Episcopal priest, professional baseball player, college instructor, lecturer, and prolific writer, Albert Jay Nock (1872-1945) had a varied life and a profound effect on the nascent American conservative movement in the decades preceding World War II. Largely known by libertarians as the first editor of The Freeman and the author of Our Enemy, the State (1935), he is better known by traditionalist conservatives for his writings on Rabelais, Jefferson, education, and most particularly, for his autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). Robert Nisbet said that he “practically memorized” Mr. Nock’s memoirs, and Russell Kirk, in the first edition of The Conservative Mind, called them “profoundly conservative of American traditions.” In his own autobiography, Dr. Kirk wrote that he had found a copy of Superfluous Man in Salt Lake City which moved him “presumptuously” to correspond with Mr. Nock on Marcus Aurelius and the value of the Stoics.
According to Robert Crunden, editor of an important anthology of pre-war conservative thinkers (The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture 1900-1950), Mr. Nock was significant because he made the essential point that united a nebulous assortment of thinkers: You must “ransack the past for your values, establish a coherent worldview, depend neither on society nor on government insofar as circumstances permitted, keep your tastes simple and inexpensive, and do what you have to do to remain true to yourself.” This deep spirit of independence led Mr. Nock to conclude in his memoirs that the talents of the mind of the individualist were of little value in America and therefore he had become socially and politically superfluous. I believe that the roots of Mr. Nock’s insight came from his engagement with the motif of the Superfluous Man in the Russian cultural tradition.
According to Mr. Nock, being superfluous to society was firmly tied to the ideals of education, a moral and intellectual enterprise that is centered around the concepts of being and becoming. In a country hellbent on doing and getting, on practical exploits, the educated person cannot fit in. In his memoirs, Mr. Nock concluded:
The question at issue, obviously, is whether the educable person can any longer be regarded as a social asset; or, indeed, whether in time past his value as a social asset has not been overestimated…In a society essentially Neolithic, as ours unquestionably is at the moment ,—whatever one may hold its evolutionary possibilities to be,—there can be no place found for an educable person but such as a trainable person could fill quite as well or even better; he becomes a superfluous man; and the more thoroughly his ability to see things as they are is cultivated, the more his superfluity is enhanced. As the process of general barbarisation goes on, as its speed accelerates, as its calamitous consequences recur with ever-increasing frequency and violence, the educable person can only take shelter against his insensate fellow-beings, as Plato says, like a man crouching behind a wall against a whirlwind.
The idea of superfluity as a major trait in a people was strongly developed in the Russian mind in the first half of the nineteenth century, and given Mr. Nock’s tremendous knowledge of Russian cultural history, this influenced his own understanding of the superfluous man. We know from his published writings, as well as from his letters and recollections of friends, that he was well versed in the works of Gogol, Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Ivan Turgenev, the Russian authors who created the most extraordinary alienated and purposeless heroes in literature. We know from Ruth Robinson, one of Mr. Nock’s few friends, that he traveled to Russia prior to World War I, and as early as 1911 we have a letter from Mr. Nock recommending the writings of the aristocratic anarchist, Prince Petr Kropotkin.
The idea of the “superfluous man” (lishnii chelovek) in Russia came to fruition during the first half of the nineteenth century when writers as diverse as Aleksander Griboyedov, Aleksander Pushkin, and Mikhail Lermontov created striking characters who were in strong discord with society. But it was not until Mr. Turgenev published his story, “Diary of a Superfluous Man” (1850), that the term adhered. The idea of superfluity was born, in part, out of the experiences of disaffected members of the Russian nobility, who, first, were financially secure as a result of serfdom, and second, were also largely unfettered from obligation to work or to serve their country in any significant capacity. Left on their own with seemingly unlimited wealth, many young Russians traveled and some pursued higher level studies in the West. Those with aspirations for writing were struck at this time by the luster in the West of such alienated and tragic literary figures as Goethe’s young Werther, Byron’s Childe Harold, Hamlet, and Don Quixote. Picking up the pen themselves they created a believable, unique Russian national type who was socially without purpose and condemned to living in disharmony with the world. This Russian type was not able to assert himself without suffering blame and enmity. The leading examples of this Russian superfluous man included Griboyedov’s Chatsky, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and Lermontov’s Pechorin.
Chatsky, from Griboyedov’s comic play “Woe from Wit” (1833), is a character who has been ostracized from polite society for being learned. Shunned “as if a stranger,” he is asked, “Where is it better?” His conclusion, “Where we aren’t.” Dismissed as crazy, he runs off at the end of the play. Eugene Onegin, the eponymous hero of Pushkin’s great novel in verse (1833/1837), recognizes that “he who has lived and thought can never/Look on mankind without disdain.” He contends with the world from “nothing better to do” (ot nechego delat’). Lermontov’s Pechorin, A Hero of Our Time (1840), is also talented, strong-willed, and intelligent, but he is aimless and self-absorbed. Disillusioned with life and bored, he sets out for the Russian frontier—the Caucusus—where he involves himself in events and people’s lives that don’t concern him, inadvertently destroying almost all that he touches. (One of the most famous utterances in Russian literary history is the one word “skuchal” pronounced by Pechorin when asked what he has been up to—“I have been bored.”)
The writer, however, who most deeply delved into the concept of Russian superfluity—and was a favorite of Mr. Nock—was Ivan Turgenev. His novels tell tales of young idealists and their forays into Russian high society which leave them tragically dejected and powerless. In the novel Rudin (1856), the hero exclaims, “Strange, almost comic is my fate. I give myself entirely, greedily—and I cannot give myself. I will end by sacrificing myself for some nonsense in which I don’t believe. Dear God! At thirty-five to be still preparing to do something!” He dies a fruitless death in Paris at the barricades.
It was, however, Mr. Turgenev’s earlier figure, Chulkaturin in the short story, “Diary of a Superfluous Man,” who first gave a name to this alienated condition. Chulkaturin recognizes his superfluity, names it, and embraces it, despite his social estrangement. “My little comedy is played out. The curtain falls. In my annihilation, I shall cease to be superfluous…I am dying. Live on then the living!”
As the issue of superfluity and alienation played out in Russia in the nineteenth century, many critics politicized the trait and summoned forth a new type of character, the “positive hero,” who was called upon to replace the superfluous man and embody revolutionary ideals and productive progressive historical forces. This was a call to action. The new writers were intent on using literature and criticism for purposes of social and political reform. Historians might make the claim that with the oppressive, unjust nature of Tsar Nicholas I’s regime (1825-1855) writers had no place else to go except toward a full throttle call for radical change for which literature was to be the engine, but the most talented writers refused to bend their works ideologically. (Dostoevsky was one who went even further by directly engaging the ideologues in debate through his novels.) Eventually, by the twentieth century, many writers accepted the politicization of art and literature and after the Soviets had solidified their power by the late 1920’s literature had become an official tool of the government/Communist Party.
It is evident, I believe, from Mr. Nock’s reading of Russian cultural history that much of his own understanding of the superfluous man came from the Russian prototype. Whether or not he came by the title of his memoirs from Mr. Turgenev’s story, “The Diary of a Superfluous Man,” the adjective “superfluous” truly describes the type of character that Mr. Nock saw himself—and his heroes—to be: useless, extraneous, solitary, and of no immediate value to society. Like Mr. Turgenev’s superfluous man, he could state that he was not even worth a response from his enemies, but—and here Mr. Nock does not follow the Russian experience—he sought solace in his “uselessness.” Unlike the Russians before him, Mr. Nock concluded that the solitude created by being superfluous engendered freedom and nobility for an educated person. It was a condition in which the soul could be nurtured, since it was not being used as a means for social, political, or economic gain or profit. It was a position of dignity. To put it briefly, to be superfluous was to be an aristocrat and a gentleman.
Mr. Nock wore his superfluity as a badge of honor. He did not use his voice for social and political change; rather, he wrote to commend the unique vision of the individual human spirit. Political action at best disregards that spirit and at worst it obliterates it. This is an inferred refutation of the development of Russian thinking in the nineteenth century. As he wrote in “Anarchist’s Progress” (1927):
Great and salutary social transformations, such as in the end do not cost more than they come to, are not effected by political shifts, by movements, by programs, and platforms, least of all by violent revolutions, but by sound and disinterested thinking. The believers in action are numerous, their gospel is widely preached, they have many followers…We need only remark that our place and function in it are not apparent, and then proceed on our own way, first with the more obscure and extremely difficult work of clearing and illuminating our own minds, and second, with what occasional help we may offer to others whose faith, like our own, is set more on the regenerative power of thought than on the uncertain achievements of premature action.
Mr. Nock firmly believed that this was the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and the republican thinkers at the founding of our country. The state and society did not exist to directly affect commerce, finance, or industry. Rather, a society or people was judged on the strength of its human character. As a serious student of the classical world, he chided the Romans that despite their continuous efforts during the age of Marcus Aurelius to initiate and sustain excellent leadership in the state, the rulers could not prevent the Roman people from “degenerating into the very scum of the earth, worthless, vicious, contemptible, sheer human sculch.”
The final thing to say about Mr. Nock and his connection with Russian culture is that, by his own admission, he was able to surmount his “doughty hatred” for society and the impatience of his youth, mostly through his deepening understanding of and attraction to the lives of other superfluous men. What was missing in the Russian radical experience as it developed throughout the nineteenth century—and was certainly absent in the Soviet world—was a deep spiritual sense of joy, a sense of rightness with the world, even given its imperfections. For although Mr. Nock had left the Episcopal priesthood early in life (for reasons unknown), and he did not write from a narrowly defined Christian point of view, elements of residual Christian understanding come through in his writings. The joy for life that we perceive in the elder Mr. Nock is the joy of a man reconciled to a world that he does not feel compelled to change. The lives that he honored in his works, the exemplary lives of Isaiah, Thomas Jefferson, Rabelais, the Russian General Kutuzov, and Artemus Ward, convinced him that it was a waste of energy and time to try to transform others. As he explained in “Artemus Ward,” one of his best essays:
The true critic is aware…that for life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a joy; that it is by the bond of joy, not of happiness or pleasure, not of duty or responsibility, that the called and chosen spirits are kept together in this world. There was little enough of joy going in the society that surrounded Ward…and there is even perhaps less joy current in American society now . But the true critic has his resources of joy within himself, and the motion of his joy is self-sprung. There may be ever so little hope of the human race, but that is the moralist’s affair, not the critic’s. The true critic takes no account of optimism or pessimism; they are both quite outside his purview; his affair is one only of joyful appraisal, assessment, and representation.
And he finished his memoirs with this reflection:
So while one must be unspeakably thankful for all the joys of existence, there comes a time when one feels that one has had enough. However happily one has “warmed both hands before the fire of life,” however much may remain that is greatly worth seeing and hearing, one gradually slips into a state of grateful certainty that one has seen and heard enough.
Albert Jay Nock was one of the more eccentric grand old men of the nascent American conservative movement in the twentieth century. His opposition to corruption and malfeasance in the public realm was admirable; his tone of crankiness was, is, and will remain a matter of the reader’s individual taste; his aristocratic air, his elitism will indubitably be a bit difficult for many democrats and populists to abide. Yet his uncompromising defense of the individual spirit will continue to inspire. Doing Isaiah’s job in the face of great adversity while working in impenetrable darkness with little profit is ultimately the way in which civilization will endure.
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