Possession and Obsession
Some questions about the meaning of property and ownership arose in the comments section following my post on “The American Civil War”, in the course of which I drew attention to the German philosopher Max Stirner’s politically influential book “The Ego and Its Own“, and his teaching of “egoistic individualism”. A copy of Stirner’s book, in English translation, is available online for those interested.
So, here I want to try and address the ideas of property and ownership in what we might refer to as their “spiritual” aspect, rather than their material or physical aspect, as “private property” or “real estate” or “capital”, or just plain old “stuff”.
In the posting called “The American Civil War“, I suggested that the real unresolved issue in the United States stemming from that conflict was not so much the issue of slavery as it was the principle of private property and ownership. That sanctification of private property, so akin to fetishism, is very much still in vogue in Libertarianism and radical forms of egoistic individualism such as the whole survivalist and “Freeman on the Land” movements — the notion of the sovereign ego, or the fully autonomous ego which wishes to be “master of all it surveys”, to “rule the roost” and be “king of the castle” or “master of the universe” occupying “the commanding heights” and so on and so forth. But “mastery” is something else altogether than taking possession of stuff, or even treating other people as private property, stuff, or capital.
The deficiency of Stirner’s philosophy of egoistic individualism and notion of ownership – mastery should be plainly evident, although (as suggested in the comments to “The American Civil War”) the historical context in which Stirner wrote his book must be taken into consideration — the context of Prussian Statism, Nationalism, and Militarism. This was also the context in which Nietzsche thought and wrote, the “Zeitgeist” that provided the context for his own “anti-politics” and his contemptuous rejection of everything “German” — even his eventual break with the composer Richard Wagner.
And so comparisons have been drawn between Stirner’s “egoistic individualism” and Nietzsche’s “free spirit”, but which I consider erroneous and false comparisons. Those who make such comparisons simply do not understand Nietzsche and they mistake him for something he is not, which has really been Nietzsche’s curse. “I know my fate”, he once wrote, that “someday my name will be associated with something terrible”. And, indeed, it has been. And that sense may have informed his plea not to be misread, and not to be “mistaken for something I am not”.
At least, that is my generous or “liberal” reading of Stirner and Nietzsche, but Nietzsche was no egotist in the sense that Stirner was an egotist, and on this point many Nietzsche interpreters seem to get hung up. The Nietzschean “Self” is not the ego-nature, but approaches rather the meaning of the Jungian “Self”, and this is the issue of the Nietzschean “overman” or “transhuman”. It is not an issue of becoming even more egotistical and ego-centric, as it is seemingly with Stirner, but of overcoming that condition that is the issue of the Nietzschean “Self” and the transhuman.
And therein lies much of the nuance and subtlety of Nietzsche’s philosophy. You could say that Nietzsche’s philosophy of the “free spirit” is “self-aggrandisement” in the same sense as Stirner’s egoistic individualism is “self-aggrandisement”, but you would be in error to do so, because Stirner’s self and Nietzsche’s self are not the same thing.
Now, if you follow Stirner’s logic of egoic self-aggrandisement, you will notice a peculiar but persistent trend — the tendency to reduce absolutely everything to a mere means to gratify the ego. That includes love, friendship, and so on. Everything becomes a mere means to one’s own self-aggrandisement. That’s the inverted “Midas Touch” of egoistic individualism, and it’s pretty much the characteristic of pathological narcissism.
At this point in the discussion, though, I will ask you to recall what I call “Khayyam’s Caution”, that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. This is a refutation of dualism, and where we tend to think of “Self” and “Ego” as separate entities, we are also indulging in dualistic thinking. To a certain extent, the delusion that Self and Ego are separate, or that man “has a soul” rather than “is a soul”, is Khayyam’s “hair”, which we also call the “veil of Maya” or “cloud of unknowing”. But, in real terms, there really is no boundary, although one can speak of a boundary or veil or fog or curtain, as it were. There is, nonetheless, no real separation between the false and the true, and this bears on that saying that “Satan is but the ape of God”. And if we do think of reality as dichotomised in this way, of Being divided against itself in terms of “good and evil” or “subject and object” or “spirit and matter” and so on is because the ego-nature has lost its connection to the source of its own being — the “vital centre”, which is the Self. That is the meaning of the parable of the Prodigal Son and his journey into a “faraway land” — the state of “apartness”.
So, becoming egoless or “unselfing” is very wrong-headed approach, because it’s not a question of self-destruction in that sense, but of remembrance after a long dis-membering, a re-memberance or re-collection which is what we call “coming to oneself”, and to that extent Stirner would be very correct were it not for the fact that Stirner seems to have mislocated the vital centre in what is really an ec-centricity and a centrifugal force — the ego nature.
That’s the meaning of the “falcon and the Falconer” of W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming“, which is the metaphor for the Ego and the Self become dissociated — the falcon’s loss of the vital centre through an expanding eccentricity of orbit.
Now that eccentric state is the meaning of the word “obsession” — to be “seated apart” or ob-jectified, while “possession” means to be “seated upon” — variations on the theme of “session” — and these somewhat different issues have become confused in the mind. Stirner seems to indulge in that confusion. If by ego and its own he wanted to express the ideal of becoming “self-possessed” as restoration of the vital centre (the “inheritance” of the Prodigal Son to which he returns) he would be entirely right. The problem isn’t that. It’s that Stirner mislocates the centre of the awareness in the eccentricity of the Ego Nature. You could say, in those terms, that the Ego Nature is the self-obsessed, rather than the self-possessed.
This “vital centre” or core has gone by various names over time besides “Self” — “soul”, “oversoul” (Emerson), the inner Guru (Sri Krishna Prem), “the Aristocrat” (Meister Eckhart), and even “the Lord” or “God” or the “Master”, and in connection with that the ego-nature was cast in the role of “subject”. And this inner relation between “self” and “ego” was mirrored in the political arrangements of the past — the unity of the king (or queen) and the “subjects” which was expressed in terms of the royal “We”. That relationship of ego to soul, as it were, is the very theme of the Arthurian legends and the quest for the Holy Grail. The “Land without a King” was a horrifying thought because the King symbolised the “vital centre”, and without the “vital centre” there was only a barren wasteland. The King or Queen represented the “majesty” of the inner self, and social relations reflected the inner condition. In fact, they still do.
It’s an example of how you “create the reality you know”, which is the role of intent or intentionality, even without our necessarily being conscious of doing that. “Every creature carries its universe around with it” wrote Blake, and this amounts to the same thing. Nietzsche adopted that very attitude as his principle of amor fati. “Fundamentally, we experience only ourselves”, he wrote and he took ownership and responsibility for existence — “It is thus because I willed it so”, because his inner Self intended it thus. That’s the reading of that chapter in his Zarathustra called “The Despisers of the Body“. The Nietzschean “self” or “soul” is master, and not the ego. It is in that chapter that Nietzsche really draws out, too, a distinction between “intent” and “will” in terms of the relation of the Self, or vital centre, to the Ego.
So, taking “ownership” or becoming “self-possessed” (rather than obsessed) is the restoration of the vital centre or what Seth calls “the You of you” or “inner ego”. And if Stirner had realised the meaning of “ownership” and “possession” in those terms, he would have been close to the truth. But because he was a “atheist”, or with the “death of God”, he invested absolute authority in the ego-nature alone, for the “vital centre” and what the ego-nature once called “God” are really one and the same issue.
As long as God existed, and the human ego or form was “creature”, human beings could not think of themselves as masters and possessors of Nature or physical reality, or as “owning” it as property. The human was only caretaker, steward, and tenant in the land, whose “dominion” was a trust. So, the “death of God”, which is really the loss of the vital centre or connection to Origin and Source, resulted in everything being reduced to a mere means. The ego nature divinised itself, so to speak, and began to appropriate all things to itself in terms of private property and ownership — stuff.
It has confused “self-possessed” with “owning stuff”, which is really not “possession” so much as obsession.
Nietzsche’s “free spirit” as a “self-revolving wheel” arises only when one comes to take “ownership” of all reality: “Fundamentally, we experience only ourselves” is not narcissism. Quite the contrary. The problem with Narcissus was that he did not know that the image in the reflecting pool was a projection or reflection of himself. He really thought it was someone else, so “self-love” is a rather weak interpretation of the myth. You can’t understand Nietzsche’s amor fati and “fundamentally we experience only ourselves” unless you understand that the Nietzschean “Self” is not the ego-nature, and Nietzsche is drawing a sharp distinction between what I intend and what I will.
Stirner’s “egoistic individualism” descends into pathology because he doesn’t know the difference between what I intend and what I will in the same way Nietzsche knew it, as the issue of “Self”. Self-possession or “ownership” can only really occur when intent and will are fused and unified, which is what we really mean when we speak of “coming into one’s own” or “taking ownership”. But that involves, really, the dispossession of our obsessions.