest that is at once acknowledged as individual or egoistic interest, even in the case of religions that would never expressly understand it as egoism. At heart, the problem of alienation is central to egoism, and the primary egoist answer to alienation, the main course of egoist de-alienation, is the act of devourment and ownership, to de-alienate interest by making alien interest your own, for egoism opposes no interest – not love, not communism, not even religion or at least if we’re not dealing with Christianity writ large – except for disinterestedness and the alienation of interest from Ownness.

So it is with love. And make it a lovers’ devourment, devour love as you “devour” your lovers’ body, and your lover “devours” you in turn. Let everyone possess one another out of longing for possession. Let everyone embark upon free love, where their longings may spread across as many people as desired. As long as no one may coerce and abuse each other, may longing, desire, egoistic love, all manifest themselves in universal liberty. For love is not the battlefield for some witless quest to “remake the human condition”. Because love is so of itself.