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The trouble with our civilization, Albert Jay Nock declared, is that it makes exceedingly limited demands on the human spirit and the qualities that are distinctly and properly humane. We have been trying to live by mechanics alone, the mechanics of pedagogy, politics, industry, commerce. Instead of experiencing a change of heart, we bend our wits so as to devise changes in mechanics…

Taking his inspiration from those Russians who seemed superfluous to their autocratic nineteenth-century society and sought inspiration in the private sphere, even to the point of writing largely for their desk drawers, Nock made the essential point: 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. He borrowed from ancient Greece, Thomas Jefferson, Matthew Arnold, and especially from Rabelais, but not from banks. He voted for Marcus Aurelius and Charles Dickens, but not for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He felt that as far as society was concerned, he was superfluous; no one had the slightest use for the intellectual goods he had to offer. He felt society on the whole superfluous to his needs. It wallowed in materialist values, intellectually irresponsible hypotheses, and political nostrums. Vote for Voltaire: cultivate your garden and allow democratic citizens to go to hell in ways best suited to themselves. —Robert M. Crunden, The Superfluous Men (1977, 1999)

Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) was never a household name even in his own lifetime but his memory has been kept green in the half-century since his death. His Mr. Jefferson (1926), Our Enemy, The State (1935), and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) have never been long out of print. In 1991, Jacques Barzun wrote about the double pleasure of reading Nock “for what he says and for the way he says it.” Nock’s work was “social and intellectual criticism at its best” and Barzun wrote optimistically that he “will surely climb in due course to his proper place in the American pantheon.” Charles Hamilton noted that Nock “contributed some powerful and lasting criticism of the state of humane life in America.” Nock was not a voluminous writer, wrote his friend, Frank Chodorov, but “had a rare gift of editing his ideas so that he wrote only when he had something to say and he said it with dispatch.” Hendrik Willem van Loon exclaimed that Nock was “possessed of a rare genius for the handling of words.” And finally, H.L. Mencken, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, declared that Nock “thinks in charming rhythm. There is never any cacophony in his sentences as there is never any muddling in his ideas. It is accurate, it is well ordered, and above all, it is charming.”

Albert Jay Nock was not a reformer and found offensive any society with a “monstrous itch for changing people.” He had “a great horror of every attempt to change anybody; or I should rather say, every wish to change anybody; for that is the important thing.” Whenever one “wishes to change anybody, one becomes like the socialists, vegetarians, prohibitionists; and this, as Rabelais says, ‘is a terrible thing to think upon.’” The only thing we can do to improve society, he declared, “is to present society with one improved unit.” Let each person direct his efforts at himself or herself, not others; or as Voltaire put it, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.”

Nock knew very well that he was rowing against the tide and that his words would have no immediate effect on the course of human events, but since his devotion was to the truth, he worried not at all about being out of step with his times. So why, then, did he bother to write at all? The “general reason” is that “when in any department of thought a person has, or thinks he has, a view of the plain intelligible order of things, it is proper that he should record that view publicly, with no thought whatever of the practical consequences, or lack of consequences, likely to ensue upon his so doing.” He should not “crusade or propagandize for his view or seek to impose it on anyone….” The “special reason has to do with the fact that in every civilization…however addicted to the short-time point of view on human affairs, there are always certain alien spirits who…still keep a disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things, irrespective of any practical end.” It was for them Nock wrote, and them alone.

“Criticism’s business,” wrote Nock, “is with the past—especially the immediate past; concern with the present is the function of journalism.” Critics have no business fumbling at what goes on in their time. They can make no judgment that is worth anything and neglect many good values that lie behind them. Goethe, the greatest of critics, said earnestly, “Don’t read your fellow-strivers, fellow-workers.”

The great critics, said Nock, help “the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.” So much social criticism must be taken in small doses or one will come away depressed and generally in a mood to chuck it all. The reader may agree with everything the critics say, one hundred percent, but he is nevertheless left in a despondent mood. Not so with the greatest critics who are 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.”

In his The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (1964), the late Robert M. Crunden argued that Nock should be remembered as a critic and not as a political thinker—“far more a gadfly than an expounder of a fixed position.” He was wrong many times but that is immaterial because his function was “to move people to thought, to a reexamination of their ideas.” Nock was “abrasive, insistent and immovable” but he was always “his own man—incorruptible, unshakably honest.” Because “his ideas were so out of style” and “the things he loved were not loved by those around him,” Nock called himself a superfluous man. He was probably right, and America was the loser. “No matter where he stood,” wrote Professor Crunden, “he did not seem to belong. He could only spatter ink on the most outrageous of the world’s blemishes, and return to his own garden.”

A civilized society, wrote Albert Jay Nock, is one which “organizes a full collective expression of mankind’s five fundamental social instincts: the instincts of workmanship, of intellect and knowledge, of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners.” When societies have gone on the rocks, “it was invariably the collective overstress on one or more of these fundamental instincts that wrecked them.” American society, he wrote from Brussels in 1931, is trying to force the whole current of our being through the narrow channel set by one instinct only: the instinct of acquisition and expansion. A society that gives play to only this instinct “must inevitably be characterized by a low type of intellect, a grotesque type of religion, a fictitious type of morals, an imperfect type of beauty, and an imperfect type of social life and manners. In a word, it is uncivilized.”

The trouble with our civilization, Nock declared, is that it makes exceedingly limited demands on the human spirit and the qualities that are distinctly and properly humane. We have been trying to live by mechanics alone, the mechanics of pedagogy, politics, industry, commerce. Instead of experiencing a change of heart, we bend our wits so as to devise changes in mechanics. But, continued Nock, “a nation’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that it possesseth; that it is the spirit and manners of a people, and not the bewildering multiplicity of its social mechanisms that determine the quality of its civilization.”

The sort of people he admired were those he found himself among many years ago in New England. Writing in 1930, he observed that New Englanders “like to work, and they are prosperous but they refuse to be dominated by their business” and “resent an over–big rush of trade as keenly as the rest of America grabs for it, and cajoles and lies and grovels for it.” Nock felt privileged “to sojourn among such people” and had “enormous admiration for their independence, self-respect and insight into the real values of life.”

Nock would have been pleased that thirty-five years later there was still some of this spirit alive. In a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal one Louis Balsam of North Berwick, Maine, noted with sadness a businessman being quoted as saying he “removed Winslow Homer prints from his office” because “people used to spend the first five minutes or so talking about Winslow Homer. Now they talk about what they came in for.” Anyone finding “himself ushered into an office stripped of all but bare walls and stand-up desks,” wrote Mr. Balsam, “might recall a bit of Oriental Wisdom; ‘It is better to do nothing than to be busy doing nothing.’” This Confucian insight from 3000 years ago might help a businessman “look over his self-chosen self-pressures” and acknowledge what some privately admit, “that their increasing material abundance and eagerly sought power does not bring them the happiness, serenity or love they confidently sought.”

“If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs,” Nock wrote in 1935, “we can discern one fundamental fact, namely: a great redistribution of power between society and State.” All the various government activities “come to the same thing: which is, an increase of State power and a corresponding decrease of social power.” This came about because “instead of recognizing the State as ‘the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men,’ the run of mankind, with rare exceptions, regards it not only as a final and indispensable entity, but also as, in the mains beneficient.” Many people took for granted “that the citizen exists for the State, not the State for the citizen; that the individual has no rights which the State is bound to respect; that all rights are State-created,” and “that personal government is quite consistent with democracy.”

Social power means the power generated and exercised by individuals and groups of individuals working in an economy which is free of government interference—an economy of free contract, “a system of voluntary cooperation.” State power, on the contrary, means government going beyond its legitimate functions to enforce positive interventions upon the individual. Government intervention “on the individual should be purely negative in character. It should attend to national defense, safeguard the individual in his civil rights, maintain outward order and decency, enforce the obligations of contract, punish crimes belonging in the order of malum in se [evil in itself, e.g., murder, theft] and make justice cheap and easily available.” Nock was, then, an enemy of the State but not an anarchist. His point was that “if the State were limited to purely negative interventions…and had no oversize power beyond that, then it wouldn’t be the State anymore. It would then be government only.”

Years after Nock wrote about the State, more and more people are coming to realize with him that it is not the “proper agency for social welfare, and never will be, for exactly the same reason that an ivory paper-knife is nothing to shave with.” The interests of society and the State are entirely different. Society gets on best when people are free to do as they please so that their interest is in “having as little government as possible and keeping it as decentralized as possible.” The State, of course, wants to have as much government as possible and to keep it highly centralized.

“Let us suppose,” wrote Nock, “that instead of being slow, extravagant, inefficient, wasteful, unadaptive, stupid, and at least by tendency corrupt,” the State changes its character and becomes infinitely wise, good, disinterested and efficient. Suppose it solves every individual problem and protects persons from every consequence of bad judgment, weakness, or incompetence? Then, asked Nock, “what sort of person is the individual likely to become under those circumstances?” We have it, then, that “the worst of this ever-growing cancer of Statism is its moral effect.” The moral judgment of the individual is weakened, Nock asserted, “as the State assumes more and more responsibility, offering cradle to grave ‘security.’”

In 1932, Nock wrote that since the turn of the century schools in the United States had been operating on an unsound theory of education. Put briefly, this theory declares that everyone can be educated, that everyone should be educated, and that an educated citizenry will make us a better nation. Nock believed that it was futile trying to translate this bad theory into good practice and that we were mistaken to think that a “general faith in machinery [was] an effective substitute for thought.”

In 1970, Jacques Barzun noted that “Nock’s book on education could have saved us endless mistakes had we heeded it during the past half-century.” Certainly what Nock said over sixty years ago has been proven correct by the failure to improve our schools despite numerous experiments and Federal “Aid-to-Education” programs that have spent billions of dollars in the past four decades. However well-intentioned, we have engaged in mere tinkering instead of being radical—that is, going deep to correct the problem instead of being concerned only with the superficial.

The theory that our schools have been acting upon for nearly a century collapses if the first part—everyone is educable—is wrong. If everyone is not educable, then it makes no sense to say that everyone should be educated or that an educated citizenry will make us a better nation. Unfortunately, however, we have acted as if the theory is sound, and to ensure that everyone is “educated” the government makes attendance and tax support compulsory. This has led to many problems and the only solution is for attendance at schools and support of schools to be as voluntary as attendance at and support of churches.

The theory of education in this country is wrong, Nock charged, because while nearly all of us can be trained to do something, not all of us are educable. This is not some obnoxious form of elitism anymore than is an acknowledgment that few can play basketball as well as Michael Jordan or the flute as well as James Galway. “It can not be too often reiterated that education is a process contemplating intelligence and wisdom, and employing formative knowledge for its purposes; while training is a process contemplating sagacity and cleverness, and employing instrumental knowledge for its purposes.” Training has to do with earning a living; education has to do with preparation for living.

The educated man or woman, explained Nock, has the “power of disinterested reflection,” by which he meant the “ability to take a detached, impersonal and competent view of something that deeply engages his affections, one way or other—something that he likes very much.” Educated men and women, said Nock, are “capable of maintaining a mature and informed disinterestedness, a humane and elevated serenity in all their views of human life.” They tend to “see things as they are.” The best way to acquire this cast of mind is by way of the “grand old fortifying curriculum,” that is, the classical studies which used to be at the heart of a liberal arts education before schools became cafeterias of sorts with the ever-growing selection of electives that even sixty years ago boggled the mind. Nock observed that “the literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest and fullest continuous record available to us, of what the human mind has been busy about in practically every department, I think, except music.” The mind that has “attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind; a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective….”

Nock was once offered the chance to be head of the department of English literature by the president of a huge, sprawling, mid-western State university. “I told him I had not the faintest idea of how to set about it; I should be utterly helpless. All I could do would be to point to the university’s library, and say— ‘There it is—wade in and help yourselves.’” A flip response, some might say, but it got across Nock’s belief that education is not a matter of someone pouring knowledge into another’s brain and that the responsibility does not lie with the teacher. The student must shoulder the burden of learning with the teacher around only to help him or her along the way by asking a few questions or clearing away some difficulties. The root meaning of educate is, after all, to draw out, not to stuff in. So, as Nock put it, you cannot in a sense teach anyone anything but you can “l’arn him” something.

Speaking at Hillsdale College in 1994, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave a powerful message about the importance of education for a black person coming from a background of poverty and prejudice. “I must first admit,” declared Justice Thomas, “that I am somewhat old-fashioned about education. I opposed the move away from the old core requirements and traditional liberal arts education, and I still hold tenaciously to that position.” Liberal arts education, he said, “was a way of showing us that we were to discipline, train, and expand our minds. It provided fewer opportunities to justify intellectual laziness and almost no opportunity to avoid some of the more difficult courses.” It was the study of liberal arts that pulled him back “from the abyss of self-destruction,” and taught him to “confront and debate difficult ideas in a calm civil way.” Education, said Justice Thomas, “most certainly gives us the means by which to earn a living, but it also provides the means to learn how to live.”

The “great Tradition” Nock wrote about still lives.

“It is surely a fair question,” Nock observed, “whether a competent practice of religion calls for quite so much apparatus, metaphysical and physical, as the main body of organized Christianity has constructed and is trying, none too successfully, to keep in running order.” Nock was convinced that Christianity was in its nature incapable of being successfully organized or institutionalized. He found no evidence that Jesus ever contemplated either because his teaching seems to have been purely individualistic in its content. “In a word, it came to this: that if every one would reform one [that is to say, oneself] and keep one steadfastly following the way of life which He recommended, the Kingdom of Heaven would be coextensive with human society.”

Of the greatest importance, then, was the spirit of Christianity, not all the trappings of ecclesiastic religion. Religion, he declared, “is a temper, a frame of mind; the fruit of the Spirit, as St. Paul says, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control.” Nock did not find “any evidence that Jesus laid down any basic doctrine beyond that of a universal loving God and a universal brotherhood of man.” He “exhibited a way of life to be pursued purely for its own sake, with no hope of any reward but the joy of pursuing it….”

Nock would have agreed with the esteemed Anglican Dean [of St. Paul’s in London] William R. Inge (1860-1954), who in 1953 wrote that “Old age has made me a better Christian and I fear a worse Churchman.” Dean Inge believed that the time may come when nothing will be left of Christianity except the Christ-Mysticism of St. Paul and the law of love. He believed the Gospel of Jesus was a free personal piety, without any tendency towards the creation of a religious community. There has been a change in our time, from authority to experience, and mysticism has no tendency to form organizations. The Dean hoped it would take the place of the external props which St. Paul warned would “vanish away.”

“The only apologetic for Jesus’s teaching that I find in any way reasonable is the one which Jesus Himself propounded— experience.” That is, His way of life was to be followed because experience will prove it is the best way. It was the signal merit of the Cambridge Platonists,* declared Nock, that they recognized experience as the sum-total of Jesus’s own apologetic.

When Smith amplifies Luther’s definition by saying, “Where we find wisdom, justice, loveliness, goodness, love, and glory in their highest elevations and most unbounded dimensions, that is He; and where we find any true participations of these, there is a true communication of God; and a defection from these is the essence of sin and the foundation of hell,”—when Smith says this, one feels that he has gone as far with a prescriptive system of dogmatic theology as it is safe to go; and he goes no further. Taylor also, with his mind on metaphysical credenda, gives warning that “too many scholars have lived upon air and empty nothings, and being very wise about things that are not and work not.” And work not—there he comes back, as these men are always coming back, to the basic ground of practice, of conduct; and how great is the reason why they should, for as Whichcote says, “men have an itch rather to make religion than to practice it.”

The teachings of Jesus may have been simple but the way of life He prescribed is an extremely arduous business, which few are able to do. Jesus appears to have been clearly aware that this would be so but He was not offering an impracticable counsel of perfection. It has been done in “an inconspicuous way by inconspicuous persons, yet also by some like St. Francis and others among the great names one meets in the history of Christian mysticism, whom circumstances rendered more or less conspicuous….”

Republished with the gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2004). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

*Among others, John Smith (1616-1652), Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) and Benjamin Whichcote (1609- 1683).

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3 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for this reprinted essay. It may (ideally) induce some young modern to peer into the, alas, few works of Albert Jay Nock. A similar article some 40 years ago introduced me to the literate cynical anarchism of Nock, and every few years, I feel to need to re-soak my soul in his work, the previous infusion having been leached out by ephemeral contemporary concerns.

  2. This is the best and most inspiring essay that I have run across in The Imaginative Conservative, a salute to an unsurpassed master of English prose.

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