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Love, Selfishness, and Self-Interest

Reflections on Max Stirner

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The human desire to overcome separation is found across times and cultures, and love is often seen as a bridge for that separation. It may be love of God, or it may be romantic love. But how far can love take us?

In her new book Existentialism and Romantic Love, Skye Cleary looks to an unlikely source for the answer. The existentialists are often associated with gloom and despair, but Jean-Paul Sartre characterized his existentialism as a philosophy of “optimistic toughness.” Existentialism doesn’t encourage despair; it shows us how to overcome despair. Perhaps it can even teach us something about love. Indeed, Cleary’s book shows that it can.

A theme that runs throughout Existentialism and Romantic Love is the precarious struggle to gain self-knowledge while joining with another person and risking loss of self in the process. In addition to mining the thought of Stirner, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Beauvoir, Cleary includes lots of fun and interesting details about the love lives of the existentialists. Kierkegaard’s story alone is worth the read.

Cleary’s book begins not with Kierkegaard, but with an account of the philosophy of Max Stirner (1806-1856), an oft-neglected proto-existentialist and egoist. For Stirner, we are “doomed to solitude,” as Cleary puts it (24). I cannot feel your pain. I cannot feel your headache, and I cannot feel your heartache. All I can feel is my own pain in response to yours.

Likewise, I cannot feel your joy. For Stirner, this does not make love impossible. Rather, “one loves the feeling of being in love, and the other’s admirable qualities spark loving feelings and enjoyment” (32). There can even be joy in giving, but ultimately it is my joy that I feel. “One’s actions are driven by the desire to receive something in exchange, even if it is simply the warm feeling of doing something nice for the beloved. … One gives as a means to an end. The happiness of the beloved is preferred to the sacrifice” (33).

In contemplating Stirner, we must wonder if he is being unnecessarily cynical or simply realistic. He says, “I can love, love with a full heart, and let the most consuming glow of passion burn in my heart, without taking the beloved one for anything else than the nourishment of my passion, on which it ever refreshes itself anew” (31). Stirner may be right, but he seems too glad about it. The unbridgeable gap between self and other is an occasion for sadness not celebration.

Stirner seems to have taken the inescapability of self-interest as license to practice selfishness. Cleary says, “Stirner’s own experience of loving indicates that he chose shorter-term egoistic unions, demonstrated by his short marriage to Marie Dähnhardt, his lack of enduring friends, and his frequent moves to avoid repayment of his debts” (40).

Selfishness is a narrow form of self-interest that involves disregard for others. By contrast, self-interest more broadly construed usually involves considering others. Even if we are inescapably self-interested, we can and should cultivate an enlightened self-interest that is attuned to the interests, the joys, the pains, and the sorrows of others. It is in our self-interest to do so! We don’t want to end up like Stirner, who lived a foolishly selfish life and died from a wasp sting, bankrupt and alone.

As Cleary articulates one of the central messages of Existentialism and Romantic Love, “Lovers long for connections between them, but the bridges we build are fragile” (167). Even if we will never literally feel another person’s pain or joy, we can overcome the feeling of separation with honest and revelatory communion and conversation in the spirit of love. We do not need to die from a wasp sting lonely, lonesome, and alone.

William Irwin is the author of The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism.