“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
~ R.W Emerson
Erich Fromm states that all people are more or less narcissistic along a spectrum where sometimes at severe levels of malignancy to more passive forms that are covert, such as associating with ‘popular’ individuals that indirectly enables one to receive the congratulations and attention that they desire. While narcissism is born by a strong vulnerability to low self-esteem that paradoxically causes an inability for empathy and an intense need for admiration, it is a person or mind who perceives the outside world in a way that is not real or present.
It has often been interpreted that self-love is narcissism, but to clarify, self-love is synonymous with self-esteem whereas narcissism is actually an embodiment of someone with low self-esteem. For a person to say that they should not smoke, that they should eat better and that they should not be in relationships with people who are bad is someone who has decided to respect themselves and take care of themselves both in terms of mind and body, but a narcissist is like a lady who injects botox into her face and takes suggestive selfies with the expectation that others will call her beautiful because she embodies what is socially expected; pretend to being humble and even ignorant of this expectation as the Kardashians do and suddenly you will be loved for it.
Max Stirner a radical German philosopher, flipped this idea of narcissism into an escapable reality in his book The Ego and Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum). Accordingly, Stirner holds that as children we are at a developmental stage of experience where we question these social constraints, sometimes using cunning or behaving ‘naughty’ but as we grow we are further conditioned by social restrictions that enslave reason particularly by moral forces – be it religious or social expectations – that coerce conformism to social ideals. This idealism that is socially constructed is the very imagined social landscape where young minds retreat to determinism and never get the chance to learn how to think for themselves.
There is a social dialectic of servitude where the mind is automatically responsive to either dominance or obedience and thus there is a historical account for why society falls into this mindset again and again, reproducing the same social setting in different ways; we are simply rearranging the same thing and calling it different. This is where a radical shift is required; just like the Marxist view on revolution, we need to challenge the idealism that has enslaved us with a radical egoism, to break ourselves free from the chains of this determined environment to learn to think against the grain of social cliches.
To rehabilitate the mind, one needs to move away from the historical approach and instead be forward or future thinking and thus become radically alien from the present idealism, a society still caught in past dominance-obedience imaginings that has adapted into a modern form. One needs to find the courage to radically turn away and move their thoughts entirely from the present and past. It is a future of an individual ego that outgrows both the need to dominate and the need to be obedient and accept that we are all motivated by self-interest. Our goal is to develop relationships that are egoistic rather than social and that positive egoism are two individuals who have escaped this subjugation and are sharing their experience through one another.
There is value in self-interest from a psychological point of view is an attempt not to undermine morality as dictated by society, but rather that moral value itself is only available and real when governed by self-interest. Stirner explains this by showing that a man who gives up on everything – family, friends, lover – to pursue wealth and riches is immoral, despite it being egoism or motivated from self-interest. Indeed, what he shows is that this material pursuit is still within the confines of a social enslavement and therefore incompatible with the egoism he hopes would advance civilisation into the future.
It is thus not self-interest – narcissism – but rather psychological freedom and autonomy – self-esteem – from the confines of the social expectations or landscape, where one is capable of making conscious decisions without conditioned ideals as expected by their environment. Stirner is using such narratives to explain the courage needed to defy social expectations rather than retreating back into it and willingly becoming a slave. Only then is a person capable of experiencing real love.
Stirner is overlooked, but it is clear that he has been influential both in terms of politics – Marxism – as well as social psychology such as Fromm and Freud, namely that love is something that you give, a moral consciousness and by giving love you experience happiness and thus it is egoistic to be moral and love. Relationships are about a mutual consciousness where there is richness in the freedom from social and material constraints and an authenticity in the individuality and admiration.